Saturday, March 28, 2015

Proverka...(Trial on the Road)

I purchased a Russian-made DVD of this 1971 war film by Alexei German with the expectation that the movie would be subtitled.  The disc provided a menu screen offering "Subtitels" but these were marked as "OFF."  Neither manipulation nor cursing nor direct corporeal punishment inflicted upon the unfortunate remote was sufficient to activate the "subtitels" and so I watched this picture without any idea what the characters were saying to one another.  Most likely the "subtitels" would have been funky and disorienting:  The menu screen said that the film's titles was Checkpoint on the Way -- people typically call this movie Trial on the Road.   German's first feature film, the movie is impressively shot in an extremely wide-screen format -- the letterboxed images show flat snowy landscapes through which columns of men move; often, the weather is bad and snow is falling or there is mist and mud -- some of the landscapes have the hazy, calligraphic beauty of nature shots in Mizoguchi or Kurosawa.  Most takes are long and there are relatively few close-ups or inserts.  Although the film is mostly an intimate combat drama involving small-unit skirmishes in snow-clogged woods and fields, the picture must have had an enormous budget.  Near the end of the film, we are shown vistas with thousands of extras, most dramatically an enormous barge packed with mournful-looking men with shaved heads and huge sad eyes like lemurs, apparently, a representation of a prisoners of war being transported somewhere on an immense river.  As far as I could determine, the film follows the adventures of a ruggedly good-looking soldier dressed in a darker, and markedly more elegant uniform, than the ragged partisans with whom he fights.  The other soldiers seem to distrust the hero and, part of the time, he seems to be a prisoner himself in the custody of a small group of fighters -- these guerillas include several women and old men.  The film shows people trembling in the cold and watching the picture is like taking a shower in icy water -- it is a very cold-looking and muddy movie.  In the opening scene, some peasants with runny noses watch as troops pour gasoline (I think) over a pit full of what I thought were potatoes -- perhaps, the partisans are denying the Nazi invaders forage.  A column of Germans, recognizable by their helmets, is ambushed and lots of people fall dead in the snow.  The well-dressed hero appears in a peasant's farmstead, frightening a woman -- a boy shoots at him and, then, seems to capture the man.  The Germans fire mortars into the village and the peasants flee, many of them stumbling and falling in the slush as the bombs burst around them.  There are a number of scenes in a dark log cabin in which the men seem to argue about something.  A young soldier embraces a blonde girl fighter.  The partisans ambush the Germans and some more fire fights occur.  Some scenes, including the sequence involving the hundreds of prisoners on the barge, take place in hot, bright weather (everyone is sweating) and seem to be flashbacks.  In the barge sequence, the partisans have placed explosive charges on a big railroad trestle spanning the river but can't detonate them for fear of dropping the bridge on the barge-load of Russian prisoners.  Later, there is a big-budget explosion that destroys the bridge.  At the film's climax, the well-dressed soldier imitates a German (I could determine he was speaking German) and with some guerillas infiltrates a railroad switching yard.  There is a battle in which the well-dressed soldier climbs into a watchtower and guns down a number of Germans but, then, dies himself in a counter-attack.  His machine gun is flung to the ground and the hot barrel melts into the snowdrift releasing a cloud of steam.  In what appears to be a flashforward or coda, huge armies of Russian soldiers march through a German city with white flags flying from the fronts of buildings.  Two survivors of the partisan fighting, now uniformed soldiers among the vast columns of marching men, meet accidentally at a crossroads.  In the film's final image, we see the survivors of the partisan fighting pushing a stalled tank forward, everyone's shoulder pressed to the great weight that they are nudging down the road.  The movie is very impressively staged, but seems quite conventional -- a story of redemption in which the well-dressed man acts courageously at the climax to kill a number of Germans while the partisans are (possibly) stealing a locomotive.  The film even has a patriotic  and emblematic conceit:  we all need to work together and push in unison toward each our objectives.  (An account of the film in Nancy Condee's excellent book The Imperial Trace:  Recent Russian Cinema tells me that the film was suppressed for 15 years and not shown until 1986.  The well-dressed man in the nice uniform is a Russian who has been fighting for the Germans.  After the assault on the column, he joins the partisans.  They suspect him of disloyalty but he shows his mettle in the final fire-fight in the switching yard of the railroad.  His knowledge of German is invaluable in setting up ambushes and allows partisans taught a few phrases of German to infiltrate the railroad yard.  The scene on the barge was shot with over 600 actual Russian convicts on loan from the Gulag.  The film was controversial because the role of Russians who switched sides during the Great Patriotic War for the Fatherland has remained problematic in that country.) 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Way Home

The Way Home (2002) is an 88 minute Korean film "dedicated to all Grandmothers".  This is the movie's closing title and, perhaps unfortunately, it is sincere.  The picture is well-meaning, precisely observed, and shot in an unobtrusive, if pretty, manner.  The two protagonists are effectively portrayed -- a selfish, bratty seven-year-old, Sang-Woon, and his 75 year old grandmother.  Korean movies have a unique sensibility -- they commingle extreme violence and savagery with the most saccharine sentimentality.  In this respect, The Way Home, although very mild and PG-rated, is characteristic:  the movie is predictably sentimental, although in a very hard-headed manner that does not stint on representations of cockroaches, defecation, and rural poverty.  The premise of the movie is slight:  a 38 year-old career woman from Seoul, apparently down on her luck, brings her seven-year old son to the country to live with her elderly grandmother.  The old woman is shockingly crippled -- she walks with a cane and has a ninety-degree angle in the center of her spine.  The ancient crone seems far too old to be the cute career girl's mother -- rather, she seems like a figure from an immemorial, ancient past, something like the hag with the hoe who comes to the forefront of the mob of villagers to hack to death one of the captured bandits in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, a living memento mori figure.  The old lady moves very, very slowly, her difficulties aggravated by the fact that she resides in a ramshackle log cabin at the very top of a rugged mountain.  To reach her shack, she has to navigate a steep, rocky trail with many switchbacks.  The old woman's house seems to have no electricity and no running water.  She carries water up the mountain, two buckets on a yoke that she bears on her hunched shoulders.  Of course, the little boy is horrified by the poverty and isolation.  When he begs her for "Kentucky chicken", she kills a rooster and boils it -- the little boy is appalled by the greasy-looking stark white meat floating in a pot.  "It's supposed to be fried," he whines. Worse, the old lady is mute -- although she can apparently hear, she communicates by pantomime.  The career girl leaves the boy with about 20 cans of Spam, something that the child apparently enjoys, and vanishes on one of the ramshackle buses that serve the hillbillies in their picturesque, vertical slum.  The rest of the film is predictable enough.  The little boy despises his grandmother, at first, but, then, comes to love her.  It's a Walt Disney premise, although played out with characteristically Korean harshness -- the little boy's mother pummels him when he talks back to her and the kid revenges himself on his granny by stealing her shoes (we see that her feet are mangled with toes sticking out in all directions) and breaking the one luxury item that she owns, a beautiful pottery vase.  There is a "crazy cow' that chases the local kids up a path and the little boy, Disney-style is, even, given a love interest, a similarly young girl that he tries to impress.  The film maker seems to have studied Bresson, particularly the French director's images of rural poverty in films like Mouchette, and much of the movie consists of silent, long takes showing people engaged in quotidian activities.  There's more to the movie than meets the eye and, as I summarize the film here, I recall a number of scenes more effective in retrospect than in actual duration on the screen.  There are all sorts of incongruities in the film -- first, I imagine South Korea to be technologically advanced and so the rural poverty that the film shows is startling: the old woman might be living in a film set among peasants in the 14th century.  Second, the relationship between the old crone and her daughter is hard to explain:  the two women seem to come from completely different worlds.  In fact, the career woman looks entirely unlike the fat, red-faced peasants, a group of Brueghel-like grotesques who seem to comprise a race and species very different from the svelte girl from Seoul.  Finally, the film's structure and form is weirdly inconsistent:  a Disney-influenced odd couple comedy is presented in an austere, minimalist style.  (For instance, the film's last image is a long shot of the old lady all alone and bent-double and laboriously climbing the rubble-strewn switchbacks to her shack, "the way home" of the film's title).  I would like to suggest this picture to my readers.  But, in fact, the movie is dull, at least thirty minutes too long for its slight premise, and, more or less, pointless. 

Nymphomaniac (Vol 2) -- further thoughts

There is a famous movie, made in 1989 for BBC TV, called Elephant.  The film, shot like a documentary, shows 18 murders committed during the fighting in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  The movie, directed by Alan Clarke, is based on actual police reports and the murders are staged as a series of Steadi-cam tracking shots, each culminating in a killing.  Neither the gunmen, nor the victims, are identified in any meaningful way and there is no plot and no back-story -- we see no motivation for the killings and the film offers no explanation for anything that we are shown.  (Elephant has been widely influential -- Gus van Sant appropriated the name for his 2003 documentary-like reconstruction of Columbine massacre; the recent film, '71 also mostly shot with a handheld Steadi-cam stages several sequences in a way that mirrors the earlier picture on the Irish "troubles").  The film's point seems to be that the act of killing may become prosaic, repetitive, and completely meaningless in certain contexts.  All of the graphic sex in von Trier's Nymphomaniac films is desensitizing (both figurative as well as literally for the title character), and the procession of sex scenes with anonymous men and groups of men is clinically portrayed as prosaic and meaningless as the killings in Elephant.  The problem exhibited by von Trier is that his enormous film doesn't have the courage of its own convictions.  The director attenuates his focus on the heroine's sexual pathology by trying to make the film about other things -- Fibonacci sequences illustrated in terms of the number of penile thrusts, the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, botany, fly-fishing, the racking action of an automatic hand-gun.  The movie's digressions ultimately seem desperate -- mere sex is not enough and von Trier wants the movie to be about something other than mere sex and a nymphomaniac.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is the picture's sheer and obsessive length.  A courageous study of Jo's life would require us to look at a meaningless and completely fungible series of sex acts, recognize that Jo derives enormous pleasure from those acts, and, simply, leave the audience with an enigma, an insoluble problem in psychology.  "I am a nymphomaniac," Jo declares, refusing to use the de riguer term, "sex addict." proposed by the therapist leading a polite and homely group of chubby nymphomaniacs.  With this expression, followed by von Trier in the title of his film (except his orthography shows the "o" as ()...), Jo seems to suggest that she is sacred and monstrous, a figure from classical mythology, something from an archaic, ancient, and radically irrational world.  But von Trier keeps lassoing her and dragging his nymphomaniac back into his 18th century universe of explanations, theories, and concepts.  In part, this tendency arises from Lars von Trier's very close identification with Jo.  At one point, Jo expresses sympathy for Hitler.  At Cannes in the course of an ill-advised press conference after a showing of his Melancholia, von Trier, who likes to shock people, said that he identified with Hitler.  Predictable outrage followed.  Seligman is similarly appalled:  censoriously, he notes that the heroine is a nymphomaniac who has shown sympathy for pedophiles, suggested that abortion is an evil, and, now, endorsed Hitler.  Pursing his lips, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) says:  "Well, I suppose it had to happen."

In some ways, von Trier is bracingly honest.  He doesn't try to create any childhood trauma to explicate Jo's conduct -- in fact, he takes pains to show that she had a happy childhood and close, loving, and normal relationship with her father.  The only explanation for Jo's nymphomania is that she enjoys sex more than most people and is willing to sacrifice everything, husband, child, job, even her personal safety, for the sensation of orgasm.  This seems true in its way and convincing -- her conduct is a matter of a cold and logical economy:  if you like sex more than anything else, you will act in the manner that Jo acts.  If the film were built on this hypothesis, it would simply follow the model of Clarke's Elephant, one sex scene after another until the time allotted for the film (or its budget) runs out.  (A moralizing version of the Elephant scenario is Pabst's 1929 Pandora's Box -- in that film, the nymphomaniac heroine, Lulu, jumps from bed to bed until she encounters Jack the Ripper who brings her adventures to an end in a London alley.  Pabst is similarly clear-sighted about his heroine, but the constraints of his source material, Wedekind's late Victorian play contaminated by late Victorian morality, compel him to a tendentious ending for poor Lulu.)  Lars von Trier is fundamentally a moralist, however, and so he has to punish his heroine; her chastening "plots" a situation that is fundamentally "plotless".  First, he imposes genital numbness on her.  Then, he makes her into a masochist who has to be beaten bloody to experience any sensation; the relationship with the sadist is like something out of science fiction -- it makes no narrative sense at all.  Finally, he urges her into a love affair -- love defined by von Trier is "the combination of lust and jealousy" -- that results in Jo's horrific humiliation and betrayal.  In a bow to Pabst's Pandora's Box, Jo's is humiliated by her faithless lover, beaten half to death, and pissed-on, in a narrow, slit-like alley, exactly the location where Lulu is disemboweled in the German film.  In von Trier's imagination, sex is always accompanied by the specter of death, but, more importantly, by humiliation.  At its core, von Trier's problem is that his material is episodic and open-ended -- in principle, Jo can simply go from lover to lover forever.  But von Trier has to design an ending for the film.  So he brings in Willem Defoe to seduce Jo into working as a thuggish debt collector, a plot development that makes no sense of any kind -- indeed, at one point, Jo denounces her own narrative saying that this part of the story seems designed to "create one of those coincidences that you (referring to the rational Seligman) find so disconcerting and questionable."  This part of the movie is inflected with film noir notes -- a movie about sex becomes a film about violence, and, in fact, gangland violence.  This seems farfetched and dishonest and, worst of all , completely arbitrary.  Further, von Trier feels that he needs to portray Jo's soul in a definitive emblem.  And, so, he stages a scene in which the heroine climbs a tall rock to see a ancient, gnarled tree, tattered by the wind, clinging to a crevasse in an ugly black turret of crumbling, weather-beaten stone.  The scene is impressive but the emblem seems too reductive -- and, of course, one must ask this question:  in this carnival of sex and flesh, what makes us believe there is such a thing as the soul?  At the end of the film, the asexual Seligman has become aroused.  He approaches the sleeping, battered Jo and, exposing her buttocks, gropes for her.  The screen goes black and there is the sound of a gun firing and, then, after an interval, some other noise that I was unable to interpret but that is probably deeply significant.  In his customary way, von Trier has equated sex with death.  But Seligman's arousal is inconsistent with what we've been shown.  Indeed, upon recounting her life story, Jo renounces sex entirely and says that she will become like Seligman, an asexual being.  There's nothing in Jo's story that would lead a reasonable liberal man, the voice of reason and tolerance, to become like her -- if anything, the tale would lead to Jo's conclusion, that is, that sex is wholly meaningless and should be renounced.  So Seligman's attempted rape, although it brings the film to a conclusion that an alert viewer might have guessed three hours earlier, falsifies the rest of the film; it's not supported by the evidence that we have seen.  But von Trier needs an ending, and a movie in which a gun is introduced, requires that the gun be discharged at the climax, and so he contrives a denouement to material that doesn't intrinsically require an ending and, that, indeed, is inconsistent with the very concept of an ending.  Not all works of art need to "end"; reality doesn't admit the notion of "endings" -- things just go on and on until we become exhausted and look away or until some other force requires that we close our eyes. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Nymphomaniac (Volume 2)

Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (Volume 2) in DVD form has occupied my shelf for six weeks at least, an obstruction clogging my Netflix queue with the sullen persistence of a bad conscience or an intestinal blockage.  The movie is 3 1/2 hours long, relentlessly obscene, and joyless -- apparently, the lot of a nymphomaniac is not a happy one.  There are a few amusing gags and, of course, the subject matter has a dour fascination, but the film, like most of von Trier's pictures, presents itself as treacherous and daunting summit to be scaled, less a film than an achievement like a marathon to be endured. The second half of a gargantuan and encyclopedic movie (the whole enterprise is more than six hours long), Nymphomaniac (Volume 2) chronicles a woman named Jo's further sexual adventures, leading inevitably, in the world-view of the censorious Danish provocateur to the heroine's degradation and doom.  As I have pointed out in my earlier review of the film's first part, Lars von Trier, no less than his mentors Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, is first, and foremost, a moralist.  Moralists tend to revert to Enlightenment imagery -- Stanley Kubrick, who can also be characterized as a moralist, used stark symmetry in his films and, whenever possible, set his stories in 17th and 18th century townhouses and palaces. (In his last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick featured orgies that might have been imagined by de Sade occurring in a stately and remote country manor.)  Similarly, von Trier's approach to his lurid material is scientific, digressive, derived, it seems, from Diderot and de Sade.  Jo, a exemplar of passion untrammeled by morality, narrates her sordid story to Seligman, a kindly asexual intellectual (the interlocutor's Jewish name means "blessed man").  Seligman embodies the values of the liberal Enlightenment -- he refuses to condemn Jo for her depravity (notwithstanding her repeated demands that he denounce her) and devises Freudian and other socio-economic, cultural, and psychological explanations for Jo's perverse behavior.  The crux of the film involves a long and spectacularly horrific abortion sequence, an eight minute travail that I was unable to watch.  Jo finds herself pregnant and demands an abortion.  The nameless and abstract society in which she lives -- it is a cold-looking Denmark (actually Rhineland-Westphalia) where everyone speaks English but with a variety of accents, an icy autumnal deserted place that we might call vonTrier-land:  this place, a schematic modern everywhere that is nowhere, von Trier's denuded utopia, is liberal like Seligman and anxious to facilitate the heroine's  abortion in a nice, clean clinic, but only if she will cooperate with a brief psychiatric consultation to determine that her consent to the procedure is legitimately "informed."  Jo refuses to provide reasonable answers to the questionnaire that the psychologist has asked her to complete and, in fact, expresses a radically purist pro-choice position:  not only is my fetus my own to destroy, you don't have any right to ask me any questions at all about my decision, a choice that seems motivated by Jo's frantic, hysterical rage.  When the clinic's psychologist pronounces Jo insane, and, therefore, unable to elect the procedure, she goes home and designs some gruesome homemade surgical equipment -- hangers with hooks, curved knitting needles, an improvised home abortion kite -- and, then, goes to work on her crotch, a kitchen-floor operation visualized in massive gynecological close-ups replete with spurting blood.  When she finally hooks the embryo with one of her tools, von Trier in his customary mode as Enlightenment philosophe cuts to an ultrasound image showing the fetus snagged on the hook and neatly drawn out the vagina -- scientifically perceived, this is what an abortion looks like, von Trier concluding his anatomical image with a horrific shot of the mangled corpse dragged out of Jo's vulva and deposited in gouts of blood on her kitchen floor.  Of course, Seligman is utterly appalled and tells her that she should not have described the procedure in so much gory detail -- "it will deter young women who require an abortion," Seligman says with characteristic liberal tolerance.  Jo argues that honesty requires that we plunge into, and wholly accept, the gruesome aspects of creaturely existence -- and von Trier obligingly cuts to a head-crushing forceps used in late-term abortions and slaughterhouse imagery of beef cattle being dissected in a packing plant.  This moment in the film, I think, is the key to the whole enterprise, a massive philosophical study of the ethics of representation.  Seligman thinks that certain things shouldn't be represented -- abortion should not be shown because the bloody imagery will deter abortions and the right to an abortion is a prerequisite to a liberal enlightened society.  Jo thinks that those, like her, who elect to have an abortion should have the courage to face the physical implications of their decisions -- positions get reversed in a dizzying way, and, for a moment, Seligman seems about to become a variant on Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor -- the values of liberal society must be preserved at all costs, even if this means torture and the cynical promulgation of untruths.  Similarly, a liberal society maximizes sexual freedom -- but isn't Jo the reductio ad absurdam of this concept?  if you want sexual liberation, von Trier seems to assert, then, I will show what this looks like pornographic detail.  Although I dislike von Trier's strategy, his philosophical motivations justify, I suppose, his use of the graphic, generally unwatchable, imagery showing the kitchen-floor abortion and his use of obscene, if generally emetic, sexual imagery.  If you want to talk about the politics and ethics of representation, then, I suppose it's legitimate to shove the viewer's nose in what can't (or shouldn't) be represented.  This is a key to the entire film.  Jo's nymphomania has resulted in clitoral and vaginal anesthesia.  In an effort to combat this syndrome, Jo pursues ever more extreme forms of stimulation.  She beats herself like a 13th century penitent and, then, picks up two burly Black men, brothers, it seems, who subject her to double penetration, the whole time bickering in some African language because their penises keep ramming into one another "through the narrow wall of tissue" as Jo describes this interlude to Seligman.  Like many of Jo's sexual encounters, this escapade ends with the two men engaging in a lengthy harangue that neither Jo nor we can understand.  Unhappily married, Jo sneaks out of her humble apartment from time to time to visit a sadist who ties her to a sofa and beats her with a variety of instruments lovingly filmed by von Trier's camera -- the director likes to show tools of this sort as witness his careful presentation of the home-make operating kit.  While Jo is being tortured, her three-year old toddler crawls out of bed and goes onto the balcony to enjoy a snowstorm, a scene that alludes to von Trier's previous nightmare movie about mourning, sex, and death, Antichrist (in which Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg make love, ignoring their small child who falls from a window to his death).  In Nymphomaniac, the baby doesn't fall, but Jo's husband (Shia LaBeouf -- can that possibly be his name?)  discovering the child on the balcony in the empty apartment, throws Jo out when she returns battered and bloody from her assignation with the sadist.  Throughout these proceedings, von Trier cuts away from the sex and violence to lengthy colloquies in a grim, sepia-toned apartment between  Seligman and the badly beaten Jo (he has literally picked her up out of the gutter) -- Seligman interrupts Jo's narrative with digressions about the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholics, Freudian psychoanalysis, or the theory of knots (when Seligman digresses to tell Jo about a knot used in mountain-climbing and useful in bondage and discipline, Jo sniffs and says:  "That's your worst digression ever.").  The film's frame story involves Jo, like de Sade's Justine or Juliette, or like Scheherezad in the Arabian Nights, narrating her sexual history to Seligman.  Like Justine, Jo has been badly beaten and, as they say, has "been rode hard and put away wet" -- Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance as Jo goes beyond courage into realms of reckless self-abnegation and she spends most of the film looking haggard, her face bruised and her lips split, stringy hair that exudes grease drizzling over her features. (Interestingly, she has the same kind of nipples that made Farrah Fawcett Major famous.) The frame story is divided into chapters that take their thematic structure from objects in Seligman's Spartan apartment, the furnishings as it were of the asexual encyclopedist's mind -- an icon, a fishing lure, a stain on the wallpaper that looks like a gun, a battered mirror.  The film is a tour of the universe, portraying the world as a place in which the sleep of logic and reason, the encyclopedist's rational kingdom of knowledge, is afflicted by nightmare passion.  You can admire this film while detesting it -- and, I suppose, this is von Trier's intent.  I just wish the movie were less punishing and funnier.  There is a good gag in one of the sex scenes -- the sadist demonstrates what he calls the "silent duck," forming this hand into a beaklike fist and, then, probing Jo's entrails with it.  The waggish von Trier cuts a flock of loudly quacking ducks and, then, Seligman bemused:  "I'd hate to know what the 'quacking duck' would be like," he says with a poker face.        

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jinxed: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

This HBO series, a six-program true crime documentary, limps along in an unsatisfying manner until its penultimate and, then, final episode -- these last two programs deliver on the lurid promise of the material and yield electrifying revelations.  But the show's climax, and the attendant hoopla (including Robert Durst's arrest on March 14, 2014 the eve of the last episode) raise disturbing questions that threaten, perhaps, to overshadow the program's legitimate accomplishments.  The series is directed by Andrew Jurecki and Marc Smerling whose film-making style follows closely the work of a much more rigorous, and morally acute, documentary director, Errol Morris.  In Jinxed, Jurecki and Smerling address three apparent homicides, all associated with Robert Durst.  In the seventies, Durst's first wife simply vanished.  Her body was never found and everyone who has thought about the case assumes that Robert Durst murdered her.  In the film, Durst acknowledges telling various lies about his wife's disappearance but steadfastly denies killing her.  Around 1994, an ambitious prosecutor sought to reopen the investigation into the disappearance of Durst's wife.  At that time, Durst was close friends with a woman living in Beverly Hills, California.  Authorities planned to meet with this woman, a would-be screenwriter and the daughter of a prominent mobster, apparently for the purpose of probing what Durst might have told her about events involving his vanished first wife.  Just before the woman could be interviewed, she was killed execution-style in her home.  Again, suspicion focused on Durst, but no evidence could be found linking him with the homicide.  In 2002, Durst admitted killing his landlord, an elderly man named Morris Black.  Durst hacked the body into parts and pitched it into Galveston Bay.  Durst, then, shaved his head and eyebrows, donned a woman's wig, and fled dressed as an old lady.  A crooked as a dog's hindleg, Durst paused to shoplift a chicken sandwich and was apprehended.  Tried for the homicide in Galveston, he was acquitted of murder -- he claimed self-defense and, because the dead man's head was never found (and couldn't be forensically analyzed), he was acquitted of that charge.  (The prosecutors were outgunned by Durst's lawyer Dick Deguerin and botched their presentation of the evidence.)  This would be merely a sordid story with little or no resonance except for one important fact:  Durst is one of the wealthiest men in the United States, the despised heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, and the brother of the man, Douglas Durst, who manages the Freedom Tower erected on the site of the World Trade Center.  Furthermore, although the documentary makers are circumspect on this point, the Durst family seems to have obstructed justice with respect to the investigation relating to the disappearance of Durst's first wife.  Robert Durst, a small wiry man whose face seems either classically patrician or strangely ferret-like depending upon the lighting and the camera angle, is estranged from his famous family.  After the death of his father, it seems, that other Durst family members concluded that Robert was potentially homicidal and retained armies of bodyguards to protect themselves from his depredations.  For reasons that are completely obscure and probably perverse, Robert Durst agreed to cooperate with the filmmakers, allowed them to interview him in depth for several hours, and, in the end, seems to confess, although in a particularly bizarre and shocking way, to committing all three murders.  A particularly irrefutable clue is unearthed by Jurecki and company in the last few minutes of the fifth episode and the sixth installment chronicles how, after a lapse of several years in the making of the film, Durst agrees to submit to a final interview with the film makers, with an outcome spectacularly catastrophic to him -- it's because of this final interview and its sequel that Durst is now in jail awaiting trial in Los Angeles with respect to the killing of the mobster's daughter.  (At the series' eerie climax, when Durst is confronted with seemingly irrefutable evidence of his guilt, the villain's features become spastic and he seems to gag, as if about to vomit on the camera -- it's as if his body is betraying the lies that he has maintained.  This sequence is similar to the terrifying last few minutes of Joel Oppenheimer's Act of Killing in which the protagonist's body seems about to burst apart under the nauseating pressure of the evil within.)

This is dynamite reality TV and so my reservations about the last two episodes require explanation.  First, Durst is trapped in the final scene and there is an unsavory element of betrayal about the way that the ambush is set for him.  Of course, Durst is a nasty fellow and, most likely, a serial killer and so it's difficult to be sympathetic to him.  But, nonetheless, Jurecki and Smerling lure Durst to the catastrophic interview under false pretenses and with a smiling show of deceitful friendliness.  The problem that their ambush poses to a morally alert viewer is this:  if Jurecki and Smerling are willing to lie to catch Durst, then, they signify that the ends justify the means.  And, if this is true, then, is their footage really honest, can you trust the images shown on the screen?  Second, and corollary to the first concern, is a mechanical question about how the incriminating sound-bite was recorded.  Earlier in the film, we have seen Durst muttering to himself unaware that his microphone was still "live."  At the end of the film, Durst goes into a toilet and makes devastating admissions to himself when he thinks that he is alone and isolated -- according to Jurecki and Smerling, the microphone was "live" when Durst entered the bathroom and, simply picked-up his bizarre schizophrenic colloquy with himself.  I don't buy this and don't trust the film maker's probity.  Indeed, I think the toilet was miked separately in the anticipation that Durst would talk to himself in that place.  Possibly, I am wrong, but there is something very peculiar about the way this sequence is represented on film.  Third, Jurecki and Smerling were in possession of incriminating evidence about a serial killer -- a man who, by their own statements, is dangerous and frightening.  But they didn't contact the authorities to disclose this evidence preferring to withhold the proof that Durst is a murderer until the last show of the six-part series -- that is, March 15, 2015, probably more than two years after the incriminating evidence was gathered.  (During this time frame, Durst could have killed another couple of people.)  Jurecki has claimed that he and Smerling were not aware that they had the taped admissions until six months or so before the show was broadcast -- their explanation for this surprising claim is that they were granted additional funding to hire an assistant to "go through and review" all of their footage and soundtrack information.  This seems very, very unlikely to me.  I think the most rational explanation for events documented in the movie is that the film makers knew on the day of the last interview with Durst that they had incriminating evidence, that, indeed, they devised the final interview to trap Durst and separately miked the toilet, and that they, then, intentionally withheld this evidence, notwithstanding shedding crocodile tears for the victims and their families so that they could make a big splash with the presentation of this proof on prime-time TV.   Here is my prediction for what it is worth:  Jurecki, Smerling, and their sound engineers are going to be in hot-water as criminal prosecution of Durst proceeds and, once Durst hires world-class defense lawyers to study the chain of evidence on the audio tape.  Probably, the issue is moot.  Durst looked frail and very sick in the final interview, images now more than two years old, and my guess is that he will die before standing trial. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Habsburgs (exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

A great art show must contain objects that are beautiful.  But this is insufficient to make an exhibition truly memorable -- after all, beauty is common enough.  Equally important, in my view, is the requirement that the show contain artifacts that are weird and, even, grotesque and, further, that the exhibition provide an occasion for thought.  (By these standards, most shows of impressionist paintings, almost always wonderfully beautiful, fail to meet my criteria for greatness -- the pictures are simply too pretty to be thought-provoking.)  The big exhibit of Habsburg paintings and assorted knick-knacks is a success by any standard imaginable -- the show contains gorgeous paintings, artifacts of jaw-dropping oddity, and, at least, one painting as profound and problematic in its own way as a Platonic dialogue.  It's expensive:  $20 for the general public, but, I think, worth the admission.

About half-way through the exhibit, the viewer encounters a small, rather unostentatious image -- a painting of a man on a rearing horse.  The image is more illustrative than painterly, a diagram intended to show the costumes used in an elaborate equestrian ballet.  The rider wears some vaguely floral armor and looks like a Magyar or Hun glaring out at the viewer under thick eyebrows and a droopy moustache.  His horse is spirited and kicks at the air with its forelegs although the animal is so heavily burdened with a shaggy, tapestry-like caparison that it seems astounding that the animal can leap upward at all.  The most amazing and bizarre aspect of the image is the rider's headdress - a huge plume of ostrich feathers arranged in three lobes sprouts from the cavalryman's skull; the ostrich feather plume is as big as the horse and rider together, the size and shape, it seems, of a small palm tree.  An explanatory placard says that the costume was commissioned for a horseback ballet commemorating a Habsburg wedding in 1667.  The theme of the equestrian ballet was a competition between the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) to determine which of them could create the most perfect and lovely pearl -- the wedding involved Princess Margarita, a name that means "pearl."  This esoteric canvas embodies the strange appeal of the show:  an arcane meaning is conveyed by means that seem radically incongruent with the thematic message -- a wedding is celebrated with an horse-ballet illustrating alchemical principles.  (Viewing this painting, I recall that the most complete and gorgeous examples of Aztec feather shields now extent were exported to Vienna for the delectation of the Habsburgs who controlled both Spain and the former Spanish colonies -- the insane headdress worn by the rider seems something that a pre-Columbian war-lord would have admired.)

The mismatch between medium and message is evident in the first couple galleries -- we see armor and weapons engraved with delicate etchings, a filigree of ornamentation that, of course, the first blow delivered in anger would destroy.  One wall displays Durer's design for a triumphal arch in honor of Emperor Maximilian, an extraordinary, towering folly consisting of no fewer than 36 woodcuts pieced together to simulate an architectural edifice, a monument so baroque and intricately decorated that it could never be constructed, terraces frescoed with elaborate historical and mythological images, columns and piers swarming with satyrs and griffins, a paper structure of such insane excess that it calls into question the very glory that it celebrates -- if Maximilian is an Oz so great and powerful than why doesn't the engraved monument exist in real life?  In fact, isn't the fictional arch the symbol of some kind of grave inadequacy?  Throughout their history, the Habsburgs seem to have had a penchant for objects carved from rare and precious substances -- there are carnelian agate cameos, many delicately wrought ivory relics, an overtly sexualized goblet encircled with gay-looking satyrs cut from rhinoceros horn, a sorbet service made from gilded snail shells.  A walrus tooth carved in progressively more detail as it ascends symbolizes the progression from nature to art -- at its base the tooth is bone, then, a geometric form, than, a dainty chinoserie of the most intricately carved gods and goddesses.  There are alchemical medallions displaying the Habsburg family tree, an osculatorum, that is religious artifact made to be kissed forged from silver and gold looted from the kingdoms of the New World, glittering images of saints and the virgin, all manner of precious devotional objects. 

But the highlights of the show are the paintings.  The exhibit accumulates half-dozen world class canvases.  A Danae by Titian shows a languid courtesan with an elongated Mannerist body luxuriating in a shower of gold coins.  The woman's hair is blonde, bleached in urine, no doubt after the Venetian manner, and she is as gold as the coins showering her.  Self-evidently, she was an expensive prostitute, probably painted from life, with her snaggled-toothed procuress hefting a sort of basket to hoover-up the coins sliding out of the sunny sky.  The image is luscious and characteristic:  the Habsburgs liked high-class pornography.  In the Correggio painting used to advertise the show, Io is embraced by Jove as a cloud, his sfumato paw clasped around the goddess' creamy hip.  There is a subtle Velasquez portrait of a Habsburg maiden -- as a group, the Habsburg's were spectacularly ugly -- and an eerie, mysterious Giorgione, an oddly asymmetrical painting of three emblematic figures brooding over a shadowy landscape either at dawn or sunset:  one of the figures is an angry, leonine Oriental of the type in which Tiepolo specialized and the entire picture is strangely disturbing. A hyper-realistic Caravaggio of high quality is also on display, a brutal crowning with thorns in which the centurions wear cuirasses glittering in the chiaroscuro, armor of the same elaborate and showy type that we have seen in the first couple galleries. The Habsburg taste for the grotesque is evident in a picture of a little wolf-girl, a hirsute virgin covered in silky fur wearing a huge crucifix on her breast and there is an excellent and ingenious Arcimboldo, an allegory of fire with flaming hair and brass-knuckle eyes, matches and flints making up his throat and torso.

The most remarkable painting in the show is Tintoretto's canvas of Susanna squatting in her bath while two elderly, bald men peep at her.  The picture is extraordinary, an encyclopedia of emblems and motifs relating to vision:  Susanna gazes at her buttery nakedness in a mirror and we see her flesh reflected in the water -- there are various degrees of opacity and translucence in the image:  one of Susanna's limbs is displayed under water, that is, distorted by the liquid medium in which she bathes.  Seen from across the room, the elder in the foreground reads like a memento mori -- his bald, shiny head looks like a skull in the chamber in which Saint Jerome is translating the Bible or a symbol of vanity beheld by Mary Magdalene.  As the viewer approaches, the painting the skull resolves into the old man's head, viewed from a curious angle, and, then, the spectator, who stands in a place privileged to see all, discovers another old man perambulating in a garden in the background -- the panel of painting where the old man is walking seems flattened, a landscape crushed into the plane that is like a milles fleurs tapestry; there is something curiously artificial and unnatural about both of the elders and, as one examines the picture, a remarkable fact emerges -- the men's eyelines, that is, the angles of their gaze, don't intersect with the naked girl.  The men seem more to be nosing her, smelling her, thanlooking in her direction -- indeed, the elders are, perhaps, blind -- it might well be that prurient lust is a kind of blindness.  The entire image is replete with wonderful gem-like details, very subtly painted in a color scheme of the most exquisite delicacy.  The image is a compendium of ideas about sight and vision and it is one of the greatest of all paintings.

The show fizzles out with rooms full of carriages and gilded sleighs, impressive enough for a glance or two, but unwieldy objects lacking any real poetry.  There are some cases of elaborate Victorian era garments, an anti-climax after the spectacular things in the first four galleries, and the information on the wall reminds us of the sorry fate of the Habsburgs during the latter half of the 19th century:  Maximilian shot by firing squad in Mexico, Rudolph dead by suicide with his 19 year-old girlfriend at Mayerling, and the imperious, wasp-waisted Sisi hacked to death by an anarchist in Geneva.  The last painting in the show is a dying fall -- a pathetic image of four-year old prince stepping out of a gilded carriage in Budapest, the end of the line for the Habsburg royalty. 

I hope you will see this show.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What we do in the shadows

Comedy is hard to review.  A comedy designed to make the audience laugh out loud either succeeds or fails in that endeavor -- but success can be problematic to define and not replicated with all viewers.  And success or failure is, also, a matter of taste and the viewer's inclination and mood -- some movies seem hilarious when watched with audiences loudly laughing at the gags on-screen, but might seem merely contrived and, even, desperate to the same viewer watching the film alone. And, even, a movie that might otherwise be very funny can be spoiled if seen when you are in a sad or sour mood or, in fact, if the audience laughs at the wrong times or too slavishly.  I thought What we do in the shadows (an elegantly stupid, quasi- Raymond Carver title) was very funny.  I laughed a lot.  I saw the film with my daughter who also thought it was funny although she had to close her eyes during some of the more gruesome sequences -- there is lots of arterial blood squirting around and, when the vampires maul their victims, we see close-ups of anatomically accurate throat wounds.  Three other people saw the film with us at the Lagoon Theater on March 14, 2015 -- as far as I could ascertain, these other spectators also laughed a lot during the film.  The premise of What we do in the Shadows is that a film-crew is making a documentary about a small coven of vampires living as flat-mates on the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand.  The vampires are hapless losers who spend their nights quarreling about who should do the dishes, heaps of ancient crockery covered with gore, or bullying a group of equally hapless werewolves.  (The werewolves are nice boys who admit that they are condemned to spend moonlit nights sniffing at each other's genitals; their leader, the self-proclaimed alpha male, demands that they not use foul language -- it's an example of New Zealand "nice":  "we're werewolves, lads, not 'swear-wolves'," he says.)  The younger vampire roommates fancy themselves as lady killers -- and, in fact, they kill a couple of girls -- but they are generally regarded as nerds by the mortals around them:  they can't get into the more hip night-clubs in Wellington because of their antique clothing.  (The familiar and slave of one of the vampires -- we see her mowing the lawn of their gothic haunted house -- remarks that they "wear blouses for Christ' sake," She should know because it's her task to take their bloody garments to the laundry and clean up the blood sprayed all over their dining room and toilet.)  The film is witty and the characters are appealing in their own warped way and the movie is short, succinct, and funny from beginning to end.  At one point, one of the undead, a fresh kill who goes around boasting to everyone that he is a vampire, inadvertently lures a vampire-hunter to the boys' manse.  A fight ensues and Petyr, the senior vampire (he is 8000 years old and looks like Nosferatu) is killed, burned to ashes by the sunlight.  One of the vampires is disgusted that the documentary crew has filmed Petyr's fiery demise.  He approaches the camera in a snit and shoves his paw at the lens crying;  "Get that thing out of here.  Can't you see we're grieving this sunlight-related tragedy!"  This 2015 film is directed by Germaine Clement, who also plays one of the vampires, the star and co-director of the wonderful HBO series Flight of the Conchords.  The movie is not to all tastes, but I enjoyed the film and thought it was consistently funny and ingenious.


A gory chase movie, '71 is exciting in a harsh way, but not really entertaining.  Furthermore, there is something meretricious about using "the Troubles" in Belfast as an excuse for violent thriller -- equally puzzling is the timing of the film's release:  is this brutal film about Protestant and Catholic fighting in Northern Ireland being distributed now (March 2015) as a nod to St. Patrick's Day?  '71 is singleminded and relentless -- a young British soldier from Derbyshire is separated from his platoon during some streetfighting in Belfast.  He ends up wounded and hiding in a jakes, an outhouse-style privy, that, fortunately, is not much utilized.  When night falls, the soldier creeps out onto the dark, medieval streets of Belfast, a sort of labyrinth filled with paramilitary death squads that are hunting one another up and down narrow, cobbled alleyways luridly lit by burning cars.  The movie is similar to John Ford's The Informer or Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, a wounded man, losing blood, staggers around from place to place in the chaos of an internecine war.  This kind of film is usually designed as a double chase -- that is, the bad guys are after the hero and, as a result of a misunderstanding, the cops (or the good guys) are also gunning for him.  '71 innovates on this plot, perfected by Hitchcock, by contriving a chase involving, at least, five different factions -- they are (1) Unionist insurgents who are building (ineptly) bombs (2) the wounded man's platoon (3) an undercover special forces unit of the British army that is colluding with the Unionist terrorists (4) an ultra-violent cadre of the IRA and (5) a less violent group of IRA gunmen who are, also, apparently cooperating with the undercover Brit paramilitary death squad.  All of these five factions are looking for our hero and, in fact, four of the five groups want him dead.  Although the plot is as schematic, in some ways, as a roadrunner cartoon, it is also needlessly complicated and confusing.  The film is full of shootings and bombings and there is a protracted scene of amateur surgery that has the effect of implausibly reviving the hero so that he can wander around the night some more and lose more blood until the violent climax -- the amateur surgery scene is shot in close-up and very unpleasant, akin to a similar sequence in a film that '71 resembles, Black Hawk Down.  The best part of the movie is the first half-hour -- there is a remarkable sequence involving a foul-mouthed Unionist waif that almost redeems the picture, but, unfortunately, the poor lad gets both of his arms blown off in an explosion and is on-screen for too short of a time to involve the audience --the scenes with the boy are vivid and fine, but they are really just a tease for a movie that we don't get to see.  Much of the film takes place in and around a singularly nasty set of flats, a combination of a tenement and a car park, it seems, all exposed balconies and corridors above ugly concrete and metal stairwells and the picture, like this setting, is completely ugly, shot in the most utilitarian manner possible -- all handheld, jerky camera, long tracking shots (about half the movie shows the hero simply staggering from one dark corner to another) and sweaty close-ups.  Like the four-hour Che, the movie is made in a style that seems to be post-photographic, post film-making --it's as if the picture was shot on a cell-phone and intended to be screened on a cell-phone as well.

The Manchurian Candidate (Minnesota Opera)

In March 2015, the Minnesota Opera presented the world premiere of an opera by Kevin Puts (libretto by Mark Campbell) derived from Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate.  Of course, Condon's paranoid thriller has been remade as a film twice -- a famous version in 1962 directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Anthony Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra as well as a 2004 remake helmed by Jonathan Demme with Denzel Washington in the title role.  As far as I can ascertain, Puts' opera follows the scenario of the Frankenheimer movie very closely, although with some significant omissions.  (The 1959 Condon novel contained episodes to outré to be filmed:  for instance, a sex scene between the brainwashed assassin and his monstrous, politically ambitious mother; the 2004 film is typically damned with faint praise, but it contains Meryl Streep's splendidly vicious caricature of Hillary Clinton as the rapacious mother.)  Curiously, the opera version of this story, a highly complex narrative, is shorter than the films made from the novel -- the opera feels like a sort of checklist, the libretto ticking off noteworthy and memorable scenes from the 1962 film until reaching its bloody climax at the Republican National Convention.  I am not a fan of Puts' music and dissented from majority opinion with regard to the composer's previous opera, Silent Night, a show about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.  (Puts and Campbell won a Pulitzer Prize for that opera -- I thought it was curiously uninvolving, disjointed and that the music was uninspired.)  In The Manchurian Candidate, Puts music is, more or less, a busy movie soundtrack to the characters' declamatory atonal singing -- he uses Philip Glass-style arpeggios in suspense scenes combined with jarring dissonant chords of the sort made famous by Bernard Hermann in his Hitchcock and film noir soundtracks.  But Puts is problematically pure, austere, and aesthetically advanced -- he avoids anything like a melody or a Wagnerian leit motif preferring to illustrate the emotions of his characters in a stolidly literal way.  The atonal screeching and telegraphic-style syncopated rhythms is a curious choice for an opera set in the political milieu -- the show's score could be enlivened with patriotic numbers, citations of campaign songs, military marches, and pop music allusions.  But, alas, Puts is too pure to allow the audience anything like sonic entertainment.  An example is a party-scene in which the horrible politician,Johnny Iselin, a parody of Joe McCarthy, prances around dressed as a milk-cow, the udder on his costume displayed in place of his pudendum.  For about three bars, we get a lively conga tune as the partygoers get drunk and snake-dance around the stage -- but Puts puts the kibosh on anything like fun and the score immediately reverts to dissonant wailing.  The great opera composers of the 19th century, even Wagner in an early show like The Flying Dutchmen, installed crowd pleasing tunes in their shows -- Puccini and Verdi were always quick to add a tavern scene with a drinking song or a military march, even if extraneous to the main action, to keep the audience engaged.  Not so, Puts -- if he accidentally allows a fragment of melody to creep into his score (for instance a bar or two from "The Star-Spangled Banner"), he immediately seems to regret that indulgence as vulgar popularism and reverts to his unimaginative post-Schoenberg style.  (This is why I thought Silent Night was a failure -- the show was always teasing the audience with echoes of Christmas songs that no one was allowed to sing; a show about Christmas was devoid of anything like a Christmas carol -- this seemed perverse to me.)  The show gallops along and can't help but be effective to some degree -- the garish and violent plot is sufficiently interesting to keep everyone engaged.  But the opera completely botches the climax.  The assassin goes off-stage about ten minutes before the opera ends and we never see him again -- this is completely bizarre, a way of staging an exciting climax that prudishly strips away all of the actual suspense and seems weirdly disengaging.  The famous climax of the film involves the brainwashed sleeper assassin, apparently reprogrammed by his buddy, Lieutenant Marco, vacillating between killing the target chosen for him by his Chinese handlers (the presidential candidate) or murdering his mother and her husband, Hilary Clinton in bed with Joe McCarthy.  Since we don't see the protagonist, there's no real suspense -- the lines triggering the killing are spoken and the rifle is fired but we don't see any of the anguish in the poor brainwashed murderer's decision to kill his own mother and, then, himself.  The hero, in effect, simply goes away.  During the opera's disappointing last scene, my daughter and I repeatedly looked up into the Ordway's upper tiers, hoping to see the hero emerge somewhere above us with his sniper rifle -- why in the world wasn't something like this done?  At minimum, the Jumbotron screens hovering over the action could have shown the sniper, aiming his gun, wavering with respect to his target, and, then, pulling the trigger -- but we get nothing -- it's an invisible climax and, therefore, no climax at all.  Early in the opera, characters sing the words "He is a true American hero" to a typically jagged, resolutely anti-lyrical musical phrase.  The 1962 film ends with a famous voice-over in which the assassin, who has saved his country by shooting the conspirators, is eulogized as a true hero, at last, a man who overcame incredible torment to do a heroic deed, something for which he should, indeed, receive the Congressional Medal of Honor -- this is a moving and important speech and one that brings the film to a ringing end.  It is completely perverse that Puts wouldn't have set this speech to music and have it intoned, except, of course, he's not equal to the task.  Indeed, anyone not so puritanically austere would have devised a memorable leit motif for the lines early in the show asserting that the assassin is a "true American hero" and, then, have reprised that melody back in the last minutes of the opera.  Nothing so obvious and audience-pleasing as this for Mr. Puts and his ascetic librettist -- instead, we get a couple phrases about fear, a quasi-horror film chord with some dissonance, and the opera simply ends.  The audience was puzzled:  what happened to the hero?  And this is the end?  A dark stage and an inconclusive agreement that everyone is afraid.  Although the audience, rather reluctantly, I thought, gave the show a typical Minnesota standing ovation, I sensed some dissatisfaction -- the material is rich and could be orchestrated in a way that would be funny, grotesque, and engaging.  Think of what Shostakovich would have done with this material.  Instead, Puts won't write anything like a melody or a chorus or a theme -- the best that he can do is to write some duets that are confusing, parallel scenes proceeding simultaneously:  someone declaims that the hero "Raymond is a heartless assassin" while a person in another room simultaneously says "Raymond is a warm-hearted kindly man."  This is the first libretto composed for supratitles -- you get the sense that Puts and his librettist are designing speeches on the basis of making them intelligible on the supra-title screen over the proscenium arch.  But they don't get this right either:  at one point in the big climax, we see a supratitle saying "Jesus, I need a drink!" -- but who is saying this? what voice is the chaos of shouting speaks these words, and why are they necessarily displayed to us in the titles? 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

He who gets slapped

The Swedish movie star and director, Viktor Sjostrom, made a half-dozen films in Hollywood, directing the pictures under the credit "Victor Seastrom."  Sjostrom directed a number of important Swedish silent films, including the pioneering Ingeborg Holm (1914)the open air Icelandic saga, The Outlaw and his Wife (1916), and The Phantom Carriage (1921), Ingmar Bergman's favorite picture and an extraordinary film by any standard.  On the strength of The Phantom Carriage, MGM invited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  His first film in the US, and one of MGM's earliest box office hits, is the morbidly masochistic He who gets slapped (1924) an adaptation of a celebrated expressionist stage play by the Russian, Leonid Andreyev.  Lon Chaney, who specialized in playing martyred grotesques, performs the part of the hero, a poor scholar (studying "the origin of the human race") driven mad by his wife's infidelity and the theft of his brilliant ideas by his wife's lover, the smarmy Count Bertrand.  Even without mask-like make-up, Chaney looks different in every film that I have seen:  in this picture, he sports a Mephistophelean goatee and seems thin, dapper, and athletic.  Chaney looks nothing like the homely and burly Marine drill instructor in the 1929 Tell it to the Marines, a part that played without the assistance of the alarming make-up effects featured in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Unholy Three, and The Phantom of the Opera.  For most of the film, Chaney's face is slathered with thick white paint and he slouches around in a vaguely cone-shaped harlequin outfit, also a ghostly white.  Chaney's "HE", the name adopted by the crazed former genetics scholar, is the king of the clowns, the general and major-domo of an army of slithering, prancing ghost-like white figures, at least a hundred of them, who inhabit a spectral circus somewhere on the outskirts of Paris.  The circus is famous for HE's act, a bizarrely choreographed spectacle in which the clowns parade by their lord and master, brazenly slapping his face while the orchestra plays a grotesque march.  This act is so renowned that a giant neon sign showing a white-faced clown being violently slapped adorns the skyline, mounted it seems on the "big top" of the circus tent.  It's unclear exactly why this nightmarish and tedious pantomime would be funny to anyone, but the film posits that audiences love the act and laugh uproariously, even uncontrollably, their crude and porcine faces themselves caricatures, like the vicious centurions and peasants clustering around the crucifixion of Christ in a painting by Bosch or Brueghel.  The sinister clown and his legions of pale minions looks like Koko, the famous cartoon  figure contrived by the Fleischer brothers in 1919 and, in fact, some of surreal and uncanny aspects of Koko's persona, for instance, his drug-addled duets with Cab Calloway in Betty Boop animated featurettes, things like "Minnie the Moocher" and"The Old Man of the Mountain" (both 1934) seem to have their source in the 1924 film's nightmare imagery. (The question of influence here is complex:  the cartoon Koko was famous before Sjostrom's film; but some of horror imagery from the 1924 picture seems to have leaked in the Fleischer films with Betty Boop, Koko and Bimbo made a decade later).  Of course, the evil Count Bertrand surfaces as an audience member at HE's circus, lusting for the equestrienne star, a comely maiden that HE also loves.  HE thwarts the bad guy and orchestrates a gory revenge on his nemesis, managing to get stabbed in the process.  Thus, HE dies at center-stage of the circus that he has made famous, his poor white heart, a fabric pillow clutched in his bloody hand, literally broken.  The maiden, presumably, marries her romantic interest, a handsome trapeze artist, and a startling final image shows the spinning globe encompassed by a ring of sinister white clowns who pick up the body of their dead leader and hurl it into the outer darkness.  The film is worth seeing for the dream-like sequences involving the clowns, images that have had some influence on later film-makers.  As is often the case with Chaney's films, the love interest between the regularly shaped and conventionally handsome actors who serve as counterpoint to the star's grotesque, but sympathetic, protagonists, is tedious, indeed, almost completely uninteresting.  The opening logo displays Slats, the MGM lion, glaring out of his oval frame, but not roaring -- he merely looks around in a confused manner.  At the climax of the film, Slats has to maul and eat two bad guys.  But the lion looks gentlemanly and a wee bit superannuated, a tired, dignified old beast that can barely be roused from his torpor to attack the villains.  Sjostrom doesn't know how to stage this gaudy sequence -- images of this sort were beyond his métier -- and so he films the climax in the most banal and perfunctory manner possible, more or less, wrecking the film.  Chaney is always interesting and the slapping sequences have a horrific authority, but the movie is not as good as the star's shorter, more brutal shockers -- for instance, Tod Browning' ghastly 1927 The Unknown.      

Sunday, March 8, 2015


If there is a moral to Bennett Miller's morose and plodding Foxcatcher (2013), it's this -- If someone says to you "my friends call me 'Eagle' or 'Golden Eagle'," you should run like hell in the other direction.  This is what Foxcatcher's crazy protagonist, the beak-nosed John Du Pont, says to his wrestling protégé, the Olympic gold medalist, Mark Schultz.  Schultz merely nods and remains with the madman, seduced apparently by the billionaire's treasure, although Mark Schultz, played by Tatum Channing in a grimly taciturn and uncommunicative way, is too doltish to provide us with any evidence of his motives.  Miller's film tells a simple enough story and one that is largely true, at least in outline.  In 1986 or 1987. John Du Pont, a middle-aged ornithologist and Olympic wrestling fan and, also, the heir to the DuPont chemical  fortune, tried to recruit to Olympic quality Greco-Roman wrestlers, Mark and David Schultz, to coach a team of wrestlers that he was assembling for international competition.  Mark, the younger and more stupid of the two brothers, initially joined Du Pont on his estate near Philadelphia where he lived lavishly as the guest of the eccentric plutocrat.  Later, his older and smarter brother Dave, joined the team, displacing Mark in Du Pont's affections.  Inexplicably, John Du Pont murdered Dave, gunning him down outside the guest house where he was staying on the Du Pont estate.  (According to Wikipedia, Du Pont's family paid Dave's widow 35 million dollars, a fact that demonstrates that if you are going to be killed by a lunatic, it's best to die at the hands of a billionaire.)  Closing credits tells us that Du Pont was acquitted of murder on the basis of insanity but died in custody in any event in 2010.  This story seems pregnant with meaning, an eerie fable of some kind -- perhaps, a parable about how amateur athletics can be infected by money, or an indictment of violence -- the film shows the fake violence of pro-wrestling, the real violence of mixed martial arts exhibitions fought in grungy cages, and the carefully supervised violence of Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling. But the director of the film, Bennett Miller, focuses on the characters to the exclusion of thematic elements and, as a result, the movie lacks focus -- Miller can't find the center of the picture.  (And this is a literal critique:  at first, the movie seems to focus on the dim-witted younger brother, Mark; then, we are given a portrait of John E. Du Pont in the most clichéd terms -- the poor little rich boy, unloved by his mother, and buying friends with his fortune.  Then, Mark is exiled from the picture and the picture's last quarter shifts to his relationship with Du Pont -- this part of the film, ending in the shooting, seems rushed and inadequately developed.  But the viewer is perplexed:  who is the film supposed to be about?)  Miller's focus on the characters involved in the story turns out to be a fatal error -- none of the characters is sufficiently interesting to support the movie.  Tatum Channing's Mark Schultz is a lumbering, uncommunicative dolt -- he is so dense that he can barely speak and spends the entire movie sulking, looking at the world with complete, moronic incomprehension.  You can't build a movie on a character this resolutely stupid.  Steve Carrell's performance as John Du Pont is also eccentric to the point of destroying the film:  most actors would use the opportunity of playing a mad man for some flamboyant over-the-top theatrics.  Carrell, unrecognizable in the make-up creating Du Pont's Cyrano de Bergerac nose, takes the opposite tack -- he underplays, turning Du Pont into a zombie.  (He is similar to another bizarre "poor little rich boy", the semi-comatose governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton.)  Carrell speaks all of his lines with a peculiar, rambling, stammering prosody -- he talks very, very slowly and pauses in the middle of phrases where we would not expect a pause.  The result is that every speech made by Du Pont stalls the movie, slowing it to a crawl.  And half of the movie is Du Pont talking to people.  This is a madman who never ever says anything interesting -- the poor little rich boy is played as a loathsome aberrant bore, the kind of person so crushingly dull that no one can stand to be in his presence.  But, of course, this is an enormous problem for a film:  Tatum Channing and Carrell are both stiff, taciturn, almost incapable of any kind of speech and they are together, interacting (or failing to interact), for most of the film.  I don't doubt the veracity of these performances -- perhaps, Du Pont was as autistic and comatose as the film suggests and, perhaps, Mark Schultz was every bit the big galoot-fool that the movie portrays.  But you can't have two stiffs as your leading men in a film; it just doesn't work dramatically.  Mark Ruffalo as the smarter brother is more engaging and seems to have something like a normal life.  But this makes it all the more strange and improbable that he would fall for Du Pont's seduction -- the movie doesn't probe his motives and verges on hagiography with respect to the way that Dave is portrayed.  And the film provides absolutely no motivation for the killing.  Suddenly, the picture just takes a turn toward the homicide -- Mark is gone, Du pont goes to Dave's house and without a word of explanation, or a single expository shot, guns the older brother down.  Thus, the film ends on a wholly inexplicable note.  I have the sense that legal considerations may have neutered this picture.  After all, Dave's estate has 35 million dollars and it would be improvident to anger people with those resources.  Furthermore, the movie is completely dishonest in its suppression of the actual chronology of events.  In reality, Du Pont hired Mark to coach his wrestling team in 1987.  Dave joined in 1988 and Mark went to Utah or some other place to coach a college team.  DuPont gradually lost interest in his lavishly funded wrestling team and shot Dave in 1996 -- that is eight years later.  In the film, it seems that Dave is killed the same year that Mark departs the Foxcatcher team (the wrestling team and film are named for one of DuPont's estates where the training facilities were located.)  So we have a film that shows Mark and Du Pont interacting for three-quarters of the narrative.  Yet, in reality, Mark was with Du Pont for only two years -- Dave worked for DuPont for more than eight years before he was killed by his patron.  There is a kernel of interesting story in this material, but one that Bennett Miller doesn't dare to develop:  apparently, the older, more practical brother thought that he could exploit the eccentric billionaire and, indeed, successfully did so until Du Pont became disenchanted with him and took revenge.  The nature of the relationship between the older brother, Dave, and Du Pont is never explored -- what, in fact, was going on between them?  The film has a nice opening scene showing the two brothers sparring -- they are like big, half-brutal half-loving bears batting at one another and the depth of their affection his effectively shown in this scene.  But the movie is so lugubrious and melancholy, the characters so dull and inexpressive, that the film seems blurry -- you can't figure out what it's supposed to be about.  And when Dave is shot down in the snow, your only reaction is "Really?"

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Homesman

On the DVD version of Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, one of the "making of" featurettes expends much time, if not much energy, in a listless debate as to whether the 2014 film is a "Western."  For reasons obscure to me, Jones and several of his stars, including John Lithgow, argue that the film is not a Western -- they seem to regard that label as demeaning.  In fact, by any reasonable definition, The Homesman is a Western and a particularly beautiful, grave, and distinguished representative of that genre.  The film's premise is simple and powerful:  in 1850's Nebraska territory, near a god-forsaken place called Loup, three women (and possibly another as well) have gone insane, partially the result of a "terrible" winter.  Someone, a "homesman," has to take the three women across the prairie, a completely featureless wasteland, to the Missouri River and civilization defined as Hebron, Iowa.  (Hebron turns out to be a 1850's version of Marianne Robertson's Gilead, the underground railroad station of Tabor, Iowa).  An independent and headstrong woman, Mary Bee Cuddy, agrees to transport the women through the dangerous wilderness -- to this end, she is given a kind of paddy wagon with barred windows and iron hooks to which her three madwomen can be tethered.  Several heartbreaking scenes establish the reasons for the women's insanity:  all of them have been completely isolated on the relentlessly windy and treeless plains, trapped in the situation that so famously drove Lillian Gish mad in an early representative of this kind of film, Victor Sjostrom's 1926 The Wind.  One woman has been relentlessly raped by her husband; another has lost three children to diphtheria in one day; a third has thrown her newborn baby away in an outhouse.  All of them are speechless, feral, weird sisters who moan sometimes, and scuffle with one another -- they are all young and have the look of particularly forsaken, and savage, pre-Raphaelite madonnas.  After a few days of travel, Cuddy encounters a deserter from the dragoons, an illiterate claim-jumper named George Briggs played by Tommy Lee Jones.  He has been placed on a horse with a noose around his neck to be hanged.  (Briggs has taken over the sod-house of one of the pioneers, a man who has gone back East to find a wife after rejecting Mary Bee Cuddy's marriage proposal -- she has a habit of making sudden, impetuous marriage proposals that are always rejected because she is "plain as an old tin cup".  In fact, the role is played impeccably by the handsome, if angular, Hillary Swank). Cuddy agrees to pay Briggs, who is a filthy reprobate, $300 dollars if he will accompany her on the dangerous journey to Hebron, Iowa.  The rest of the film chronicles their journey and the film assumes some of the characteristics of John Huston's The African Queen -- Swank plays the spinster's role that Katherine Hepburn acted in Huston's film; Tommy Lee Jones plays the Bogart part and the rattling, wheezing paddy-wagon stands in for the decrepit steamer in the earlier movie.  Jones' directs the film in a blunt, minimalist style -- in the featurettes, there is talk of his interest in the sculptures of Donald Judd -- suppressing most of the emotion and staging the various dangerous encounters on the road to Hebron in a casual, almost indifferent way.  As in most great Westerns, terrain and landscape are central to the picture's concerns and the film contains several sequences of great, if understated, lyricism -- paradoxically, a scene of the Cuddy and Briggs supervising the mad women's morning urination forms a spectacular wide-screen tableaux against the enormous and fatal plain; we see Cuddy bathing the nude women in a rippling stream an image that later rhymes with a scene of the madwomen suddenly springing to life to rescue one of their group who has fallen in the swift current in a river, a pyramidal composition of the principal characters in the grip of the river that is a fine emblem for human solidarity; finally, there is a great image that could have been painted by George Caleb Bingham showing a man dancing on a ferry as it crosses the broad Missouri at night.  As it turns out, the privations of the prairie have driven everyone more or less mad -- as the movie progresses, it turns out that no one is completely sane:  there is a shocking revelation about three-quarters of the way through the film that is a total surprise and, at one point, Briggs coolly lights a hotel that has spurned him on fire and watches as the inhabitants burn to death -- he kills a half-dozen people for some ham to feed the witch-like madwomen.  Cuddy gets lost on the plain when a horse unfamiliar to her spins around a dozen times and, apparently, sets off in the wrong direction -- the scene is alarming because the wilderness is completely featureless, similar to an equally frightening scene in Kurosawa's great Mongolian Western, Dersu Uzula.  The script is beautifully constructed as a series of echoes:  the discovery of a lone grave on the prairie is referenced in the end of the film when Briggs returns west with a grave-marker carved in wood that ends up thrown into the Missouri River.  There are two matching scenes of people having sex with others in unnervingly close proximity.  A band of wild Pawnee Indians rhymes with an earlier scene showing burial scaffolds on the desolate, windy plain.  The minor characters are all observed with great precision and, within its parameters, the film is flawless.  The promise of manifold destiny and the golden West is revealed as a hollow and deadly sham:  Briggs warns a young woman to whom he pointlessly proposes marriage (echoing Miss Cuddy's sudden and hopelessly prosaic marriage proposals earlier in the film) to stay away from men who want to pioneer the West: "Go East," he tells her.  But in the movie's final scene, we see him westbound again, "lighting out for the territories" on a ferry moving into the darkness of the Nebraska wilderness -- like the outlaw in the primordial Western, The Great Train Robbery, Briggs aims his big revolver right at the camera and fires it.  The Western is the most beautiful and noble of American film genres and this film is a worthy addition to that canon.  And, I suppose, I should weigh in on the question of what defines a Western -- Westerns are films premised upon the notion that man's struggle with an indifferent, hostile wilderness highlights the importance of a moral code in the face of lawlessness:  these films typically involve a trek through dangerous territory culminating in some kind of confrontation between the forces of civilization (feminine, lawful order -- the tapestry piano that Cuddy pathetically spreads to play during her musical soirees in the sod hut) and the forces of violent disorder (the outlaw freighter who rapes one of the crazy ladies and gets his head blown-off, the Indians, the scruffy, cowardly vigilantes who want to hang a man but are too cowardly to get the deed done.)        

Friday, March 6, 2015


Whiplash (2013) is the perfect fusion of theme with form:  a film about an insanely manipulative and dishonest band leader is, itself, wildly manipulative and dishonest.  That said, the film delivers on its meager premise:  it's compelling and shamelessly wrings every last bit of emotion out of its one-note, single track plot line.  A young man wants to become a great drummer.  (Query:  is there such a thing?  And, if so, would anyone want to hear him play?)  He attends a music school in a big city; the school is probably modeled on Julliard.  At that school, the young man is tormented relentlessly by a sadistic band leader who invokes, as a justification for his savage harassment, the ancient wheeze:  I'm just trying to make you the best drummer (or martial arts practitioner or Marine or jet pilot or dancer or football player) that you can possibly be.  The band leader subscribes to the Vince Lombardi/Lee Ermey school of motivation:  he shrieks at his hapless band members, taunts them with homophobic slurs, derides their families, and physically abuses them.  (The film's music school is curiously devoid of female performers -- this is necessary since, of course, the crazy band leader's vicious and unremitting obscenity would not seem so appealing if heaped upon a girl trombonist or lady saxophone player; the cruelty in the film is, more or less, acceptable because imposed on a drummer, a species of musician that most people regard as little more than brute animals to begin with.)  J.K. Simmons performance as the monstrous band-leader, Terrance Fletcher, is so over-the-top as to be comical, but it's the kind of bat-shit crazy showmanship that gets awarded acting prizes.  The picture is wholly unrealistic -- in today's politically correct world, Fletcher's rants and physical abuse would get him fired within minutes of his outbursts.  Furthermore, Simmons' fanaticism is weirdly inconsistent:  he repeatedly remarks that he doesn't want poorly performing bad members to make him look bad, but, at the movie's climax, humiliates our poor hero in Carnegie Hall, totally wrecking the jazz band's first number, and, then, seems content to continue the show with an ensemble sans drummer.  Of course, the plucky hero (who repeatedly performs with lacerated hands or broken fingers) returns bravely to the stage and the movie climaxes with a frenetic performance of the jazz standard "Caravan" that includes a lengthy, virtuosic drum solo -- in this sequence, the camera "whiplashes" from Fletcher to the perspiring, flailing hero and the racket goes on and on and on until the movie ends.  (I was hoping for a reverse angle shot showing that the unfortunate audience had left the auditorium in protest at the self-indulgent antics of the hero -- in my experience, an extended drum solo is the time to go outside for a smoke or to visit the toilet or concession stand.)  The movie contains nothing but the clash between mentor and mentee, but this is so melodramatically staged that you can't look away from the mayhem.  Unfortunately, the writing is poor -- Fletcher just repeats the same old insults again and again:  he denounces the hero's dad about seven times, using pretty much the same slur, and his insults and threats don't have the baroque ingenuity of stuff engineered for Cable by, for instance, Armando Ianucci in Veep.  The interesting stuff in the film relates to creativity and, whether the lethal strategies of Fletcher produce artists or just snuff out the creative impulse in kids too sensitive to endure the boot-camp theatrics:  Fletcher says that he is trying to turn the boy into Charlie Parker; the kid wonders if taunting and humiliating students doesn't deprive the world of more nascent geniuses than it creates.  To this observation, Fletcher confidently replies with a variant on the comment that there are "no mute inglorious Miltons" -- if you are Milton, by definition, you can't be "mute and inglorious"; that is,  Parker could not be deterred, Fletcher argued, because he had the iron will to succeed.  But, of course, carried to its extreme, this argument also implies that throwing cymbals at the heads of student musicians is also idiotic abuse that achieves nothing -- the Charlie Parkers of the world will become great regardless of their teacher:  in the end, they teach themselves.  (This is the lesson of Sonny Rollins retiring from music for a year to play nights by himself on the Brooklyn Bridge and, then, returning to the jazz world as a "saxophone colossus").  The film is repetitive -- at least, three times the drums get smeared with blood drizzling from the wounded hands of our hero and the persistent homophobic sexual abuse seems suggestive:  does Fletcher want some sort of sexual connection with his sullen but handsome disciple?  (Of course, in the end, they end up in a kind of embrace, grappling on the floor of the rehearsal hall.)  The director stages everything in dismal gloom -- the rehearsal spaces are unrealistically dark:  how do the people read their charts?  There are overt references to Scorsese, a director whose films have often featured drumming -- in one shot, we get a reprise of a famous slo-mo scene in Raging Bull in which Jake LaMotta bathes his wounded fist in ice water.  Here's the scoop:  you'll like this movie, despite yourself.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pont du Nord

Many of Jacques Rivette's films explore an abstract inquiry, the nature of narrative.  What are the conditions necessary and sufficient to establish a narrative?  How do stories function to structure reality?  Pont du Nord, released in 1981, exemplifies this tendency in Rivette's movies -- it is a languid, cerebral tour of the more dingy quarters of Paris, improvised around two quests that become intertwined. 

La Cienaga

La Cienaga (2001) is a notable film in the Argentine New Cinema, a picture said to embody the esthetics of that movement.  The picture, unknown to me before Criterion's recent issue of this CD, is both fascinating and frightening -- as in films by Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur, the viewer watches the movie in a state of perpetual tension and unease:  everything is falling apart and, it seems, that in every scene someone is threatened with the risk of suffering a serious, accidental injury.  The movie takes place in the country near a fictional city, La Cienaga (the unprepossessing name means "the swamp") in a northern province of Argentina. (The place is actually director Lucrecia Martel's hometown of Saltas.)  The city seems poor and most of its citizens are Indians.  This is the kind of place where upper middle-class Argentine make excursions to Bolivia to buy cheap school supplies for their numerous children.  The weather is apparently sweltering -- it is always raining and the humidity is so high that the film contains no sex; although everyone is always just about on the verge of copulation it's too hot for intercourse.  The film's narrative is oblique and, on the first glance, the picture appears to have no plot -- it's just a mélange of events tied together very loosely by the two main characters' plan to cross the nearby Bolivian border on their shopping expedition, an excursion thwarted by the overly solicitous husband of one of the female protagonists who simply buys the school supplies wholesale, thus eliminating the need for the trip.  (This man is so practical and unimaginative that he actually believes that the women's quixotic shopping expedition is motivated by the upcoming school year and the need to buy supplies -- in fact, the women are desperate to have an excuse to escape, if for only a couple days, the swamp in which they are trapped.)  The film is exhausting to watch for several reasons -- first, the movie's tone of ominous menace (someone is going to get hurt) sustained throughout the entire film is fatiguing; second, the film is not minimalist -- to the contrary, it provides the viewer with a surfeit of information:  the film's frames are packed with children, dogs, and there is always something going on at the margins of the image:  one of the families in the movie owns a tortoise, for instance, and the little animal is often shown plodding across the bottom of the frame.  There must be 20 characters in the film, all interacting melodramatically, and the network of relationships between the people depicted in the movie is difficult to decipher:  as an example, Mecha's handsome son, Jose, is having an affair with a woman named Mercedes; it is hinted that Mercedes may once have been the mistress of Mecha's feckless, alcoholic husband, Gregorio -- Mercedes' impending visit to the household at the Mandrake, the name of the country estate where Mecha and Gregorio live, is always threatened but, like the trip to Bolivia, doesn't materialize.  Jose also seems to have incestuous desires toward his sister, Momi, the teenage girl whose perspective motivates much of the picture.  Mecha, who is a faded beauty and also alcoholic, has a best friend named Tali, "some kind of a cousin" someone says -- Tali is briskly efficient and it's her idea to undertake the shopping expedition, involving a dangerous border crossing, to Bolivia.  (It's Tali's husband, Rafaelo, who thwarts the whole adventure by purchasing the school supplies.)  Tali has a number of children most of them girls except for a little boy whose upper jaw is sprouting supernumerary teeth.  In this film, everyone is always getting cut and having to go to the doctor, a harried physician called "the Gringo," to get their wounds sutured.  The tone is established by the opening scene in which Mecha drunkenly falls by the side of her horrific swimming pool, a nasty grey-green lagoon on which fallen leaves are floating.  In the fall, Mecha slices open her cleavage so badly that she has to have a blood transfusion.  Mecha's husband, Gregorio, is zombie-drunk so that he can't drive her to the hospital in La Cienaga and so Momi, who is only fifteen and not a licensed driver, has to take her town -- Momi can't really drive and she backs the car over her mother's hydrangeas.  At the clinic, Mecha encounters Tali, who is there to have her little boy with the extra teeth sutured-up -- he fell off a counter.  Throughout the movie, we see adolescents swinging dangerous-looking machetes to kill catfish, little boys hunting with big shotguns, people riding bikes and cars in ways that seem dangerous -- the risk of serious injury is always haunting the film.  Indeed, one of Mecha's sons, Joaquin, has already had an eye shot out and one of theme's running through the film is a scheme to get a glass eye for his ruined eye-socket.  Given the hazards that exist in this world, it's no surprise that Mecha has taken to her bed.  Toward the end of the film, she has acquired a small freezer that she places at the foot of her bed:  the freezer will supply ice for her drinks so that she will not have to leave her bedroom.  (She has banished poor Gregorio to another part of the crumbling mansion).  The film is a kind of comedy in some respects, fraught with suggestions of horror -- there is a story about a lethal rat mistaken for a dog and the little boy with the anomalous teeth seems to be developing, perhaps, into some kind of a monster.  South American magical realism lurks around the edges of the film -- an opening shot of red peppers against a background of jungle is extraordinary and the Virgin has appeared in La Cienaga, preaching to the people from a shabby-looking concrete water tower. A swimming trip to a muddy pool at the foot of a dam ends with massive torrents of water suddenly blasting the kids from off-screen. At the end of the film, a mysterious singing voice heard through the ceiling of Tali's house precipitates the last of the various catastrophes that the film documents.  This movie, like its subject matter, seems to be a shambles, a semi-improvised mess, but upon closer consideration various themes emerge and there are rhymes in the imagery that create strange resonances.  Ladders are dangerous, gates won't reliably open, no one will answer the telephone, and when a little kid places a glass of water on a counter, he invariably sets it much too close to the edge of the counter.  Everyone is drunk all of the time and people always wake up in beds where they are not supposed to be.  This is an extraordinary film -- it hides more than it reveals but is infinitely suggestive (This is a picture that would benefit from being released with a good commentary track -- there's simply too much going on for the viewer to understand all of the picture's nuances and there are many references to Argentine customs that are opaque to North American viewers; inexplicably, however, Criterion has released the disk without the background information that would make this great film much more meaningful to its viewers.)