Monday, June 29, 2015

Crazed Fruit -- film group essay




In Old Eden Prairie

Very few people recall Eden Prairie’s beauty 45 years ago. Today, you might survey the suburb from a hill squashed and standardized by earthmovers and see a shallow valley brimful of houses, nice-looking homes to be sure, but, more or less, alike, variations, it seems, on two or three standard models, still no trees lining the streets any taller than the redwood fences enclosing the backyards. From that perspective, you would not know that the valley was once much deeper, a crater lined with breast-high grass with a little pond opening in its navel like an eye, tall cattails shadowing the water and red-winged blackbirds darting from perch to perch and, a little way up the slope, two brown ponies with shaggy manes playing on the hillside. In those days, the landscape was intricate with creeks and tiny waterfalls, strange gloomy marshes full of contorted trees and sumac-covered embankments. Tall hills rose to ridges covered with ancient trees and deep, icy lakes filled the potholes gouged by glaciers. Near the Minnesota river, the bluffs were dissected into ravines and an artesian well gushed water from the base of steep brushy hill and, above the coulees, the land was lush, curved, pillowy like a woman’s body.

At the center of this landscape, a deep and long lake, something like a fjord extended between sheer hillsides. At one end of lake, the water lost its way in a vast, labyrinth of marsh. On the freeway side of the lake the shore was shaped like the knuckles of fist, a bumpy series of outcroppings where mansions had been built. The other side of the lake was much less domesticated, a steep vertical landscape where dairy farms crowned the heights and the terrain too steep for pasture was staked for raspberries – it wasn’t clear if there were roads on the other side of the lake and, if so, how they were accessed. In those days, forty-five years ago, this body of water, Bryant Lake, had a forlorn abandoned aspect – a person rambling over the hills might find the ruins of a silo, an overgrown beach, a rich man’s compound built before the second world war shrouded in ivy and overgrown with thorns.

When I was in college, a friend of a friend invited me from time to time to parties held in those mansions overlooking the lake, the big houses built on the bare knuckle-shaped hills between the freeway and the finger of the lake. Wealthy contractors lived in those house, the men who had built the endless additions along Winnetka Road in New Hope or in Brooklyn Center. The contractors had college-aged children, although these kids didn’t attend the university and dropped out of High School in the 11th grade to drive graders and cement trucks in their fathers’ businesses, best to learn the trade on-the-job. The kids lived in the lower floors of the split-level mansions and had their own separate entries to the houses, their own garages annexed to the side of the buildings where they kept their sports cars and motorcycles. When you attended a party at the contractor’s mansion, you entered the house through a back door and stayed below grade in a series of rooms roaring with rock and roll music and hazy with marijuana smoke. There were white freezers full of deer meat and salmon yanked from lakes in northern Manitoba, the heads of stags and bears looking down bleary-eyed on the revelry, not one but a half-dozen pool tables, shaggy carpets and gloomy bars, people sprawled unconscious in big, overstuffed chairs and couches, Tvs ignored in guest bedrooms that were always occupied by boys and drunken girls, refrigerators packed with cans of beer, a party underway that seemed to have neither beginning nor ending. The parents were never around –the contractor had taken his second or third wife to Belize or Cancun – and so the upstairs of the house, a place we never ventured into, was silent and still. If you made it to dawn, you might stagger out of the house down the hill toward the lake and a rustic marina with bedraggled sailboats and a shed full of broken Evinrude motors. A kid would be lying on the dewy grass smoking a cigarette and watching the sun claw its way up over the hills on the other side of the lake where the tumble-down dairy farms occupied the ridges. Then, you might go for a brief swim in the lake’s chilly green water or you might canoe out to the middle and sleep there until the sun was overhead and you felt sober enough to drive. The kind of life lived in those mansions was very different from the way that the people in my neighborhood, only two miles away, lived. It was a casual life, indifferent to responsibility, a party with no consequences that lasted for days.

Post-war Japan

The life-style of the rich boys and girls shown in Crazed Fruit was not typical for Japan in 1956, the year the film was shot and released. The kids in the movie are the children of builders and developers who made fortunes reconstructing Japan during the Allied Occupation. Like the confused and alienated youth in American pictures of the same era, youth culture is a car-culture. And, yet, in 1956 Japan, there was one car for every 145 people. Most Tokyo kids didn’t water ski at Hayama as shown in the film. In fact, the film hints at the austerity of the economy for most people – the heroine, who is "married" to an American husband, is presumably a middle-class girl who has had to sell herself in order to survive. Crazed Fruit was an enormous box-office success and initiated a cycle of films about the "Sun Tribe" – that is, pleasure-seeking, indolent juvenile delinquents. But for the majority of Japanese the experience of watching the film was voyeuristic: it displayed pleasures far beyond the reach of most people.

Crazed Fruit is part of a world-wide genre of films about juvenile delinquents. Notable examples contemporary to Crazed Fruit are The Blackboard Jungle and, of course, Nick Ray’s Rebel without a Cause. English movies showed disaffected "Teddy Boys" and German films developed a genre of Halbstarker films about "beatniks" in Hamburg or Munich – the seminal film in the German genre, Halbstarke was also released in 1956. (The early films by Fassbinder made a dozen years later invoke these youth movies.) Parents and teachers worried that films of this kind, far from exposing delinquency, in fact, encouraged it. And, certainly, the appeal of the free and casual life depicted in Crazed Fruit must have been substantial for Japanese young people. To avoid collateral damage, Crazed Fruit received the equivalent of an X-rating – the people the movie is about couldn’t lawfully attend it. And a few months after the film was released, the Japanese legislature considered bills aimed at censoring and outlawing Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) films. No laws were passed and they were unnecessary anyway – Japanese society is famously self-regulating and, after 1956, the movie industry voluntarily censored itself; no new Sun Tribe films were made.



The Sun Tribe

In 1954 and 1955, Japan was electrified by two novels written by Shintaro Ishihara. These books were Crazed Fruit and Season in the Sun – both novels about "Sun Tribe" delinquents. Nikkatsu Studios bought the rights to the novels and hastened to produce low-budget, quickly shot films based on them. Crazed Fruit was the first feature film directed by Ko Nakahira, a young man who was then 30 years old. Nakahira shot the movie in just 17 days. The film has a highly polished and evocative soundtrack written by Takemitsu Tori, Japan’s greatest post-war composer, elegiac Mancini-style jazz trumpet and open-key slack-tuned Hawaiian guitars. (The music for Crazed Fruit was Tori’s first film soundtrack.) One of the film’s stars, Yujiro Ishihara, the brother of the novelist who wrote Crazed Fruit, became famous as a result of the movie and was hailed as Japan’s answer to James Dean – Yujiro Ishishara plays the part of the sexually experienced and predatory older brother.

Crazed Fruit doesn’t just document trends in youth culture – it was a seismic occurrence that created trends. Before this film was produced, most Japanese did not sun-bathe and, indeed, a pale complexion was regarded as much more beautiful than tanned skin. Japanese kids didn’t water ski. After the film’s release and success, these things changed. Crazed Fruit is said to herald deep changes in Japanese society – it altered the way that kids acted and dressed and talked. The great Japanese director, Nagisa Oshima, said that "Crazed Fruit is the first modern Japanese film" and it was much imitated and immensely influential.

One man who saw the film accidentally was Francois Truffaut. (Truffaut was trying to see something else, but was confused by the titles.) Truffaut said that the film "opened his eyes". And, an argument can be made, that one of the sources of the French "New Wave" was Nakahira’s film. (The movie was purchased for release as an exploitation film in the United States and even subtitled – a single subtitled print of the film exists re-named something like Juvenile Jungle. But the picture doesn’t seem to have ever been commercially shown in this country.)



Of course, the tragedy of youth is that beautiful boys and girls grow up and age.

The director Ko Nakahira made a number of films but never reproduced his success with his inaugural effort, Crazed Fruit. He became an alcoholic and could no longer work in the Japanese film industry. He was hired to work for the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. He re-made Crazed Fruit under a pseudonym in Hong Kong and died of cirrhosis when he was 52. People who have seen the re-make say that it is no good.

The novelist who wrote Crazed Fruit, Shintaro Ishihara, became a right-wing politician. In the mid-fifties, with his brother, Ishihara was briefly the center of great adulation, key figures in a youth cult. But by 1973, Ishihara had moved far to the right, was an admirer of Yukio Mishima, and signed an anti-communist pact with other right-wing politicians in his own blood. In 1975, Ishihara ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Tokyo. He was a assembly man in the city and, later, a representative to the lower house of the national legislature. Between 1999 and 2012, Ishihara was the mayor of Tokyo. He is notorious for an anti-American book called The Japan that can say "No" (1989) written with the chairman of Sony, Akio Morita – in this book, Ishihara says that the Americans are racists and dropped the atomic bomb on Japan on the basis of the racial hatred of the Japanese. In 1990, Ishihara said that the so-called "Rape of Nanking" was a fiction invented by the Chinese communists. Around this time, he justified Japan’s occupation of Korea as historically necessary. When he was attacked by Korean immigrants to Japan, Ishihara urged that these immigrants be expelled from Japan. He told Playboy that women who have lost their reproductive capacity are "drains on society" and that they "should kill themselves." When challenged on this statement, Ishihara said that the attacks on him were motivated by "tyrannical old women." He publicly argued that the Olympic games should restrict Judo to Asian participants, since Westerners practicing Judo "look like wild beasts fighting." When he backed the destruction of a forest on a famous holy mountain, Ishihara told the press that the "forest was demon-haunted, diabolical" and that "it ate human beings." He has been called the "Le Pen" of Japan. Ishihara dabbled in film directing in the early sixties, giving the trade up to ride his motorcycle across South America. He said that if he had kept making films "(he) would have been greatest filmmaker to ever work in Japan, much greater that Kurosawa."

Yujiro Ishihara, with his brother, was adulated by Japanese youth and, sometimes, called the "Japanese Elvis" – in fact, his singing style was influenced more by Bing Crosby. He married Mie Kitahara, his co-star in Crazed Fruit, in 1960. Ishihara lived fast, chain-smoked, and ate only red meat – he developed a series of cancers and died at 52 in 1986. He was "extravagantly mourned," is buried under a granite "five ring" mortuary tower, and was featured on a Japanese postage stamp in 1997.


A Day Trip from Tokyo
Crazed Fruit takes place on the Miura peninsula, about 60 minutes south of Tokyo by rail line. On the west side of the peninsula are the beaches of Hayama Isshiki and Zushi. The famous Buddhist shrine at Kamakura is a little to the north in the hills overlooking the Pacific, also on the west side of the promontory.

To reach Hayama, take the JR Shonan-Shinjuka line from downtown Tokyo. Get off the train a Zishu after about a 60 to 65 minute ride south of the metropolis. Zushi is a small village. The train stop is three miles south of Kamakura and one mile to the north of Hayama. If you intend to go Hayama Isshiki beach, the nicest on the peninsula, take the Keikyu bus unless you want to walk. In the film, people arrive and depart at the Zushi station; then, they have to take a hot rod to the beach area. Hayama Isshiki beach is where the emperor has his summer palace and the beach is kept pristine in honor of the imperial royal family.

Route 134, a famous Japanese highway snakes along the western coast. This is the main road linking Kamakura, Zushi, and Hayama as well as other notable sites on the west side of the peninsula. Since the construction of the rail lines around the turn of the 20th century, excursions to Hayama and its adjacent regions, including Kamakura, have been a popular day-trip from Tokyo. (In the summer, Tokyo is very hot and humid; the air quality is often bad and the beaches between the metropolis and Yokohama (and Kawasaki) on the eastern side of the Miura peninsula are said to be grotesquely overcrowded and fetid. Route 134 looks similar in places to the Highway 1 in California – it runs along the beach in many areas at the base of a high sandy bluff. The appearance of the bluff is identical with the unstable sandy bluffs overlooking Malibu and Santa Monica beaches in California. These picturesque bluffs have often appeared as a backdrop in Japanese films. In Crazed Fruit, there are several shots showing a particularly high bluff near Hayama; this same bluff features in a number of important sequences in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1930 gangster film Walk Cheerfully – the young gangster hero motors up coastal highway with his girlfriend and her kid sister; she drops a kewpie doll that the passing cars flatten. The Hayama area has always been a place where ancient Japan intersects picturesquely with the modern world. Japanese audiences would understand that the hills and bays around Hayama are sacred – the living God, the Emperor and his family frequented those waters. But since the area was a resort town it has always been a show-place for modernity – the peninsula was famous for water-skiing and jazz clubs as shown in Crazed Fruit. In Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully, the hero has a picnic with his girlfriend at the shrine to the great bronze Buddha in Kamakura. The film shows the hoodlum’s jalopy parked so close to the huge Buddha that it looks as if the meditating figure is cradling the Model T in his lap.


Madame Butterfly

Kim Lockhart’s father, Kay Lockhart, was a navy fighter pilot. He was stationed in Japan. Like most of the American soldiers in Japan, he acquired a 19 year old girlfriend, Michiko. His account of his relationship is attached to this note. In his memoir, Lockhart indicates that he was with this young woman, a survivor of Hiroshima, for six months. He paid her 100 dollars a month for her to be his mistress. Lockhart explains that Japan is very caste-conscious; attractive young Japanese women saw "Americans as a resource and a way out of their caste." Although Lockhart was very fond of Michiko, his "middle-class background couldn’t allow (him) to bring her home" when his active duty ended. He simply abandoned her without a face-to-face farewell – "and I have felt guilty my whole life about the way our relationship ended."

Lockhart returned to St. Paul. He had learned to fly before he learned to drive a car. Back in St. Paul, he lived with his parents and worked bagging groceries at a local supermarket. It was "almost as if those navy years had never existed." Later, Kay Lockhart studied at MIT, became a famous architect in the Twin Cities, working for Ralph Rapson (the designer of the old Guthrie Theater) and teaching at the University of Minnesota. His memoir is called Flying with the Navy 1949 - 1952. It is a very interesting short book.


John Donne on a love scene in "Crazed Fruit"
As ‘twixt to equal armies, Fate

Suspends uncertain victory,

Our souls (which to advance their state

Were gone out) hung ‘twixt her, and me.

And whilst our souls negotiate there

We like sepulchral statues lay:

All day, the same our postures were,

And we said nothing, all the day.



Quiz Delinquency

1. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for music composed by Leonard Bernstein for this Broadway show about New York juvenile delinquents?
2. This 1978 documentary narrated by Peter Falk involved convicted lifers bullying juvenile delinquents in an attempt to " ________ them ________".
3. The above-referenced documentary launched many sequels with the same general name and premise, some of which the most highly rated shows in their seasons. In 2011, the Justice Department concluded that this program was (a) a great success in its objective; (b) it’s success could not be statistically determined; ( c ) not only unsuccessful but seriously harmful.
4. James Dean flees to what Los Angeles landmark in the final scenes of the 1955 picture Rebel without a Cause: _____________.
5. Frederic Wertham in his famous book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) argued that ________________ caused juvenile delinquency. Congress held hearings to determine if he was right about this theory. (He wasn’t; in 2011, a statistician studying Wertham’s records showed that he had "cooked" the numbers.)
6. In Harmony Korinne’s Spring Breakers, (2014) Selena Gomez and the other three girls on spring break appear in Court in their brightly colored _____________.
7. In The Blackboard Jungle, (1955) a brave principal (played by Glenn Ford) fights back against the anti-social behavior of his students led by a African-american youth played by ___________________. This movie features the menacing "Rock Around the Clock" recorded by ______________________.
8. _____________________ plays the alluring sociopathic reform school girl, the titular Kitten with a Whip (1964).
9. The punk band, ____________________ leads a high school rebellion at Vince Lombardi High resulting in apocalyptic destruction in the Roger Corman-produced Rock and Roll High School (1979).
10. Action and his Jets sing a mocking song about Sergeant Krupke. At the end of the song, they jeer "Gee, Officer Krupke, _____________!"

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch (reflecting on Existence)

Poised midway between a horror film and Buster Keaton comedy, Roy Andersson's A Pigeon sat on a Branch (reflecting on Existence) (2014) is intermittently very funny.  But it is also disturbing, a essay on human life too clear-sighted and penetrating to shrug off.  The gags all have an edge that is not merely ironic, nor simply satirical, but, rather, tragic.  Comedy, particularly of the absurdist kind motivating Andersson, can be cruel and mean-spirited.  Somehow, Andersson avoids this trap.  His film is autumnal, glacially cold, and, yet, also, oddly warmhearted, compassionate, and melancholy. 

A Pigeon... is the third of a trilogy of films about "what it means to be a human being."  The first two films were Songs from the Second Story (2000) and You, the Living (2007), both astounding pictures and similar in form and dead-pan content to this movie.  Andersson is Scandinavia's most famous director of television commercials and he constructs his films from small vignettes, each two to four minutes long -- the vignettes are shot from a motionless camera peering into rooms, corridors, or curiously claustrophobic city streets.  Andersson decorates the studio sets where his action takes place with the fanatic and obsessive attention to detail of a TV ad-man -- someone accustomed to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a sixty-second commercial.  Each detail in the image is precisely considered and everything is clearly lit:  all spaces are exactly articulated into foreground and background, usually a remarkably beautiful landscape of vacant lots or industrial wasteland that seems to have been painted in astounding detail.  At the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota, there are darkened galleries with big living-room-sized dioramas where stuffed animals glare out at you with glass eyes -- the animals are posed in their characteristic habitat amidst detailed rock outcroppings and foliage, distant landscapes painted with trompe l'oeil exactitude close off the lighted boxes where the embalmed and stuffed specimens are displayed.  Watching Andersson's film is eerily akin to looking into those displays in the Natural History Museum -- except here we are seeing homo sapiens posed in their habitats, engaged in their customary absurd, or cruel, or futile, pursuits.  A the other films in the sequence has no close-ups, no montage, no moving camera -- the people in the shot often stand motionlessly, contemplating some calamity that has just occurred or that seems about to occur.  Andersson's actors are, often, elderly, generally very ordinary in appearance, wearing shabby, genteel clothing and their faces are stark white, the pallor of a waxen corpse; the people move robotically or shamble along like zombies.  Each sequence consists of a single shot, designed with terrifying precision.  The soundtrack is comprised of a clumsy, club-footed waltz that sometimes plays between sequences, a heartbreaking folk ballad and some singing with the sound of a pigeon cooing off-screen sometimes audible.  As far as I can determine, every shot (except one) was made indoors on a sound-stage -- the street shots have the strange, stylized clarity of a Balthus' still life.  In only one sequence does the director license himself to use a reaction shot -- and that sequence, which is horrifying, turns out to be a dream, albeit one that seems to invest the entire project with its aura. 

Here is an example of the film's peculiar tone:  An old man sits alone in a café below street level in Gothenberg.  The other patrons at the café, which is also a tavern, ignore him; everyone seems equally miserable, alone, and isolated, although the establishment is surprisingly clean and, even, elegant in its décor.  (Whatever its level of existential Angst, Sweden is appallingly clean and tidy.) The waitress has to shout in the old man's ear to communicate with him.  She tells one of the other patrons that he has come into the bar every night for 60 years to have his evening shot of whiskey or, I suppose, aquavit.  In the next shot, we see the bar from the same angle but it is now 1943:  a waitress sings a song about pouring shots for her patrons -- the tune to which she sings is incongruously "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".  The patrons also sing in response to her melody, an operatic male chorus.  Then, the waitress, also the tavern's proprietor, sings that she will pour shots for those without money in exchange for a kiss.  The men line up to kiss the limping bar-owner, the name of the tavern is "Limping Lotte's in Gothenberg" and she dispenses shots to each of them.  The film cuts back to the present-day and we see the old man, now scarcely able to move himself, slowly limping out of the tavern -- the waitress shouts "Good Night" to him three times, but the old man is so deaf, he doesn't hear her until the last time she bellows those words to him.  "Good night!" he gruffly responds,  Under this scene, we hear the music from the preceding image titled as "1943" continuing.  At first, the effect of this sequence is grotesque, then, funny, then, strangely poignant -- is the old man remembering something from his youth?  Is he fantasizing the exchange of kisses for shots of aquavit?  The effect is to create a sense that the old man has a rich interior life almost entirely bottled up inside of him -- he's the kind of nondescript old man to whom we would pay no attention at all; and, yet, like the dour and apparently uncommunicative film, there are great riches within him to be explored.  Like everyone else, he contains an entire universe -- and one that is about to be extinguished by death.  For death, it seems, is the presence that illumines everything in the picture and gives the images meaning -- the movie begins with three scenes labeled, "Three Encounters with Death".  In the first, a fat old man topples over clutching his heart while attempting to uncork a bottle of wine:  the snow falls outside the window and the man's wife, running some kind of food processor or grinder, pays no attention to her husband's death in the shot's foreground.  In the second sequence, an old woman lies dying in a hospital bed while her elderly children sit around silently glaring at her.  The old woman is holding a big purse over her chest like a shield and has told those attending the vigil that she intends to take it with her to heaven.  The purse is full of jewels, we are told, and money and, when the woman's bossy son, tries to wrest it from her grasp, she squeals in a high-pitched voice and won't release the purse, the hospital bed, on castor-wheels rolling this way and that during the struggle.  Then, we see a cafeteria on a ferry -- a dead man lies on the floor where two stewards have just abandoned attempts to resuscitate him.  The ferry's captain stand overlooking the scene.  A matronly cashier notes that the dead man has paid for his shrimp cocktail and beer and wonders what to do with it.  "Give it away," the captain says.  The cashier asks if any of the people in the cafeteria want the dead man's food.  One plump fellow is a suit raises his hand in an abashed sort of way and says:  "I guess I'll take his beer," slowly crossing the ferry to take the mug of beer back to his table, where he drinks it.

Andersson's film is complex with interactions of various kinds between the sketches -- the ship captain, later, appears as a rather crazed-looking barber, announcing that he has retired from his profession on the sea.  He takes a call (the same call that everyone else in the film gets) and his sole customer flees.  This customer turns out to be Jonathan, one of two hapless door-to-door salesmen.  They carry valises full of vampire fangs ("ordinary and extra-long"), laugh boxes that hoot maniacally when they are squeezed ("a real classic" one of the salesman notes) and a mask of a nightmarish figure called "Uncle One Tooth" that is so hideous that it terrifies customers into fleeing the room.  Of course, no one wants their merchandise and those who have purchased it on credit refuse to pay them for these wares.  The two salesmen live in a horrible-looking boarding house that is more like a prison than a place of ordinary dwelling -- their creditors come to hound them in this institution, reasonable recompense since we have seen them relentlessly dunning the owners of a novelty shop who owe them money.  The two salesmen provide the film with a kind of narrative, albeit one that is relentlessly grim.  In Andersson's world, all human pretension comes to naught.  In one scene, the King of Sweden on a great charger enters the bar with his lieutenants -- long lines of troops marching toward some 18th century battle with the "wily Russian" pass the tavern's 21st century window.  The King of Sweden commands that his officers drive all the women from the bar at the point of the sword -- the two novelty salesman cower against the wall.  A man playing a pinball machine is "given the taste of the lash"; he is mercilessly lashed, while the handsome young prince flirts with a boy working as a bartender.  Later, the King returns to the tavern, his troops staggering past the window in rags, wounded, one man in bandages leading three troops who have been blinded, carts full of casualties dragged down the street.  This time the King asks to use the toilet.  "No, he will have to wait," the bartender says.  "It is occupied."

Andersson's film is at its best, when it doesn't strain for meaning.  There are two particularly beautiful scenes involving lovers that brought tears to my eyes -- in one sequence, a young man and woman are reclining at a beach; the young man cautiously gropes the girl who pretends to be asleep.  A big black Labrador dog watches over the couple, restlessly changing position and providing the only real motion in the tableaux.  In another sequence, a man with a strangely comical-looking face, a sort of broad, sad-faced clown's visage, morosely looks down from the window of a shabby apartment.  A beautiful young woman joins him in the window and shares a cigarette with him.  These two scenes surrounded by much grotesque and dismal (if funny) material stand out for their kindness, simplicity, and inexplicable beauty.  A sequence in which stereotypical Africans, black silhouettes seen in profile as if figures in a Kara Walker painting, are forced into a immense bronze drum and, then, roasted alive to create a kind of mournful music -- something like a choral work by Arvo Part broadcast from the spinning barrel by trumpet-like extrusions -- seemed to me to belong in a different movie.  The sequence has a horrible Kafkaesque power -- it is like a version of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" -- but it seems overly explicit, particularly when a group of superannuated folks appear on a terrace, apparently at an adjacent manor to watch the spectacle while drinking champagne poured into their fluted glasses by one of the novelty salesmen.  (The shot of these old people enjoying the spectacle of the roasted African slaves  and featuring people in evening gowns and tuxedos -- one of the men looks just like Viktor Sjostrom in Bergman's Wild Strawberries -- also seems incongruent with the rest of the picture, an effect that is signified in two ways:  first, this image is the only reaction shot in the whole film and, second, the salesman pouring the champagne says, in the next scene, that the vision of the musical barrel spinning in the hellish flames was a nightmare.  More effective, I think, is a horrific image of a crucified chimpanzee being tortured by electrical shocks -- some bloody rags and basins visible in the foreground like the furnishings to a medieval Passion -- while a lab assistant chats on the phone, answering a call that all of the characters receive at one time or another:  the call requires the person speaking to say -- "I'm glad to hear that you are doing fine," presumably, something that people repeat to one another over and over again since, of course, in Andersson's film, no one (except the two pairs of lovers) is doing fine at all.    

Sunday, June 21, 2015

We are the Best!

At the end of Lukas Moodysohn's 2014 We are the Best! an outraged crowd shrieks at three thirteen-year girls, calling them  "Punk cunts!"  It's a measure of the easy-going benignity of We are the Best! that this insult represents a happy ending to the film.  In fact, in the eyes of three teenage heroines, these words sound as an encomium -- they have achieved what they set out to do.  Moodysohn's modest little film apparently derives from a graphic novel apparently written by his daughter, and concerns three seventh-grade girls who aspire to form a punk rock band.  It is 1982 and disco reigns and the girls, with their unappealing haircuts, are regarded as outsider losers by their peers.  At school, they sullenly refuse to participate in sports and, in fact, are inspired to form their band by their hatred of the PA teacher and their contempt for basketball.  At a dingy Stockholm youth center, two of the girls seize control of the place's bass guitar and drums when the local hair band, something called Iron Fist, forgets to sign up for the rehearsal room.  The two girls, Bobo and Klara, have less than zero musical talent and no idea how to play their instruments but they can make noise on them and that is enough as far as they are concerned.  A third girl, also despised by the other kids because she is a Christian, knows how to play guitar -- at one point, she sings "Kum-bay-yah" -- and Bobo and Klara recruit her for their band, hacking off her long blonde hair to make her look like them, that is, like boys with bad, spiky haircuts.  We are the Best! is casually shot and resolutely faithful to its anarchic, punk sensibility -- nothing is proven in the movie, no hearts or minds are changed about anything, and Klara and Bobo never do learn to play their instruments.  There is a vestigial plot about the girls competing for an equally hapless and forlorn group of boys in a punk band, but that narrative exists merely to confirm the ultimate loyalty of the heroines to one another.  The closest thing that the film offers to a narrative arc is the girl's half-hearted participation in something called "Santa Rock", a rock and roll "battle of the bands" in a suburb called Vasteras.  While the kids in Iron Fist smirk, the girls take the stage, unleash their anthem about detesting High School sports, and, when the crowd begins hurling insults at them, improve the chorus to their song , changing it from"Hate, Hate, Hate, Sport" to "Hate, Hate, Hate, Vasteras!" -- this predictably leads to a riot, the girls screaming invective as the crowd tries to storm the stage and shut them down.  This is the film's happy ending.  On the bus returning to Stockholm, the girls tell the two dudes who are the teen center counselors:  "We are the best!"  The dimwitted counselors respond:  "No you are the worst!  Iron Fist is the best!" and the film ends.  I like a number of things about this movie -- it's bluntly realistic, without being hysterical or maudlin, about the cruelty of teenagers:  everyone casually bullies everyone else including the two loser heroines who relentlessly bully the Christian girl who has joined their band.  The adults shown in the film are not evil nor do they misunderstand the girls -- they are simply irrelevant to anything important in their lives.  (We see the adults, all of them cheerful and good-looking thirty-somethings, playing 'spin-the-bottle' and getting loaded at various unpleasant parties.)  The girls don't miraculously become anything like good musicians for the climactic concert -- they remain pathetically untalented and clueless.  And, of course, there's no heartwarming validation by an audience that the girls have achieved anything.  There is not much in the movie and it has no ambitions to speak of -- it's not Zero de Conduit that's for sure.  But there's truth in the movie, the people seem real, and it's not mean-spirited:  people are stupid but not wicked.  And, if you're interested in punk rock, the film is imbued with the spirit of that music. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Amarcord (Film Essay)


I don’t go into churches except to look at art or to film in them. For faith, you can go to a woman. Maybe that is more religious in any event.


Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) was the last film by the Italian director to achieve wide distribution in the United States. I saw the picture when I was in college at the Cooper Cinerama on Highway 12. A tender and scrupulous youth, I was offended by the movie’s pervasive vulgarity. I recall the sequences showing snow falling on the Italian village where the movie is set and the artificial texture of fallen snow, particularly in the scenes showing the drifts shoveled into a labyrinth of trenches in the town square. "It’s obvious that Italians know nothing about snow," I sniffed after leaving the theater. The only other sequence in the film that I recall from that first viewing is the episode in which the towns people go out to sea in small boats to watch an giant cruise vessel, the Rex, passing in the night. For some reason, that scene affected me deeply and, when I think of Amarcord, I recall the falling snow and the great vessel looming over the plastic and tinfoil waves.

When I first saw the movie, I believed that the film was set in a fictional Italian village named "Amarcord". Fellini, in fact, made similar claims when the movie was released. But, in fact, it is generally understood now that "Amarcord" is a corruption of "mi ricorde" – or "I remember" – written as pronounced in the Rimini dialect that Fellini spoke when he was a child. (A correlate in English would be naming a film "Ira Call".)

Amarcord is a transitional film. After beginning his film work in a neo-realist vein, Fellini’s work evolved toward flamboyantly autobiographical movies: his two most famous films La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ feature performance by Marcello Mastrioanni acting as an idealized version of the director – indeed, 8 ½ is about the film makers inability to make his ninth film. Juliet of the Spirits, although it derives to some degree from Fellini’s interest in the paranormal, seems primarily to chronicle the director’s love for his wife Giulietta Masina as well as his own compulsive infidelity. Fellini’s Satyricon was an attempt at making a big-budget Hollywood-style film nonetheless inflected by the director’s characteristic obsessions – the picture is not wholly successful. Amarcord is a film based on Fellini’s recollections of his hometown, an exercise in nostalgia, but one that is curiously depersonalized – Fellini presents the entire community and doesn’t focus on any single figure that we might identify as a youthful version of the director. In fact, Fellini seems to go out of his way to broaden the film’s perspective so that it is impossible to read the movie as autobiographical. Perhaps, the reason for this reticence on Fellini’s behalf is the fact that he had previously made a highly acclaimed and very closely autobiographical realistic film about his youth, Il Vitelloni (1956). In order to avoid repeating material in the earlier film, Fellini adopts a larger and more abstract view of his hometown.

Fellini’s films after Amarcord are thoughtful and abstract – the pictures can not be interpreted as realistic in any way and, often, seem to be phantasmagoric and highly stylized. These pictures are also personal but not explicitly autobiographical. In returning to the subject matter of his first truly successful, and personal, film, the town of Rimini as depicted in Il Vitelloni, Fellini reworks his past into a network of symbols, a kind of mythos.

Amarcord was a great international success (and Academy Award winner) and hailed as a return to form by the 53 year old director. But it was also the last of his films to achieve status as an undisputed masterpiece. The movies he made after Amarcord are more difficult, problematic, and idiosyncratic. But the roots of that bold stylistic idiosyncrasy can be seen in Amarcord, a film without a protagonist and without plot.



In 1964, Fellini was a passenger on an international flight that landed in New York in a blizzard. The experience terrified Fellini and became the source of his screenplay Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna (The Journey of G. Mastorna), probably the most famous unfinished film in Italian cinema. Fellini’s script involved a musician who has died in a plane crash. The dead man doesn’t know that he has been killed and navigates an eerie afterlife that is similar to our world but different, as well, in conspicuous ways. Fellini thought that this film would be his masterpiece, cast Mastrioanni in the leading role and, even, shot a couple reels of footage. Then, the director’s cameraman unexpectedly died and a magician with whom Fellini was consulting – this was during his Juliet of the Spirits paranormal phase – told the director that if he completed the picture it would be the last film that he would ever make. In 1967, Fellini took ill and was hospitalized – he was thought to be suffering from a lung ailment, pleurisy. In the hospital, Fellini worsened. Finally, he was told that he was dying. The Pope sent him a telegram and Fellini resigned himself to his fate. (He was given a bottle of Lourdes water daily and was tended by nuns – in his memoir, Fellini characteristically focuses on the ministrations of women, that is, the nuns with whom he alternately fought and flirted.)

As it happened, an old classmate from Rimini was visiting Rome. This classmate was the smartest person that Fellini knew and had become a physician – he had been nicknamed by his High School classmates "Bargarone" ("the Dung Beetle"). The Dung Bettle visited Fellini’s bedside and the dying man was happy to hear Italian spoken in the Rimini dialect that had been his tongue when he was a boy. Fellini pleaded with Dung Beetle to take over his care. Bargarone (his real name was Sega) reluctantly accepted the task and discovered that the director’s condition had been misdiagnosed. Fellini gradually recovered.

During his illness, Fellini had remarkably clear visions of his childhood in Rimini. Many things that he had forgotten revived in the 47- year old director’s imagination. Upon his release from Fellini wrote a memoir about his hospitalization and his vivid memories of Rimini, a small village on the Adriatic coast. Fellini’s 1967 memoir is the source of Amarcord, a film that he directed after completing his Satyricon, a movie that he was contractually obligated to produce. (Between 1967 and Amarcord, shot in 1972, Fellini also made two highly regarded documentaries for Italian television – The Clowns and Roma, the latter a film that features stylized reconstructions of Fellini’s initial experiences in Rome after he had left Rimini in 1939 and immigrated to the capitol city.)




The False Memory Syndrome

During screenings of Amarcord in Rimini, audiences raucously called out the real names of fictional characters portrayed in the film. Men remembered encounters with Gradisa or Vulpone. Women remembered doing fascist exercises in the town’s plaze. Middle-aged citizens expressed shame at boyhood pranks nostalgically presented in the movie. And, everyone, without exception recalled taking to the sea in light, flimsy boats to observe the great ocean liner Rex as it crossed the seas beyond the harbor at Rimini.

But there is a problem. The Rex never sailed past Rimini. That ship was famous for plying the Mediterranean sea on the opposite coast of Italy – it sailed from Genoa to New York City On one occasion only did the Rex pass by Rimini and this was during black-out, just before the ship was sunk in the harbor at Trieste – the place where the great vessel still remains drowned in the sea. The power of Fellini’s film caused people who lived in Rimini to form false memories – they recalled as events in their own lives episodes that existed in reality only in Fellini’s film. In fact, it’s unclear whose memories are presented in Amarcord – Fellini wrote the film with his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra. The scriptwriter was raised in a village six or seven miles inland from Rimini. Italian critics noted that the name of the film should be Romagna dialect for "we remember," since obviously important parts of the film are Tonino Guerra’s recollections.

The protagonist in Amarcord is Titta, modeled on Luigi Benzi, a successful lawyer in Rimini when the film was produced. Fellini pleaded with Titta to play the part of the father of the film’s hero. Titta refused prompting Fellini to shrug and say: "Okay, you bum, stay in Rimini and keep defending chicken thieves." Titta, a famous local lothario noted that he had just married his second wife and that Rome was famous for its "array of sexual delights" to the extent that his new wife forbade him to venture to the capital. Titta was supposed to play the hero’s anti-fascist father. This is a pure invention – as a boy, the athletic and aggressive Titta was the leader of the local fascist youth and, later, an enthusiastic member of the party. (The elderly Titta who pontificates in supplementary materials to the DVD remains proud of the Fascist past – "in Italy," he says, "simply everyone was a Fascist.")

Fellini’s relationship to Rimini was problematic. Not one foot of film was shot in the city. Instead, Fellini made the entire move in the familiar setting of Sound Stage 5 at Cinecitta, the place where he kept his famiglia - that is, the twenty or thirty grips, lighting men, electricians, and camera technicians with whom he made all of his films. During the shooting of Amarcord, Fellin repeatedly admonished "Pepino" Rotunno his camera-man to make certain that the images, particularly the great cardboard wall of the Rex, didn’t look real. "It’s not too real looking, is it," Fellini would ask Rotunno. "Not at all Federico," Rotunno would apply.

Before he made Amarcord, Titta purchased his childhood friend a house "by the river" in Rimini. Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s long-suffering spouse, thought that Titta, a womanizer, was a bad influence on her husband. "Now, Titta is playing your pimp," she said angrily. As a result of her jealousy, Fellini didn’t spend a single night in the house Titta bought for him and, indeed, let it go to ruin. It was obvious that Titta perceived the cottage as a Maison d’ assignation – thus, Giuletta’s indignation was probably valid. Fellini would return to Rimini every couple months, but usually in the middle of the night. He would meet Titta and wander the silent streets of the town until dawn and, then, leave. The civic boosters in Rimini were angry at Fellini and felt that he was openly dismissive of the village where he had been born. In October 1993, the rift was settled – or, at least, efforts were made to close the gap. Rimini decreed a Federico Fellini Day and invited the great director to town. Fellini was not well – he had undergone open-heart surgery, a few months earlier, in June. The director was assigned Room 122 in the Grand Hotel at the harbor, a palatial structure similar to the place shown in the movie. At the ceremony, Fellini was given the keys to the city and, also, keys to a house overlooking the harbor. Unfortunately, Fellini never took possession of his second house in Rimini, the home overlooking the harbor. He suffered an aneurysm in Room 122 at the Rimini Grand Hotel. He was transported to Rome and, later, died in a hospital in that city. The Cardinal of Rome presided at Fellini’s laying-in-state – although the Catholic Church had often denounced the director, the Roman Cardinal pronounced an eloquent eulogy over his body: "Fellini" he said, was like Dante, "the great poet of the Italian soul."

Fellini is buried in Rimini. Thousands of people attended his funeral in that city. Images show the town’s plaza crowded with people, all of them waving white handkerchiefs in farewell. Fellini’s casket was carried around the plaza and, finally, set down in front of the Fulgor, the movie theater where he had spent so many hours in his youth. The director is buried under a tombstone in Rimini that is shaped like the prow of a ship, a reference to the Rex in Amarcord and the luxury cruiser in his film And the Ship Sailed On (1983).



The SS. Rex was successfully launched in 1933 at Genoa. The ship won the much-coveted Blue Riband award in 1934 and 1935 – this award was granted the luxury vessel making the swiftest trans-Atlantic crossing. (Rex crossed the Atlantic in 1934 in four days and 13 hours.) The ship was designed as an Art Deco place, the so-called "Riviera Afloat".

The maiden voyage of the Rex in 1931 was a catastrophe. Mussolini personally christened the boat and it set sail to great acclaim only to break-down at Gibralter. The great vessel was towed back to Genoa where it was repaired for a second launch in 1933. The end of the ship was equally inauspicious. After Genoa was heavily bombed in 1943, the Germans, who controlled the ship at that point, sailed the vessel around the boot of Italy into the Adriatic Sea. It was planned to harbor the ship at Trieste. On September 8, 1944, the RAF launched an air-assault on the Rex. The ship was hit by 59 rockets and listed to the side. The next day, a second wave of air attacks destroyed the luxury liner. It remained blocking part of the Yugoslavian access to Trieste harbor until 1947 when the wreckage of the vessel was cut apart. At least, a third of the ship still lies underwater at Trieste.


Big Women

After La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s films reflect the director’s preoccupation with archetypal images of the feminine. This inclination arises in part from Fellini’s interest in the supernatural, the paranormal, and Jungian psychoanalysis.

Before La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s pictures were satirical and influenced by the Neo-Realist movement. (Fellini wrote the script for Rosselini’s Roma, Citta ApertaRome Open City.) Trained as a cartoonist, there is no doubt that Fellini’s early films trafficked in broad caricatures. In fact, if Fellini had not become a director of feature length live-action films, I think it likely that he would have been a world-class producer of animated pictures.) Notwithstanding, the cartoon-like elements in Fellini’s early pictures, the director’s presentation of the world was largely realistic and, even, documentary in some respects. This changed with La Dolce Vita, a sprawling Dantesque epic film that seems to be the work of a disenchanted Christian moralist. Fellini’s 1961 picture is a chronicle of decadence and immorality – in the film’s famous prologue, a huge statue of Jesus is carried by helicopter over the ancient Roman aqueducts while bikini-clad models gawk and the papparazi snap photographs. The old morality has collapsed with nothing to take its place – the film’s liberal humanist, the kindly Steiner, a scholar of Sanskrit, kills himself and his two children in the film’s last half-hour. A beautiful young girl, clearly a symbol of purity and grace, stands on the other side of a river, inaccessible to the hero who yearns to join her – as he stands gazing at this girl, drunken carousers stagger onto the beach to look at sea monster. By the end of La Dolce Vita, Fellini has abandoned realism and satire for a kind of allegorical symbolism.

Beginning after La Dolce Vita, and during the production of 8 ½, Fellini’s interest in the supernatural nudged him into a study of Jungian psychology. Rome’s leading Jungian analyst was a man named Ernst Bernhard. Fellini called him accidentally, as the story goes, while attempting to reach a "beautiful young woman". The wrong number turned out to be propitious. Fellini became close friends with Bernhard. He traveled to Jung’s home in Bollingen and toured the psychoanalyst’s famous tower. In fact, it seems likely that Jung’s son showed Fellini his father’s Red Book, the Liber Novus on which the psychoanalysist had labored all of his life and that was not published until 2009. Under the influence of Bernhard, Fellini kept a dream journal, subjected his dreams to Jungian analysis, and closely attended to coincidences and other evidences of "synchronicity;" at this time in his life, he surrounded himself with soothsayers, prophets, astrologers, and all manner of quacks and charlatans. He took LSD in 1965 to explore the archetypes in his imagination.

In the late sixties, Fellini came under attack by the Italian Marxists. The Marxists had long wished to recruit the director to their banner, but he remained mostly apolitical – he seems to have been a life-long Christian Democrat. When the Italian Marxists published a manifesto denouncing his work as "bourgeois," Fellini responded in an open letter, announcing that he could not be a Marxist because he was not a materialist and because "I do not believe in objectivity." At the same time, Fellini made it clear that he was an atheist. "My films are Christian in that they address the silence of God as it falls upon mankind," he wrote.

The lyrical, plot-less Amarcord, which is more a dream than a story, is probably best understood in terms of Jungian archetypes. In some ways, the film resembles an account of the Jungian puer (youth or hero) in his quest to achieve individuation. The picture’s unique power results from the fact that the puer’s adventures are transmitted to the viewer through the recollections of a senex – that is, the wise old man that the filmmaker has become. Although critics have labored to persuade their readers that the film is about Fascism or the sociology of small-town Italy, any realistic description of the film must admit that the movie is primarily about sex. In Amarcord, Fellini remembers his youth as the dominion of Venus, the realm of the great Mothers. The picture begins with a colossal female figure being burned, the hag or "Old Witch of Winter", and ends with the marriage of Gradisca, the universal object of desire, a projection of male fantasy whose name literally means "Whatever you desire" to a Fascist officer – a scene that seems to complete the suppression of the powerful female figures that the film presents. (Many psychoanalysts, notably Klaus Theleweit and Wilhelm Reich, view Fascism as primarily a pathology of male sexuality – a view that Fellini seems to endorse).

Almost all of the film bracketed by the Witch of Winter’s burning and Gradisca’s nuptials concerns the image of the female and sex. The local nymphomaniac, Volpina, slinks about the streets and the men are enthused at the new whores brought to town to populate the local brothel. Titta’s confessions involve masturbation, specifically fantasies about fat-bottomed peasant women on their bicycles, Gradisca, and the voluptuous lady tobacconist. An image of Mussolini seems to bless a wedding. Biscein fantasizes about a harem containing 28 women, a number associated with the female lunar calendar. The lounge lizards at the Grand Hotel play gigolo to visiting women but are mama’s boys. Gradisco surrenders herself to Fascist official on behalf of the town and the poor, crazy Uncle Teo climbs a tree to bellow that he wants a woman. The tobacconist exposes herself to Titta and, even, lets him try to lift her. Winter, a season related to witchcraft, returns and the hero loses Gradisca in a labyrinth of pathways shoveled into the snow. The death of Titta’s mother and Gradisca’s marriage to the Fascist officer deprives the protagonist of the most potent fantasy images of women and the film ends. Even elements of the movie that seem not to involve sex or fantasized female sex-objects are curiously feminized. Rex, the most masculine-seeming fetish object in the film, is a ship and characteristically referred to as female. Mussolini’s bald globular head is softened and made feminine by being composed of flower blossoms. The Fascists’ torture Titta’s father in a strange way. Like mothers doting over a sick child, they force him to swallow laxative castor oil.

Jung in a famous 1926 essay on marriage wrote that "What (men) know about women is distorted, derived from (their) own anima projections." Jung argued that the male soul is female, the anima, a view that Fellini explicitly endorses in 8 ½ (a nonsense phrase uttered by the protagonist can be deciphered as a kind anagram for "anima"). Jung felt that true creativity required individuation, a process marked by certain symbolic milestones that were mythological in character and emergent from "the collective unconscious." We begin our lives as "persona" – that is, as adopting the attitudes, expressions, and features of those we admire. As a sense of individuality develops, persona yields to ego and, then, certain shadowy manifestations of the ego – that is, ego projections that distort reality. In the final phases of individuation, human beings are reconciled to their souls, that is, achieve a unity of identity and soul. In men, this process involves an encounter with the anima and acceptance of the female nature of the soul – that is, an acknowledgment of our fundamentally bisexual character. (In women, unity arises when the female ego identifies as a unity with the male soul or animus). We may consider these concepts questionable, even, perhaps, nonsensical – but Fellini admired Jung’s thought and embodied his ideas in many of his films. Amarcord shows Fellini’s youth as an encounter with various archetypes of the female. The four archetypes recognized by Jung are Eve, Helen, the Virgin Mary, and, lastly, Sophia or divine Wisdom. The triumvirate of Eve, Helen and the Virgin Mary are clearly present in various forms in the film. Fellini seems to trace his creativity and the power of his imagination to his encounter with these powerful female archetypes who’s grasp on Titta’s fantasies is acknowledged by the film and, then, it seems, overcome.

Fellini suggests that an Italian boy grows up when his mother dies and he realizes that his fantasy of a bountiful reality that offers you what you desire ("Gradisca") can not be satisfied by reality. The concept of an all-forgiving nurturing and maternal world must be abandoned. Amarcord plots this trajectory as a literal cooling – when Gradisca’s voluminous derriere is pelted with snow, we recognize that a kind of threshold has been crossed. The maternal breast, once proffered, becomes suffocating and is, then, withdrawn.

Amarcord develops another, less occult, theme. Jung’s theories involve elaborate systems of projection. The idea of projection implicates the cinema where images are literally projected in light. Movies are a dream-factory and embody the projection of desires, most of them erotic. We see these desires as flickering images on a screen, powerfully influencing our imagination but, nonetheless, shadowy, remote, and elusive. The village in Amarcord features a movie theater in its plaza and the characters imitate movie stars, for instance, Ronald Colman. Amarcord is so remarkably successful as a work of art because it synthesizes the dream world of cinema, in which desires are projected for our revery, and memories of youth, also projections of beautiful and unsatisfied desires. The cinema is the space in which the Jungian alchemy of myth and desire produces an individuated imagination.


Fascism and Spectacle
Many critics lugubriously view Amarcord as a semi-tragic indictment of Fascism. The end of the film is construed as heavily ironic – "paradise" where the wedding takes place is a kind of Hell. The dissolution of the wedding party and the use of the wide-screen format to isolate the characters at the movie’s end is thought to be desolate and alienating. The fact that the beauteous Gradisca marries a Fascist carabineri further incenses many critics – they seem to wish that Gradisca had chosen a more suitable mate, perhaps, someone like a Harvard or Yale professor of Italian cinema. As is the case with much academic criticism, I think this analysis is tone-deaf to the texture of the film’s ending and overly simplifies a very complex system of emblems and symbols. In my view, the ending of the film is Shakespearian, a conclusion that regulates ardor and desire into lawfulness and order – the tone is elegaic, but that is because passion must be domesticated into a socially sanctioned union. We miss the raw ardor and desire that motivated the romance, but, also, must realistically grasp that those passions can not endure. Fellini’s vision is double: he views Gradisca as an unsurpassable object of desire to the adolescent boys in the film; but we also see that she is aging, far older than her ostensible 30 years, sad, and, perhaps, not as desirable as the teenage boys think. The "dying fall" of Shakespeare’s comedies is expressly invoked by Biscein’s Puck-like address to the audience, advising those who have enjoyed Fellini’s spectacle that the show is over and that they must disperse to return to their own lives.

Further, Fellini’s view of Fascism is very different from the perspective on that political movement that American academics might express. For Fellini, Fascism is the paradigm of adolescence – a political movement that, in a sinister, if humorous, way, apes teenage passion. Fellini’s fascist schoolteachers and priests are like Boy Scout leaders. They seem generally harmless; their torture is even adolescent – inducing diarrhea in their victims. As the film shows, in Italy just about everyone at every level of society was a Fascist – even Rossellini and Fellini worked for Mussolini on films with overtly pro-Fascist themes. In Fellini’s remembered Rimini, only one man opposes the Fascist regime.

In published remarks on the film, Fellini observes that Fascism and adolescence are very similar. Both involve energetic and rebellious youth subject to autocratic-seeming authority figures. Adolescents are dreamy; they fantasize about their future. Italian fascism was, also, a kind of day dream, a revery on themes combining Futurism with Roman mythology. Further, the Fascists emphasized the importance of athletics and athletic competition, exploiting a kind of team spirit that is attractive to High School kids. Finally, Fellini notes that both Fascism and adolescence are periods of waiting, boredom, ennui as a teenager (or political adherent) waits for his future to


Most importantly, Fascism relies upon spectacle for its persuasive effect. And Fellini delights in spectacle – indeed, for Fellini the world and life itself is a kind of magical spectacle, a visual banquet. Fellini casts his actors not on the basis of their skills or resumes, but because of their appearance. Like Oscar Wilde, he understands that only very superficial people don’t judge the world on appearances. (In this perspective, Fellini closely follows Nietzsche who famously praised the Mediterranean delight in surface appearance and joi d’vivre as far more subtle, gay, life-affirming, and profound than the German fascination with depths and hidden meanings.) For Italians, the world is primarily a spectacle – men aspire to display a bella figura; each night, people promenade through their piazzas, both looking at others and desiring others to look at them. Seeing and being seen is central to Italian society. Fellini views small-town life as comprised of parades, processions, displays of baroque religiosity and spectacular histrionics. At the center of his film, Fellini offers a three-fold epiphany – the vision of the Rex, the appearance of the Mithraic white bull, and the peacock’s mysterious benediction in the snow. Conversely, when the grandpa finds himself unable to see, lost in the fog, he immediately begins to think of death – when the spectacle ceases, death must follow. Although Fellini undoubtedly despises Fascism, there is no doubt that he glories in its spectacle, a spectacle that is fundamentally dramatic and, even, cinematic.




1. This song by Harold Arlen was premiered in the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933 and is featured in Amarcord : _____________________.
2. True or False: Norma Shearer appeared in a film known in Italian as Oggi.
3. Is a Laurel and Hardy film being shown at the Fulgor?
4. This Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film from 1937 features songs by the Gershwin brothers, the tune "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off", and choreography by Hermes Pan.
5. Dante was inspired by ___________ dropped by plane into his brain?
6. In 1939, William Wellman directed this Gary Cooper film about French foreign legionaires a shot-for-shot remake of a 1926 Ronald Colman picture. What’s the movie called?

7. The mood of the film’s ending is _____________________.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mr. Bug goes to Town

Mr. Bug goes to Town is a feature-length cartoon directed by Dave Fleischer.  The animated picture, clearly made with a great deal of care and ingenuity, was released in 1941, two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed and so the movie sunk with neither splash nor ripple.  Although it lacks the frenetic, macabre brilliance of many of the Fleischer Brothers' earlier short films, the picture has several remarkably inventive and beautiful sequences.  The film's premise is that a community of insects, all of them cute and anthropomorphized, lives in detritus scattered across the lawn of an old cottage incongruously located in mid-town Manhattan.  (The cottage is old with ancient stone walls and a thatched roof and it looks like Rothwang's medieval lodging in Metropolis).  A fence protecting the bugs from pedestrian traffic has fallen down and the insect village is threatened by "the human ones", colossal faceless giants who hurl burning cigars the size of sequoias into the town or who play field hockey with tin cans on the lawn.  A brave grasshopper, the lanky Hoppity (he looks like Jimmy Stewart) leads the bugs to a penthouse garden fifty stories above the cottage.  Hoppity has a cross-species girlfriend, Honey, a sweet-faced Betty-Boop-style bee.  The bugs' homes are like Hobbit-houses on the shire, funky little burrows made of cans and matchboxes half buried in the grassy knolls, glowing with amber yellow windows at sunset.  Hoppity has an antagonist, the wicked C. Bagley Beetle, a rival for Honey's affections.  Beetle, in turn, has two comical henchmen, a Pinocchio-nosed mosquito and a near-sighted fly.  The beetle villain looks like Charles Laughton, sleeps regally in a make-up compact, and is prone to saying things like:  "Hoppity, bah! I'll get that long-legged leapin' Lochinvar."  To which the fly and mosquito are apt to reply in Bronx accent:  "We'll extoiminate him, boss!"  The movie is sentimental and the insects are drawn so anthropomorphically (for instance, they don't have six legs) that it's a bit pointless to even posit them as bugs.  They don't act buggy at all and species distinctions are generally completely ignored.  Accordingly, the film might as well be about a race of tiny humanoids living in the cracks and fissures of the big city.  It's a defect in the film to so thoroughly anthropomorphize the insects, although obviously the film was expensive, planned for distribution to holiday crowds in 1941, and, accordingly, the "ick" factor associated with insects is minimized to the point that there is nothing in the film even remotely frightening or bug-like.  Indeed, the phrase that comes to mind is one that I have never understood before seeing this film -- "cute as a bug."  Nonetheless, there are some very good things in this movie.  Perspectives and scale effects are spectacularly accomplished -- the rotoscoped humans seem gigantic and anonymous compared to the tiny swarm of insects.  The film has a wonderful song by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser about "castles in the sky".  The song, in fact, plays an important role in the plot and is convincingly integrated into the action -- a human couple sing the song and royalties that they are supposed to receive for the composition are melodramatically delayed resulting in a double eviction:  the humans lose their home and the bugs have to move to the top of a new skyscraper under construction.  The Fleisher brothers pioneered proto-music videos and they excel at song and dance numbers including one surreal sequence in which an electrocuted Hoppity dances a wild jitterbug involving neon-like colors moving so swiftly as to become almost wholly abstract.  And the climax of the film, a spectacular montage involving the erection of a skyscraper, money being minted, and the popular song becoming a hit has a remarkable rhythmic swing -- coins rise in piles, girders are riveted to girders and the bugs rise on steel piers lifted by huge cranes higher and higher above the metropolis.  It's an extraordinary sequence of pure cinema.   

Sunday, June 14, 2015


As concrete contractor extraordinaire, Ivan Locke, the actor Tom Hardy speaks in the calm and soothing voice of a Delta airline pilot navigating a thunderstorm or a mellifluous oncologist suavely describing a mortal tumor -- while all hell is breaking loose around him, he keeps his uncanny cool.  The only time Locke sounds passionate and, even, a bit agitated is when he is denouncing his dead-beat absentee father or extolling the virtues of concrete, a substance that he says is "delicate as blood."  Locke's kindly equipoise belies the fact that the hero of Steven Knight's one-character tour de force is at the center of a hurricane of conflicting obligations.  Locke's sons want him home with their Mum, watching a soccer tournament on the telly.  But Locke is responsible for the pour of 250 million tons of concrete, a process due to commence at 5:25 am the next morning -- it is, Locke announces with a touch of pride, the largest concrete pour in construction history excluding "the nuclear and military industries" and an event of "historic" proportions.  But most vexing is the fact that Locke is about to become a father -- as a result of a one-night stand a woman that he doesn't even know very well is in labor in London.  And Locke, as a rebuke to his own dead and irresponsible father, has decided to drive from the construction site to the London hospital where the woman is about to give birth, a delivery that is both premature and complicated by the umbilicus wrapped around the infant's throat.  In the course of the ninety minute drive to the hospital, that is between about 7:45 and 9:15 pm, Greenwich Mean Time, Locke will lose his job, his wife, his house, and his family. 

Steven Knight's 2014 film chronicles Locke's drive to London, keeping the camera either inside of Locke's SUV, a nice rig equipped with a state-of-the-art telephone and navigation system or closely adjacent to the vehicle, tracking Locke's face in close-up through the windshield as passing vehicles make abstract patterns of light on the glass.  Sometimes, Knight will vary his shots by blurring focus and allowing ruby taillights and amber headlights to dance and coruscate in a frame that is otherwise dark.  The film's content is a series of phone calls that Locke makes, conversations with his employer who is firing him for deserting the project, a subordinate panicked at his responsibility for supervising the concrete pour, his enraged wife, and the hysterical woman in labor at the London hospital.  The film is gripping although devoid of any actual suspense -- as with child birth and pouring concrete, the die is cast once the process initiates.  The story can have only one terminus and Locke's dilemma plays out along strictly defined and predictable lines -- the film is, in effect, a one-way road.  (The only glimmer of indeterminacy occurs in the opening three minutes, before the audience knows what is going on -- Locke starts his SUV, comes to an intersection, and pauses inexplicably after the light has turned green; a truck honks at him and, then, he puts the vehicle in gear and proceeds.  Presumably, this moment in the film records the instant at which Locke has decided to put his career in jeopardy by traveling to London to attend upon the birth of his illegitimate child.)  The movie is exceptionally well-written; Locke's rhapsodies on concrete are poetic, but sufficiently restrained to seem plausible and all of the voices on the phone are highly articulate, argumentative, and penetrating -- Locke's wife complains that he is so enamored with concrete that his footprints turn to stone in her kitchen.  The only aspect of the film that I thought a misfire was Locke's accusatory outbursts directed to the empty backseat of his car and aimed at his dead father, a man who apparently deserted his family when Locke was a child.  By compensation, Locke has become obsessively responsible, omni-competent, as one voice on the phone says "the best man in England" -- and, indeed, the film certainly excels in its project of showing a certain kind of particularly British virtue, the prosaic quality of assuming responsibility for one's actions including, as it happens, squalid mistakes.  The movie is a paean to certain masculine qualities that have fallen out of favor -- stoicism, grace under pressure, skill and resourcefulness, and honor.  Locke is the kind of picture that Howard Hawks might have made, a tribute to the concept of doing a difficult job capably and without whining.  It's a good movie but airless and a tiny bit inconsequential -- Locke is so extraordinarily competent that there is no question that he will be able to find suitable employment with some other contractor, that his wife will forgive him and he will be reunited with his sons who worship him, and, that, even, all will be well with the poor distressed fetus in the London hospital.  The road-closings will work out fine and the concrete will be properly poured and appropriately cured. Locke's reassuring voice makes this clear.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


Enemy (2013) is so ridiculously lugubrious that it acquires a kind of single-minded grandeur.  You watch and wait for some kind of pay-off commensurate to the film's pretentious misery.  And when the climax, finally, occurs, it's completely incomprehensible -- a bizarre shock that you've been anticipating for about an hour but one that makes no sense whatsoever.  Enemy is certainly stylish and vaguely interesting -- the camera-work depicting Toronto as a kind of capitol of Hell is sufficiently remarkable to engage the viewer throughout the relatively short picture.  And the premise of the movie, derived from a book by Jose Saramago (I read the novel some years ago but couldn't recall the author or anything other than the general situation) is reliably compelling -- indeed, it's a premise that has animated works by Edgar Alan Poe and the German romantics, the Doppelgaenger.  Adam Hall is a depressed, hermit-scholar, a history teacher who blathers on about freedom and tyranny in front of a white-board marked conspicuously with the names of various de riguer philosophers.  Although the man is laconic, doesn't go to the movies and doesn't watch DVDs, he has a beautiful wraith-like girlfriend with whom he has lots of sex, depicted in sweaty close-ups as writhing around on crumpled bed sheets.  The girlfriend has a perpetually worried look on her face -- probably due to the fact that she is sleeping with a kind of morose, uncommunicative zombie.  (His idea of interaction with her is grading papers while she pours him drinks -- at least, he's committed to his job -- and, then, sullenly raping her after she's fallen asleep).  This teacher, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, furry with beard and with eyes like a beaten puppy, is named Adam Hall.  One night, he watches a DVD at the insistence of a colleague and discovers that someone who looks exactly like him acts the role of a bell-hop in some sort of sub-literate farce.  It turns out that Hall's double has played several roles, all of them minute, and that he is represented by an agent with offices in one of the hundreds of sinister, identical office buildings located in downtown Toronto.  (Anonymous high-rise condominiums, strange flexed and twisted towers, and skyscrapers looming against a pinkish-grey post-apocalyptic sky make up the décor in this film -- an ominous, inhuman landscape that derives from the malign-looking office towers and industrial parks in David Cronenberg's Scanners.)  Hall's double turns out to an actor named Anthony Clare, a man likewise encumbered with a morose and ghostly ivory-complexioned consort, this woman, however, six months pregnant.  After much Vertigo-style driving around, surveillance, and peeping, the two Jake Gylenhaal's meet one another.  Instead of being amused by their identical appearance (they are the same down to a scar on the chest), the two protagonists are cast into some kind of existential delirium.  Instead of contriving cool pranks or interesting erotic escapades, both characters mope and threaten one another.  Adam Hall goes so far as to confront his mother, Isabelle Rosellini, looking plump and jolly as Buddha, about his twin -- no, she tells him, you are my only child.  Double the Gyllenhaal here is not double the fun.  In fact, Adam Hall is so inexplicably sorrowful about discovering his identical twin that he becomes even more uncommunicative, silent, and hopeless.  Ultimately, the evil twin, the actor Anthony Clare forces Adam Hall to lend him his moon-faced girlfriend for a romantic interlude.  As revenge, Hall goes to visit Clare's wife.  It seems pretty clear that Hall's girlfriend gets the best of the deal -- we see her wiggling around in satisfied way with her paramour, suddenly much more vigorous in bed than before.  Unfortunately, Clare and Hall's wife have a post-coital quarrel in a speeding car and they crash.  The crash is effectively staged, very quick and violent, a sort of Princess Diana- splattering impact with a pillar underground and it seems clear that the actor and the history teacher's wife are dead.  The camera tracks toward the wreck to reveal a shatter-pattern in a window that looks like a spider web.  Meanwhile back in Clare's condominium, a high-rise pad more or less identical to Hall's place, the history teacher has sex with Clare's wife.  Just before he leaves the apartment, Hall hears about a fatal crash on the freeway.  The smog-tinctured atmosphere remains a ghastly pinkish-yellow.  And, when Hall goes to say goodbye to Clare's wife, he discovers that she has turned into a huge, black spider.  The camera lingers for a moment on his face -- he doesn't really look too disturbed or surprised.  The arachnid motif is announced in the film's first sequence, an opaque montage of well-dressed middle-aged men, including one of the Jake's watching some kind of erotic performance that involves nude dancers and huge tarantulas.  Some of the buildings have crooked Brutalist supports that look like spider-legs and this aspect of the film, which includes Clare zooming around in a bug-like helmet, has the languorous, oneiric feeling of Scarlett Johanson's horror film Under the Skin.  From time to time, Jake will have a nightmare involving a woman walking on the ceiling with a sleek black spider's head or visions of an enormous long-legged arachnid, a creature that looks like one of Louise Bourgeois' sculptures, looming over the hellish skyline of Toronto.  I have no idea what the spider motif is supposed to signify although the final shock delivered by the film is telegraphed to the audience fairly early in the picture.  (Nonetheless, the appearance of the room-sized arachnid in the penultimate shot in the picture is very scary.)  I suppose one might interpret things literally and assume that the actor Anthony Clare is a member of a strange spider cult that eroticizes arachnids and marries them -- there is some intimation that there is a secret underground domain, accessed by an enigmatic key, in which the spider-lovers consummate that rituals.  Or, more probably, the final sequence simply signifies that, as in The Wizard of Oz, the whole strange affair was "only a dream."  In any event, I have never seen a film with this kind of bizarre non sequitur ending, a bit of David Cronenberg style horror (like The Fly) that seems to exist only because the movie was shot in Cronenberg's "stomping ground," Toronto.  A monstrous misfire, the movie is certainly made with great panache and I will be interested to see what the director, the enormously gifted, Denis Villeneuve (he made the exceptionally disturbing Prisoners in 2013) does next. 

Does anyone remember that Chinatown was remade years later by Jack Nicholson as The Two Jakes?  I wonder if this explains Gyllenhaal's casting in this film. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Exiles (Film Group Essay)


In the year, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles was premiered in at the Venice Film Festival, my family moved from New Jersey to Minneapolis. I was six. In those days, gas cost 30 cents a gallon and poor people went for car rides for entertainment. I guess we were poor at that time, although I don’t recall being any different than the other people in our neighborhood.

One Sunday, my father drove from our home in New Brighton over to Columbia Heights and, then, we cruised University Avenue to downtown Minneapolis. In those days, Nicollet Island was covered with old brick tenements four or five stories tall and traffic from University crossed the island to reach Hennepin. Bridges spanned the river leading from slum to slum, a warren of transient hotels, flop houses, tumble-down saloons, and hardscrabble businesses: junk metal shops and plumbing supply houses, second-hand stores and army surplus outlets. On one of the bridges, lying on the sidewalk next to the cast-iron guard rail, a man was on his back, jerking with a seizure. My mother told me not to look at the man sprawled on the sidewalk. Obediently, I closed my eyes.

But I saw alleyways and shabby figures stumbling around between the crumbling buildings. I saw crowds of men standing on street corners as if waiting for something. An old man was vomiting in the gutter while a mangy dog watched. This was skid-row, Minneapolis’ bowery, twenty or so square blocks from the island to the tower of the Milwaukee Road railroad station. "This is why I don’t like cities," my father said to my mother. Both of them were from a very small town in central Nebraska.

The thing that I saw that afternoon are among my earliest memories. Probably, what I best recall is my parents – they would have been 24 or 25 – appalled response to the tenements and bums on the street. On the way home that afternoon, I wondered: Who are these people living in these slums? What are they like? How did they come to be here? Are they human beings like me or something entirely different?



Kent MacKenzie, the director The Exiles, was born in London. His mother was English and his father was an American journalist for the Associated Press. Mackenzie moved to the United States when he was 11 and lived in New York City as a child. He made only two feature films, The Exiles and Saturday Morning (1971) When he died in 1980 at the age of 50, Mackenzie was working in Hollywood as an editor of industrial and educational films. Mackenzie sometimes was invited to teach High School classes about documentary films. In LA, some of the High Schools equipped their students with Super 8 cameras and encouraged them to make movies about their families and neighborhoods. When these programs were offered, Mackenzie sometimes participated and, often, would show his own film The Exiles for the kids to give them an example of how such a movie might be made.

Almost no pictures of Mackenzie exist. There is one photograph showing a young and intense-looking young man wearing horn-rimmed glasses gesturing to some Native Americans in a bar. He looks like an "angry young man," the sort of fellow you might meet in 1960 at a Dave Brubeck Concert. This is the only picture that I have seen of the director, although he appears in one of the scenes in The Exiles – he is seated behind Yvonne in the movie theater. (He also briefly leans into the frame in the 49 party scene on Hill X.)

Mackenzie was educated at Dartmouth. Preppie to a fault, Mackenzie was a good tennis player. He spent summers at a camp in upstate New York where he was a tennis instructor. At that camp, he met an Onondaga Indian, Tom Two Arrows, who worked as a craft counselor – this man was a close friend for many years and likely encouraged Mackenzie’s interest in Native American culture. Mackenzie came to southern California in 1956 was he was 26, arriving with his car, some clothes, and forty dollars in his pocket. He enrolled in UCLA and, for a master’s degree project, made a short film about the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles. While making this movie, he became friends with the Indians living in the crumbling warren of tenements and bars on Bunker Hill – this is where Frank Gehry’s Disney Theater now stands. Mackenzie spent three years accumulating the footage edited into the 72 minute final cut of The Exiles. The movie was largely shot on "short ends" – that is, unprocessed film left over from 1000 foot rolls, a material that the large studios simply discarded. Mackenzie scavenged "short ends" and produced the film on that stock. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 and, then, vanished into obscurity. It was not commercially released in the United States until 2008, fifty years after McKenzie began production of the movie. Between 1961 and 2008, the movie existed only in a few 16 millimeter prints and was shown mostly in church basements – the movie was available to education institutions and churches only.

(Mackenzie made one other feature-length picture – this is documentary called Saturday Morning, released in 1971. The film consists of 20 young people between the ages of 15 and 20 discussing their sexual experiences. The movie is ninety minutes long and shot in a picnic-like setting in a wooded glade. Mackenzie had been making sex education films for a few years and, apparently, wanted to use material that he couldn’t work into the pictures produced for high school screening. The movie played for one week in one New York theater. There is a highly condescending and insulting review published in the New York Times – the critic was offended by the "filthy" language used by the kids. (He calls the girls "dolls.") Time magazine praised the movie. No one seems to have seen it during the last 40 years. Rotten Tomatoes shows six viewers: two rated it as superb, two as good, and two as average.)

In 2003, the film maker Thom Anderson released his documentary LA Plays Itself, a three-hour collage film about the history of Los Angeles as portrayed in the movies made in that city. Anderson’s film is a masterpiece in itself, a remarkable survey of hundreds of films, brilliantly curated and presented with a sardonic commentary. In that film, Anderson included several sequences from The Exiles. That movie, Anderson maintained, provided the best account of the vanished Bunker Hill neighborhood around Angel’s Flight and the Grand Street market, places demolished for urban renewal and the construction of the huge Disney theater complex. People who saw the Anderson’s picture were intrigued by the clips from The Exiles and sought out the film. Anderson located Mackenzie’s daughters and secured their rights to use the clips in LA Plays Itself. He encouraged Mackenzie’s two daughters to work with film restoration experts and distributors to engineer a theatrical release of The Exiles. UCLA restored the picture and the movie had a brief commercial release in New York and LA in 2008.



Mackenzie was friends with people he portrays in The Exiles, mostly Apache Indians from reservations in Arizona. He encouraged his characters to write out monologues. Some of these monologues appear in the film in voice-overs. Mackenzie used a borrowed camera from a documentary film company to shoot the movie. Since production of the picture occurred only when money was available, The Exiles was shot by six different cameramen at various times. The camera that Mackenzie used was old and noisy. Accordingly, direct sound recording was not possible. All of the dialogue, music, and snippets of TV shows that we hear were post-synchronized. For this reason, we often hear people speaking in the movie but can’t see their lips move on screen.

Although the film looks like a documentary, it is mostly staged, although in real locations. And Mackenzie rehearsed his actors, requiring that they learn their lines. Mackenzie had a shooting script, initially called "The Trail of the Thunderbird" and, then, simply, "Thunderbird" for the fortified wine that some of the characters favor. Mackenzie borrowed money from everyone he knew to make the picture – his barber loaned him some cash and a woman that he knew sold her car and gave him the proceeds. From time to time, Mackenzie had to use his production funds to bail out some of his principal characters who got themselves thrown in jail.

Since Mackenzie couldn’t afford to acquire the rights to any music on the radio or juke-boxes then current, he commissioned a raucous rock and roll score from the Revels, a proto surf-band from San Luis Obispo. (Similarly, the fragments of TV shows that we hear in the film were also invented for the movie). One of the songs, Mackenzie commissioned for the movie, "Comanche," was cut from the film but later became a Top Forty hit. "Comanche" appears in the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.



The Exiles provides a glimpse of Los Angeles’ vanished history. The Indians live in Bunker Hill, a neighborhood only several blocks from City Hall and, now, completely gone. Bunker Hill was a poor area, mostly inhabited by elderly pensioners and new immigrants to the city. In the late fifties, the steep slopes of the hill were covered with ramshackle Victorian mansions subdivided into tenements. The people who lived on Bunker Hill shopped at its base in the market on Grand Street. A road ran under the hill through the 3rd Street tunnel shown memorably several times in the film. As previously noted, the structures on the hill were gradually demolished in the name of urban renewal. The footprint of the neighborhood is now occupied by the Disney auditorium, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the antiseptic Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels. (A number of expensive high rise apartments crown the hill, shaved down and flattened from its original bulbous contour.) The Walt Disney Auditorium fronts Grand Street, the location of the market shown in the film. Two tunnels pierce Bunker Hill; the older 3rd Street tunnel featured in the film and the newer 2nd Street tunnel – these tunnels allow surface road access under the hill to west-bound freeways. The center of Bunker Hill was served by the funicular railway Angel’s Flight with its two cars (Sinai and Olivet) ascending a 33% grade – the current location of Angel’s flight is about one-half block from the historic site of the funicular.

The Bunker Hill neighborhood, although architecturally significant for its concentration of late Victorian mansions, came under attack from urban renewal in 1955. (At least four buildings on the hill were thought to be historically and culturally significant – all of them either burned or were de-listed and, then, razed.) At the time of its "renewal", the neighborhood was home to 22,000 people, mostly poor and living on fixed incomes. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion completed in 1962 was one of the first large structures built on the hill. The Walt Disney Concert Hall completed in 2001 (and begun in 1987) replaced the Chandler Pavilion. The eradication of existing substandard housing on Bunker Hill was part of an ambitious plan, scheduled for completion in 2015 – that is, spanning a sixty year period. Other than Angel’s Flight, maintained as a tourist attraction, and the 1200 foot tunnels under the hill nothing remains of the old neighborhood today.

Hill X, the hilltop where the Indians go for their "49" (their post-bar-closing party) is located in a part of Los Angeles that was once called Chavez Ravine. Chavez Ravine was an area of steep terrain, riven with small canyons and the site of five or six Hispanic villages. The people who lived in the Ravine were truck farmers. They lived in shacks and kept livestock in their yards. The neighborhood was said to be very poor, but vibrant. Chavez Ravine was located a quarter of a mile from LA city hall, about a fifteen minute walk from the downtown area. (The Ravine was not developed because its slopes were made of a sticky, slippery clay unique to this part of the L. A. basin and difficult to build on.) Beginning in 1950, plans were developed to relocate the small Mexican villages in the Ravine area to high-rise urban renewal apartments. With the onset of the Red Scare, this plan was criticized by followers of Joe McCarthy as "utopianism" and came under such vigorous attack that the idea was abandoned. Instead, the private property in the area was condemned by exercise of eminent domain and, ultimately, resold to Walter O’Malley. O’Malley built Dodger Stadium on the site of Hill X, also bulldozed into a low mesa to accommodate the sports facility. The Hispanic people living in the Ravine did not give up their homes and small farms without a fight – litigation over their relocation lasted for many years as "the battle of Chavez Ravine" and the last residents of the area were evicted in handcuffs at gunpoint. People who grew up in Chavez Ravine don’t recall the poverty. Instead, they remember a bucolic and peaceful rural area where women tended chickens living in their yards and Basque-speaking shepherds watched over herds of sheep in the hills – all of this within a fifteen minute walk from the Los Angeles City Hall.



There several meanings to the Indian slang term "49." First, a "49" is a post-pow-wow party, featuring drugs, alcohol, "snagging," and fighting. Most sanctioned pow-wows prohibit alcohol. Accordingly, some pow-wow participants adjourn to a "49" party after the sanctioned event. (The film shows a "49" on Hill X.)

A "49" song is a drum song in which the first verses are sung in a Native language with the final verse performed in English. These kinds of songs are popular at post pow-wow parties.



On the commentary track to The Exiles, the well-known American Indian novelist Sherman Alexie comments on Native American alcoholism:

When I used to talk to my old man about his drinking, he would tell me – "I’m drinking because I’m Indian – this is what we do best – this is what we’re good at – drinking is Indian, drinking is indigenous. See, drinking is a political act. Being an alcoholic is declaring independence."
Alexie goes on to say:

Che ran around the mountain shooting people. An Indian gets drunk so he can’t participate in the dominant culture – it’s a revolutionary act.


"Like a man who has been dying for many days, a man in your city is numb to the stench.

Chief Seattle

"The Holy Land is everywhere."

Nicholas Black Elk



The popular media have a mania for judgement and explanation. If, for example, a ferry capsizes, someone is responsible and should be held to account. Furthermore, the ferry’s overturning is an event that must be mined for further evidence of significance. People are summoned to testify about the weather, infrastructure, the education system. Proliferating claims are made for the diagnostic significance of this and that related to the calamity under consideration. This model applies to many forms of documentary film – an evil is identified, judged, and, then, explained, significance imputed to the images in ever-widening concentric circles around the event (or people) shown in the film.

At first, Mackenzie’s The Exiles threatens to be such a film. A high and serious tone is imparted to the proceedings by the gravely dignified images of the Native Americans shown in the opening sequence. It seems as if we are going to be hectored, lectured about how Indians displaced from their ancient customs have become a rootless cohort of alcoholic and abusive city dwellers. Surely, there is much blame that can be ascribed all around for this phenomenon.

But, of course, The Exiles doesn’t take this course at all. The people in the movie don’t seem to be suffering much, except for the unfortunate pregnant Yvonne. In fact, the movie is invigorated by the joy of being young, the pleasures of getting drunk with friends, and the fun of non-stop partying. The film isn’t even remotely censorious and judgmental and finds no deeper significance in the events that it shows. In large part, The Exiles is about a group of people recklessly having fun. There is something admirable about the single-minded quest for good times that animates the picture. Mackenzie started off making one kind of film, the sort of picture familiar to all of us, and ended up achieving something completely new and different.

In the early sixties, Susan Sontag published an important essay (later incorporated into a book), "Against Interpretation.’ The gist of Sontag’s argument is that art need not be construed "impiously" – that is, aggressively imposing abstract meanings on an experience that is otherwise primarily sensuous. Rather, we should be capable of experiencing art superficially, that is, without excess of judgment: "we need. not a new hermeneutics, but a new erotics of art," she says concluding her article. The Exiles, I think, is best viewed in terms of its "erotic" elements – the luster of the light against the darkness, the texture of faces, the diffusion of smoke through a bar, sparks from a cigarette caught by the wind and blown away. Some kinds of art affect precisely because the artist witholds judgment. Mackenzie’s strategy in The Exiles is to avoid socio-economic or spiritual or psychological explanations for what we see – instead, his objective seems to be to provide us with vivid images of the life of his protagonists. If we choose to judge them, we can; if we choose to explore the historical or socio-economic implications of what we are shown that path is also available to you. But all explanation is extraneous to the film and apart from what we are shown. Mackenzie doesn’t construe for us what we are shown.

A notable example of Mackenzie’s tact, his willingness to withhold explanation or judgment, is the scene in which Homer imagines life on the reservation. Homer is standing outside a tawdry liquor store, lit in the best garish film noir style. He has received a letter, apparently from his family on the reservation. He peruses the letter while waiting for his friend to come out of the store with booze. Without any intermediary dissolves or fade-outs, the shot switches to an older man sitting under a tree and shaking a rattle as he sings to himself. Some women, presumably Homer’s mother and sister, are sprawled on the ground playing with puppies. A man rides up to the shack where the man is singing under the tree. The man says something in an Indian language that we can’t understand, there is a brief conversation, and, then, he rides away on his horse. We see a collapsed building and the horse and rider slowly moving through a nondescript desert landscape. Then, the film cuts back to Homer waiting for his booze. Mackenzie scrupulously refuses to explicate what we have seen; the film doesn’t impute any particular meaning or significance to the shots showing the singing man, the women and the puppies, and their visitor on horseback. We don’t know if these images are a flashback or shots of something actually happening more or less simultaneous to the events shown in the film. Further, we don’t know if these images are in Homer’s memory or imagination or represent events parallel to the film’s action in the city. We don’t know what the man is singing nor do we know the significance of his song or what the man on horseback says. We don’t know where the man on horseback is going. Mackenzie shows reservation life as different from what his Indian protagonists experience in the city – but it is not necessarily better or worse: the Indians in the city seem bored, repeating the same round of drinking, flirting, and fighting night after night. But not much seems to be happening on the reservation either. The one environment is not posited as more natural or better than the other – a conspicuous withholding of interpretation since the obvious inclination would be to show that life of the reservation is more pure, more authentic, if also more impoverished than life in the city. But Mackenzie doesn’t make this kind of argument – two forms of life are shown and neither is proclaimed to be superior to the other. The fact is that the reservation and traditional life in that place is boring. And, Mackenzie’s hellraising young men, and their girlfriends, at least seem to be having fun in the big city.

In his poem, "Break of Day," John Donne says:

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye...
Movie-making is painting with light. Light doesn’t have to explain itself. It is all eye.