Friday, May 29, 2015


There is nothing in Aki Kaurismaki's minimalist crime film, Ariel, (1988) that you haven't seen before.  But you've never seen this hackneyed material presented with such stoic elegance.  Although the plot is utterly familiar from a hundred B-grade movies from the thirties and forties, Kaurismaki's severe and economical style tricks the viewer into thinking that he or she is seeming something completely new. 

A coal-miner from Finland's far north loses his job when the mine where he works is closed.  The miner's father, also unemployed because of the mine's closure, hands his son the keys to the family car -- a huge be-finned convertible -- before excusing himself to commit suicide in the cafe's rest room.  The film's hero, a hapless laconic fellow named Taista, fires up the enormous convertible, withdraws all his money from the bank, and sets off for Helsinki to find his fortune in the big city.  It's pretty obvious that this is going to be a rocky road -- the garage housing the big convertible collapses as soon as the car is backed-out of the structure and, at his first stop at a hamburger joint in Helsinki, two thugs beat the hero senseless and steal all his cash.  (The Finnish demi-monde are haggard with slicked back greasy hair and look a lot like the elderly Jerry Lee Lewis -- everyone listens to bloody-raw rock-a-billy, ancient scratchy blues, or the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony.)  Taista gets a job on the wharf, meets a meter maid who is ticketing his car whom he ends up marrying after exchanging about 15 words with her, and, then, finds himself committing various crimes in order to survive.  Crime doesn't pay and Taista gets thrown in the Big House.  With the help of a fellow prisoner, played by the sublime Matti Pellonpaa (this guy is the epitome of Kaurismaki's noble and doomed riff-raff), Taista escapes from the penitentiary.  (The escape from the penitentiary is filmed in about eight elegantly framed and brilliantly editing shots -- including a staple of every Big House film that I saw when I was a kid:  the escapees huddling in the darkness as searchlights sweep the landscape and sirens wail).  After some more adventures resulting in his buddy's death, Taista with his moll and her kid escape Finland, departing on the freighter Ariel for Mexico.  As the three refugees are ferried to the rust-bucket freighter, the soundtrack plays a Finnish pop star crooning "Somewhere over the Rainbow."  The film is crammed with action:  there are several violent deaths, people getting bashed on the head, knocked out and left in the cold overnight (a staple of all of Kaurismaki's films), suicides, prison breaks, a remarkably inept bank robbery, as well as love scenes and innumerable shots of people lighting cigarettes -- and all of this in 72 minutes.  The movie is shot modestly, but with impeccable classicism -- the camera is always located exactly where necessary to impart the maximum lucidity and clarity to the image.  Kaurismaki's color sense is extraordinary -- the lighting is limpid, naturalistic, but the images are punctuated by bright colors that act as exclamation points.  Everything is filmed with maximum economy:  a love scene consists of a shot of two people in bed facing the camera frontally and speaking without looking at one another or, even, touching -- except for occasionally shaking hands or knife-fighting, Finns don't seem inclined to touch one another.  The effect is like Jean-Pierre Melville at his most austere or, even, the films of Bresson:  each shot has a poster-like immediacy and is narrative -- that is, the picture contains an element that links it to the preceding and next shot in the plot sequence.  In many ways, Kaurismaki's mise-en-scene is more closely related to the way that silent pictures were constructed -- and, indeed, at the end of the nineties, Kaurismaki followed his tendencies in that direction by making a silent film, Jauhu

Finland seems to be a dimly lit wasteland, inhabited by the walking dead.  When Pellonpaa's gaunt thug bleeds to death, he somehow discovers the controls for the convertible's top -- the big awning opens and hums as it slides up and over the corpse.  Pellonpaa (who was to die of a heart attack at 40) mumbles:  "Bury my heart in the dump."  And the next shot shows, a shovel depositing earth that seems conspicuously full of shards of glass and decaying paper into a shallow pit.  This is followed by a shot of Taista with his pale, melancholy and loyal girlfriend and her tow-headed kid standing on the dark wharf.  It seems to be always twilight, just about dark.  Ariel is the second film in Kaurismaki's so-called "Proletariat Trilogy" -- as in the first picture, Shadows in Paradise, the movie ends with a sea-going vessel vanishing into the grey haze.  The only hope for Finland and the Finnish is to escape the place. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Around 200 B.C., something new appears in art:  Roman statuary busts become portraits -- the idealized features of Greek sculpture yields to a new obstinate ugliness.  Romans wanted to be portrayed as they actually looked, not as smooth-featured Olympian gods and goddesses but as human beings displaying the actual scars and blemishes of real life.  One the great innovations in Roman portraiture is the discovery of the paradoxical beauty of ugliness. 

Fellini's film about Rome, Roma (1972) luxuriates in this kind of idiosyncratic ugliness -- the people in his movies seem selected because of their memorable features.  An immense fat woman suffering an "inflamed ovary" lies in bed glaring at the young protagonist, stolid and immobile and enigmatic in her misery -- she looks like Messalina as imagined by Aubrey Beardsley. At a vaudeville show, a tubercular-looking woman with gaunt cheeks and a grey complexion is improbably matched with a hideous colossus, a great burly man who looks like he should be a professional wrestler. And, so, it goes -- one startling face after another leering at us from the screen.  At this time in his career, Fellini is said to have maintained scrapbooks full of pictures of extras with unusual and ugly features -- he claims to have constructed his movies around faces and figures whose grotesque or merely ugly features fascinated him.  Roma is crammed with memorably ugly people -- an oddity, because, of course, the Italians are generally an exceedingly handsome, elegant, and graceful people.  At one point in the film, an older gentleman sneers at Fellini:  "You will probably fill your film with homosexuals and your enormous whores!"  And Fellini doesn't disappoint in this respect.

In form, Roma is a random-seeming series of vignettes, many of them demonstrating Fellini's unique gift for apocalyptic imagery.  There is no plot and no structure.  The first 20 minutes of the picture is warm and nostalgic, a first-draft for Fellini's much more audience-friendly Amarcord, made the year after this film.  The director sketches his childhood in a provincial town -- there are some mildly bawdy elements, but this part of the movie is sympathetic and gentle.  (Of course, Fellini's Italians are always quarreling and he always inserts a rapacious wild-eyed nymphomaniac into the action, but, in contrast to what follows, this part of the film is understated.)  The young protagonist, Fellini as a teenager, ultimately travels to the big city and the next section of the film affectionately details the teeming household where the young man lived in Rome and ends with a sweetly generous (and extended) scene of Romans feasting al fresco in the shabby piazza -- everyone admonishes the skinny boy to eat and the girls eye him seductively and, although there are squabbles around the edges of the frame, the tone is similar to the poignant "remembrance of things past" featured in Amarcord.  The next part of the movie, however, is completely different and ushers us into another world.  Fellini and his film crew are approaching Rome on a freeway -- the sequence is astounding, a tour de force, and obviously intended as a kind of competitive hyper-charged response to Godard's Weekend.  The trip into Rome occurs at twilight in a downpour, sun shining in the distance but enormous puddle of red muddy water like blood flooding the freeway -- whores sit under umbrellas next to huge fires and there is a gory truck crash with bloody cattle strewn all over the road, hideous people glaring out of cars, trucks bearing all manner of strange artifacts into the eternal city, the Rome to which all roads apparently lead -- everything climaxing in an apocalyptic traffic jam at the Coloseum.  This is amazing piece of film making, similar to the scene in La Dolce Vita in which a rainstorm disrupts a crowd (and distresses a television crew) gathered at a place where a little girl has seen a vision of the Madonna.  After this frenetic introduction to the modern city, Fellini cuts back to the past -- he shows himself as a young man attending a vaudeville variety show, flirting with a German woman whose husband is fighting for Hitler in Russia, and, then, waiting out an air raid in a shelter underground.  The air raid continues into dawn and Fellini shows people running down the streets, shadows on obliquely lit walls as the sirens wail.  Other vignettes follow:  the camera-crew passes through a hellish subway tunnel under construction to a wall that is penetrated and opens into an intact Roman villa.  Gorgeous murals on the walls are immediately destroyed when the polluted air from the city leaks into the sealed rooms -- we see their features obliterated by a kind of accretion of filthy crystals.  There are two long matching scenes in brothels -- one showing a poor working class whorehouse and the other a kind of elite palace.  But in both places, the whores look alike and the men behave with identical fear and brutishness -- the point, made at ghastly length, being that a whorehouse is always the same regardless of its degree of sophistication and elegance:  the fundamental impulses are the same.  Modern Rome is filled with half-naked hippies whose sexual freedom fills Fellini with alternating envy and horror.  At the end of the film, there is a reprise of the great al fresco banquet scene commencing the movie -- all the characters are gathered again, but it is now 1972 and the city is teetering on the apocalypse.  Fellini sees Gore Vidal and a woman lets the American pontificate about the end of the world and riot cops beat the hippies.  Later, we meet Anna Magnani, still beautiful, walking home alone on a dark street -- she won't let the camera enter her apartment.  Fellini says:  "She is the embodiment of Rome -- vestal virgin and she-wolf."  The film's last sequence shows the deserted streets of Rome and the narrator mentions how beautiful it is to walk alone in the serenity of the great city just before dawn.  But, then, hundreds of motorcycles appear and take us on roaring, violent tour of the City's landmarks -- so ends the film. 

This movie has never been well-regarded by critics, but it is not inestimable.  In fact, from a purely visual standpoint, some sequences are among the best things Fellini ever did -- the freeway entry into Rome in the murky twilight rainstorm is simply astonishing.  And, even, the scenes that seem ridiculous on paper -- for instance, the long and elaborate "ecclesiastical fashion show" -- are effective in Fellini's visualization:  the "ecclesiastical fashion show" taking place in a cavernous ancient basilica morphs into a Baroque display that is so wonderfully excessive -- holy men seated on enormous thrones of glistening silver -- that it tells us something about the aesthetics of Rome that we would not otherwise be able to exactly comprehend.  The movies' logic is entirely visual -- the spectacle is the raison d'etre of the film and so it is not easy to define the picture's meaning or if it even has a meaning at all. (It is certainly an influential movie -- Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty seems directly derived from some parts of this film and its tone of beleaguered melancholy is very similar.)  I like this disorderly, incoherent picture and recommend it to anyone who admires Fellini.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Force Majeur

A noteworthy cringe comedy, the Swedish film, Force Majeur punches way above its weight -- it's like an extended and metaphysical version of Louis, squirm-inducing silences punctuated by gales of man-tears.  A married couple, Ebba and Tomas, both of them disconcertingly fit and handsome, have booked a ski vacation in the French Alps.  The ski lodge where they are staying is atop an enormous precipice, surrounded by sinister-looking peaks -- it is like Kubrick's Overlook Hotel, although less cozy, an impression fostered by the film's division of the family's stay into separate days announced ominously by black and white intertitles.  Ebba and Tomas have two similarly perfect children and the family spends quality time together deploying their identical Sonicare toothbrushes, all four of them staring into the hotel's mirror as the toothbrushes remove harmful plaque from their perfect teeth.  One afternoon, an avalanche plunges from an adjacent peak and rushes down into the valley.  Tomas thinks that it is a "controlled" avalanche, but the wall of snow surges up to the very edge of the terrace where they are enjoying their noon meal.  The avalanche, and the family's reaction to it, is filmed in a single long take and everything happens so swiftly that it's not entirely certain what we have seen -- a fog of snow hangs over the dining area on the terrace.  At first, everyone is mildly amused by the frisson of the avalanche, but, gradually, Ebba commences her prosecution of Tomas for cowardice:  she believes that Tomas fled from his imperiled family, pausing only to save his cell-phone.  Tomas denies Ebba's accusations, further infuriating her -- it's not the offence, usually, but the "cover-up" that gets you in trouble.  Husband and wife become increasingly irrational -- they decide to ski separately from one another and encounters with friends become increasingly tense as Ebba humiliates Tomas with accounts of his cowardice.  Fault-lines in their marriage are further exposed by the other Swedes at the lodge.  One of them is a beautiful young woman who has left her husband and children in Sweden to sleep with a succession of handsome strangers at the lodge -- she defends herself to the outraged Ebba who accuses her of being a bad mother.  But Ebba's concerns are obvious -- she is fearful, afraid of being left alone, a motivation that is evident when we see her shedding tears as she morosely urinates in a grove of trees, Tomas and her children shushing by on their skis.  Another mismatched couple spends time with Tomas and Ebba, an older man with a ridiculous red beard and his 20 year-old girlfriend.  Ebba taunts Tomas during their meal and asks him what he has to say for himself -- in an extraordinary image, the long silence is broken by a hobby-drone that Tomas has been playing with:  the drone emerges from nowhere and smashes the dinner party's wine glasses.  After the dinner party, the twenty year old girl accuses her lover of abandoning his wife and child -- at issue seems to be a fear of being "left" -- and puts the goofy-looking older man into a funk.  Things go from bad to worse to the extent that Tomas and Ebba's children are fearful that their parents will get divorced.  Tomas becomes hysterical in the hotel corridor, but the next day is redeemed when he mysteriously "saves" Ebba who has become lost in the fog -- presumably, she has staged her disappearance and rescue to restore Tomas' fragile male ego.  The film ends with a haunting and ambiguous coda:  the hotel guests depart the lodge in a bus that travels down a horrifically steep and switchbacked mountain road.  Ebba thinks the driver is inept and begins to harangue him when he has to back up to make a turn on one of the switchbacks.  She persuades the other passengers (with one exception) to get out of the bus and hike -- where?  it's not clear.  Tomas' manhood regained he lights a cigarette, astounding his daughter:  "I didn't know you smoked," he says.  "I do," Tomas says boldly.  This sequence is eerie and unresolved:  it seems that Ebba is a "nervous Nelly," a hysteric who imposes her fears on others.  Certainly, she is a bully and her harassment of the hapless bus driver doesn't improve his competency.  But, on the other hand, the bus driver does seem genuinely inept and may well be a menace -- and so, her fear is probably legitimate. 

Swedish director, Ruben Ostlund, has said that he made this movie to "discourage Alpine tourism (and) increase the divorce rate..."  The picture is very tightly constructed, combining a brittle and witty comedy of manners with strangely dreamlike images -- we see men wild with drink dancing and embracing at some kind of techno-rave party and a tiny drone explores the mountain peaks like a flying saucer.  Periodically, the soundtrack revs up with a super-charged accordion version of Vivaldi, that music accompanying shots of the ski slopes being groomed, snow being generated from huge cannon-like pipes, and the periodic boom of guns used to induced artificial avalanches.  These sequences are surreal and the physical environs of the ski resort takes on a sinister, alienated quality -- much of the action plays as if staged on some other planet in an alternate universe.  At one point, a cable car seems to rise vertically next to an improbably vast cliff and the road leading to the ski lodge is a narrow vertical ledge chipped into the face of a huge icy escarpment -- it's all vivid and slightly unreal. 

Curiously none of the critics who have reviewed this film -- and it is very highly regarded (Force Majeur won the Swedish equivalent of the Oscar) -- mention that it's plot reprises an earlier independently made film.  Perhaps, no one mentions this movie because no one can recall the film's name.  (At least, I can't recall what it was called or who made the picture).  In that movie, a young couple go for a hike in some remote mountainous area, probably in Turkey or the Caucasus.  They encounter bandits who brandish weapons at them and the man instinctively seizes his girl friend and uses her as a human shield.  The bandits depart without harming anyone, but, of course, the couple spend the rest of the film struggling with the emotional consequences of this incident.  As in Force Majeur, this earlier film features spectacular mountain scenery and the moment when the man behaves cowardly is so fast, only a couple of seconds, that if you blink you will miss it.  (In Force Majeur, a second viewing of the film shows that the wife's account of her husband's cowardice is, more or less, accurate -- although on first viewing, the avalanche occurs in such a way that you literally can not determine exactly how the husband responds.  A cell-phone video, however, is used to establish the truth.)  I recall this earlier film as being interesting if dour and pretentious.  Force Majeur is far better because it exploits the comic potential in this material and, as is the case with comedy, makes everyone look bad -- the characters in Force Majeure are all self-satisfied, narcissistic yuppies and so their comeuppance seems richly warranted. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Leviathan (2014)

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan presents Russian political corruption as theology and myth.  The porcine local official, his bully-boy thugs, and their hapless victims, men and women staggering about in a vodka-induced haze, are not merely specimens on display in this grim tragi-comedy, but, also, figures with Biblical antecedents, the participants in a mystical spectacle that comes to assume apocalyptic dimensions.  This effect arises, in large part, from the film's setting, an Arctic ghost town on the Barents Sea -- mountains of naked rock rise over fjords that seem filled with quicksilver and the light is always ambiguous:  we are never certain whether it is dawn or an overcast mid-day or eerie twilight -- since the film takes place in the summer, I presume that the half-light results from the "Midnight Sun."  A ruined church with a high nave sits in a kind of crater:  when the local kids go there to drink beer, the dome of the wrecked building glows with the amber light of their campfire.  People drive to remote lakes to shoot AK-47's at bottles and pictures of former Soviet leaders.  In this majestic landscape, everyone is constantly stupefied by vodka:  when a local traffic cop, so drunk that he can't keep his eyes open, shuffles away from a party his wife asks:  "Are you okay to drive?"  "I should be," the man says, "I'm a traffic cop."  Filmed at the ghost town of Teriberka on the Kola peninsula (west of Murmansk), the local colony of drunkards lives in tumble-down ruins; a fleet of abandoned fishing vessels rots in the shallows of the harbor and, on the stony tidal flats, the skeleton of a huge whale looms over the desolation.  The whale's skeleton signifies the titular leviathan, a symbol for forces that inexorably grind up human lives.  Chief among those forces is corruption at every level -- the film begins with a lowly traffic copy coercing favors from the film's hero, Kolya; the movie ends with an image of corruption on a transcendental scale -- the Russian Orthodox Church is integral to the graft that the film dramatizes.  In this end-of-the-world landscape, everyone betrays everyone else and the one honest man, an obstinate drunkard, is wholly destroyed.  In some respects, the plot resembles the story in House of Sand and Fog -- a tragedy that evolves from a clash over real estate.  Leviathan is probably the most elaborate film ever made about the legal doctrine of "eminent domain" -- that is, a taking by the State. A fat local politician with little swinish eyes (half-closed because he's always drunk) connives to acquire Kola's property.  Kola owns a ramshackle bungalow with a boat house and some sheds near a bridge crossing the estuary into the town.  Kola lives in that house, where his family has resided since the generation of his grandfather, with his second wife, Lilya, and his son (by his first wife), Roma.  The local grandee has his eyes on Kola's property and the film begins in media res with a judicial tribunal denying Kola's appeal with respect to the taking of his property. (Two of the three female judges are later shown to be in the employ of the official).  Kola has hired a Moscow attorney to assist him, a man named Dmitri ("Dimi") who is ruggedly handsome and, apparently, a close friend from the days of their military service.  Dimi's plan is to blackmail the corrupt politician seeking to expropriate Kola's property -- he has assembled a dossier documenting the politician's horrific misdeeds.  This strategy misfires -- apparently, the powerful act with impunity in Russia because they can afford to have their enemies either killed or brutalized into silence.  Before Dimi is driven out of town, Kola's wife, with whom he seems to have had a past history, sleeps with the lawyer.  Since everyone is drunk all the time, Dimi and Kola's wife, Lilya, are sufficiently disinhibited to be caught in an embrace during the shooting expedition -- an inebriate affair involving machine guns and shish-kebabs commemorating someone's birthday.  Kola beats up Lilya, although they are later reconciled -- copious quantities of vodka can do wonders for a relationship apparently.  Lilya works in a fish packing plant and, after a day or so, seems to regret not fleeing to Moscow with the handsome, if feckless, lawyer.  She goes to a barren promontory, sees a whale emerge from the icy water, and is either murdered or commits suicide.  When her body is found, Kola is charged with murder and convicted -- after all, the people in the shooting party saw him beating her.  His beloved house is demolished -- we see the placid, empty interior suddenly ripped apart by bulldozers.  Zvyagintsev saves the most disheartening surprise for the film's penultimate sequence, a grotesque sermon in a brand-new church that is filmed in a manner very similar to the wedding scene in Muratova's scathing Chekhovian Motifs. At one point, a holy man, an Orthodox monk who seems to have wandered into the film from a Dostoevsky novel, tells the distraught and intoxicated Kola to study the book of Job.  The monk explains that no man can stand against the leviathan -- apparently, the image for corruption pervading every aspect of Russian society.  The monk has purchased a sack full of loaves of bread and distributes those to the poor -- the hero has bought yet another bottle of vodka and he wanders away into the wasteland of decaying shacks and perma-frost to continue his binge.  This is an impressive film and, although its message of quiescent lassitude may be itself be corrupt and corrupting, Leviathan is gripping, beautifully designed, and thought-provoking. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

My Brother's Wedding

Charles Burnett's 1983, My Brother's Wedding, conceived, it seems, as complementary to the director's poetic tour de force, Killer of Sheep, is a baffling, career-ending catastrophe.  It's the sort of failure that casts a harsh retrospective light on previous successes and, even, encourages them to be denigrated.  In concept, My Brother's Wedding, explores the aspects of life in Watts ignored, or slighted, in Killer of SheepKiller of Sheep employs crowds of children as a kind of Greek chorus and commentary on the action; in My Brother's Wedding, elderly people play a similar role.  The African-American Church and religion played no role in Killer of Sheep; in My Brother's Wedding, religion is important -- people proselytize one another and demand to know whether friends and family members are "saved".  The characters in Killer of Sheep were poor, but imagined themselves to be middle-class.  In My Brother's Wedding, the characters are upwardly mobile and class conscious -- the conflict in the film is between two brothers, one of them a successful doctor marrying a lawyer, and the other, disdainfully said to be "ghettoized," still working menial jobs and hanging out with his disreputable friend, Soldier, a man just released from the penitentiary.  My Brother's Keeper is schematic and much more tightly focused than Killer of Sheep -- it has a clear narrative arc:  Pierce Mundy, a young man working at his parent's dry cleaning shop, resents his brother's success and his abandonment of his roots in south-central L.A.  Pierce is a helpful fellow -- people are forever ordering him around:  he bathes an elderly man and shines his shoes and allows Soldier to use his mother's dry cleaning emporium as a trysting place -- Soldier demands that Pierce bring him a "tall glass of water" when he is having sex with his girlfriend.  Pierce obliges and even puts ice in the water.  Everything in the film builds toward the wedding, an event that Pierce resents since his brother's fiancée, a self-satisfied lawyer, obviously disdains him.  There is a catastrophic dinner at the elegant home of the lady-lawyer's parents and, then, Soldier is killed in a car wreck.  Soldier's funeral is scheduled for the same afternoon as the wedding of Pierce's brother and Pierce manages to end up as both a pall-bearer and best man, indispensable to two simultaneous ceremonies happening twenty miles apart.  Desperately, he tries to attend both functions but ends up successfully appearing at neither -- caught between the two worlds, Pierce doesn't function adequately in either of them.  On paper, this sounds like a promising scenario and the film seems to be well, if obviously, written.  There are many interesting and lyrical touches -- an adolescent girl hangs around Pierce and, more or less, offers herself to him.  (He is too chivalrous to accept her offer).  The old men all think that the remedy to the pervasive crime in the ghetto is to make the young bucks spend ten hours a day picking cotton -- "at least 500 pounds a day," one old gent says.  Everyone is armed with hand guns and seems to be terrified of being robbed or mugged or worse; indeed, there are several attempted, but botched, robberies in the film.  Burnett doesn't reproduce the error that shelved Killer of Sheep -- that is, he doesn't lard the soundtrack with popular hits.  (Killer of Sheep couldn't be released commercially for 30 years because there was no money to acquire the rights to the songs.)  Nonetheless, he uses effective and atmospheric sound cues -- old hymns, African chants, obscure jazz tunes.  So what's wrong with the film?  The problem can be simply stated:  the acting is uniformly awful.  Almost no one behaves in a way that is plausibly realistic.  There is a lot of dialogue in this film and it is important to the action and the performers deliver their lines as if learned phonetically.  In Killer of  Sheep, most of the dialogue, erratically recorded in any event, is inaudible and the film functions best as a silent movie.  My Brother's Wedding is shot in good quality Technicolor and the sound-recording is technically proficient.  But every single line is delivered with false inflections to the point that the movie is almost unwatchably awful.  My Brother's Keeper serves as a stern reminder that good acting is essential to a film's success.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

That Night's Wife

Critics, including this writer, have commented with feigned astonishment on the fact that Yasujiro Ozu's early, flamboyant crime films are stylistically different from the low-key family melodramas for which the director is justly famous.  More important, I think, are the continuities between Ozu's gangster pictures and his serene later movies about aging widowers, unmarried daughters, and melancholy elderly couples.  A good example of a silent crime film with significant connections to the director's later work is That Night's Wife (1930). This picture involves an impoverished young father who commits a crime, apparently a bank robbery, to finance his baby-daughter's medical treatment.  The movie begins with highly stylized, expressionistic imagery of a bank robbery:  there is deep shadow and we see the silhouette of a gun-man fleeing through empty and dark streets.  Colossal architecture dwarfs the fleeing robber and, soon, he is pursued by a crowd of cops.  The city streets glisten in the darkness and cavernous alleyways offer momentary respite for the fugitive.  The cumulative effect of the film's opening ten minutes is that it is an exhaustive exhibit of crime film clichés, most of them unconvincing and, as it turns out, far too grandiose for the rather quotidian subject of the film -- that is, a vigil by the bedside of a sick, and, possibly, dying child.  It seems that Ozu stages the opening crime as a symphony of blacks and whites, a pompous overture that casts doubt as to whether what we are seeing is as important as it is worked-up to appear.  The remainder of the film takes place in a two-room apartment where the mother of a sick child meets with a doctor and, then, attends to her ill baby, kneeling at the bedside of the little girl.  After the doctor leaves, the bank robber appears and, then, a morose-looking flat-foot, the detective who has tracked the young criminal to his lair.  Declining to arrest the young father, the cop shares in the bedside vigil with the sick child and, only in the morning, when the baby is declared to be out of danger, arrests her father.  The young gunman is peculiarly pretty, with a soft, pale face -- he looks more gentle and helpless than his wife.  Ozu's weakness is his sentimentality -- even his greatest films, viewed in some lights, can seem mawkish.  (Ozu's austere late "transcendental style" is, in part, a hedge against the director's maudlin tendencies.)  That Night's Wife is excessively sentimental and, although it is only 65 minutes long, seems to drag -- there's not a lot even a great visual director like Ozu can do with an immobile baby, a kneeling woman, two men staring balefully at one another and a claustrophobic two room apartment.  As in his later films, Ozu is fond of establishing character and tone by still life close-ups -- this movie features "empty frames" showing discarded dolls and whiskey bottles, cigarette butts, and various knick-knacks.  The most interesting feature of the film is the décor in the gangster's apartment -- it resembles the bizarre decorations in another of Ozu's crime films in this Criterion Eclipse series, the more brazen and jocular Walk Cheerfully (also 1930).  In That Night's Wife, the apartment walls are emblazoned with American movie posters (one of them bearing the name of Walter Huston -- I think it is a poster for Dodsworth).  Fragments of poems (or pop song lyrics) and colloquial sayings written in English seem to be penciled onto the walls -- one panel reads "Three is a crowd, Two is company."  There are curious abstractions that have Soviet constructivist look.  I have no idea what these visual devices are supposed to represent but they are entrancing -- did Japanese gangsters practice English by writing fragments of tin-pan alley songs on their walls?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Walk Cheerfully

In the early '30's, Yasujiro Ozu directed a number of silent gangster movies.  Ozu, of course, is famous for his austere "transcendental style," a understated way of making movies that came to fruition in a series of domestic dramas produced after World War Two and continuing until Ozu's death in 1963.  The gangster films that Ozu made at the tail end of the silent era in Japan are surprising in that they reveal a very different approach to movie-making than the exquisitely disciplined classical style for which this director is now best known.  Indeed, a picture like Walk Cheerfully (1930) is thstylistically the polar opposite to the Master's later films like Late Spring (1949)or Tokyo Story (1953)  Walk Cheerfully begins with a bravura camera motion, indeed, the kind of tracking shot that Hollywood directors used to call a "Chinese dolly" -- the camera moves in one direction while the principal characters seemingly central to the image moves in the opposite direction.  (In Ozu's later work, the camera is almost always stationary, poised at tatami level -- that is, viewing the action from the perspective of someone seated on a tatami mat in a traditional Japanese home.)  The movie is filled with movement -- cameras ride along with cars cruising Tokyo's suburbs -- and the picture is raw with inventive camera angles and strange perspectives.  The plot is simple and generic.  A handsome young crook lives with two buddies in what appears to be a gymnasium -- they are always boxing at punching bags and there are posters in English advertising pugilistic exhibitions displayed on the walls.  The thugs hang out in sleazy harbor taverns and work a two-man con, rolling teamsters on the docks.  It's not really appropriate to refer to the bad boys in this picture as Yakuza -- they are too puppyish and harmless to pose any real threat to anyone.  The handsome crook falls in love with an office girl, a sweet secretary who is suffering from sexual harassment at the hands of her boss.  The boy-gangster goes on a couple dates with the office girl and she discovers to her dismay that the young man has a criminal background.  The real thrust of the narrative is the love story -- that is, whether the girl can reform the young man and make a respectable citizen out of him.  The movie is enthralled with the artifacts of Japan's modernization -- the gangsters wear fedoras and flashy suits out of a Warner Brothers crime movie and all of the signs are in English (even in the shipping office where the girl works, the signs on the doors and storefront are written in English characters).  There are some interesting details.  The office girl's kid sister carries a kewpie doll; it gets run over by the youthful gangster's sedan and we see it crushed into the asphalt in the center of the road.  The gangsters are like figures from Damon Runyon story -- they have elaborately choreographed gang gestures and when they meet one another, they bob their heads and swivel their hips in a kind of stylized Conga dance of recognition.  It's charming and idiotic at the same time and reminds me of the indelible little song and dance routine in a barroom that Ozu staged in his last film An Autumn Afternoon.  On one of their dates, the young lovers have a picnic at the great Buddha figure at Kamakura -- a remarkable shot shows the gangster's jalopy parked directly under the colossal meditating figure; the Buddha seems to be cradling the jalopy in his lap.  This kind of shot is typical of the film, an intentionally jarring combination of Western and Japanese elements.  Clearly, the young Ozu was in love with the camera and in silent films, where there was no need to record and synchronize sound, he felt free to experiment with the imagery, telling his story in boldly pictorial terms.  However, the tone of the film is similar in many respects to Ozu's later work -- the gangsters are too gentle to be intimidating and the young girl has a loving mother with whom she commiserates (the family needs the income so she tells the girl to put up with the sexual harassment) as well as lively kid-sister.  The mood of the film is understated and comical in a wry way -- an emotional texture that is similar to Ozu's celebrated later films but here annotated with camera pyrotechnics. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max:  Fury Road, director George Miller's reboot of his Mad Max franchise, is essentially a hyper-kinetic remake of his earlier film, The Road Warrior.  That movie established the standard for action pictures when it was released in 1982..  And it seems likely that Fury Road will similarly set the bar for future movies of this kind.  Indeed, I think it is unlikely that anyone will surpass this movie for sheer mayhem and imaginative carnage at least in the near future.  This is the picture against which other movies of the genre will be judged.  No doubt exists that Miller and his set decorators have an unique vision and that their facility for morbid invention is unsurpassed -- there is too much to see in this picture; the eye is not as agile as the camera and, even, an attentive viewer will walk out of the movie visually exhausted and, even, frustrated by the haunting sense that there was more to be seen in the movie's crowded frames, details that went unnoticed, nuances of massacre and chaos that occurred so swiftly that the viewer had no time to luxuriate in them.  Miller's technique is to stage his violence in a format that seems slightly accelerated -- there is a herky-jerky silent movie aspect to the hundreds of duels on moving vehicles and crashes that he stages.  (I hasten to note that actual silent films properly projected don't have this speeded-up quality -- this is an artifact of projecting a film meant to be projected at 18 frames per second at the sound speed of 24 fps.  Miller's action sequences, however, feel "fast-cranked" -- everything moves at a faster speed than seems exactly plausible, although the director also sometimes effortlessly slows the action to better savor a body hurled hundreds of feet in the air or a particularly gaudy explosion or, of course, two huge vehicles studded with tank-armor crashing into one another.)    The effect of Miller's use of slightly speeded up action is to provide the eye with more footage than can comfortably be seen -- we feel as if we are always struggling to keep up with the violent action.  A ten minute action sequence filmed in this fashion isn't reduced to seven minutes -- the sequence remains the same length it would be if conventionally filmed, but because the characters and vehicles move with more celerity, we have the sense that we are being shown more.  And, of course, Miller is the great poet of parallel motion -- that is, vehicles roaring across wastelands parallel to one another, converging, crashing, and engaging in noisy, explosive combat.  The camera is almost always moving, mounted on one or another of the converging vehicles.  The swarms of attack dune buggies whirling around the big "War rigs" -- that is, huge super-powered semi-tractor-trailers -- are envisioned by the director as so many moving camera platforms:  the lens of the camera is always either veering dangerous close to another moving vehicle, in hot pursuit, or spinning around in front on an oncoming semi to confront the roaring vehicle head-on.  The mise-en-scene exemplifies the purest relativity -- for, at least, half of the movie we are immersed in the action from the perspective of vehicles hurtling across the desert terrain:  all motion is relative -- we are either gaining on another vehicle or falling behind or converging with that vehicle's path.  In part, Miller uses the fast motion effect because many of his stunts are "practical" -- that is not CGI.  These are real vehicles and they are actually interacting with one another and I presume that Miller's carefully choreographed chase and pursuit scenes were filmed at slower speeds so that the many potentially lethal effects could be actually performed.  This is a strength of Miller's Mad Max films -- you always have a sense for the tangible bulk of the moving vehicles, a feeling for their weight and speeds, and, although the spectacular combat sequences are fantastically complex and intricate you never have the sense that the laws of physics are being willfully violated.  When someone jumps from one truck to another and slams through a windshield, the audience has a palpable sense that this would be possible.  One's suspension of disbelief relates to whether the human body could take the kind of impacts, and sustain the sorts of woundswhich the movie lovingly depicts without the hero (and heroine) being killed or, at least, seriously crippled.  I saw the movie in 3D and those effects were perfectly achieved -- the images were crystal clear and the use of the third dimension was not particularly intrusive.  In other words, I watched the movie and was not distracted by gratuitous three dimensional effects -- the only exceptions were shots intended to be witty, including a scene in which a flame-throwing guitar played by a hideous mutant mounted atop a platform on the front of a Mack truck is flung into the audience's space, hovering battered and broken mid-air over our heads as an emblem of the death of the murderous freak-musician.

The audience attending this show gets exactly what it has paid for.  And the spectacle is so voluptuously detailed and frenzied that it is certainly possible to wax enthusiastic about many of the action scenes.  So it remains for me to explain why I am just a tiny bit disappointed in the film.  In all essential respects, the movie is a remake of The  Road Warrior -- it differs from that picture only in that the choreography of destruction is more advanced and beautiful.  Fury Road's defect is that there is nothing in the form of the movie or its characters or execution that we haven't already seen and can't, more or less, predict.  This criticism must be properly understood.  Miller's visual imagination is Rabelaisian and unflagging -- the movie is full of grotesque images that we have never seen before and that no one could imagine but Miller.  There are obese pregnant women used as milk-producing dairy animals; cascades of water released in from barren cliffs to swarming thousands of mutants; the bad guys use captured victims as "blood bags" transfusing their blood into their own bodies when going into combat; war boys who look like lemurs, bald heads and black raccoon eyes, spray their lips and mouth with silver paint to "chrome" themselves for admission into a motor-head Vahalla -- the effect to make their mouths look like the teeth of skulls; there are grotesque mutations, a dwarf lord who is chunk of flabby flesh in a rickety throne wheelchair, and the five wives of the chief War Lord and villain are filmed like pre-Raphaelite virgins, dressed in diaphanous white that, nonetheless, displays their nipples; at the climax, a motorcycle mob of old crones takes on the bad guys; in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ragged figures wander to and fro among blasted trees on stilts while ravens and crows harry them.  All of these things are extraordinary and worth the price of admission.  And yet... there really isn't much of a plot.  Mad Max is captured by the War Lord with the five brides, a guy who wears a snarling Joker-style jawbone over his mutilated face.  The villainous War Lord pursues a woman-warrior (played by Charlize Theron) who has abducted the five brides and seeks to take them to the "green place" -- that is, the place of the Mothers.  (This seems to be a reference to the post-apocalyptic oasis that features in the last of the previous Mad Max series, Mad Max and the Thunder Dome.  The woman warrior played by Ms Theron is an amplified version of the Valkyrie played by Tina Turner in the Thunder Dome movie.  The bad guys in a horde of dune buggies chase the war-rig driven by Theron's character and there are high-speed duels with arrows, grenade launchers and the like.  Max and one of the war boys ends up in Theron's rig and, after a disappointing exodus through the desert -- the "green place" has been poisoned -- everyone turns around and returns to the mountain citadel from whence they came.  The battles in the first half of the movie are vehicle to vehicle.  As in The Road Warrior, the battles in the second part of the movie up the ante by having swarms of combatants leaping and diving onto the moving truck -- in this movie, the bad guys are perched on forty foot tall pole-vaulting poles; this allows them to flex and bend, swooping down to let the bad guys hop onto the truck or toss grenades or snatch a damsel out of an adversary vehicle, and, then, swinging back, like huge inverted pendulums in the other direction.  One by one the noble good characters dies heroically and, in the end, the most evil of the villains, the snarl-faced Joker war lord is killed.  The movie is essentially silent -- there are less lines of dialogue in the picture than you would find intertitles in most silent movies.  The second half of the film is more affecting because we know the characters and have empathy for them because we have seen them evolve -- but their evolution is completely predictable:  the loner, Max, as in the earlier films, shows himself willing to sacrifice his life to save the embattled women; the loathsome, slug-like war boy falls in love with one of the war lord's wives and dies to protect her.  The old women on motorcyles are mostly picked-off and Charlize Theron's character is so badly wounded that it seems as if she will die.  The formula was old when it was perfected by John Ford in Stagecoach -- the post-apocalyptic hordes are just another version of Apaches on the war path. In broad form and outline, the movie is exactly what the audience expects.  But except for sound and fury, it isn't really an advance on the previous Road Warrior film -- it's just more accomplished, more hectic, maybe, even more exciting but otherwise just a super-charged remake of the earlier film.       

The Ascent

Larisa Shepitko's 1977 Soviet war film, The Ascent, is so preposterously grim that it is faintly risible.  In the movie, someone says:  "If you crawl through shit, you can't ever wash it off."  And this questionable proverb pretty much describes the film -- it's an excursion through an icy hell that the director intends to indelibly mark the viewer.  But, in order to endure a picture of this sort, you have to shrug it off.  You find yourselves speculating on how the movie was made:  "Okay, it's a big close-up.  Stare into the camera and wail with as much suffering as you can muster.  After all, you're only thirty seconds from being hanged by the neck until dead."  This is the paradox of big prestigious films about the holocaust (or various holocausts) -- watching Schindler's List or The Killing Fields, your response is always to ask:  What was it like on the set?  How was the buffet for the extras starring in the concentration camp sequences?  What did they serve? Who had custody of the mutilated dying baby mock-ups?

In The Ascent, a group of Soviet partisans is trudging through waist-deep snow when they are attacked by Germans.  The partisans include women, babies and children, and wounded people being dragged on jury-rigged toboggans.  The partisans are freezing to death and have almost no ammunition and, when they stop for meal, each person is given exactly one tea-spoon of something that looks like toasted barley.  Schepitko films on location in deep snow and she keeps the camera close to the action, showing people's faces as they munch on their ludicrously minuscule rations.  Two of the partisans are sent to a nearby village to get food.  One of the men, Sotnikov, is very ill -- he seems to have pneumonia and is constantly coughing.  He can barely walk.  The other man, Kolya, is in better shape.  The village seems to have been burned down, but there is another town where a few people are still clinging to life notwithstanding the fact that the Germans have taken their cow and pig.  (Apparently, the town had only one cow and one pig).  The people in that town are collaborators with the Germans and led by a bearded patriarch who is first seen reading his Bible -- this is, after all, a Soviet picture and religious people are generally depicted as either weak or villainous.  The two partisans appropriate the carcass of a lamb and are fleeing over the icy steppe when they encounter Germans.  In a firefight, Sotnikov, the man with pneumonia, is shot in the leg.  He decides to fight off the Germans, saving the final bullet for himself.  He is in the process of trying to blow off his own head when Kolya comes to his rescue, having abandoned his dead lamb.  Kolya grabs the wounded man and drags him for hundreds of feet through a bramble patch -- this agonizing crawl, played like something out of a Beckett novel, is filmed in brutal close-up and goes on for a long time.  The two men escape to a nearby farmhouse where Sotnikov's coughing causes them to be captured together with the peasant woman who gave them shelter.   With their capture, the relatively fun, light, and carefree part of the picture concludes.  In the last hour of the picture, the two partisans are tortured, people get branded with red hot irons, and everyone is punched and kicked and gouged repeatedly.  Finally, a bunch of people are executed after being marched for some distance up a steep hill.  The entire town is forced to watch the execution, a hanging that includes the peasant mother and a little girl who is so little that the murderers have to give a crate to stand on so that the noose will reach her neck.  There is a philosophical debate between Kolya and Sotnikov in a rat-infested dungeon. Sotnikov is saintly and has huge liquid eyes and his stare unmans the various German and Russian torturers.  Furthermore, the damn guy won't die.  They brand him with a foot-wide star, beat him unconscious, but, like Everlast battery bunny, he takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'.  In fact, during the execution scene, a protracted Goyaesque nightmare, he even manages to stand on a stump, balancing there for a long-time, notwithstanding the fact that one of his legs has been, more or less, shot off.  Shepitkov can't bring herself to show the Germans and their Russian collaborators killing Sotnikov, who has announced that he is good Bolshevik and supporter of the Soviet regime -- he seems to auto-execute himself by jumping off the stump so that he can be hanged with the little girl, the peasant, and the old man (the collaborator with the Bible who has now become a good  Russian once more.)  Kolya, who is willing to compromise, ends the film as a policeman working for the Germans -- but not before attempting to hang himself in an outhouse.  He howls with grief and weeps and the camera draws away from him across a snowy landscape where an old church is half-buried in the ice.  This kind of extreme imagery cries out for Christian allusions and Shepitko would like to stage the execution as a kind of Passion but she can't do this explicitly for fear of censorship.  So the end of the film has a muted, faintly disassociated aspect -- it is replete with Christian symbolism, but that symbolism has to be veiled to the point of seeming botched.

In Herodotus, the great Greek historian is quick to point out that in the great Patriotic War, more Greeks were allied with the Persians than with the Athenians and Spartans.  Shepitko makes the same point in this film.  The chief interrogator in the German concentration camp is played by Anatoly Sonitsyn, Tarkovsky's favorite actor -- he is in Andrei  Rublev and, also, Solaris.  In the great Patriotic War that saved the Soviet Union, it seems that there were as many Russians fighting for the Germans as fighting against them.  This is also the theme of Alexey German's Trial on the Road and casts an interesting light on these pictures -- there is an implicit critique of the Soviet regime merely in the fact that so many people seem to have joined the Germans to fight against it.   

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Miss Mend

Miss Mend (1926) is a Soviet serial, modeled after audience-pleasing American and German crime films.  It is immensely long, 4 and 1/2 hours, and rather sloppy in its execution, although the picture has some engaging sequences.  I can't recommend this film to anyone except silent movie enthusiasts or cinephiles with an interest in Soviet-era films.  Unlike the American serials that I saw as a child in small-town movie theaters, Miss Mend is elaborately produced and has impressive sets and first-rate acting.  French serials by Louis Feuillade established a genre intended be shown in two-reel installments; American serials followed the same pattern. But Miss Mend seems to derive from the colossal films made by UFA in Berlin, specifically Fritz Lang's first Mabuse film, shown in two ninety minutes parts, and Joe May'sThe Indian Tomb (on which Lang also worked) constructed according to the same principal.  Miss Mend is divided into three parts, each ninety minutes long.  The story involves a plucky secretary named Vivien Mend who stumbles into a conspiracy to destroy the Bolshevik revolution directed from an American factory town by an evil oligarch, Alexander Stern, and his henchman, Chiche.  The first two hours of the film are ostensibly set in the United States although the movie, on the appearance of its locations, seems to have been shot in Odessa or some other Black Sea city.  The film is not particularly fast-moving although it begins with a bravura sequence, a strike at an American factory put down by mobs of Keystone Kop police who end up in a slapstick pursuit of Miss Mend, a supporter of the strikers, and her three admirers, Hopkins, Fogel, and Barnet.  While attempting to elude the inept army of cops, Miss Mend hitches a ride with the mysterious Stern, a capitalist and plutocrat, involved in the plot to destabilize the Bolshevik regime.  Miss Mend doesn't know that Stern is a villain and seems to be in love with him.  Stern lives in a huge mansion filled with ornate carved furniture and suits of armor conveniently located so that the trio of Miss Mend's allies can conceal themselves in them.  The first ninety minutes of the film involves a disputed will.  The elder Stern, who may be alive or dead or both like Schroedinger's cat (he is comatose in a casket but keeps emerging from time to time) is claimed to have been killed abroad by Bolsheviks.  The bad guys have substituted a forged Will for Stern's actual testament providing that his fortune will be paid to a shadowy criminal "Organization" dedicated to destroying Bolshevism.  There is some effectively macabre stuff about the dead man who keeps appearing as a corpse or revenant -- he looks convincingly dead and, indeed, half-decayed and his ontological status is never explained.   In the second installment of the serial, the action shifts to Russia.  The Organization has sent Stern to Moscow carrying deadly bacteria in ampules that he intends to affix to broadcasting antennae in Russia and, somehow, it seems disseminate with the radio waves -- the science in this film doesn't make any sense at all.  There is a clumsy subplot about a child in Miss Mend's care kidnapped by the villains.  The child is murdered but no one seems to pay much attention to this development. Miss Mend and her three side-kicks travel to Russian to prevent Stern from committing his attack on the Bolsheviks with the biological weapon of mass destruction.  Although most of the picture is lack-luster, a number of scenes have a grim power -- the sequence showing men and women dying from the plague on the ship in the Russian harbor is scary and there are some effective brawls.  Vivian Mend is played by Natalia Glan and she is the best thing in the movie.  Glan moves like a ballerina, an important asset because the film involves lots of climbing, jumping and running.  Glan has a long equine face with protruding worried-looking eyes and a flare of black hair on both sides of her head that gives her a Futurist-look -- the hair is like the wings on The Flash's mask, fins that suggest that she is always in fast motion.  At first, Glan is unprepossessing and seems too homely for the film but she grows on you and, in fact, is one of those rare actresses who can seem both supernaturally beautiful and very plain and down-to-earth in almost the same shot.  Her admirers are foppish dandies, ostensibly journalists and cameramen working for a newspaper -- they are rivals for Miss Mend's affections, although she pays them little or no heed.  Boris Barnet, himself an important Soviet director, plays one of the men and is the romantic lead in the film, a handsome fellow who looks like a Hollywood matinee idol.  The directors of the film (Barnet is one) are excessively enamoured with the Kuleshov effect -- they cut scenes together in a haphazard way and don't care much about continuity.  Indeed, most of the action scenes are marred by the fact that they don't take place in any convincing topography -- the actors often seem strangely isolated from one another.  The film is like Lang's first Mabuse picture:  it has many interesting faces and features very large sets vertically proportioned since the films' visual aspect is pillar-boxed.  But the film seems slow-paced for this genre and is negligently constructed -- it seems to have a modern Hollywood director's contempt for the audience's intelligence.  (In an early scene, a gun is brandished in a bar fight in a wharfside dive.  A black stevedore is shot and left dead on the floor.  When the authorities arrive, someone asks if anyone was hurt.  "No, only a Negro has been killed.  But that doesn't matter."  At least so an intertitle informs us.  A reminder that Black lives didn't matter back in those days -- at least, in the Soviet interpretation of American society.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Show Boat (1936)

James Whale's 1936 version of the musical Show Boat should be required viewing for all students of American history or cinema  Based on a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber, the epic story spanning 30 years and several continents touches a raw nerve in the American psyche -- clearly there is something about the subject of the musical that impinges upon our conscience in a persistent and ineradicable way.  This is the theme of Black and White miscegenation expressed literally, as well as culturally and symbolically.  Consider, for instance, a remarkable set of sequences occurring about fifteen minutes into the two hour film:  Queenie, played by the formidable Hattie McDaniels, nags her husband, Joe (Paul Robeson) about his laziness.  Joe withdraws from her to the riverside wharf where he sits whittling and sings "Ole Man River."  Whale correctly understands that this number is a "show stopper" and so he deploys all of his resources (and the resources of Universal Studios) to extravagantly illustrate the song.  The camera dollies in a circle tracking tightly around Joe.  The effect of the bravura camera motion is make it seem that Joe is beleaguered, harried, under surveillance from all sides.  This effect is emphasized by close-ups of Joe's face.  While Robeson sings, he makes sneaky sidelong glances with his eyes, looking away from the camera off-screen as if fearful of a lynch mob or some cruel boss come to torment him.  Robeson's face has a wounded and harried expression.  Whale inserts into Robeson's basso profundo aria expressionist chiaroscuro shots of African-American workers straining to tote huge bales or hoeing in cotton fields -- these shots have a sinewy, densely corrugated look, something like engravings by Rockwell Kent.  "Ole Man River" is followed by a shot in the belly of the showboat where Captain Andy's beautiful daughter, Magnolia, listens to the company's leading lady, Julie, sing a Blues song.  (This is a famous song that begins "Fish gotta swim / Birds gotta fly.")  The song is mostly tin-pan alley schmaltz but it has Blues-inflected refrain.  The song moves Magnolia to dance and she moves in a bizarre undulating motion, a kind of gelatinous wiggle that is supposed to mimic African-American forms of dance -- indeed, she dances with a snaky cartilaginous motion as if, to quote another Blues tune, her "back ain't got no bone."  It's altogether extraordinary.  When Magnolia sashays out onto the wharf all of the darkies gathered there begin to dance as well -- twenty years before Elvis Presley, we have the spectacle of a White woman trying to dance like an African-American, or, more precisely, with what she might imagine to be the sexual swagger of an African-American.  What follows is even more astonishing:  a price must be paid for crossing the color line.  The sheriff arrives.  It turns out that Julie is a quadroon, or something on that order -- that is, a person decreed black by the laws of the State.  She has a white husband and, therefore, is in violation of the Mississippi statute.  Before the sheriff can enter the showboat to serve his writ, Julie's husband cuts her finger with a knife, holds her bleeding hand to his mouth, and swallows some of her blood.  When the sheriff arrives, Julie's husband proclaims that he has Black blood in him and that, therefore, the marriage is lawful "it's true, is it not, that even one drop of Negro blood make you Black," Julie's husband declaims to the snarling sheriff.  The witnesses all agree that both have Black blood in them and, for the time being, the couple is spared arrest.  These three scenes have an alarming quality both seductive and menacing and illustrate vividly the way that Black and White are intertwined in this country.  In fact, these three scenes are so vivid and indelible that the rest of the movie is an exercise in running away from the truths expressed in the opening forty minutes of the film.

In broad terms, Show Boat is a family melodrama.  A handsome stranger, Gaylord Ravenal, woos Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy, the show boat impresario.  When the mulatto, Julie and her husband, the company's leading man, are forced to leave the show boat on charges of miscegenation, Magnolia assumes her role opposite Ravenal.  The couple are married and have a child, Kim (Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi -- named for the States of the show boat's river town venues).  Gaylord and Magnolia leave the show boat for Chicago where they stay for a time at the Palmer House.  But Gaylord is a riverboat gambler and a feckless husband.  He abandons the family.  Impoverished, Magnolia looks for a singing job.  Julie, now a broken-down alcoholic (presumably, paying the price for her miscegenation), is singing at a Chicago night club, the Trocadero.  She goes on a drinking binge allowing Magnolia to take her part in the revue.  Magnolia, of course, is a great performer and becomes an internationally renowned actress -- she performs for the Queen in London.  Magnolia retires and her daughter, Kim, takes her place as a leading lady on Broadway.  One night, Gaylord Ravenal, now old with white hair, appears at the theater where his daughter is performing.  The family is briefly reunited and Magnolia, together with her erring husband, sing a final duet together. 

Half of the film's action takes place in a theatrical milieu remote from the titular show boat -- a venue that simply vanishes half-way through the movie and that weakens the film by its disappearance.  The theme of the musical is that all American theater is unified by certain themes and styles -- the broad and inept acting on the show boat, interspersed with minstrel oleos and dance numbers, is kissing cousin to, or, even, perhaps, the progenitor of the Broadway musical and the legitimate stage.  In effect, American culture is necessarily jazz and blues-inflected:  all true American culture is Afro-American.  This proposition is illustrated by a dizzying array of musical styles and genres presented by the film -- Show Boat is a virtual musical encyclopedia of pop culture as it existed in 1936.  In the film, we see minstrel numbers performed by White people in Black face (at one point Magnolia gets a job as a "coon-shouter") along side performances of African-American dances like the cakewalk performed by actual Black dancers.  There are hyper-kinetic versions of Black dance steps performed by White vaudeville players, rag-time numbers, and sentimental ballads as well as an eroticized version of the French Can-Can.  In a vast and cavernous night club, Magnolia sings "After the Ball is Over" while her drunken father weeps.  Vaudeville performers prance about in top hat and cane and Captain Andy does a spectacular knock-about slapstick routine in which her plays all the parts of romantic triangle involved in a fistfight.  All of this is presented with the utmost exuberance -- when the show boat docks in the little Mississippi town where the film begins, everyone dashes to the wharf including a horse that breaks loose from its stall and a plump mother pig who abandons her piglets to see the parade of show boat performers.  The characters sing in front of enormous humid-looking rear projections, mostly night skies and moonlight or the southern heavens in the afternoon adorned with huge cumulo-nimbus storm clouds.  When Magnolia sings the Black-face number, "Galivantin' Around," Whale cuts momentarily, but incisively, to the actual African-American audience relegated to the cheap seats high above the stage rather mournfully watching the performance.  Despite the evidence of Black culture everywhere, the film, nevertheless, documents an effort to obscure these origins and to conceal this influence -- in a sequence that has the analytical flavor of Brecht, we see white actors with a Black ballet company performing on an idealized Dixie set on Broadway, an enormous ante-bellum plantation house where colorfully dressed African-Americans dance for their genteel masters and mistresses.  To the modern ear, the singing is irritating and pretentious, quasi-operatic warbling that has a pinched, nasal quality.  The Romantic lead is particularly problematic:  Universal cast a pretty boy actor, Allan Jones, in the role of Magnolia's suitor because of his success in the Marx Brothers' film, A Night at the Opera.  Jones has a glazed, enameled look and it doesn't help that everyone calls him "Gay."  (Of course, Whale was openly homosexual and, another, more deeply covert subtext in the film, is the gay influence on American pop culture).  Jones sings with an enlarged, tremulous vibrato that is painful to hear.  In fact, most of the singing in the film doesn't really match the visuals and the eclectic tour of different styles of popular music -- whenever Irene Dunne (as Magnolia) opens her mouth, she sings in a faux-operatic contralto -- it is the exact opposite of the very natural folk-song-like bel canto that Judy Garland displays in a film made only three years later, The Wizard of Oz.  Despite these flaws, Show Boat is mandatory viewing.     

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wolf Hall (and Veep)

Wolf Hall exists in various versions.  There is a celebrated historical novel by Hilary Mantel, the original source for this material.  A Broadway show, apparently epic in length, has adapted Mantel's book to the stage.  The version here considered is a six-hour series aired on PBS in the Spring of 2015.  The proliferation of Wolf Halls is puzzling to me.  Admittedly, I have never acquired the slightest interest in the British royals and their private lives, and so, the subject of Wolf Hall, the 8th Henry and his romantic entanglements, doesn't appeal to me.  I don't know the story, haven't read the book, and the general subject of the narrative, the exercise of political and dynastic power in the 16th century, seems remote from anything modern -- in short, and to use a horrible term, these materials doesn't seem "relevant" to me, although this is probably short-sighted and, even, obtuse.  Of course, film makers have been attracted to the morbid story of Henry and his six wives for as long as there has been cinema -- and, indeed, before:  Schiller wrote Mary Stuart about one of Henry's nieces (she figures remotely in Wolf Hall).  Alexander Korda made a film about the King and his romances.  In my lifetime, the persecution of the detestable Sir Thomas More by Henry was portrayed in A Man for all Seasons; Ann Boleyn's miserable fate has been the subject of a half-dozen films including Anne of a Thousand Days and The Other Boleyn Girl.  This obvious and persistent interest in a topic that doesn't inspire me in the slightest demonstrates that my views on the subject in general must, necessarily, be dissenting.  (Wolf Hall, as shown on PBS, seems very perceptive on the subject of class distinctions -- much of the action is driven by resentment against the power wielded by a man of humble origins, the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith's son.  Americans raised to think they live in a classless society will be blind to much of what is significant in this story.)

PBS' Wolf Hall is brilliantly acted and staged with a certain funereal magnificence.  The castles halls seem realistically dank and the skies are mostly overcast.  The costuming is spectacular and the photography, if gloomy, has an effective chiaroscuro character -- scenes shot in candle-lit halls seem to actually have been lit by candles.  The characters in their ermine-trimmed furs always seem to be a little bit cold and their gestures and appearance have the somber and precise splendor of portraits by Holbein.  The problem that I have with the series is that the subject matter is baffling and the mise en scene remote to the point of indifference.  The program details Machiavellian scheming by Henry's counselors (and his adversaries) focusing on the character of Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell is not a "happy warrior" -- rather, he is a somewhat sullen, taciturn conniver, a man who keeps his own counsel and speaks only in vague riddles.  The nobles and the King are portrayed as thugs, arrogant gangsters, and the loyal factotum or, more accurately, henchman, Thomas Cromwell, acts with increasing viciousness throughout the series, his villainy reaching its climax when he effects a Stalinist-style purge of Anne Boleyn and her courtiers, a series of murders accomplished by way of perjury, torture, and a show-trial.  Since Cromwell is portrayed as generally sympathetic -- he is a kind father and diligent husband until his wife dies -- our emotional response to the principal character is complex and riven with conflict.  It's as if someone were to contrive a lengthy film showing Goebbels as a gentle and wise family man, a paternal figure from Father Knows Best, burdened by a nasty day job -- or, as if we were asked to applaud the scheming of a man like Beria in Stalin's court.  Cromwell is a tool of Henry's policy, but we are never shown the nature of that policy nor the value of Henry's dynastic ambitions.  Is Henry a good king, a bad one, or a mediocrity as the series seems to suggest?  Why is Cromwell so slavishly loyal to him?  On the surface of things, nothing seems to be at stake except Henry's ability to sire a son.  This incapacity leads to all sorts of trouble, including the execution of Thomas More and the Protestant Reformation in England -- clearly, it seems that something else must be at stake here, but whatever that might be, we aren't told.  Like most PBS shows of the Masterpiece Theater type, the program moves with glacial dignity -- most of the shots show Cromwell pacing about in his elegant dark robes, usually in a colloquy with one of his co-conspirators or exchanging cryptic epigrams with an adversary:  it resembles an Aaron Sorkin show like The West Wing on Quaaludes.  Although the subject matter is Shakespearian, the dialogue seems modern, clipped, brusque patter from a play by Harold Pinter -- there are no stirring speeches, no flights of imagination, no unusual imagery, and, alas, no soliloquies to explain what motivates any of the characters.  Accordingly, we are left with an image of the people and their era that never comes into focus.  I recognize this as an esthetic choice, indeed, as a brave decision to allow the material to remain ambiguous, but this decision strips the material of any drama -- there's no real conflict since everything is controlled by Cromwell and his king and, of course, all outcomes are never in doubt.  The adaptation seems respectful, hushed, and highly disciplined -- the sheer strangeness of the medieval past is never exploited:  the show doesn't revel in freakish images and the characters all are dignified and articulate, probably like the bureaucrats at PBS and the BBC that produced this program.  The powerful last episode featuring the execution of Anne Boleyn demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the series.  Given the brief of removing Anne Boleyn from power, Cromwell contrives her prosecution for a series of crimes, including incestuous adultery with her own brother.  It would seem to me that a show about the death of Anne Boleyn should probably take some position as to whether that woman was guilty of some of the offenses charged against her.  Wolf Hall leaves this completely unclear -- Cromwell's insinuating interviews with witnesses against the Queen suggest that he actually believes that she is guilty.  (Indeed, when he confronts the Queen with the accusation of incest, Cromwell takes care to lay out a lawyerly case as to why such a crime might be plausible.) So we are left with this interpretative crux -- is she really guilty?  and does Cromwell believe she is guilty? Or is he merely a superb prosecutor who comes to believe in the justice of his prosecution, even, though intellectually he knows that the Queen is entirely innocent?  Or is he simply acting with total malevolence in the service of the King -- that is, intentionally convicting a woman that he must know to be innocent?  All of this is left radically unclear -- with the result, as I have said, that the show is "blurred"; it never comes into focus.  Similarly, on the scaffold, Anne Boleyn makes a pathetic speech praising the King.  Because she is terrified and scarcely able to speak, her voice doesn't carry and the crowd of people gathered in the courtyard to see her beheaded can't hear what she is saying.  If the series were to have the courage of its absurdist, and Pinteresque convictions, Anne's speech would not be audible -- people would strain to hear her, but not know what she is saying.  But this is Masterpiece Theater and home audience gathered for the execution in front of their wide-screen TVs have tuned-in to enjoy the lavish production, the beautiful costumes, and the gorgeous Royal Shakespeare Company diction.  And so the director cuts to a close-up so that we can hear exactly what poor Anne is saying -- the audience appreciates this, but it seems to be cheating.  Either we are going to be allowed to know things with certainty about Henry and Anne and the other denizens of his age.  Or we are going to be deprived of any real knowledge.  Wolf Hall mixes the two paradigms in an unsettling way and this simply blurs most of what we are seeing and, of course, confounds our response to the material.

In Ozu's late films, we are shown something that is very rare in cinema, a special effect almost never effectively achieved -- in some of the great director's shots, we seem to see people actually thinking.  Mark Ryland's performance as Thomas Cromwell is similar -- as we watch him observing Henry's court, we seem to be seeing a man engaged in deep and intelligent thought.  This is a great rarity.  But Ryland's brilliant acting seems in service of something small and, even, contemptible -- his Cromwell doesn't act, he schemes and plots for the King.  Although Cromwell engineers much of what we see in the program, he is a fundamentally passive tool, an instrument in the hands of the King, and his lack of agency, ultimately, frustrates the audience.

Wolf Hall airs on Sunday night and, as soon as its chilly tableaux end, with some relief, I switch to HBO to watch Julia Louis Dreyfus in the raunchy political comedy Veep.  In this season's show, Dreyfus has succeeded to the presidency.  Like Henry VIII in Wolf Hall she is surrounded by an unctuous mob of sycophants and toadying assistants.  If anything, she is even more perverse and thuggish than Henry in Wolf Hall -- no one gets beheaded, but characters are continuously humiliated, publicly abused and shamed, and summarily dismissed from service.  Dreyfus' corrupt president spends all of her time scheming for political advantage -- around her the world is going up in flames and the economy seems to be collapsing, but she pays none of these crises any mind.  The politicians that surround her, all of them conniving for her failure, are also uniformly moronic, self-serving, and vicious.  The show is nihilistic -- it's premise is that all politics is so irredeemably corrupt as to be laughable -- and, certainly, suggests to its audience that our response to the great questions of our age should be limited to helpless despair.  But it's a funny show with a lot of witty, if vulgar, dialogue.  And to be frank, Veep renders Wolf Hall superfluous.  It's Wolf Hall with jokes and some slapstick comedy and sans the beheadings, torture, ermine-fringed robes, and candle-lit dungeons.  Just about everything you can find in Wolf Hall is shown more effectively and more cynically in Veep. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Tina Fey's sit-com on Netflix, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is reasonably amusing, funny, and. until it loses nerve, disquieting.  The 13 show series is also a return to a kind of situation comedy that was ubiquitous throughout the sixties and seventies -- in short, the kind of TV show that provided a moral anchor to my childhood.  Sit-coms in the decade of Andy Griffith, That Girl, and Mary Tyler Moore were didactic.  The shows were written to present clear ethical and moral dilemmas that would be solved by the end of the episode.  Each show presented a moral proposition, appealing to its bourgeoisie viewers -- pride, greed, and vanity were predictably rebuked, honesty was always awarded, legitimate authority was applauded and prevailed in the end.  These shows, even proto-feminist series like Mary Tyler Moore and That Girl, endorsed conventional gender roles.  By characterizing these programs in this light, I don't mean to denigrate them -- in fact, many of these shows were works of consummate artistry that remain fresh and vibrant even as reruns.  Furthermore, these moralizing comedies were ingenious and difficult to produce -- each was a short story complete with a didactic message, delivered efficiently and with as much humor as possible.  By contrast, the cruelty and casual nihilism of today's sit-coms, things like Two-and-a-Half Men or Family Guy, seems easy to achieve.  The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fits strongly into the pattern of the conventionally didactic sit-com of the sixties and seventies -- indeed, the show has something of a retro-feeling and is a perverse update of the girl-in-the-city sit-com, the formula that Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore made famous.  Kimmy Schmidt has changed her name to "Kimmy Smith" and moved to New York City to make her fortune.  Like the heroines of previous girl-in-the-big-city sit-coms, she is equipped with a supporting cast of zany characters.  Her roommate is a flamboyant gay man named Titus Adromanon and the role of the comical landlady, played by Cloris Leachman in the Mary Tyler Moore show, is updated:  Carol Kane appears as a besotted, nymphomaniacal landlady in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Kimmy is employed by a vicious and fantastically narcissistic Park Avenue housewife, a part played by Jane Krakowski.  Krakowski is always excellent and she delicately portrays the very slight panic and loneliness of the character, a woman clinging to a husband who is unfaithful to her.  (Tina Fey's shows specialize in providing back stories to her characters -- the blonde Krakowski is a full-blooded Lakotah Indian from South Dakota who has dyed her hair and fled, like Kimmy, to the big city.  The scenes showing Krakowski's character with her family of origin are carefully written -- they are funny, poignant, walking a fine line between satire and condescension.)  All of this is very standard and predictable.  What is different is that Fey provides Kimmy Schmidt with an astounding and profoundly disturbing reason for fleeing her former identity and moving to New York.  Kimmy Schmidt is one of "the Indiana mole-women" -- that is, she was kidnapped when she was fifteen by a psychotic religious fanatic and imprisoned for another fifteen years in a secret underground bunker.  Although the show is discrete on this point, it's apparent that Kimmy was repeatedly tortured and sexually assaulted during her imprisonment.  Accordingly, the show has as its premise an atrocity -- the sexual slavery of a young woman for half of her life in an underground prison.  (The sit-com is clearly based on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Salt Lake City and the rescue of the three Cleveland women imprisoned for many years by Ariel Castro.)  Against this dark background, Kimmy Schmidt's little victories, her tentative romances and ability to form friendships and function in the big city, are moving and inspiring -- the moral of this program is invigorating:  Kimmy is not a victim; she is claiming her life for herself; she is both empowered and empowering. 

For the first six or so episodes, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is very strong, disturbing, and powerful -- it is also very funny.  The first half of the series probably climaxes with an episode in which Kimmy goes to see a nightmarish plastic surgeon played grotesquely by Martin Short.  (Her employer has gone to see the doctor to get Botox shots).  Short's face is locked into a sardonic grimace and, because his skin is so excessively taut, he can barely speak.  He offers to show Kimmy "the Lifetime network or a little porno" on the TV poised over his treatment couch, remarking that Kimmy's skin is remarkably clear, "completely undamaged by the sun" but that she has "very strong scream lines."  After this exceptionally strong first half-dozen episodes, the show reverts to standard sit-com tropes -- the characters wear wacky costumes, there are elaborate parodies, and the stories become increasingly absurd; more supporting actors are introduced, and, some of them -- for instance a feckless local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) from Indiana -- are not very funny.  For about four episodes, the show is funny but its undertone of menace and atrocity are muted -- it's a bit like Thirty Rock or Community.  Apparently sensing that the show's inventiveness was flagging, Fey's screenwriters ratchet up the conflict by staging a trial of the monstrous kidnaper who abducted the four women.  The eleventh episode introduces the trial in Indiana and is brilliant, the highlight of the series.  Tina Fey plays an incompetent prosecutor like Marcia Clark, the hapless prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial and Jon Hamm appears as the noxious, but relentlessly charming, kidnaper.  The show is hilarious but also contains the seeds of the program's ultimate failure.  First, the episode equates a cult-like fitness instructor in New York City to the Indiana kidnaper -- although this is funny and effective, it is emotionally a miscue.  The kidnaper viciously deprived a young girl of her childhood and half of her life; the fitness instructor is preying on some wealthy socialites in New York by taking their money in exchange for "spinning" (that is, fixed bicycle training).  The equation works for awhile, but it is disingenuous.  Second, Jon Hamm plays the kidnaper as a likeable if dishonest fellow -- this falsifies entirely the dire implications of the series first six episodes.  Indeed, the trial of the kidnaper occupies entirely episodes 12 and 13 and here it is evident that Tina Fey and her writers have entirely lost their nerve.  The show minimizes the women's mistreatment.  The problem is that by approaching too closely the nightmarish back-story on which the show is premised, the writers find themselves in the situation of making jokes about something that they can't bring themselves to make funny.  And, so, the script downplays the kidnaper's viciousness, undercuts the earlier hints about his savagery, and allows Jon Hamm to play the man as loveable rogue. This doesn't work and its more than a little icky. This approach, in effect, destroys the show and it ends on a sour note.  (Netflix ordered another season of the  show and we will have to see how Ms. Fey solves the problems afflicting the first series' last two episodes). 

I recommend that you watch the first five or six episodes -- they are all on Netflix streaming and only 27 minutes each.  I also recommend the first episode involving the trial (Tina Fey's presence re-invigorates the show) -- I think it is the 11th episode in the 13 show sequence.  And failing that, make sure you watch, at least, the superb title sequence:  we see a hatch opening in darkness, a SWAT team lifting women up into the light.  The women are wearing Amish style dresses and the camera swoops across the green field where the bunker was hidden to show Kimmy grinning stupidly at the sun and open sky.  This is all intercut with shots of a next-door neighbor, the ubiquitous guy in the trailer next to the monster's house of horrors who always appears on the evening news to declare that the bad guy was completely normal, a regular dude who kept to himself, and gave no sign of his wickedness.  In the case of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the neighbor is clearly modeled on the wonderful Charles Ramsey, one of the rescuers of the girls kidnaped by Ariel Castro in Cleveland.  Ramsey is so wonderful in the local news coverage as to his involvement in the rescue that he deserves a sit-com of his own.  Before watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidit, you should watch the You-Tube footage of Ramsey's two-minute interview on the afternoon of the Cleveland rescue -- "I was just sittin' on my porch eatin' my McDonald's and, then...." 

Sauve qui Peut (la Vie)

Jean-Luc Godard's 1979 Sauve qui Peut (la Vie), released in the U. S. as Every Man for Himself -- the French title means something like "Save Yourself!," an imperative that might be uttered in the context of a shipwreck -- was touted as Godard's return to mainstream cinema after half a decade wandering the Maoist wasteland as part of the Dziga Vertov documentary group.  Godard himself described the picture as his "second first film," drawing a connection between the movie and 1961's Breathless.  The film is reasonably accessible and, indeed, comprised of three interlocking narratives that can be readily deciphered -- in this film, we know who's doing what to whom, a rarity in Godard's later films, although it is, certainly, not clear why some of things that we see are occurring.  I don't like this movie -- it is shallow, cold, repellant, and disingenuous.  On the Criterion disk, there are a variety of helpful extra materials, including a couple of cringe-inducing interviews with Dick Cavett.  (Cavett is obviously suffused with boyish awe for the great filmmaker and Godard's English is not equal to what he wants to express -- he spends a lot of time staring into the air about eight inches above his balding forehead, apparently, searching for English words -- and most of what he says is gibberish, completely confounding to Cavett).  In the Cavett interviews, Godard claims that the film is feminist (although he doesn't use that word), arguing that men will see the movie as expression of despair, but that women will be empowered by the portrait of the female of the species that he provides in the picture.  And I almost believe him.  But I know enough about Godard and his persistent misogyny to be suspicious of claims like this.  In Godard's later films, he contrives ways to get his young, and comely, leading ladies naked, puts them in overtly degrading sexual situations, and, generally, asserts that women are so alien to male sensibilities as to be incompletely human.  It is true that the male characters in Sauve qui Peut are uniformly despicable.  But it is equally true that the women he presents are either disgruntled and rapacious ex-spouses or strangely benumbed whores -- an odd choice for a film that is supposedly feminist in its implications.  Take, for example, a bizarre insert into the opening sequence of the film, the part of the picture that is most clearly feminist in its tone -- a woman rides a bicycle through Switzerland.  She has abandoned her boyfriend, a lout named Paul Godard, who works (not surprisingly) in the Paris Tv and film industry.  The woman, named Denise, hopes to sub-lease the apartment that she shared with Paul in Paris and she spends a lot of time on the phone making business arrangements with respect to the flat.  The woman is a novelist and she is looking for a day-job.  First, she meets an old friend at some kind of bizarre game played in the Swiss cantons -- it seems to involve hurling a hammer and catching it with baskets on tall poles.  The man is strangely hideous.  He tells the woman to seek work at a local dairy farm.  At the dairy farm, the heroine watches cows being fed.  Then, we are treated to a shot of a beautiful woman, naked from the waist down, exposing her luscious behind to the nearby cows.  She says something like:  "You can get the cows to lick the crack of your ass."  (Godard is much concerned with rectal licking in this film -- an ability to effectively tongue an asshole is said to be a prerequisite for successful whoring.)  The shot is certainly striking, unexpected, and remarkable -- but it's also totally gratuitous, without point from a narrative perspective, and awfully stupid:  does Godard really want us to think that beauteous Swiss milkmaids routinely present their posteriors to cows be licked?  Undoubtedly, Godard would accuse me of being naïve:  obviously, the shot is just a distraction, an alienation effect, something to remind me that the movie is just a movie and not a representation of truth or existence -- okay, point taken, but why use this imagery?  Godard would reply because the film is about sexual relationships between men and women and the image represents the kind of fantasy, one could suppose, that would occur to the loathsome Paul Godard, a fellow who routinely fantasizes about sodomizing his 12 year-old daughter.  But all of this is a pretty wan justification for something that is, more or less, exploitation and gratuitous, as well as more than a little creepy to boot.  Further, Godard would argue, one supposes, that he wants the (male) audience to acknowledge complicity in Paul Godard's nastiness -- that is, we are secretly excited by the image.  But all of this is bullshit, Godard's métier to be sure, but bullshit, nonetheless.  The fact is that Godard has an unhealthy interest in prostitution, a theme to which he reverts time and time again, using highly predictable imagery -- his prostitutes are always extremely glamorous, beautiful, submissive, philosophically astute, in a word fantasy-whores at the beck and call of a wealthy and powerful man (someone a lot like Godard himself).  The fact that Godard openly acknowledges, and, even, luxuriates in his obsession with this material doesn't excuse the fact that he wallows in this stuff.  Sauve qui Peut's plot, if it can be so characterized, is fairly simple.  Paul Godard is a divorced man, estranged from his wife and adolescent daughter, both of whom treat him with contempt.  He is also separated by his girlfriend, Denise, who has urged him to move to the Swiss countryside.  Denise tries to rent the apartment she shared with Godard -- he has been living for some months in a luxury hotel.  Godard picks up a young and beautiful prostitute, Isabel (played by the very young and luminous Isabelle Huppert).  The film shifts emphasis to follow Isabel's peregrinations, including an elaborate Sade-ian orgy involving a wealthy boss, another prostitute, and an enterprising, and accommodating, male employee.  The boss is clearly another surrogate for the filmmaker.  Carefully arranging bodies and orifices, the boss says "now that I've got the visuals, we need so supply the sound," instructing the participants as to the noises they are supposed to make with each motion that he directs.  Isabel is approached by her younger sister who needs to pay off some legal expenses -- she's been consorting with bank robbers (or jewelry thieves, I can't recall which).  Of course, Isabel gives her sister some helpful tips as to how to make an earning in the prostitution business, including advice as to anal licking techniques.  In the end, Isabel runs into Denise, Paul's ex-girlfriend, and subleases the apartment from her -- the picture has something of the character of Max Ophuls' La Ronde.  As the film has progressed, characters have from time to time expressed puzzlement about music that they keep hearing -- this is the film's soundtrack.  The last scene of the film shamelessly steals from Woody Allen's Bananas -- Paul's rapacious wife and daughter, hear music, enter a underground car-park, and, then, stroll past an entire symphony orchestra playing the theme music to the film.  (In Bananas, Allen's character has an emotional love scene set to lush harp music; suddenly, he frowns, asks where the music is coming from, and finds a harpist in his closet -- "I'm just practicing here,' the harpist says.)  Godard's soundtrack is conspicuously brilliant and the film, of course, is a master-class in disorienting ways to stage time-worn scenes -- the meeting of lovers in a train station, confrontations between an ex-husband and his former wife, pimps brutally disciplining a beautiful young prostitute.  As always, Godard finds remarkable and innovative ways to present this material.  But the material itself just isn't very good in this picture and I thought it was disappointing.

(How much the world has changed in just a few short years is evident from one of the opening scenes in the movie.  The hero, Paul Godard, beset by an opera singer with an alarmingly loud voice in the next suite, flees his hotel room.  In the parking lot, he is approached by a bell-boy who begs the famous director to bugger him. The man says that he is in love with Godard and tries to kiss him.  Godard knocks the man down, shrieking imprecations, and drives away.  A commentator on the film, narrating a video essay about the movie, remarks about this "hilarious scene' -- as far as I can determine the commentary was recorded in 2010.  To the sensibility of 2015, with gay marriage now existing in a majority of states, the scene plays as homophobic, unfunny, and mean-spirited.)