Sunday, September 27, 2015


Denis Villeneuve's Sicario (2015) is a fever-dream of a movie, horrifying while you are enclosed within the film, but, more or less, ludicrous when contemplated after the show in equanimity.  In the theater, you are in thrall to the picture; when the film ended, the audience was stunned into silence.  But, in the parking lot, doubts begin to emerge...  First and foremost, I suppose, is the question of the film's timing.  The movie's ultra-lurid and hyper-violent story seems to have been contrived for the benefit of Donald Trump -- or, more precisely, the movie feels like one of Trump's paranoid  and hysterical fantasies about Mexican perfidy and our country's porous Southern border.  In broad terms, the movie concerns a mission orchestrated by a CIA operative (played with smarmy ferocity by Josh Brolin) to identify and, then, assassinate a shadowy Mexican drug lord, the leader of a cartel that has extended its vicious tentacles into our sweet land of liberty.  Emily Blunt, pursing her lips with tough-minded disapproval, plays the "by-the-books" FBI agent whose involvement in the covert operation is intended to give the entire enterprise legal respectability -- the mission involves cross-border raids, murders, and, a CIA specialty, lots of torture.  Benicio del Toros has the role of the Sicario, apparently, a Mexican word for "assassin" -- he is first presented as a sensitive fellow twitchy as a result of some unexplained trauma, but, as the film, progresses he morphs into a monster of feral cruelty.  Trump's speech writer could have composed much of the mise-en-scene.  The Mexican drug cartel has been slaughtering people in the middle-class suburbs of Chandler, Arizona -- 42 corpses, stacked like mummies in the Capuchin crypt, are walled-up behind sheet-rock in a nondescript suburban rambler.  The border is so porous that the principal Mexican villain drives a BMW with Arizona license-plates.  The cartel has bored a tunnel right under the border itself so that thugs, Trump's "criminals and rapists," can swarm into our country.  Our cops have been infiltrated and are working for Mexican drug-lords.  While horror-movie music thunders ominous chords, Juarez is called "the Beast" and, in the evening, Americans sit on their roofs in El Paso to enjoy the firefights with tracer bullets and huge explosions in the Mexican city.  The main streets of Juarez are picturesquely garnished with headless mutilated corpses dangling from overpasses and light-posts.  The drug lords in Mexico (and Mexico in general) is described as a pathology, as a deadly disease, against which we must "vaccinate" our country.  All of this is spectacularly lurid and the timing of the movie feels a bit suspect -- there is something slightly obscene about the way the movie exploits the precise fears and hyperbole that candidates like Trump have deployed to win votes on the Far Right.  Villeneuve is a morose, seemingly terminally depressed French-Canadian and I doubt very much that the tone of savage xenophobia that the film exhibits is really intentional -- I assume that the director thought he was just making a violent hard-nosed thriller, something like a cross between Steven Soderburgh's Traffic and William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA.  But the timing is all wrong and the movie, which is certainly fascinating and thrilling, makes you feel dirty.  Villenueve is one of the most interesting directors working today -- his alarming vigilante film Prisoners showed the ferocious savagery lurking in suburbia, aroused when a young girl is kidnapped.  And Enemy is a hybrid between Kafka and a David Cronenberg horror movie -- that film boasts most mind-blowing final shot of any picture that I have seen in the past couple decades.  In Sicario, Villeneuve works with an enormous sense of authority -- the film is an example of apparently realistic brutalism in cinema on all levels.  First, there are plenty of horrific images in the movie -- the acts shown are brutal and ugly on their face.  Second, the performances are all crudely effective -- the roles played by the actors are completely cartoonish, caricatures of caricatures, but Villeneuve's aggressive and agonized close-ups of his snarling or tortured characters are undeniably powerful.  (The film also exploits the crassest sort of stereotypes -- in particular, a subplot involving a corrupt Mexican cop eating huevos with jalapenos and refried beans for breakfast indulges in a kind of mindless stereotyping that has to be seen to be believed.)  Third, the film, shot by the estimable Roger Deakins,  features intentionally bad camerawork -- indeed, I have never seen a film so persistently ugly:  the images are either washed-out and over-exposed, barren expanses of sun-bleached desert or Mexican metropolis, or underexposed to the point of being illegible.  Many key exchanges between characters are shot with the faces of the actors submerged in deep shadow.  In some scenes, the face of an African-American protagonist simply vanishes in the darkness, an inscrutable black mask.  Aerial footage shows barren hills and desert like the face of the moon.  Some sequences are shot with ghastly green night-scope imagery intercut with a pallid, chalk-grey monochrome, apparently simulating the view through night-vision goggles, pictures that have a strange, disorienting 3D effect.  Deakins' pulls focus often, shifting back and forth between planes in the image, and, often, the pictures are blurry.  Deakins is a great cameraman and Villeneuve indulges him only with respect to grandiose shots of the sky over El Paso and Juarez -- there is always an enormous thunderstorm charged with electricity hovering over the horizon and sheets of rain fall only to be imprisoned as green-black bars hanging overhead in the sky; a terrifying storm is always underway but somewhere half a hundred miles distant from where the camera is placed.  Villeneuve is a master of creating atmosphere -- in Enemy, he made an entire city seem to be trapped in a vast spider's web -- and Sicario is replete with astounding images of meteorological violence suspended in the sky.  Finally, the film is brutalist in its simplified, schematic ideology -- it is undeniably racist -- and its ultimate message is  that good is always defeated, that evil prevails, that no one is virtuous, and that all human effort is futile:  the film is a glossy and carefully packaged advertisement for despair and, on that basis, I question the picture's ultimate morality.  At first, the movie seems to be a picture like Dirty Harry, the movie that Pauline Kael praised (and condemned) as a Fascist work of art -- but Villeneuve is more nuanced; the gung-ho xenophobia that motivates the first half of the film gradually resolves into a something, even, more problematic, that is, a pervasive sense of amoral hopelessness. 

Outside the spell of the movie, many of Sicario's effects can be questioned.  With a million square miles of totally empty desert and mountain all around, why do the Mexican bad guys spend the time and energy to secrete the decomposing bodies of their victims in the walls of the suburban house?  Probably, the sequence is intended as allegorical, the notion of rot that has entered into the very interstices of our homes (again a metaphor that Trump would relish) but it doesn't make any sense logically.  The cross-border raid into Juarez, a brilliantly staged set-piece in the film, is like something from Black Hawk Down -- it seems to me that there would be a lot of easier ways to transfer a Mexican bad guy from Juarez prison to El Paso without convoys of soldiers, armed cops, armored personnel vehicles, all of this leading to a bloody gunbattle in traffic jam on the cross-border bridge.  Why wasn't the bad guy helicoptered away?  It seems that the convoy used to extract the killer from Juarez City attracts about as much attention as the Pope's motorcade -- that is, the strategy seems self-defeating.  An early scene involves a series of illegal questions posed by government administrators -- the questions are all directed at Emily Blunt's marital and family status, clearly expository, but, also, the sort of inquiries that no government official would dare make since to pose such questions (and, then, to act upon the answers) would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.   I've know enough governmental human resources types to cringe at the illegality of the screening questions directed to the female protagonist.  The final sequence involves the heroine being confronted with the kind of magical document that exists only in movies -- signing the document is supposed to be some kind of irrevocable act that denies a person any recourse to later contest the document.  As a lawyer, of course, I know that documents of this kind don't exist and could not possibly have the effect posited in the movie -- such a writing is merely a plot device.  Finally, a threatened shooting in the film's last half-minute is implausible because it is after dark and the characters are standing so far apart that I think it would be unlikely that a shot fired from a handgun would hit the proposed target.

Despite these reservations, I recommend the film.  It certainly entranced the audience at the showing that I attended.  On its face, the movie is similar to Zero Dark Thirty -- both films feature lots of scruffy special forces snipers, night-vision sequences, brutal CIA agents, and, even, an idealistic heroine.  But Villeneuve's movie is the real thing -- the gory, brutal, and despairing film to which the poorly designed and meretricious Zero Dark Thirty aspired.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Holy Mounltain

Like most films containing ostentatious blasphemy, Alexander Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973) tends toward pedantic didacticism.  In this case, Jodorowsky suggests supplanting the rich, and bizarre, culture of Latin American Catholicism's not clear, but, perhaps, some sort of apolitical liberation theology based, it seems, on Tarot cards.  Since Catholicism, particularly in its Mexican-Peruvian form, is far stranger than anything that Jodorowsky can invent as an alternative religion, The Holy Mountain falls a little flat -- it never quite achieves the hallucinatory and visionary splendor to which it aspires.  Along the way, the movie delivers plenty of genuinely shocking and beautiful images and so its worth watching for the pictures.  And the film is basically silent -- there is very little dialogue, a mercy since the speeches and words that we can hear are, more or less, idiotic in an annoying "new age" sort of way.

After an arcane introduction involving a magus who shaves the heads of two beautiful novice girls, The Holy Mountain shows us a thief, sprawled in the dust of a favela his face crawling with flies.  The thief rouses himself accompanied by an amputee dwarf with no hands and only short, ineffectual stumps for legs.  (Jodorowsky fetishizes amputees and his films crawl with them -- it's an effect that is oddly horrific, like something from Tod Browning's Freaks.)  The thief resides in a kind of wicked Babylon where cops in gas masks gun down innocent-looking hippies, harlots have sex with thugs in public, and armies of men march around carrying flayed goats crucified on posts.  The thief is captured, drowned in plaster so that he can serve as a model for a couple hundred plaster statues of his life-size body, used to represent the crucified Christ.  The thief with his dwarf side-kick goes berserk and wrecks the crucified figures, although one of them, apparently made out of some kind of cheese, serves him as a sort of mobile buffet -- he carries his Jesus-meal on a cross, it's like State Fair food:  Fried Jesus on a stick.  (The audience gets a momentary frisson out of the image of the thief gnawing away Jesus' face but, really, how different is this from actual Christianity -- don't we eat Jesus during every Communion?)  The thief scales an enormous tower with sheer walls, something like one of the fortified towers of  San Gemigiano and, in that structure, encounters the alchemist played by Jodorowsky himself.  (Jodorowsky has a huge balding forehead and piercing eyes and he looks a little like an alien from a 1950's scifi film.)  The alchemist first shows that he can transform the thief's shit into gold through various melting, boiling, and other processes in his alembics.  Then, he introduces the thief to his nine zodiacal disciples -- each of them affiliated with a certain evil aspect of the modern world.  There is Mars who embodies war-mongering, Uranus, a kind of lascivious fop, and other figures including an evil toy-manufacturer who makes guns for small children, a cruel banker, a dicatator, an architect, and so forth.  (The satirical sequences introducing each zodiacal figure are the funniest and best parts of the film.) The alchemist gathers the thief and the nine zodiacal warriors around a table, lectures them on the Tarot and, then, demands that they burn all their money.  After burning their cash, the alchemist orders them to burn themselves in the central fire-pit -- and, so, they cast life-size nude wax figures of themselves into the flames.  Then, the alchemist abandons the tower and leads his merry crew on a series of adventures intended to put them to the test and ultimately achieve wisdom -- the goal is a group of sages atop a Holy Mountain.  The adventures are either grotesque or disgusting, something like a South American version of the Fear Factor except completely over-the-top.  In James Bond movies of the era, a heroine might be menaced by a single rust-red tarantula slowly creeping toward her naked body; everything in Jodorowsky is absurdly excessive -- in The Holy Mountain a nude Zodiac disciple is shown howling with dismay as, at least fifty hand-sized tarantulas crawl over his chest, belly, and face.  The adventurers comes to a great dome of snow and ice, the holy mountain.  They see the nine Taoist sages gathered around a round table on a lofty meadow.  Of course, the motionless sages turn out to be the wax figures of the nine Zodiacal warriors who, now, discard their simulacra and seat themselves at the table -- the object of the search was their secret and true selves.  The alchemist proclaims that the thief needs him no longer and hands his disciple an enormous scimitar telling him to cut off his head.  When the thief cuts off the head of the alchemist, he is revealed to have decapitated a goat.  The alchemist summons all his followers together to reveal the truth to them.  Facing the camera, he tells the director of photography to zoom back and reveal that the wise man, the thief, and the nine zodiac disciples are all being filmed by a cameras and a sound crew.  The movie is full of spurting blood, grotesque rapes, nudity, and strange architectural and natural landscapes.  The Holy Mountain is impressively designed and fantastically inventive and, yet, it never really persuades me that there is anything truthful or authentic about the picture.  There is no real acting, everyone mugs for the camera, no dialogue, no suspense or narrative beyond the broad lineaments of the quest theme and, of course, the wisdom disclosed at the climax is specious and has the quality of a fortune cookie.  John Boorman's Excaliber which the film sometimes resembles is also about the Quest -- an Arthurian quest -- but it is far more moving and powerful because there are actual characters in the film and we care about them.  Jodorowsky gives us nothing but Jungian archetypes and its hard to worry to much about their fates. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

American Experience: Walt Disney

The most remarkable aspect of the PBS prestige documentary, Walt Disney, is that the film is made as if Walt Disney and his studio never existed.  There is none of Disney's anarchic and comical invention, no homage to the great man's invention of the music video, not even any trace of Disney's poor taste, his kitsch sensibility and the vulgar tear-drenched, if effective, sentiment suffusing his best films.  This PBS biography exists in a cultural milieu in which the only landmark and reference point is Ken Burns' tediously pious and fraudulent civil war documentary.  When I tuned-in the show, I hoped that it would be crisp with surreal animation, designed and constructed to evince in its bones and genetic structure Disney's all-encompassing influence on the history of cinema -- I hoped the talking heads would include people like Crumb and Matt Groening, the guy who first drew The Simpsons.  Instead, the viewer gets the same somber pacing, the same platitudinous talking heads, exactly distributed according to gender and racial quotas, the same left-leaning cautiously liberal politics, the same "nuanced" and ostensibly "neutral and objective" approach to its subject matter -- most of the talking heads speak of Disney in terms of awe and admiration; when he is criticized, the talking heads sound like literary theorists reluctantly identifying character flaws in King Lear.  I would pay to see a documentary about Disney made by a geeky, up and coming animator fan-boy or fan-girl -- a kid enamored of Disney employed in making raunchy cartoons for Adult Swim, the guy who animated Ren and Stimpy or Uncle Grandpa; similarly, I would pay to see a documentary by someone who hates Walt Disney, someone like David Thomson, who regards Disney as having betrayed all the children of the world with his toxic combination of right-wing certitudes and nauseating sentimentality --  but this big four-hour film has all the facts but none of the attitude necessary to create a successful documentary about Walt Disney.  It's like the Ken Burns film on jazz, the least jazzy, least improvisatory, most prosaically declamatory film possible or Burns on baseball, a massive documentary that somehow forgets the baseball is primarily a game, that is, a form of play and entertainment. 

Of course, I will watch the whole four-hour documentary because embedded in the hagiography and left-wing parables, the viewer sometimes finds gems.  Disney's early films were exercises in anarchy, wild surrealist ventures in which every line was wiggling and hopping and bobbing with frantic energy -- you get to see some examples from Steamboat Willy and the Silly Symphonies.  At one point, Disney effortlessly shifts into Mickey Mouse's high-pitched squeaky voice and the effect is unnerving.  But the film is pretty much silent as to Disney's actual contributions to his movies -- did he play the voices?  How much of the animation did he do?  What was the role of the brilliant Ub Iwerks in his early work?  Disney is photogenic -- he is the literal "pick of the litter" when shown among his siblings, by far the most handsome and energetic of the rather saturnine brood.   And there is something indefinably smarmy about Disney; he looks like the world's best used car salesman.  (And, apparently, his forte was, in fact, sales and marketing -- his fortune seems to have been based on licensing his cartoon characters for commercial use.)  Disney is shown in about half of the shots in the picture and he looks sleazy:  when I was a kid, I always expected that when you climbed onto Uncle Walt's warm and inviting lap, there would be a big erection waiting for you.  Although the talking heads are silent about the creepier aspects of Disney's persona, the film does give you sense that the man was a hustler, an egotist, and astonishingly self-centered.  (The only talking head with any real energy is a guy named Ron Suskind, a man with a strangely expressive and plastic face, who looks like a 'toon himself.)  And like all Ken Burns' films, the movie is structured to make a liberal Democratic point -- Disney is portrayed as mistreating the rank-and-file at his studio, underpaying women in particular, a misdeed that led to a destructive strike in 1940.  Disney's discomfiture at the strike, his look of vaguely baffled bemusement, as he drives through lines of picketers, many of them brandishing images of an angry Mickey Mouse, is shown as vaguely tragic -- after pride comes the  fall.  There's a fair amount of interesting information and the film clips from the Disney pictures are impressive -- they remind you of Disney's greatness and how his best work is inextricably entangled with the worst aspects of his sensibility.  Like Pullman, and like the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Disney sought to create a work environment that was all-encompassing and home-like -- all in the name of brutal capitalist efficiency.  We see the animation "ink" and "paint" girls playing ping pong, Disney's huge cafeteria, the assembly-line technology, and the lush, lavishly appointed suites where his best animators worked.  In his efforts to inspire his workers, Disney comes across as a precursor to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  And some of this stuff is so strange you can't make it up -- for instance,  Disney bought a mansion for his aging Midwestern parents but its furnace leaked and carbon monoxide in the Hollywood villa killed his mother.  The film's subject is interesting enough -- I just wish the movie was made with more gusto and pizzazz. 

(The second two hours of this PBS documentary are better, perhaps, because these events invade the terrain of the viewer.  I can recall watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on our black-and-white TV set every Sunday night, the whirling kaleidoscope patterns during the titles a mere pudding of greys and whites on our screen.  In the last third of a man's life, the things that made him great begin to unravel, revealing the knotted strands of accident and idiosyncrasy from which human destiny are comprised.  In this part of the film, Disney becomes increasingly tyrannical and, even, paranoid.  He identifies Communists as his enemies, the source of bad reviews and labor unrest, and testifying to HUAC he names names.  (Of course, PBS is so wedded to a particular liberal vision of the McCarthy era that the documentary never pauses to consider whether Walt's enemies might, indeed, have been Communists at one time and to what extent radical-left agitators did stir up trouble for his studio -- I know that when P-9 struck in Austin, the source of the labor dispute had nothing to do with outside Communist provocateurs.  But I would hasten to add that such people appeared in droves at the picket lines once the trouble had begun.)  Disney finds that he can't make feature-length animated cartoons according to his notions of excellence -- it's simply too expensive in the post-war economy -- and, so, he disengages from  film production, spends several years driving three-foot high model trains around his estate, and, then, begins to build his theme park at Anaheim.  There is a fantastic still photograph of a bemused-looking Salvador Dali squatting on a tiny train car as Disney on the locomotive wearing an engineer's cap pilots him around the flower beds.  Disney pushes the clock to open Disneyland and the film has some amusing footage of blunders occurring during the live broadcast from the amusement park on its opening day -- it was 100 degrees and nothing worked very well.   The show tips its coonskin cap to Disney's TV productions and concludes with Uncle Walt dying prosaically in the hospital across from his studio from lung cancer (he was a lifelong chain-smoker) while dreaming of Epcot, his radiant city at Orlando -- Disney began by animating six minutes strips of film; he ended configuring entire utopian cities, conjured out of miasmic swamps.  The second half of the show feels rushed -- there's too much material, much of it somewhat familiar to viewers my age.  In fact, the story of Walt Disney is a huge and epic one, and, probably, worthy of the full Ken Burns' treatment:  at least another two hours.  And Disney is, in fact, an immensely consequential figure -- for better or worse, as Wim Wenders said of the Americans in Germany, he has "colonized our subconscious."  And there are lots of aspects of Disney's biography that the film slights:  Disney movies always had tremendously engaging, tuneful soundtracks -- his animated features were constructed in some respects like Broadway musicals:  who composed these songs and how did Disney work with professional song-writers and musicians?  What about the propaganda films from the war era?  What about the legion of short films with Donald Duck, and Goofy and others?   What about Disney's contribution to robotics with respect to configuring "animatronic" animals and people for his theme parks?  Disney's problematic relationship with the African-American community emblematized by his notorious Song of the South is mentioned but not discussed.  And what about his use of Native Americans a bit like zoo-animals in Frontierland at Anaheim?  Like Coca-Cola, the Disney movie is one of America's signature exports to the world and the subject, certainly, requires additional study.)   

Monday, September 14, 2015


Meru is a sacred mountain in India, the headwaters of the Ganges.  At 21,000 feet, it is dome of stone and ice bladed like a stegosaurus at the crest of its hump.  The most sheer and tallest blade is called "the shark's fin" and, until 2012, had never been climbed.  Meru is a documentary made by Mankato native (and Carleton alumnus), Jimmy Chin, about two ascents of the mountain by three Alpinists, Chin, Conrad Anker, the leader of the group, and Renan Ozturk.  The film is conventional, devoid of any thoughtful commentary on the folly of the enterprise, and fantastically picturesque -- we see dizzying escarpments, enormous fluted walls of snow with tiny figures clambering up them, great pinnacles of unstable rock traversed by men hanging over a four-thousand foot void.  The mountaineers sleep in something called a Portaledge, that is, a kind of tented hammock dangling off the cliff.  Since the best ice-climbing is in the dark, when the glaciers are frozen hard, the men drag themselves up huge ice fields by the light in their helmets -- they look like cave explorers in a vast impenetrable darkness.  The sacred mountain is repeatedly shown in high relief, its digitized image cast against skies full of blazing nebula and constellations, an eerie and unnatural, if powerful, special effect. 

The documentary has a three parts.  In the first, the team attacks the mountain in 2008 but, trapped for ten days by horrific storm, fail to reach the summit -- although it's only 300 feet above them, they are too debilitated by exhaustion to make the final push.  All of them men have a combination of frost bite and trench-foot -- their toes are literally decomposing and Chin reports that he had to spend six weeks in a wheel chair before he could walk again.  In the second part of the film, the adventurers go their separate ways, to catastrophic effect.  While filming some kind of commercial at Jackson Hole, Chin is caught in an avalanche that kills two other men -- he survives by sheer happenstance.  Ozturk is filming a similar commercial in the Tetons and makes a wrong turn on a ski-board, falling off a cliff and suffering horrendous injuries -- his neck is broken, his skull shattered so that his brain is exposed, and one of the arteries providing blood to his brain is severed.  Experts opine that Ozturk will never climb again, but he engages in fantastically aggressive physical rehabilitation -- it involves doing one-handed push-ups with forty-pound weights in his fist and dragging tractor tires chained to his waist around pole-barns at the elevation of Boulder, Colorado.  Eight months or so after Ozturk's almost fatal fall, he's back on Meru as part of Anker's second expedition, an endeavor that is, ultimately, successful -- although not without some close-calls and only after Ozturk seems to suffer a mini-stroke two days before reaching the summit.  

Meru is inspiring in its own mindless way and the cinematography is remarkable.  But you learn nothing much from the movie,  Obviously, this kind of extreme mountain-climbing is ultimately lethal.  The question is not whether you will die, but, rather, when.  There's no convincing explanation as to why these men will pursue this kind sport, an activity that is, essentially, suicidal.  "The elephant in the room", obvious to viewers but never discussed, is Conrad Anker's age -- the man looks like Lance Armstrong and he must be in his mid-forties.  (He lives in Bozeman and is married to the wife of a climbing partner who died during one of his expeditions.)  The question that occurred to me was whether Anker was too old for this kind of exertion -- and, indeed, in the interior shots in the Portaledge, Anker seems near comatose with exhaustion.  But the film doesn't address those issues -- there is no snappy dialogue at all.  At 20,000 feet, it's hard enough to just breathe let alone talk.  Commentary of the gee-whiz! variety is supplied by the gnarled Jon Krakauer.  I thought the movie was fairly entertaining, but pointless.  The three climbers don't exhibit much in the way of idiosyncrasies and they cooperate so closely in the ascent that we have no sense of any independent thinking in their approach to the mountain.  There is nothing conflicted or ambiguous about any of these men and the stance of the film toward them is overtly worshipful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Friday Night

Friday Night (2002) is dreamy, high-class erotica for women, directed by a woman, the brilliant Claire Denis.  The film is hushed, images fluidly pouring through one another in complex dissolves.  The movie is shot in immense close-ups, almost microscopically detailed, intercut with wet cityscapes that seem to melt into eyes and groping hands.  The effect is elegant and slightly hallucinatory -- we have the sense that the encounter shown in the film may be some sort of erotic dream.  This effect is engendered in part by the movie's radical dissolution of space into a series of highly charged close-ups that don't define a coherent topography -- rather, the viewer's eye is anchored by small details, a wet window, a space heater turned up to glow orange, a dropped glove, a neon sign showing enormous spectacles.  In one sequence, the heroine looks at a condom vending machine and, somehow, the film eroticizes this humble device -- the instructions on the machine (for instance, "push all the way in") seem to whisper double entendre in the protagonist's ear.

Friday Night's plot is negligible.  Laure is a woman in her mid-thirties -- she is packing her belongings and plans to move in with her lover (we never see him), Francoise, in the morning.  The sun goes down and Laure gets in her car to drive to a dinner party.  It's very cold outside and there is a menacing man wandering around the sidewalk where her car is parked.  Laure finds herself trapped in an interminable traffic jam.  She turns on the radio and hears a female voice, a newscaster, suggesting that people provide rides to pedestrians because a public-transit strike has paralyzed the city -- the film refers to a real strike that occurred in 1995 and Denis cuts from the tangle of cars improbably jammed together in the rain to an entirely empty Metro platform.  Laure, who earlier recoiled in horror from a lone man walking near her car, now inexplicably picks up a handsome fellow, Jean, who is strolling through the columns of stalled vehicles.  Laure gets out of her vehicle to cancel her appearance at the dinner party and, for the first of two times in the movie, loses her car.  It seems to have magically moved -- this sort of sudden irrational physical displacement defines the film's aesthetized eroticism.  She finds the car and Jean takes charge, assuming the role of driver, and accelerating the vehicle in reverse for several dozen blocks -- again a magical act that can't be construed in any literal way, but that symbolically breaks them free of the paralyzing traffic jam.  This alarms Laure who makes Jean surrender the car back to her.  Jean walks away in the rain but Laure misses him -- once again, fortuity or erotic magic allows her to find him in a scarlet café where he is drinking coffee and flirting with a girl playing pinball.  (The scene, including a glimpse of the girl's erect nipple, is directly out of soft-core pornography -- the red décor and the slatterny exhausted waitress and the old pinball machine with its bright yellow button, a "tender button" to quote Gertrude Stein, makes no sense in any kind of sociological reality and is purely fantasy.)  Laure and Jean go to a hotel that is completely empty with all doors to all rooms wide open.  They make love and, then, go out to eat in a sleazy pizza place, also all velvety red, where Laure fantasizes about Jean seducing another woman, a disheveled angry blonde seated near them, in the toilet.  They return to the hotel, make love some more until Jean does something that might mark Laure's body -- she repels him and, in the morning, runs through the grey, pre-dawn streets, once again looking for her lost car.   This is pure sex, sex without narrative, sex without consequences...

The film is effective as an erotic reverie -- when Jean smokes a cigarette, the camera lovingly records the smoke curling out of the cracked window of Laure's car.  The stalled vehicles in the traffic jam are jammed together implausibly close and their hoods steam -- everything is languid, erotic, wet and cold exteriors giving way to warm and dark interior rooms that all seem to lead into one another.   The picture doesn't judge the protagonist -- in the last freeze-frame shot, we see her running (as Denis says in the commentary, "for her life"), with a little crooked smile on her face.  This is a rare film that is worth studying because it is not about anything other than desire and sex.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Pervert's Guide to Ideology

A Perverts Guide to Ideology (2012, Sophie Fiennes) is a two-hour and fifteen minute lecture by the Slovenian philosopher Slivoj Zizek.  Zizek is a lumpy-looking academic who speaks with a heavy accent -- he says "fee-lum" for "film."  His presentation is not always grammatically correct and Zizek sniffles constantly, periodically groping at his nose.  Much of what he says barely makes sense or seems highly questionable to me and the film has no clear structure -- Zizek lurches from idea to idea on the basis of associative logic that I was unable to grasp.  Despite these characteristics (or, in part, because of them), the film is undeniably interesting -- it has an eccentric, loopy fascination, due in part to the film clips with which Zizek somewhat haphazardly illustrates his ideas.  Zizek appears in mock-ups of the sets featured in the films that demonstrate his arguments.  So, we see him in a fragile-looking boat on a dark ocean full of icebergs imitating the scene showing Leonardo DiCaprio's death in Titanic; he sits on a toilet in the barrack's head where the demented marine in Full Metal Jacket kills the drill sergeant and himself; we see Zizek dressed as a priest in the convent in The Sound of Music, lying on Travis Bickle's bed in the squalid set from Taxi Driver and wandering around at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley (where Zizek drinks a Coke and discusses commodity fetishism).  Zizek is said to be witty, but there is not much evidence of humor in this film -- he delivers his long lecture in monotone, a deadpan delivery so lifeless and inert that it allow him to say some outrageous things without really giving offense. 

A Perverts Guide to Ideology is about ideas and, so, it is probably necessary to explain a little bit about what Zizek says.  If the ideas interest you, then, the film is worth seeing.  If you dismiss Zizek's speculations, then, there's no point to watching the movie -- the film is only as interesting as Zizek's theories.  Zizek defines ideology as a powerful "unconscious" (or "subconscious" -- Zizek's terminology on this point is unclear) perceptual device that structures reality according to certain dominant fantasies.  In Europe and America, this device is commodity fetishism and other economic structures necessary to support Capitalism.  Ideology is a "lie that preserves the dominant order of things" -- an order that Zizek sometimes asserts is primarily hierarchic is character.  Ideology is so engrained in our perceptual apparatus that it can be challenged only at a cost of immense and violent struggle -- a point Zizek illustrates with John Carpenter's film They Live featuring a eight minute fist-fight between Rowdy Roddy Piper, the ex-wrestler, and an antagonist:  the object of the fight is compel Piper's antagonist to put on magic glasses that reveal the world as it really is, that is, stripped of ideological preconceptions.  Toward the end of the film, Zizek discusses religion and dogmatic universalist political systems, most notably Maoism and Stalinism.  Zizek argues that these systems embody a belief in the Big Other, a term derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis.  "The Big Other" is a an agency establishing a teleological order -- for religious people, the Big Other is God; for Stalinists, "History" as an inevitable, inescapable process.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Big Other is a fiction.  Zizek notes that the Big Other is the "agency to which we make our secret confessions, the agency to which we are obligated to tell the whole truth."  In this context, Zizek discusses, in a moving way, women who were gang-raped during the war in Bosnia-Croatia.  After the war, they wanted to tell their stories and thought that society and justice would be the Big Other willing to listen to their horrific memoir -- but no one was interested, no cared to hear their confession for its own sake, and those who did listen only desired to appropriate their experiences for their own political agendas.  The women were forced into a realization that is both terrifying and, ultimately, liberating -- there is no Big Other, the concept is a lie.  In this context, Zizek reverses the formula allegedly stated by Dostoevsky:  "If there is no God, everything is permitted."  In light of Stalinism and Islamic fundamentalism, the phrase should be "If there is a God, everything is permitted" since all atrocities are authorized if the end (heaven or universal peace and brotherhood) justifies the means.  In this context, Zizek, himself an atheist, makes an argument for the exceptionalism of Christianity -- to get to "true Atheism," Zizek says, "you have to pass through Christianity."  Christianity is "hysterical", meaning "anxiety-ridden" because it posits that the Big Other is a human being facing the experience of death -- this is the meaning of Christ's death on the cross:  the Big Other, the inscrutable God of Jehovah, is no longer "Other" but takes on human characteristics.

Zizek asserts that the Big Other or Ideology, terms that come to be closely related as the film progresses, operates through libidinal mechanisms.  The Big Other offers to give us what we must deeply desire -- although it is the function of ideology to create, enhance, and nurture those desires.  In other words, this libidinal economy creates in us the very desires that it, then, offers to satisfy (Zizek's word for this is "enjoyment") or let us "enjoy".  Zizek illustrates this with clips from Nazi and Stalinist propaganda demonstrating the mobilization of sexual desire for political purposes -- in the remarkable Soviet epic, The Fall of Berlin, perhaps, the most expensive film ever made, Stalin plays matchmaker and history is a gigantic mechanism for insuring that the hero and leading lady will consummate their love.  Capitalist films offer similar libidinal bait -- Zizek provides a lengthy explication of James Cameron's Titanic in which he argues that the iceberg is the fortunate mechanism that keeps the classes, represented by Kate Winslet's upper class girl and Leonardo DiCaprio's poor Irish immigrant from becoming permanently entangled -- Kate Winslet feeds like a vampire off DiCaprio's lower class vitality and, then, casts him away as a pale, exsanguinated corpse in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.  In a remarkable segment about the film  Cabaret and the German rock band Rammstein, Zizek argues that the ideology can be overcome by adopting the ideological fetishism associated with the Big Other but, then, decoupling it from that ideology -- in other words, Rammstein uses Nazi symbolism in its concerts, but in a purely aesthetic way, that is, detached from any political meaning.

What is the answer to ideology's grip on our perceptions?  Zizek argues that first we must recognize that Capitalism is the true revolutionary force in history, a permanently destabilizing, perpetually advancing historical phenomenon.  But we must not allow Capitalism or any other Big Other to appropriate and control our dreams.  "We are responsible for our dreams and fantasies."  Since there is "no train of history on which will simply take a ride", that is, no Big Other, everything depends on us.  Enigmatically, Zizek cites Walter Benjamin for the idea that "the true  revolution not only redeems the future, it redeems the past, restoring all of the failed revolutions in history."  "You must change your dreams," Zizek declares, and asserts this can be done only by exercise of the most extreme violence to our own selves.  In the last image in the film, Zizek is shivering in the icy water with Kate Winslet bending over him.  He closes his eyes and sinks into the water, but as his body drops out of sight, his white hand reaches out of the sea clenched in a fist. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

China 9, Liberty 37

A frustrating curiosity, China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) is an ambitious spaghetti-western shot in Almeria, Spain by Monte Hellman.  Parts of the film are remarkably good and, as a Western, the movie is, by and large, successful and true to the genre.  But the film is flawed in various, almost inexplicable, ways.  The movie stars an unbelievably pretty Italian actor, Fabio Testi.  Testi is a sex-object and filmed shirtless as often as possible.  He seems a little too skinny and indolent, too much of a male odalisque for his role, that of a hired gunslinger working as an assassin for the villainous Great Southern Railway.  But the casting is effective because Testi's antagonist is played by the great Warren Oates looking particularly crestfallen and grizzled in this film.  Oates plays a former gunfighter himself, living with his much younger and beautiful wife, is a cabin marooned in a hollow in the badlands.  Testi, who has been condemned to be hanged, is pardoned on the condition that he agrees to execute Oates (and his wife) so that the railroad can seize possession of the sodbuster's property.  Testi rides to Oates' claim, drinks some whisky with the man, and grows to like him.  Even more appealing to the handsome gunslinger is Oates' comely wife, played by Jenny Agutter, and first seen bathing naked in a stream downhill from an impressive travertine deposit and hot springs.  Testi likes Oates a lot; but he likes Oates' wife even more.  The sodbuster has three brothers and a brother-in-law, apparently, living in the vicinity and they come for a visit -- the picnic involves lots of shooting at bottles and a sing-along and this part of the film is convincingly staged.  Of course, the assassin ends up having sex with the sodbuster's wife.  Oates confronts her and, while he is beating her, she stabs him in the back and, then, knocks him out with a rolling pin.  The adulterous wife thinks she has killed her abusive husband and so she flees into the wilderness, tracking down her gunfighter boyfriend and asking him to take her to Liberty.  (The odd name for the film comes from a sign in the desert showing distances to the hamlets of China and Liberty respectively.)  Warren Oates' recovers to some degree from his injuries and with his kin as posse hunts down his errant wife.  There's a gun-battle in a small village and the sod-buster recovers his wife, responding to some misogynistic abuse from his little brother (who keeps trying to rape the woman) with the exordium:  "If they didn't have cunts, there'd be a bounty on each and every one of them."  Meanwhile a number of assassins have been dispatched to kill the handsome gunfighter, apparently to punish him for reneging on his contract to kill Oates.  The fleeing lovers encounter a circus, complete with contortionists and dwarves, there's a gun battle in a brothel, and, at one of the hotels, the characters encounter Sam Peckinpah, no less, playing the role of frontier novelist.  Peckinpah wants to purchase the rights to the handsome gunslinger's life story, a commodity that the man refuses angrily to sell.  "My life is not for sale," the gunfighter says, to which Peckinpah, replies bitterly (in his own voice, I think):  "It's only a question of who pays and when."  A final gunfight at the sodbuster's ranch brings all the parties together and there is a satisfying showdown between Warren Oates and the pretty-boy gunslinger who has seduced his wife.  In summary, the film sounds pretty damn good -- and it is pretty good.  But there are awful flaws:  first, the characters all speak in polyglot accents; Testi in particular is very hard to understand -- most Italian films of this kind were dubbed.  But Hellman seems to have shot this movie with live sound and the strangely clashing accents and poor English spoken by Testi challenges the ear.  Second, the movie has one of the worst soundtracks I've ever heard -- there's some plaintive harmonica in imitation of a Morricone score, but totally vapid and, then, a sort of calliope kling-klang with accordion that sounds like third-rate circus music.  This is the score for the various horse-chases and the ambush scenes.  Finally, Hellman stages long and totally self-indulgent sex scenes between his pretty-boy gunslinger and Jenny Agutter.  Hellman is fascinated by a certain kind of late sixties Sissy Spacek - Goldie Hawn kind of flower child -- these women populate all of his films.  In this movie, Hellman has not one but two naked women of this type (there's a hapless whore in the brothel who gets naked only to be shot accidentally).  This type of female dates the film -- she's exactly like the hippie girls in Billy Joe or Easy Rider -- and seems too frail for the Old West.  Furthermore, Hellman clearly gets some kind of charge out of staging very long and elaborate sex scenes -- it feels icky, voyeuristic, and doesn't add anything to the film.  It's too bad that these obvious defects mar the movie because it has some wonderful scenes -- a shot of Warren Oates trying helplessly to extract a knife from between his shoulder-blades is both excrutiating and very funny.  A scene in which a widow glares down angrily at a grave while the posse of men riding to avenge her husband's death sweeps out of the canyon onto the prairie is beautiful.  The landscapes are gorgeous and the gun fights well-executed.  At the end of the film, the characters depart the badlands hollow on a wagon, a shot that seems to be a cliché until we see that the hero has set fire to his cabin and barn, the two structures blazing fiercely in the background.  I'm ambivalent about the final love ballad by Ronee Blakely just as I'm ambivalent about lots of aspects of this intriguing but deeply flawed film.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Fragments (2015) is a collection of snippets from lost films, most of them silent, although some date to the dawn of the sound era.  The rather forlorn bits of orphaned celluloid are presented without much explanatory information -- a couple of fan-boy type curators/conservators introduce the fragments with some cursory information.  Unfortunately, they don't explain why we should be interested in the badly damaged, flickering footage preserved in this film, a digital reconstruction on a Flicker Alley disc.  The movie begins with eight or nine seconds of the notorious Theda Bara, mostly naked, wearing a brassiere that looks like a spider web (her nipples are the spiders).  None of her famous films have survived and so we really have no idea as to the basis for her allure.  There's more left of the winsome Colleen Moore, a glamorous starlet from the early 20's and Clara Bow, the It girl.  Bow is almost impossibly pretty; it's obvious that the cartoon character Betty Boop was based on her and, even on battered and decomposing celluloid, her appeal is obvious.  (There is a tiny fragment showing her in two-color Technicolor -- she had startlingly red hair).  We see a badly disfigured half-reel from Emil Jannings' The Way of all Flesh, a film for which he won an Academy Award, but, now, mostly loss -- it's bathetic, but effective, Jannings standing like the little match girl in a snow storm while Christmas revelers pass him by.  There is forgettable material featuring Douglas Fairbanks (comedy athleticism) and Lon Chaney.  Some clever silent comedy is represented by Charley Chase, a variant of the stepping off the curb into the bottomless puddle gag, and a long, intricate, and dangerous-looking sequence, probably about a half-reel, involving a frantic race between men in chariot-like trotting horse carts -- it's supposed to be funny, but the crashes are frighteningly real and the quotient of sadism in the comedy is alarmingly high. A child star named Baby Peggy appears in a terrifying and melodramatic scene involving a tenement fire -- the child chokes in the smoke and seems in real danger.  The four-year old jumps three stories into a trampoline-net held by firefighters as the façade of the building collapses -- all of this was done without stunt doubles.  There's a two-color fragment featuring Laurel and Hardy from 1930 -- they take refuge from a wind storm in a cave where a bear lives.  The highlight of the film is an extended song-and-dance sequence from The Gold-diggers of 1929 -- scenes that begin with an eerie rendition of "Tip-toe through the Tulips", not quite the falsetto used by Tiny Tim, but sung in a high, wobbly and asexual tenor voice, the scene culminating in giant tulips opening up to reveal nearly naked chorines dancing inside of them.  Another scene shows a big song-and-dance number conducted under an enormous backdrop featuring an expressionistically angled and compressed Paris, all its landmarks toppled together with jutting edges and rays of light like a painting by Lionel Feininger.  In front of this set, we see people doing dozens of backflips, fantastically intricate soft-shoe and tap dance numbers. dancing gypsies and choruses of men in tuxedos wielding canes, even, a mob of can-can dancers.  The film ends with four or five coming attractions "trailers" -- in the silent era, the "coming attractions" were played after the film and, hence, "trailed" it.  Of course, these short, rather crudely made advertisement are all that remains of the films that they promote:  we see a coming-attractions trailer for The American Venus ("a galaxy of beautiful girls" wearing "all the newest styles" -- I see Louise Brooks is credited) and an advertisement for a huge scale French Foreign Legion film, Beau Sabreur.  There is probably no one left alive today who can recall seeing either of these films. 

The Strain (Season 2)

You don't need to be Donald Trump to know that the recent illegal immigrants featured on The Strain will be bad neighbors and worse citizens.  Guillermo del Toro's horror series on FX embodies in trash form just about every one of the Republican party's worst anxieties about undocumented aliens -- and it is probably no accident that the show is produced by a Mexican.  Arriving at our airports and harbors are predatory creatures with noisome habits, an incomprehensible culture, wholly parasitic beings that live by literally sucking the blood of native Americans.  Worse, these predatory zombie-predators carry a variant of Ebola -- they can infect us and transform our bodies into rotting shells for their primary organ, an eight-foot long tentacle of raw gristle tipped with a floral arrangement of meat petals that opens to extrude a sort of stinger that simultaneously infects its victim while exsanguinating him or her.  The zombie-vampires projectile vomit this phallic weapon through their mouths, face- or throat-raping their unfortunate victims.  Infection causes your hair to fall out in patches and, since vampires propagate their kind asexually, through viral infection -- here visualized as wriggling white worms something like animate Udon noodles -- their human genitals slough off.  And here is the worst thing:  Washington is completely oblivious to the threat and has failed to secure our sovereign borders -- the only thing to do is to build a wall and illumine it with zombie-repelling UV lights.  The beleaguered citizenry, abandoned by their government, is mostly left to self-help against the undocumented aliens -- the people of Staten Island and Red Hook do yeomen-work slicing off the heads of the monsters or shooting them in the faces. 

The second season of The Strain is better and more fun than the first season.  The show has abandoned its tedious and pretentious concentration camp flashbacks (the vampires are led by an immortal K-Lager commandant, Eichhorst) and concentrates on the here-and-now.  While the first season of the show mostly featured monsters committing isolated depredations among us, aided and abetted by the super-rich Chairman of the Stoneheart Group of corporations, whilst the local officials, displaying incredible obtuseness looked the other way or even denied the threat, the new episodes content themselves with combat between small groups of humans and the marauding vampires.  The core characters remain, more or less impervious to injury:  Eff, the brave CDC scientist who is laboring, with his girlfriend, to develop a self-propagating infection that will wipe out the monsters, a beautiful female computer expert, who is skilled with weapons and, possibly, lesbian or bisexual, a plucky child continually in harm's way -- he's Eff's son and the subject of a post-human, and extremely nasty, custody fight between father and mother, a ravening vampire who has recruited to her side a swarm of mutant spider children capable of crouching upside down on ceilings.  There is an elderly Jewish concentration camp survivor who periodically imbibes a brew of pulverized vampire-virus worms to rejuvenate his flagging powers --- he's about 100 years old but a mighty swordsman when it comes to hacking off the noggins of vampires.  The best character is a matter-of-fact exterminator who sees the vampires as just another species of rat to be trapped and eradicated -- the exterminator is played by Kevin Durand with tremendous nonchalance and insouciance:  the actor has ice-cold eyes and seems partly inhuman himself (although he's in love with bisexual woman-warrior and computer hacker).  The vampires are led by Richard Sammel, playing the jack-o-lantern-faced and grinning Nazi, palpably distressed when his nine-foot tall Master vomits a endless goopy stream of worms into the mouth of a washed-up rock-and-roller, a musician somewhat like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson, thus bestowing the mantle of leadership on the entertainer -- poor Eichhorst had hoped that he was the next in line to succeed to the position of the Master.  There's a vicious plutocrat like Donald Trump, who is a lackey to the Master and his familiar -- he's in the good graces of the Master and so he gets to boss around Eichhorst.  In the first series, the plutocrat was dying of something and spent all his time lounging in bed and sneering -- now, he's been rejuvenated and, even, has a perky and beautiful girlfriend, a great improvement in his villainy since last year. 

The Strain has abandoned any pretense to logic and seriousness.  It's just a series of skirmishes between humans and monsters.  The monsters can be killed by the thousands but keep up the assault.  The leaders of the monsters are always lured into encounters with the heroes, but, in those battles, the unerring shot of the good guys falters, and the villains always escape to fight another day.  Zombie and vampire films always start as nasty and serious explication of sexual phobias -- but this can't last, and, as George Romero's movies show, these narratives generally turn into political satire.  As the demagogues give speeches in front of the grisly trophies of beheaded vampires, and as the good citizens of Staten Island arm themselves to "take back their" neighborhoods, the political subtext is not far below the surface.  The Strain is reliably amusing, luridly and implausibly violent, has excellent special effects, and is not too scary -- it's also funny:  what more do you want in a TV show?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Show me a Hero (Parts 5 and 6)

"Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, "and I will write you a tragedy."  The last two hours of the HBO mini-series so named illustrates this disheartening proposition.  By comparison with the preceding four hours, these final episodes are briskly, if rather schematically, paced.  A narrative of this scope generates many characters and subplots and the film must resolve (or, at least, decisively develop) all of these aspects of the story -- accordingly, the last two hours of the mini-series, really almost 2 and 1/2 hours since HBO is not required to tailor its programs to the strict half-hour and one-hour format of network TV, is a bit choppy and fragmentary -- in effect, a series of vignettes each about six or seven minutes long, rather frantically intercut.  Nothing exactly comes into tight or clear focus and the final two episodes, although extremely interesting and sometimes moving, contain so many disparate things that the entire enterprise feels unresolved, tentative, and overly diffuse, even rushed.  This effect, I should hasten to add is probably intentional -- the filmmakers seem striving for a kind of Olympian, Brechtian detachment:  the story is epic in many respects, involving dozens of  people striving for different objectives, across a period of years.  Certainly, the reference to "tragedy" is misleading.  Tragedy ordinarily involves a powerful, noble, and flawed person brought low by fate and the defects of his own character.  In this regard, the protagonist of the film, its "hero" as it were, Nick Wasicsko, is too weak and feckless for tragedy -- thus, the film's title seems, more or less, ironic.  Wasicsko is only accidentally a hero -- in fact, he is sleazy political opportunist who fell into a controversy that he had exploited for his own gain.  For a few months of his life, he rallied his rather feeble powers and showed moral courage.  Then, stripped of his office by reason of that courageous stance, Wasicsko spent the rest of his life trying to capitalize on his brief moment of virtue, betrayed everyone around him, and, at the first hint of serious trouble, absconded from the political arena by committing suicide.  The film develops a theme rarely shown in the popular media -- how an essentially ignoble and cowardly person, cast into a position requiring great courage, was able, with his back to the wall, to demonstrate virtue, if only ephemerally, before collapsing back into his self-aggrandizing and opportunistic habits.  It's not that Nick Wasicsko is a bad man or an evil person -- he is a just a trivial, inconsequential man, someone radically unsuited for the role in which history, very briefly, cast him.  In any event, it seems clear to me that the implication that Show me a Hero is a tragedy is a kind of bitter joke.  In this context, it is well to ask what the film is ultimately about -- although Wasicsko figures in about half of the scenes, ultimately, the film is not about him, but about the institutional process  of desegregation, about public housing, and about political issues in a racially divided city.  In this respect, the movie is ultimately more like one of Frederic Wiseman's enormous and panoramic institutional documentaries -- indeed, there is one of them called Public Housing -- than a typical HBO narrative.  In fact, in a way the film would be superfluous if a reasonably comprehensive documentary about the events in Yonkers existed and most of the movie's principal points are made with pragmatic and cruel efficiency in Wiseman's film on the subject.

Notwithstanding these cavils, Show me a Hero improves in my view in its last third, picks us force once more, and seems to me to be both educationally effective and, intermittently, emotionally powerful.  The conversion of a white woman who is an opponent to desegregation into an advocate for that process is moving and inspirational -- and, in fact, seems reasonably plausible to me.  The hardships endured by the poor are convincingly portrayed and the inhabitants of public housing are effectively presented in all of their individuality.  Some of these people are good, some of them are bad, and, indeed, exceedingly bad -- one young woman keeps getting pregnant by a jail bird who ends up serving 25 years for murder.  Wasicsko's deterioration is presented in a matter-of-fact but disturbing way -- the former mayor attends the lottery in which tenants for the new desegregated townhomes are selected; no one pays any attention to him although his political sacrifice made the project possible.  (Later, in a particularly effective scene, he goes to the townhome to introduce himself to the tenants, all of whom respond with incomprehension and hostility -- they simply don't know who he is).  As he goes mad, Haggis, the director, uses some interesting camera effects -- first he shoots the weeping Wasickso in a middle shot in which his face is lost in shadow; then, he cuts to an extreme close-up that is smeared, overexposed, and almost indecipherable with intense light coming through an adjacent window -- Wasicskso's mood swings are rendered palpable by the contrast between dark and light.  The film ends with a long inventory of the principle characters and a description of their present-day whereabouts -- in many cases the grave.  I thought this was an unnecessary cliché and, although interesting, ethically questionable.  (Some of the people portrayed in the movie are still alive, particularly the woman played by Winona Ryder who Wasiksco betrays politically -- and who, in turn, attempts gratuitously to destroy his marriage with hysterical slander.  Presumably, this episode derives from some real event but it doesn't go anywhere in the film:  the ex-mayor's wife asks about accusation, receives a categorical denial, and, then, drops the issue -- so what's the point in airing this dirty laundry and, further, do we really need to know that the woman who did this wicked thing is still alive and, more or less, where she lives?)  The film also has an interesting gallery of closing credit photographs showing the actors in the movie and their real life counterparts -- this is also jarring in that it shows the preference in even highly realistic films for pretty people and Hollywood types; with one exception, a startling beautiful Jamaican woman, all of the actors and actresses and immensely more attractive than their real-life counterparts.  (Al Sharpton, the famous race-baiter, was intensely involved in the desegregation battle -- although he is only mentioned once in the film; the closing credits show the reverend, not once but twice at least, as he appeared in 1988; today, as the suave moderator of his own MSNBC show, Rev. Sharpton weighs about one-half of what he weighed 27 years ago. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Show me a Hero (parts 2 and 3)

Excessive length is the curse of most TV mini-series and this rule applies to the third and fourth hours of Show me a Hero.  In the third episode, the desegregation crisis reaches its climax, Mayor Wasicsko, finally, secures a city council vote to implement the court-ordered housing plan, and, then, loses his bid for a second term -- Yonkers elects a mayor every two years.  At loose ends, Wasicsko putters around the house that he has bought, does home improvements, and listens to his Bruce Springsteen cassettes.  The urgency and most of the interest leaks out of the show and the focus, now, shifts to the annals of the deserving and undeserving poor.  Here we are mostly on familiar terrain and, despite good intentions, the plight of the poor is intrinsically undramatic -- indeed, to be poor is to be denied the opportunity of any kind of meaningful narrative and so the show sags considerably at its midpoint.  With Wasicsko becalmed -- the movie kills time by tracking him to a Home Depot where he buys supplies for his handyman projects -- the emphasis is on drug-dealing, teenage pregnancy, delinquency of various sorts, and the strivings of hardworking people who don't earn enough to make ends meet.  A group of "Dead-Enders" continues increasingly futile protests about the public housing being built in largely White neighborhoods, but it seems obvious that these demonstrations are merely expressions of racism and have no other purpose.  Although much of this material is not only dull but predictable there are effective moments and some of the subplots are vaguely compelling if unclear -- a woman from the Dominican Republic is separated from her children; the program doubles everything to use up its allotted six hours and we get not one but two tearful reunions at the airport with her kids.  It's not clear why this woman left Yonkers in the first place, unclear why she went back to New York, and her situation with her boyfriend or ex-husband (the father of her children), a kind of squalid calamity, isn't really defined.  A home health aide who has gone blind due to untreated diabetes casually remarks that she doesn't want to live with White people in any event -- "I want to stay with my own kind", echoing the exhausted words of a NAACP lawyer in the first episode:  "They don't want to live with us.  And I don't know that we want to live with them..."  Haggis cleverly intercuts a row of White pensioners waiting to cast their vote with a queue of Black folks who turn out to be standing in line for a fix from their drug dealer.  One scene in which a Puerto Rican nurse descends an elevator occupied largely by thuggish looking gang-bangers tells you about all you want to know about the reasons for skepticism about whether integration can possibly work.  The grand design of the work remains visible through all the clichés and we can sense that the film is moving in an arc to suggest the redemption of the community through desegregation, certainly a worthy and majestic theme and one that is well worth dramatizing.  But not much happens in these two episodes and the annals of the poor are more or less obvious and not too compelling and Haggis loiters on bathetic scenes involving Wasicsko babbling to his Dad at his father's grave (scenes that have some ominous force because I have cheated, checked Wikipedia, and I know that the hero will commit suicide by that grave at age 34).  There's too many life-affirming montages cut to Bruce Springsteen anthems and at about the 3 and 1/2 hour mark, the show flags to the point that Simon and Haggis have to tart it up with some gratuitous sex and nudity -- an exhibition of the leading lady's nipples that is completely unnecessary and embarrassing for all concerned.  But this is standard protocol for HBO and the scenes involving the climactic vote on the desegregation have an alarming fury and power so that I anticipate the show will regain its stride in the final two episodes.  But why waste ninety minutes more or less on uninteresting stuff?  It would show more integrity to remain true to the vision of the film in the first two hours and shorten this middle act by half.