Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Thematically, Paolo Sorrentino's Youth (2015) is a sequel to the director's splendid The Great Beauty (2013).   Although Sorrentino's films are Bernini-like fountains of ideas and digressive narrative, The Great Beauty, among other things, was about a writer suffering from a monumental writer's block entering his late middle-age.  The charming, but indolent, hero feels mortality encroaching on his creativity and fears that he has wasted his life in useless love affairs and vapid parties.  The writer's situation is developed in vignettes that take place against the religion-saturated background of Rome -- the Eternal City where answers seem to have been proposed to all of life's mysteries is a kind of labyrinth, a maze of statuary and religious imagery that remains bafflingly opaque, a series of elaborate gestures that is supposed to reassure but that does the opposite.  Youth involves the same general questions, but, now, developed in extreme old age -- The Great Beauty's sixty-year old protagonist has been replaced by two eighty-year old artists, a composer played by Michael Caine and an American film maker, someone like Abel Ferrara, acted by Harvey Keitel.  The Great Beauty took place against the baroque religious extravaganza of Rome; Youth is set in a health spa in the Dolomite Alps, an absurdly beautiful and luxurious hotel that is like a cross between Marienbad in Resnais' film and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.  The guests at the spa hotel are mostly elderly and in failing health -- they are attended by hordes of younger masseuses, hydro-therapy and dance instructors as well as a few melancholy prostitutes.  Youth is resolutely secular -- it peers into the abyss of old age without the consolation of religion.  Indeed, in Youth, as in The Great Beauty to some extent, the religion accepted by most of the people cloistered in the hotel is a religion of beauty -- in fact, a religion of youth since the film (and its characters) equates youth with beauty. 

Youth, like Sorrentino's earlier films, is staggeringly beautiful itself -- a glistening artifact that is something like the combination of an ultra-high-tech music video (in fact, the film features several music videos including an extraordinarily menacing one by someone called Paloma Faith) and a glossy lingerie or perfume advertisement.  In general, the main arc of the film involves repeated requests made by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip that Caine direct an orchestra and soprano soloist in a performance of a song cycle called Simple Songs.  In the world of the movie, this is a renowned work, something on the order of Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder, a work that Caine composed for his wife, a singer who has now lapsed into a vegetative state as a result of Alzheimer's disease.  Caine refuses to conduct the work because he believes that only his wife can do justice to the singing required -- and, of course, she no longer can perform.  Caine's daughter has been abandoned by her husband and, when she returns heartbroken to the spa, this forces the father and daughter into a series of confrontations over his past philandering, his homosexual experimentation, and his emotional remoteness.  (These encounters are shrill and have a hectoring aspect -- they are like Ingmar Bergman colloquies, mostly consisting of long, lacerating monologues without Bergman's eloquence; Sorrentino is a little uncertain with English, at least English pitched at this emotional level -- this is also apparent in a parallel scene in which Jane Fonda berates Harvey Keitel for betraying the promise of his youth.  These scenes feel like as if they would be more effective if spoken in Italian and subtitled in English; somehow, the emotional coloring is just a little "off.")  There are a number of subplots, although these aspects of the film are merely anecdotal and not particularly well-developed:  a married couple refuses to speak to one another but has noisy sex in the woods, Miss Universe appears to bathe naked before the wondering eyes of Caine and Keitel, Paul Dano, as the ultimate method actor, is preparing to play the part of Hitler and, in fact, at one point appears in the hotel's dining hall in full Nazi regalia with a black moustache painted on his upper lip, a Buddhist monk practices levitation, and, ultimately, Caine's daughter has an affair with a comically bearded Swiss or German mountaineer -- in a final vertiginous scene, we see them in an embrace hanging over a vast abyss.  Michael Caine has simply abandoned musical composition  and says he is retired; he has no regrets although, sometimes, we see him directing an orchestra of cows with their bells and mooing in an alpine meadow.  Other scenes, he syncopates by rubbing together a cellophane wrapper, a sound that envelopes the viewer and drowns out everything else on the soundtrack -- this effect is borrowed from the sound of the pencil scratching notes during a rehearsal meeting in Bob Fosse's All that Jazz, a film that Youth sometimes resembles.  Harvey Keitel has a group of young writers with him at the spa and they are working on his last film.   But when Keitel's leading lady (Jane Fonda) withdraws from the project, the movie  -- like the film in Fellini's 8 1/2 -- has to be abandoned.  Keitel kills himself by jumping off a balcony at the hotel, an act that triggers an alarming reaction from his former leading lady -- she hurls herself violently against flight attendants on her plane and has to be restrained in the aisle between seats.  The movie is full of physical complaints -- Caine and Keitel both suffer from prostatitis and have interrupted urine flow; as old people will do, they spend a lot of time kvetching about their aches and pains as well as remembering old love affairs.  There is so much in the movie, it is such a baroque and effusive outpouring of imagery and music, that I'm not sure that the picture really coheres in any way -- it's as if Sorrentino wants to tell you everything he has ever heard or thought about growing old.  Nonetheless, much of the film is extraordinarily powerful -- we see an aging soccer star who has become immensely fat dragging himself through the water in a swimming pool:  he has a huge tattoo of Karl Marx covering his back -- an emblem that this film takes place entirely in the secular world.  The soccer star is dying of emphysema and is filmed to emphasize his bloated belly -- a blonde trails behind him with an oxygen tank.  But, in one scene, we see him kicking a tennis ball up in the air again and again -- an image that reminds us of his former physical prowess.  The ravaged faces of the old people have an eerie beauty all their own -- we see them naked in saunas and wandering like ghosts through the meadows and decks of the spooky hotel.  A sequence in Venice imagines the city the way it appears in Giorgione's great and mysterious painting, "The Tempest" -- it is pitchblack:  here and there, a palace interior flashing its frescos  out of a lit window to play in reflections on the inky waters of a canal; lightning flashes out of storm clouds.  Ultimately, I suppose, the film exists to support one utterly memorable and shocking juxtaposition of images:  Michael Caine goes to Venice to see his demented wife.  First, he puts flowers on the graves of the Vera and Igor Stravinsky. Then, we see him in the nursing home with his wife -- she is a shadowy figure not really clearly shown in the frame.  But Sorrentino, jarringly, cuts to a shot from outside the window of the nursing home.  The woman is leaning her forehead on the glass and the exterior shot elicits gasps of horror from the audience -- the woman looks like a hideous staring corpse with her eyes wide with terror and her mouth gaping into an enormous "o".  Later, at a concert -- Sorrentino's baroque spectacle requires that the Queen of England be present in the audience -- we see a gorgeous Asian soprano singing.  There is a huge close-up of her lipstick-red lips as she opens her mouth to emit a high note and, at that instant, Sorrentino cuts to a shot of Caine's wife, viewed from outside the glass window of the nursing home -- as George Herbert wrote in one of his mortuary poems:  "your mouth is open but you do not sing."  This sequence seems to be the emblem that embodies the meaning of the movie, its controlling symbol, the contrast between art and beauty and death.  Throughout the film, the movie veers between woozy sentimentality to unsparing realism about old age, death, and dying and, generally, Sorrentino redeems his sometimes forced grandiloquence with a shot of complex, unexpected, and transcendental beauty.  In a whimsical sequence, Caine sits on stump and directs an orchestra of handsome and enormous cows.  The scene goes on too long and is about to implode into saccharine kitsch when Sorrentino shows us two cows almost entwined, one animal resting its head on the breast of another, an image that is so strangely beautiful that it takes your breath away.  What does it mean?  The question is irrelevant -- it is just an image that is purely beautiful.  In this film, beauty ambushes the viewer -- Miss Universe, when we first see her, looks terribly plain and, even, blemished, but, then, when we are shown her entirely naked, gliding into a thermal bath, we are astounded by her beauty.  Michael Caine gets massages from a gawky teenage girl with a narrow and saturnine face and big ears; she looks remarkably homely -- but, then, we see her alone dancing sinuously and, suddenly, she seems incredibly graceful and beautiful.  (In fact, she is playing some kind of video game requiring dancing).  People who look ordinary are revealed to be secretly desireable -- the errant husband of Michael Caine's daughter has left his wife because his very homely girlfriend is "good in bed."  The movie ends in such a surfeit of beauty that, at the showing that I attended, the audience sat in rapt, bemused silence when the film concluded -- no one dared to say a word as afraid to break the enchantment.      

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Trial

Orson Welles'  1962 adaptation of Kafka's unfinished novel, The Trial, was made without studio interference and with excellent production values.  Unfortunately, Welles didn't particularly admire Kafka and his version of the book feels like a competition -- at any every point, you expect Welles to abandon the text and go his own way.  Remarkably, Welles restrains himself, more or less, until the last ten minutes of the film, an ending that traduces Kafka and imposes an entirely different meaning on the project.  Welles, of course, was obsessed with narrative technique and embeds tales within tales, creating labyrinthine films where different frames impose different meanings on the parables narrated.  This is inimical to Kafka where the problem, of course, is precisely that there is no "outside" to his stories, no stance from which the meaning of the text can be comfortably explicated -- Kafka makes this clear in his story "In the Penal Colony" in which the dying convict tries to interpret the indictment inscribed in his flesh with piercing needles:  there is literally no place from which to observe the text that is being written into the doomed man's body.  Second, Welles' believes in the force of character, in the great man who shapes the destinies of others to his will -- we see this in all of Welles' films from Citizen Kane to his Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil and, at last, to Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.  Kafka's works are, in fact, a critique of the notion of the great man -- his characters alternate between the most abject degradation and fantasies of universe-changing grandiosity, but, ultimately, no one is superior to the nightmarish situation in which they find themselves.  Josef K. fancies himself the center of a vast judicial universe, an object of intense interest by all around him, and, yet, in the end of the book, he is frog-marched to a ash-heap and stabbed to death by two faceless, minor administrators, perishing "wie ein Hund" ("like a dog").  Accordingly, Kafka's guerilla war on the world, conducted as a series of literary ambushes, is exactly opposite to Welles' grandiosity.  Kafka was painfully thin; Welles was very fat. 

Nonetheless, The Trial is an impressive production and successful in some respect.  After a lengthy initial scene in Josef K's apartment in which the hapless protagonist is interrogated by a sinister government officials, the film's setting shifts to a vast and decrepit maze of corridors and chambers either associated with K's workplace or the courts.  The film is, more or less, updated to the present-day, seemingly set in some middle-European country still badly ravaged by war -- this gives rise to one of the film's few jokes:  Josef K. has records and a phonograph in his apartment and, anxious to persuade the officials that he doesn't have any pornography in his rooms, he tells them to search everything including, with a slip of the tongue, the "records and the pornograph."  The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, images with stabbing points of light -- when the hero flees down corridors made from decomposing lathe, light streams in through breaches in the wall creating a strobe effect.  The film is full of leering faces, people peering through peepholes, and, then, sudden cuts to remote shots dwarfing the figures against the ramshackle decomposing interior landscapes in which the movie was made -- in appearance, the film is like Fellini without the joi de vivre.  Josef K's travels are bracketed by shots of him climbing or descending vertiginous stairways that are filmed against great vaults and huge arched dungeon-like chambers, images that imitate Piranesi's I Carcieri.   Welles' generally stays reasonably close to Kafka's narrative.  As a result, the movie shares the defects of its source -- it seems overlong, immensely repetitive, a slow-motion chase through a haunted fun-house as Josef K., forever seeking information about his enigmatic case, pursues court officials and is, himself, pursued  by various sexually rapacious and obscurely motivated females, among them, in the film, Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider.  It's a running joke that the hysterical and puny-looking Josef K. (played by Anthony Perkins, a homosexual) is intensely attractive to every woman that he encounters -- indeed, at the end of the film he is pursued like Ringo Starr by mobs of ragged-looking 8th grade girls.  Welles' grandiosity is often on display:  Josef K. works in a hockey-arena-sized room with hundreds and hundreds of identical desks where anonymous men and women pound away at identical typewriters (it's an effect borrowed from King Vidor's expressionistic The Crowd made in 1928); when a boy leads K through a unprepossessing door into a courtroom, the hero encounters three or four-thousand men, all clad in dark boxy suits like apparatchiks of the Communist party piled up to the ceiling on metal bleachers; departing from the Court,  K. walks down vast terraces of marble steps passing by colossal statues of Greek legislators.  There are long scenes involving vaguely menacing harangues -- most notably an extended scene with Akim Tamiroff as a defendant who coyly admits to K that he has more than one advocate, as many "as four or five."  Crowds of petitioners stand as motionless as statues in dilapidated galleries awaiting summons to the court.  Most of the petitioners are elderly with two or three days growth of beard -- they look like old winos.  At the end of the film, in the confrontation in the cathedral, K. defies the mysterious judicial system in which he is entrapped and suggests that if he were not complicit with the shadowy tribunal, if he were not obsessed by its workings and agreeable to be bound by its dictates it would have no power over him.  I'm not sure that these speeches are in Kafka -- however, this is surely every readers ultimate response to Josef K's plight and Welles embodies this notion in the final scene.  Two executioners accost K. and haul him out to an ugly, jagged quarry at the edge of town.  They extract a ceremonial knife from a breast pocket, force K to lie like a sacrificial lamb among the broken rocks, but, then, seem to insist that he knife himself to death.  (This latter command -- that K. kill himself is completely alien to Kafka; for better or worse, Kafka believes that there are enigmatic, even, divine external forces that have the power to destroy men.)  K. refuses and the henchmen flee.  One of them tosses a cartoon-style bundle of dynamite with a flaming fuse into the pit where K. is lying.  K. either throws the dynamite back at them or is destroyed himself when bomb explodes -- the film is studiously ambiguous on this point.  The final shot freezes the bomb-blast as kind of luminous mushroom cloud and, as in The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles identifies the cast verbally over an image of a projector casting images on a wall illustrative of the parable "Before the Law".  This ending is false to Kafka but, I think, true to the way a reader experiences The Trial -- after a hundred or so pages, the reader is whispering to Josef K. that he should just opt out of the system, since, it seems, that nothing about it makes sense and since K's involvement is, more or less, voluntary.  Welles appears in the film as a jowly and sinister advocate, always reclining in bed and, almost, inert, until suddenly he appears in a kind of majesty upright and domineering at the end of the film.  The conclusion of the movie, almost optimistic in comparison to Kafka's horrific final paragraph, embodies Welles' weird exuberance -- even when things are at their worst, Welles insists on a kind of wild, fierce energy:  the effect is not exactly joyful, but it is certainly not despairing either. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy  (1950) is a film that I have probably reviewed in some previous form.  It is a genre movie -- armed and dangerous young lovers on the run roughly similar to Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves like us, and You only live Once.  Within its limitations, the movie is perfect -- the picture is beautifully shot and paced, effectively edited, and the performances of its stars are satisfyingly weird and powerful.  For some reason, I don't think the film is particularly memorable -- that's the reason that I think that I viewed the picture earlier, maybe even wrote about it, but couldn't exactly remember what I earlier concluded or really, even, much about the movie.  (I seem to recall a bravura extended take involving a bank robbery in a small-town, the entire sequence filmed from the back seat of the robber's car -- but, perhaps, I only read about this famous episode in the movie and have confabulated a memory of seeing it.  Although I watch a lot of TV and movies, it's maddening for me to note that words are what I best remember -- if someone has characterized a movie with certain memorable phrases, I tend to remember those words and not the images that motivated the description.)   It's a matter of esthetic interest to me whether a work or art must be memorable -- that is, must inscribe itself in the viewer's memory -- to be counted as fully successful.  Many genre films, I think, can be fully realized and, even, masterpieces of a kind without being memorable -- after all, can anyone really differentiate in their memory between the Ozu's low-key melodramas, movies like Late Spring or Early Spring or An Autumn Afternoon that are all alike and all transcendentally beautiful?

Joe E. Lewis, the director of Gun Crazy, gets things off to a vivid start with the film's opening scene -- a boy stands in pouring rain hypnotized by a handgun in a store window in a dreary-looking small town.  There is a close-shot of the boy and the rain on his face, bedewing him like sweat, make him look spectacular crazed.  The kid steals the gun, is immediately caught, and sent to reform school notwithstanding his sister's pleas to the Court that he is mentally ill, "gun-crazed."  Six or eight years later, fully grown and now played by John Dall, the character returns to his hometown where a carnival is underway.  At the sleazy carnival, the hero meets a femme fatale, a girl with a strangely impassive Kabuki-white kewpie doll face who is featured in a target-shooting act. This woman is not only as gun-crazed as the hero, but, also, a homicidal sociopath.  She seduces the hero and he joins the traveling circus to be with her.  But when the couple are fired from the carnival, the girl incites the hero into a series of armed robberies.  Although the hero can't bring himself to shoot at anything that is alive, the girl doesn't have any such scruples.  Trigger-happy, she guns down a few security guards and bystanders.  On the run, the doomed duo return to the hero's hometown in the foothills of the mountains.  The dragnet closes in on them and they flee into the high sierra with predictably fatal results.  John Dall is an odd-looking lead man -- he's something like tall, lanky, and seems clumsy, a bit like a dough-faced Jimmie Stewart or, even more disconcerting, when filmed from some angles he's a dead-ringer for the very young Max von Sydow.  Mostly Dall plays the part realistically and he is very likeable in a low-key manner.  Only on a couple occasions, does he seem crazed -- on those occasions, his face looks wet and his eyes bug out in an alarming way.  (David Thomson has noted that the love affair between the couple seems implausible because Dall's character seems to be gay -- I wouldn't go that far in characterizing the compelling strangeness of the interactions between the leads, but would agree that their relationship is based on a mutual obsession with firearms and both of them seem most vividly engaged when playing with their weapons.)  The scenes in the wilderness remind me of Japanese films of the fifties -- a marsh is suggested by the calligraphic gesture of a few cattails in the mist.  Several of the robberies are cleverly staged for almost documentary realism -- certainly, the extended one-take bank robbery sequence filmed mostly from within the circling getaway car is exceptionally powerful and suspenseful precisely because the scene is so under-dramatized (we can't even see the faces of the characters for most of the sequence -- the camera just shows us the windshield and the backs of their heads and their nervous banter seems overhead and not staged.)  There is a set-piece payroll robbery at an Armour meat packing plant that is marvelously designed -- we see the topography of the robbery first as scribbled as a diagram on a newspaper and, then, in a series of shots showing the approach to the crowded personnel department followed by the same sequence of images, although now reversed as well as rushed and distorted with expressionistic emotion, when the robbers depart from the place under fire.  The movie creates a sense of doom and dread that has a nightmarish intensity -- we can feel the pressure of the cops pursuing the lovers, sense their desperation, and, in the final scenes, feel their panic and terror as they are hunted down in the mountain wilderness.  This is the kind of movie in which people are always stumbling and falling, getting tangled up in briars, or losing their way.  The film is like a Haydn string quartet, an abstract exercise in form, rhythm, and pacing -- it's perfect and, somehow, mostly forgettable. 

Monday, December 14, 2015


Accattone, Pier Paolo Pasolini's debut picture (1961), probably had to be made and, indeed, may have been daring and radical in its time.  More than fifty years later, the film seems a bit self-indulgent and superfluous.  Like Scorsese's early films, particularly Mean Streets, the picture feels confessional, an attempt to use moving pictures as a form of personal memoir.  The movie is sprawling, repetitive, but Pasolini is a great director with a great eye and he imparts a bitter poetry to parts of the film.  There is a surrealist tendency mostly concealed in Pasolini's neo-realist mise-en-scene and another picture that Accattone resembles is Bunuel's Los Olivados, a movie that is also set in the bleak, sun-burned wasteland at the outskirts of a major city in which dream imagery lurks just below the realistic surface. 

When I was a child in the early sixties, my family lived in a suburb of St. Paul and I recall that everything then was under construction.  The lane where our houses were located was surrounded by vacant lots where graders and earthmovers were always filling ponds, burying marshes, and making roads so that the foundations of new houses could be set.  An enormous freeway was under construction just over the hill, acres and miles of new highway where concrete was always being poured and, at the edges of the freeway, vast malls were being built.  The people in my neighborhood were the children of farmers who lived in west Minnesota or had hardscrabble dairy operations in the north woods.  Everyone had moved to the Twin Cities within the last decade or so and the suburbs with their pockets of tract housing tucked in valleys and sides of hills under the spanking new water-towers were being built for these new arrivals.  Apparently, a similar phenomenon existed in Europe in places like Greece and Rome, urban centers to which a largely agrarian and peasant society had been displaced.  Accattone, which means something like "the Scrounger", documents this process.  The campagna outside of Rome has been transformed into an enormous and bleak desert of construction sites where poor people live in ruinous clay and brick shelters, dwellings that look like something you might find at Pompeii although less clean and well-kept.  On the horizon, great reefs of apartment buildings line the ridges and there are nasty little traffic circles, built around what seem to be Roman or Etruscan tombs, heaps of masonry enshrouded in tattered underbrush where whores ply their trade.  There are ruins all around, although it is never clear whether these are ancient or medieval or just the debris of construction undertaken a few weeks earlier.  In these badlands, a pimp named Vittorio (and nicknamed Accattone) manages his hapless girlfriend Maddalena.  Maddalena has previously informed on another pimp and small-time criminal, Ciccio, who has tried to break her leg in revenge.  She lives in a squalid hut with her sister, a kind of dwarf who is always lugging around a three-foot long baby.  Accattone is boaster, a loudmouth who can readily be induced to gamble away his earnings -- he takes bets and, at the start of the film, dives off a high bridge into the Tiber to earn a few dollars.  Groups of slackers sit around desolate sidewalk cafes bullshitting to pass the time and feral mobs of juvenile delinquents boast about entrapping prostitutes and beating them half to death for fun.  Maddalena runs afoul of one of these groups of kids and gets savagely beaten.  When she complains to the cops, something goes wrong and she gets sent to prison while her assailants are never charged.  Accattone meets another woman, a bottle-washer named Stella.  He falls in love with the young girl, a refugee from the country where her mother was a prostitute.  Although Accattone expresses devotion to the rather dim-witted and zaftig Stella, his friends predict that he will have her turning tricks in ten days.  Sure enough, Accattone browbeats the girl into working as a prostitute.  She's inept, however, and the family is threatened with starvation -- Accattone is (sort of) supporting the dwarf and her numerous children including the giant baby.  (In much of this film, the characters are literally starving to death -- they are always scheming to get food.)  The hero tries to work but is too soft and lazy to succeed at the job.  Indeed, as he goes to work, his other slacker friends mock him by saying:  "You've got a job.  Now, you've become prosaic" triggering a fist fight.  At the end of the film, the hero walks around Rome with a couple of small-time criminals searching, we think, for a truck to steal.  In fact, the hoods are just trying to snatch food and produce off the truck.  They manage to seize a half-dozen salami, but Maddalena has informed on the protagonist and the police are watching.  They pursue the criminal who flees on a stolen Vespa, ending up in a wreck in which he dies.  The film ends with one of the other hoodlums vainly trying to cross himself while handcuffed as Accattone bleeds out in the gutter.  Pasolini was an important Italian poet and he imparts a weird intensity to several scenes  -- the picture is never, strictly speaking, completely realistic.  Indeed, to use the phrase employed by the movie -- the film is never actually "prosaic."  We first see Accattone executing a beautiful swan dive off a high bridge and this image of falling beautifully that seems programmatic for the film.  A fight involving the brother of Accattone's ex-wife devolves into men rolling over and over in the dirt, an image very much like the anguished wrestlers in Francis Bacon -- it's intrinsically sexual.  When Accattone dreams, he imagines himself led to the gate of a graveyard -- two naked babies stand by the gate, an image that could come out of William Blake.  Beyond the wall of the cemetery, a vast barren landscape of mountain and valley extends to the horizon (we seem to have been transported to Sicily) and there is a man digging a grave.  Accattone tells the man to dig his grave in a place where it is not so shady and the old peasant obliges.  In one scene, Accattone covers his face with wet sand and glares at the camera, an image that combines abject disfigurement (he looks like one of the plaster casts at Pompeii) with defiance.  Some of the scenes showing the prostitutes lit by car headlights are very beautiful and the badlands of the construction zones are never less than intensely picturesque.  The impression is that of Pasolini's surrealist and poetic imagination at war with his squalid subject matter.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Coat of Many Colors

Coat of Many Colors is Dolly Parton's 2015 Christmas Special.  The show is intended as heart-warming family-friendly material although it quickly veers into strange and unexpected territory.  I don't know that the show is any good -- it is quite tedious and repetitive, but, at least, it's got the courage of its cornball conventions.  In effect, the show is about a theological problem -- how can God allow suffering in His perfect creation?  The movie is serious about this philosophical dilemma and single minded in its exposition of this theme.  You don't exactly walk away from watching this show uplifted -- in fact, the program had the opposite effect on me.  It's more or less depressing and leaves its viewers, I think, with some legitimate dilemmas.

Coat of Many Colors is resolutely Caucasian, although it's simple mountain folk are what might be characterized as White Trash.  In  1955 in a remote valley in the Great Smoky Mountains, a farmer lives with his eight children.  The farmer's wife is the daughter of a local preacher and the film begins with a daring image:  a congregation is celebrating worship within a simple white frame church while Dolly Parton's father is standing outside, defiantly smoking a cigarette and refusing to enter the church.  The TV special uses a prayer to introduce the various members of the big family but none of them have any significance except for little seven-year-old Dolly.  Dolly is played by an alarmingly precocious and annoying blonde-haired moppet, cute as a bug, who strums the guitar and entertains the churchgoing folk with hymns that she sings during the altar call.  Dolly knows that she will be famous one day and is confident that her talent will be recognized and bring her riches and adulation -- she dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry.  Dolly's mother, a simple pious woman, is pregnant and the child-heroine looks forward to the birth of the new baby.  But the baby is born premature, dies and is buried without a grave-marker in the back pasture, and, then, everyone spirals into a terminal funk.  Dolly's mother can't get out of bed and she refuses to sleep with her husband, who has, after all, put her in the family way nine times when the family, poor tobacco-farmers, really can't afford that many mouths to feed.  Picturesquely named "hornworms" assault their tobacco and there is even a drought that threatens the carcinogenic crop.  Things collapse and the small, if clean, cabin that the family occupies becomes a place of mourning.  Then, one day, Dolly's mother takes scraps of worn-out quilts and makes a coat of many colors for her favorite daughter.  This activity restores Dolly's mother to a modicum of mental health although Dolly's father still remains griefstricken over the lost child.  (There is something a bit mendacious and odd about this vast and debilitating grief -- I assume that large families in the Appalachian mountains routinely lost children to disease and inanition and, therefore, the fact that Dolly's folks are thrown into a tailspin of despair, more suitable for a yuppie couple from San Jose with one or two perfect children than these mountain folk seems somewhat implausible.)   Unfortunately, when Dolly goes to school wearing her crazy quilt coat she is mocked by the local bullies who shred the garment and she returns home angry at her mother for exposing her to this kind of ridicule.  At this point, the film has nowhere to go but to repeat itself -- Dolly's mother becomes disabled with depression again, marital strife ensues once more, and there is unhappiness all around until Daddy accepts Jesus, understands that God's will is not to be questioned, and with tears in his eyes joins the family at the altar call in the House of God while little Dolly warbles a hymn as she plays the guitar.  The family join in the back pasture and erect a simple cross to the dead child and the skies over the valley are resplendent with stars.  At dawn, a butterfly flutters away, presumably, the dead child's soul now seeking heaven.  This story takes place in a timeless period -- although it's the fifties people drive pre-Depression era cars and there are no Black people anywhere around.  There's a strange Lesbian undertow to a subplot involving a little girl who seems to be in love with Dolly, but that story is undeveloped, scarcely written, and, more or less, vanishes before the final commercial break.  The show is well-meaning and, rather, solemn, explicating in a literal way the lyrics of Dolly Parton's hit song "Coat of Many Colors."  There's no violence -- a brawl between Dolly's brothers and the local bullies is averted by Dolly's kindness and understanding, and, of course, no one swears.  The gist of the marital difficulties involves Dolly's mother refusing to have sex with her husband and this is candidly acknowledged, a theme that fits a little uneasily with the film's other pieties.  Of course, the truly interesting subject implicit in this material is the enormous, inexplicable gap between the little girl with the bright blue eyes and blonde hair and the monstrous Medusa-like figure that we see strumming a guitar at the beginning and the end of the movie.  There seems no way to bridge the gap between the Dolly Parton famous for her enormous breast implants, her tiny hips and porcelain complexion and the child in the film.  And, now, that plastic surgery has immobilized the singer's face and made her almost unrecognizable, the mysterious gulf between the child and horribly disfigured pop star is all the more ghastly and inexplicable. 


There are no surprises in Creed, 2015's reboot of the Rocky series.  I suppose that this criticism is unfair -- if you are interested in attending this iteration of the venerable series of boxing movies, then, my guess is that you aren't looking for something new or cunning.  The underdog formula that motivates these films is always emotionally moving and Creed is no exception.  When you see this movie, you will probably shed a half-dozen nostalgic tears and, then, feel slightly ashamed of yourself.  But you will respond, probably in spite of yourself, and there is something to be said for a movie as blatantly and unashamedly manipulative as this film.

Creed's ingenuity is exhausted in its first ten minutes.  A young man named Johnson is an effective brawler in Tijuana bars -- he has won 15 fights by knock-outs.  But Johnson isn't yet ready to relinquish his day-job.  He works as an investment banker in an LA skyscraper and lives on a palatial estate -- this is the home of his mother, the widow of the great boxer, Apollo Creed.  The young man, named Adonis, is Creed's son by another mother and his pugilistic genetics have driven him to scrapping in hole-in-the-wall Tijuana bars.  After winning a bout, he quits his day-job on the eve of a big promotion, travels to Philly and seeks out Rocky Balboa, his pop's old nemesis.  At first, Balboa doesn't want to coach the up-and-comer, but, then, he agrees.  Large-cell Hodgkin's lymphoma ensues for Rocky Balboa and both the pug and his coach have to fight the biggest battle of their lives while preparing for a 12-round heavyweight match with a Liverpool boxer, Prettyboy Conlon.  Conlon is a feral thug, sentenced to prison for a gun violation, and he needs to make one last score before going to the Big House.  Meanwhile, Creed, who has now adopted his father's moniker, gets into a fistfight at his girlfriend's concert -- she's an edgy new-wave rap-soul singer, a little like Minneapolis' favorite daughter, Dessa.  The course of true love does not run true for a reel and a half (if film's still had reels) and poor Rocky, greatly debilitated by chemotherapy, struggles to rehabilitate his doubting protégée in time for the big fight.  Everything in the story follows the formula in tried-and-true fashion.  The mean streets of Philly look appropriately gritty, the adversary Conlon is reasonably scary (although not nearly as horrifying as the Russian brute that Rocky fought in one of his films), and there are good shots of the steps leading to the Olympian heights of the Art Museum overlooking the City of Brotherly Love.  The soundtrack is inspiring, a combination of heavy concussive dance-beat numbers, strings vibrating among fanfares, and rap music. Everything occurs exactly as you expect that it must.  The final fight is grueling and brutal, although, of course, the ending is never in doubt.  Stallone mutters inspirational speeches and the youthful boxer is, indeed, inspired by his words -- the film is really a love story between the older mentor and his youthful, rebellious student and the romantic scenes between Creed and his girlfriend feel rushed, perfunctory, and, more or less, uninhabited.  The movie is a wee bit ponderous, top-heavy with huge, portentous close-ups and, even, a bit slow-paced and dull.  But there is one remarkable sequence -- the hero's first match as a professional in Philadelphia is shot in one continuous take, a sequence of about 9 minutes that is uninterrupted by any cuts.  This scene is extraordinarily exciting and has an edge of danger -- the punches look real, the blows land with actual impact, and the film celebrates the athletic beauty of its protagonist, an actor named Michael Jordan.  This sequence establishes the movie's credibility -- clearly, the lead actor actually knows how to box, can land a punch and absorb one as well.  By contrast, the climactic gladiatorial combat is conventionally staged, the action divided into innumerable cuts and rife with manipulative and obvious reaction shots -- this is effective but doesn't pack the punch of the long take of three rounds boxing action in the middle of the film. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Place in the Sun

George Stevens 1951 A Place in the Sun is a big-budget, serious-minded adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.  Dreiser's book had been previously filmed by Josef von Sternberg in 1931.  The earlier film was unsuccessful and so the 1951 version that updates the action to the post-war period (Dreiser's book was set in the early 'twenties) disguises its source material behind its blandly commercial title.  Clearly, the subject matter obsessed Stevens -- he actually sued his studio to compel them to honor his contract by allowing him to make the movie -- and the director's work on the film is craftsmanlike and often ingenious -- the actors are directed to achieve a humorless, if powerfully pathetic effect and some scenes possess a raw, documentary-like immediacy.  Further, Stevens' follows, more or less, the simple and schematic plot of Dreiser's novel:  a poor boy, the child of street preachers, seeks his fortune by working in a factory owned by his wealthy uncle.  In the factory, he meets a young woman (Alice Tripp played by Shelley Winters).  The young man named George Eastman in the film, is played by Montgomery Clift.  George gets Alice pregnant while yearning for the love of a wealthy socialite, Angela Vickers (the 17-year old Elizabeth Taylor).  George lures Alice, who can't swim, onto a canoe on a lonely mountain lake.  Although he plans to kill her, George can't bring himself to commit the deed.  Fate intervenes -- when Alice tries to embrace George she capsizes the canoe and drowns.  George swims to the shore, flees the scene, but is later apprehended and accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend.  After a lengthy and dramatic trial, he is convicted of first-degree murder and, ultimately, executed by electrocution.  Stevens' and his camera are enamored with Elizabeth Taylor -- she is pale as cream, melting before the camera into a vision of disturbing supernatural beauty -- and, so, the director turns the story into a romantic vehicle for the starlet.  This was an effective strategy at the box-office and with critics -- the film was a hit that garnered 6 Academy Awards (including Best Director) -- but, of course, seriously distorts Dreiser's exhausting and excruciating 850 page novel.  Dreiser's book presents an entire world and, in his dispiriting universe, the femme fatale is a superficial, spoiled rich girl who seduces the protagonist with sado-masochistic baby-talk and, then, after motivating the murder, vanishes from the book about 300 pages before the novel's horrific denouement.  Stevens' reshapes the narrative, transforming a quasi-Marxist economically deterministic narrative (for which Dreiser was given an award by the Writers Union in Moscow) into a glossy romance about star-crossed lovers.  Dreiser's novel is analytically realistic and pitiless disillusioning -- everyone acts from venal motives:  the cops frame the hero, who is, nonetheless, guilty, his lawyers coerce him into perjuring himself unsuccessfully at trial, and everyone, including the hero, is driven by the most venal and shallowly materialistic impulses.  The two characters who seem relatively pure and idealistic in the novel (the hero's mother and a deathhouse pastor) both desert the protagonist in the end and the sole act of disinterested kindness shown to the main character results in his death -- the condemned boy confesses to the death-house preacher who, then, can't act as his advocate when his petition for clemency is urged to the Governor.  Stevens eliminates all of the complexity from Dreiser's book, softens the motivations, and purges the material of the savage cynicism that characterizes the famous novel. 

Of course, a popular movie is not a novel and, before the era of the mini-series, films had to be succinct and simple where books were expansive and complex.  On its own terms, A Place in the Sun is well-made, fairly gripping, and features a number of bravura sequences.  Stevens seems to have studied the Italian neo-realists and some of the scenes in the factory and small town where the action takes place have a startling, grim immediacy -- there is one shot, in particular, of poor Shelley Winters standing on a cold-looking gloomy street that could have been made by de Sica.  Stevens stages the film in three different registers -- the scenes involving the wealthy families and Elizabeth Taylor are shot in a very conventional studio-bound manner with lavish brightly interiors (to show off the expensive set design) and gowns that are almost hallucinatory in their beauty and style; the factory imagery and the sequences in Shelley Winters' humble apartment are documentary-like, simply shot with a grave, kitchen-sink realism.  Many of the lavish studio scenes involve long takes and have a glossy luster.  The drowning sequence on the lake is a montage of huge, anguished close-ups and sinister-looking long shots.  Stevens knits the glamorous romantic imagery in which Liz Taylor is often shown in languorous soft-focus into the gritty documentary-style sequences by an elaborate system of overlapping cross-dissolves  -- a raging fire from one scene will linger on half the screen of the following shot and, sometimes, Stevens layers three images at once.  When Montgomery Clift is walked to the electric chair, a huge close-up of Elizabeth Taylor in a soft-focus swoon seems to struggle to rise to the surface of the screen -- it's as if different layers of reality were in an agonized contest, something dramatized by the dream-like and almost surreal dissolves.  Some of the mise-en-scene is extraordinarily memorable -- when George swims ashore after Alice has drowned, we see him caught in a tangle of flotsam at the edge of the lake, huge logs and fallen trees with jagged branches that keep him from coming ashore.  Shelley Winters is conceived as completely shapeless in contrast the pneumatic and voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor; Stevens shoots Winters from behind emphasizing the bovine girth of her hips and pelvis.  Raymond Burr plays the prosecuting attorney like a figure from a Fritz Lang movie -- he is Nemesis embodied and, in the scene in which George is brought to justice, Burr, a big man disfigures himself into twisted, gimpy figure with an iron cane, patiently waiting seated on a log, his body contorted like a kind of avenging goblin.  Later, when Burr's attorney crashes an oar down on a boat during a courtroom demonstration, the image has a kind of Old Testament fury.  George's seduction of Alice during rain storm with the figures embracing and framed by an open window, both of them gently rim-lit, is a textbook demonstration of the kind of flamboyantly beautiful effects that great Hollywood lighting artists could achieve in lustrous, velvety black and white.  The only serious misstep in the film, a blunder that destroys the movie's power, is a final scene with Elizabeth Taylor in the death-house.  Stevens knows that this sequence is a horrendous error -- he cuts away from an embrace between the principals to a guard who sneers at the improbable scene with a kind of ghastly, eyes-averted horror. 

Here is a curious, eerie detail about A Place in the Sun:  in one extended love scene, Montgomery Clift's face is lit to dramatize a long, jagged scar extending down the side of his throat. The star also seems to have a scar on his cheek.  But this film was made six years before Clift was famously disfigured in a terrible car crash while filming Raintree County.  Have a I merely imagined this scar?  Or does it ominously prefigure the car crash six years later?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

Sofia Coppola's A Very Murray Christmas is a Netflix Christmas special available  until the end of this month and, then, I suppose, the production will be recycled seasonally for the rest of your life.  There's nothing new about this show -- in fact, the 57 minute production is just a hip version of a time-honored genre, the holiday variety special in which celebrities appear, bemused with embarrassment, and try to act warm and sentimental for the camera and the rubes in the sticks celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah.  The frisson offered by these shows is that the celebrities pressganged into the production are generally known for being hip, or ueber-ironic, or hyper-sexualized.  The idea is that if the Christmas spirit can afflict even Miley Cyrus or the gruff, curmudgeonly Bill Murray, then, perhaps, there is a wee bit of hope for you and me as well.  Coppola's innovation is that she combines the smarmy Christmas variety show paradigm with her trademark ennui and estrangement:  A Very Murray Christmas is a hybrid crossing Ed Sullivan with Coppola's own Lost in Translation.  The show is also somewhat like a Coen brothers' movie -- it invokes a genre that is so old, threadbare, and naïve that it seems to be fresh, edgy, and innovative as for instance, the Coen brothers' reimaging of the 30's chaingang movie (and musicals) in O Brother Where Art Thou or their reinvention of the traditional Western in films like True Grit and No Country for Old Men.  Bill Murray, of course, is the perfect protagonist for a project of this sort, exuding battered, but hip, charm.  Coppola's camera surveys hiMurray's ravaged features, his face that is like a scoured post-diluvian landscape, and, suitably enough, a close-shot of the star closes the film.  (Like her father, Sofia Coppola is also enamored with dissolves -- she uses this technique in a manner that I perceive to be a form of parody in the "Little Drummer Boy" sequence with Chris Rock, presumably, because the Black comedian, who appears in the film as a sop of inter-racial casting can't sing to save his soul.)

The special's concept may be simply stated:  Bill Murray is contracted to perform a Christmas show live from the famous Hotel Carlyle in New York City.  A blizzard cripples the city and the bridges and tunnels are closed.  No one can get to the hotel and, so, Murray is forced to perform to an empty room, a prospect that he mournfully abhors.  (Murray sings a number of tunes -- he has a gravely voice like Louis Armstrong, an instrument without pleasing timbre, but he sings in key and with excellent Sinatra-style phrasing; how this show affects you will be based in large-part on whether you like, or dislike, Murray's singing.)  After he shanghais Chris Rock to sing "Little Drummer Boy" with him, the power fails, the show can't go on, and Murray is left with the other habitués of the Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve.  With the chefs, waitresses and night-clerks, Murray and his accompanist, the indefatigable Paul Schaffer, improvise a Christmas variety show of sorts.  There are some mini-dramas -- a couple who has quarreled on the eve of their wedding (the power-failure has melted their cake) reconcile -- and everyone drinks too much for too long.  When Murray passes out, the film kicks into ring-ting-tingle song-and-dance show presented as the hero's dream in which a sleigh drawn by prancing show-girls conveys Miley Cyrus and George Clooney into a blindingly white winterwonderland set over which Murray presides as emcee.  A few more tunes ensue and the show ends the next morning, Christmas Day, with a hungover Bill Murray surveying the wintery and barren trees in Central Park from his skyscraper window.  The last third of the show, the TV-land Christmas show parodying similar extravaganzas now forty or more years old, is garish, kitschy, and overblown -- crowds of semi-nude showgirls with their asses cantilevered by their tiptoe stance in spike high-heels fondle Murray and moon over George Clooney and Schaffer from his glacial-white piano directs a whole orchestra -- it's reminiscent of the old Jackie Gleason show, a series that I recall with warmth and that was probably intended as parody as well.  This glitz contrasts effectively with both the relatively humble (and homely) barroom scenes and the show's low-key final scenes on the morning-after -- the film is modest in its aspirations and knows when (and how) to end on a "dying fall" that makes the most of Bill Murray's melancholy persona.  The sequence in the famous Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle features a torch song by Maya Rudolph, the French Indie rock group Phoenix playing a quirky Beach Boys song, some idiosyncratic carols, and, for its centerpiece, a startlingly effective and moving rendition of the Pogues' song, "Fairytale of New York" led by David Johansen.  This song was unfamiliar to me, but I could recognize it as an instant classic from the very first verse -- "It was Christmas, babe / In the drunk tank."  The four minute number perfectly embodies the whole project, the song poised spectacularly between crass sentimentality and ironic-hip repudiation of that very same sentimentality.  If you haven't heard this song, go to You-Tube and watch it right away.  I don't know where this song has been all my life but I am glad that I know it now.  (Also appearing in the special are Michael Cera, an excellent singer named Jenny Lewis, and Rashida Jones with cameos by Amy Poehler et. al.)

Friday, December 4, 2015


Near the beginning of Richard Lester's 1968 Petulia, George C. Scott pronounces the film's epigraph:  "Petulia," he declares, "is a kook."  The term "kook" demonstrates that Petulia is an artifact of the "swinging sixties," inflected with the rapid fire, absurdist Goon Show jocularity of Lester's two earlier films with the Fab Four, Help and A Hard Days Night.   In one of Truffaut's films made a few years before, a character swears an oath on his mother's life, the director, then, inserting a shot showing the pious old lady dropping dead.  The editing in Petulia follows this nouvelle vague model:  if a character off-screen is mentioned, Lester will cut to a flashback or flashforward of that person.  An image of a bloody broken leg rhymes with shock cut images of Petulia's face, beaten and bloody, after an assault inflicted upon her by her husband.  Everything has a hard, bright Pop Art edge and Lester stages some scenes with the comic exuberance that he used in his Beatles' pictures, films that essentially invented the music video form.  The actors and plot are secondary to the fast, rat-a-tat-tat editing, montage so quick and discursive, that it makes the dialogue and plot often unintelligible.  (Certainly, this style developed for non-actors -- the Beatles -- disrupts and renders almost inconsequential the bravura acting by some of the principals.)  In many scenes, Lester's soundtrack layers dialogue, particularly rude or vulgar or insensitive remarks by bystanders -- we hear a cacophony of voices commenting on events that the film has shown us.  (The overlapping dialogue is similar to the approach to sound-design in Robert Altman's films.)  Julie Christie, preternaturally beautiful in some scenes, plays Petulia, a dizzy, free-spirit encumbered by an unhappy marriage to a spoiled rich boy.  George C. Scott is an orthopedic surgeon, underplaying his role, conspicuously. and pursued by Petulia.  She has glimpsed the doctor operating on a Mexican waif, a child that Petulia and her husband are surreptitiously supporting because they earlier kidnaped him from his home in Tijuana -- the kidnaping, treating as a blithe lark, is one of Petulia's whimsical pranks:  this aspect of the plot was probably meant to be amusing in 1968, but the notion of stealing a child off the streets of Tijuana and, then, transporting him to San Francisco like a stray dog doesn't sit well with our present-day perspective on Anglo-Hispanic relations.  Petulia launches a relentless campaign to seduce the stand-offish surgeon, inviting him to have sex with her at a bizarre hotel that seems to be a vast underground parking lot with cheesy boudoirs opening directly into the nasty concrete carpark.  They don't have sex, but Petulia, undeterred acquires a tuba, and chases the hapless physician around with that vast brass instrument slung around her shapely body.  Ultimately, George C. Scott's character, who seems to be in the midst of a sullen mid-life crisis -- he has both an ex-wife and a girlfriend -- succumbs to Petulia's charms.  Her husband, played by Richard Chamberlain against type, is a hysterical bully and he responds to the affair by beating Petulia half to death.  Later, her family spirits her away from the hospital where she is being treated by Scott.  Petulia's husband has an interfering plutocrat for a father, a character played by Joseph Cotton, a sinister figure, if anything, even more vicious than his son.  Chamberlain's family coerces Petulia into a reconciliation with her husband and the couple depart on a long and nightmarish cruise on the family yacht.  We see that Petulia is, in effect, held hostage by her husband, a man who is spectacularly pretty but emotionally fragile and prone to sudden, inexplicable bouts of rage.  At the end of the film, George C. Scott encounters Petulia in the hospital where she is immensely pregnant.  They express regret that their relationship didn't really blossom and we last see her in surgery, with an anesthesia mask being lowered ominously over her beautiful frightened face.  The last ten minutes of the picture is very dour, grim, and sad and I recall that it made a great impression on me when I saw the movie on TV in High School -- the ending of the film has something of the flavor of the last twenty minutes of Kubrick's Lolita: the giddy young woman has been destroyed and her sexual charm has vanished into pregnancy.  (The film invokes Lolita as well in a supporting role -- Scott's ex-wife has a dull and conventional boyfriend who is played by an actor who adopts the mannerisms of Quilty-Quilty as acted by Peter Sellers in Kubrick's film.)  The movie is certainly interesting, cleverly made, and remains emotionally affecting in its final minutes.  The aspect of the film that has not aged well is the characterization of Petulia as a whimsical, happy-go-lucky, free spirit -- although Julie Christie is pretty and does her best with the part, it is under-written, and Petulia is a more of a counter-cultural notion than a viable character.  The film doesn't stint in its portrayal of male rage -- George C. Scott looks brutish and his nose seems broken into a nasty, curmudgeonly twist; the film emphasizes the contrast between its two leading men, juxtaposing Richard Chamberlain's astonishing, if androgynous, beauty with Scott's hewn-from-granite appearance as an old, surly brawler.  At one point, Scott hurls a bag of food at his ex-wife with alarming vehemence and it seems that he is capable of every bit of the violence that Chamberlain's character inflicts on Petulia -- in fact, the notion that men are intrinsically violent and aggressively manipulative underwrites much of the film.  The viewer faces a male trio of powerhouse performances (Scott, Chamberlain, and Cotton) vying with the rather ineffectual whimsy displayed by Julie Christie's character -- accordingly, the movie seems weirdly out of balance.  When George C. Scott reprimands Petulia by saying:  "This 'I love Lucy' stuff is only cute for so long...", of course, the audience's response is "Amen!"  Lester shoots San Francisco for mean-spirited maximum freakiness:  we see Roller Derby tourneys, stoned hippies wandering around, horrifying tract housing of the kind that I would associate with the U.K. and not California, gargoyle-like Roller Derby fans, a penguin show, and some Hollywood types shooting a cigarette commercial in Muir Woods.  At one point, we watch Janis Joplin performing with Big Brother and Holding Company; at another point, a very young Jerry Garcia is glimpsed singing with the Grateful Dead -- we can only barely see him:  there is a late sixties light show underway with gobs of gelatinous color floating over everyone's faces and figures.