Friday, December 30, 2016


In the United States, and western Europe as well, film-making and the mass media are controlled by cosmopolitan Left-leaning internationalists.  In Russia, of course, the situation is different:  the most acclaimed Russian director, Alexander Sokurov, is an associate of Vladimir Putin, apparently, a pious Orthodox believer, and a staunch Nationalist.  (I think Tarkovsky and Alexei German could be similarly described as Christian Russian Nationalists.)  Sokurov's most well-known film, his formidable Russian Ark, contends that St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum is the ark that will preserve the high culture of Europe from the nihilism of the West.  As with Dostoevsky, Sokurov seems to believe that the Russians are the saviors of European civilization -- it is Russia that has withstood the twin forces of barbarism in modern times:  German Fascism and, now, Islamic Nationalism.  Sokurov's thinking in this regard is well-illustrated by his film Alexandria, a picture in which a Russian mother visits her son at the front in Chechnya -- she travels to the theater of war with the Islamic radicals in an armored train, a conveyance redolent with meaning in Russia, and, as the film progresses, seems to become nothing less than an allegorical figure for Mother Russia.  Francophonia is Sokurov's reprise for our time of his Russian Ark -- in the film, he considers Paris' Louvre, like the Hermitage one of the great repositories of European culture, and asks this question:  how was the museum and its collection of art saved from Nazi expropriation?  Sokurov has already answered that question with respect to the Hermitage -- he says that the European art in St. Petersburg was saved by Russian military resistance and imagines the 900 day siege of Leningrad as the price paid to protect the Hermitage.  Sokurov has explicitly said that the Russians sacrificed one million lives to save the Hermitage from being looted by the Germans.  Francophonia, a very surprising and profound film, relies upon the viewer's knowledge of the Russian Ark and, in fact, seems to be designed as counterpoint to the earlier picture.  Notwithstanding some horrors, the film is peculiarly cheerful, gentle, and, oddly optimistic in some respects.  The film about Leningrad, the Russian Ark, was famously accomplished in a herculean single take -- a feat of camerawork actually performed by a brawny German director of photography.  The hellish "dance of death" required to film the first movie -- the German DP lugging his steadi-cam across acres of museum with Sokurov feverishly directing the action, including historical reenactments, ventures out into the frigid and snowy gardens, a full-scale costume ball, and, in the final scene, hundreds of extras, seems to have been intended as an ordeal, a kind of cinematic Passion devised as a correlative to the nightmarish siege.  By contrast, Francophonia is fluently edited without any operatic effects:  in general, the film is muted, modest in scope, and cautiously understated.  This doesn't mean that the film hasn't been the subject of obsessive labor -- Sokurov once boasted (about his film The Sun on the relationship between General Douglas McArthur and Emperor Hirohito) that his movie had more special effects and digital manipulation than a Star Wars picture.  Francophonia is shot on various kinds of film stock and features just about every imaginable type of special effect -- skies are digitally altered to seem as if they have been produced by brushstrokes, color schemes are continuously adjusted to create strange unnatural sepia-hazes or weird orange-yellow tints; on several occasions, Sokurov digitally adds World War Two German bombers to his images -- in one case, a full-size bomber tours the courtyards of Louvre, floating over the buildings
like a balloon.  Sokurov stages period scenes with no regard to the crowds milling around the museum or walking next to the Seine.  In the foreground, we see costumed actors while vehicles circa 2014 drive by in the background.  The detailed nature of these manipulations of imagery is exemplified by the eye-color of the Prussian cultural attaché assigned management of the Louvre during the German occupation.  During the first scenes with this German officer, his eyes are a startling cobalt blue.  In the final scenes, the German officer's eyes are dark and show no trace of blue at all.  For Sokurov, the intensity of blue pigment in the German's eyes is a measure of the officer's cooperation with his French counterpart:  when he is aggressively German, the man's eyes are a startling blue; when he is cooperating with Frenchman, his eyes become dark, the same hue as the French museum director's eyes.

Francophonia revolves around three couples:   Napoleon and Marianne, Sokurov and Captain Dirk, and, most importantly Count Metternich, a German officer, and Messieur Jaujard, a Frenchman responsible for the Louvre.   Napoleon and Marianne (the Phrygian-cap wearing French revolutionary who appears topless in Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People") seem to be, more or less, automatons:  Napoleon wanders among the pictures declaring with respect to each,  "C'est moi."  Marianne has only three words that she recites again and again:  Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.  As far as I can ascertain, these two figures represent the mindlessly acquisitive, martial instinct to loot other people's art and the Enlightenment spirit that declared that the products of this looting should be displayed in a museum open to all.  Captain Dirk is an American, seen as a pale, slug-like figure on Skype -- Dirk is transporting art across the sea and is trapped in a violent and deadly storm.  Ultimately, his shipping vessel seems to be swamped by the sea, sinks, and the art is lost.  His interlocutor is Sokurov who we see in a dim room communicating by telephone and computer with Dirk.  Dirk's image keeps freezing and collapsing into chaotic pixels.  Sokurov and Dirk embody the filmmaker's metaphor that a museum is a vessel crossing dangerous seas.   The seas are those of history, or literal seas, or, perhaps, the chaotic emotions that we conceal within us.  These seas always threaten to overflow and drown our civilization.  Finally, Count Metternich is a German military officer who has been sent to loot the Louvre.  The French have already concealed the art in the Louvre in various hiding places -- only some of the statues remain in the museum.  Metternich meets with Jaujard and the two men, although initially hostile, seem to respect one another.  Ultimately, Jaujard persuades Metternich to not expropriate the treasures of the Louvre.  Metternich temporizes and has trouble explaining why he has not looted the Louvre for the Nazis.  In the end, Jaujard trusts him sufficiently to show him the cellar at remote chateau where Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" -- another image of a sea-going vessel wrecked on the high seas -- is hidden, stacked against a wall.  In contrast, the Germans can not work cooperatively with the Bolsheviks who they regard as subhuman enemies of civilization -- Sokurov cuts into the film horrific footage of the siege of Leningrad with accounts of cannibalism.  The curious thing about the film is that it's message is politically indistinct -- both the Russians and the French preserved their world-historical treasures of art:  the Russians achieved this by military resistance at the cost of a million casualties; the French achieved the same outcome by seeming to cooperate with the Germans, by winning their trust, and, then, by the simple expedient of encouraging delays with respect to implementing the expropriation of art objects.  Sokurov doesn't suggest which approach is better although the answer seems fairly obvious -- the French use of "soft power" saved the art and avoided mass killing.  Sokurov tells this fable in reconstructed scenes of encounters between the two men -- these images are projected in a golden sepia haze, pillar-boxed in old format aspect-ratio, with the soundtrack visible as a band on the left side of the image.  The film is discursive -- there are essays on ancient sculpture, the history of the Louvre, the absence of portraiture in Muslim art, and the French resistance.  At the end of the movie, Sokurov speaks to the two men, summoning them into a niche where two chairs are awaiting, and, then, tells them about their futures:  Jaujard became a national hero and died in 1967; Metternich was recalled from Paris for his dilatory conduct in conducting the looting of the Louvre.  He was denazified after the war and lived an uneventful life until 1978.  (The principal narrative in Francophonia, Jaujard's manipulation of Metternich, the admirer of French culture, reminds me of recent revelations about Heisenberg's attempts to design an atom bomb for Hitler.  Heisenberg apparently determined that it would not be in civilization's best interests to create an atomic bomb for the Nazis.  So what did he do?  He didn't resist Hitler or lecture him on morality, nor did he aggressively try to design the weapon.  Instead, he told Hitler that, in his view, it would "be impossible for Germany to build an atomic bomb" while its economy was on a war-time footing.  Hitler apparently accepted this advice and diverted most of its efforts away from the A-bomb project.)   

Sokurov seems to be mellowing.  His excellent film The Sun demonstrated a way for men who were enemies to go forward in the best interests of their respective nations.  McArthur and Hirohito find a way to work together that saves the Emperor's "face" and allows him to be a spokesman and advocate for McArthur's occupation policies.  Similarly, Jaujard and Metternich find a way to work cooperative to save the French from losing their art treasures, and to keep the Germans from committing a great and unnecessary crime.  The vision of Francophonia is fundamentally humane and, more important, perhaps, sane -- no one does anything dramatic nor does anyone act on naked principle.  The film shows that sometimes the best results occur simply when someone pretends to cooperate but really doesn't and when his adversary fails to act, that is, simply delays.  These are important lessons worthy of being learned.   

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Hollow Crown -- Richard III

The defects in the BBC's ornate production of Richard III are mostly intrinsic to Shakespeare's play.  Richard III woos Elizabeth over the grave her husband, Henry VI,a king murdered by the villainous protagonist.  In coup de theatre, Richard persuades Elizabeth to marry him, an extraordinary peripateia, that requires additional on-stage development.  But after accomplishing this feat, Shakespeare drops Elizabeth from the play and she reappears only intermittently throughout the rest of the lengthy drama.  Later, Shakespeare reprises the scene between Richard and the mourning queen -- this time, he's on the road to the climactic battle.  Once again, Richard seduces a mourning noble-woman, persuading her to offer her daughter to him in marriage -- again, it's an effective, witty, and terrifying scene.  But there's no follow-up.  Richard is on his way to be slaughtered at Bosworth and this dialogue, like the earlier scene between him and the mourning queen exists primarily for Shakespeare to show off his extraordinary talents as a dramaturge.  Late in the play, Shakespeare, who now is writing a tragedy and not a more objective history, demonstrates Richard's deterioration, his decay into paranoia and madness -- on the night before the final battle, Richard is visited by each of his victims, a lengthy procession of ghosts, and a scene that slows the action to a complete halt.  The problem with the scene is that we don't have any evidence that Richard could possibly be affrighted by mere specters.  Indeed, from his actions previously presented, we might expect that Richard's spirits would be considerably raised by the appearance of the ghosts of those that he hurled from this mortal coil.  It's obvious that Richard III like Falstaff is too big for the play and too immense for the rather conventional morality with which the tragedy must end.  (That's why Benedict Cumberbatch's twitches and finger-tapping as Richard III progresses, like something out of The Caine Mutiny, ring false and are merely annoying.) And what is implausible in the play is equally implausible when staged for film by the BBC -- in fact, the movie, I think, slightly improves on Shakespeare by embedding the ghostly apparitions within Margaret of Anjou's curse:  we can imagine Richard III laughing at the ghosts of his victims, but Margaret's curse, with its supernatural elements, is sufficiently terrifying that we can guess that it might be effective against the monstrous protagonist. 

The BBC production of Richard III, clearly a prestige project, was shown on Christmas night 2016 as a kind of prequel to the new season of Sherlock (starring, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch) and, in fact, as a holiday gift to the legion of Cumberbatch fans, (many of them female), an unwholesome and sadistic present under the Christmas tree.  As the villain of the piece, Cumberbatch is certainly impressive and handsomely evil.  He uses his deep baritone voice as an instrument and his reading of the poetry is highly intelligent and moving.  He's not as witty, I think, as Lawrence Olivier, in the part, although from time-to-time he plays straight to the camera, sometimes, shrugging his shoulders or slightly winking to keep us in on the joke with him.  The problem with the production in my view is that it "opens up" the action into a realistic sphere that is, somewhat, incommensurate with the theatrical merits of the play.  Richard III is repeatedly called a "bottled spider" and there should be something coiled, tensed, an energy like a cobra about to strike in his performance.  Richard is in most of the scenes and he talks directly to the audience as their intimate.  For the play to work, we need to be "bottled up" with the monstrous Richard.  Theater is claustrophobic -- we're  trapped in the same room with the actors and can't escape.  I think Richard III is a fundamentally closed, impacted, involutional play -- it works best, I think, if we feel ourselves trapped to some degree, locked in the Tower of London with poor Clarence or the child-princes.  But a big scale TV production, shot on the location of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, cuts against any sense of claustrophobia -- opening up this play is not a good strategy.  Rather, I think, the inherently theatrical aspect of Richard's presentation requires that the play be staged in way that forces us into intimacy with Richard and that brings him within arm's length -- we need to be able to smell the rank breath of the beast. 

Notwithstanding these reservations, there are many things to admire in the BBC production.  Cumberbatch plays Richard III as a man-made monster, someone whose cruelty has been enforced upon him by reactions to his deformity.  This rationalizes Richard III and allows the audience to empathize with him to a certain degree.  (This is alien to Shakespeare, I think, but a necessary rethinking of the play in accord with modern ideas about handicapped people and disability.)  As the action moves toward the final battle, the women who have suffered under Richard's reign of terror come to the forefront.  This is true to Shakespeare but very effective in this film.  After all, it is the women alone who the true witnesses to Richard's savagery -- all the men have been killed, more or less.  At the climax of the film, just before the last battle, Richard is confronted by three women, including the horrific Margaret of Anjou who plays the role of an avenging fury in this film.  (She causes his death on the battlefield, a brilliant stroke in this series since she is the one character who plays through all parts of the chronicle and, since, we have seen her as a woman, clad in armor, smiting her foes amidst the shock of arms.)  The women have had their fathers, brothers, husbands, and children killed by Richard and they form a tragic chorus to condemn him.  This is very powerful.  Furthermore, the film's final shot shows the sole survivor of the battle as Margaret of Anjou, a timeless witch and harridan -- the camera jets up above her and we see that she is surrounded by corpses, but the last figure standing.  The camera continues to rise and we see an impossibly vast sea of dead bodies surrounding this figure of nemesis -- that's not how the Bosworth field looked, we think, there's something wrong, and, then, we grasp that the shot is purely metaphoric.  The sea of dead men represents all the casualties in the internecine wars of the Roses, a vast harvest of slaughter, in which a single woman somehow stands yet alive and looking to heaven to provide testimony as to what she has endured. 

Hitchcock Truffaut

In 1962, the French New Wave director, Francois Truffaut spent eight days in Hollywood interviewing Alfred Hitchcock.  The interview was interpreted by a woman named Helen K. Scott -- you can see her at the round table where the two men sat for the extended conversation.  The proceedings were tape-recorded and, on the sound track, you can hear Ms. Scott, a heavy-set middle-aged woman, translating simultaneously -- it's the way translations are done in the law courts or at the United Nations: her whispered voice is superimposed above or beneath the words spoken in French.  Ms. Scott was an integral part of the process and you can hear her laughing heartily at times and interacting with both Hitchcock and his French interlocutor.  She appears in most of the pictures taken to document the colloquy, although most often with her back to the camera.  Hitchcock appears to have been able to write some French and, perhaps, could even speak the language -- but, I presume, that Truffaut required precision in translation and fluency, something that couldn't have been achieved without the interpreter's involvement.  It is one of the defects in Kent Jones' 2015 documentary Hitchcock Truffaut that we don't learn more about this woman and her role in the proceedings.  This omission signifies in general the limitations on Jones' documentary, produced for, and currently on display, on HBO.  On a couple of occasions, Hitchcock asks that Truffaut shut off the recording so that he can say something privately -- at one point, when asked about the role of his Roman Catholic upbringing in the films, Hitchcock asks that the recording be shut-off. (It's possibly the most important question in the whole interview.)  On another occasion, he comments that Jimmie Stewart should be imagined as having an erection when Kim Novak emerges from the green mist in his hotel room near the end of Vertigo, her transformation into the dead woman complete.  Hitchcock, presumably, has a bawdy story to tell about someone and, so, he asks that the recorder be shut off.  Certainly, audiences are most intrigued by that to which they are denied access and the viewer feels cheated that Jones (or his narrator, Bob Balaban) doesn't provide additional detail as to what was said in those interruptions in the transcription process. 

Not much new emerges from Hitchcock Truffaut.  If you know a lot about Hitchcock, there will be no surprises in the material presented in the documentary.  (And, of course, most cineasthetes have read the book produced from the famous interview.) We see stills of Hitchcock interacting with Truffaut, are treated to clips from films by both directors (although mainly Hitchcock), and, sometimes, see portions of the interview text with writing highlighted for emphasis.  The audio clips of Truffaut and Hitchcock in the interview are interspersed with talking head commentary by eminent directors including Marty Scorsese, who always has something interesting to say, Paul Schrader, Oliver Assayes, and others.  (The omission of Brian de Palma from the film is surprising: de Palma is the only Hitchcock disciple sufficiently perverse himself to successfully appropriate the Master's mannerisms to his own films.) The documentary's principal focus turns out to be on Vertigo, as you might expect, and Psycho.  Hitchcock's famous and monstrous control over both his mise-en-scene and his actors is exemplified in an anecdote that he tells about working with Montgomery Clift.  "Monty," as Hitchcock calls him, applied his method acting techniques to a scene and concluded that his character would not look up to a tower important in the action that the director was about to stage.  Hitchcock's response was scathing:  "Who was he to disrupt the geography that I had created?", an excellent description of Hitchcock's uncanny logic in constructing plausible if dreamlike locations through which his characters flee and, in which, they suffer.  Hitchcock couples this complaint with his famous observation that actors are "cattle." 

In the interview, Truffaut plays the Gallic rationalist to Hitchcock's malign entertainer.  The clash between the two men's personalities is obvious, although, cordial.  Truffaut can not exactly grasp the Gothic irrationality motivating Hitchcock's obsessions although he is fantastically well-attuned to the precise, even geometric, logic by which Hitchcock constructed his films.  Thus, Hitchcock's films present a surface that is completely and obsessively organized, imagery purged of anything non-essential and designed to embody very exact relations between things and people or people and their environment. (It must never be forgotten, someone says, that Hitchcock learned his trade from the silent films -- he thinks and narrates in pictures:  there is nothing even remotely literary about the way he imagines his films.)  Hitchcock's radically overdetermined surfaces, his way of staging action, however, screens the fundamentally morbid and perverse romanticism that motivates the director's choice of themes, his sadistic use of actresses, and his dream-like, hallucinatory plots.  Truffaut, one perceives, is the opposite of Hitchcock -- he can stir up a romantic froth on the surface of his films (for instance, the most rhapsodic of them Jules et Jim) but the underlying narrative and thematic material is moral, rigorously rational, completely humanistic in an enlightened sort of way.  Truffaut is drawn to Hitchcock's darkness precisely because he has no such darkness in himself.  (This is obvious to any viewer who watches an attempt by Truffaut to do homage to his master, for instance, The Bride wore Black).  Early in his career, Truffaut used an experimental technique, ragged and raw, to convey stories that were fundamentally optimistic, humanistic, and enlightened.  (Consider his The Wild Child).  By contrast, Hitchcock uses a geometrically lucid style to convey narratives that are fundamentally irrational nightmares as exemplified by his masterpieces Vertigo and The Birds.  It is the jovial, but real tension between the rational humanist, Truffaut, and the irrational and sadistic Hitchcock for whom reason is merely a device for torture and coercion that provides the underlying buzz of conflict in the film. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Great Gatsby

Like all great works, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby means different things to you at different times in your life.  When you're in college, the story seems remote and surreal -- but the aspirational theme of the world well lost for love is appealing in a romantic sort of way and parts of the book, particularly the description of returning home for the holidays, resonates with you and makes your feel deliciously lonely.  Read in middle age, the novella is parable about ambition and the folly of romantic love:  the book's meaning has reversed somehow.  When you're old and grey, The Great Gatsby no longer seems to have any particularly personal meaning at all -- it is a splendid, luminous historical document about what it is like to inhabit a new country in the bosom of the fresh new world.  Baz Luhrman, the director of the most recent version of Gatsby is an Australian and, therefore, I think well-suited to understand the book's theme of the new world and its wildly idealistic hopes and aspirations.  But he's probably too young and still too idealistic to view the book in that light and, when a voice-over announces the famous final words in the novel, he cuts out the stuff about the explorers' utopian hopes upon first encountering the vast New World.  Because he's a film director, and by necessity an optimist, he's not much attuned to the theme about ambition and the folly of ambition.  And, so, by a process of exclusion, he gives his viewers a college sophomore's vision of the book, immensely picturesque and vastly romantic.  If you've got Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy respectively (and Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway), the outcome of the production isn't really in doubt -- the movie is going to be about the torments and glories of romantic love. 

Luhrman's style is all hyperbole, not a bad approach to the novella, but a little wearying in the end.  He strives to outdo Fitzgerald's extraordinary enameled and gilded style, a sort of art deco prose, with elaborately gaudy sets and swooping steadi-cam movements that sometimes look as if they were shot from the back of drones.  At times, the film resembles Fellini but without the Italian director's fascination with the grotesque and the sacramental -- Luhrman's picture is extravagantly beautiful, but the beauty threatens to devolve into mere prettiness or mere kitsch.  Carraway's cottage near the vast Walt Disney-style castle where Gatsby lives tends to resemble certain paintings by Terry Redlin:  we have the same flower beds rendered in neon colors, the same dusky, bat-haunted twilight, the same luminous windows glowing like honey-colored panes of amber.  Both Buchanan's estate and Gatsby's castle across the bay have Versailles-style fountains and immense grassy promenades:  the houses seem too incredibly vast and ornate to be real, but, in fact, in this detail Luhrman's version is probably reasonably accurate to Fitzgerald's intentions.  As a Midwesterner, I read Fitzgerald attentive to his inner voice  -- beneath all the glamor, there is a puritanical strain, something austere and censorious, a wintry breath of something highly moral.  This tone in Fitzgerald, an aspect of his writing that I think is best sensed by people from Minnesota, has always disguised for me the actual social milieu that the author is writing about in The Great Gatsby.  But if you study Fitzgerald's source material, the fantastic wealth and opulence shown by Luhrman in his film is, in fact, true to the society that he depicts.  Accordingly, Gatsby's famous parties, highlights for the reader in the book, are loving depicted as vast Jazz-age orgies of booze and dancing and Dixieland music.  A thousand guests writhe to the music in Gatsby's palatial halls and on his lawn (he has a mad organist related to Beethoven who plays his "Mighty Wurlitzer") and dancers choreographed to Busby Berkeley routines cavort on plinths mounted over a big swimming pool into which flappers and tuxedoed gangsters and movie stars are always being hurled.  Early in the film, when Nick joins Buchanan for a party in the city with his floozy mistress, Luhrman constructs a dream-like Harlem with a jazz trumpeter in fedora leaning out of window to play fanfares and blues for the concourses below -- the bridges gleam with light and well-dressed people surge through the streets next to vast, finned and majestic automobiles and, when Luhrman pulls back away, from the party, zooming over the city skyline, he finishes the shot with a bravura touch -- the camera has flown over the Empire State Building that is under construction and, as the sun sets, we see sparks cascading away from a welder's torch where men are laboring high in the sky.  In the book, the drunken scene with Buchanan, climaxing when Buchanan casually punches his mistress and breaks her nose, has some of the hallucinatory intensity of a party or squabble staged by Ingmar Bergman, like an episode from his Scenes from a Marriage.  Luhrman's gaudy and florescent portrayal of the scene isn't how I imagined it -- there's too much going on and you get distracted by all the details around the edges of the orgy.  I was disappointed in the scene, but in retrospect, understand why Luhrman stages the episode in this extravagant way.  Later, at the end of the movie, there is a nightmarish confrontation on the hottest day of the year, a hellish family fight at the Plaza Hotel where Gatsby demands that Daisy deny that she ever loved Buchanan -- a statement that is untrue and that she is unable to make.  This scene is staged austerely enough, with huge close-ups and a claustrophobic intensity -- it looks like Bergman and feels like Bergman and I can see that Luhrman thought that it would be too much to have two scenes of this force in the movie. 

As an admirer of Fitzgerald's novel, of course, I am inclined to criticize the movie as not being true to my vision of the book.  (For instance, the devastating scene in Gatsby where Nick sees Daisy and Buchanan acting like an old married couple, complicit in concealing Daisy's role in the traffic accident death of Buchanan's mistress, doesn't really make it onto the screen -- but this is a scene that Fitzgerald described with sufficient, homely detail that I think it could, and should have, been staged.  I also thought that the ending of the novel in which Gatsby's elderly father comes to the funeral and talks with Nick, an unbearably poignant and important part of the book, should not have been dropped from this adaptation.  Also dropped is the bestial Jewish gangster's renunciation of his business partner at the end of the novel -- Luhrman stages an early scene in which Nick and Gatsby meet Meyer Wolfsheim at a speakeasy and the gangster is an indelible and fascinating character.  But the scene has no pay-off without Wolfsheim's later refusal to attend Gatsby's funeral.  It's as if Luhrman is in a great hurry to get to the end of his movie once Gatsby has been murdered -- but this is false to the novel because, after all, Fitzgerald's book is not merely about Gatsby, but, also, most importantly about us -- that is, about our surrogate in the book, the narrator Nick Carraway).  Di Caprio is initially off-putting -- he speaks in a weird accent that can't be identified, but, in fact, this is true to the novella; Gatsby's affectations don't make sense:  he is literally a man from nowhere.  He uses the phrase "Old Sport" a thousand times, always pronouncing the words as "old spore" -- it's irritating, but I think also true to the spirit of the book and to the fact that Gatsby is entirely self-made.  Luhrman fits out the story with a frame narrative:  Nick Carraway is writing the book in an asylum to which he has been committed for morbid alcoholism.  The frame plot seems reasonable, creating a tension between the wintry solitude of Nick thinking back over Gatsby life and adventures and the warm, violently colorful Mediterranean action occurring over the enchanted summer in which the novel takes place.  I think the film is generally successful, splendidly mounted, and worth seeing.  The eclectic sound track, featuring tunes by Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Amy Winehouse and, at least, half dozen hip-hop songs by Jay Z (including his great "No Church in the Wild") is as spectacular as the film's production values.  Minnesota viewers will enjoy the brief, but vivid, image of a yacht running ashore under the cliffs of Split Rock Lighthouse on the north shore of Lake Superior.  It's an iconic landscape for Minnesotans and I was happy to see it represented in the film.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

La Luna

When I was in college, I saw lots of foreign films.  In that time interval (1972 - 1979), Godard was notably absent from the scene having absconded into Maoist agit-prop.  The German New Wave was prominent and Fassbinder, in particular, seemed to be producing films at a rate of a half-dozen a year.  But Fassbinder is an acquired taste and, although I saw many of his movies, I didn't really like them.  One of the directors that most interested me in those days was Bernardo Bertolucci.  I had seen Last Tango in Paris, a film that I didn't understand and thought distasteful.  But The Conformist had startled me with its beauty and elaborately operatic mise-en-scene and my roommate, studying in Berlin for a fortnight, had seen 1900 in that place and been astounded by the film's scope and ambition.  Severely cut, the film played in local art-houses for a couple of months and, even in a truncated version, was amazing pictorially.  Then, Bertolucci released La Luna (1979), an American-Italian co-production starring the actress du jour, Jill Clayburgh(For a few years, Clayburgh was the most ambitious and celebrated of all American actresses, the most willing to take major chances -- at that time, she was feted for her work in Paul Mazursky's feminist film, An Unmarried Woman (1978), a picture for which she had won just about every imaginable award.)  La Luna was slated for broad release and was going to provide Bertolucci with definitive Hollywood credibility -- restoring, perhaps, some of the trust that he had squandered by using Warner Brothers' millions to produce one of the most flagrantly Marxist films ever made, the redder than red 1900.  La Luna got bad reviews and a wide release -- Clayburgh was bankable.  I recall seeing the picture in a big, drafty suburban theater in St. Louis Park.  I remember that the film was remarkably beautiful -- Vittorio Storaro's cinematography embalmed every image in the honey of the golden hour, an extravaganza of twilight shot through with luminous beams of amber radiance:  the light was like syrup poured over everything.  The story seemed to me to be episodic and unconvincing and the movie's climax was opaque to me.  I recall the movie as somewhat dire and tragic.  In fact, the film has a happy ending of sorts.  It was the kind of movie from which you emerge as from a dream, wondering:  "What was that all about?" I 've always had a strong nostalgia for this film, unavailable on DVD for some reason until a few months ago. 

La Luna divides into five acts.  The shortest is a prologue set along the enchanted coast of southern Italy -- this sequence is shot in huge archetypal images:  a baby, eggs, fish being gutted against an azure horizon of ocean, a great mountain with a cleft summit that dips it's toes in the sea, mama's face and the moon.  This sequence has a mythological character:  the raw egg that the mother feeds the naked baby, the bloody fish, the peak and the sea all combine as a series of emblems that feels like something from a Max Beckmann painting, the predicates to a Greek tragedy.  In the second act, we learn about the family involved in the story:  Caterina (Clayburgh) is a narcissistic, dreamy opera singer married to the staid and pragmatic Douglas played with great authority by Fred Gwynne.  The couple have a 15 year old son, Joe.  Joe is casually manipulative -- the film contains one of cinema's most authentic representations of a borderline personality type, a self-absorbed child who twists everything to be the center of his parents' attention.  Douglas has a heart attack, dies and is buried, and Caterina, with Joe in tow decamps to Rome.  The third act shows Joe and his feral friends.  Joe's loneliness and isolation (he's interested in New York Yankees baseball among Italian soccer fanatics) has caused him to become a heroin addict.  Joe has a teenage girlfriend, who helps him shoot-up, a beautiful Moroccan or Tunisian fixer named Mustapha, and he's in bad shape, periodically deflating in crying jags and uncontrollable chills and nausea when he can't get his heroin.   Increasingly out of control, Joe tries to manipulate his mother into thinking that she is to blame for his addiction, a perspective that the film sometimes seems to endorse and sometimes rejects.  Caterina is terrified by Joe's addiction and doesn't know what to do.  Of course, as his mother she is prepared to take any action to help her son and ends up masturbating him to distract the boy from his withdrawal symptoms.  As you might expect, this turns out to be a therapy not approved by Narcotics Anonymous and leads to Joe developing an incestuous relationship with his mother that merely complicates everyone's Sturm und Drang.  The fourth part of the film is an extended, hallucinatory road-trip.  Joe and his mother drive around Tuscany where they flirt, kiss, visit various landmarks, and, almost, consummate their incestuous relationship -- it's Joe who puts on the brakes, beating up his mother while she writhes with lustful passion for her son.  Joe visits his real father, an Italian school teacher.  He blames the man for his addiction and angrily shows the stigmata of his injections, needle tracks on his scarred arms.  Of course, the schoolteacher, very much the figure of an Italian Papa, slaps Joe hard across the face.  The last act in the film is a weird travesty of something like Disney's The Parent Trap -- Joe schemes to bring his mother and father together at a rehearsal of Verdi's A Masked Ball.  The rehearsal takes place in colossal ruins, possibly the baths at Caracalla, and involves veiled people singing at one another, an orchestra, and all the other main participants in the plot -- a would-be boyfriend of Caterina, the opera star's mannish, and possibly, Lesbian friend, Caterina, Joe and his father.   The mere proximity of all these characters in the operatic final sequence suggests some kind of reconciliation although the details are left unclear.  (It's like the Marxist paradise at the end of 1900 -- what are the people going to do after the parades and flag-waving is all done?)  The moon rises flamboyantly over the vast ruins, the chorus bellows forth its music, and the film ends. 

Matthew Berry plays Joe and he's reasonably convincing.  (Bertolucci doesn't really understand American culture and some aspects of his portrait of the expatriate family ring false).  Joe is central to the movie, a figure who is, at once, monstrously manipulative and, also, vulnerable.  The scenes in which he plays leading man to his mother are painful to watch, but, I think, authentically realized.  Jill Clayburgh is astonishing.  Like many very beautiful women, she has the trait of looking subtly (or, even, radically) different in every scene:  in some images, she looks amazingly young and vibrant, girlish even; in other scenes, she's like an aged Sybil, haggard-looking and gaunt.  In the sex scenes, she's willing to go all out and expose herself in ways that aren't particularly attractive -- the images of her writhing with passion and thrusting her pubis up into her son's face are alarming, not flattering to her, and must have required enormous courage to implement.  Clayburgh looks too frail to be a prima donna opera singer and I don't think she ever convincingly inhabits that role but as an anguished and increasingly desperate mother she is completely persuasive -- in fact, her desperation makes the incest plot seem plausible.  (She is willing to offer herself in every possible dimension to save her son, a person who may not be worth saving.)  The third act set largely in Caterina's lavish Roman apartment plays out like a Fassbinder film -- with its over-the-top décor (a huge painting of Verdi, colonnaded rooms, a grand piano) and casual drug use the sequence looks like Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.  It's wildly operatic melodrama.  Storaro's photography is unbelievably lavish, a series of virtuosic arias for camera, probably too beautiful for the film's subject matter although the opera scenes in particular have a hallucinatory splendor.  Storaro can do just about anything with his camera and one scene in particular, a sequence in which Caterina visits her old teacher, the maestro, who is now completely demented, a wild-eyed old man with a mane of white hair, stands out for its subtle beauty.  The old man moves his wheelchair to position himself so that his still handsome and ruined profile catches the sun:  as he luxuriates in the light, Caterina says:  "Yes, still seeking the spot light."  It's a metaphor for Storaro's magical use of light.  The film is worth studying and, certainly, powerful as melodrama on the order of Sirk and Fassbinder.  Whether the picture achieves anything substantive beyond melodrama is unclear to me.  I will have to watch the movie again to see. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI (part 2)

Don't make the mistake of trying to correlate, the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI with the dramas by the playwright.  This will lead only to frustration:  The Hollow Crown's telos is Benedict Cumberbatch, cast as Richard III, and so everything that doesn't lead directly to that character has been ruthlessly eliminated from the plays.  The first part of Henry VI as shown in last week's episode is not, in fact, the first part of the Henry VI trilogy as written by Shakespeare -- rather, the two-hour episode, as I have earlier observed, more or less completely eliminates la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), and culminates in events that comprise the third act of Henry IV (Part Two).  Accordingly, the episode designated Henry VI (II) as part of The Hollow Crown begins with the fifth Act of that play as composed by the Bard and, in fact, eliminates the very best thing in Shakepeare's second play in the trilogy, his rough-and-ready sketch of the "rude mechanicals" following Jack Cade in their abortive rebellion against the Crown, a sort of uprising of the proletariat against the elites that has a peculiar resonance in this moment of history but that does not comport with the program's teleology -- that is, its presentation of a history that must lead by all avenues to the crook-backed villain.  Thus, The Hollow Crown's second episode actually combines the fifth Act of Henry VI (II) with bits and pieces, mostly the brutal and gory stuff, from Henry VI (III).  The compression of the three parts of the trilogy into a couple of two-hour shows yields a presentation that is sometimes unwittingly funny -- it's like a comedy that is periodically produced:  "All the Deaths in Shakespeare in less than 70 Minutes".  There's so much hewing, hacking, stabbing, and bludgeoning that the pageant of horrors gets a wee bit tedious.  In an effort to inflict HBO-style brutality on PBS' ordinarily decorous audience, the director contrives a sort of anti-Downton Abbey, a non-stop sequence of murders with most of the explanatory integument cut out and, certainly, vast amounts of ranting eliminated:  all classical allusions are ruthlessly stripped from the text, probably a good thing -- no one gets to claim that he will cut someone into "bloody gobbets" like Cambyses the tyrant.  By peeling away all the rhetoric to get to the "good stuff", there is a risk that the spectacle will devolve into a sub-Sopranos procession of murders -- and this is, more or less, what happens in the Part Two.  There are, to be sure, some revelations -- we get a mad-scene involving King Henry running naked through a moor:  he speaks some pretty language about time before some rural swains catch him to be confined for the bulk of the show in the Tower.  (In the actual play, Henry runs amuck during one of the interminable battles and isn't alone on the moors like a proto-Lear).  I have always thought of Margaret of Anjou as a tedious scold who obstructs the action of Richard III by her perpetual whining and her long laundry-lists of kinfolk killed by Richard and his henchmen.  But she's a real power in this show,  a sort of Amazonian warrior-queen, careening around in armor and hacking off people's heads and arms:  she takes particular delight in torturing her enemies and it makes no sense that the House of York spares her once she's down and out.  (Although I suppose, she has to be kept around to play the Cassandra-role in Richard III).

Part II starts with a battle shown rather absurdly from the point-of-view of a knight glaring out a slit in his helmet.  It's a sort of Monty Python effect that doesn't bode well for the rest of the show.  Some of the King's loyalists are killed and the House of York marches on Westminster.  (Somerset, Margaret's boyfriend is killed and his head brought back to be presented to the shrieking Queen).  During a confrontation at Westminster, King Henry agrees to relinquish his power to York upon his death, thus, in effect,prospectively dethroning his own son, Edward.  Edward and his ferocious mother, Margaret of Anjou, decamp to form their own army -- Margaret is not about to see her son deprived of the throne by his feckless father.  Obviously, Henry has made a bad deal.  He has promised to give the Crown to York upon his death, a death, that, it seems, can be swiftly and efficiently arranged.  But it is Margaret who first breaks the fragile peace.  With her troops, she attacks York who is weirdly unprepared for the onslaught. She forces old York to kneel on a manure pile, kills his youngest son before his eyes, and, then, crowns him with thorns before chopping him into pieces.  (This is spectacularly gruesome and, more or less, accurate to Shakepeare's text).  The three surviving sons of York engage in battle with Henry's forces, ambushing his troops while they are marching through a stream for some reason.  (This leads to lots of shots of blood suffusing the water of the creek).  Henry is useless -- he hides behind bushes watching the mayhem, observing at one point a father discovering that he has just killed  his own son; another son, comforting him by noting that he has just unwittingly (everyone wears armor) killed his own father.  This scene, horrific if palpably absurd, so oppresses the King with the futility of the Civil War that he goes mad and pitches his crown into the bloody lagoon.  The eldest son of the House of York, Edward, is now installed on the throne.  Henry is seen running naked across the moors.  He's captured and locked up in the Tower.  Margaret with her son, Edward, flees to France.

Warwick, an ally of the House of York, is dispatched to Paris to ask for the hand of the King of France's daughter to cement an alliance with King Edward in London.  But Edward has fallen in love with a widow, the pert and insolent Lady Anne Grey.  He marries her and sends word to Warwick to withdraw the offer to the Princess of France.  This humiliates Warwick and, so, he switches sides and allies himself with Margaret of Anjou and her son, the legitimate heir to the throne, Edward.  (It's confusing, of course, to have Edward of York on the throne and challenged by Edward, the son of Henry VI and Margaret.)  Warwick leads a French invasion of England and the second son of York joins his army.  There is a parley with King Edward that leads the second son to switch sides and join the House of York in the fight against the invaders led by Warwick and Margaret of Anjou.  In the ensuing battle, Richard III, who has been thrusting out his lower jaw in a most belligerent way, and making reptilian gestures, comes into his own.  Strutting around the battlefield like a velociraptor, Richard III stabs Warwick from behind and, then, kills young Edward (Henry's son) in front of the howling Queen Margaret.  Richard starts soliloquizing as he is rowed to the Tower of London where he puts poor Henry VI out of his misery, thus concluding Shakespeare's trilogy here distilled into two episodes. 

Benedict Cumberbatch is undeniably effective as Richard III and seems to vastly enjoy the role -- he rants and raves, whispers and howls, and spits out invective with crazy intensity.   Sometimes, he seems like a rabid dog, but he is always insistently witty and self-aware.  Noting that his deformities will not allow him to play the part of a lady's man, he vows to do bloody deeds and to seize the crown, an ambition that will require that he massacre all of his own family as well as what remains of Henry's supporters.  In the final scene, Edward's Queen has given birth to an heir and the tiny infant is handed to Richard who gloats, confesses to his plan to slaughter everyone else on stage, and, then, Judas-like kisses the child, all the while fixing his beady eyes on the camera.   

Saturday, December 17, 2016

There was a Father...

Ozu's masterpiece There was a Father... was released in 1942, but bears only the faintest traces of war-time austerity:  school-boys wear military uniforms and address their teachers as if they were commanding officers, there is much obsessive talk about "duty," and, when the boys go for a long hike, they sing martial songs like Hitler Jugend marching through the Westerwald.  In a couple of scenes, people mention conscription and the movie is dominated by male institutions -- workplaces and boys' boarding schools and sex-segregated classrooms.  (Apparently, General MacArthur's censors edited the film during occupation and they may have excised more explicit references to the world war raging when the movie was made.)  Despite, it's subtlety, Ozu's film was planned as part of the war effort, designed to showcase particularly Japanese values of duty and self-sacrifice, and, yet, transcends the circumstances of its making.  Like much great art, There was a Father... is more real than reality, a grave and profound picture about a family that verges on the tragic, but without ever succumbing to the pathos and sentimentality of melodrama.

The film's narrative is simple:  a widower works as a respected teacher, caring for his little boy who lives with him.  During an excursion, a kind of field trip, for the last days of the school year, one of the teacher's students drowns in an accident.  The teacher assumes full responsibility for the mishap and, despite the support of his fellow instructors, resigns from his prestigious job.  Deprived of his customary income, the teacher places the little boy in a boarding school and works in industry to support himself and the child.  We see him visit his son at the boarding school in a small city remote from Tokyo where the father lives.  The two of them go fly fishing, the motion of their rods and lines exactly coordinated like a kind of beautiful, elegant dance.  Seventeen years pass.  The little boy has grown up and now works as a gymnasium (or high school) teacher himself.  (We see him giving a lecture to his students on the explosive characteristics of TNT.) He and his father have always lived far apart, separated by hundreds of miles.  The young man and his father meet at a hot springs resort, take a convivial bath together, and the son says that he intends to quit his job and move to Tokyo where his father works in a textile plant.  He wants to spend time with his father.  The father refuses the offer and the two go their separate ways.  A while later, the two meet again, apparently over the holiday break -- they go fly-fishing once more.  The father suggests that his son consider marrying the daughter of one of his old teaching colleagues.  There is a reunion in which former students fete the father and his colleague.  The father doesn't feel well, has a kind of seizure and, then, dies with his son at his bedside -- they have spent nine days together of a ten day vacation.  As he dies, the father says that he's had a happy life and that he has done his duty.  The old man's colleague says that it was a beautiful and dignified death, that the former teacher was a great man, and that he always did his duty.  We see the son traveling with his new wife or wife-to-be, the woman that his father suggested that he marry.  The camera shows us a long, completely still and empty shot -- a still life of the son's  valise on an overhead rack in the train.  There is a final shot of the train in steep perspective sweeping away from us and the film ends. 

The film is brilliantly acted.  Chishu Ryu, Ozu's surrogate in many of his films, plays the father -- it's a virtuosic performance, tracking the character from his youth (he is about 35 when the film begins) until his death as a enfeebled old man (he seems to be about sixty on his death bed).  Ryu is one of those rare actors who lets you see him thinking -- his always recites his lines in Ozu films with a sort of sigh, a kind of soft grunt of acquiescence with the circumstances, as if he must first reflect carefully upon everything he says.  The other characters in the film are all peripheral to Ryu's father, but they are uniformly memorable and well-defined.  Ozu's hyper-precisionist camera emphasizes geometric compositions -- shots alternate in such a way that the different characters are generally matched by their position in the frame.  Notwithstanding Ozu's fantastic lucidity, the mise-en-scene is characterized by odd ellipses and moments of fascinating indirection.  Each new scene begins with a sort of pictorial question-mark -- what are we seeing and why?  These pictorial question-marks enliven the film and impose upon it a kind of rigorous but playful complexity -- the plot is simple, but the way that Ozu presents the story, although not convoluted or mannered in any way, often creates additional depth to what we are seeing.  The film's limpid surface is disrupted by Ozu's characteristic pictorial puzzles.  A good example is the opening sequence:  we see two figures with huge burdens on their backs standing against an idyllic landscape.  The figures move to the right and vanish out of the frame -- are these the protagonists in the film?  Then, additional figures appear also moving from right to left, all carrying burdens strapped to their backs and passing out of the frame.  The movie cuts to an image of more people moving along a suburban street, carrying burdens of some kind, and hastening in one direction -- it seems as if, perhaps, a factory has just released its shift workers to go home.  Then, in a change of perspective that has a visceral impact, we see the street on which the people are moving from the end of a very long lane -- a steep perspective in which the fronts of buildings lead to a very remote opening onto the main street where the people carrying burdens are now passing far from the camera.  It turns out that the heavily laden people have nothing to do with the formal plot, they aren't part of the fabula, but rather simply moving figures designed to attract our eye and lead us through the landscape.  (And, yet, the motif of people weighed down by heavy burdens may well be symbolically central to the film -- the father's debt of guilt and responsibility for his student's death, the burden that he figuratively carries, dominates the entire film.)  We later learn -- and this is about three minutes deeper into the film -- that the lane shown in steep perspective leading to the street is the road where the father and his son live.  Inside the house, the father is seen shutting a sliding, paper door.  He interacts with his son.  There is a startling violation of the 180 degree rule -- we see a colloquy between the boy and his father and, then, see them with positions reversed from exactly the opposite angle.  What is this for?  It turns out that before father and son leave the house, one of them will shut a paper door on the opposite side of the room, an action that mirrors the father's first action in the house before the encounter between the teacher and the little boy -- the violation of the 180 degree rule, smashing across sight-lines, is designed to highlight to domestic symmetry in closing doors in the house, a door on each side of the room that has to be shut.  Again the symbolic weight of this symmetry is unclear at this moment in the film -- but, ultimately, one theme of the picture will be opportunities being closed down, limited, thresholds shown that can not be crossed and, so, the reciprocal gestures of closing the doors have both a graphic weight, a kind of heavy, impassive symmetry and also a symbolic and thematic meaning.  After the door has been closed, the father and son depart down the street from exactly the same perspective on the lane that we have earlier been shown -- and, so, it is shown to us that the lane represents the home where the boy and his father live.  The pictorial question-mark posed by unexpected shot looking in steep perspective down the alley way to the street has now been answered -- we know what the shot signifies.  But we have had to wait for that meaning to become clear to us.  (Later, in a classroom, the father is teaching students about equal angles created by a circle inscribed in a square -- the equal and opposing angles seem somehow connected to the explicit violation of the 180 degree rule in the earlier scene.)

There was a Father... shows Ozu's famous contemplative style from the fifties fully developed.  In fact, the movie contains more of the director's Zen-like "empty frames" than some of his later pictures.  These empty frames punctuate the movie -- sometimes, they are narrative and intended to show us where we are located, but, in other cases, the frames function as a symbolic commentary on the action.  For instance, a brilliant and moving shot of a group of black umbrellas drying in a lodge corridor suggests that every effort has been made to protect the students from the elements but that, in light of the drowning that will shortly occur, these efforts are unavailing.  There is something slightly sinister in the horde of umbrellas expectantly opened and tilted on their noses in the corridor.  (The valise shown in the penultimate scene relates back to a long dialogue in which both father and son are carefully packing their things into luggage to be taken on the train.)  Throughout the movie, moments of happiness or tranquility, for instance, the serene, dance-like fishing scenes, are punctuated with images of stacked stones, Buddhist graves, and the film is haunted by death -- the young man, upon being conscripted, is told to tell his mother, that is, pray to her spirit at a shrine in the corner of the room.  Life is depicted as short and full of suffering and labor, but Ozu's camera is stoic -- when the child cries, for instance, at being separated from his father, we see only the back of his hunched and miserable figure.  Three cadets sitting on a pier talk of their loneliness and homesickness  -- one of them wants a leave to go home and see his mother who has just given birth to a new baby.  Although the boys speak emotionally, the camera keeps us at a distance.  Emotions are more powerful for being inferred.

The film is profoundly ambivalent and poses an insoluble riddle.  Why does the father blight his life and that of his son over a drowning accident that can't be construed to be his fault?  Why does he sacrifice his life on the altar of abstract duty?  Is the father a hero, a sort of every man protagonist, virtuously sacrificing his own happiness for the good of the group?  Or is he a masochistic martyr -- someone luxuriating in his loneliness and guilt?  The film authorizes both readings.  The old teacher's sacrifices are unnecessary and self-indulgent -- his slavish devotion to duty is a kind of madness, possibly the same sort of madness that will end up destroying Japan.  And, yet, the father's devotion to his work and to the support of his son, his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness, may also be a portrait of virtue of the highest type.  Indeed, even when we are most angry at the father for his self-abasing choice of martyrdom, we must concede that he is nothing if not a virtuous man.  And images of virtue are very rare in films. 

The movie has been restored from a 16 mm print and it is a sorry mess -- blizzards of rot flow across the screen, there are jumps where frames are missing, and the soundtrack is mostly illegible.  We can understand what is going on from the subtitles but I would assume a Japanese audience would not be able to hear the voices under the hiss of white-noise on the soundtrack.  Parts of the movie are almost impossible to see -- and, yet, the film is so intrinsically powerful and majestic that it's beauty shines through the ruin of the images on this Criterion DVD.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Mask of Fu Manchu

A renaissance man if ever there was one, Dr. Fu Manchu bridges the gap between the two, often opposing, cultures of science and religion.  Tinkering with exotic poisons and Tesla coils, Fu Manchu seems to be a man of science and technological innovator -- his electrically powered Death Ray is an excellent exemplar of his scientific acumen.  And, yet, at the climax of this 1932 film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the doctor preaches a sermon to the "Men of the East" while orchestrating the elaborate human sacrifice of a lingerie-clad maiden to the great God Shiva:  a grinning idol wielding a scimitar is pressed into service to accomplish this religious observance.  MGM's adaptation of a novel by Sax Rohmer is racist to the core, expensively mounted with an all-star cast, and directed with staggering incompetence by someone named Charles Brabin.  Presumably, the movie was intended as some kind of campy comedy but the racism is too thoroughgoing and nasty to be funny and the sadism is too vicious to be merely amusing.  The film isn't scary and it's too ineptly directed to be suspenseful.  Visually, some aspects of the picture are impressive but the film's poor direction tends to undercut the legitimately effective elements of the film's set-direction and costumes.  And the acting is uniformly wooden and inert.  Boris Karloff plays Fu Manchu and his "yellow-face" effects are wholly unconvincing -- in order to preserve the illusion that he has Asiatic features, Karloff squeezes his eyes to slits with the result that he simply looks sleepy.  (Myrna Loy playing Karloff's dominatrix daughter is equally hapless with respect to her make-up effects -- she also has to play her part with eyes squeezed shut and seems half-blind throughout the film.)  Lewis Stone, most memorable as the disfigured German Junker in Grand Hotel, seems baffled by the ridiculous plot -- he is whitest of all white men, a slender alabaster pillar the color of an acetylene flame, and like a torch, is entirely without expression.  The rest of people in the film, a cast consisting, more or less, wholly of people who Fu Manchu will torture at one time or another are unconvincing and mouth their lines with obvious disdain. The director, Charles Brabin, has an uncanny facility for locating his camera in the worst possible location.  At first, Brabin seems to be filming a stage play -- characters sit in box-like sets, confined to the bottom quarter of the image, the upper three-quarters generally just empty space.  Brabin likes to film people coming and going through doors.  If someone approaches a door, Brabin obligingly shows the character entering the room.  The sets look like an old-style Chinese restaurant -- there was a place in Duluth in the 80's called "The Brass Lantern" filled with ornate arched entryways and filigree screens with lacquered wall-coverings depicting mother-of-pearl dragons.  It was dark in the old Brass Lantern and to get to the toilets you had to walk over a little arched bridge spanning a koi-crowded pool beside a faux-ivory wishing well full of pennies pitched into the water by patrons.  Chinioserie knick-knacks were everywhere and, after completing your supper of sugary chop-suey, syrupy sweet-and-sour shrimp with egg foo yung, you could go into a gift shop and buy yourself a fist-sized Buddha with a fat belly as a souvenir of your adventures in the exotic Orient.  The Mask of Fu Manchu seems mostly set in a Chinese restaurant of this kind, dimly lit, and crammed with waitresses in imitation silk kimonos.  Brabin doesn't know how to make the best of his kitschy, if expensive, sets and they are either ridiculously overlit or dark as grottos.  Brabin also doesn't know anything about editing a film for effect -- hence, the repeated shots of people walking through doors into tableaux that look like they belong on stage.  At the climax of the movie, the Caucasian heroes use the death-ray to spray artificial lightning on about five-hundred "Men of the East", a writhing mob that we see only in long shot since earlier closer images showed the men not to be Asiatic in appearance, but, rather, a medley of Sikhs, Indian maharajahs, Bedouins, and desert dwellers, all of these parts acted by ethnic-looking Jews.  For some bizarre reason, Fu Manchu's factotums are all giant Black men, almost entirely nude who stand on plinths with arms akimbo, looking exactly like Oscar Schlemmer's glistening and ebony Academy Award.  Addicted to Baroque tortures, Fu Manchu, of course, keeps his victims alive long enough so that they can escape and wreak havoc on him.  Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) playing a plucky archaeologist and explorer finds himself strapped to a teeter-totter above a pit full of vicious-looking crocodiles.  Smith wiggles free and, then, blithely walks right through the crocs who don't really pay much attention to him.  Smith's side-kick, a comical German who looks like Trotsky, is being pinched to death by some spikes in a conveniently nearby room.  Smith goes into that torture chamber, shuts off the machine by flipping a lever, and, then, the two of them release the hunky and stalwart male hero who is being fondled by Myrna Loy -- she is lovingly caressing the lash marks on his chest and belly and ribs, stigmata from some earlier torture.  This character previously was fed poison extracted from a tarantula, Gila monster, scorpion, and boa constrictor (a serpent that is not venomous, of course).  This poison turned him into a zombie and sex slave for Myrna Loy's depraved Chinese princess, Dr. Fu Manchu's daughter.  In the throes of the gu poison, Ken-doll hero throws a fit in a wild rainstorm and laughs maniacally as he delivers his fiancee and the rest of the Caucasians into the elaborately curved fingernails of Dr. Fu Manchu -- but Brabin has the camera so far away that we can't see the man's face, probably a mercy since there is no evidence that he can act at all.  Once everyone has escaped from their respective torture chambers, the allied forces of the White men can seize control of the Death Ray.  In a basement amphitheater, a sort of rec-room from Hell, Fu Manchu is choreographing the slaughter of the hero's fiancée, clad in a diaphanous and semi-transparent night-gown, and exhorting the "Men of the East" to seize all White women and beget children upon them so that the White race will be bred out of existence.  Unfortunately for Dr. Manchu, there is a trapdoor right below the Death Ray and, opening this conveniently located hatch, our heroes pour lightning down onto the heads of the assembled multitude, massacring them all in a series of supremely uncommunicative and dull long shots.  This is the kind of movie in which a series of small niche-like rooms, decorated with stalactites and stalagmites, are full of listless, limp-looking snakes, the same critters appearing in each chamber -- one can imagine the hapless set-decorators lugging the torpid constrictor form room to room.  When the archaeologist removes the mask of Genghis Khan, the film's symbol for the hegemony of the East over our Western civilization, a big tarantula is prowling around the inside of the Great Khan's skeletal eye-socket.  The tarantula appears later when Fu Manchu cunningly milks the poor spider for its venom so as to manufacture the elixir of zombification (and, also, an aphrodisiac) that misleads the dimwitted muscle-man hero into dragging his fiancée and future father-in-law and the Trotsky look-alike into the den of the Asiatic fiend.  All obstacles surmounted in the end, the muscle-man is reunited with his pale-faced fiancée and, when a ship's porter appears with a gong to announce that dinner is served, everyone has a good laugh at the expense of the servile Oriental man announcing that the buffet on this all-inclusive cruise ship is open -- "Are you a doctor? Or a physicist?  Or an archaeologist?  Or a student of strange poisons and tortures?" Nayland Smith asks the chubby servant.  The man looks like he's a Filipino and he grins, showing a mouthful of rotten teeth, saying "Not me, boss!"  I forgot to mention that a guy is tortured to death by being forced to listen to a great bell sounding interminably over the rack where he is chained.  When the poor fellow pants that he is dying of thirst, Fu Manchu pours a mouthful of saltwater down his throat and, then, has him branded on the forehead with the mark of a rampant dragon.  And so it goes.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Young and Innocent

Produced by British Gaumont in 1937, Alfred Hitchcock's The Young and Innocent  (1937) is the director's last film made in England.  It occupies a curious blind spot in my imagination -- for some reason, I can never recall that I have seen this movie until I have watched about a third of it.  I think this may be because the rather dire first part of the film doesn't exactly match the mood or tone of the funnier, larky last two-thirds -- this shift in mood mirrors later works by the director that seem to start in one genre and end up somewhere else entirely (romantic caper film to horror in Psycho and romantic comedy to nightmare apocalypse in The Birds).  In fact, the movie, propelled by a blithe and ingenious chase plot, is a compendium of film devices that Hitchcock developed to perfection in later films -- and, in fairness, these devices are already highly effective in the 1937 picture. 

The plot, typical for Hitchcock, involves a good-looking, insouciant man-about-town accused of a murder.  The hero, a Hollywood scriptwriter, is alleged to have murdered a movie star who has made a legacy to the impecunious writer in her Will and who has been seen running away from the beach where the woman's body has washed up.  Captured immediately, the hero is interrogated all night long and, while in police custody, swoons.  His fainting spell summons succor from the heroine, the lavishly beautiful Nova Pilbeam -- she has the austerely perfect features of a silent movie star and Hitchcock's lighting lovingly gilds her with radiance.  The heroine is the daughter of the Police Commissioner investigating the case.  The hero can clear himself if he can find the film's MacGuffin -- in this case, a raincoat stolen from him at a shabby road-house.  Escaping from the courtroom where he is being arraigned, the hero flees custody in search of the lost raincoat.  The heroine, who believes in his innocence, ends up chauffeuring him around the country.  The murderer is afflicted with a twitch in his eyes -- that is his stigmata, the sign by which he will be known.  He plays drums in dance band that incongruously appears in minstrel black-face ("corked up" his features aren't recognizable).  However, at the film's bravura climax, the drummer can't control the twitch in his eyes and his playing becomes arrhythmic -- he also swoons and, once more, is attended by the heroine (the two faints bracket the film).  She recognizes that he is the killer and the film ends happily (or, at least, conventionally) with a close-up of the radiant Pilbeam looking with joy at her future husband and police-officer father.  The effect is a little disquieting:  we see the object of desire turning her head in extreme close-up to look at two icons of respectability:  the husband and the domineering, police commissioner father.  It's an example of Hitchcock's extremely laconic style -- packing an exposition of five minutes into one five second shot.  By all accounts, Hitchcock loved the young debutante -- she was 17 or 18 when the film was made -- and Nova Pilbeam, herself, recalled the director's solicitude, saying that the set was a "very happy one."  So, it's a little sad to see Hitchcock's cameo in the film, debasing himself:  he appears in a fairly lengthy shot as a pudgy, dumpy-looking little reporter who can't get his camera to work right:  the twitchy eye, the villain corked-up in black-face, the fat little man wrestling with an unprepossessing box-camera -- all of this seems to me to be cut from the same cloth.  Hollywood Hitchcock was fat, sadistic, and extremely distinguished -- he deployed his accent like a straight razor.  But 1937 Hitchcock is just a slovenly-looking boyish fat man wishing he were a slender movie star.  (Nova Pilbeam married Hitchcock's assistant director, Pen Tennyson -- a grandson of Alfred Lord Tennyson; when he was killed in a plane crash making a propaganda picture in 1941, she was briefly a widow.  She later married another distinguished man, retired from cinema and had a baby -- she never appeared in movies again.) 

Hitchcock begins the film furiously enough -- another huge close-up of a beautiful woman ranting.  We start out in the middle of ferocious marital combat -- it leads to the woman's murder.  The camera whirls around the couple and lightning flashes outside.  It's all Gran Guignol.  Then, we see cliffs and a corpse washed up in the surf.  The body has one of its arms wrapped up oddly in a crook over its head -- John Boorman must have seen this movie as a boy and been influenced by it:  the dead body on the beach has the same crooked posture as the corpse of Drew in Deliverance.  (Later, the proprietor of flop house puts one of his arms up in the same half-disjointed position).   A shot of the dead body is intercut in a shocking way with a close-angle image of a screaming sea-gulls:  it's The Birds.  (Later, a birthday sequence in which childish songs and games are gruesomely protracted while the police are en route to the party reminds me of the sequence in The Birds in which schoolchildren sing a song with about a hundred repetitive verses while crows ominously gather for the attack.)  There's a scene in a mill with a waterwheel similar to later scenes in mills in other Hitchcock films and, when a car crashes into a deep pit in a mine, the sequence of shots by which the hero saves the heroine, grasping her hand and pulling her up out of the abyss is similar to the climax on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.  Hitchcock's use of rear-projection is very stylized and dreamlike in this film -- particularly weird surreal images of people running forward or backward against rear projected images.  (The movie makes extensive use of exquisitely detailed miniatures -- and for no reason that I can ascertain:  the use of the miniatures of a village and railroad station suggest that Hitchcock intended to stage a grandiose train wreck after the manner of Fritz Lang's Spione, but there is no such scene in the movie.)  What Hitchcock inevitably lost when he immigrated to Los Angeles is the Dickensian background that he uses in The Young and the Innocent -- the movie is crammed with witty, affectionate portraits of English types:  there is the mostly blind and feckless barrister whose representation doesn't inspire any confidence in the accused man, various belligerent lorry drivers who hang out at a truck's stop called Tom's Hat, the police commissioner and his many sons engaged in banter and bickering at the dinner table, and, then, the denizens of the flop house, including a tinker who seems to come right out of Oliver Twist and who is instrumental in the film's elaborate climax.  From start to finish, this film is pure pleasure. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Henry VI, Part One (The Hollow Crown -- series two)

Promising Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, the BBC has dusted-off Shakespeare's trilogy of plays about the Duke of York's predecessor, Henry VI.  These are early works, maybe not entirely Shakespearian (Marlowe may have had a hand in them) and rarely performed.  Viewed objectively, the first part of Henry VI is more like Game of  Thrones than Shakespeare and I don't think its accidental that the program is being broadcast on PBS during a hiatus in the HBO hit and in the same time slot.  The first episode, nominally based on Shakespeare's script, but immensely shortened and simplified, is, in effect, a giant tease for Cumberbatch's appearance.  Having declared his insurgency to the throne, York goes home and calls for his sons -- we see his three handsome boys and, then, a crookbacked shadow, all in black, appears limping through an open door:  it's Richard and, with the appearance of his silhouette, the show ends.

A bizarre and remarkable paradox runs through all of Shakespeare's history plays:  the institution of the monarchy is ancient, dignified, and sanctioned by divine right.  And, yet, in ordinary circumstances no one can become King without first swimming through a sea of blood and treachery.  It's as if Mafia chieftains declared that they ruled their rackets not merely by force but by the mandate of heaven.  Furthermore, once a King has seized power, everyone is supposed to forget the murderous route that he took to the throne and sanctify him as God's anointed.  (There is a similar inclination in America's founding fathers -- in The Federalist, Madison asserts that once the new government has been formed, everyone must regard it as ancient, immemorial and sanctified by Natural Right.)  The problem of succession bursts into prominence in an early scene in the film:  Henry V, who has conquered large swaths of France, has just died.  A Duke rushes into a nearby room to salute his son, the new King -- not just a child, but a mewling new-born infant.

As radically abbreviated for TV, Henry VI divides into three parts.  In the first sequence, the shortest, we learn that the chief men in the land are divided into the houses of York and Lancaster and that the feuding factions are represented by roses:  York and his allies wear a white rose; Lancaster wears a red rose.  The king is under the control of a Regent, an unaligned nobleman named Gloucester who seems "almost damned in a fair wife," a younger minx named Nell.  The young Henry VI is pale-skinned, feckless, and congenitally kind:  he is the opposite of his brutal war-fighting father and, in fact, at the climax of the play, triggers a civil war because he is too gentle to have anyone executed.  In the second part of the show, the scene switches to France for some combat.  The French have rebelled under the leadership of Joan la Pucelle -- we know her as a Joan of Arc.  Shakespeare was no admirer of the French visionary and he portrays her as a scheming witch, a practitioner of the Black Arts.  (Shakespeare's portrait is so nasty that the film vastly abridges this section of the play and removes some of the truly vicious stuff -- for instance, in the play, Shakespeare has Joan claim that she is pregnant when chained to the stake:  it doesn't avail her, but is a cruel twist all the same.)  The flower of the English knights, a belligerent father and son (I didn't hear their names exactly -- it might be Talbot or Talyard) perish battling the French in a futile battle.  Since these knights are affiliated with the white rose faction, the red rose leader, a handsome thug called Summerset delays in coming to their rescue -- thus resulting in their death.  Summerset woos a French duchess for King Henry and brings her back to be married to his liege -- there's a little flavor of Tristan and Isolde in this subplot since Summerset and his hostage, Margaret of Anjou, are sexually attracted to one another and, in fact, sleeping together.  In the third part of the program, the deal with the French that ended the war in Europe collapses and the English lose their conquered territories.  Margaret, who is a traitor, schemes with Summerset to have the noble Regent, Gloucester, assassinated.  (Gloucester's weakness is his wife, Nell, a mini- Lady Macbeth who has been spurring him onto to seize power; Gloucester is too loyal to act treacherously, but his wife is accused of witchcraft -- she's performing some voodoo with dolls -- and she is exiled.  This treason sets up Gloucester for arrest and murder by the red rose faction).  With Gloucester out of the way, it's obvious that Henry VI is too weak to hold the country together and Warwick and York, the leader of the white roses, openly challenge Summerset and his allies, a vicious priest named Winchester, and another guy's whose name I didn't write down.  So the scene is set for Civil War. 

The BBC stages this all with gusto, using historic sites throughout England -- the Tower of London features prominently.  The actors are all effective, of course, and gnaw through their fustian lines with vim and vigor.  The script is rife with Shakespearian gibberish of the most extreme sort:  at one point, during a battle in which Joan of Arc has personally intervened to stab a British knight in the back, another Englishman cries out:  "Would  that my eyes were bullets to shoot from my head and pierce your heart!"  The scenery is impressive -- a horseman rides along the crest of the White Cliffs buzzed by drone-cameras.  There is a battle, rather unsuccessfully staged, with breaks in the sword-fighting for people to speak their lines and while poor Gloucester is being strangled, red-rose Summerset is having sex with the alluring Margaret of Anjou, played by a comely Black actress whose complexion raises interesting genealogical questions about the House of Anjou.  In some ways, this is a pageant that is sub-Game of Thrones because constrained by a rather lifeless and over-complex Shakespearian script.  But it effectively sets up the Civil War, establishes a milieu for the upcoming star-turn by Cumberbatch, and, in fact, is reasonably absorbing, at least, in its last forty-five minutes.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Heart of a Dog

An icy, other-worldly glow emanates from Laurie Anderson's documentary meditation on death, The Heart of a Dog (2014).  Overly explicit, I think, in some of its sequences, the movie, nonetheless, operates as lyric poetry -- it's an anthology of recollections, aphorisms, and Tibetan Buddhist doctrine unified ultimately by Anderson's voice.  By "voice", I mean both Anderson's actual way of speaking, her ice-cream pure timbre that is one of the great instruments in the world, and, also, her sensibility.  The film's parts, each of which is perfectly lucid in itself, are unified by the framework of obsessional images that Anderson uses -- in this way, the film seems to me similar to some of the documentaries made by Chris Marker, particularly the brilliant, if maddeningly digressive, Sans Soleil

In the film, Anderson reflects on five deaths -- she recalls the pall of ash descending over lower Manhattan after 9-11, a kind of mass dying that dusted the streets with its cinders, connecting this to the death of her rat terrier rescue-dog, Lollabelle.  She begins the movie by recalling the death of her mother, a theme to which she reverts at the end of the film -- Anderson seems to have learned her glacial composure from her mother and tells us that the dying woman greeted "the animals" as she passed away.  She describes the death of the sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark and, in a harrowing passage, recalls small children who had been badly burned dying in a ward where she was treated when she broke her back in a diving accident.  In addition to these five explicit instances of death or dying, Anderson's film in all of its parts, and in every frame, is also a response to the death of her husband, Lou Reed.  Anderson recognizes that to make the film explicitly about the rock star's death would be a form of sentimental pandering and, so, she mentions him only in the dedication at the end of the picture.  (We see Reed briefly sitting on a beach and he plays the part of a sinister doctor in one recreation from Anderson's memory.)  The film does not feature any of Anderson's distinctive music -- we hear a song by Lou Reed over the closing titles.

The visual aspect of the film is "hand-made" -- Anderson shows us scarred 8 millimeter film from family movies and the film's digital imagery has been manipulated to give it a patina, sometimes bronze and metallic, sometimes scored and twitchy with blemishes, sometimes gloomy and leaden.   The patina on the images, with Anderson's distinctive voice, is also a unifying factor in the film.  There are many images of snow falling through the barren limbs of trees -- pictures, I think, that also recall the descent of the white ash that Anderson describes covering lower Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center.  One of the touchstones in the film is Goya's late painting, a mural from his Quinta del Sordo ("the villa of the deaf man")   , showing the head of a dog at the base of a great void of glowing yellow-bronze light; some people think the dog has been buried in a pit up to its neck -- Anderson says the dog is climbing a steep slope.  The image of glowing this brass-yellow and bronze void is computer-superimposed on many images -- we see through this haze derived from the Goya painting (as we often look through glass streaked with rain)  and, in other instances, the filmmaker puts this brazen, metallic field into the sky itself.  Anderson cuts into the film swaths of surveillance footage -- she makes a few politically correct and abundantly obvious remarks about the surveillance state following 9-11 but (thankfully) drops that theme almost immediately.  Her use of the surveillance imagery is poetic -- earlier she has told us that dogs see mostly in ill-focused blues and greens, and the ghostly infra-red footage of people aimlessly moving around seems to signify two things:  first, we are seeing the world through the eyes of a dog, a blue-green haze, and, second, we are seeing the world at an eerie distance, an out-of-body vantage point that Anderson, I think, equates to the Bardo state.  In many respects, the film is structured as an exercise from the Book of the Great Awakening through Sound or, as it is often called, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  That religious treatise is an ars moriendi -- a book on the art of dying and assisting the dying in leaving this earthly plane of existence, one of the models for the film as well.  Anderson tells us that after someone dies, they linger in a spectral Bardo-existence for 49 days before they have been purged of their connection to their past life and can be reborn into their next existence.  For Anderson, it seems, the Bardo-plane, at its oblique angle to our actual life, is an image for art -- the way that art takes a different vantage on life and the way her cool, precisionist narration establishes a distance that separates her lucid compassionate intelligence from sorrow and grief.  "It's okay to feel sad," Anderson says that her teacher told her, "but you should not be sad."  The bardo-plane seems to operate as a recollection of life that may make us feel sad, but that is not intrinsically sad -- it isn't being sad, because it's part of a process of awakening.  The film's chill gathers around scenes of the young Laurie Anderson ice-skating in Glen Ellyn near Chicago where she was raised.  The cold in the air also relates to the frigidity in Anderson's mother -- a central confession made in the film is that Anderson never really loved her mother.  And the lack of affection seems to have been mutual as well as decisive in Anderson's art -- we hear the cold and impassive voice of the remote mother in Anderson's utterly objective and dispassionate phrasing, the remote lucidity of her aphorisms, the exact, logical clarity of the things that she says.   I remarked the some parts of the film are overly explicit, too explanatory, for my taste.  At one point, Anderson describes the work of her friend Gordon Matta-Clark in which the artist sawed through and divided houses into two parts -- "no one mentions that his parents were divorced," she says, "and he came from a 'broken home'."  This draws a very clear line between Matta-Clark's artwork, an oeuvre that is quite complex and that has inspired much learned criticism, and his personal life -- a connection that, I think, the artist might disavow.  Another overly explicit moment in the film is when Anderson's rat terrier is beset by a hawk and realizes suddenly that instead of being the predator, she might be the prey.  "From that time, Lollabelle had a different relationship to the sky," Anderson says, "she was always looking up to see if death would come for her from above."  This is a nice moment, but Anderson, then, takes it to the next step, explicating her remarks as specifically applying to the people who lived in her neighborhood in downtown New York. 

The film is not as grim as I have made it sound.  Enlivening the picture is Anderson's affectionate portrait of her pet.  Anderson clearly regards Lollabelle as a wholly sentient being and there are some traces of humor in her attempts to teach the dog how to speak English.  Later, we see that when the dog went blind, Anderson taught the terrier to paint -- she shows some of Lollabelle's works in the film.  She also had a music teacher instruct the dog in how to play piano and, from time to time, we see the frail, blind-eyed dog tapping with her paws on a keyboard and, periodically, yapping at the camera.   Anderson's sensibility, which some might find bewilderingly remote, seems to draw no distinction between the death of a human being and Lollabelle's death -- possibly, this viewpoint arises from Anderson's sense that all beings are invested in one another by the laws of karmic destiny, and that death is really just a process that leads to another incarnation.  Lollabelle was a human in previous life, perhaps, and will be human in the future as well.  (I wonder if Anderson is not also suggesting that her icy mother will be reincarnated as an animal -- is this what is suggested by her dying mothers greeting to the unseen animals?)

Before watching the film, I looked at a music-video of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman", her big hit in the UK (it charted at number 2).  The work is seminal in its use of electronics and vocoder.  Anderson chants:  "If love fails, there is justice / If justice fails, there is force / If force fails, there is mom."  When she was a little girl, Anderson took a short cut home across a frozen lake.  She was pushing two of her baby brothers in a perambulator.  (She had seven siblings).  The ice broke and the babies plunged into the icy lake.  Anderson dived into the water and saved both of them.  Then, she ran home, one of the babies under both arms.  At home, her mother said to her:  "Why Laurie, I didn't know you could swim so well.  And I certainly didn't know you could dive." 

Saturday, December 10, 2016


Once, I thought highly of Steven Spielberg's 1941, a movie that was universally maligned by the critics in 1979 when it was released.  I haven't looked at the movie for 20 years and so was curious to assess my reactions today. 

The actual subject of 1941 is purely abstract:  color and violent motion.  The film's ostensible subject is war hysteria -- a topic that could be considered in the halcyon days post-Vietnam without the admixture of dread and guilt that now complicates the issue.  A group of one-dimensional characters -- each possessing a single salient obsession -- confronts the threat that the Japanese are about to invade southern California.  The story takes place a week after Pearl Harbor and paranoia is rife.  (The film doesn't address the real-life consequence of this war-hysteria -- that is, the interment of citizens of Japanese ethnicity in concentration camps.)  A rogue pilot sets off a scare and the night blazes with anti-aircraft fire over Hollywood.  Meanwhile, a Japanese submarine, captained by Toshiro Mifune (no less!) surfaces off the Santa Monica pier triggering more mayhem.  The air and sea plots converge in Santa Monica with the sub firing torpedos at the amusement park on the pier and the local citizenry blasting away at the Japanese vessel.  The convoluted plot is merely an armature on which to string elaborate and spectacular set-pieces:  planes pursuing one another down Sunset Boulevard decorated for Christmas with guns blazing, machine guns destroying rotund Santa figures, a howitzer fired directly through a suburban home, a vast brawl between hundreds of soldiers, sailors and zoot-suiters, a fully lit Ferris wheel rolling into the ocean, a tank crashing violently through a paint factory, the sky over Los Angeles with bombs bursting in air.  The cast, all of whom are supposed to look goofy and inept, includes John Belushi as the rogue fighter pilot, Dan Ackroyd as a tank commander, Treat Williams playing a lascivious gorilla in pursuit of the leading lady, Joe Flaherty from Second City as a half-Jewish Latin bandleader, Slim Pickins playing a malign yokel, Ned Beatty cast as a citizen-soldier who fires a cannon repeatedly through his house, Sam Fuller (uncredited) as a general in the situation room and Robert Stack playing General Joseph Stilwell, the military man in charge of defending Los Angeles.  These players deliver their lines as if they were appearing in a parody of a parody published in MAD magazine.  At two-hours, the movie now feels to me overlong -- it piles one slapstick calamity onto another until the audience is exhausted.  (As the great silent comedians knew, two reels is the best length for slapstick.)   With its all-star cast and spectacular special effects, achieved through the use of lovingly constructed miniatures (this was before CGI), the film resembles to some degree Stanley Kramer's film cinemascope travesty of slapstick, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World.  As a pure spectacle of light and sound, violent action, and color, parts of the film remain unmatched -- the brawl between the soldiers and sailors with the zoot-suiters attacking from outside is a sequence that remains astounding in its virtuosity at staging ingenious and witty violence:  the whole thing is cut to forties Big Band music and involves complex choreography as well as frenetic chaotic fighting.  Some of the early scenes amply demonstrate Spielberg's obsession with World War II airplanes -- whenever Spielberg can show a WWII "Fighting Fortress" his cinema comes to life:  it's always been my assertion that one of his best films is Empire of the Sun in which the director was able to indulge that obsession in detail.  In Sugarland Express, Spielberg demonstrated that he could stage a car-chase as a waltz or pirouette, as pure rock and roll, and, in fact, at the end of the film, as a tragic elegy.  In 1941, Spielberg choreographs things to dance and spin; he can set up lightning-fast chain-reactions resulting in enormous explosions or small-scale elegant calamities and, further, can approximate the mood of these interacting things to the mood of the film:  a slow-motion chain reaction in the ruins of the dance-hall where the brawl has erupted is a masterpiece, both sad, funny, and intensely moving:  a rolling drum, a string of  Christmas lights, and a punch bowl act together as an ensemble in way that eludes most of Spielberg's live actors. 

Much of what happens in 1941 seems relatively standard today -- in fact, it's the basis for modern action films.  What is important to recognize is that Spielberg, more or less, invented the form with 1941 and, later, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Before 1941, a movie was supposed to be about recognizable human conflict involving people who were acting on recognizable, even, plausible human motives.  But 1941 drives its plot on an protracted effort at rape, woman's erotic fixation on having sex in airplanes, and a soldier's insane hatred of eggs.  The general who is supposed to be defending Los Angeles spends most of the movie escaping responsibility, sitting in a movie theater watching a Disney movie with vaguely racist overtones.  The general's role, absconding from all responsibility, seems to be a metaphor for Spielberg's participation in this film -- he avoids all responsibility by simply staging one disaster after another, each louder and more spectacular than the last:  he is hiding at the movies.  (Spielberg, famously the product of a broken home, ends the film with an entire stick-built and massive house plunging off a cliff -- an image of a literally "broken home" that seems both intensely personal and a homage to Antonioni's Zabriskie Point.)  Since motion pictures began, there has always been an inner logic and an incentive to make each big-budget production more intense, more fearsome, more extreme in every respect than before.  Although Spielberg certainly didn't invent this tendency (Buster Keaton destroyed an engine and whole train in The General), he perfects it.  1941 is intended to annihilate all previous slapstick films, most particularly Stanley Kramer's Mad World extravaganza.  So similarly, Schindler's List was to be the ne plus ultra of Holocaust movies just as Saving Private Ryan was supposed to represent the ultimate in all war pictures.  George Lucas' Star Wars featured one of the original "canyon dogfights" --- Lucas figured out that to make flying machines feel like they are moving at the utmost speed, they must navigate slot-canyons:  thus Luke Skywalker flying through the mechanized slit in the side of the Death Star.  Spielberg decides to do Lucas one better in 1941 -- not only does he tip his hand by showing Belushi flying through the actual Grand Canyon, he climaxes his film with a dogfight between WW II planes flying at car-antenna height down Sunset Boulevard.  The point is that the logic of movies is to take an episode renowned in previous films and make it more exciting, more violent, more dangerous.  In some ways, therefore, 1941 is true to its intentions:  in this film, Spielberg stages some of the most brilliantly conceived action sequences in film history.  The movie is cold, obvious, inhuman, even, according to contemporary taste, politically incorrect -- there are crude racial jokes, the Japanese are caricatured, and one of the leading men spends the whole movie trying to violently inflict himself sexually on the leading lady -- but as pure massive spectacle much of the film remains unsurpassed.