Friday, October 30, 2015

Miracle Mile

Miracle Mile (1988) is an 85 minute shot of adrenalin, an excellent film that mysteriously failed at the box office only to achieve posthumous fame as a cult movie.  The movie is one of two pictures directed by Steve de Jarnett -- the other Cherry 2000, at least on the evidence of Miracle Mile, deserves revival and a closer look as well.  (Both films have recently been reissued in Blu-Ray format.)  Miracle Mile translates a tried-and-true formula -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl are together in the end -- into the genre of the nuclear apocalypse film.  It's like a sophisticated romantic comedy sutured improbably to something like The Day After or On the Beach. Miracle Mile is weirdly poetic, convincingly lyrical as a romantic comedy, and genuinely nightmarish with respect to its end-of-days imagery.  It's the kind of picture in which a car rams into a stately LA palm only to cause the tree to drop, like round, furry fruit, a half dozen fat grey rats onto the vehicle's crumpled hood.  The director's staging of his hackneyed material is continuously ingenious -- every shot has a peculiar hook or angle or some unexpected vector of motion.  When the hero staggers out of department store into which a police car has just crashed we find that the SWAT team previously threatening to kill him has vanished, a sole cop rappelling desperately down the face of the Streamline Moderne building to dash away into the pink and yellow dawn.  The bit players are effectively eccentric and the locations lavishly atmospheric -- the movie is shot on the famous Miracle Mile in central Los Angeles, a stretch of museums and architecturally renowned Art Deco-style buildings, all possessing a kind of back-to-the future charm:  this was what the future was supposed to look like in 1959 and May's Department Store, Johnnie's Coffee Shop, LACMA, and the hovercraft-like museum at the La Brea Tar Pits all impart a kind of retro-glamor to the proceedings.  (The Pan-Pacific Auditorium also appears in a number of shots; the structure burned down the year after the movie was shot.)  The actors are pleasant and simpatico; the scenery is superb and the film's real-time action -- it mostly takes place between the hero's discovery that the world is going to end in an hour and the foretold atomic holocaust -- has a kind of surreal, frantic urgency.  Time is ticking away and there is no stopping the war-heads targeted for overkill in the LA basin.

The film's screenplay was written ten years before the movie was produced in 1988 when de Jarnett was a student at the American Film Institute.  People who had read the script proclaimed it one of the best screenplays ever written and it was featured in the AFI publication, Film Comment, in 1983 as one of the ten best unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  The story focuses on a 30-year-old trombone player who meets a charming young woman at the La Brea Tar Pits museum -- the meet-cute at the museum is filmed with languorous abstract tracking shots that are highly stylized and resemble Brian de Palma's museum scenes with Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill.  The young man and woman agree to a date when she finishes work -- she's a waitress at Johnnie's Café on Wiltshire.  The trombonist's alarm clock fails him and there is a power outage so that he is three hours late to his midnight date.  He stumbles into Johnnie's at 3:45 am.  When the hero answers a phone call placed by error to the cafe's pay-phone, he discovers that the US has launched a preemptive missile strike on the USSR.  Soviet missiles are en route to LA and will obliterate the city in 45 minutes.  A mysterious woman, apparently some kind of Department of Defense employee, suggests that the people in Johnnie's meet atop a nearby bank building so that they can be evacuated by helicopter to LAX for flights to Antarctica -- presumably the only place that will survive the nuclear holocaust.  The hero desperately searches for the girl that he has just met, finds her, and together they struggle to escape the increasing violence, chaos, and hysteria that besets the city.  The film careens forward with the savage energy of a really bad dream -- things just get worse and worse and worse.  Not only was de Jarnatt's script superb, the realization of his words is also stunning.  It's a B picture made on low-budget although the limitations of the film's funding are not really noticeable -- some of street scenes involving car crashes and looting are startlingly effective.  Not all the actors are up to the material and de Jarnatt uses clichés and stereotypes to rocket the film's action forward -- the whole thing is less than 85 minutes long -- and so I can't claim that the movie is flawless.  Mare Winningham's performance as the plucky romantic interest is questionable in some respects and the hero, a hapless everyman, is, perhaps, a little too bland.  But there is no doubt that this is one of the best, and most purely enjoyable, pictures of the decade of the 80's.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blunt Talk

Since comparisons are invidious, it's generally a mistake to invoke an essay by George Orwell in the course of a note of this kind.  But, I think, the best commentary on the Starz comedy series, Blunt Talk, starring the formidable Patrick Stewart is Orwell's essay on "The Art of Donald McGill."  In that writing, Orwell considers a specific comic genre: smutty postcards sold in "stationers shops."   Orwell describes these cards lovingly and, then, remarks that they embody a "harmless rebellion against virtue" and that "human beings instinctively desire to be good, but not too good."  Blunt Talk, despite its "hip" Hollywood pretentions, belongs within this genre.  It's an example of sentimental and deeply conservative smut -- every dirty joke or off-color scene illustrates a fundamental virtue.  This is not surprising since the show is produced by Seth McFarland, a long-time smut purveyor, whose characters on Family Guy and American Dad generally derive from the Archie Bunker school of humor:  the gruff, narcissistic bigot turns out to be loveable because his awful remarks and nasty behavior supports a status quo that we secretly admire more than we publicly deride it.

The premise of the ten half-hour shows comprising Blunt Talk's first (and, probably, only season) is that Patrick Stewart is a famous liberal talk show host on a current affairs show -- a kind of Bill O'Reilly of the Left.  Like Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke long before him, Stewart has a host of zany writers and producers whose peccadillos and love affairs afford the basis for subplots.  Stewart is an alcoholic Englishman with a loyal man-servant, both of them cartoon figures right out of one of McFarland's animated TV shows.  In the opening episode, Blunt goes on a cocaine-fueled binge and ends up being arrested with a transsexual prostitute.  (The opening episode is the sharpest and most transgressive of the ten shows -- the program softens considerably after its first episode; McFarland is a master of using outrageous imagery as a baited hook.)  During the remaining nine episodes, Blunt weathers various crises with the help of his wacky staff and a psychiatrist played by the reliably smarmy Richard Lewis.  The show "jumps the shark" by the fourth or fifth episode, descending to more exotic and outré plots to make its points -- for instance, Stewart's own son appears at Blunt's son about half-way through the series:  incongruously, the middle-aged man is a professional boxer.  Stewart is compelling and it's amusing to hear his Shakespearean diction applied to traffic jams and unhappy love affairs, but the character is more of a collection of zany traits that a believable man.  (I guess there's a "fan-boy" aspect to the show as well -- I think that cameos are played by ageing members of the Star Trek crew from Stewart's previous adventures in TVf land.) The show is not particularly funny, although it is compelling due to McFarland's sheer mania to entertain -- the writers try everything, and, then, some to keep things amusing.  They don't always succeed but there is certainly a lot going on -- the husband of Blunt's senior citizen producer (she is a kind of nymphomaniac involved in a love affair with a 25-year-old Indian kid) has Alzheimer's disease; one of Blunt's writers is a severely neurotic foot-fetishist who is also a hoarder; another writer is an Englishwoman secretly obsessed with Blunt who suffers a string of futile, pointless one-night stands; the third writer, also a woman, discovers that she is a lesbian and tries to seduce her colleague. There are various orgies, drunken and drug-fueled parties and so on.  Blunt who fought in the Falklands War, has post-traumatic stress disorder (we learn) and has to be flogged by his faithful manservant (who happens to be prodigiously endowed) to get ready for each night's show.  (The funniest moment in the ten week series is when the characters are talking about one another's sexual perversions.  Someone says to Blunt:  "Well, you have to be towel-whipped before you can go on air."  Blunt responds:  "True but that's not sexual."  The servant who is knitting in a corner looks up with a stricken expression and asks woefully:  "It's not?")  The show is very literate -- there are many references to contemporary poetry, particularly the work of Mark Strand -- and the dialogue is reasonably snappy, but the sheer volume of perversity and the excessive effort to name-check as many "timely contemporary" topics as possible is more than a little wearying.  And, in the end, the program is deeply conservative -- all of the promiscuity turns out to be unhappy and, so, ends up endorsing something like "true love."  Sex is meaningless if not accompanied by some kind of commitment.  Perversion is endorsed as a way of demonstrating the show's liberal if obviously staid politics -- "I may be a foot fetishist, but I have good self-esteem and, after all, diversity is good thing," the show seems to proclaim.  By the end of the show, the drug-addicted pussy-hound Blunt is shown to be a good and caring father (to his bi-racial son), a kind boss something like Lou Grant on the old MTM show, a crusader for the environment and left wing causes on the order of Rachel Maddow, and a sweet fellow in all respects.  It is more than a little sickening.      

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Leon Morin, Priest

Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961) is a reminder that there are many ways to succeed in making a great film and that the Hollywood paradigm is by no means exclusive.  Leon Morin, Priest, an adaptation of a bestselling French novel about the platonic relationship between a Roman Catholic priest and a Communist woman, has no plot, no rising or falling action and nothing that could be called a climax -- the film chronicles a series of encounters between its protagonists, outwardly inconsequential but of enormous importance spiritually.  There is very little humor and, except for the two principal actors, other characters are insignificant -- Melville has cut out several subplots featured in the novel, including those that might offer some suspense (someone is harboring a Jewish child so that occupying German troops won't deport the lad).  Although the film is set during World War II, the Germans are shown as gentle and benign -- atrocities occur off-screen.  There is no violence and not even the threat of violence; the war is represented by a distant sound of gunfire and some flashing lights at the Communist woman's bedroom window.  The only person who acts badly in the movie is an American GI who threatens to rape the heroine -- although, his kind-hearted buddy talks him out of the evil deed. Although the film is set in a lovely valley among the snow-capped French Alps, we see the mountains clearly in only one short scene -- Melville is too disciplined and austere a film maker to waste time on purely visual pleasures.  The movie is audaciously sincere, quiet, detached, and makes no attempt to pander to the audience.  Indeed, the film even eschews the kind of Jansenist minimalism in Bresson's movies, pictures that resemble Leon Morin by description but that have an entirely different, and more abstract, even, Cubist, form than Melville's movie.  No one could mistake Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest for documentary.  By contrast, Melville's Leon Morin, often, feels like an Italian neo-realist picture -- the street scenes have an odd and startling immediacy and the classically expressive mise-en-scene resembles the work of Roberto Rosselini during this same period.  Leon Morin doesn't have a story, it simply develops a situation -- this makes its (non)-narrative problematic by Hollywood criteria, although the film certainly is successful enough according to its own standards.

The situation is this:  a correspondence school that teaches some kind of creative writing has been forced to move from Paris to a small town in the French Alps.  The move is prompted by the fact that a number of the teachers, many of them women, are Jewish or Communist.  All the men have fled and joined the partisans fighting in the mountains and the heroine, a Communist, with her friends decides to have her daughter baptized since the child's father was either a Jew or a Communist or both -- the cynical notion is that baptizing the children of the Montagnard partisan men will protect them against the German terror.  (Although at the outset, the Alpine town is occupied by entirely benign Italian troops wearing ridiculous uniforms and plumed hats that amuse the local populace.)  After the children are baptized, the Communist heroine played by Emmanuelle Riva, decides to taunt one of the local priests, Leon Morin, by going to Confession and insulting him.  The priest is played by the lean and intense Jean-Paul Belmondo and, instead of condemning the woman, he reveals his compassion for her faithlessness and his hope that she can be converted to the Gospel.  Ultimately, the heroine finds herself harried by Grace; although she resists valiantly, at last, she succumbs and rejoins the Catholic church.  She continues her close relationship with the priest throughout the Occupation and until the town is liberated by the Americans.  Finally, the woman expresses her love for the handsome priest, although she does this obliquely and by way of a hypothetical question:  "if I were a Protestant woman, and you were a Protestant pastor, would you marry me?" The priest turns away from her, but, later, returns, only to announce that he is leaving the village for another assignment, one that he finds intriguing because the "local people have not had a priest for many years and they are thoroughly de-Christianized" -- the film suggests that true Roman Catholic spirituality can exist only if the strictures of the institutional and politically established Church can be eluded.  The penultimate scene shows the heroine stricken and staggering down the street of the hamlet bereft.  The movie ends with a shot of the priest standing resolutely in the threshold of his lodging, the lintel and doorway dark as if to suggest a great, sinister altar harboring Belmondo's haggard and lantern-eyed figure.  The film is as unwavering as Belmondo's Leon Morin -- at no point, does the Priest display the slightest temptation, nor does he ever deviate from his perfectly virtuous course of action.  The movie provides a spectacle unusual in cinema -- the depiction of a completely good man.

Much of the film is devoted to theological discussion, always highly intellectual, abstract and philosophical.  Against this rather rarefied backdrop, Melville provides some visceral shocks:  the Communist woman bitterly suggests that she masturbates "with a stick" and, at one point, she falls in love with a beautiful, despairing Jewess whose brother has been deported by the Nazis.  Morin is not gentle with his supplicant -- he brusquely shoves her out of his way in some scenes, almost battering her, and there is a curious sub-current of violence in his gestures toward the heroine.  (This suppressed violence explains the power of the final shot of Morin standing impervious to all human desires in the fearsome and gloomy tabernacle of his apartment.)  The movie is remarkably expressive:  Morin's church is battered, decrepit, and ugly -- the sanctuary is filled with nasty-looking little wooden chairs.  In the first scene in the confessional, Melville suddenly eliminates the screen between the priest and the woman -- we see the shadow of the screen cast upon her brow but the man and woman occupy the same continuous space without any barrier between them:  this is Melville's way of demonstrating that they have become allies.  The German occupation of the town is announced by a sinister march -- we can't tell if the music is diegetic or not:  are the Germans playing the march or is it on the soundtrack?  This confusion imparts a significant sense of tension to the scene of the German's arrival in the village.  When the woman suddenly feels that she can no longer resist the pressure of the Holy Spirit, Melville signals this change in her heart with a jump-cut to an unfamiliar angle -- the woman is cleaning out a half-ruined attic.  The effect is startling, subtle and non-demonstrative, but, perfectly, designed to convey on a subliminal level the importance of the moment.  Later, when the woman confesses her love to the priest, Melville conspicuously violates the 180 degree eye-line rule to show how her passion has warped the space around the protagonists.  The final scenes in the priest's mostly empty lodging are extremely powerful -- Melville gets remarkable effects out of a door banging in the wind and places on the walls where pale marks show that pictures have been removed.  Melville is not afraid to slow or stop the action, such as it is, for scenes that seem to have no importance at all -- we see an inconsequential scene of the Priest preaching and, later, he talks about his childhood and thrashings that his mother administered to him, while all the while protesting that his boyhood was completely idyllic and happy.  Sequences like this, which comprise half the movie, don't seem to lead anywhere; they are illustrations of character, I suppose, but don't have any dramatic force -- rather, they contribute to the film's ambience of sober, close-observed realism.  Ultimately, I suppose, this modest, but compelling, movie is about something that a character calls "the irony of God" -- that is, how God shapes human weakness to His ends and creates good from the most improbable circumstances.  Truly religious films are rare and this homage to a kindly priest made by a Jewish film maker is one of the best of its kind.   

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dog Days

It would be seductive to characterize Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (2001) as a carnival of degradation -- but that would be inaccurate:  at a carnival, people have fun.  No one enjoys the squalor on display in Dog Days.  In fact, Seidl's lumpy, zombie Austrians wallow in nonchalant misery -- but, then, misery is also too strong of a word.  Just as no one enjoys themselves in Seidl's film, no one really suffers much more than some serious discomfort -- a state of affairs signaled by the prickly heat and subtropical humidity in which the three days and nights chronicled by the movie takes place.  Mario is a stud with a fast car and a pliant, blonde girlfriend as beautiful as an angel; unfortunately, Mario is afflicted with jealous rage and, after making love to his girlfriend, drags her around by the hair, calls her names, and, then, beats her up -- abandoning the gorgeous Fraulein on the shoulder of the highway, not once but twice ("Einmal is Keinmal.") Not to worry:  Austrians pick up hitchhikers as witness by the story of Anna, an autistic girl, who cadges rides to nowhere from passing motorists and, then, torments her benefactors with lists of the ten top grocery stores or the ten most fatal diseases interspersed with prying questions and remarks:  "do you wake up with a hard-on?" or "you have weird teeth."  A Greek has an unhappy wife.  She invites a masseur over for a night of casual sex while her husband plays handball with himself in a drained swimming pool in the back yard.  The next morning, the Greek deploys a handgun (everyone in Austria seems to be armed to the teeth) to force his wife's lover to share a beer with him over the breakfast table.  An old man persuades his elderly housekeeper to do an elaborate strip-tease for him -- "very oriental," he says approvingly as the 75-year-old lady wiggles around naked.  Later, someone poisons his mastiff.  The people in the neighborhood, a bleak Austrian subdivision under white bleached skies on a white bleached plain, are upset because some mysterious marauder is dragging a key over their BMW's.  A sweaty guy who sells security systems kidnaps the autistic hitchhiker, installs her in the basement of a hellish cement lake-shore cabin, a half-dozen bunkers of pre-stressed concrete facing a half-acre lagoon, where the neighbors aggrieved by the vandalism of their cars all take turns raping and torturing her -- "she's the one who wrecked the cars," the security systems salesman says with dubious certainty, "not like the last one..." thereby, signifying the folks in this neighborhood have kidnapped and sexually abused someone else previously, a local pastime and sport it seems... Wickerl is an aging rocker with a mullet and big breasts from smoking lots of marijuana; he has a middle-aged girlfriend who obligingly presents herself to him to be degraded -- when he comes into her apartment, she's bent over with her ass exposed to his ministrations.  (We've previously observed her carefully tweezing and shaving her pubic area.)  Wickerl is bored by her passivity and brings over his bi-polar buddy, Lucky, with whom he intends to share his lady-friend.  Things get out of control and Wickerl beats up his girlfriend after first half-drowning her in the toilet.  The next day, Lucky wants to apologize to the battered woman, or rape her or both:  when Wickerl shows up, Lucky tortures him by sticking a burning candle up his rectum and, then, making the masochistic middle-aged girlfriend put out cigarettes on poor Wicky's hand while reciting in a sing-song "Wicky has a limp dicky" -- this too much for the girlfriend, who proclaims her undying love for Wickerl, a declaration that causes Lucky to cast aside his Saturday-night special pistol and sit in stairwell, sullenly carving up his own arm with his switchblade.  These festivities are shot in documentary style by non-actors who apparently improvised their lines, mostly obscenities and threats, as the camera was rolling.  Presumably, Seidl recruited his cast, all of whom have to appear drenched in sweat with black eyes or split lips and naked for most of the film, from a local Swinger's club -- there are a number of tableaux of alarmingly strenuous-looking orgies involving group-sex among the big-bellied Austrians featured in the film.  The movie is an exercise in nihilism, completely without anything approximating emotion -- the characters are mostly so repellant that you can't identify with them and their motivations, which seem mostly to involve sado-masochistic sexual urges, are inscrutable.  There's a moment of grace when the autistic hitchhiker happens on a religious lady who sings hymns with the poor girl on one of her pointless trips through the strip-malls and industrial wastelands of small town Austria -- but this ends when the girl begins gratuitously asking the woman if she's "too old to have sex."  The middle-aged femme fatale involved with Wickerl shows a moment of misguided courage and loyalty when she refuses to put out a third cigarette on the fat ne'er-do-well's Wicki's outstretched hand -- "I love him, I truly love him," she says.   Dog Days looks like a bit like Harmony Korinne's early films -- it has something of the dumpster aesthetic of Gummo, although the film is made in German by an Austrian and, therefore, is much icier and abstract; in fact, Korinne's work looks warm by comparison.  There is clearly something wrong with the Austrians -- I sensed this when I spent a week in Vienna.  Sex equals death to Austrian intelligentsia and love is indistinguishable from degradation of the most severe kind.  It is the same sensibility on display in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher and that director's earlier films about squalor in the Austrian suburbs, particularly, The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown.  Dog Days is an accomplished enough film, but it is essentially a cryogenic suicide note. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Mad Love

Mad Love  (1935) is a horror film, noteworthy for two reasons.  First, the film features a particularly effective performance by Peter Lorre, probably his most indelible effort in the horror genre.  Second, the movie clearly influenced Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, although the nature of the influence is a bit eerie -- bits and pieces of Mad Love are embedded in Citizen Kane like slivers of shrapnel in a wounded body, improbable citations:  Welles' make-up is based on Lorre's appearance, there's a cockatoo, and weird deep focus sets; it's like coming upon shreds of unassimilated Holinshed and his Chronicles in Shakespeare's history plays. The story is familiar and so resonant that the plot has been used in innumerable pictures -- 1935's Mad Love was itself the remake of a German horror film with Conrad Veidt, 1924's The Hands of Orlac and, then, was remade, more or less, by Robert Florey in the 1946 film wonderfully named The Beast with Five Fingers.  The story concerns a surgeon who implants the hands of a murderer onto the wrists of a concert pianist mangled in a train wreck.  The pianist discovers to his horror that his new hands are autonomous -- they are murderous instruments that act on their own accord to wreak havoc on the pianist's next-of-kin and loved ones.  The idea is brilliant, but it can't support a feature-length film and, even, Mad Love, probably the best of these pictures, has a startlingly dull middle act -- and the film is only 68 minutes long.  Karl Freund who shot Fritz Lang's Metropolis and, later, engineered the two-camera approach to Hollywood sit-coms in I love Lucy directed the picture.  Lorre is superbly repulsive as a sadistic surgeon -- one scene, he strokes a child that he has saved with his surgical art; although he talks about compassion and defeating pain, when the child begins to scream and cry, his eerie composure is undaunted, completely indifferent to the suffering beneath his hands.  He watches a guillotining with a squinty eye cast upward on the blade and, then, just the faintest hint of a smirk when the severed head drops away from the condemned man's body.  As the film becomes more Gran Guignol, Lorre's skills are wasted -- in the end, he has to stagger around shrieking and howling like a mad man and the ending of the movie seems rushed and rather poorly staged.  (Lorre is best when he is most subtle -- almost, but not quite, sympathetic when he woos the pianist's wife, Yvonne Orlac.  When she has to kiss him, she shudders as if putting her lips to a corpse and we shudder with him.) The film's theme is a powerful one -- that is, sexual desire and obsession are autonomous and may have nothing to do with our conscious intentions and desire.  The benefactor of humanity, Dr. Gogol, spends every night watching Mrs. Orlac, an actress in a chamber of horrors, being tortured -- Lorre's character is obviously a sadist and there is a curious and poignant disconnect (or, perhaps, secret similarity) between his benevolent work as a surgeon and his desire to see a beautiful woman stretched on the rack and, then, branded, the red-hot iron apparently searing her breast.  Similarly, the pianist's mechanical dexterity, his skills playing the piano, is more than a little bit uncanny as well -- although the film doesn't make the point, isn't it true that a great pianist playing Chopin is, in effect, possessed by Chopin and his hands controlled by the hands of the dead composer?  This theme is best expressed in Jonathon Demme's film Something Wild where the heroine (played by a young Melanie Griffith) says to her exhausted boyfriend -- he has just killed her ex-husband in a brutal fight:  "Now, you know how the other half lives."  "The other half?" the boyfriend asks.  "The other half of you," Melanie Griffith replies.  In the first third of the film, and its last ten minutes, every sequence begins with a strangely disorienting shot or some clever indirection.  As in The Black Cat, a better film, but similar in appearance, there's almost too much stuffed into the short picture:  audiences get a peek at a wax museum chamber of horrors, see a beautiful woman graphically tortured, are treated to a guillotining and the spectacular aftermath of a train wreck; Lorre's character "gaslights" the hapless pianist and, in one famously ghoulish scene, claims to be the dead man executed by the guillotine, his head reattached by Dr. Gogol.  There are comical drunkards, not one but two, and, last but not least, a spectacular cameo by the American comedian Ted Healy, the inventor of the Three Stooges, playing the psychopathic killer, Rollo, the Knife-Thrower.  "We all get it in the neck in the end," Rollo says nonchalantly as he led to the guillotine.  And, despite this plethora of material, the middle fifteen minutes of the film is static, completely dull, and may put you to sleep. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Kameradschaft is a rarity, a film that is genuinely inspirational based on a real life incident.  Unlike many films of this sort, Kameradschaft makes its points honestly, without fanfare or bravado, and earns our emotional response by showing human courage and brotherhood in the midst of very dark times indeed.  The German director, G. W. Pabst, made the film in 1931 in the heart of the great European depression and the picture looks as if it were shot on location in the purgatorial industrial wastelands of the Ruhrgebiet.  The film-making has a documentary quality, leavened with more than a bit of heroic montage designed after the model of the films of Eisenstein and the other great Russian directors.  Even on You-Tube, where I saw the film, with wobbly and indistinct picture quality, Kameradschaft is visually impressive and technically innovative -- the picture is an early sound film and demonstrates Pabst's ingenuity in using noises to carry meaning and dramatic impact:  a classic example is the tapping sounds made by trapped minors on pipes and rails in the collapsing coal mine.  The film is virtually without plot and has only a few characters, mostly unnamed -- as in the Soviet films, the hero of the picture is collective:  in this case, German miners who swarm across a contested border in an attempt to rescue Frenchmen buried alive in a coal mine.  The movie is short, about 85 minutes, and plays like a parable -- it has something of the fierce elan of one of Brecht's poems; it's the tip of a proletarian spear.  At the outset of the film, some unemployed miners cross the border seeking work but are told to go home --"we don't have enough jobs for our own people," the guards at the mines tell the men.  Some children playing marbles get into a quarrel and symbolically erect a border, daring their opponents to cross.  Three German miners on a spree go into a French dance-hall and, on the basis of a misunderstanding, almost get into a brawl with their French counterparts.  In an extraordinary tracking shot, we see the French mine where a fire has been burning, a mass of angular wreckage oozing flame and smoke -- the fire has been burning for weeks, gnawing through walls, and clearly symbolizes the tensions at the border between the French and Germans.  Walls erected in the French mine to seal off flammable gas shatter and immense gouts of roaring flame pour through the galleries, burning miners alive and shattering the supports so that the mine collapses (and floods at the same time).  All of this is filmed with maximum intensity and the scenes of the fire in the mine have enormous, infernal authority.  An old man climbs down a vertical shaft to rescue his grandson -- this is a surreal episode showing the old  miner descending an interminable wall laced with industrial struts and pipes.  He finds his grandson half-drowned in shaft 2000 feet below the ground.  On the surface, German miners form rescue teams and cross the border in huge trucks in an attempt to save the French trapped in the fiery hell of the mine.  Everyone wears gas masks and the appearance of the Germans in the collapsing mineshafts triggers flashbacks to the warfare on the Western Front.  Deep in the German mine, the three miners who were expelled from the French dance-hall, breach the wall at the border separating the German from the French mine-shafts and try to rescue the old man and his son.  They get trapped in an underground chamber where huge dray horses look down on them solemnly.  Tapping at the metal pipes, the trapped men call for help and, ultimately, are rescued.  In a final sequence that is prophetically cynical, the officials of both nations meet underground where the border between the two mines was breached, weld bars into the opening, and, then, solemnly exchange official documents certifying that the border has been closed once more to the satisfaction of the officials of both nations.  Pabst was working for the French Gaumont studios when the film was made and it is, in fact, a German and French co-production, an example of cross-border cooperation made only 12 years after the Great War -- and nine years before the beginning of the second Great War.  I will have to search for this film in a form that is optically better than the You-Tube version that I watched.  But there is no doubt that this is an important film -- the street scenes with mourning women look like the woodcuts of Kaethe Kollwitz and the looming greyindustrial landscapes have a somber intensity and the work in the mines, before the explosion, is a cubist nightmare of laborers in tiny slanting cells hacking at black walls.  Kameradschaft is the German word for "comradeship."

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Martian

Mildly inspirational and uplifting, Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015)will please most audiences.  Unfortunately, the film is pedestrian and a bit tedious -- at 2 hours and 25 minutes, it feels about a half-hour too long.  The movie merges Robinson Crusoe with a "Houston we have a problem" space rescue film on the order of Apollo 13.  And that's the essential problem:  we've seen this material before, know how it ends, and, so, the picture lacks any real suspense.  The only question left for the audience is how many complications can be thrown in the way of our enterprising hero and the army of NASA scientists trying to rescue him. 

The Martian's premise is simple enough.  During a brutal sandstorm on Mars, the hero, played by the appealing Matt Damon, gets separated from his companions.  Struck by piece of wind-blown debris, Damon's life support system is breached, apparently, sending a message of distress to the rest of the crew.  For reasons that are not explained, everyone else flees the planet with the utmost haste -- this is the first of many events in the film that seem contrived:  what is there about this specific storm that forces everyone to depart from Mars?  Damon, of course, is only stunned and after a grisly sequence involving a little self-surgery, sets about to solve the problem of living on the inhospitable surface of the Red Planet.  As it happens, Damon has a more or less endless supply of hardware, courtesy of previous expeditions to Mars, and so, whenever he needs something, he can find it -- the  Red Planet is like a hardware store with its goods buried in pinkish sand.  Damon, who plays a botanist, grows potatoes in his own excrement and awaits rescue -- something that will take about two-and-a-half years.  Meanwhile, NASA discovers his plight, figures out an ingenious way to communicate with the castaway, and, then, begins efforts to rescue him.  These efforts involve a collaboration with the Chinese and a genius mathematician, similar to one of the kids in the hit sit-com, The Big Bang -- in fact, the boy-genius is played by the Black student who used to be a feature on Community College.  Back on Earth, there are a several interesting characters, but they are minor and we don't get to know them very well.  For instance, the genius African-American mathematician shows up about half-way through the movie, figures out a trajectory to rescue Damon -- it's the old gravitational slingshot around the earth technique -- and, then, vanishes from the film.  Jeff Daniels plays the malevolent suit running NASA -- he's a villain, but his villainy is muted and remote and, most disturbingly, everyone at the Agency is complicit in following his orders.  (This is an unintended implication of the film's scenario that militates against the heroic ingenuity otherwise celebrated.)  Kristin Wig gets to show some cleavage and emote in reaction shots to the various crises that ensue.  Cliché is layered upon cliché, particularly in the NASA control center scenes:  bosses shout gruffly "Make it happen!" and when a time-table of six months is proposed, the leader demands:  "Do it in three months!"  There are lots of scenes of people staring at computer screens, innumerable reaction shots showing despair and anguish when setbacks occur, and acres of aphoristic, clipped dialogue about the hazards of space exploration.  At the climax, the people of the world gather en masse to cheer Matt Damon's rescue -- we see shots of Times Square, Beijing, and London's Trafalgar Square.  (Why not a shot of Syrians in a refugee camp enjoying the spectacle or people in the Congo watching on TV?)  The film has many beautiful images of Martian landscapes but mostly seems implausible.  It's like the story of the economists who fell in a deep pit and studying their options said, "Let's assume a ladder," -- except in this film, no sooner is the ladder assumed than it materializes.  Curiously, the film gives no sense of the horrifying isolation of its principal character -- Damon is cheerful, steadfast, as ingenious as a Nigerian shade-tree mechanic fixing an old Westphalia VW bus.  He never hallucinates, nor does he really despair.  The film is resolutely anti-poetic, all nuts and bolts, and the significance of the hero's plight, or the world's commiseration with him (presumably in the midst of much greater calamities) is cheerfully ignored.  The space-ships are convincing and there are nice shots of people in zero-G floating around and the dust devils that sometimes plague the menacing red buttes and canyons of Mars are impressive, but there's nothing here you haven't seen a half-dozen times before and, in fact, more effectively dramatized.  (Perhaps, the one exception is the climax, a sort of pas de deux between a heroic lady astronaut and Damon -- she has to space-walk to catch the Martian as he shoots by.  Before departing the Red Planet, Damon has eaten a heaping plate of freeze-dried pinto beans and he uses intestinal gas to create fart-jets that drive him into the arms of the lady-astronaut.)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Valerie and her Week of Wonders

Despite its premonitions of violence and corpse-white vampires, despite various rapes attempted and otherwise and its intimations of sexual perversity, Jaromil Jires' Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970) is almost completely weightless.  A visual feast (and like all films with that feature, a bit tiresome), the movie excludes any narrative or thematic interpretation -- it is whimsical nonsense, a bit like a precursor to some of Tim Burton's least consequential fantasies.  Jires was a great visual artist and the film is ravishing -- his editing is both razor-sharp and vehemently radical:  only about a third of the film is cut for continuity and much of the movie is a dream-like montage of images, regulated by the fact that many of them are leit motifs, pictures that we have seen in other contexts in the film:  a flaming torch, a hive of bees incongruously swarming in a beehive carved into primitive images of Adam and Eve (the bees emerge from the groin of one of the bas relief figures), drops of blood on flowers, a young girl swimming like a mermaid in a village fountain, chickens and feathers and exceptionally bad teeth -- the monsters all seem to be suffering from advanced periodontal disease -- masked figures, a fairy-tale carriage with red vaginal-fold curtains, evil monks.  The film feels as rootless as its 13-year old heroine:  Valerie is a beautiful young girl who has just experienced her first menstrual period -- we know this from a drizzle of watery blood on the flowers over which she has passed.  Valerie doesn't know the identity of her parents, both said to be dead, and lives with grandmother, a mysteriously young woman with perfectly pallid features.  Valerie's world is ahistorical -- it seems to occur in a past that combines peasant rowdiness,and ghoulish medieval piety, with Biedermeier costumes and interiors.  She has no family and no friends.  There is no social milieu, no hint of politics or any sort of class system.  The injection of menstrual blood, signifying I suppose sexual awareness, into this porcelain and artificial world, suddenly invokes a host of monsters, most of them vampires of one kind or another.  Another young woman is married to a rich, older man -- he also may be some kind of vampire.  The virgins in Jires' film always resist being ravished and, then, as in most soft-core pornography (a genre to which the film bears some resemblance) come to embrace and desire their ravishers.  Jires' movie has an unpleasant voyeuristic and exploitive slant -- the movie features lots of female nudity and there are hordes of ice-white lesbians.  In fact, Jires' suggests that the affliction of vampirism can be sometimes cured by a gentle lesbian tryst, this mode of sex distinguished from more aggressive and deadly embrace of the demon monk and monsters, all of whom may, somehow, be Valerie's father returned to life, but, also, the human incarnation of a polecat that spends his nights slaughtering the hens in the village's barns -- this is the only film that I know that features a were-polecat.  At one point, the poor beast is shown wearing Valerie's earrings, fetishized objects that have been stolen from her by hobbit-like boyfriend, Eaglet, a guy who keeps getting himself tortured, and who ends up exposed as just another version of the marauding polecat.  Jires' vision of adult sexuality is writhing semi-nude people with bad teeth wearing black and either sprawled on barren trees or dry-humping furry bearskin rugs.  All of this perversity and violence is light as a feather because none of it looks even remotely real -- when Eaglet is tortured by being chained half underwater or next to the village fountain where Valerie is wont to swim around half-nude, we see that his fetters aren't even locked; he can escape at any time so long as Valerie removes his wrists from the chains.  The film's concept is that adult sex is some kind of predation involving an exchange of blood, ripped white feathers and disemboweled hens.  This would be disheartening except that Jires doesn't conceive any of this as dangerous and doesn't take his own imagery of rape and blood-sucking too seriously -- at one point, Valerie is accused of being a witch and melodramatically burned at the stake but we know that despite the realistic look of the orange flames, they can not singe a hair on the head of our heroine and that the fire is only another species of flower sent to delight her.  At the end of the film, everyone seems involved in orgiastic revelry, monsters and vampires all embracing, legions of wet laundresses sticking slippery-looking fish down the bodices, half-naked men who sometimes are flagellants, all prancing in a kind of Maypole-ring dance around Valerie's bed.  She has abandoned her pristine white bedroom with its white cot and white-washed wooden floors and her old and shabby doll and, now, it seems, must sleep in a public place, in this park filled with grimacing satyrs and nymphs.  The film is visually spectacular, but, I think, a little rotten -- it's message of pan-sexual freedom without any sort of constraint is particularly characteristic of the Prague Spring, a toy-revolution that had collapsed in blood and fire, crushed by Soviet tanks, the year before Valerie was released and the movie suggests that the only politics and narrative worth having are those associated with an orgy.  But orgies also have consequences, as shown by the repression of Prague Spring, and I think that the film's very weightlessness, it's suggestion that all is allowed without limitation is not only slightly dishonest but puerile, a spectacularly seductive lie.      

Friday, October 2, 2015

TCM: Women pioneer filmmakers : Alice Guy-Blache

Turner Classic Movies continues, intermittently, to astound.  A couple days ago, I went home for lunch at noon, turned on the TV as is my custom, and discovered that TCM was hosting a Robert Bresson film festival.  One night, the station broadcast a series of short silent films directed by a pioneer in the industry, Alice Guy-Blache.  The show was hosted by a couple of women who managed to combine both tongue-tied inarticulacy with ostentatiously politically correct and specious theorizing -- is there really a conspiracy to "edit out of history" the contributions of trailblazing early directors like Alice Guy-Blache because she is female?  And what exactly is the "female gaze"?  How do its optics differ from the "male gaze?"  Notwithstanding this irritating prefatory discussion, the films screened were fascinating and, certainly, worth study.  As Alice Guy, she made what may be the first 'narrative' film -- an 1896 vignette, only a minute long, called "The Cabbage Fairy".  The little picture has been beautifully restored and shows a woman dressed as a winged fairy prancing around in an ornate set depicting a cabbage patch.   The fairy mimes that she hears cries among the cabbage and, then, plucks from the foliage scrawny new-born babies.  The babies are real infants and the Cabbage Fairy has the lush figure of an 1890's Gibson Girl -- she has a huge bosom and hips and a tiny waist:  it's a stylized kind of female form that no one has seen for almost 125 years and reminds us that fashions in women's beauty change radically from generation to generation.  (Alice Guy obviously endorsed this style of beauty -- this physical type appears in several of her later films as well.)  Guy was the director of Gaumont Studios in France around the turn of the century and, then, came to the United States, now married, as Alice Guy-Blache.  She founded a film production company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Solax, and made a number of pictures there.  The specimens of her work shown on TCM included a ponderous, static, if picturesque reprise of the life of Jesus made in 1906, a series of tableaux vivant -- in that picture, about 30 minutes long, Guy moves the camera several times to reposition within the baroque-looking operatic sets and interpolates one medium-shot into the narrative, an image of Veronica holding the "vera icon" ('true image') emblazoned onto her handkerchief.  At the end of the Jesus film, Guy uses several sequential shots to actually narrate the resurrection and her images of the risen Christ, done by double-exposure, are eerily effective.  "A House Divided" (1912) is a two-reel comedy about a married couple who suspect one another of adultery and, then, reconcile:  it is notable mainly for the grotesque performance of the husband who grimaces and sulks with cartoonish ferocity, hunching his back with rage like an aggrieved cat.  Clearly, the performance is intended to be comically over-the-top and it is very funny.  In "Canned Harmony" (1912), a long-haired professor wants his daughter to marry a musician with "Pagnanini curls" -- the lovers deceive him using a gramophone causing the father to believe that the suitor, disguised with a moustache and curly locks, is a great musician.  The film is interesting for the manner in which it suggests live sound and, certainly, a curious precursor to the sound film.  It has a sweet climax in which the deceived father forgives the lovers and blesses their union.  Guy-Blache also stages some knockabout slapstick comedy, but she had no real affinity for physical humor and her gags seem forced and contrived.  "The Sea Waif" (1916) is a forty minute film involving an abused teenage girl who flees her violent foster-father and takes up residence in a crumbling seaside mansion.  A famous novelist rents the sea-side mansion, at first mistakes the girl for the ghost of a girl who died in the house, and, then, begins a romance with the heroine.  The film is surprisingly violent -- the abusive foster father pulls the girl's hair and batters her to the ground.  (In some ways, the movie looks forward to Griffith's Broken Blossoms from 1919:  there is a poster showing a pugilist on the wall of the foster father's shack and, of course, the abusive villain in Broken Blossoms was a washed-up boxer.  But the heroine is far more robust then the ethereal Lillian Gish and seems less helpless.)  The movie is ambitious and demonstrates a fascinating mix of styles and moods -- there is poetic lyricism in the scenes in which the girl explores the abandoned house (the waif looking at herself in dusty mirrors or peering through cobwebbed windows crawling with small, companionable-looking spiders) and hints of savage violence in the foster-father's plot to revenge himself on the girl, but the general tone of the film is that of a benign and sunny romantic comedy.  The best of the films is "Falling Leaves", a sentimental picture from 1911, involving a girl ill with tuberculosis.  The girl's baby sister hears a doctor decree that the sick teenager will die when "the last leaf falls from the trees" -- we see a window opening into a small garden-like lawn where leaves are perpetually fluttering down.  The little girl gets string and tries to tie the leaves onto the branches of the trees outside.  While she is doing this, a kindly doctor happens by, learns about the plight of the dying sister, and treats her with his new serum.  The girl is cured and the film ends with the very slightest suggestion that the heroine, once recovered, will fall in love with her doctor -- certainly, the young doctor seems smitten with his patient.  The sequence in which the small girl ties the leaves to the trees is remarkably powerful although it is hard to isolate the source of its effects -- the movie is primitively shot without close-ups or intercutting and the scenes are staged tableaux as in a film by Louis Feuillade.   But the small enclosed garden with its bare trees, the poetically falling leaves, and the incredibly appealing child struggling to use string to tie the leaves in place all combine to achieve an intensely lyrical, if simple, image.  Guy-Blache never seems to have figured-out how to incorporate intertitles in her movies -- for some reason, she inserts titles in advance of the action that they describe, signaling to the audience what we are about to see before we see it.  This is peculiar and, probably, a remnant of her first films, made in the era of the Lumiere brothers in which the printed titles were just that -- indications about what the film would show.  In any event, film students are indebted to Turner Classic Movies for this interesting program of pictures, all of them unknown to me.