Sunday, April 26, 2015

Road to Nowhere

Monte Hellman made some idiosyncratic and memorable genre films fifty years ago, most notably two films starring the great Warren Oates, The Shooting, a minimalist Western, and the road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop.  Hellman's films are eccentrically paced, highly elliptical in their narrative technique, and made on minuscule budgets and they were ignored when released.  Hellman continued to direct, but his films, all financially unsuccessful, followed at exponentially increasing intervals until, at last, he ceased making movies for 22 years.  Quentin Tarantino revived Hellman's career by hiring him to produce Reservoir Dogs -- initially, Tarantino had tapped Hellman to direct the film.  In 2010, Hellman's last film, The Road to Nowhere, was released.  Predictably, Hellman's fans proclaimed the film a masterpiece; critics less invested in Hellman's cult following, generally, dismissed the movie as overly confusing and unnecessarily mannered -- as usual, the general public paid no attention at all and, after a week playing in a four or five theaters in a couple major cities, The Road to Nowhere vanished.  The movie is moody and self-effacing -- the initial titles proclaim that the film is the product of some other director, a figure who turns out to be a character in the movie.  Although the picture contains sequences of great beauty, there is considerably less to the film, I think, than meets the eye.  The premise of The Road to Nowhere is absurd to the point that the plot must be accepted as a Borgesian contrivance, a vehicle for expressing certain metaphysical notions about truth and reality.  A beautiful young woman and a crooked politician scheme to steal 100 million dollars from the State of North Carolina -- the nature of their criminal enterprise is never explained although it seems to have something to do with land rights, the Great Smoky Mountains, and a reservoir.  The two conspirators enlist the assistance of a terminally ill cop (one of those Hollywood fatal illnesses that doesn't debilitate the victim) to fake their own deaths in a plane crash.  The woman separates from the politician for reasons that are also obscure, flees to Rome, and there makes a low-budget horror movie, appearing as a joke.  Back in Hollywood, a film maker and his screenwriter buddy are developing a big-budget movie about the theft of the 100 million dollars and the mysterious deaths of the politician and the girl.  The film maker sees a DVD-disk audition of the girl, believes her to be perfect for the part, and, without knowing her true identity, casts her in the same role that she played in real lift -- that is, as the femme fatale involved with the crooked politician in the scheme to steal a fortune and, then, fake her own death.  The director goes to Rome to interview the woman and falls in love with her.  She is smitten by the director herself and so, implausibly agrees to play the lead character in the movie about the criminal scheme -- presumably, she is blinded by love.  As the filming progresses, the director loses control of his feelings and alienates his writer and crew by focusing on the beautiful young actress to the exclusion of other concerns.  One element of the film, and, probably, its most personal aspect, is the story of how the director becomes increasingly obsessed with his leading lady to the detriment of his move -- this subplot seems to be semi-autobiographical:  a closing title informs us that the film is dedicated the actress who appeared with Warren Oates in Two Lane Black Top.  A plucky lady reporter and a hillbilly hired as an advisor on the film (the man was working as a gardener at the director's Hollywood mansion) discover that the actress is, in fact, the woman who actually contrived the real theft (and feigned suicides) on which the movie is based.  People get drunk, guns are brandished, and history repeats itself -- more people are killed mirroring the deaths that occurred when the crime was originally committed.  Hellman shoots this unpromising material in his trademark style -- that is, he employs long and uncommunicative takes, very little dialogue and much moody silence, deferring plot whenever possible to atmosphere and landscape.  The film is confusing, particularly since the crooked politician is played by the same actor in both the scenes showing the crime being plotted and the sequences showing the film within the film being made -- so we see the gangster-like corrupt politician hiding out in some Latin American country, perhaps Cuba, inexplicably accompanied by Fabio Testi (a self-indulgent touch -- Teste was the spaghetti-western actor in Hellman's last Western, a picture made in Italy called China 9, Liberty 37), the same player (Cliff de Young) also playing the role of the crooked politico in the scenes showing the love-besotted director filming the movie.  The picture has lots of insider information about movies and film-making -- it is replete with "inside" jokes and film allusions -- and the parts of The Road to Nowhere showing the technology of film making on location are very interesting.  It's ultimately impossible to work out the plot -- Hellman stages two versions of the plane crash, both of them very effective, leading the viewer to ask "which is real".  And this question illustrates, in a fundamental way, Hellman's point -- of course, neither is real; the film is fictional, it's all made-up.  But this seems to be a rather trivial point on which to construct the elaborate labyrinth of a movie of this sort.  At this late stage, do we really need to be reminded that movies are made-up, that what we are seeing on the screen is not reality?  The viewer is left with the sense that the genre material from which the plot is constructed is so formulaic and stale that Hellman distrusted his story and decided to conceal the uninteresting crime narrative in layers and layers of post-modern mystification and allusion -- we get no less than three extended clips for films admired by the movie's (fictional) director:  The Lady Eve, The Spirit of the Beehive, and, finally, the appearance of Death on the stony beach from The Seventh Seal, those images from Bergman used as a harbinger for the film's bloody climax.  The Road to Nowhere is an interesting failure -- a paradoxical structure that is all inside without any outside at all.  The humid-looking North Carolina locations are spectacular and impart an eerie, sodden eloquence to the proceedings and a couple of expensive-looking lodges in the Great Smoky Mountains have something of the ambience of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining -- these places are just as much characters as the figures sleepwalking through the gloomy plot.  I'm conflicted about this film -- some of its emotional effects are subtle and profound and there is much to admire in the eloquent, if taciturn, way that the film is designed.  In some respects, the movie seems to be an attempt to adapt some of the rebarbative ideas of Jean-Luc Godard (it's full of Godard-like aphorisms) into a format that might be appealing to audiences raised on TV crime dramas and sit-coms.  But the picture also has something of the feeling of a self-indulgent home-movie -- all of Hellman's children seem to be credited as producers and the director seems to have been allowed to throw anything into the movie that he liked; the picture pauses for melancholy love scenes and musical performances completely discontinuous with the film in which they are embedded.  In the end, the riddle posed by the movie doesn't seem worth solving.    

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Andrei Tarkovsky's maximalist adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, reproduces faithfully all of the book's plot points.  But there is much more:  a bizarre city of the future sequence, a perverse and tormented family out of Chekhov or Dostoevsky, and remarkable idiosyncratic imagery peculiar to Tarkovsky's own obsessive concerns.  Lem's book is one of the greatest of all science fiction books, dense with philosophical debate and crammed with mind-boggling descriptions of the colloidal ocean world of Solaris, a giant alien brain and sentient entity with which the book's hapless cosmonauts seek to make contact.  Tarkovsky can't manage the spectacular special effects that would be necessary to replicate Lem's alien world, a vast turbulent cauldron that specializes in constructing facsimiles of human artifacts the size of Mount Everest.  Accordingly, the movie inevitably falsifies Lem's concept (the Polish writer was distressed by the adaptation, although he reluctantly approved it) -- Tarkovsky has designed the film to substitute for Lem's verbal arias depicting the monstrous structures fabricated by ocean entity his own Proustian memories of childhood and the characteristically poetic and dream-like imagery by which the director embodies the emotional significance of the dysfunctional (and possibly incestuous) family drama that he tacks onto the Polish writer's plot.  The result is a huge film moving at a glacial pace, morose to the point of morbidity, sinister and clogged with long stilted scenes of theatrically inflected dialogue -- a movie almost three hours long and, for half of its length, terribly dull.  Lem's short novel takes place entirely on the ocean-planet; half of Tarkovsky's film is set on earth (or what seems to be earth) and features the director's signature water-logged landscape, the sudden bursts of falling rain in which he delights, the eerie dogs wandering a landscape that seems somehow both idyllic and post-apocalyptic.  Lem's book is mostly about ideas and it is very minimally plotted -- the narrative involves the colloid-ocean's creation of replicants, that is, simulacra of human beings, who appear to the three cosmonauts stranded in the decaying space station.  It is unclear whether the ocean has fabricated these facsimiles of human beings as "gifts" or to console the sad and lonely scientists or as some form of punishment or torture.  The novel's hero, Kris Kelvin, is stricken by sorrow because ten years before the book begins he left his girlfriend, called Rheya in the book (Hari in the movie) with the result that she committed suicide.  On Solaris, Rheya appears, seemingly alive, but possibly constructed from the Kelvin's memories of her -- each of the other cosmonauts is afflicted by another replicant, although Lem is tactful enough to keep these creature invisible and undescribed.  (Tarkovsky follows this strategy, grasping that what we can't see is more terrible than what is shown to us -- the other two surviving scientists on the Station, one has killed himself, are also tormented by "visitors" or "guests" but we are never shown them.)  In Lem's vision, closely followed by Tarkovsky, Rheya exists as a form of retribution for Kelvin's previous sins -- she clings closely to him and can not be destroyed, although he tries to get rid of her by blasting the simulacrum into space.  Rheya is suicidal and seems to kill herself several times.  As book and film progress, she becomes more and more human, to the extent that Kelvin falls in love with her even though it is suggested that she is a merely a cunning artifice, a woman made from a swarm of neutrinos that the other cosmonauts are plotting to destroy with their "neutrino dispersers." The theme of Lem's book is that human beings can not successfully make contact with, or communicate with an alien entity, in part because our own lives are controlled in large part by oceanic and subconscious urges and desires -- how can we hope to communicate with alien beings when we don't really understand our fellow humans or, even, the abysmal depths of our own soul?  All of these issues are proclaimed at great length in Tarkovsky's film and embellished with the director's autobiographical obsessions:  Tarkovsky's father was a great poet, immensely loved and admired by his son; but the family was unhappy -- there was a divorce and the young Tarkovsky was forced to choose between his parents, electing, it seems, to live with his mother with whom he formed a quasi-incestuous bond:  his father was at war and young Andrei was the "man of the house".  (These details are portrayed in Tarkovsky's greatest and most personal film, Mirror.)  In many respects, Solaris is a first-draft for the explicitly autobiographical concerns of Mirror.  Kelvin confuses Rheya with his mother and has brought with him into outer space images of his dysfunctional family.  Ultimately, Rheya seems to be banished in favor of an image of Kelvin's mother, possibly herself a simulacrum or, maybe, simply a memory.  But Kelvin's final redemption requires that he effect a reconciliation with his father, a man that he has insulted and injured on Earth.  In the film's extraordinary final minutes, Kelvin seems to return to earth and kneels like the prodigal son in Rembrandt's painting before his father on the wooden steps of the family's rural dacha.  The pond near the dacha is frozen; the family's dog is still alive and a little bonfire lit by Kelvin months or years ago is still fitfully burning.  In the dacha, a slow, cold rain is falling although Kelvin's haggard father ignores the big drops splashing on his shoulders and destroying his books.  Rheya's apparition has led to the disclosure of the perverse family drama involving the hero's silent mournful mother and, at last, a reconciliation with his father -- although the true meaning of this reconciliation is withheld until the final grandiose shot.   The family drama is Tarkovsky's innovation, the superimposition of his private concerns on Lem's book.  The movie is  much too long and tedious. The actor playing Kelvin is semi-comatose; he mopes around for the entire three-hour length of the film, a perfect portrait of disabling (and infuriating) melancholy -- you want to slap him out of his torpor.  The 19-year old Natalya Bondarachuk (the daughter of the approved Soviet film maker of the era, Sergei Bondarachuk) is very effective as Rheya, both strange and poignant.  But she is also severely depressed and repeatedly destroyed only to be resurrected -- needless to say, her performance is also very dour, hushed, and sorrowful.  Tarkovsky's trademark effects involving Chagall-like levitating lovers, interior rainstorms, miniatures that mimic larger structures, and decomposing and mildewed rooms and chambers are on display and these things are always wonderful to behold.  Ultimately, Tarkovsky suggests that Solaris, the ocean-brain, symbolizes the creative urge, the human drive to create representations of reality that are beautiful, meaningful, but invariably flawed.  The creatures manufactured by the sentient ocean are defective -- they are like the film itself, a vast, complex imitation of existence that contains inexplicable, obsessive elements.  During one lengthy sequence the camera simply explores a Brueghel painting -- the point is to dramatize nostalgia for Earth, but, also, Tarkovsky means to show us that the human brain can create life-like simulacra for reality, that we are all artists continuously constructing an image of the world from our own memories.  Film, Tarkovsky, seems to suggest is, itself, a theater of the memory -- we create images ceaselessly but these images only reflect ourselves and have only a fragile and contingent relationship to the outside world. 

Although Tarkovsky's film is a melancholic masterpieces, it is also badly flawed.  In particular, there are inexplicable images so misplaced as to seem risible.  In one philosophical debate, Tarkovsky doesn't know where to put the camera so he just dollies it into the ear of one of the speakers.  One sequence, in particular, has always baffled me -- this is a tour of high-speed freeway in some Asian country.  The scene doesn't contribute to the narrative and simply shows cars moving along elevated freeways and, then, plunging through tunnels -- it's about six to eight minutes long.  I previously regarded this sequence as a metonym for space travel -- Tarkovsky couldn't afford the special effects necessary to show a space ship taking off and so he simply substituted the freeway sequence for the launch scene.  Viewed in that light, I've always thought this sequence particular bold and innovative.  But, listening to the commentary on the DVD, it seems that I'm mistaken.  Tarkovsky wanted to show the City of the Future on earth and so he procured a visa to travel to Japan.  There he simply attached a camera to a moving automobile and zoomed around Tokyo's futuristic (in 1969) freeways.  The sequence doesn't work at all and, viewed in light of the commentary, is idiotic.  But it's also a cheerfully opportunistic -- Tarkovsky wanted to get out of the Soviet Union for a month or so and wanted to meet the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and so he invented the City of the Future sequence as a subterfuge to justify a junket to Japan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Kiss Me Deadly

Robert Aldrich's notorious 1955 Kiss me Deadly is an icy blast of contempt for the pulp material, a Mickey Spillane novel, on which the film is based.  It's evident that Aldrich despises the garish primitive plot and its equally primitive protagonist.  The film is remarkable for its unique aesthetic -- it's as if everything is designed to seem sloppy, ill-conceived, and cartoonishly slapdash.  Aldrich's movie operates according to a curmudgeonly ethos of irritation -- the film maker is irritable, the character snap at one another viciously, and the way that the movie is constructed irritates the viewer.  But, one of a kind, the movie is weird kind of masterpiece. 

Kiss me Deadly's plot is absurdly secondary to the film's real subject matter, that is, sadistic violence.  At one point, a damaged female character notes that the protagonists are all searching for the "great whatzit" -- a MacGuffin in the form of a nuke in a suitcase.  The characters in the story beat, torture, and murder one another for ninety minutes, than the "whatzit" is revealed, and, with an apocalyptic explosion in a shabby Malibu beach cottage, the whole thing comes to an end.  The movie seems mostly shot at night, on various locations in a gritty LA that seems primarily vertical, lots of steps and steep hillsides -- the film begins with a naked Cloris Leachman running in a trenchcoat, barefoot down a black highway; the contrast between impenetrable black and brilliant headlights is glaring, tabloid-inflected, blinding; in the end of the film, the same lighting effects predominate:  the "whatzit" turns into a Pandora's box, incinerating a woman foolish enough to open the box, and the beach house flashes with astounding arc-light flares before becoming inundated in bone-white flame on the edge of the roaring pitch-black Pacific.  Aldrich delights in mismatches, busted continuity, impossible insert shots -- when Leachman, hung naked is tortured with a pliers, we hear her screaming hysterically.  She kicks her white bare legs.  But, in some longer shots, even though the soundtrack features her shrill shrieks, her legs aren't flopping around in the air -- is she screaming while already unconscious or dead?  Later, an annoying minor character, Nick the Greek (I kid you not!) is murdered by being crushed under a car that he is servicing -- the bad guy lowers the hydraulic lift so that the car smashes the man like a bug.  Aldrich inserts a shot from overhead, a position that should be blocked entirely by the descending car body,  just so that he can entertain us with a close-up of the Greek's mouth screaming -- the image is completely baffling spatially, but it makes sense as a kind of bizarre grace-note, an emblem from a perspective that doesn't exist intended to heighten the savagery of what we are seeing.  The opening titles are utterly disorienting -- the crawl of words comes from the top of the screen so that the name of the actor playing Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) reads "Meeker Ralph" -- we want to read from top to bottom but the rolling crawl is in the wrong direction:  the direction that we read opposes the direction of the print unscrolling on the screen.  This heightens the viewer's apprehension of the bizarre, ungrammatical title: Is it "Kiss me Deadly" or "Deadly me Kiss"?  Aldrich directs everything for maximum shrillness -- the film luxuriates in ethnic stereotypes:  there is the caricatured, infantile Greek, a loudmouth dwarf who seems to worship the thuggish Hammer, various African-Americans who are all boxers, it seems, or jazz signers, and, no less, than two comical stage-Italians.  The bit players are all grotesques -- a hit-and-run motorist stutters and stammers with neurotic trepidation, a corrupt hunchback coroner tries to shake-down Hammer before the hero gives him a beating (the coroner has cut a clue out of the belly of the defunct torture victim, Cloris Leachman -- her mutilation continues even after she is dead.)  The gangsters are gorillas in tight bathing suits lounging around a pool serviced by cut-rate Marilyn Monroe lookalikes -- every woman in the film is either a hysterically promiscuous whore or a hag.  Illustrating the level of grotesquerie is the fact that one of the thugs is played by the wall-eyed Jack Elam, the squinty Jimmy Finlayson of the fifties and sixties.  Everyone leers and makes sexually suggestive remarks while grimacing for the camera.  The police detectives are all suave monsters, totally corrupt and indolent -- in the background in the stationhouse, we can see one policeman playing solitaire.  (The cadaverous head detective taunts Hammer, saying that he is too dumb to understand what he has inadvertently discovered; in this genre of film, statements of that form are disproved by the narrative -- not in this picture, Hammer doesn't have any idea what is going on.) The soundtrack blares with non sequitur radio announcers and music. Aldrich's baroque visual style is replete with pointlessly bizarre camera angles and unmotivated perspectives -- for instance, he shows us a view of the roaring Pacific from underneath the ratty-looking Malibu beach house that suggests that someone is either hiding there or will need to conceal himself (or herself) in that space.  The shot shows phosphorescent surf bisected by huge black forms -- the supports of the house.  The effect is similar to some of Robert Motherwell's huge canvases in the series entitled "Elegies for the Spanish Republic", vast black forms obliterating a background.  This is not a gratuitous reference; the film is filled with allusions to modern art and one of its villains is a dealer in hideous-looking abstract expressionist and expressionist canvases.  We expect the startling image of the underside of the beach house to be motivated by some narrative necessity but it is not -- the shot just exists as a counterpoint to the violent action in the cottage.  Indeed, Aldrich's aesthetic of affronting his material and annoying the viewer extends to all sorts of other pointless devices:  the leader of the bad guys is always shown as a pair of expensive shoes, pin-striped trousers, and a silvery, unctuous radio-announcer's voice.  Why?  There's no need to conceal the man's identity -- we never find out exactly who he is anyhow.  So what's the point?  (It's like an Ed Wood effect:  I wonder if the actor playing the bad guy, Albert Dekker, was ill for most of the movie and couldn't be filmed).  In one scene, the camera starts with a close-up of a Black boxer pounding away at a punching bag; then, the camera tilts and moves to follow a Masai-like Black man, tall as a tree, in a boxy suit descending a flight of dirty stairs.  The Masai-tribesman, who we see only from the rear, passes Mike Hammer who is climbing up the stairs toward the camera -- an astonishingly complicated and showy (and thoroughly pointless) way to introduce the main character to the scene.  In many shots, the characters are lit and filmed in a way to emphasize their unattractiveness -- Velda, Mike Hammer's girlfriend, is shot in close-up in one sequence with her face smeared with some kind greasy cream -- the splash of light on her brow mirrors the sweat on Hammer's face.  Some of the violence, particularly a knife-fight on flight os steps, is exceptionally graphic -- these scenes retain their ability to shock 60 years later. 

At the center of this grotesque circus is Ralph Meeker playing Mickey Spillane's tough-guy hero, Mike Hammer.  Meeker has a broad, remarkably stupid-looking Slavonic face -- he is like a bargain basement Arnold Schwartzeneggar.  Hammer sports a wolf-man style haircut (unlike the natty and ghastly pompadours atop most of the other male characters) and he is weirdly passive.  Every woman in the movie throws herself into his arms but he merely smooches diffidently with t hem while muttering lines of expository dialogue -- the only thing that seems to enliven him is the prospect of a good beating; he grins salaciously before bitch-slapping the various thugs and venal crooks that he encounters.  He has a trusty and loyal secretary, also his mistress, Velda.  Hammer pimps Velda to various bad guys to sqieeze information out of them.  This is part of his trade -- one of the cops says that Hammer, a private eye, is a "bedroom dick."  Velda is masochistically delighted to seduce villains to learn their evil designs and she has a bruised fat-looking mouth like a piece of rotting fruit.  Hammer despises every form of art -- he smashes a Caruso record to torture an Italian opera singer and glares at the various abstract art works on the walls of the vicious art dealers gallery.  (It's odd that his apartment, featuring a huge unburnt log in an always cold fireplace, also has a Calder mobile and what seems to be Jackson Pollock paintings on the wall.)   When the desperate Cloris Leachman whispers to him:  "My's from the poet...Christina Rossetti -- but, I suppose, you're not much for poetry..." the look of disdain on the thug's face is worth the price of admission alone. 

Kiss me Deadly is unique:  the film masterpiece as an irritating mess.  Every time I see this film, it grows in my estimation.     

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Master of the House

Carl Theodor Dreyer's (1925) TheMaster of the House is a tightly focused domestic melodrama so deliriously excessive in its effects as to seem luridly comical.  Nothing if not domineering in his style, Dreyer clearly controls this material and strait-jackets our attention, and, so the emotional peculiarities presented by the film are certainly intentional -- the director drives the material to the brink and, then, pushes it over.  The spectacle so exceeds its rather desultory narrative justification that we are left with this question:  what does this piece of lurid hysteria really mean?  Dreyer adapts a 1919 play, apparently a big hit on Copenhagen's equivalent of Broadway, a comedy called "The Tyrant's Fall."  The plot involves a brutally cruel and peremptory husband who relentlessly bullies his wife and their two children -- there is a third child, a babe in arms, lurking around the edge of the story, but she is used mostly for comic effects in the second half of the film.  The movie divides into two acts.  In the first part, the husband, a failed optometrist sarcastically taunts his meek wife, tormenting her with every resource at hand -- in this half of the film, Dreyer meticulously documents women's work, household drudgery involving laundry, cooking, and child care:  he keeps the camera close to the action and the scenes involving domestic labor have a surreal vividness -- it's as if we have never seen work of this kind so carefully documented. The husband's abuse would be grotesquely comical if it were not so realistic in some of its details.  (The movie is replete with images of violence -- close-ups of angry faces, howling children, raised fists.)  In the second half of the film, the harassed wife flees the household.  The vicious husband now suffers torment at the hands of his old nanny, a malign-looking granny who crows that she has "severely beaten (him)" when he was a boy and won't hesitate to punish the erring husband now that he is a man.  This old woman, nicknamed "Mads" (her name is Mrs. Madsen) is an alarming figure; she is as relentlessly sadistic as the husband, a sinister squat apparition scowling from the edges of the frame, continuously supervising the husband's torment.  Mads uses all the elements of female drudgery to punish the wicked husband -- in a classic role reversal, he is forced to bend and stoop under freshly washed garments hung in the parlor of the family's two-room apartment, scalds his hands trying to cook, and, finally, has to change the baby's wet diaper.  The sinister Mads causes the husband to believe that his wife is unfaithful to him and, finally, threatens to thrash the weeping man with a long stick.  The husband offers to endure a "beating" if his wife will be returned to him -- instead, Mads makes him stand in the corner of the parlor like a truant child, hands behind his back as she engineers the film's climactic reconciliation.  All of this is staged with exemplary and savage conviction:  the furnishings of the tiny apartment all play a role in the action and the film is claustrophobic in an almost harrowing way -- the few scenes shot outside the apartment's two squalid rooms are like a breath of revivifying fresh air.  The acting is exceptionally skillful if grotesquely caricatured -- the cruel husband is not merely indifferent to his wife and rude, he is a monster with glittering, cold eyes and a reptilian profile.  The meek wife is slumped in a posture of humiliation -- she seems scarcely human in her avid willingness to endure her husband's insults.  And the avenging Mads is almost supernaturally cruel and relentless; she is like one of the torturers in Dreyer's next film, the scarifying Passion of Joan of Arc.  Ultimately, the film resembles one of Douglas Sirk's domestic melodramas from of the fifties or, even, more closely Fassbinder's sado-masochistic duet for slave and master, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.  Dreyer suggests that marriage is a relationship governed by power -- who shall be Master and who shall serve?   The movie is more than proto-feminist; indeed, it pushes a feminist agenda into the realm of delirium.  The final image of the film is a heart-shaped pendulum, swinging back and forth, an image, it seems, of the sinister oscillation of power from one extreme to another.  There is joy in being a tyrant and, it seems, equal pleasure some times in being the victim of tyranny. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ride in the Whirlwind

Practitioners of minimalism argue that less can sometimes be more.  But, of course, the peril is that less may simply be less.  Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, the second of two Westerns shot in 1965 -- the other is The Shooting -- raises the question of whether its stripped-down austerities, its elliptical irresolution and skeletal narrative is interestingly suggestive or, merely, frustratingly incomplete.  Jack Nicholson, who stars in the film, wrote the script which is starkly ingenious.  A group of bandits led by Harry Dean Stanton as the one-eyed "Blind Dick," ambush a stagecoach.  They murder a couple of the security guards and flee with their loot to a cabin in a remote desert canyon.  Three cowhands, apparently lost on their way to Waco, ride up the canyon, encounter the bandits, and spend the night enjoying Blind Dick's hospitality.  The cowboys, one of whom is played by Nicholson, know that the men in the cabin are outlaws; this makes them a bit nervous, but they plan to be on their way to Waco at dawn the next morning.  Unfortunately, a large posse of vigilantes surrounds the cabin in the darkness and attacks the men sheltered there at dawn -- "it's going to be a long day," Harry Dean Stanton (here credited as "Dean Stanton") says wearily shouldering his rifle as the vigilantes blast away at the shack.  One of the three cowpokes is killed in the attack.  The other two men know that they will be lynched if they surrender to the posse --it's a classic case of guilt by association -- and so they vamoose into the hills.  The surviving outlaws are burned out of the cabin and summarily hanged.  Then, the posse turns its attention to hunting down the hapless cowboys.  Nicholson is with a cowboy played by the veteran Western actor, Cameron Mitchell (I remember first seeing him on the TV show High Chaparral).  The two cowboys hide-out at a settler's cabin.  Ultimately, the posse arrives and Nicholson, in making his escape, guns down the farmer who has sheltered them -- the sodbuster shoots at him when Nicholson and his buddy steal the man's horses to make a getaway and Nicholson returning fire kills him.  Badly wounded, Mitchell delays the posse and, in the last frame, Nicholson's hunted cowboy rides down a canyon, vanishing in the twilight as the last rays of the sun ignite into gold the dust swirling around his stolen pony.  The ending comes so abruptly as to be breathtaking and, of course, the viewer's first response will be:  Is that all?  Whether the unresolved conclusion to the film is a satisfyingly ambiguous ending or simply a lazy example of filmmakers who didn't know how to bring the movie to a close is a question that each viewer will have to answer for him- or herself.   Although the film is frequently beautiful in a bleak sort of way, I tend toward the response that the moviemakers didn't know how to end the movie and so I am suspicious of the Antonioni-style ambiguity of Ride in the Whirlwind's ending.  (Jack Nicholson would later, more or less, disappear again at the end of  Antonioni's The Passenger, a film that seems a gloss on Ride in the Whirlwind.)  The reason that I opt for the view that the film is unfinished in a frustrating sort of way is internal to the movie itself.  Certain aspects of the movie seem to me to be poorly imagined, not sufficiently thought-out -- ellipses, in my view, conceal lapses in the narrative.  Why do the outlaws locate their cabin in a box-canyon from which escape through the "back door," as it were, is an impossibility.  The famous "robber's roosts" of the West were always located in a way to allow the bad guys an egress if attacked from one of the hideouts approaches.  Second, Nicholson and Cameron spend a lot of time scrambling up the face of the box canyon when they find that the gorge has no outlet.  This is an important plot element -- in Hellman's Westerns, landscape is destiny and, on the commentary track, Hellman notes that he spent a lot of time scouting Utah to find the box canyon featured in this film.  But the box canyon is not used in any meaningful way.  We see the protagonists clambering up its steep walls and they note that it will be impossible for them to escape.  But, then, a few shots later, they seem to be in an entirely different landscape -- how did they get out of the canyon?  Unlike Anthony Mann's great Westerns, films that Hellman's movies superficially resemble, the geometry of terrain and combatants is not convincingly rendered.  Although the dialogue is well-scripted and Nicholson's performance is very charming, I don't think the film is ultimately convincing.  The notion of innocents caught up in circumstances and, indeed, becoming criminal in their very effort to avoid being implicated in someone else's crime is a staple of film noir -- in many ways, film noir aspects of ill-fate and cruel destiny predominate in this movie.  Another example of irresolution that, perhaps, can be read as artistic ambiguity is the expression on Millie Perkins' face when her domineering father is shot down -- is she secretly pleased? Mournful?  Comtemplative.  Perkins seems miscast in both of Hellman's Westerns and the fact that we can't read her expression when her father is killed in Ride in the Whirlwind is either genius or simply poor acting -- I'm inclined toward the latter option.   

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Shooting

Monte Hellman directed The Shooting, a minimalist western shot in remote Utah locations in 1964.  Hellman cut his teeth directing Beckett's End Game in Santa Monica and the film certainly shows an affinity with the Irish writer's work.  Most specifically, the film resembles Beckett's novel Molloy:  The Shooting is the chronicle of a nightmarish trek to nowhere, a journey across increasingly desolate landscapes, that begins on horseback and ends with isolated figures staggering across a wasteland on foot or scrambling up ramparts of dirt on their hands and knees.  Hellman had made a couple of exploitation pictures for Roger Corman starring Jack Nicholson. (Although in this film, the great Warren Oates is the major star and moral anchor to the story.)
Corman assigned Hellman two micro-budget Westerns, each to feature Nicholson.  When the two films, shot more or less simultaneously, were complete, Nicholson took them to Cannes and sold them to an admiring French distributor.  The movies were packaged as made-for-TV productions in the US and never really released theatrically in this country.  The Shooting and its companion, Ride the Whirlwind (with a script by Nicholson) were not shown in the US until 1969, although they were a success d'estime in Paris.  "The Shooting" features a perversely elliptical narrative -- some sort of killing (involving a man and "a little person") has happened in a mining camp; we don't see this event, but merely hear about it. A cowboy related to the killer involved in the shooting intentionally leaves a trail so that he can be tracked to a mining stake where the other men involved in the affray are holed-up. (One of them is shot by a sniper as shown in a flashback.) A mysterious woman appears and hires the two men to take her somewhere.  The trio cross increasingly barren territory and, halfway through the film, Jack Nicholson, playing a murderous gunfighter named Billy Spear, joins them.  It becomes increasingly evident that that woman is seeking revenge for the killings in the mining camp and that the real purpose for the trek is to hunt down the surviving murderer.  One by one the horses die.  Sun and heat begin to kill the travelers.  In the end, a mysterious figure is glimpsed at great distance, scrambling up a butte in a completely desolate badlands.  A chase ensues and there is another shooting, filmed in slow-motion and very confusing.  It isn't clear who is shot or why.  The film ends with an image of Nicholson's gunfighter, his pistol hand completely crushed, staggering across the desert to his inevitable death.  A curious aspect of the film is that the peculiar and disorienting climax is carefully foreshadowed by the movie's dialogue -- but, for some reason, you don't hear the necessary clues and so the film's ending seems either to make no sense or to be some kind of metaphysical riddle such as those presented in the movies of Antonioni.  The movie begins with a nervous-looking horse shot from a strange angle -- the animal is justifiably alarmed since, at least, four horses die in the course of the trek, leaving the protagonists on-foot in some of the most hostile terrain ever shown in a film.  (The movie was filmed in a stony desert, something like a huge completely arid gravel pit, near Kanab, Utah -- the area where the movie was made no longer exists:  Lake Powell has now inundated the clay and sand arroyos featured in the film.)  The movie has mediocre acting -- the performers are like actors in a TV western, something like Gunsmoke or Rawhide -- and the first third of the film is ugly and very slow-paced.  There are some interesting images -- a man fleeing from a sniper while carrying a sack of white flour, and two men riding across a desolate wilderness on one horse.  The film feels like it has very little dialogue, although, in fact, there is a lot of talk, all of it stilted, weirdly poetic, and unnatural.  The movie is short (only about 85 minutes) but tedious, mannered, and affected.  Nonetheless, the film's last half hour is very effective.  A savage fight between two men so exhausted that they can't stand up highlights the absurdity of the quest and the enigmatic woman's final revenge is brilliantly staged -- tiny figures dashing about in a vast, inhuman landscape.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Top Five

Top Five (2014) is an ambitious film directed by the comedian, Chris Rock.  It's a big, vivid picture, chronicling one day in the life of its hero, a comedian and film maker named Andre Allen -- he's called "Dre" by his friends.  The film scrambles time, uses a complex series of flashbacks and flashforwards, all of this jump-cut for a ragged, jangly effect.  Dre's career is in trouble.  His fans are annoyed by his recent pictures, particularly an earnest film about a slave-uprising in Haiti called Uprize!  Interviewers plead with the director to return to making audience-pleasing "funny films" and Dre has to contend with a legion of admirers who want him to return to producing pictures in the "Hammy the Bear" series -- a raunchy violent comedy franchise featuring Dre dressed-up as a gun-toting Teddy Bear.  Dre's agent has arranged for the celebrity to be married on live TV to a reality show star, upcoming nuptials about which the protagonist seems understandably anxiousTop Five follows Dre through a day and a night -- he grants interviews and promotes, unsuccessfully, Uprize!, a film that is tanking at the box-office, and, finally, attends a much-hyped bachelor party with fellow comedians (a sullen-looking Jerry Seinfeld and morose Adam Sandler, with a grim-looking Whoopie Goldberg), before jetting off to the West Coast, presumably to be married. An interview with a comely lady-journalist provides both an occasion for romance and a framework for autobiographical vignettes.  Dre's life is complicated by the fact that he is a recovering alcoholic, committed to the AA notion of "rigorous honesty," and on the verge of relapse.  The film's romantic interest, the lady journalist, is also a reformed drunk and committed to a doomed relationship with a homosexual man -- in the course of the film, she abandons journalistic objectivity (under a pseudonym she has previously panned Dre's Uprize!) and embarks on an affair with the comedian.  The film has a large and voluble supporting cast, including J.B. Smoove, as Dre's unctuous, chubby-chasing agent, Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer, as a Houston pimp and impresario.  The flashbacks involve lots of drinking and drug use together with graphically portrayed sexual encounters.  Somehow, the movie, although frantic and crammed with witty dialogue, doesn't quite succeed.  And the film doesn't successfully emerge from the shadow of two pictures on which it is modeled -- first, the movie is obviously a homage to Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (the film in which Allen is repeatedly berated for no longer making funny movies); indeed, Andre's surname, "Allen", makes the reference clear.  Top Five refers to the characters' penchant for making lists of their "top five" favorite comedians or musical acts -- also a reference to the list of things that make life worth living recited by Woody Allen in the one of the final scenes of Manhattan.  (Since, Allen's Stardust Memories was itself derived from Fellini's 8 1/2, Chris Rock's film has something of the pallid quality of a copy of a copy.)  Second, the film's structure is derived from Spike Lee's somber picture about a convicted Wall Street banker roaming the streets of Manhattan before turning himself in for a five-year prison sentence, The 25th Hour.  Both movies are largely set in the New York neighborhoods, use semi-documentary film making techniques, and seem to show a series of events unfolding in something approximating real time.  Unfortunately, Top Five can't quite compare with the pictures that it invokes -- it's good, but not as good as it should be.  Furthermore, Top Five is predictable -- references to Cinderella play out in the scenes final images more or less as we expect -- and the picture is compromised:  it's open-ended but not so open-ended as to be honestly ambiguous and the sequence in which Rock returns to his roots, performing some good raunchy stand-up comedy in a cellar club in the Village, is not as hilarious as the film represents it to be.  Comedy shouldn't rely on reaction shots to make its points and the stand-up routine, supposedly representing Dre's redemption and integrity, is riddled with close-ups telling us when to laugh and how hard. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Gone Girl

In the opening shot of David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014), we see a beautiful woman, sleepy and, apparently, post-coital -- "What are you thinking?  Are you thinking of me?  What have we done to ourselves?" a voice questions.  Chaucer's Wife of Bath spoke of the "wo that is in mariage," and this seems to be the subject of Fincher's film, paranoid uncertainty with respect to the answer to these fundamental questions whispered in the first scene.  What if the companion of your bed were, indeed, not only thinking of you, but, also, deviously and assiduously plotting your doom?  What if your wife (or husband) was not only your adversary, a necessary condition of marriage, but, also, a monstrous nemesis, the embodiment of a catastrophe custom-designed for you, and only you?  This is the lurid premise of Gone Girl, a film featuring a femme fatale so completely calculating and lethal as to be almost comically absurd.  Gone Girl is about marriage, the way that de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom is about sex or the way that Euripides' Medea is about motherhood.  It's difficult to write about Gone Girl without revealing plot twists.  Normally, the fear of "spoilers" doesn't inhibit me -- but Gone Girl is primarily entertaining because of its melodramatic and shocking plot and, since I (reluctantly) recommend this movie, I don't want to deprive the viewer of the modest, but very real, pleasures of surprise that the film affords.  Therefore, my narrative summary is perforce a bit obtuse and abstract.  A dimwitted hunk played by Ben Affleck, a man a bit like John Heard in Body Heat, encounters a beautiful and highly accomplished woman.  This woman, Amy, is famous because her life has served as the model for a series of wildly popular children's books featuring a spunky character called "Amazing Amy."  The hunk marries the enigmatic woman, drawn to her by their sexual rapport.  When both characters are laid-off and the husband's mother is diagnosed with cancer, the couple move to a small town in rural Missouri.  Amy uses her trust fund to buy a bar in town that her husband manages with his loyal twin sister.  Then, as their marriage is deteriorating, Amy simply vanishes.  Forensic evidence in their home suggests that the woman has been killed, probably by her husband.  As evidence mounts that the husband is the murderer, cable news networks pick up the story and Affleck's character is tried and convicted in the media.  Supported by his twin sister, the husband hires an expensive lawyer who specializes in defending men accused of murdering their wives.  The defense team is convinced that Amy has fled the marriage and is hiding somewhere; their strategy is to flush her out into the open.  Amy seems to have engineered an extraordinarily complex and air-tight scheme to frame her husband for her murder.  As hysteria mounts in the community -- there are candle-light vigils and the streets are clogged with TV broadcasting trucks -- the story becomes increasingly bizarre and, indeed, grotesque.  A number of sequences are completely "over the top" -- that is, exaggerated to the point of becoming almost comic.  Fincher's little Missouri town features a subterranean ruin filled with sinister criminals and there is an immensely creepy rich man with a scary mansion that also serves as a kind of dungeon.  The film hints at all sorts of perversity including incest and sado-masochism and ends on a nightmarish note that is ludicrous but, certainly, horrific and frightening.  Ben Affleck is effective as the fly caught in the Black Widow's elaborate web and the femme fatale, played by Rosamunde Pike, who has the demeanor of a bruised Madonna, is eerily vacant, sometimes alarmingly plain and, in other shots, radiantly beautiful -- the actress embodies sheer malice, and, although her motives are apparently insane and possibly incommunicable, she is certainly a frightening figure.  Disrespected by a casual acquaintance, Amy waits until the girl goes into the bathroom and, then, calmly spits into her Big Gulp Mountain Dew.  Fincher uses muted colors and his direction of the minor characters is impeccable -- indeed, the supporting cast is more believable and compelling than the two principals, both of whom seem like the figures in a stormy Baroque canvas, trapped in histrionic postures that really don't make any sense in the real world.  A lady homicide detective embodies cool, skeptical intelligence and her yokel side-kick discloses a subtle, class-based animus against the unlucky husband.  Tyler Perry is charismatic as the cynical defense lawyer, the two actors portraying Amy's parents are unctuous and creepy, and Neil Patrick Harris is frighteningly intense as the monomaniacal rich man.  There is a vivid portrait of a white-trash couple, a hillbilly Bonnie and Clyde, hanging around a ramshackle resort in the Ozarks and a rogue's gallery of casually vicious media "talking heads" -- the parody of CNN's Nancy Grace is particularly vivid, cruel, and truthful, sophisticated satire of a high order.  Indeed, all the supporting roles in the large cast are exceptionally good, probably better than the rather improbable script deserves.  The soundtrack by Trent Reznor is suitably sinister and, sometimes, yields moments of quiet grandeur -- there is a haunting, triumphal theme that sometimes serves as a counterpoint to the action, underlying exterior scenes of processions of police cars and broadcasting trucks, and that music is very beautiful. a somber hymn.  The film is exquisitely crafted, exceptionally gripping, and, more or less, totally bonkers.  The last hour is wholly unbelievable but, nonetheless, has a sort of dream-like intensity.  When the resurrected Amy gives a press-conference covered from head to toe in gore, the image is completely absurd and, yet, also horribly compelling -- it's ghastly romanticism is like something from Brian De Palma's prime. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) is one of the great directors "gimmick" films:  the movie's action is confined to a thirty-foot long lifeboat tossed on the seas of the North Atlantic.  The challenge posed by the picture is whether a movie can be made in these straitened circumstances that is nonetheless "cinematic" -- a problem that Hitchcock seems to solve, more or less, effortlessly. (Rear Window and Rope are similarly limited in their setting.) In his iconic films made in the Fifties, Hitchcock was famously indifferent to special effects -- in fact, his rear projection mise-en-scene is generally so awful that it imparts a dream-like surrealistic ambience to films like Vertigo.  But in the forties, Hitchcock seems to have been more concerned with achieving realistic effects and the camerawork and staging of the storm scenes in Lifeboat is craftsmanslike and fairly effective -- the actors, pronouncing their didactic and preachy speeches (courtesy of John Steinbeck) do, in fact, seem to be trapped on a small vessel in the middle of an empty and menacing sea, although the setting (and situation) always remains more or less theoretical and abstract.  A jaded socialite (played by Tallulah Bankhead -- she's like a less campy version of the middle-aged Joan Crawford) finds herself alone on a lifeboat floating in a field of debris remaining after a German U-Boat has torpedoed the transatlantic liner on which she ws traveling.  Bankhead looks annoyed as if she's waiting for a train that has been delayed.  One by one, the other characters are fished out of the drink and assembled on board -- there is a Thurston Howell the 3rd millionaire, a couple of tough merchant marine sailors, a nurse (convenient for the improvised pen-knife amputation required by gangrene afflicting one of the seamen) and an African-American porter who seems surprised when the white folks on the boat grant him a vote during their various contentious debates. (A young mother whose baby has died imparts a jarring note of tragedy to the proceedings and so Hitchcock dispenses rapidly with her -- she jumps overboard in the middle of the night.) Suspense is supplied by a German sailor, who climbs aboard, and, then, commandeers the lifeboat.  The German is a suitably sinister exemplar of the Master Race -- he sings Schubert Lieder as he tirelessly rows the boat toward his colleagues in a supply ship located somewhere just over the horizon, conversing all the while in epigrams pronounced in perfectly accented, Oxford-inflected English.  In many respects, the movie is a nasty piece of propaganda -- the film climaxes with the passengers mobbing the German and beating him to death, a bit of savagery that the audience is meant to applaud.  (Although Hitchcock is characteristically evasive about the morality of this mob-inflicted sea-lynching -- he stages the death of the German as an ugly example of mob violence.)  The point of the film seems to be that in war time, the niceties of international law don't matter and that virtuous and brave people should take the law into their own hands, a dubious point because one that could be made with equal force in Nazi propaganda of the same general tenor.  The film's function is to support the war-effort and it is single-minded in this endeavor.  There's very little of Hitchcock's perverse humor on display and the film lacks the kinky sexual undertones present in most of the filmmaker's work.  Lifeboat is a civilized sort of entertainment -- other than the beating death of the German sailor, none of its effects are as savage as the material warrants.  The man who loses his leg doesn't seem to suffer too much and Hitchcock makes death by thirst and exposure look relatively glamorous -- the special effects of sea and wave are well-designed but we never lose the sense that this is a debate on political and social issues staged for our delectation in a comfortable movie studio in Los Angeles. 


Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler (2014) is an entertaining neo-noir, beautifully crafted and, indeed, machine-tooled to a high gloss.  The film is fundamentally divided:  on one level, the movie makers seem to have aimed for a raw blast of gritty urban melodrama.  This aspect of Nightcrawler conflicts with the extremely beautiful, even lyrical, photography of Los Angeles at night, the work of the great cameraman Frederick Elswit -- eerily empty lanes curve and arc under the shimmer of halogen lights, palm trees hover in the twilight, gas stations and convenience stores glisten in the night like gems on black velvet.  The curious dichotomy between raw immediacy and high-sheen glamor is reflected in the titular "nightcrawler" -- a sort of pirate with a camcorder and police scanner who trolls the night city recording images of murder and accidental death.  As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, the "stringer" Lewis Boom, is a homicidal psychopath who lectures his hapless employee ceaselessly on entrepreneurship, proper etiquette at work, and career building -- he's like Scorsese's infamous taxi driver, Travis Bickel crossed with Dale Carnegie.  Boom is a loner eking out a living by petty crime (he chops down cyclone fences and sells them to metal merchants).  One night, he happens on an accident scene and observes stringers with camcorders recording the gory action so that it can be peddled to local TV stations.  Boom steals a bicycle, converts it to cash, and buys the requisite camcorder and police scanner.  He acquires an "intern," played by Riz Ahmed, and using the "Maps" feature on his phone races to accidents and crime scenes. Boom is aggressive and fearless; he's also not afraid to trespass, entering apartments where shootings have occurred to get the gruesome goods that he markets to the local Tv-network affiliates.  A vestigial subplot involves a female news producer, down on her luck and desperate to enhance her show's ratings -- she haggles with Boom over footage that he produces and encourages him to focus on stories that can be used, Fox-news style, to terrorize White middle-class viewers:  home invasions and car-jackings in prosperous neighborhoods.  Boom is attracted to the lady-producer's faded glamor (she was probably once "on-air" talent) and, although she is twice his age, unctuously tries to seduce her.  All of the secondary characters are underwritten, basically caricatures that we have seen in other movies -- the lady news producer is similar, for instance, to the Faye Dunaway character in Network -- and the film seems stripped down to its essential outline.  It is like a fifties film noir but without the plot complications or wealth of effectively portrayed secondary characters. But the movie is exciting with a realistic and thrilling police chase for a climax and some of the satire has a cutting edge -- particularly effective is a scene showing how the news producer pruriently amps up the paranoia in the reporting to frighten her target-demographic.  As the film progresses, the amoral Boom begins to manipulate the scenes of the calamities that he films; like Matthew Arnold on a Civil War battlefield, he drags the corpses around to get better shots.  And from this sort of intervention, it's a short step from recording disasters to, in fact, designing and orchestrating the calamities that he films.  The movie is ice-cold and cynical; it projects a glacial sense of outrage, but, of course, the viewer is complicit in the crimes that the movie documents -- after all, we are the consumers for the gory news footage that Lewis Boom and his ilk produce.  Gyllenhaal is superlatively creepy in the title role; Rene Russo is effective as the callous news producer.  And, of course, LA stuns in its star turn as the sinister, glittering City of Night.     

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Million Ways to Die in the West

The DNA of one of America's noblest, and most classical, art forms, the Hollywood Western, runs completely contrary to juvenile, potty-mouthed humor.  For this reason, a comedy mashing together the two genres is likely to be either an ingenious masterpiece or a complete failure -- Seth McFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West is, lamentably, the latter.  McFarlane plays a hapless sheep farmer who despises the stunning, if arid, western territory where he is marooned -- it's too dangerous, he complains, with a million ways to die:  something illustrated by a number of garish and bloody accidental deaths throughout the film in the manner of the Final Destination franchise.  A fop steals the hero's girlfriend leading him to challenge the man to a duel.  A beautiful young woman, something of an Annie Oakley, teaches McFarlane to shoot a revolver and he humiliates his rival in the duel.  (His triumph involves laxative and results in several Stetson hats used as chamber pots and shown in close-up when filled with steaming diarrhea.)  By this time, the sheepherder has fallen in love with the comely lady shootist.  Unfortunately, she turns out to be married to the baddest of the bad hombres in the district, a gunfighter played by Liam Neeson, snarling and spitting like Jack Palance. There are some showdowns, horse chases, and a scene involving peyote, Indians, and levitating sheep.  In the end, McFarlane gets the girl.  The movie is mildly amusing and has a half-dozen halfway decent gags.  The conventions of the Western, the old tropes of barren landscape and figures on horseback, clearly interested the filmmaker and his crew far more than the perfunctory plot and its tepid jokes.  There are a couple of stirring scenes of men on horseback galloping across open country and a number of shots staged in Monument Valley are almost surrealistically beautiful.  Indeed, McFarlane lights his desert village and the sheepherder's homestead romantically, pools of golden, glowing firelight against vast starry skies.  The viewer has the sense that McFarlane, who thinks himself too laid-back and modern to make a Western, would, in fact, rather just succumb to temptations implicit in this material and produce a straight B-Western movie.  But no such luck.  A lot of talent has been assembled for this movie -- it features Bill Maher, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, and a number of other worthy performers, all of them wasted or given sophomoric obscenities to mouth. The two principals are completely miscast.  Seth McFarlane is completely wooden, uninspiring, and somnolent as the leading man -- he seems scarcely awake at times and he is not, by any reasonable standard, a handsome fellow:  unfortunately, McFarlane seems vain and, unlike Woody Allen, for instance, doesn't highlight his unprepossessing appearance for laughs.  In fact, he seems to think that he is another Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart.  Charlize Theron, the heroine, looks so tall, supernaturally skinny and long-legged, that she seems to be an entirely different species of human being, completely unreal in shape and appearance and totally unsuited for the film.  The love scenes between these two mismatched players are excruciating to behold. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney's 2015 documentary (based on Lawrence Wright's book), Going Clear:  Scientology and the Prison of Belief is best approached as a black comedy, something like Erasmus' In Praise of Folly -- if you are going to see this film, you should be a jaded aficionado of folly.  Here is why I limit my recommendation of this movie to only those willing to view the whole thing as a joke:  the film's content, it's raw material, is so outrageous and displays a form of bullying stupidity that is so astoundingly overt, arrogant, and successful that watching this show will merely make you angry -- it will raise your blood pressure.  And unresolved anger is blood brother to depression.  In the end, unless taken cum grano salis, this documentary will, probably, just make you enraged, exhaust you, and leave you with a deposit of the deep melancholy.

That said, the film shows a train wreck of such proportions that you can't look away.  The story is probably well-known to most people but so remarkable as to deserve a brief reprise.  A successful science fiction writer, and accomplished liar, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote a self-help book called Dianetics.  The book triggered a fad and Hubbard toured the country lecturing on his doctrine.  As the fad faded, Hubbard decided to repackage his theories as a religion, something he called Scientology.  A devoted core of acolytes surrounded the increasingly paranoid Hubbard who ended up in permanent exile on the high seas for tax fraud.  Scientology has a simple premise:  simony.  You pay for enlightenment.  The more you pay, the more enlightened the Church declares you to be.  To increase the religion's revenues, the Church developed an enormous hierarchy of degrees of revelation, each higher level more expensive than the preceding (and lower/inferior) levels.  When a Scientologist reaches the highest level of understanding, he or she is revealed the ultimate truth of human existence -- this is handed to the adept in the form of a photocopy of a handwritten memo prepared by L. Ron Hubbard himself.  Paul Haggis, in an interview in the film, describes his reaction upon first reading this memo:  "I wondered -- Was it a sanity test?  Were they trying to figure out if I was so completely crazy as to believe the stuff written in the revelation?"  Hubbard's apocalypse tells his disciples that billions of years ago evil aliens, probably something like psychiatrists, the so-called Thetans, were banished to Earth; they were thrown in volcanos that were sealed with nuclear explosions.  But the spirits of the dead Thetans have escaped and occupy living human beings.  To be truly liberated -- that is, to "go clear" -- the Thetan ghosts must be clawed out of our personalities.  This is accomplished by the use of an electromagnetic device something like a lie-detector, the so-called E-Meter.  E-Metrics is the closest thing that Scientology has to a liturgy or religious practice:  members of the Church "audit" one another using the e-meter device and try to extract oppressive (or "suppressive" to use Scientology terminology) influences from the psyche.  (The regimen of "auditing" is obviously derived from Freudian psychoanalysis -- something L. Ron Hubbard, however, vehemently denied.) As this is accomplished, and, as the Scientologist becomes increasingly "clear" of Thetan control, that person reaps dividends that are apparently brazenly materialistic and, even , pecuniary -- you become handsome, self-confident, attractive to beautiful women, and, ultimately, wealthy beyond all dreams of avarice.  The two most famous Scientologists are Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

The belief system animating Scientology is not intrinsically more absurd than Mormonism.  Every religion, including Christianity, requires its adherents to believe something that is "folly to the Greeks" -- that is, something absurd.  What makes Scientology abhorrent is the element of coercive fraud that animates every aspect of its history and operations.  The entire institution is a vast, secretive instrument for committing theft on a massive scale.  Truly disturbing is the fact that the IRS capitulation to Scientology in 1993, it's recognition of this con-game as a religion, has placed the criminals at the helm of this operation effectively beyond the reach of the law.  Furthermore, Scientology, a cult that seems to be shrinking now that the "cat is out of the bag" as to its doctrine, merely grows more powerful and wealthy each day as it loses adherents but increases its investments and real estate portfolio. 

Gibney's film is just a series of talking heads intercut with some drone-type footage of the sinister-looking Church Headquarters in California.  The program is unbalanced -- no one from Scientology would offer an interview to the filmmakers.  The movie documents in nauseating detail Scientology's history of blackmail, extortion, and physically coercive violence -- people cleaning toilets with their tongues, beatings, strange forms of brainwashing, the use of child and slave labor at its compounds and so on.  Some of this material is undoubtedly exaggerated, but if a tenth of what the film alleges is true than most of Scientology's leading apostles should be serving long prison sentences.  Particularly hapless are Travolta and Cruise, both, apparently, closeted homosexuals, who seem to have made a Faustian deal with the Church -- money and fame in exchange for protection with respect to a personal secret that was a big deal five years ago, but that today, in an era of legally sanctioned same sex marriages, no one seems to care much about.  Archival footage of L. Ron Hubbard is fascinating, particularly with regard to Paul Thomas Anderson's great The Master -- the documentary lets us see how Hubbard looked and hear the cadences of his speech.  On screen, he's a roly-poly man dressed incongruously as the Admiral of the Ocean Sea with bad teeth and a sinister jack-o-lantern grin.  Although, in person, Hubbard was apparently a man of some charisma, none of this is perceptible in the film.  The great question that the film poses, and that remains a riddle is a simple one that has always vexed mankind:  Why do people chose to believe things that are so palpably wrong that any reasonably intelligent seven-year old would dismiss as ridiculous?  I can venture only one answer on the basis of this film and it is dispiriting -- I suppose if I have paid good money be told something that is ridiculous, the price-tag on that doctrine requires that I believe what I have been told.  Put a price-tag on a belief and that belief can become, at least for its adherents, unshakeable dogma. 

A heavy package came to my office the week the film was premiered on HBO.  The package contains a DVD about the abuses of psychiatry and extraordinarily glossy brochure and study package printed on high-grade paper.  The graphics in the brochure are brilliant and eye-catching.  The DVD and booklet are publications of the Citizens Commission for Human Rights (in Mental Health).  Needless to say, a quick search on Wikipedia shows that this organization is a front for Scientology and, I presume, the mass mailing, likely costing millions of dollars, was designed to counter the HBO documentary. 

Best to view the whole thing as fiction -- a blithe, Borgesian parable on the perils of faith. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Two Midwestern Museums: Crystal Bridges Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum

Bentonville, Arkansas is the fly-over country of the fly-over country, the middle of nowhere, a city on the road to no place.  Omaha is on the road to Denver.  Kansas City lies midway between Minneapolis and Dallas.  But Bentonville, in the extreme northwestern corner of Arkansas, is not a way station place leading to any place at all.  It's not even on the direct route to Little Rock, another backwater within a backwater.  For this reason, the presence of a world-class art museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville is disorienting, even, a bit surreal.  Of course, the museum showcases art collected by an heir to the Walmart fortune and so the museum's existence in the town also harboring Walmart's world headquarters is not merely serendipity.  Nonetheless, Bentonville is surrounded on all sides by so much rural outback -- it's three hours to Kansas City, the closest major metropolitan area -- that the museum's very existence seems insulting to those who correlate art with urban sophistication, that is, critics on the East and West coasts.  And, indeed, when the Walmart heiress set her sights on Philadelphia's shamefully neglected Eakins' masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, and came within a hairsbreadth of acquiring that iconic artwork, possibly the greatest painting ever made by an American, the sense of insult and injury on the East Coast was almost palpable. 

Bentonville is a sprawling suburb that doesn't seem to have much of an urban core -- if there is a downtown, which I presume to exist, I never located it.  The town is designed for easy access in and out, for Walmart trucks and so Bentonville is built on a painfully flat plain, sunny open fields backing long, brand-new strip malls.  The city seems planted on a prairie-like plateau in the western Ozark mountains and so where the ground dips precipitously toward creeks or rises in wooded ridges, there are enclaves of expensive houses.  The town looks remarkably clean, prosperous, Caucasian and the imprint of Sam Walton's fortune (and benevolence) is evident everywhere -- about every block supports a Walmart Life and Fitness club or a Walmart-financed field house or soccer pitch or stadium.

Crystal Bridges occupies a deep hollow on the western edge of town, a wooded declivity that has steep sides and something of the character of a narrow, steep-walled valley formed when the ceiling of a limestone cave collapses.  In this country, hollows of this sort fill with murky green water; this kind of depression is a little like a cenote in the Yucatan.  The museum is built below the grade of the terrain overlooking the tight, swampy valley.  An arcade at the end of the parking lot accesses elevators in silver towers that drop the viewer into the hollow to a spacious lobby that opens into the galleries.  The galleries themselves consist of domed lobes, vaguely lung-shaped, that bridge the murky green lagoon.  Two or three of these lobes span the water where a fountain fitfully bubbles.  Several of these lobe-like structures are built into the side of the hill.  The whole complex has something of the character of an underground installation miraculously excavated and laid bare to the hot Arkansas sun.  There is nothing crystalline about the lobe-like galleries.  Rather, they are hard shell-like carapaces, round and domed like a turtle's shell, but textured a bit like the torso of an armadillo -- indeed, it's as if the designer was imitating an armadillo's scaly armor.  Viewed from above, or from terraces and decks extending out into the swampy water in the depression, the galleries look impassive, reptilian, horny shells extending like piers across the water.  At the south end of the complex, a big window opens to an impressive-looking wooded gorge, descending in ragged limestone slabs down to the water in the hollow -- the gorge looks like it should be running with water, a series of cascades but it was bone-dry when I visited the museum.

The galleries of the permanent collection are free and they are large and well-lit, big concourses with more narrow side passages.  There are many views toward the water and several barge-like decks, appendages to the galleries, that seem to float on the lake -- perhaps, these are venues for musical concerts.  The art displayed is principally on canvas, paintings that date from the colonial period (for instance, ten or so big portraits showing the members of an extended mercantile Jewish family made around 1750) to today.  There is no American Indian art, an omission that seemed puzzling to me.  The collection contains several iconic images:  there are two pictures of George Washington, one of them depicting a lean, skinny smirking libertine, and the other showing the Father of our Country toothless, with pursed lips, more the nation's grandmother than otherwise.  There is a resplendent Copley showing an elegantly dressed woman, her clothes rendered photorealistically, gazing contemplatively at a tiny lemur-eyed flying squirrel tethered to her wrist by a golden chain.  Like most museums of this kind, the majority of the paintings are landscapes, generally influenced by Claude Lorrain as adapted to American tastes by Thomas Cole, showing great wooded valleys that are mostly devoid of human beings.  These kinds of paintings are ubiquitous, pretty, and generally forgettable.  Some paintings seem to have been collected because of their historical interest -- there is an image of a chimpanzee holding a brochure about Darwin and a risible picture of a man fighting a black bear; the bear seems to salute the man and the man holds a bloody knife in his hand as if it were a tea-cup -- in the background. the fallen man's comrade aims his rifle but because the perspective is botched, he seems to be pointing the gun in the wrong direction entirely.  Somehow, Crystal Bridges acquired Asher Durand's archetypal Kindred Spirits, a wonderful picture showing William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole perched on a jutting stone in colloquy above a wild wooded ravine -- it is a central image in the Hudson Valley School of paintings.  A famous painting of men reading news of the war in Mexico while a sad-eyed slave sips whiskey, apparently, from a tin cup adorns one of the walls -- this picture has been on the cover of a dozen textbooks.  A painting by Benjamin West showing Cupid and Psyche demonstrates staggering incompetence -- the anatomy of the embracing figure is all wrong and their limp, slug-like bodies seem flabby and ill-proportioned:  it's like El Greco's mannerism, except as a result of poor draftsmanship and not expressionist emotion.  A huge painting by Audubon of two harried-looking wild turkeys is fantastically eloquent and poignant -- the turkeys have as much (or more) character than most of the portraits in the gallery.  The big clumsy-looking birds look like refugees, trudging toward an uncertain future:  there is something curiously Indian about them -- they are like Cherokees on the Trail of Tears that ran through this part of the South, melancholy, if brightly plumaged, exiles.  (Audubon's handling of the iridescence in their feathers is nothing short of miraculous).  Held hostage by the Walmart fortune is a huge painting by Eakins, a kind of consolation prize for losing The Gross Clinic -- it's a world-class canvas, a dark, brooding variant on Eakins' theme of the scientist as hero, in this case, a bearded, somewhat diabolical researcher peering out at us skeptically from his gloomy laboratory, beams of brilliant inexplicable light illumining his brass tools and calipers.  One painting by Elihu Vedder is certainly memorably bizarre -- it shows a naked, goat-footed Marysas playing a double-flute (not a lyre as would be customary); the satyr is serenading a group of eight or nine big jackrabbits and the animals are painted with extraordinary verve; each rabbit seems sentient and individualized, a group portrait such as Rembrandt might attempt, but showing rabbits and not men.  I have no idea what the picture is supposed to mean, but, once seen, it is indelible.  The modern works in the collection are generally mediocre -- there is a Rothko, a pretty Guston painted during the artist's abstract expressionist phase, a few big pictures by Georgia O'Keefe that I thought bombastic, and many very fine canvases by Marsden Hartley. (Hartley is the Picasso of American painting -- he produced fascinating and beautiful canvases in a variety of styles, seems to have been unerring in his color sense, and was remarkably versatile.)  There are some Warhols, a lackluster Pollock and DeKooning, and an uncanny sculpture by Duane Hansen of a tired old man sitting on a bench that is so realistic as to be frightening -- you can sense the flabby weight of the old man's forearm resting on his trousered leg. 

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is in the museum district in Kansas City, a sloping hillside overlooking a riverbed diverted into concrete channels that have always been dry during my visits to the area.  The building is a tawny handsome beaux arts temple, carved, it seems, from a soft stone the color of cheddar cheese -- the structure sits on the crown of a hill and looks a bit like the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  Annexed to the old museum is the so-called Bloch Wing, a subterranean gallery that is essentially invisible from outside the museum -- this part of the museum imposes on the viewer the curious sense of being inside a structure that has no outside.  The old museum has the traditional design of two floors of galleries enclosing a courtyard -- or, in this case, a double courtyard; the galleries are Italianate with beautiful floors and muted dark walls.  The Bloch wing is feather-shaped, a plume that seems, somehow, to simultaneously descend the slope of the hill, while also arching up to "lenses" -- that is, skylights opening upward on the lawn under which the museum is constructed. (The Bloch wing is immensely famous among architects and said to represent the ne plus ultra in unassuming but efficient museum design.  And, there is no doubt that the design is highly ingenious and the space easy to navigate -- but the modern wing is a little too coldly utilitarian for my taste.)  

In most respects, the art in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is superior to the works on display in Bentonville.  Crystal Bridges has a small idiosyncratic painting by John Singer Sargent; Nelson-Atkins possesses one of the artist's big society portraits of a woman so transcendentally beautiful that it is impossible to look away from her.  In the same vein, Nelson Atkins has a horrific but gorgeous and sinisterly glamorous DeKooning "Woman"; the DeKooning in Bentonville is an interesting abstraction but not on par with the picture in Kansas City.  The O'Keefe's in Kansas City are substantially better -- there is painting by O'Keefe of a big skyscraper in New York, atypical of the artist, but very vivid and cruel, an image of Moloch.  The Rothko canvases in Kansas City are more luminous and there are many fine paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, a native of the city (his studio is a dozen blocks away), including the artist's greatest image, his Proserpina, imagined as a farm girl resplendent in her nakedness in an idyllic Midwestern landscape, all summer and light, sunbathing beside a creek while a hideous old farmer leers at her.  Both museum's have genre works by Peto and Raphael Peale, images of things tacked up on walls, but the Kansas City pictures are better, more interesting and varied.  And Kansas City has a strangely flamboyant Poussin, Dionysius drawn in procession through a floral landscape, a grim and hyper-realistic Caravaggio (the Saint has filthy feet), and a lovely, gem-like image of the three graces by Cranach.  Whereas Crystal Bridges is crowded with second- and third-rate landscapes (it's painting by the underappreciated George Innes is dull and conventionally Victorian; by contrast, Nelson Atkins'  has a murky, late Innes with the remarkable enameled haze surface embodying the artist's Swedenborg-influenced theosophy), the Kansas City museum is replete with second- and third-rate Baroque religious images -- these pictures are showy but, ultimately, stultifying as well:  cotton candy angels and swooning Madonnas.  But there are many highlights in the Nelson - Atkins permanent collection, including a fierce Indian chief, red as ocher, by George Catlin and an interesting portrait by George Bellows of a retarded newsboy that has the curious effect of looking hideous and daunting from a distance, but becoming engaging (even endearing) when viewed from a few feet away.  The KC museum also has the most physically luscious and beautiful of all Rauschenberg's works, a glorious blue collage based on images appropriated from Velasquez (I think).  If you are going south on 35, I recommend that you spend your time in Nelson-Atkins museum and not make the detour to Bentonville.

That said, I note that Crystal Bridges, apparently, has the prestige and wherewithal to attract excellent traveling exhibitions.  When I was at Crystal Bridges in late March 2015, the museum featured four large gallery rooms of masterpieces from the Knox-Albright gallery in Buffalo, New York.  I was not familiar with this collection, a group of paintings that also seem to have been acquired by a wealthy industrialist or his heirs.  The traveling show is astounding -- almost every painting in the exhibition was extraordinary and many were very famous, for instance Arshile Gorky's very large The Liver is the Cock's Comb, a picture that I've never appreciated in reproduction, but which has a powerful presence when viewed in its actual colors and dimensions.  (The show also featured a transcendent rose-period Picasso and a beautiful, enigmatic Max Beckmann interior crowded with strange personages).  It is certainly possible that my muted reaction to many of the pictures in the Crystal Bridges permanent collection galleries was based upon unfair comparison with the astounding European post-impressionist paintings touring as part of the Knox-Albright show.  (On a Monday afternoon, March 30, both upper and lower parking lots at Crystal Bridges were full and the galleries were reasonably crowded -- the place is roomy and, certainly, not unpleasantly full of people, but there were a good number of museum-goers on hand.  In the Knox-Albright show, the people looked like retired truck drivers and elementary school teachers -- everyone was white and in their late sixties.  I eavesdropped on the people and noticed that no one made anything approaching an intelligent remark about the paintings on display.  But I hasten to add, that unlike an exhibit in New York, or Chicago, I didn't hear anyone say anything annoying or pretentious either.)