Sunday, November 29, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (1968) doesn't just flirt with the ridiculous:  it plunges into full-bore idiocy with both feet.  Pasolini didn't do things by half-measures.  You find yourself resisting this film and its crazed thesis with all your critical acumen.  But ask yourself -- when was the last time, a movie made you feel that you had to defeat it, that you had to resist its weird and seductive power?  In terms of demented conviction and absurd excessiveness, Teorema succeeds spectacularly, but, of course, on its own uncompromising terms. 

As the title implies, the movie is stark, abstract, and minimalist:  it is a geometric proof as barren as its symbolic landscape, the smoking slopes of ash and cinders atop Mount Aetna, an image that reoccurs through the film.  Like Pasolini's The Gospel according to St. Matthew, an austere film made in 1964, Teorema presents the parable of a kind of savior entering the world and affecting its people.  At a party, the son and daughter of an industrialist observe a beautiful young man.  The young man is played by Terence Stamp and he looks like a sculpture hewn by Donatello, an exquisite faun with curly hair and eyes the color of blue steel.  The young man is invited to the palatial manor owned by the industrialist.  There, in quick succession, he has sex with everyone in the house -- he sleeps with the maid, Emilia, after she has been driven to distraction by gazing at his tightly trousered crotch (the sex-savior always sits with his knees wide apart); Emilia first attempts suicide, then, exposes herself to the youth who obligingly embraces her.  Next, the young man seduces the gawky adolescent son, Pietro -- like Francesco and Paolo, the two read a book together (in this case a monograph on Francis Bacon) until lust makes them "read no longer."  The industrialist's wife sees clothing strewn all around her summer house -- in this movie, people are forever disrobing and leaving their underpants on the lawn -- and, going into the woods, sees the young man frolicking with the family dog, half-naked in the trees.  She promptly strips, arrays herself on the porch as if sunbathing and enjoys a romantic interlude with the lad.  Next, the boy seduces the family's prudish and repressed daughter.  The paterfamilias seems to be ill and the visiting youth reads Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyitch" to him, whereupon Dad rallies, goes for a road trip with our hero and ends up having sex with him next to a canal in a vacant lot somewhere near Milan.  After Stamp's character has had his way with each of the members of the family -- I'm not certain about the dog -- there is a (no doubt) strained dinner in which the fatal youth, like Christ, says that he is going away.  He vanishes from the picture and the last half of the movie depicts the results of his sexual forays with this haute bourgeois family:  the daughter becomes catatonic and has to be institutionalized, the son, Pietro, begins painting on glass, layering the panes to create complex images -- he says he is unwilling to erase a stroke because each of his brushmarks are irrevocable and so must correct his abstract images on successive planes of glass.  Mom cruises the mean streets of Milan looking for attractive, tow-headed adolescents whom she picks up for sex.  Dad gives away his factory, ceding the entire vast enterprise to his workers.  Most remarkably, the maid,  Emilia, returns to her village, sits without eating for a month on a bench next to a barn, and, then, becomes a saint:  she heals the sick, levitates over the farm buildings, and subsists only on nettle soup.  In the end, an old woman takes her to a dreary industrial site, the wall marked by a huge hammer-and-sickle, and buries her in the earth -- the trickle of tears from her eyes creates a spring.  Dad goes to the dingy railroad station in Milan and, in the smoky train-shed, strips off all his clothing.  In the last scene, shot on the cinder heights of Mount Aetna, the naked father wanders through the wasteland and, when he screams at the camera in close-up, the movie ends. 

The film's opening ten minutes invokes Godard:   musical cues stop and start apparently randomly under documentary style imagery of factory workers debating the political significance of the owner of the factory having turned the enterprise over to its workers.  "Is this the end of the class struggle?" someone says in a worried way, suggesting that the arrival of the Messiah, even a Communist Messiah, is always more of a bother than a benefit.  Some sepia-toned sequences that are vague in intent and execution introduce the family members -- but since we don't know what is going to happen, this aspect of the movie has to be revisited once the film has finished and we have seen the fate of these people.  The sexual messiah appears casually out of nowhere -- he has no back-story, no family, and I don't recall Pasolini so much as giving him a name.  Once, Pasolini starts filming the material that interests him -- the seductions, the sex, and, then, the ensuing madness, he drops his Godard affectations and presents his narrative chronologically with a minimum of esthetic pretentions.  The majority of the film is scored to Mozart's Requiem.  Of course, Pasolini was homosexual at a time when being gay was considered a psychic disorder and his homo-erotic imagery is melodramatically excessive and, even, I suppose, a little campy -- gay is not just good and life-affirming; here homosexuality (or more accurately bisexuality) is eschatologically messianic, the savior fucks the world into the Kingdom of God.  The film is gendered in an interesting way -- it's impossible to conceive of the movie's messianic implications applying to the exploits of a young, sexually promiscuous woman.  She would merely be a vixen or a vamp and not the savior  of the world as Pasolini seems to envision his satyr protagonist.  Some of the scenes are overtly shocking -- an image of the Emilia levitating over a barn while peasants pray to her is extraordinary and, in fact, extremely frightening.  Her later burial in the mud, with her tears congealing in a little filthy puddle next to her staring eyes, is also startling.  Like other films with a very simple parable-like premise schematically worked-out -- I am thinking of Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur for instance or Bunuels Exterminating Angel -- the movie raises an infinity of implications.  Memorable and utterly absurd, Teorema is too extreme and stylized to be a great movie -- it lacks anything like realistic or precise observation of the world -- but, on its own terms, the film is very powerful.  I will have to think about the movie and, if it still afflicts my thoughts, in a month, I will have to deem this work a great film.  

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Private Life of Don Juan

Made in London in 1934, The Private Life of Don Juan was Douglas Fairbanks last picture.  Alexander Korda's direction is highly accomplished and the film is lavishly staged, but strangely uninvolving and inert.  The effect arises from the movie's revisionist stance toward its material; the film's raison d'etre is to disenchant its audience and there is something curmudgeonly about the picture's rigor in that respect.  In the film, Don Juan is middle-aged, afflicted with back pain, and has lost his sexual elan -- a matronly lady-innkeeper proposes a marriage of convenience remarking that Don Juan has "no brawn, no looks, no brain...and is no longer a spring chicken."  Worse, the hero has an imitator, a younger man, more adept at "balcony-climbing" who is courting the married ladies of Seville.  When the ersatz Don Juan is cut down in a duel, the real Lothario takes the opportunity to decamp from Seville and, thereby, avoid a woman to whom he is espoused and who has been making various demands on him.  In his new surroundings, Don Juan, disguised as a retired military officer, finds that he has become legendary -- everyone is reading about his exploits in a penny-dreadful called the The Private Life of Don Juan.  When he attempts to seduce a woman, she is invariably reading this chapbook, entirely engrossed in the story, and so, completely distracted and unresponsive to the hero's lovemaking. Escaping disappointing romantic entanglements in his place of refuge, Don Juan returns to Seville to find that his adventures are the town's common currency, dramatized everywhere, and that actors playing the famous lover are ubiquitous -- there are puppet shows, plays, and operas about the great seducer and Don Juan finds himself in the unenviable position of having to compete with himself and his own legend.  Returning to the last woman he kissed in Seville, he visits a glamorous Flamenco dancer who recalls Don Juan's embrace with immense nostalgia and sends flowers daily to his supposed grave -- but she has no time at all for the real man who has become much less than her memories of him.  At the theater, Don Juan stops the show just before the stone Commendatore steps down from his pedestal, the great lover protesting that he is the authentic hero of the story -- no one believes him and he is hooted off the stage.  At last, Don Juan returns to bedroom of the woman that he jilted; she has been patiently awaiting his return.  She boots him out of her house, insisting that he enter her boudoir as of old, by climbing the side of the building and entering over the cast-iron grillwork of her balcony.  Don Juan obediently scurries up a slack, rope ladder, showing for just an instant, Douglas Fairbanks' famous athleticism and, then, the camera pans to the marital bed while the woman triumphantly remarks that all men could be Don Juan if they only attended more diligently to their connubial obligations.  Fairbanks was famous for his gymnastic skills and, in silent movies like The Gaucho, his physical prowess is remarkably.  But by 1934, time had taken its toll and Fairbanks apparently had lost some of his strength and much of his insouciant beauty.  We get to see him effortlessly fencing with an enemy but the kind of spectacular swashbuckling stunts that were Fairbanks' métier in his wildly popular silent films are, by and large, absent from those movie and, so, the audience feels just a bit cheated.  (To keep comparisons from being invidious, the wannabe Don Juan is conspicuously flatfooted and clumsy -- he climbs balconies awkwardly and, when he drops from a height, can't land with Fairbanks' feline grace; instead, he stumbles, staggers, and falls.)  Furthermore, Fairbanks' voice is a little reedy and has braying quality -- he sounds very American, like an over-eager used car salesman.  Alexander Korda is influenced by early Goya, some of whose paintings appear in the background.  Early Goya, in turn, imitated Tiepolo and, so, many of the shots have a rococo prettiness -- this is particularly true of images showing the supernaturally beautiful Merle Oberon pushed on a swing while little clouds like cherubs scoot through the windy heavens.  The sets are large and ornate and, often, overwhelm the rather pallid, cynical action underway in the film.  A late sequence shows the problem with Korda's direction -- we see some kind of nighttime festival in Seville and hordes of extras are running this way and that, many of them carrying banners with grotesque devices:  grinning monsters and colossal simpletons.  One particularly effective and macabre banner shows a fat, grimacing face with mouth wide open and that flag, too good to waste, appears in about half of the shots in the sequence.  It's effective, at first, indeed, even, startling but Korda just keeps repeating shots of the extras charging around under their flag next to clinically-clean and castellated walls -- we don't know what is going on, why the people are running wildly in all directions, and the picturesque banners integral to the scene remain completely mysterious -- it's not clear why the banners are being displayed or what is the purpose of the celebration and so, in the end, this large-scale and expensive sequence just seems futile and completely unnecessary 

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Peter Yates' police thriller, Bullitt (1968) is strangely abstract.  Steve McQueen playing the eponymous protagonist is basically inert throughout the movie -- he ponders things and looks this way and that but doesn't have much to say and he is so still that he doesn't seem anything like the kind of frenetic action heroes that movies feature today.  The story is stripped down to a theorem:  a cop has to protect a witness, the witness is killed, and the cop, concealing the death of the witness from the bad guys, lures the villains into a confrontation in which they are destroyed.  The movie consists of preparations for three chases -- in one of them Steve McQueen pursues a killer on foot through a hospital and its environs; the second chase is the much-celebrated 11 minute automobile pursuit through San Francisco and its suburbs; the last chase takes place in the darkness at an airport with the hero and his prey darting about on runways as huge planes oblivious to them coast along the runways, taking-off or landing.  By modern standards, the movie is only modestly violent -- the witness and a cop are shot, two thugs die in the car chase, and another villain (and a hapless airport security cop) die at the end.  (A girl is found murdered as well).  Since the amount of bloodshed is limited, the film seems fairly rational -- it never succumbs to the sheer bloodlust that motivates most action films in the past thirty years and that renders them both unbelievable and farcical.  Furthermore, Yates' makes the killings realistic and shows the consequences of violence in some startlingly graphic and disturbing hospital scenes and, when Bullitt guns down the last bad man, the hero decorously covers the bloody corpse with his jacket.  Like the later police and gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville, pictures that Bullitt emulates, the movie is tough, laconic, and without any interest in character at all.  The figures in the film are simply ciphers, men and women in motion against a carefully rendered cityscape.  For instance, Bullitt is gratuitously given a girlfriend, Jacqueline Bissett, but she has literally nothing to do in the movie except to occupy the hero's bed -- at one point, she briefly whines about the cop's standoffish ways, due she thinks to his being immured in the sewer of police-work.  But the dialogue goes nowhere and after reproaching her boyfriend she returns to his bachelor pad to sleep with him at the end of the movie.  The famous car chase remains intensely exciting and is, even, better than you remember it -- a combination of thrilling behind-the-wheel shots, pictures taken from in front and behind the speeding vehicles, and documentary-like fixed camera shots showing the cars shedding hubcaps and fenders as they careen around corners, clipping other vehicles and skidding wildly sideways.  The chase has a rhythm -- it starts slowly and builds to more and more frenzied action and there is a great moment when the bad guy driving the escape car -- he is wearing black driving gloves -- pauses to click-on his seatbelt.  Bullitt's design is heavily inflected by Pop Art -- the texture of the film is all glittering surfaces like a painting by James Rosenquist:  panes of glass awash with reflections, brightly shining chrome, the fuselage of planes gleaming in the night like tubes of neon.  In one scene, the camera is very low and we see a woman's black purse -- the polished leather on the purse glistens with reflected light; a tie-tack sparks like an acetylene torch.  This effect of continuous scintillation is accomplished by shooting the movie with very dark and lustrous blacks -- this strategy extends to the title character, Bullitt's bright eyes glitter with scintillation but his torso is always covered by a jet-black turtle-neck sweater.  At the time the movie was make, of course, police officers were not everyone's idea of heroes -- the movie addresses this issue by making Bullitt casually anti-establishment:  he bucks the demands of the smarmy politician played by an unctuous Robert Vaughn.  (This guy is so bad we see him reading the Wall Street Journal in the last scene).  The anti-establishment tone, in keeping with the North Beach setting, is inflected by cool jazz -- Bullitt is a kind of beatnik with a gun:  the soundtrack simmers with Lalo Schifrin's percussive music.  It's an excellent movie, surprisingly schematic and stripped-down and, even, aggressively minimalist.    

Saturday, November 21, 2015

And the Ship Sails On

And the Ship Sails On is a maddening, obtuse failure directed by Federico Fellini in 1983.  Notwithstanding its flaws, the film is remarkable and weirdly prescient as well.  I write this note on November 21, 2015, eight days after a terrorist attack on Paris, an event that has prompted some 36 American governors to belligerently (if unconstitutionally) announce that they will not allow Syrian refugees to enter their States.  The final third of Fellini's film involves a group of Serbian refugees who have fled tyranny in their homeland.  The refugees have attempted to escape by sea and a great luxury cruise-liner comes upon their beleaguered and over-crowded raft in the stormy Mediterranean sea.  At first, the bedraggled Serbians are kept on the second (lower) deck of the huge vessel.  Later, they wander throughout the ship, offending the upper class aristocrats and artists who have specially commissioned the cruise-liner to carry the ashes of a prima diva to the island of her birth, a tiny volcanic place, shrouded in mist called Erimo.  The Serbians are ultimately confined, kept in a roped-off enclosure on the deck, much to the dismay of the more humane Italians and Germans on the ship.  Demagoguery has prevailed:  one of the security forces exclaims:  "Among those you so kindly define as refugees there are lurking professional assassins."  And, indeed, this turns out to be broadly accurate:  a bomb is thrown and much mayhem ensues.  It is July 1914 and, soon enough, as presaged by the events on the cruise liner, the Gloria N., the Great Powers will be engaged in fratricidal world war with one another.  The film has great power because it is hard-wired into Fellini's own dreams and fantasies -- in a famous sequence in Amarcord, the villagers of seaside resort go out in small boats at night to watch a great luxury liner cruise by them.  And the Ship sails On imagines what was taking place on that beautiful and remote vessel.

Summaries of And the Ship Sails On suggest that the film is a sort of political allegory, a fantasia about the events leading to World War One.  In fact, this is not the case.  The movie is actually an extremely complex meditation on the nature of art and the role of the artist in the modern world.  At the film's outset, the imagery is shot in sepia, soundless except for the noise made by an antique projector, and we see the principal characters gathering to board the huge ship.  These scenes are shot in a way that convincingly replicates old newsreels from before World War One -- we see curious interlopers entering the frame to gaze into the camera and there are crowds of children, stevedores, and servant women wandering around as big sedans arrive to disgorge the elite men and women boarding the vessel.  As the image slowly morphs into color, a man directs the extras like an orchestra conductor and a great chorus is sung as the cast, in a ceremonial procession, boards the ship.  It seems that the greatest opera singer of all time, Edmea Tetua, has died and the people on the vessel intend to participate in her obsequies at the isle of Erimo, more than three days cruise from this port.  One of Fellini's greatest strengths is his casting and the aristocrats and artists on the ship all have extraordinary physiognomies -- everyone looks like a figure in one of Edward Gorey's more sinister graphic narratives:  the men wear high-top coats with ermine collars or tuxedos and they have their hair wafted into the most remarkable ornamental hair-styles - and they have names like Sir Reginald Dongly.  The women have sphinx-like faces, many of them veiled, and they wear immense plumed hats.  There is a putty-faced silent film comedian, a Russian bass who can sing so low as to paralyze chickens, a child prodigy, a famous fat tenor who looks like the Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, a wild-eyed Byronic poet who seems to have aspired to be a lover to the dead woman, a very plump, pale and androgynous Grand Duke who wears a Prussian Pickelhaube; this Grand Duke, who is a teenage boy, travels with his Aunt, with whom he seems to have a sexual relationship -- the Aunt is played indelibly by the very great Pina Bausch, the formidable director the Wuppertal Tanztheater.  At first, the film doesn't really cohere -- a master of ceremonies with a remarkably expressive face, Signor Orlando, explains what is going on and there are a number of peculiar and amusing, if inconsequential, episodes -- the singers compete for the attention of the sweaty musclemen shoveling coal in the great ship's boilers, a rhinoceros in the hold is sick with love (the rhino looks nothing like a real animal -- the great brute is modeled after Duerer's emblematic, heavily armored beast.)  There are love affairs, a séance that is genuinely very scary, and various musical interludes -- a seagull flutters around in the dining hall to the music of the Blue Danube waltz.  Mr. Orlando falls in love with a beautiful blonde girl but, of course, is much too old for her and doesn't declare his love -- she later becomes enamored of a handsome Serbian lad, Mirko.  There is a remarkable sequence involving translation -- Mr. Orlando is interviewing the Grand Duke who says in German that "we are living near the Schlund of a mountain."   A dispute arises about what "Schlund" means -- should the word be translates as "edge" or "mouth of a crater."  In the end, the Grand Duke settles the dispute by mimicking an explosion:  "Pum, pum, pum," he says.  The film darkens when the Serbian refugees appear and things become very grim, indeed, when an Austria-Hungarian battleship, a vast grey floating ziggurat approaches and demands that the Serbians be turned over to them.  By this time, the Serbians and some members of the crew have begun to fraternize and there has been a kind of wild gypsy dance involving most of the upper class tourists on the cruise liner.  In the end, as with the Titanic, the great ship goes down.  As the ship sinks, the camera tracks back to reveal that we have been watching an enormous machine, rocked to and fro by hydraulic stanchions and we see dozens of grips and lighting technicians and men holding smoke pots and Fellini himself, hidden by a camera, that is tracking across the huge set.  This shot is preceded by a sinister overhead image of people fleeing across the deck, the motion cranked fast and so, a bit accelerated and jerky like silent documentary -- the footage bears an uncanny resemblance to overhead shots representing the Russian revolution with agitated crowds scattering this way and that.  As the ship settles to the bottom of the ocean, Mr. Orlando notes that he will escape and that rhinoceros milk is "very nourishing" -- in the last image, we see him adrift with the big rhinoceros on his little life-boat.  Mr. Orlando has suggested four possible endings to the film -- the Prussians and Austria-Hungarians are touched by the beauty of the funeral for the great singer and depart without demanding transfer of the Serbians or the people on the cruise-liner valiantly refuse to surrender the refugees or, of course, the contrary:  they give the Serbians to the soldiers on the German battleship.  There is another alternative suggested by the meta-fictional images of the Cinecitta studio where the movie is being shot -- it is, after all, all opera, but like opera not indifferent to realism and life, but representing life at its most essential, that is opera representing life as it should be.  The film's incoherence is evident in the last couple shots -- Fellini means everything to be whimsical, light, nonchalant, even improvised.  But the huge hydraulic apparatus manipulating the obviously plywood and paper-mache ships is anything but casual and improvised -- rather, the film founders on its own gravitas.  It is not so easy a thing to share a life-raft with a huge, armor-plated rhinoceros.  But, notwithstanding these reservations, this film is truly extraordinary in many respects -- one shot in which a scheming Archduke kisses the Grand Duke's Aunt and we see her red-rimmed blind eyes upturned to the Archduke's closed ones is eerie and terrific enough to justify the whole quixotic enterprise. 

Fargo (FX TV series -- 2015)

It's heresy, I suppose, to report that the much-celebrated FX series Fargo, produced by Joel and Ethan Coen in the spirit of their famous film of the same title, is more than a little tedious.  Indeed, I have never managed to sit through an entire episode without briefly falling asleep.  Perhaps my somnolence is an artifact of mismanaged blood sugar, or the dull and repetitive commercials that interrupt the action, or the fact that the program airs at 9:00 pm and doesn't ever exactly end on time -- the show usually concludes around 10:10 or 10:15.  But I don't think so -- the show is leisurely paced and extremely repetitive:  the same thing tends to happen over and over again.  Although Fargo is very handsomely produced and beautifully acted, the series is simply too long for its rather simple-minded subject matter.  Furthermore, unlike Twin Peaks, the obvious precursor to this series, the show labors mightily to remain rooted in something like plausible Midwestern verisimilitude -- during the six or so episodes that I have seen the show never drifts into the kind of febrile, hallucinatory and sex-drenched delirium that characterized David Lynch's foray into TV-land.  In fact, the show's annoying assertion that it dramatizes a real story and the fact that the program features Minnesota accents that are exaggerated, but, nonetheless, recognizable, as well as the Minnesota folkways more or less realistically displayed and the peppering of the script with the names of local cities and villages -- people talk about going to Mankato and Sleepy Eye and the action takes place in Rock County at the county seat of Luverne -- all of these gestures toward an operatic verismo induce in the viewer the sense that the show's story should be, at least, quasi-realistic.  And it is on this count that the program fails most dramatically:  by the sixth episode, the program's body-count had risen to proportions roughly equivalent to Minnesota's losses in World War One.  The amount of carnage, and the characters' blithely casual response, to heaps of corpses -- each show features about eight graphically staged killings -- finally induces in the viewer not only a willful refusal to suspend disbelief, but, in my case, slumber.  I generally fall asleep at the beginning of the last third of the show, catnapping for about four or five minutes until aroused from my sleep by the screams of yet another murder victim or another protracted fusillade of gunfire.   

The show's plot involves an ancient formula -- combat between two ruthless crime families, a conflict in which a variety of innocents find themselves entangled.  This plot works well for a three or, even, four hour movie -- the Godfather pictures are a noteworthy example -- but can't be sustained over six hours or more.  The first episode, so far much the best, was wonderful and induced in me a sort of euphoria -- this show was going to be something unprecedented on Tv, something radically new and brilliant.  The program is exquisitely shot, although not in Minnesota but in Alberta, Canada, where, I suppose, snowfall is more predictable.  The show is edited into a slow-moving, but forceful combination of close-ups showing evil, snarling villains and bemused innocents intercut with carefully composed long shots showing confrontations against the vast snowy horizons of the plains of Alberta.  The small town simulating Luverne, Minnesota looks nothing like that place, but, effectively, represents the small cities on the prairie, places like Pipestone and Jasper, Minnesota -- it is pleasing to see these elegant little villages with their classical architecture portrayed on screen.  The acting by people like Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson is appropriately faux naïf -- everyone channels Frances McDormand's great performance in the Coen brother's movie although without that film's sense of the immense and pathetic wastefulness of violent crime.   The shoot-outs are staged with fierce and balletic precision and the violence is filmed so as to contrast the ugliness and folly of human beings against the indifference and natural beauty of the snowy northern landscapes.  The film preserves much of the quirky perspective of the Coen brothers and the musical cues are uniformly brilliant and moving.  My criticism of the program is that, although there is a lot going on, it is all macabre stuff of the same sort.  The opening episode, before aspects of the show went stale, was, possibly, the best television ever filmed, but the show couldn't sustain that level of excellence.  A dour, Gothic family of thugs named Gerhardt lives in the snowy wasteland near Fargo -- these gangsters are led by a fearsome matriarch in default of their Godfather's disability (the man is catatonic due to a cerebral hemorrhage); the Gerhardt's have a family history dating to the Weimar Republic and their most terrifying factotum is soft-spoken Indian with long black hair and a menacing immobile face.  Rival mobsters from Kansas City threaten to muscle into their territory.  Various Baroque threats are exchanged and war is threatened.  At the outset of the show, one of the Gerhardt boys travels to a Waffle Hut near Luverne in an attempt to intimidate a female judge from Fargo -- we never really know what motivates him, but he is clearly doing the family's business.  The Judge is as ferocious as the matriarch who commands the Gerhardt family and, after the obligatory colloquy of bellicose and poetic insults, the young man shoots the woman and everyone else in the place as well.  As he is fleeing the scene of the bloodbath, a hairdresser hits him with her car; the thug finds himself bleeding to death and inserted through the left front of her windshield.  The hairdresser, played by the nubile Kirsten Dunst, is an example of "Minnesota Nice" gone berserk.  She transports the dying bad guy to her garage and, since her husband is a butcher... well, you can imagine the rest.  Like the other women in the program, Dunst's character acts in a completely conventional way, speaks in platitudes, and looks like she has just come from a potluck at the Lutheran Church -- but she is completely amoral, implacable, and relentlessly ruthless.  In this respect, she is similar to the paralyzed crime boss' granddaughter -- she lures a number of men to their death while sleeping with the Black gunman dispatched from KC to slaughter the members of her family.  This girl is sufficiently savage to betray her family by calling in a bloody raid designed to kill her own father.  (The girl is also sexually adventurous -- after one tryst with her lover, the Black mobster says:  "You surprised me with that thing with your finger."  "I thought you'd like that," the girl says.  "I didn't say I liked having your finger stuck up my ass.  I said you surprised me."  To which the girl blithely replies:  "It wasn't my finger.  It was my thumb.")  The problem with this is that each week is, more or less, the same; nothing really develops and there is the sense of starting back at zero each episode -- imprecations are hurled this way and that, the good folks struggle to understand the ever-increasing heap of corpses piling up, the local eccentrics act eccentrically, a character introduced about two episodes before gets rubbed-out (this is supposed to surprise the viewer) and more of the army of extras have their heads blown-off.  There are some arcane aspects to the enterprise -- Ronald Reagan played with damning precision by Bruce Campbell is campaigning at Sioux Falls in South Dakota (the casting of Campbell best known as Ash in The Evil Dead films is an excellent joke in itself) and, from time to time, people see what may be UFOs -- the latter detail seems a homage to the Coen's highly idiosyncratic film The Man Who Wasn't There, a 2001 picture that also featured as a deux ex machina some flying saucers.  These elements of the show, which are the most interesting parts of Fargo, are not well-developed and, at this writing, I can't tell where this part of the plot is headed.  Fargo is excellent, but because it is produced by the Coen brothers and invokes a film masterpiece, must be judged by the highest esthetic criteria -- and, by those criteria, I can't quite deem the show to be a success. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Delacroix and Modern Art (Exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

The exhibit of paintings by Delacroix and other late 19th century artists on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art argues this thesis:  Delacroix's influence is integral to the work of later painters such as Renoir, Redon, Degas, and Cezanne.  This claim derives from John Canaday's famous book, Mainstreams of Modern Art, an art history narrative that commences with David and ends with Picasso and Kandinsky.  For Canaday, art's mainstream flowed through Paris and Delacroix (with Gericault) was a transitional painter, a bridge between David's impassioned classicism and the early Impressionists.  This argument is based on Delacroix's highly visible and ebullient brush stroke -- the artists slathers paint onto his canvases in thick, vivid swaths and leaves the surface of his paintings, apparently, unfinished, that is, serrated with ridges of bright pigment.  Delacroix's subject matter is as vehement as his attack on the canvas -- he begins his career illustrating violent episodes in the poetry of Byron (rapes and massacres) and ends his career with a final painting made in 1863 depicting a nasty little skirmish in the mountains of north Africa.  Although many French painters in the mid-19th century claimed Delacroix's influence as decisive, in fact, it is not easy to perceive and the show is seems unpersuasive to me -- Redon's works, at least as presented in this show, don't look anything like Delacroix.  Similarly, early paintings by Cezanne and Degas display traces of Delacroix's violent and Romantic subject matter but are far more cerebral, more sophisticated in their design, than the rather primitive and exuberant works by the earlier painter.  To the extent that later painters copied Delacroix's subject matter -- particularly his paintings showing north Africa, a coincidence of subject doesn't really show influence:  various painters essayed views of Tangiers, for instance, but this doesn't necessarily show anything other than the fact that a walled Moroccan city by the sea is a picturesque thing to paint and that canvases on that subject were probably readily saleable.  The curious thing about the show, accordingly, is that many Impressionist or proto-Impressionist painters claimed allegiance to Delacroix, but this seems merely lip-service -- in fact, their own homages to the painter are very different in form, style, texture, and feeling than the work of the man they claimed as master.

The wall labels in the MIA show talk about "emulation".  The younger artists emulated Delacroix's work and, I think, that word is useful in considering the relationship between the paintings in the show.  By all canons of criticism except one, Delacroix is not a good painter -- indeed, the artist's works have always been a "hard sell" to me.   Delacroix's draftsmanship is very clumsy and his grasp of the human body seems amateurish.  The artist's famously agitated tigers either look like Chinese gargoyles or stuffed cats with bulging cartoonish eyes.  His landscapes are shadowy daubs and Delacroix never seems to have mastered perspective.  In his final painting made in 1863 of the Berber tribes fighting, a canvas that I greatly admire, the artist is completely unable to figure out how to make his figures recede in space.  The exotic warriors are essentially decals pasted onto a poorly designed and irrational landscape.  In the default of rigorous pictorial design, draftsmanship, and anatomical accuracy, Delacroix offers vivid, explosive colors and something like "authenticity."  It is, in fact, easy to trace a line from Delacroix's vivid and expressive, if poorly represented, scenes of violence to Jackson Pollock's canvases -- Delacroix institutes, I think, the cult of authenticity.  The man can't paint but he wears his multi-colored heart, leaking pigment, all over his sleeve.  Accordingly, Delacroix seems to have been a youthful enthusiasm for the other artists featured in the show.  Like some rock-and-roll or country-western music, Delacroix's seemingly artless paintings suggest that anyone who has enough heart and desire can make an interesting canvas -- if you can play three chords, you can be a rock star; if you can smear paint on a stretched canvas with exuberant gestures, you can be an artist.  Accordingly, I sense that Delacroix for highly sophisticated artists like Cezanne and Degas was a youthful enthusiasm -- he's the kind of artist that suggests to the viewer this proposition:  I could do this myself.  But youthful enthusiasms are readily and quickly outgrown.  Once Cezanne and Degas learned to paint in their own styles, all traces of Delacroix's influence vanish entirely.  Thus, Delacroix seems to have been a painter who encouraged younger artists to be bold and to paint experimentally.  The apprentice works of Cezanne and Degas, as might be expected, aren't very good and don't even show much trace of the brilliance of these artist's later careers -- thus, to the extent that Delacroix influenced Cezanne and Degas, he seems to have influenced them to paint badly.  Only after outgrowing Delacroix's influence, did this artists come into their own.  (In fairness to Delacroix, I should note that a film accompanying the show makes this important point -- to his young admirers, Delacroix was most importantly a painter of murals, for instance in the Church of St. Sulpice.  Murals, particularly the dome and ceiling panels in a place like St. Sulpice were made to be seen from a distance and not closely studied.  Delacroix vivid colors and broad, expansive, and melodramatic posturing are effective when seen from a vantage 100 feet away.) 

Degas painted several completely uncharacteristic "history" paintings under the influence of Delacroix.  One of these paintings, showing youths competing in Sparta, is large, ambitious, and shows poor draftsmanship -- already, Degas' palette, later heavily influenced by pastels and water-colors, is vastly more sophisticated than Delacroix' flamboyant blood-reds and shadowy, russet landscapes.  One of Degas' wonderful paintings of young dancers is included in the show -- it is a mature work by Degas and looks nothing at all like Delacroix; Degas' compositional sense is photographic, snapshot-like whereas Delacroix poses everyone in the most theatrical way possible -- it is as if we are staring at a group of provincial actors appearing in a bad play.  Similarly, the show juxtaposes some of Delacroix's scenes of violent action with a weird, large canvas by Cezanne called "Abduction."  In Cezanne's painting, a bizarre muscle-bound figure seems to be carrying away a pale maiden -- it's a prototype for monster movies in which a swooning actress is abducted by a staggering and hideous monster.  Cezanne's drawing of the abductor is so grotesquely bad as to be risible -- the figure is all lumpy with big misplaced muscles like tumors.  The picture may be influenced by Delacroix, but it's a catastrophe.  On another wall, a Delacroix painting of bathers is shown next to a small, crystalline and elegant Cezanne canvas of the same subject.  Delacroix's water is completely unpersuasive, a sort of silky carpet into which his nudes, females with heavy hips and small breasts, are sinking -- the picture is pretty, but unsuccessful.  It simply doesn't look wet at all.  Cezanne's picture, a turquoise geometry of vertical vector-like trees and stalking nude giantesses is equally unrealistic but the picture is completely successful on its own semi-abstract terms and totally incongruent to Delacroix's painting. 

The show contains a late copy of Delacroix's most famous and sadistic painting "The Death of Sardanapulus" -- it was a pleasure for me to stand near the dozent attempting to explain to a group of fifth graders what was going on in that painting.  "What is the man doing to that girl?" one of the boys quite reasonably asked.  The painting is extraordinary in any format, an allegory of the sadistic solipsism of the imagination, and the perfect marriage of Delacroix's painterly zealotry with the violent subject matter presented.  The force of the image is so great that it doesn't matter that Delacroix can't get the perspective right and just sticks the pale writhing victims of the tyrant onto the canvas like stamps in a stamp book.  A "Lamentation" shows one of the Mary's peeping under Christ's shroud to inspect his genitals -- a bizarre image that is, perhaps, a mistake in the way Delacroix painted the gesture.  Delacroix's images of Tangiers show a white, castellated city occupying a crevasse in a mountain escarpment something like an Alaskan or Norwegian glacier hovering over a fjord.  The landscape except for the city is just a blur of grey and brown pigment, painted without any interest whatsoever -- indeed, in many of Delacroix's paintings vast parts of the canvas seem to have been completely disregarded by the artist, he just smears them with nondescript colors to better highlight the action in the center or lower part of the painting.   The artist's painting of "The Convulsionists of Tangiers", owned by the MIA, dramatically demonstrates Delacroix's weaknesses as a draftsman.  At the center of the picture, one figure's head, prominently displayed, can not be plausibly connected with any body shown in the image -- the head seems to float, thrust forward, in empty air.  The "Convulsionists" although not one of favorite pictures, seems to me successful on its own terms -- the artist's objective was expressionist:  he wants to convey to you the sense of the uncanny and eerie aspects of this north African religious cult and the strangely disembodied head creates in the spectator a distinct sense of unease.  Similarly, the final canvas painted by Delacroix, the smoky battle of Berbers in the mountains, although incoherent, is effective as well -- the picture with its vignettes of disconnected action, its prosaic mountain setting, something like the flats for a mid-century opera, and the smoky, impressionist void at the center of the image -- a pale fog in which we can only slightly see agitated figures is entirely successful and persuasive as an expressionistic account of the chaotic battle.  The fact that the composition doesn't really make sense doesn't matter.

A collection of many Japanese woodcuts, so-called Shin Hanga ("New Print") graphics, is pretty, highly accomplished, and technically impressive.  But the pictures are mostly uninteresting images of 'pretty women' and Kabuki actors.   The "pretty women" pictures, in particular, verge on kitsch.  Upstairs, there is a small exhibit of aquatints, all of them silky, menacing, and exceptionally beautiful -- in particular, there are some horrific war images by both Goya and Otto Dix.  Goya's nightmare image called "Bobolicon"  ("Simpleton") in which a misshapen clown-shaped colossus confronts a man who is hiding behind a strangely passive, possibly dead, and shrouded woman is the sort of picture that once seen can not be forgotten.   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Friendly Persuasion

Prestige films made in the fifties were often adaptations of novels and, so, these movies don't have narratives that are readily assimilated to our expectations today.  These movies contain a wealth of events and characters intended to convey the impression of an entire world.  Accordingly, films of this sort are loosely constructed, episodic, leisurely -- it is often not entirely clear what the movie is supposed to be about.  In this regard, William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion (1956) resembles pictures like John Ford's My Darling Clementine  or How Green was my Valley-- the focus is on a community of people and the actual dramatic conflict motivating the film seems secondary for much of the movie's running time.  In Friendly Persuasion, the conflict between the pacifist Quakers and their neighbors who are embroiled in the Civil War is central to the movie, and, given its release eleven years after the Second World War, afforded the theme of principal interest to contemporary audiences -- presumably, veterans of World War Two were interested in whether there were other peaceful ways to resolve conflict.  Indeed, near the climax of the film, a non-Quaker neighbor salutes Jess (played by Gary Cooper) for refusing to join the fighting -- the man says:  "I'm glad that you're refusing to fight.  Maybe, it will show us another way of solving these things."  This is a generous sentiment, intrinsic to the film's simple humanity, and, probably, reflects the viewpoint of many Americans who had experienced war first-hand in Europe or the Pacific and, now, wanted no part of further conflict.  And the film's pacifist narrative is mirrored by its structure and digressive plot -- Friendly Persuasion, based on a best-selling novel by Jessamyn West, is really about peace and its humble pleasures and conflicts; the movie is a war film only briefly and  incidentally.

Friendly Persuasion focuses on a Quaker family lives in an idyllic setting among orchards and ponds in southern Indiana.  The film's camerawork is extraordinary -- the trees around the Quaker homestead have the soft, luminous quality of landscapes by Corot and the rivers and lakes have a particularly moist, intensely liquid quality, mirroring the bucolic fields and barns and mills like gorgeous Impressionistic canvases.  Wyler is capable of staging action in depth -- in some scenes, there is foreground action, people in the middle distance, and, then, horsemen, for instance, approaching or receding in the shadowy distance.  The interiors are softly lit and, again, feature different zones of action -- in one memorable scene, husband and wife and their eldest son are debating the boy's determination to join the war effort when the family's daughter, still aroused from a romantic encounter, sweeps into the house and climbs some wooden stairs with languorous yielding step.  The combination of the family crisis with the young woman's sexual awakening creates a powerful emotional effect, all accomplished by staging the two events in one continuous, well-defined space.  The action is logically developed, playing out over terrain that has certain features to which the camera returns again and again -- the meeting houses, dirt lanes where Gary Cooper races his buggy against his neighbor, a covered bridge.  The movie is quite bawdy for its time -- there is an overtly sexual encounter between the Quaker youth (played by Anthony Perkins) and three sex-starved farm girls at an isolated farm governed by a leering matriarch, the Widow Hudspeth, played by Marjorie Main.  The "friendly persuasion" named in the title seems to be sexual in nature -- for instance, Jess who is enamored with music persuades his straitlaced Quaker wife (she is actually the preacher and leader of the sect) to allow an organ in their home after a sexual rendezvous in the barn to which she has retreated in anger after the sinful instrument was delivered to her home.  We see Gary Cooper pathetically grateful to his wife after this encounter, his shoulders covered with straw from the barn where they have spent the night.  After some initial scene-setting in which the Quaker opposition to the Civil War is established -- the Quaker priestess says:  "I will not kill one man to free another" -- the movie concerns itself with the rivalry between Jess and his neighbor about the speed of their trotting horses, the daughter's romance, a trip to the county fair in which one Quaker youth wrestles a professional fighter called "the Billy Goat," and Jess' business trip to Ohio that results in his meeting with Marjorie Main and her sex-starved family of nubile young women -- the young engage in flirtation while Jess horse-trades with the matriarch.  Jess buys an organ at the fair, a purchase that puts some strain on his marriage, but repairs the breach with his tryst with his wife in the barn.  There is a pet goose named Samantha and a little boy who, in classic Hoosier fashion, is shown fishing from a ramshackle dock his head covered in a tattered straw hat -- he looks like a figure from a James Whitcomb Riley poem. (The little boy is the enemy of aggressive goose, Samantha, a big, loud creature that harasses the child mercilessly and that the boy also relentlessly teases, an allegory for the conflict between human beings that results in warfare -- a pointless, mindless conflict that everyone enjoys until the play gets a little too rough.)  The family harbors a runaway slave and, when the war comes close to the farm, the Black man takes up a rifle and joins the irregular forces who plan to repel a rebel invasion at the ford in the river.  The last 25 minutes of the film -- and it is about 145 minutes -- concerns the Confederate invasion.  The Quakers find themselves plunged into the war and, of course, their pacifist values are compromised when real violence engulfs them.  The son, played by Anthony Perkins, impetuously joins a civilian force of guerillas poised to ambush the Confederates at the river and, when a man is killed next to him, joins in the battle.  His father later finds him wounded on the battlefield, grief-stricken and unable to leave the side of the Confederate boy that he has killed in hand-to-hand combat.  When a foraging rebel tries to snatch Samantha the goose from the family's farm, the Quaker woman beats the soldier with a broom, appalled at her own violence.  The Confederate soldier, filmed from an angle that suggests rape (we see his crotch and his big belt buckle emblazoned with the confederate emblem) reacts in a courtly manner, doffing his hat to the enraged woman and advising her that he wished he had known before-hand that the goose was a family pet.  The film is politically conflicted about pacifism in a realistic and compromising way-- it acknowledges the nobility of the Quakers' beliefs but, also, suggests that they can not be implemented in the real world. 

I saw this film on the night after ISIS claimed responsibility for massacring over a hundred civilians in Paris.  The French have vowed to "punish severely" those responsible for the attacks.  In Friendly Persuasion, the Quaker woman-preacher did not allow music in her home, notwithstanding the fact that we learn that she was once a good dancer -- indeed, her husband wooed and won her on the dance-floor -- and we see her tapping her foot to music at the county fair, watching the couples dancing with a wistful look until she sees her own daughter among them, dancing with a handsome Union soldier on leave.  Of course, the Taliban were famously against music and instituted an auto da fe of musical instruments when they seized power in Afghanistan.  The pressure of themes in Wyler's Friendly Persuasion remains with us today -- and, indeed, is, perhaps, even more significant in November of 2015 than in 1956 when the film was made. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Voelker Ball (Rammstein at Nimes, France)

Handsome, hard-looking men with brutally impassive faces stand in front of a great machine.  The machine is a heavily armored, a grimy steel-plated furnace that looks like the Moloch-machine in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.  Periodically, immense gusts of yellow and orange flame pour out of the machine or ascend in columns from the places where the men stand.  The guardians of the great machine wear black knee-high jack boots and leather aprons.  Their throats and foreheads are smeared with oil and lubricating greases leaked from the machine.  In close-up, the men's eyelashes and lips are darkened with soot.  A vast industrial roar, rhythmic like the throbbing of a great locomotive engine fills the air.  Ten-thousand people are crowded into an ancient amphitheater and they raise their hands in the air to stab fingers upward in motions synchronized with the blast of engine noise.  More fire ascends around the members of the band and the guitar players, wearing tubes such as you might see on the fuselage of a rocket, stand in molten puddles of fire -- it is impossible that they can be in the midst of this choreographed explosion without being burned by it.  This is the German heavy metal band, Rammstein, performing in concert at Nimes, France in 2006. 

Slavoj Zizek in his film A Pervert's Guide to Ideology compliments Rammstein for deploying Nazi-era spectacle for anti-Fascist purposes.  Whether Zizek's tribute is wishful thinking is a question best left to the viewer.  Most young people, not familiar with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (or with Lang's Metropolis) probably won't recognize the imagery that Rammstein exploits in its impressive concerts.  Probably, the jackboots and leather, the impassive, implacable stance that the Fuehrer takes while observing the mayhem around him, the windy tumuli of flames and the beams of spotlights lancing through the smoke and haze, all signify some recondite form of sado-masochism, some variety of Gothic romanticism that the young viewers are not equipped to relate back to the source of this Goetterdaemmerung, Hitler's Wagnerian vision of the Third Reich as a realm of robot soldiers, blood and fire, mobs convulsed with savage enthusiasm, gigantic machines looming over gritty engineers and industrial workers all blonde and beautiful and with steel-hard muscles.  And, in fairness, to the problematic esthetics of Rammstein's concerts, Hitler's sense of grandiose spectacle referred, of course, to a third term, the element of the equation common to both Nuremberg and the Rammstein concert at Nimes -- that is, the "voelkisch" tribal enthusiasm for explosions, fire in opposition to darkness, the primordial balance of light and dark in the cold Northern parts of Europe, the romance of iron and molten metal comprising the glamor of the industrial revolution, the worship of technocrats with dead, icy eyes stage managing vast crowds with implacable expertise...  But, in Rammstein's presentation, this entire gruesome panorama of son et lumiere is, of course, explicitly German, explicitly Teutonic -- unlike many European pop groups, Rammstein performs in grungy, growling German, bellowing out their lyrics, mostly written in Wagner and Hans Sachs' doggerel Knittelvers.  And the crowd knows the lyrics and screams them back at the Germans even though this group of fans at Nimes, ten-thousand of them in the ancient amphitheater, are all, no doubt, patriotic French people.  Rammstein's albums contain transcripts of the lyrics to their songs, but not translated into English -- the point is that this group performs in German, indeed, German of a particularly Expressionist or early Romantic diction:  the lyrics read either like Trakl or Eichendorff (or, for that matter, Goethe or Heine):  people suffer Sehnsucht ("yearning") in dark forests of pine trees and ancient oaks.  Human beings ("Menschen") are seen burning in colossal fires -- indeed, the name of the band, Rammstein, refers to a famous German air disaster in which a crowd gathered to witness aerobatics by jets flying over found them itself in the midst of aircraft crashing to the earth, dowsing dozens of spectators with liquid fire.  Furthermore, many of the songs cleave close to the bone of the German language -- the lyrics involve puns and plays on the words that are well-nigh untranslatable.  One song, "Los" exploits the fact that "los" means both "without" (as in Wortlos --
"wordless")  and to be set free, that is to be without external constraints.  Another song has as its chorus Feuer frei, an expression that means, literally, "fire freely" but which is military parlance for "fire at will" -- of course, a phrase that is accompanied by great clouds of fire rising over the performers, most of whom seem to be decked-out in iron tubular flame-throwers.  The song Teil refers to a notorious incident in which a German masochist answered a personals ad seeking someone who was willing to be butchered and eaten -- the sadist, who went by the name Metzgermeister ("Butcher-master"), accommodated the masochist's desires all too well, lopping off the man's penis and, then, roasting it for his evening meal.  The song is performed with frisky antics by the keyboard player, Flocke.  Flocke is a gawky storklike Ichabod Crane fellow and, with his keyboard, he hops into a huge cast iron bucket where he gestures at the audience pathetically while the lead singer, Doom Schneider, shoots thick jets of fire at the pot where poor Flocke mimes that he is being boiled into stew.  All the while, the lead singer, who staggers around either like a poor imitation of Hitler, or like a zombie, cries out Mein Teil, words that mean, I think, either "my portion" or "my member" -- that is, the virile member served up as grilled sausage on a platter.  Other songs by Rammstein are equally bizarre -- one catchy number is a pirate tune, called Seemann Reise, complete with choruses of "Ahoy."  Obviously, the DVD of this live performance at Nimes, France is not everyone's cup of tea but it is certainly interesting and, as hard rock and metal bands go, Rammstein is exciting, as good as the best.

Correction:    Legions of Rammstein fans have contacted me to advise that the lead singer in the band is Till Linderman.  Doom Schneider is the group's drummer.  Thus, the sanguine, sooty figure blandly supervising Rammstein's pyrotechnics is Till and not Doom. 


Highly literate and brilliantly conceived, Pontypool (2007) is a thinking man's zombie movie.  This low-budget Canadian film is virtually unknown in the United States, presumably because it lacks the gory (and expensive) special effects that characterize Hollywood pictures of this sort and, also, I think, because the movie's premise is one that resonates most powerfully in a bilingual society like Canada where both English and French are official languages (or like most of Western Europe in which everyone is almost as fluent in English as they are in their native or mother tongue).  The film's premise is overtly allegorical.  A deadly virus has hijacked our language.  Certain words trigger bizarre reactions in the people speaking and listening to them.  The speaker becomes fixated on the word, repeats it interminably until the utterance becomes a series of nonsense syllables, and, then, runs amuck as a bloodthirsty, deranged zombie.  The concept that language operates according to memes, or viral units, is familiar -- William Burroughs advanced the notion that language "is a virus from outer space."  Pontypool simply materializes this metaphor in its nightmarish scenario:  as reports emerge that people are inexplicably ripping one another to pieces, the protagonists, locked in a AM-radio station studio in the town of Pontypool, find themselves under siege.  The bunker-like studio is beset by both slavering zombies and French-Canadian troops from Quebec who, because they don't speak English, seem to be immune to the plague.  The picture is claustrophobically shot, all action takes place in the radio studio, a shadowy zone dense with glass cubicles and equipment, where the camera prowls ceaselessly from close-up to close-up.  The zombie apocalypse occurs on the first day of work of a somewhat down-at-the-heels shock jock, a man with a craggy face in his late middle-age who seems to be modeled on Don Imus.  The shock-jock, Grant Mazzy is well-read and hyper-articulate -- he cites Norman Mailer in his first broadcast -- and he imagines that he has been summoned onto the air to "speak truth to power".  Like Imus, he seems to have run afoul of political correctness at his last gig and been exiled to this AM station in a remote and rural part of Ontario, -- outside the one window in a door leading into the studio, it is always snowing. The show is managed by a female producer and there is a girl engineer who operates the soundboard, splicing into Mazzy's paranoid rants commercials and morning drive-time reports from the "Sunshine Chopper," a reporter purportedly in a helicopter but, in fact, merely a guy in a car located on a hilltop overlooking the freeway.  Pontypool seems to be conceived as a four or five character one-act play -- as reports emerge as to the violence in the community, it becomes clear that everyone is turning into blood-crazed zombies, although in our post 9-11 world the killings are first reported as "some kind of insurgency."  The allegory is blunt, powerful, and effective.  Our discourse has been poisoned, seized by those who wish to foster and spread hatred, and so, something, must be done to cure the pathology in language that is afflicting the media.  Pontypool suggests two course of action -- the first is poetic:  words can be purged of their virus if they are used in idiosyncratic, personalized, and hermetic ways.  Mazzy suggests that people substitute the word "kiss" for "kill", that they regard the word "stop" as a color, and that they take steps to defamiliarize the language that they are speaking.  In a concluding peroration that seems derived from famous scenes in the film, Network, Mazzy suggests that we must speak with the utmost caution, that we must purge our rhetoric of noisome abstractions, and that, somehow, the truth will save us.  Whether this inspiring soliloquy, in fact, speaks the truth is left ambiguous.  The French-Canadian forces, hearing English still being broadcast from the Pontypool bunker, blow the place to smithereens.  Pontypool is immensely resonant, particularly in an era that features Donald Trump's candidacy for president, and the film is brilliantly directed and filmed.  Canadian actor, Steven McHattie is particularly effective as the bruised, ultra-articulate shock-jock -- his deep baritone voice oozes sincerity and cynicism and wounded idealism all at the same time.  This film, unknown to most people, is excellent, thought-provoking, and possibly the wittiest and best zombie movies ever made.

Boondocks Saints

Boondocks Saints (1999) is a crass, glossy vigilante movie.  Two Irish lads, the McMannis brothers from south Boston, murder about 25 people, most of their victims either Russian or Italian mobsters -- although among the body-count is the hapless Ron Jeremy gunned-down, I suppose, because he was once famous as hard-core pornography's "everyman" in the kinder, gentler, more sex-friendly seventies.  The movie is crisply edited, mostly scenes of cartoonish violence with interpolated narrative that doesn't make much sense.  The vigilante brothers live like monks in an abandoned building and work in a slaughterhouse until they get angry at the supervisor, a heavyset, loudmouthed woman, who they punch into unconsciousness before embarking on yet another of their bloody crusades.  The lads have super-human powers in terms of their virtuosity with various types of firearms and other weapons and, for some reason, speak about 12 different languages each -- they seem to be able to say "fuck" in Mandarin Chinese, Russian, German and French, etc.  With a comically inept and impetuous Italian sidekick, the boys slaughter bad guys all over Boston, pursued by a brilliant, homosexual chief of police played by Willem Defoe.  (It's a tragedy to see Defoe in garbage of this kind; the actor must have been seriously short of money).  Defoe's character is the kind of esthete who tours bloody mass murder scenes while listening to Puccini arias on his ear-buds.  He's the only thing in the movie worth watching, something that the director seems to have understood, since Defoe occupies more and more scenes as the film progresses, the loutish brothers reduced, it seems, to bit players -- in one scene, Defoe waves his delicate hands to symphonically direct the brothers' mass execution of bad guys, appearing on the edge of the scene as the boy's rampage through the army of malign extras that they are murdering; he seems to be interpreting the carnage for the hearing impaired, gesturing flamboyantly this way and that as the bad guys slump to the ground riddled with bullets.  (The concept is that Defoe's character is imagining how the brothers massacred the bad guys, although the device really just seems a way to keep Defoe on screen as much as possible.)  The film is plotless, piling one bloodbath onto another, until the brothers invade a courtroom where a bad guy is on trial and, after shooting another half-dozen people apparently acting as body-guards for the villain, then, dispatch him in their trade-mark manner -- each lad holding the muzzle of his gun to the victim's head so that their bullets crisscross in his brain and emerge from eye sockets opposite to the position of the guns poised against the victim's occiput.  (In the final execution, the Italian sidekick gets to shoot a bullet through the bad guy's skull as well -- maybe his shot is supposed to exit through the villain's mouth.)  The film is competently made but morally hideous -- it's the kind of picture in which Defoe berates his Puerto Rican boyfriend for cuddling with him with the taunt:  "What are you, some kind of fag?"   There is a tendency for demagogues to set up specious pro- and con- debate to suggest that there are two sides to an issue, when, in fact, any reasonable person would deny that there is real controversy on the point:  bloody vigilantism is wrong, illegal, stupid and immoral -- there's no rational counterpoint to this argument.  Indeed, it would be idiotic to attempt to construct a moral argument in favor of lynching.  (It's important to observe that the victims of the vigilante brother's predation are all White criminals, indeed, mostly Russians who are the whitest of all White men -- the film would take on a completely different emotional and moral tenor if the two Irish brothers would gunning down Black gangsters.)  The film ends with a wholly offensive segment showing talking heads, people arguing on both sides of the vigilante issue with half of the speakers denouncing the American justice system and proclaiming themselves supporters of the two killers.  Of course, there's really nothing to debate -- vigilantism is always wrong, but the film's quasi-documentary ending labors mightily to create the impression that there are two side of the issue to argue, that the American justice system is completely broken, and that killers and rapists and other unsavory sorts (like poor Ron Jeremy) are walking our streets scot-free and committing crimes with impunity.  Of course, no one can possibly believe this to be true.  The reason the United States has the largest population of prisoners per capita in the whole world -- indeed, more people locked up than the Soviets put into their Gulags -- is (partly) because of nasty, ignorant propaganda like Boondocks Saints.  And the most disturbing thing about this movie, as I understand the situation, is that this meretricious, vicious film is a kind of cult favorite with young people. 

(Boondocks Saints has a curious history worth mentioning.  The movie is based on a script by a Boston bartender, Troy Duffy.  The movie had the misfortune to be scheduled for premiere on the weekend after the Columbine massacre in Colorado and so the film was shunted into a direct-to-DVD.  As a DVD, the film came to enjoy a cult status. Although critics reviled the picture, it enjoys a 91% positive rating among viewers, a shocking example of a disconnect between the public for films of this kind and professional critics.  A sequel to the film was made in 2009 and has proven to be less popular among viewers.  A third sequel is reputed to be presently in production.)

Welcome to Woop, Woop

A bizarre combination of The Sound of Music and the Mad Max movies, Welcome to Woop, Woop is a gaudy, flamboyant Australian film directed by Stephen Elliot in 1998. Woop, Woop is a gimcrack, claptrap, ramshackle outback outpost inhabited by eccentric, heavy-drinking desert rats.  The village occupies the interior of a sunburnt crater, something like a collapsed salt dome, in the middle of nowhere.  The inhabitants are half-feral -- they work slaughtering kangaroos and packing their meat into cans of "Roof, Roof" dog food.  Rod Taylor, in a state of severe alcoholic desuetude, play Daddy-O, the brutish leader of the commune.  (Taylor's formerly thuggish good looks have slid into shocking disrepair and, at first, I couldn't identify him with the fat, slovenly butcher who controls Woop, Woop with his fists and riflemen -- when someone tries to escape the village by scaling one of its crater walls, he has the refugee shot and tossed into the kangaroo-grinder's hopper.)  The hapless women and children stranded in the hamlet spend their nights at an open air theater watching classic Hollywood musicals and the film's soundtrack is lush with tunes from Guys and Dames, South Pacific, and most notably The Sound of Music.  (The hymn-like "Climb every Mountain" underscores some of the movie's more spectacular action scenes.)

One of the world's archetypal narratives can be characterized in five words:  "A stranger comes to town."  In the case of this film, an American involved in smuggling cockatiels gets involved in a farcical, if bloody, confrontation with gangsters and has to flee to Australia.  There, he is seduced by a coarse, sexually voracious, Australian girl from the outback -- she refers to sexual intercourse, as "parting my beef curtains."  The girl kidnaps the hero, who finds himself a resident of Woop, Woop; he seems to have been brought to the remote village for vaguely eugenic reasons -- the denizens of the town have been interbreeding and their bloodlines have become decadent.  The insatiable blonde girl is the daughter of Rod Taylor's Daddy-O.  After some acquaintance with the anthropological features of Woop, Woop (for instance, "Dog Day", a day of the week when everyone blazes away with their guns at the local dogs), the hero decides to flee the town -- a capitol offense under Daddy-O's laws.  Allying himself with a woman whose husband was shot dead when he attempted to flee, the hero contrives a plan to escape.  The escape plot climaxes during the Viking funeral of Daddy-O's wife, the hero and his girl fleeing over the rim of the crater while the dead woman is burned on a huge funeral pyre to the accompaniment of various Broadway show-tunes.  The lovers decamp aboard a vast mining truck with house-high wheels and there is a frenzied escape, incongruously set to melodies from The Sound of Music, an action sequenc that parodies the various car and muscle-car chases in the Mad Max movies.  Everything is hysterically exaggerated, the Whop, Woop residents extravagantly filthy and mangy, and the climactic vehicular mayhem involves a confrontation with a mythical being, a giant 'Roo who appears in the desert wasteland to take revenge of Daddy-O for the slaughter of his kind.  The film is engaging, generally quite funny, and has a weird sort of Wagnerian grandeur -- the tone fluctuates wildly between poignant love scenes and sinister post-Apocalyptic violence, all of this scored to the themes from assorted Hollywood musicals of the fifties and sixties.  Stephen Eliot, who made the camp spectacle, The Adventures of Priscilla, the Queen of the Desert, (1993)about a transvestite crossing the outback, has a lurid, baroque sensibility -- he's like his fellow Australian, Baz Luhrman, mad with the imagery of classical Broadway and Hollywood musicals.  My sense is that Elliot would be most comfortable simply directing a standard Hollywood musical and the defect in Welcome to Woop, Woop is simply that the film can't ever become what it aspires to be:  that is, an expensively produced song-and-dance musical like The Sound of Music or Cabaret. 

Monday, November 9, 2015


Gozu is Japanese for "cow head" and identifies a figure that appears in this 2003 film by Takishi Miike.  The movie is a labyrinth and, I suppose, the title is justified by the cow-headed monster, a sort of friendly minotaur that inhabits the movie's narrative maze.  Certain elements of Gozu can be interpreted in a limited way, but, in large part, the film is inscrutable -- the picture displays a vice of all dream-narratives:  this imagery feels intensely meaningful to the dreamer but, usually, this impression of significance can not be successfully conveyed to the person to whom the dream is recounted:  it's simply too private and the atmosphere of dream, congested, even, turgid with meaning, doesn't translate well to a realistic "photographic" medium.  As a consequence, Gozu, a picture that feels like a literal transcript of a dream seems immensely long, weirdly prosaic for much of its two-hours and nine minutes running time, and, ultimately, is in danger of evaporating into colorful mist without establishing any foothold in our imagination.

So far as I can decipher the film, Gozu concerns two Yakuza brothers, Ozaki and Minami.  One or both of the brothers seems to be losing his mind in the opening ten minutes of the picture.  They perceive a small dog, a Pekinese, as a "Yakuza-killing dog" and bludgeon the little creature to death.  Imagining an oncoming car to be a "Yakuza-killing" vehicle, they flee wildly and crash with the result that Ozaki is killed.  For a time, Minami carts the body around but when he stops at restaurant for a meal, the corpse vanishes.  Minami receives inscrutable messages that tell him to take his brother to the dump, presumably to be disposed-of in that place.  But the source of the message is unclear and Minami can't ever quite find his way to the dump; an increasingly surreal series of obstacles confronts him and film slides into a sort of paralysis.  People speak to one another in banal gibberish in long scenes, each two or three minutes in duration -- the takes are composed at medium range and show clogged Japanese rooms, mostly commercial spaces in which people seem to be ceaselessly debating things like whether is really hot or really cold.  Minami encounters various figures that seem to be guides, Pscyhopomps, apparently -- there is a man with half his face painted chalk-white in a sort of lunar pattern, a brother and sister who operate what seems to be a haunted inn (the woman is lactating and milk runs down her thighs and calves) and, ultimately, the Gozu, or cow-headed figure who offers the protagonist a glass of milk.  Minami keeps ending up in the same places, although these locations become increasingly strange as the film progresses -- the haunted restaurant turns out to have a hidden third floor, for instance.  The film's rhythm is very slow, deliberately and tediously impeded.  Minami can't make any progress; in effect, he is running frantically in slow-motion.  As in some of Kafka's novels of this sort, for instance, The Trial, Minami encounters various people with strange, concealed agendas as well as several sexually voracious women.  After many peculiar occurrences, Minami finally reaches the dump where he finds that his brother has been placed in a white car and, then, crushed to raspberry-colored pulp.  But not to worry -- a beautiful young girl appears in the backseat of Minami's convertible and announces that she is his brother.  Minami and his brother, now a girl, confront a mob boss.  The mob boss fancies having sex with a spoon rammed up his rectum, apparently, some form of prostate massage.  Minami and the girl seduce the gangster and kill him by impaling the boss on his spoon -- it's a ladle with a three-foot handle -- and, then, anally electrocuting the bad guy (they apply a broken lamp with exposed wires to the metal spoon.)  Minami, then, has incestuous sex with his sister.  Her vagina clamps down hard on Minami's penis and, when he finally breaks free, he discovers a small hand reaching out of her womb.   The hand belongs to his long-lost brother Ozaki who is born from the woman in a gory and protracted scene that resembles the "body-horror" of David Cronenberg's earlier films.  The film has a purportedly happy ending -- the woman survives the bloody birthing of an entire, fully grown adult male through her vaginal canal and the three are last seen strolling down the streets of Tokyo, seemingly, in a happy mood. 

I suppose a second viewing of the picture would reveal patterns in the apparently random and bizarre events comprising the first three-quarters of this film.  The film shows that beneath the façade of Yakuza tough-guy there is a hysterical bisexual undercurrent that is, also, intrinsically infantile -- I assume the milk imagery has something to do with the desire to return to the womb, an recursion that Ozaki, apparently, achieves.  In one scene, we see the lavishly tattooed skins of murdered Yakuza mobsters hanging like suits in plastic bags.  These skins are like cocoons holding souls that are, apparently, fluid with respect to identity and can be reincarnated in various forms.  I presume that elements of the film relate to Buddhist and Shinto themes and there is clearly some kind of reincarnation underway with respect to Ozaki.  (Wikipedia tells me that Gozu names a demonic guardian spirit of the Underworld, a kind of Asian Charon -- "Ox-head.") Notwithstanding the film's bizarre imagery, it seems tedious, weirdly complicated, with way too many frustrating false endings -- typical of many Japanese films, the movie has a peculiar way of moving toward closure:  it seems to end about a half-dozen times and, then, reboots -- it's as if the film can't exactly grope its way toward its conclusion, that it is as lost as its wandering, demented protagonist. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Silent House

Years ago, there was a computer game named Myst.  In the game, the player wanders around a labyrinth seeking clues necessary to advance the plot.  But the game was impossibly difficult and the clues fiendishly subtle and so the player never really advanced at all through the maze.  Instead, you found yourself exploring the same rooms over and over again, pointing your cursor at the same knickknacks and old books, peering into dark cellars and shadowy alcoves without ever making any progress toward solving the game's mystery.  The film, The Silent House, offers a similar experience. 

A bargain basement mash-up of The Shining with The Sixth Sense, The Silent House features a female protagonist, a teenage girl of uncertain age, who wanders around a gloomy house in the country for about 85 minutes.  (The film was made by Gustavo Hernandez in Uruguay in 2010). The girl begins her adventure with her father, but he ends up dead in the first fifteen minutes and, thereafter, the heroine has no one to talk to -- it becomes for all intents and purposes a silent picture.  The handheld camera simply tracks the girl around the premises while she explores the various shadowy nooks and crannies of the house, one of those uncanny structures that seems to proliferate rooms and, even, floors as the film proceeds.  It's a dull movie and fundamentally predictable -- the girl turns out to be the evil spirit haunting the house, a place that was used as a sort of brothel for sex parties sponsored by the protagonist's father and his smarmy buddy.  This is finally revealed by a series of surprisingly chaste polaroid photographs posted in the attic of the house, evidence of sex parties that seem to have involved lots of drinking but not much else, photographs that feature the girl-heroine back when she was still in the land of the living (like the picture that Kubrick explores in the final image of The Shining).  There are a few ineffective spasms of violence -- the girl wields a sickle but the movie is not really gory, certainly, not scary at all, and, more or less, simply confusing and ambiguous.  The picture is so low-budget that it seems to have been shot over a sunny weekend in someone's summer cabin -- you can't tell if the murky light is supposed be "day-or-night" representation of after-dark landscapes or just an F-stop that was set wrong.  Most notably, the film purports to be shot in a single take, although, in fact, there are plenty of inky black doorways and cellar entries into which the camera can be pointed so that the screen will go black, a cheating effect of the kind you can see at the end of reels in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, also purportedly featuring one continuous take.  (The same cheating takes place in Inarittu's Birdman, but that film is made in a much more sophisticated manner and, certainly, is far more seamless that The Silent House).  Here this bravura technique seems more or less pointless and, in fact, even lazy and since the film was shot digitally using some kind of low-budget Steadi-cam, the effect is less impressive than annoying.  We're stuck with the girl-ghost who apparently has to avenge herself on her father and his buddy for all eternity -- she's like Jack Nicholson stuck at the Overlook Hotel forever.  And the movie is so dull and witless that it seems to last an eternity.

I Spit on Your Grave (remake)

Many years ago, Pauline Kael famously accused Sam Peckinpah of aestheticizing rape in his film, Straw Dogs.  Kael was conflicted about the film and, particularly, incensed by the use of balletic ("languorus" she said) slow-motion  for the punches that subdue the victim of a sexual assault.  Whatever his pretensions, Peckinpah was an entertainer, a director who cut his teeth on network TV, and he understood that if protracted scenes of violence are to be displayed, something must be done to make them pretty -- otherwise, the whole enterprise is just sadism inflicted on the audience, or, worse, an attempt to induce voyeuristic sadism in the viewer.  Film is an art form -- its violence is staged.  And, therefore, the manner in which violent events are staged must distance those incidents from viewers.  No sane person wants to watch a real rape or real murder.This is a lesson wholly ignored by whoever it was who made the direct-to-video rape-revenge picture I spit on your Grave.  (The 2010 picture is a remake of an exploitation film called Day of the Woman released in 1978 and renamed I Spit on your Grave.  It's part of a franchise -- there have been two subsequent versions, most recently one made in 2015.  Apparently, someone enjoys these films.) 

As a genre, rape-revenge cinema probably dates back, most disturbingly, to the interracial sexual assaults that Griffith stages in Birth of a Nation.  The modern form of the genre begins with a distinguished example of the form, Ingmar Bergman's uncompromising, if lyrical, The Virgin Spring.  That film was remade as a hillbilly exercise in gore, The Last House on the Left, by the late Wes Craven -- the pioneer of the low-budget Drive-in movie rape-revenge horror film.  Craven's picture was supposed to be nasty fun -- back in those days, using rape as a plot device to power-up a gory sequence of torture-porn eviscerations and incinerations was supposed to be entertaining.  (Craven, who was a literate man, would have argued that his films were Jacobean exercises in grand guignol.)  Although today no one would dare remark on this point, the rapes depicted in these films were designed to be titillating, mildly sexual arousing and fun.  This was the aesthetic approach that stirred indignation, but begrudging admiration for the director's talent, in Pauline Kael's response to Straw Dogs, probably the most artistically distinguished example of the genreI spit on your Grave is made in a different era and from a radically different directorial perspective.  Today, no one would dare to consider the depiction of a rape today as something "entertaining".  One would think that doctrines of political correctness would long since have retired the genre -- today's piety, however hypocritical, about sexual abuse, doesn't authorize an "entertaining" film about rape.  The joyless, extravagantly ugly I spit on your Grave proves this point.  Or, perhaps, the pointlessness because the principal question which the film raises is why such a movie would be made in the first place.

The first two-thirds of I Spit on your Grave is foreplay for the rape and its torture-porn consequences.  A lady-novelist, presumably from New York or Boston, rents a large cabin on a bayou in Georgia or Mississippi or Louisiana.  Inadvertently, she humiliates one of the local thugs.  With two of his buddies, and the obligatory mentally retarded man-child, the bad guys terrorize the woman.  She fights back and flees through the dismal-looking woods, encountering the local sheriff.  Of course, the sheriff is just a good ole boy himself and he becomes the ring-leader in the rape party.  The movie is surprisingly decorous about the rape -- no real sexual conduct is shown and there is no nudity until all of the filthy acts have been performed off-screen.  The girl is repeatedly forced to fellate various handguns as a surrogate for oral sex that the picture is unwilling to depict and her head is held under dirty swamp water for extended periods of time as a form of torture.  Mercifully, I suppose, the extended rape scene is just a lot of "before" and "after" with no actual portrayal of the assault.  The heroine ends up smeared with filth, naked, sprawled face-down in a puddle of mud on the edge of the lagoon.  Before the sheriff can gun her down, she falls sideways off a ramshackle bridge over the bayou and mysteriously vanishes.  At this point, it becomes unclear whether the woman is dead or alive and, when she reappears, her eyes are hollow, her face skeletally gaunt, and her hair long, disheveled, and inky black -- she looks like one of the avenging angels that haunt certain types of Japanese horror films, a specter similara in appearance to one of the abused girl-ghosts in movies like Ringu.  The last third of the movie is torture porn.  The heroine isolates the men that assaulted her and devises punishments customized to their role in her rape -- the voyeuristic hillbilly who filmed her defilement, for instance, find himself chained to a tree with fishhooks through his eyelids exposing his eyeballs to the predation of crows; the sheriff who anally sodomized the heroine gets a shotgun rammed up his rectum; the good ole boy who shoved her head underwater gets his face dipped repeatedly in a solution of lye which dissolves his tongue, eyes, and nose.  It's all shot unimaginatively, if effectively, and without any trace of suspense or, even, drama -- in fact, all the mayhem is more or less matter of fact:  penises are cut off and rammed into villains mouths and the heroine's vengeance in abetted by a tool shed full of all sorts of sharp and lacerating instrumentalities -- bear traps, chain saws, various kinds of hooks and clamps and metal restraints. 

The film is ridiculous and beneath contempt and, of course, the people who made this picture obviously couldn't justify the existence of the film to themselves since they make no artistic effort of any kind in production of the movie; there is no humor or suspense or, even, drama -- and there 's no acting either except the broadest caricatures of southern hillbillies, no supporting players, no subplots, in fact, almost no plot at all.   It's all complete artless and perfunctory.  One wonders what it was like to spend days filming scenes where the naked girl rolls around in mud while the good old boys insult her or or hours staging shots involving characters having to repeatedly pretend that their genitals are being snipped off with huge shears:  "let's do another take, and this time with more feeling!  That scream was a little lackluster."  Making the picture probably wasn't much fun since most of the principals likely had to spend hours, if not days, shackled to trees outdoors while spills of various bodily fluids were simulated around them.  Clearly, the people who made this thing had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience likely to watch the movie.  It's as if someone said:  Let's make this film in the most unimaginative manner possible and see if anyone will pay money to watch this thing solely on the basis of its subject matter.  And, since only vicious louts would watch a movie like this, let's punish them for their voyeurism by making every single aspect of the movie unappealing -- keep the rape off-screen but imply it to be as brutish as possible, keep the heroine unattractive and unappealing to keep anyone from getting their jollies from the rape scenes.  Put the torture porn front and center but film it in a completely uninvolving, quasi-documentary style.  It's as if the filmmakers set out to inflict injury on their audience on the basis of their detestation for the type of people who would spend their money to watch a thing like this.

Half-way through the film, I noticed something that has become a truism:  the only people that can be insulted with impunity in today's films are either Islamic fundamentalists or Southern white trash.  (And, most films featuring Islamic villains will, also, depict some kind of a "good Arab.")  Apparently, everyone hates Southern white men and they can be portrayed as thuggish, indolent, sadistic human-garbage without anyone's protest.  Here is a thought experiment:  what would I spit on your Grave be like if the five rapists were African-American males -- that's how the genre began with D. W. Griffith.  How would we experience the movie if Black men were cast as the Southern bayou-dwelling hillbillies?   No one would dare to make a film of that kind. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Halloween Horror: The Devil's Bride, The Curse of the Demon, and Ash v. The Evil Dead

On Halloween, I ate Sauerbraten with mashed potatoes and apple Kuchen.  The Sauerbraten had an authentic taste and the gravy, made with ginger snaps and a macerated dill pickle was excellent but my verdict on my efforts was that the rather stringy, vinegar-marinated beef was, perhaps, not worth the effort involved in its preparation.  This is generally true of roast beef -- for every superb and memorable pot roast, I have made a half-dozen that were tasteless, dull, and either too tough to eat or decomposed into filaments that embed themselves between your teeth like injurious slivers.  While eating supper, I watched The Devil's Bride (1968) a dim-witted, if amusing, Hammer Horror film, brightly shot in the English studio's trademark Eastmancolor.  The little ghosts and goblins abroad in the windy night trudged through ankle deep heaps of leaves to reach my front door.  In my old age, it seems that the number of trick-or-treaters has steeply declined so that I am always left with a heavy bowl of unused candy when I turn off my porch light at 7:30 to signal that, as far as I am concerned, the bacchanal is at an end.  Youth is a time of abundance -- everything is new and seems to last longer with crowds of extras surrounding you:  the past is like those movies that dissolve into a yesteryear always characterized by streets full of colorfully dressed people scurrying about their errands:  there are lots and lots of people and all of them are handsome and they are all moving about purposefully as if directed to perform very specific and emblematic tasks on a tight schedule.  How different, I suppose, from actual pictures of Victorian city streets or western villages:  empty arcades and barren sidewalks or gaunt-looking houses strewn randomly across vast, grey plains empty to their treeless horizons.   Probably, the traditional trick-or-treating on Halloween eve has suffered attrition due to competitor venues:  on a Saturday a week before Halloween, the grocery store was full of small children receiving treats gratis in the aisles of the store, candy dispensed by staff wearing cat-suits or springy antennae on their caps.  Then, on the Friday before Halloween, I went downtown to see a jam session, Art Rocks, in the old bank building by the police station.  The streets were crowded with trick-or-treaters dragged by their parents from one downtown merchant to the next and it was hard to find a parking place -- I ended up putting my car next to the Lutheran Church three blocks away, across from the mortuary.  Most parents, I would guess, ration their children to one orgy of trick-or-treating and a kid that has harvested candy from the downtown merchants or at Hy-Vee between the deli and meat counter is not likely to be abroad on the night of the actual celebration. 

The Devil's Bride is not scary.  It is a rather refined British period picture in which immaculately dressed men and women in evening gowns stand around well-appointed great rooms in old manors discussing Satanism.  You expect the people to speak in a witty and intelligent manner, but, of course, this drawing room discussion is not exactly Oscar Wilde -- rather, it's dreary stuff about curses and spells interlarded with imprecations and spots of Latin.  There are lots of shots of lovely old cars speeding through idyllic countryside.  Terence Fisher, the director, doesn't really edit -- he spends too much time showing you people walking across pastures or lounging around in palatial rooms waiting for something to happen.  When the devil worshippers make their appearance, they are risible:  a nicely interracial group of upper-class Brits dressed like High Church choir members gathered around a beefy yeoman in an Aleistair Crowley get-up with an elderly sibyl who slinks around like a harem girl but who, also, seems to be conspicuously cross-eyed.  The people all have names that might be latte drinks at Starbucks:  there's Tanith and Macota.  For some reason, Christopher Lee, the witchhunter extraordinaire in this film, is called Duc d' Richlieu -- is he some kind of relative of the Cardinal, famous among other things, for his appearance in Monty Python skits made about the same time as this film?  At one of the mild orgies of the damned, Satan appears briefly, a good-looking chap with horns and a furry beard, a bit like Bernini's Poseidon but with elegant, well-manicured antlers.  Satan looks entirely impassive, bland, indifferent to his worshipers who are mostly an unprepossessing lot.  He vanishes when the hero throws a bottle at him.  Later, the satanic forces besiege Christopher Lee's little band of valiant Christians -- they stand within a protective circle chalked on the floor, back to back, while various phantoms attack or tempt them.  There's a skeleton on a big armored horse and a tarantula that changes size from shot to shot -- sometimes its the size of a poodle, other times fist-sized and, at one point, it bulks up to be as large as a Shetland pony.  A child is captured and threatened with sacrifice, but, then, a spirit occupying an elegantly dressed woman speaks in a sepulchral voice forbidding the murder and God reasserts His hegemony -- the devil-worshipers vanish in puffs of smoke and an austere cross emerges from behind a fiery explosion that eradicates the devilish diagrams on the cloister wall.  Someone who was dead comes back to life and the charming girl-child awakes from her trance and all is well in the world.  These proceedings are shot in bright color, the night scenes imaged in bluish day-for-night, and everything occurring against the backdrop of autumnal pastoral landscapes.  Everything is visible and clear and, of course, this is unfortunate because what you can see in sharp focus generally isn't too scary.  The petty, murderous bourgeois devil-worshippers in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim are just as banal as this coven, but because we understand them less perfectly and, because they clearly have no magical power except to kill, are much more alarming than the villains in The Devil's Bride.

The devil, or, at least, his fire demon, appears as well in Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon aka The Night of the Demon (1957).  Tourneur was a director of B pictures in Hollywood and he made several very effective, and literate, horror movies produced by Val Lewton in the forties -- among them Cat People and I walked with a Zombie.  It's pretty widely understood today that Lewton was the actual auteur of those films -- all of them are stylistically similar and demonstrate some of Lewton's trademark effects (for instance, the sudden shock-cut in which an apparition leaps out of the frame to startle the audience).  Tourneur made a variety of very good films in Hollywood, including the notable and lyric western Canyon Passage as well as some distinguished film noirThe Curse of the Demon is a British production, one of Tourneur's last films, and it harkens back to the sophisticated and eerie suggestiveness -- the horror is typically intimated but not shown -- evident in the Lewton-produced pictures made almost twenty years earlier. 

The French don't use the word "horror" to denote a genre --in French film criticism, a film like The Curse of the Demon is styled "a fantasy film" in the genre of "films of the fantastic."  This label seems better to me for an elegant and dream-like movie like Curse of the Demon than calling the film a "horror" picture -- the movie's imagery is mostly lyrically sinister, but not really "horrible".  The plot involves a stolid American psychologist, apparently an expert on fear and the subconscious, who travels to England to present a lecture debunking parapsychology.  The psychologist encounters a  jovial, if evil, sorcerer who kills his victims by handing them a parchment inscribed with runes.  When the victim reads the runes, the parchment becomes animate and flees from him so that he can not rescind the spell -- exactly how one would rescind the spell is not clear to me.  The runes advise the victim that he will die at a certain time and date.  A snarling fire demon with a blow torch for a mouth and long, pointed claws arrives at the appointed time and shreds the unfortunate victim of the runic curse.  (The film is adapted from stories by M. R. James but so loosely and approximately that the connection of the movie to its source material is all but indecipherable.)  Running afoul of a fat, goateed, and, somewhat slovenly, sorcerer, the hero and his girlfriend struggle to avert the curse of the runes decreeing death to the leading man in three days time.  Of course, the evil spell is deflected so that it boomerangs back to the Magus who suffers a spectacular death in the claws of the very demon that he had summoned forth.  (The fire demon, who looks a bit like a mentally retarded version of Godzilla eats the sorcerer like an hors d'oeuvre, then, spits out his torso to lie smoking next to some complex, interweaving railroad tracks.)  The movie is brisk and nimble, cramming all sorts of weird activity into its ninety minutes running time.  Curse of the Demon is flat-footed only with respect to its hero played by Dana Andrews.  Andrews is so resolutely obtuse and unimaginative as to defy belief -- surrounded on all sides by evidence of an active and omnipresent supernatural, he continues in his skepticism up to the final appearance of the Fire Demon.  And, perhaps, even that apparition doesn't exactly satisfy his doubts -- the demon, after all, is amateurishly contrived, mostly immobile, a leering puppet-like fellow in a smoky rubber suit.  Andrews' voice, always remembered as silky and pleasing, has a gruff, gravelly sound in this movie and, when someone else speaks, the actor doesn't know what to do -- so he grimaces and stands stiffly upright showing his disapprobation by the set of his manly jaw.  But horror films or "films of the fantastic" don't require much in the way of acting or dialogue -- silence, music, and the occasional sound effect should be more than sufficient to elicit their primitive effects from the audience.  And, visually, Curse of the Demon is splendid, even, majestic:  the villain, incongruously dressed as a clown with a bulbous nose, conjures up a great wind storm and we see the demon coalescing out of a whirl of sparks and luminous mist; the hero consults runes inscribed on the megaliths at Stonehenge and the great monument on its dreary plain provides a suitably awesome opening shot to the film.  In the most remarkable image, the fire demon hops a ride on a locomotive, approaching its victim in a cloud of steam and smoke jetting up from the engine.  The hero wanders through a disorienting woodlands with the monster following him, its footsteps smoking in the leaf litter and there is an indelible image of the sinister Magus departing down an ill-lit corridor at the British Museum, a shadowy presence distorted into a mirage against the bright outside light.  Tourneur deploys shock effects of the kind he perfected in The Curse of the Cat People -- when burglarizing the bad guy's house Dana Andrews is startled by a cat that turns into a rather unpersuasive leopard; at a Halloween party, the hero (and audience) are jolted by the sudden appearance of a child in a skeleton mask.  The movie is elegant and entertaining, not so much scary as poetically eerie.  (This is true in particular of a séance in which two old ladies have to croon a pop song of the time to knock the medium into his trance; also effective is a sequence in which Dana Andrews' hypnotizes a man accused of a horrible murder, injecting him with "methyl amphetamine" with the result that the killer runs amuck and, then, plunges to his death through a hospital window.)  When I was young, the standard work on horror films was a book by Carlos Clarens.  In that book, the author derided this film for spoiling its sophisticated and weirdly suggestive style by actually showing the farcical demon -- in my view, the demon's ludicrous but ferocious appearance is part of the retro-charm of the movie.

"To show or not to show" was one of the questions raised by practitioners in the fantastic genre when I was an adolescent and college student.  How much horror should be shown and how much merely suggested?  Of course, that question is now beside the point, the industry having decided the issue long ago -- probably beginning with the vomit, masturbation and sarcoma-like lesions in The Exorcist.  Horror films of the past several decades have been absurdly graphic, a trend exemplified by the new Starz series, Ash v. the Evil Dead.  The premiere episode of this cable series, directed stylishly by Sam Raimi, was broadcast on Halloween night.  Replete with geysers of arterial blood, dismemberments, and shotgun beheadings, the show is so gory as to be cartoon-funny:  it's like the "Itchy and Scratchy" (Tom and Jerry) mayhem featured as cartoons within the cartoon world of The Simpsons

Ash v. The Evil Dead illustrates a suggestive, and important point:  the genre most closely similar to horror is slapstick physical comedy.  Both types of films rejoice in showing audiences the very worst things that can happen.  And Ash v. The Evil Dead doesn't resist this comparison -- in fact, the show is marketed as slapstick comedy and, in fact, is very funny.  Ash is a late middle-aged hunk of beefcake, overweight and none too smart.  While copulating with a pick-up in tavern, Ash discovers that his paramour, a hardened middle-aged barfly herself, is one of the evil dead.  Momentarily, discountenanced by this discovery, Ash, nonetheless, doggedly completes the sex act before fleeing to his squalid trailer to try to figure out what is going on.  There, he finds that a few days earlier, while smoking marijuana with another woman, he inadvertently had her chant certain nonsense syllables from a Necronimicon-style book, bound in human flesh, that unleash the scourge of the Evil Dead on the earth.  With a Honduran side-kick and a homely-looking girl, possibly Jewish, as allies, Ash straps on his chainsaw -- he wears it in place of the hand he had to hack off when it was infected by a bite from the Evil Dead thirty years earlier -- and goes forth to battle the powers of darkness.  The comedy in the show arises from the fact that Ash is old, flabby, and extremely stupid as well as clumsy -- he's the kind of fellow who can't carry a sack of light bulbs without spilling them all over the floor.  The Evil Dead films are noteworthy because their army of monsters derive from Chinese ghost and horror films from the late seventies -- the dead have skeletal faces with eyes that look like soft-boiled eggs but they are alos tremendously agile and strong, can rotate their heads, with much grisly cracking of bone, to look straight behind themselves and seemingly can fly like decomposing torpedoes through the air.  They are cousins to the monsters inhabiting Hong Kong supernatural films like The Bride with the White Hair, undead creatures equipped with tongues that can extend hundreds of feet or ghouls outfitted with acres of animate and malevolent hair in which to ensnare and, then, strangle their victims.  Since the dead leap around as if in zero gravity, Ash and his cohorts also have to fly through the air to combat them and so there is much bounding about, wire-work with hero and undead adversaries colliding with titanic force in mid-air, severed heads shooting around like cannonballs  The mayhem is aerobatic, jaunty, and extremely cheerful, self-indulgent virtuosity much enthused by itself.  If the show can keep up the energy of its first episode, it promises to be a wonderfully amusing guilty pleasure.