Sunday, February 28, 2016

Pick-up on South Street

Like terrorism today, the Red Scare of the early fifties was sufficiently vivid to movie audiences in that time to be a credible threat suitable for driving suspense plots.  Critics generally ignore the fact that North by Northwest is driven by a cabal of subversives whose patrician demeanor and good manners mirrors Alger Hiss.  (At one point in the film, someone identifies the MacGuffin, that is, the object of the quest powering the plot, as a "pumpkin" -- referring, I think, to an allegation in the Hiss case that microfilm was concealed in a hollow gourd.)  Samuel Fuller's Pick-up on South Street (1953) is a raw, tabloid-style riff on similar paranoid themes -- a cabal of subversives is smuggling microfilm using a damaged good-time gal as their mule.  The girl has her purse picked in the subway by a "cannon" -- that is, a professional pickpocket -- played by Richard Widmark.  In this way, the pickpocket unwittingly comes into possession of five frames of microfilm, enigmatic equations and arrays of numbers, posited to have vast strategic value.  Widmark's petty criminal tries to leverage his possession of the microfilm to his advantage, pitting the cops against the subversives.  The plot is a variant on Hitchcock's favorite narrative device -- the double chase:  the bad guys are chasing a good guy who is also on the run from the police.  The story is conventional, but Fuller amps everything to near-hysteria with his nervous, hyper-expressive camera-style -- he dollies the camera so fast and so furiously that on several occasions I expected the actors to flinch at the caroming camera:  you have expect the snout of the camera to smash into someone's face.  (Sometimes, Fuller moves the camera so quickly that he loses focus momentarily.)  The movie is shot in big close-ups with people sneering or leering at one another and everyone speaks in criminal argot that has a rude sort of demotic poetry.  Fuller is nothing if not audacious -- when Widmark rummages around in the heroine's purse, she gazes dreamily into his eyes with a kind of vacant sexual excitement:  the fetishized purse is a major feature of the film -- it gets groped and battered and thrown around, obviously symbolizing the demi-monde heroine's abused sexuality.  (The actress looks like a bruised, bargain basement Ava Gardner -- she wears the same revealing outfit throughout the whole film.)  The movie has a rancid disreputable tone -- it opens in a subway tunnel and ends with a savage underground fight in the same tunnel; the hero (Widmark) lives literally in extremis -- he occupies a former bait shop precariously perched on rotting stilts in the Hudson, a shack reached by walking from the pier over two conspicuously unstable planks.  Everything takes place in a kind of raunchy, ruinous, and poverty-stricken netherworld -- at one point, the pickpocket negotiates for a corpse on a little barge full of unmarked and water-sodden caskets; the scene seems to take place on River Styx itself.  Fights occur in subway toilets and filthy basements.  Fuller stages the brutality without cutting, people throwing one another around squalid rooms in action sequences staged to seem simultaneously horrific and comical; he fast-cranks to make the wrestling and punches move with Keystone Kops velocity.  A number of these set pieces are memorable:  a bad guy crouches in a dumb-waiter while cops above and below him wave guns and hunt for  the fugitive, the good-time girl is savagely beaten and basically thrown through a wall, combatants stagger around in the luridly lit bowels of the subway as trains roar past.  The most famous scene in the movie is the murder of Thelma Ritter, the actress playing a bizarre kind of informant -- she sells ties from a battered brief-case that she carries, raising money, she says, for her funeral and cemetery plot.  The scene in which the exhausted Ritter, too tired to maintain the Darwinian struggle for existence, encourages a villain to shoot her is poignant and both brilliantly written and staged -- her resignation and exhaustion are so palpable that is almost a relief when the gunman blows off her head.  Clocking in at one hour and 20 minutes, Fuller's nervous and edgy kind of filmmaking works most effectively in short, adrenalin-fueled bursts -- some scenes lag inexplicably and Fuller doesn't care much for exposition.  Less than 90 minutes, the film still seems too long -- this is because Fuller's interest isn't in the plot, or, even, the characters, most of whom are Damon Runyon-style thugs; he cares about the bravura use of locations, the intense chiaroscuro of the black and white lighting, and the ferocity of the fight scenes.  Everything else has a provisional feeling -- it's there, but not really there.     

Saturday, February 27, 2016


About a year ago, on a Sunday morning, I drove to Minneapolis to pick up my daughter at the airport.  I left Austin early so that I could go to the movie.  I saw Inherent Vice at a multiplex, attending, as I remember, the 11:50 showing.  At around the same time, Selma was playing on another screen.  The lobby and corridors of the cinema were crowded with African-American people, obviously gathering for Selma after church.  The Selma audience consisted of heavy-set middle-aged people, all of them well-dressed -- the women were bossy and voluptuous in their Sunday finery, many of them wearing big floral hats.  The men were neatly groomed, their brawn gone to flab, wearing brown suits with brightly shined shoes.  It was obvious to me that these were serious, righteous people, among the elect and, therefore, confident and, even, a bit outspoken.  They occupied the space in a way very different from the scrawny mobs of teenagers come to see the latest vulgar comedy or horror film.  Indeed, they occupied space with a nobility very unlike the shifty-looking and haunted cineasthetes, only a handful of us, gathered to see Inherent Vice.  Contemplating those people come to see Selma, every one of them Black, I felt more than a little ashamed of my post-modern sensibilities, my superficial cynicism, my affected despair.

Selma (2014, Ava DuVerny) is like that audience -- sober, respectful, burnished, well-appointed and handsomely groomed.  Although epic is scope, the film is tautly constructed, focusing on a few weeks in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson has determined that his War on Poverty is more important than voting rights for Negroes in the deep South.  Accordingly, he pleads with Martin Luther King, freshly arrived from Oslo with a Nobel peace prize, to prioritize the Great Society before voting rights.  A terrorist attack on a southern church has resulted in the death of four little girls and King is not willing to compromise on voting rights.  He travels to Selma with the express intent of provoking violent confrontation with local police to dramatize the injustice of denying Black people the vote.  True to form, the White locals brutalize King's non-violent protesters -- King has been warned to stay away from the initial attempted march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the first step in the advance of his forces on the Alabama State capitol at Montgomery, and he is not present when the peaceful demonstrators are tear-gassed, beat down by men on horseback, and clubbed.  The images of the carnage are broadcast to the nation and galvanize an enormous public protest involving people of all faiths.  During the second march onto the Pettus bridge, led by King this time, the Civil Rights protestors advance to the middle of the span where they drop to their knees in prayer but, then, withdraw. A few days later, after King has again met with President Johnson, the protestors are assured of safe passage to Montgomery and the fifty mile march ensues under the watchful eye of Federal troops.  The film ends with King delivering an inspiring speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol while the sinister governor, George Wallace, lurks inside nursing his grievances.  The movie is mostly hushed, focusing in large part on strategy meetings between Dr. King and his lieutenants.  There is some violence but it is not aggressively staged -- DuVerny knows that the battle scenes are not the key element in this film and she keeps the action relatively low-key.  There is considerable irony that many plot developments in this basically political story are narrated through titles appearing on the screen -- ostensibly, log entries in the FBI file created on Dr. King by the vicious J. Edgar Hoover.  (Johnson connives with Hoover who loathes King to try to disrupt the Civil Rights' leaders family life by sending his wife, Coretta King, audio tapes of her husband in bed with other women -- this is the extent to the which the film acknowledges Dr. King's well-known philandering when he was away from his home parish.)  By and large, the picture is fascinating and the acting, generally, flawless -- the African actor who plays Dr. King, David Oyelowo, looks and sounds very much like the famous leader.  Much of the drama in the film arises from King's exhaustion and his concern that his strategy of non-violent protest, using the bodies of his demonstrators against the batons, dogs, and guns of the police, is too costly in terms the suffering endured by his supporters.  The film is very good in portraying the fact that, although we know the outcome of the story, the people on the ground in 1965 couldn't predict the future and, in fact, had good reason to dread that they would be slaughtered.  King's anguish in the face of this uncertainty is realistically shown. 

The film is handsomely produced with superb photography by Bradford Young.  Most of the images are a tiny bit dingy, underlit, even faded -- the interiors disclose the genteel poverty of the Black middle class in the early sixties.  There is a specific art to lighting Black actors, particularly someone like David Oyelowo, who is very dark indeed.  The camerawork is sensitive to this problem: many of the dark faces are beautifully rim-lit, with cheeks and sides of noses and brows glistening with light.  The film's colors are earthy, muddy-looking greens and browns, and the décor reminds me, to some extent, of the half-malodorous, mostly familiar wallpaper and carpet and pictures and furniture that you might see in a movie by Terence Davies -- everything looks a bit shabby, well-used, but comfortable.  The film's editing is a little jarring at times -- DuVerny has a tendency to show conflict by cutting across eye-lines and violating the 180 degree rule, but, by and large, the film is coherent and the editing clear.  Because the film's focus is on politics -- that is pragmatic considerations and compromise -- the movie isn't as inspiring as many people might have hoped:  it is too honest and too realistic to be particularly inspirational.  There are a number of blunders, but none of them significantly damage the film:  a scene between Malcolm X and Coretta King seems forced and questionable -- X says that he will continue to terrorize Whites with his rhetoric so that King's efforts will succeed as the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the Caucasian population.  Oprah Winfrey is too instantly recognizable to be persuasive in any film -- here she keeps getting abused and mistreated and, even, beaten up and we have the sense that the whole Civil Rights movement could be perversely interpreted as securing justice for this famous celebrity.  There is a long scene between King and his wife in which he halfheartedly confesses (more or less) to infidelity -- the scene is shot in the family house with a ridiculous tschocky featured in most of the shots; you spend your time trying to figure out the meaning of the knickknack and ignore most of the lugubrious lines spoken by the principals.  Equally unfortunate is the film's decision to show "where are they now" credits over images of the movie's main characters during King's climactic speech on the Montgomery Capitol steps -- we read these lines attentively and end up paying little or no attention to King's speech.  The first 45 minutes of the movie are its best -- in that section of the film, the movie's narrative is swift, sure, and interestingly elliptical.  I particularly admired a scene where the activists enjoy a huge breakfast at the home of a female supporter -- the scene is natural, wonderfully realistic, and strangely poetic.  This is a good and honest picture, nobly understated, but it isn't the shattering epic many people expected when the movie was released. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff)

A new restoration of Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight, sometimes also known as Falstaff, is currently on-tour.  Although I know the film well and, indeed, own a somewhat dodgy video-tape of the production, I availed myself of the opportunity to see the movie on the big screen.  (I think I saw the picture in a church basement in the mid-seventies projected in a 16 mm print -- in that showing, the projector was louder than the mumbled and disorienting soundtrack so that the movie was, in effect, silent, a jumble of beautiful images, a harrowing battle-scene, with some trumpet fanfares thrown in for a good measure.)  Restoration of the film seems to have focused in large part on improving the sound, a problem with this film heavily criticized when the movie was premiered.  Shot in Europe on a shoe-string budget, Welles mobilized an international cast, had them mime the words and, then, post-synchronized the film in English -- the effect was catastrophic:  Welles uses extremely deep focus and characters standing a hundred yards from the lens were recorded at the same volume as whispered conversations shot in close-up -- the film's sonic landscape was surreally jumbled and this led several major critics to complain that the movie was amateurishly made and, perhaps, even incomplete.  In the restored version, some of this sonic chaos has been corrected -- people remote from the camera sound more distant now and I don't recall the Shakespearian poetry as being as clear and distinct as voiced in this present version of the film:  you can now hear what the characters are saying, and, although their lines are spoken very quickly, an alert listener can generally understand what is being said. 

Of course, the film is visually gorgeous and brilliantly edited -- almost every shot is masterfully composed and Welles' command of film grammar is absolutely impeccable.  Indeed, in its visual aspect the movie is just about flawless.  Seen on the small screen of a TV set, Welles' canted perspectives and habit of interposing faces seen in close-up with remote action hundreds of feet away, seems mannered, and ostentatious -- Welles was always a great show-off and this film is no exception:  in some instances, the expressionistic lighting is almost too brilliant -- it draws attention to itself.  But this aspect of the film is muted when seen on a big screen.  Viewed in an actual theater, it's clear that Welles' compositions are not merely highly theatrical and wildly imaginative -- these compositions are, in fact, supremely expressive.  And, in this film, Welles achieves an almost perfect fusion of set, actors, and lighting -- his sets are extraordinarily detailed and the camera roams through them:  Welles prismatic editing gives the impression of a moving camera exploring the space, but, in fact, this is an illusion -- rather, his editing is so logically designed, moving from shot to shot so swiftly and effortlessly that viewer feels a sense of seamless reality.  Fore- and background is expertly managed -- in a close two-shot in a tavern, for instance, we see a prostitute peeping through an open window in the deep background of the image:  these kinds of effects give the viewer a sense of heightened reality.  Furthermore, Welles carefully delineates the different spaces that the film explores:  Mistress Quickly's tavern and brothel is a maze of low timbered cubby holes and banqueting rooms, an open atrium with a balcony providing a gallery from which the prostitutes can observe (and comment on) the action.  King Henry's castle is an icy cloister with cold beams of light piercing through darkness and somber annexes, all pendant to the barren throne room where conspirators whisper to one another.  The Battle of Shrewsbury is fought on a windy plain where dying soldiers drown in a field of mud.  The final coronation by which Prince Hal becomes Henry V is shot in greyish sepulchral shadow -- the spectral crowds of courtiers and monks and soldiers standing under a stark and vast forest of lances seem trapped in stone chambers far underground, a nightmare procession filmed in quasi-documentary style, somber and deadly and grave so that it is all the more shocking when Falstaff invades this macabre ceremony to demand that the King acknowledge his friendship.  Henry's disavowal of the old man is one of the great moments in film, an immensely powerful and tragic scene shot in huge, enigmatic close-ups.  Although the second half of the movie lags a little -- this is a defect in the source material -- the ending of the picture remains poignant and gruesomely ironic; its the kind of movie-making that can wring tears from its audience.  At least, I was much affected by the film's ending, particularly the narrative from Holinshed's Chronicles extolling the virtues of Henry V while we see, from an overhead angle, two laborers pushing Falstaff's huge coffin across the ravaged countryside -- an image that could have been made by Brueghel.  Welles' plays Falstaff as a force of nature, a great Homeric figure, impossibly fat and massive -- he is less endearing and comical than a titanic force.  And Welles doesn't sugarcoat his hero or conceal his vices -- there is a terrifically sinister scene in which Falstaff impresses hapless peasants and working men to join his brigade, soldiers who will soon be slaughtered in the horrific battle at Shrewsbury.  The battle scene itself is a show-stopper, one of the greatest scenes of this type ever filmed -- the camera slips from marching men and friezes of horsemen to savage-looking instruments of war and an image in which knights are hoisted from trees onto their horses in has a savage impact.  The battle itself is staged as a fury of black and white combat -- the shadows of the men flapping like immense crows against the white fogs and mists of the landscape.  It is altogether shattering.  After this battle, the film's energy declines and we witness the physical deterioration (and moral diminution) of Falstaff -- the poetry becomes less regal and more death-inflected.  Everyone is diseased, it seems, and dying.  This comes as an emotional disappointment after the tremendous fury of the battle scene with its climactic duel between Hotspur and Prince Hall, both flowers of chivalry -- but Welles' film is fully coherent and the emotional let-down in the last third of the picture is thematic.  It's the end of Merry Olde England, the collapse of chivalry, and, with Falstaff's death, we have the sense of the ending of an era.  This film was a touchstone of my youth and decisively framed for me many issues about Shakespeare and Shakespearian poetry and how these plays might be translated to the screen.  So I am happy to report that Chimes at Midnight has not lost any of its power and beauty -- in fact, if anything, I admire it more now than I did forty years ago. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Vinyl (first episode)

Vinyl is a ten-part HBO series produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese.  The show's first episode aired on Valentine's Day, 2016 and was astonishing, an operatic return to form for its director, Martin Scorsese.  I don't have any idea how the rest of the series will turn-out -- on the evidence of the first show, the rest of the series may have no place to go.  I don't know how the program could possibly top the spectacle unleashed in the premiere.

Scorsese, one of American film's greatest (and most learned) directors, has been idling for awhile.  I thought his work on The Wolf of Wall Street was mannered, all of his typical tics and obsessions "phoned-in" as it were -- the movie had no dramatic arc and proved, I think, that greed for greed's own sake is an uninteresting subject.  Watching that film, I had the sense that Scorsese had little or no interest in the protagonist and that he was, perhaps, too embedded in the milieu of the ultra-wealthy to successfully satirize those people.  But Scorsese is passionate about rock and roll and its origins -- as witness his films on the Blues.  He was one of the many cameramen that shot Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock and, in his early films basically invented the MTV video -- in that regard, see the use of the Rolling Stones' in Mean Streets and Donovan's "Atlantis".  Building on Kubrick and Richard Lester, Scorsese recognized that images could be cut to music rhythmically -- his use of music in films was not to create "mood," but to literally synthesize or fuse the images and their rhythmic cutting with the tunes on the soundtrack.  (This is also on display in spades in Scorsese's great concert film The Last Waltz).  Accordingly, it's obvious that Scorsese is immensely interested in the subject of Vinyl, music produced in New York City in 1973.  Although there were some elements of Vinyl's opening episode that were formulaic, Scorsese's fundamental and obsessive passion for the material irradiates the plot and the show felt literally explosive.

In summary, Vinyl concerns an Italian-American record producer, Richie Finestra, who runs a label called American Century.  Finestra's business has its offices in the Brill Building and the script buzzes with references to music and New York culture in 1973 -- people talk about "Lou" and Robert Plant excoriates Finestra for betraying Led Zeppelin in the fine print of a contract; Andy Warhol is lurking at the edges of the scene and the climactic scene involves a concert played by the New York Dolls.  Punk music is surfacing and the business is rapidly changing.  The first episode involves a five-day period, probably in August 1973, in which Finestra negotiates with PolyGram(the successor to Deutsche Gramophone) to sell his label to "the Germans."  Finestra is a recovering alcoholic and has a shameful backstory -- he rode to success, like many in the industry, on the back of a black artist, a Blues singer, who he betrayed and who has been mutilated by members of the mafia.  Beginning as a bartender, Finestra persuaded the blues man to "sell out" and play music that the artist regards as songs for children -- Chubby Checkers' twist records.  In a cruel twist, Finestra sells that part of the business to a Sicilian mobster, selling the Black bluesman as well -- a transaction that invokes chattel slavery.  With money from that sale, Finestra starts his own record business.  In the show, he celebrates a birthday, relapses into alcoholism and drug use, and inadvertently commits a murder -- the homicide, involving a totally corrupt former DJ who owns a string of radio stations (spectacularly played by Andrew Dice Clay) arises during a drunken, cocaine-fueled binge.  (This scene is very funny and horrific all at once).  With the drug-fiend's factotum, played by the sinister and menacing Bo Dietl, the corpse is hidden.  But the pressure of the transaction with the Germans, complicated by Led Zeppelin bolting from the label and Fenistra's panic at the murder, knocks the hero off the wagon.  When a crowd of maenad-like fans appears out of nowhere, literally trampling the car where Finestra is boozing and snorting cocaine, the hero follows them into a concert.  The New York Dolls are playing and, in a riveting scene, the high-decibel band literally rocks the house down -- Finestra is caught under a falling chandelier as the entire brownstone collapses into a cloud of dust and smoke.  The scene has the vivid, campy charge of Poe's gothic "Fall of the House of Usher" -- a crack like a lightning bolt slashes through the walls, signifying the power of rock and roll, but also the collapse of the house of Finestra; everything comes tumbling down.  Then, we see Finestra, like a living corpse, rise from the debris -- he looks like one of those stunned survivors of 9-11, all covered in dust -- and staggers down the desolate street.  How the show can top this extraordinary scene, resonant with allegorical significance, is beyond me.  In classic HBO form, there's lots of gratuitous sex -- in one scene, Finestra meets the drug-addled radio mogul in a place called "Oasis", a sex club,, and a tapestry of naked people copulating writhes behind the dialogue in the foreground.  There's a subplot involving the inception of punk music that involves an employee of Finestra's, the sandwich girl, having sex with a punk who looks vaguely like Richard Hell or Johnny Rotten.  Some of this stuff is stupid and unnecessary -- the Germans are portrayed with accents out of a bad anti-Nazi movie (every real German speaks English with a soft accent and better than most Americans) -- but the power of the whole enterprise lies in the music and here Scorsese shines.  He cuts back and forth to various performances, some of which seem motivated purely as commentary on the action -- in several cases, we see great Black performers who seem to appear out of nowhere and play their music in a kind of dream-space parallel to the action of the film.  It's the music that drives the show and the music is superb -- Mick Jagger apparently can get song-clearances for the show at will and so the whole thing pulses with first-rate Blues and rock and roll.  It's premature, of course, to make any declarations about this series -- we have no evidence beyond the first episode.  But this episode, self-contained in all respects, is as good a piece of Scorsese's direction as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver 

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Alas, Deadpool (Tim Miller 2016) isn't as good as some reviews suggest.  This super-hero movie, part of the Marvel franchise, is reasonably well-designed, not overlong, and sufficiently self-aware to mock itself and its genre. But the movie is not that different from others of its type; Deadpool's wise-cracking cynicism and tendency toward self-parody can be found in the Ironman films and harkens back to Sam Raimi's Darkman featuring Liam Neeson before he was Oskar Schindler and that featured a very similar plot.  (Pop cultural assumes a memory of about twenty years -- Darkman was made in 1990, praised for many of the same characteristics as Deadpool, and is now mostly forgotten by the people who attend super-hero movies.)

What's good about Deadpool can be enjoyed in the film's first half-hour -- after that everything becomes obviously, predictable, and just noisy.  The movie begins in media res with the eponymous character riding in a taxi-cab operated by the obligatory comic Indian cabbie -- Aziz Ansari has commented on the fact that racial stereotyping is alive, well, and unapologetic when it comes to people from the subcontinent.  Deadpool is pursuing a bad guy who disfigured him in an attempt to create a monstrous mutant warrior.  Deadpool's talent's are manifold:  he can whirl through the air like a helicopter and wounds that he suffers heal in seconds and minutes; he is, in effect, immortal.  Like others of his species, he is super-strong, agile, and has fantastically acute senses -- he can fire his revolver to kill bad guys, sometimes three to the bullet, while hurtling through the air upside-down.  In the course of the film, he recovers from having his hand cut-off (Deadpool hacks off his own arm to escape handcuffs all the while cracking wise about 127 Hours); he gets impaled, burnt to a crisp, and has a bullet shot up his ass.  This is all in a day's work for him.  In the film's bravura opening, Deadpool drops from the suspension of a bridge onto a crowded highway, kills a mob of bad guys while they are driving at 100 mph over the bridge, and, then, mows down an army of gunmen and villains on motorcycles.  This spectacular action is sometimes frozen, bodies suspended in mid-air so that Deadpool can narrate the events leading up to this melee -- this part of the movie is witty, engaging, and the hero's backstory is charming in a raunchy kind of way.  (Deadpool has a girlfriend that he met in a bar that caters to mercenaries; after some explicit sex scenes, the couple fall in love -- unfortunately, Deadpool has cancer and seeks treatment with the villains who turn him into a monster.)  After the clever beginning, the film settles into a standard super-hero revenge story.  The climax involves several refugees from the X-Man franchise and protracted combat on a destroyer that is apparently being salvaged for scrap iron -- the fight goes on and on and succumbs to the figures-hurled-through-the-air-only-to-demolish-half-the-landscape tedium that is characteristic of the genre.  This big fight is not as impressive as the battle on the bridge with which the movie begins and something of anti-climax.  The final credits of the film have a sly Pink Panther-style animation that is obscene but funny.  Deadpool is okay and compared with many other films of this kind, a couple levels better and more intelligent, but it's ultimately disappointing.

(I attended the movie in Austin in a crowded Valentine's Day theater -- in Austin, a movie theater is packed if it is half-full.  The opening titles involve the camera roaming in three-dimensions through a stop-action image of a car crashing off a bridge a high-speed; bodies are suspended in air in mists of green and blue broken glass.  It's an abstract and clever title sequence with Mad-magazine style credits.  About ninety seconds into the sequence, the screen rumbled and went dark -- we, then, peered into a glowing void for about ten minutes projecting our own fantasies and desires into the abyss suspended in front of us.  Then, the glowing void lapsed back into inert darkness; some of the house-lights gradually brightened.  After another five minutes, lights imperceptibly dimmed and the film began again -- I told my son, Jack, who attended the movie with me that this was the greatest super-hero movie of all, some surreal images of mayhem and, then, just irradiated darkness that our eyes filled with strange eidetic imagery -- bats and flying men and huge eye sockets peering out of the darkness.)


Although it begins with promise, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq (2015) quickly collapses under the weight of its own improvisational ambitions.  Lee's film is an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a work that is itself a vulgar cacophony of topical allusions with broadly caricatured stereotypes standing in for the warring Spartans and Greeks, and, of course, absurdly obscene.  It could be argued that Chi-Raq in form (or, rather, formlessness) and its aptitude for grotesque offensiveness is true to the ancient text -- but this doesn't make the film any better.  Some works can't be successfully adapted -- I have never seen an even remotely successful stage version of Lysistrata and, so, it is not surprising that the film doesn't make much sense, expends its energies making too many attacks, and, like Aristophanes' original (as least in modern versions) isn't even remotely funny.

Lee's film begins with a Godard-style montage of words -- it's a rap anthem about Chicago that makes the point that there have been more casualties in the gang-wars in Chicago then in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  After this impressive start, the film introduces us to the eponymous Chi-raq, a charismatic gangster rapper, his girlfriend Lysistrata, and Samuel Jackson who plays the part of the chorus.  The movie's script is written in rhythmic verse often with internal rhymes as well as end-stopped couplets.  (No entire film has been presented in verse since, I think, Anthony Burgess' rhyming translation of Cyrano de Bergerac was filmed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau in 1990).  The hip-hop stichomythia is reasonably witty and some of the extended orations by Samuel Jackson, Lysistrata, and a White priest played by John Cusack are effective -- however, as is always the case with rap, the viewer has to be willing to tolerate rhymes such as "couch" and "nappy pouch" (meaning vagina).  Although everyone is willing to accept the daily slaughter of young Black men, when a small girl is gunned down, the women in the 'hood decide to enforce a sex strike against their men -- "No peace, no pussy!" is their battle-cry.  (Lysistrata develops the sex strike idea in consultation with Angela Bassett, a wise older lady who is disgusted with the violence in the neighborhood.)  Despite much initial resistance by many of the women, ultimately sisterhood proves to be powerful and the ban on sex is instituted.  This leads to outrage among the men, including the Knights of Euphrates, apparently an African-American fraternal lodge that has among its fez-hatted members Oedipus -- the level of the film's crudeness can be measured by the fact that Oedipus complains that he has to make all decisions in consultation "with (his) mommy."  At this point, Lee loses heart -- apparently, he is hesitant to commit to story that emphasizes black-on-black violence and, so, the movie spirals out of control as he forces his characters to spew forth dogma on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement as well as myriad of other issues.  John Cusack's great oration, a very impressive speech, involves the gun lobby and gun laws.  Lee also addresses economic inequality, mass incarceration, and a whole variety of lesser or greater evils -- including insurance companies sending representatives into the ghettos to sell life insurance policies on young black men.  It's all too much and the film becomes completely chaotic when the women invade a National Guard armory, humiliate the mostly White soldiers, and, then, proclaim their revolt from the fortifications -- this gives Lee a chance to take shots of the Confederate flag although why it would be prominently displayed in a Chicago armory is unclear to me.  The Mayor and his Black lackey try to persuade the women to surrender.  (The mayor has a Black wife that he visits in bed dressed as King Tut -- he uses his scepter to push aside the bedclothes only to find that the gorgeous woman is wearing a chastity belt:  it's a totally gratuitous sequence that doesn't make any sense at all -- why King Tut?)  In the end, Chi-Raq representing the men challenges Lysistrata to a sexual combat -- the first to climax loses the battle and, thus, the struggle.  This intercourse takes place in a pugilistic arena on a brass bed, but the climactic (no pun intended) copulation is interrupted when Cyclops, the leader of the Trojans (Wesley Snipes) from Troy town surrenders his guns and other weapons, heaping them on the altar-like bed where Chi-Raq and Lysistrata are contending.  The men capitulate and agree to stop killing one another and a general orgy ensues -- the film ends in Cusack's cathedral with hymns of Thanksgiving.  Lee is ambitious and its a big movie -- sex protests are staged throughout the world as the women's strike becomes general:  we see Japanese, Brazilian, Greek, Pakistani, etc. women marching on the streets with obscene banners proclaiming "No Peace, No Pussy!"  But, even, fundamental narrative coherence collapses -- at one point, Lee treats us to spectacular sex scene between Chi-Raq and Lysistrata; we have the impression that Lysistrata has broken her own oath, but, in fact, the scene is apparently motivated as a flashback -- it's as if Lee had a particularly erotic and salacious sex scene with no place to insert it in his film and so just tossed it in at random to keep things lively.  Lee supports White anxieties that sex among African-Americans is ten-thousand times more lively and pleasurable than the wan embraces of Caucasian folks -- even women having sex involuntarily (for instance, Chi-Raq's mother turning tricks) moan like cats in heat and wiggle their behinds enthusiastically.  (Lee has always had a ribald sensibility -- his first film was She's gotta have it and I still recall with horror the sexual taunts with which a disappointed female greats her inefficient lover in Bamboozled.  As always with Lee, the visual aspect of the film is mostly unimportant -- the movie is overlit and the shots are crowded with people, most curvaceous girls who look like MTV models.  The soundtrack featuring jazz by Terence Blanchard, a long-time Lee collaborator, is generally gorgeous -- many of the scenes are lushly scored to Gospel-style music.  The film is a spectacle, that's for certain, but it's too diffuse and crudely made to be effective.  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Oedipus Rex

There's lots of raw, harsh screaming in Pier Paolo Pasolini's screen version of Oedipus Rex (1967).  If you don't keep the volume low, the movie will upset your dog and trouble your children's slumbers.  Pasolini is fascinated by cruelty and many of the images in the film have the stark, pitiless clarity of cinquecento paintings of the martyrdom of saints or Herod's slaughter of the innocents.  Furthermore, Pasolini's staging of violence, although muted by present standards, is disturbingly effective.  When Oedipus meets his father at a crossroads in the wasteland, he flees, at first, from the King's guards, running ahead of them down the dusty track through the badlands with his flimsy bronze-age sword clutched to his chest.  Summoning his courage in a tremendous howl, Oedipus suddenly stops running, turns around and blindly charges his attacker, cutting the man down on the road.  Still screaming like a berserker, he charges down the lane, knocks down and impales the other two guards, and, then, slashes the king on his primitive chariot -- all of this has a primitive force and fury.  When a henchman of the king in an early part of the film carries the infant Oedipus into the desert to kill him, the tiny child is trussed up like a game animal and slung nonchalantly on a staff carried on the man's shoulder.  All gestures in this film are outsized and monumental, the shepherd who finds the child writhing in the dirt brings the infant to his wife as if the child were a very great prize, a treasure beyond compare -- in the midst of excoriating lamentations, people also celebrate with gaudy larger-than-life gestures.

Pasolini begins and ends the movie in our century, a puzzling poetic strategy that brackets the action of the play that otherswise takes place in a primordial landscape of barren, eroded hills and sinister-looking mud villages with crumbling clay ramparts.  (The film was apparently shot in Morocco in the Sahel -- the remote desert caravanserai look like the artifacts of another age entirely.  Featureless walls sheltering pueblo-like structures improbably crown the crests of badland hills.  There is a oasis that looks like a green ribbon in the tawny, gravel-strewn desert -- a strip of low walls with watchtowers guards the precious water.  One fortified city opens into decayed atriums where mud-brick towers slump down over suspended balconies.)  In the opening scenes, we see a child born -- although the image is remote, viewed through the window of a farmhouse.  A child bearing a black flag, possibly signifying fascism, runs through the courtyard of a big communal farm.  (It looks like the big collective farm to which one of the character's retired in Teorema).  Oedipus' father is a handsome, if sullen, military officer and his mother has the timeless features of a Fra Angelico Madonna -- her face is white and seems to have had its features all scoured away except for the woman's vast, strangely emotionless eyes.  Oedipus father doesn't really speak -- he glowers at the baby and, then, we see a title explaining what he is thinking:  he accuses the baby of destroying his wife's love for him.  Oedipus' mother brings the baby into a great tree-shaded meadow where she plays with other young women and, then, breast-feeds him -- it is all very summery with the sound of insects rasping in the hot air.  The camera whirls and the next shot shows us desolate badlands with the King's henchman cheerfully carrying the trussed-up infant into the desert to be killed -- suddenly, we have left nineteen-thirties Italy and find ourselves in the bronze age, three-thousand five-hundred years ago in a lunar landscape of smashed stone where ragged men wear immense hats, turbans, horned helmets with grotesque face-plates, other horseman wearing headgear that looks like screws, bolts, and nuts.  Pasolini dramatizes the bulk of Euripides' play in this African setting -- Apollo at Delphi is a masked figure holding court under the only tree within a hundred miles:  supplicants kneel in long lines in front of the witchdoctor, awaiting their turn to be called into the shade of the tree a hundred years away.   The witchdoctor is flanked by nearly naked boys with painted bodies.  The sphinx is a figure crouching behind an immense mask with a medusa-tangle of raffia hair extending in all directions.  The sphinx squats in a cup-shaped depression in brown and eroded badlands.  Pasolini eliminates the chorus and presents the film's action in a straightforward manner, cutting from extreme long-shots to intense, if often inexpressive, close-ups.  After killing the sphinx, Oedipus is brought to Jocasta's city where he marries her.  The plague ensues with the sky full of black birds darting over the corpses like flies.  Oedipus discovers his crime and finds his mother hanging in the corner of the mud palace.  He uncovers her nakedness and, then, gouges out his eyes with his dagger, his shrieks morphing into the infant's cries when the little baby was abandoned in the wasteland at the start of the film.  As Oedipus leaves the shambles of the mud-walled city, Pasolini cuts away to modern Italy.  A blind man is led by a beggar through the streets of an industrial city.  The blind man plays on a flute and we see clouds of pollution darkening the skies.  The movie is simple enough, uncluttered, and the African locations are truly remarkable, even, surreal -- you keep thinking to yourself that these towers of mud and these long, funereal walls of collapsing mud bricks can't really exist, at least, not now in our present century, these weird pinnacles of clay are figments of the imagination, the forms of archaic thought.  And the film has a visceral impact:  in a late scene in the film, Oedipus encounters the shepherd who saved his life:  the man is kneeling next to a shallow irrigation ditch, rooting around in the mud, presumably to keep the ditch clear and flowing.  The green of the fields contrasts in a startling way with the stony, erosion-clawed hills around the irrigated land -- everything in this scene seems, at once, honest and authentic and, even, somehow familiar; the viewer has a sense of deja vu -- this archaic landscape and its personages are somehow embedded in our modern psyche. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The X-Files (2016)

The six episode reboot of The X-Files airing on Fox in February 2016 has all the flaws and brilliance of the original series.  When the show explores conspiracy theories about alien abduction, pervasive gloom and paranoia seriously dampens the fun -- writers who are generally witty and hip take themselves too seriously and an underlit lugubrious atmosphere prevails:  the dire mood dampens the sexual tension between the principals and the plots deviate into nasty intimations of mortality.  But, of course, The X-Files was, also, one of the funniest shows on TV and, when its scripts find the exact delirious combination of the macabre and the comical, there is no better show on TV.  Unfortunately, the first two episodes of this outing seemed designed primarily for fan-boys, that is, the geeks and nerds enamored with the morbid paranoid conspiracy plots --  mostly gynecological horror-stories involving monstrous government conspiracies supervised by the "smoking man" (he now inhales his unfiltered cigarettes through an ostomy hole drilled in his throat) were always the backbone of the show and provided its connective tissue, but this was the element of the program that was most problematic.  In this reboot, with obligatory and morose conspiracy stuff mostly out of the way in the first two shows, the program is free indulge itself in the fun monster-chases and heavily ironic haunted-house stuff that made the program wildly popular in the nineties.  The third episode about a "were-man" was diverting, very funny, and, even, profound in a kinky sort of way.  But with the fourth episode, the show achieves TV nirvana, delivering a story that was simultaneously tragic and hilarious -- one of the best things ever devised for network TV.  I presume the fun will continue for, at least, one more episode before the program descends again into purgatorial gloom -- and, in fairness, I should note that the slow-moving and depressive conspiracy thread is always effectively presented and has its moments; it's just not as entertaining as the haunted houses filled with monstrous cryptoids, chimeras, and spooks.

Apparently, Scully and Mulder have stayed in the touch during the intervening years since the X-Files were closed, presumably because our duo was encroaching too closely on the truth.  Scully, beautiful as ever, but a bit gaunt, I think, and haggard. is working in a hospital, a specialist in making ears for children born without those appendages.  (The show was always good at mobilizing audience fears and disgust by relating the monstrous to real, and disturbing, medical conditions.)  Mulder has put on a few pounds and looks a little shabby -- his movie star good looks have deteriorated into caricature.  For a couple episodes, Scully and Mulder brood over their child, a creature possibly with alien DNA, who by his absence is an important element of the show -- there is a flashback to Roswell, some eerie encounters between Mulder and his ancient informant on the Mall in Washington and, generally, lots of darkness.  The third episode was far more lively -- a horned toad somehow transforms into a man during certain cycles of the moon and is mistaken for a savage murderer.  In fact, the poor toad is, as he tells us, "an insectivore" and uninterested in killing people -- in fact, he is appalled and disgusted by his transformation into a human and wishes only to be restored to the serenity of horny toad existence.  This episode features a sinister motel with the owner peering into rooms through mask-like taxidermy trophies and a fantasy sex-scene between the toad and Scully.  The show was very funny, ironic and precise about the human condition, and features a hilarious turn by the actor playing the toad-man -- the monster's human incarnation, who we first see with his pants down in a porta-potty, is played by the comedian who was indelible in the role of Murray, the hapless New Zealand embassy official, in Flight of the Conchords.

The fourth episode of The X-Files involves a plan to expel the homeless from their alleyway haunts in Philadelphia.  This plan is thwarted by a hideous seven-foot tall zombie, leaking maggots and pus all over the landscape.  The zombie is delivered to the sites of his depredations in a garbage truck.  He shreds his victims and, then, calmly returns to the sinister truck to bed down in the filth.  In the morning, after killing the vicious officials responsible for displacing the homeless people, the zombie appears as a huge Banksy-style icon, a larger-than-life-size bit of graffiti stenciled on the wall above the fatal alley.  The show's fundamental metaphor, both witty and disturbing, is that the poor and homeless are regarded as trash and they have to be moved out of the city to make way for progress.  The zombie trash-man, however, is their champion and avenger.  This story-line is effectively combined with a subplot involving the death of Scully's mother -- Scully spends much of the show brooding over her mother's death bed.  (And we understand that the dead are also a form of trash to be carted away to some place where their detritus does not disturb us.)  The subplot is very powerful precisely because it is developed in concert with the jokey-horrible (and very gory) narrative involving the zombie murderer.  We are responsible, ultimately, for the trash that we make -- a theme that resonates through the entire show in clever, and thought-provoking, variations:  Scully thinks of the child that she gave up for adoption as something that she created, not exactly trash, but a creature that has been set aside, Scully's mother mistakes Mulder for her estranged son, a shocking and heartbreaking moment that resonates with Scully's grief at having surrendered her baby for adoption; a madman and graffiti artist has somehow created the zombie avenger, a kind of stinking Golem and the show explores his responsibility for that child of his imagination.  In some sense, we have created the poor and homeless; but we regard them as "garbage" to be set aside.  The show features a wonderful debate between a Philadelphia city official and a self-righteous suburbanite from Bucks County.  (Anyone who has ever spent time in Philly will understand the deep distrust and dislike between Central City residents and the people living in toney Bucks County).  The woman from Bucks County detests the poor and homeless and, of course, wants them to be kept far from where she lives.  So she gets a visit from the monster in her suburban home, a spectacular and gruesome home invasion cut to the tune of Petulia Clark's hit "Downtown" -- parts of the self-righteous lady end up in her own trash compactor.  At one key point in the story, Scully and Mulder are descending into a sinister garbage choked pit, walking down steep wet stairs into subterranean darkness. A pseudo-golem monster appears, like an overside insect larva, and, then, shoves past them.  Mulder says that he can't pursue the creature because "I'm old and I don't stairs any more."  Scully notes that she used to chase monsters up and down those stairs -- "and in three-inch heels as well."  Mulder shrugs:  "That was back in the day," he says.  "No, this is the day," Scully tells him.  And, then, there materializes in her hands, a huge flashlight.  Suddenly, Mulder also has a flashlight, the trademark of the show --- flashlight beams probing an intense and frightening darkness.  The eerie music begins and the flashlight beams shine through the murk and the viewer is in TV heaven. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Irrational Man

In Woody Allen's simple, but compelling, Irrational Man (2015), a nihilistic philosophy professor arrives in a small college town for the purpose of teaching several summer session courses.  The teacher, named Abe Lucas, is a mess -- he continuously sips booze from a silver flask, can't finish his book (yet another self-righteous tome on Heidegger and fascism), and, although he effortlessly attracts both undergraduate girls and unhappily married professorial types, is impotent with them.  At a party with some of his students, the professor's self-destructive behavior reaches its nadir -- he demonstrates his existentialism by playing Russian Roulette.  (One would think that these antics would put a period to Lucas' professional career, but Allen's film is a fable and lapses in narrative plausibility don't concern the director or us.)  At a diner, Lucas hears a woman complaining about a corrupt judge who has deprived her of custody of her children and decides that he will murder the man.  Inspired by this resolution, Lucas discovers that life's savor has returned -- he is resolute, productive, writes love poems, and recovers his masculine virility. The professor, after helpfully annotating a copy of Crime and Punishment -- Irrational Man's Abe Lucas is a pint-sized Raskolnikov -- murders the judge with poison and congratulates himself on committing the perfect crime.  Of course, the scheme comes unraveled and the professor finds himself facing unanticipated consequences of his acte gratuite

Irrational Man begins with a reference to Immanual Kant and seems to endorse the Prussian philosopher's uncompromising ethics.  In his first class, Lucas challenges Kant's categorical prohibition on lying -- he uses the same example that a thousand community college professors have deployed:  what if the lie was to protect Anne Frank concealed in your attic from her Nazi persecutors?  A student plausibly argues that authorizing some lies will cast us onto a slippery slope -- it will be hard to ascertain which lies are permissible and which are not, and given mankind's well-known propensity toward rationalization, all hell will break loose if we open the floodgates.  (I've always admired Kant's ethics and, it seems, that Woody Allen in his old age, may have come to my point-of-view.  The better argument in favor of Kant's impractical and dogmatic argument against lying is dramatized by the film:  we don't have the capacity to measure all of the consequences of a lie -- a falsehood may be justified in terms of its immediate beneficial consequences but we can't predict the unintended consequences that may subsequently ensue.)  Although there is some desultory love-making in the film, Woody Allen's primary interest seems to be in unteasing the implications of Kant's categorical imperative.  Lucas has sex with both a student and a married woman, but the sexual transgression is not viewed as a moral problem -- rather, the sexual relationships exist for a very fundamental plot purpose:  Abe Lucas is a loner and he needs someone to talk to -- this function is played by his two love interests, the needy and decadent older woman, played by Parker Posey, and the dewy-eyed undergraduate ingénue (Emma Stone).  As is often the case with Woody Allen films, autobiography lurks only a little beneath the surface:  Allen's characters always have love affairs with women vastly younger than them and, I think, the director was involved in a famously contentious child custody battle with Mia Farrow -- hence there is an element of wish fulfillment in the plot involving the murder of the judge.  Irrational Man is a late work as that term is sometimes used in art criticism:  the story is schematically developed with absolute clarity -- indeed, Allen uses unnecessary voice-over narrative (Lucas and the undergraduate girl) to make certain that the viewer doesn't miss any information of significance.  The film eschews any kind of fancy editing and there are no attempts at pictorial beauty -- each shot is logically constructed and cut for maximum intelligibility.  The movie is similar to Bresson except that the French director's minimalism sometimes is foregrounded and has a showy aspect -- all those picture of people's feet in L'Argent, for instance.  Allen's work is even more minimalist than Bresson in that he doesn't draw any attention to the extreme economy of means used to propel his- narrative.  In late work, an artist uses larger-than-life characters to make his points, tends toward allegory or parable, and eliminates unnecessary complications -- Irrational Man shows all of these characteristics:  Lucas' flaws are overt and dramatic, the story is exceedingly schematic, and there are no subplots or unnecessary characters in the film.  Considered in these terms, there is a risk that the viewer might find the film cold and abstract.  But this risk is avoided by two elements.  First, the viewer knows that Woody Allen is quite capable of dramatizing crime that has no consequence or that, indeed, actually enriches the perpetrator -- both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point involve premeditated murders that are successful, that are unsolved by the police, and that, in fact, serve the best interests of the protagonist.  Thus, the viewer has the frisson of knowing that, in Woody Allen's world, crime sometimes pays -- this means that there is a good chance that Abe Lucas will get away with this murder.  Second, the film is scored to a pulsating and jaunty jazz score that considerably enlivens the proceedings -- whenever, things seem to get too abstract and airless, the jazz music on the soundtrack saves the day.

Superbowl half-time entertainment and Rammstein

The last ten minutes of the first half in this Spring's Greatest Game in the World reminds me why I don't waste my time watching professional football.  Obviously, the bookies in Vegas and the sponsors needed parity, or something close to it, at the end of the 2nd quarter -- if one team pulls away from the other, a risk exists that consumers might start switching stations and, thus, forsaking million-dollar a second commercials.  And, so, the fix was radioed to the teams and they spent ten minutes of game time haplessly throwing the ball away, dropping passes that would ordinarily be easily caught, committing infractions to stall their advances, and, when necessary, simply pitching the ball to the ground in a series of scarcely simulated fumbles.  It was obvious to anyone watching that this part of the game was as scripted as pro-wrestling if rather ineptly and obviously.  After about the third fumble, it was clear that one or the other of the teams was still moving the ball successfully on the ground -- it was impossible for me to tell which team was which.  Accordingly, Payton Manning, a famous quarterback with unerring aim, had to throw an interception in order to reverse his team's momentum -- the whole spectacle was disheartening and pathetic.  Whenever football teams take to the air -- that is, throw lots of passes -- they are doing the bidding of their masters, the bookies and odds-makers:  it is much easier to fix a game by manipulating forward passes than by running.  (After all, some of these players are speedy and it looks foolish for them to slow down so that their much less fleet adversaries can bring them to ground.)

After a cavalcade of car commercials and ads for junkfood and prescription medication, Chris Martin took the stage for the half-time show, hopping around on a weird platform shaped like a four-leaf clover.  Martin is the lead singer in Cold Play and he bounced up and down enthusiastically while the platform beneath him changed colors -- nothing too psychedelic, but rather whirling arrays of pastels the color of different types of bubble-gum.  Crowds of Middle School girls sawed at their violins in ranks around the stage and, then, marching bands emerged from the sidelines flanked by dancers whirling like dervishes under pink and green and aquamarine blossom-shaped parasols.  The Game was played on the West Coast and the half-time show had the distinct disadvantage of being performed in broad daylight, without glamorous mists of spotlight-pierced dry-ice vapor, and so, I'm afraid, the whole spectacle was more than a little prosaic.  While Cold Play was still performing Bruno Mars appeared out of nowhere -- at least, the spectacle was edited in that way -- with a cadre of dancers all wearing black vinyl butcher-boy suits.  He danced around and crooned  and, then, the tall and shapely Beyoncé arrived at the party as well, leading a phalanx of dancers with identical bodies and hair-dos -- each girl had her Afro teased out into two buns at the side of her head, thus giving the dancing girls the general appearance of Mickey Mouse.  The folks who effectively film the football game from every possible vantage, cutting together the action to create suspenseful micro-narratives (will the team get a first in ten?  why does the coach look so distressed?  is the field-goal kicker up to the task?), seemed to have no concept how to film this show.  Clearly Beyoncé and Bruno Mars were located somewhere on the same platform and, from their feral snarling and mating displays, one could conclude that the two tribes of dancers were approaching one another -- but the cameramen never drew back into a long shot to show the relationship between the opposing groups of dancers.  It was an obvious defect and one that left a huge hollow in the presentation -- Mars and Beyoncé cut together as if dancing on different planets when, in fact, the entire micro-narrative operative in this part of the show was their gradual coming together, their coalescence into one packed group of dancers.  Ultimately, the union between the two groups occurred and the dancers collided, more or less, and the regimented troops of child fiddlers and plumed marching bands and spinning-top daisies and daffodils, all crowded around the platform, moving rhythmically after the manner of a patriotic North Korean spectacle while the lobes of the platform flashed out images from past Superbowl shows, all of them (with the exception of the jetpack guy who looked like the Duff beer guy on The Simpsons) regrettably better than this presentation, and, then, the directors of this show pulled out one of the oldest chestnuts in the repertoire, necessary in this case because the sun resolutely refused to set so as to impart any glamor to the proceedings, the old trick of members of the audience flashing cards in unison to blink out a message to the heavens, spelling out in house-high cards something about love. 

The night before I watched another spectacle, probably not much more edifying, but far more dramatic.  This was a DVD of Rammstein performing at Madison Square Garden in 2010.  Before the intermission, Till Lindeman, the band's singer hopped on a pink cannon the size of a front-end loader and ejaculated immense quantities of some kind of white foam into the audience -- this was the climax of a humble little ditty called "Pussy."  In the second half of the show, Till squatted on stage rhythmically hammering away at his knee while a dozen yards behind him the impish Flocka mimicked him, all of this occurring within a dense industrial haze of smoke and fire and puddles of leaking oil.  Flocka jumped on a treadmill and marched in place while playing his keyboard and, then, Till appeared in the polluted fog wearing a carapace of iron wings, the scaffolding of tubes and pipes and valves about ten or twelve feet tall.  Till spread his wings and, then, fire billowed out of their tips and, from hidden spigots in the floor, more fire fountained up in orange pillars and, in the audience, 50,000 kids in black leather bellowed German words that they could not understand in the slightest.  Rammstein performs without subtitles and the DVD didn't translate the lyrics -- Till purports to consider the words to his songs as mere noise and, therefore, says that he doesn't care if the audience understands what is being sung.  This is unfortunate because Till, is, in fact, a talented German lyric poet, a writer on the order of Trakl or Stefan Georg and, when he is not engaging in naked provocation, his verses are well-constructed, rhyme neatly, and contain lines (and, even, whole stanzas) that would not be out of place in Goethe's Erlkoenig.  It is hard to exactly articulate the appeal of Rammstein's noisy industrial pyrotechnics, but the band has a presence that is impossible to ignore.  I hope that they will be invited to perform at the Super Bowl soon.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hail Caesar!

Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels is a persistent influence on films made by the Coen Bros.  O Brother Where Art Thou lifted its title from the Sturges' movie and the chain gang prelude in the Coen's invokes the ending of Sullivan's Travels in which the errant movie star is confined, and, even, tortured in work camp in the deep South.  Other Coen brother's films, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy invoked the fast-talking, blithe world of Sturges' pictures.  Hail Caesar!, an affectionate tribute to the old Hollywood studios, is a version of Sullivan's Travels focusing not on the movie star who flees the set to slum with the common man (although this is an element of the movie), but instead features the travails of a secondary character in Sturges' movie, the glib, tough money-man, an over-worked and cynical executive charged with keeping the studio's various productions on-budget and on-time.  As in Sullivan's Travels, a movie star absconds -- George Clooney, the star of a Ben Hur knock-off, Hail Caesar!The Story of the Christ, is drugged on the set, kidnapped, and joins a cabal of conspirators plotting against the Hollywood studio system.  But in the Coen brothers' film this problem is only one of several challenges eating-away at the self-confidence of Eddie Mannix, a brash studio executive who is at the end of his tether.  Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, is a familiar type -- a busy producer who makes decisions Aaron Sorkin-style while hiking from soundstage to soundstage.  You've seen a thousand pictures featuring this character -- a hard-drinking workaholic surviving on cigarettes and antacid:  Hail Caesar! is primarily about Mannix and his hectic efforts to keep the various films that he is supervising on track.  Lockheed, that is the military industrial complex, is courting Mannix, offering him better compensation, less agony, and much more off-work family time.  The film takes place across a period of a day-and-a-half, observing, as it were, something like the classical unities since everything occurs sequentially in the period of time between two midnight confessions made by Mannix to his priest, the action all revolving around the studio executive, his difficulties with the pictures that he is producing, and his temptation to leave the show-business for the profession of arms-dealing:  the recruiter for Lockheed flashes at Mannix a polaroid of the H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, telling the studio exec that this top-secret event occurred six-months earlier -- this means that the film is set in October 1954, a half-year after the Castle Bravo test.  At Capitol Studios, Mannix is beset by a sea of troubles -- the leading lady in his Esther Williams' mermaid extravaganzas, played by the foul-mouthed Scarlett Johansen is pregnant with no father in sight; upper management has cast a yodeling cowboy actor as the protagonist in a drawing room comedy with predictable results; dueling twin gossip columnists threaten to expose the Studio's most important property, the dim-witted if handsome leading man, George Clooney, as a sodomite and, most bafflingly, that actor has gone missing.  The film is effectively directed and, as in all Coen brothers' films, the minor roles are wonderfully realized and evocatively cast -- Coen brothers' extras and supernumerary players always have a distinctive look and the reek of real life.  The movie is witty with many effective episodes, but it doesn't always exactly cohere and some strands of the complicated plot are not sufficiently developed -- the movie would be more effective as a six to eight hour mini-series in which the subplots, many of them of very interesting, could be explored in more detailed.  As it stands, the film scatters its energy among the different stories and, curiously, is just a tiny bit dull -- we don't really ever get enough of any subplot to be fully engaged with it.  As an example, Scarlett Johansen's character, the mermaid, is fascinating but we don't see that much of her -- and her story is resolved so swiftly, mostly off-screen, that if you leave the theater for a minute to buy a soda pop or visit the restroom, you will miss the climax of that narrative.   There is a very funny conclave of pastors and priests convened to address questions of religious propriety in the Ben-Hur knock-off -- not surprisingly, the conversation devolves into theological squabbles, after the Priest notes that the gimmick of the chariot driver leaping from horse to horse seems "faky" -- that adjective very precisely chosen and redolent of my own childhood.  (I have a fond spot in my heart for the Coen brothers because their films inevitably involve passages or ideas that are very close to my own childhood concerns growing up in a suburb twenty miles away from the middle-class Minneapolis enclave where they were raised.)  The religious experts include an intensely argumentative rabbi who fiercely opposes everything said, but, then, when asked if he has any opinions says:  "Eh? No, I don't have any opinions" -- the point being that Jewish rabbis of a certain kind are intensely contrarian and adversarial although the point is not to win an argument but merely to enjoy the debate for its own sake.  Curiously, the film ends on an inspiring note that is not too far from the conclusion of several of Preston Sturges' films -- it is a noble vocation to entertain others and, after all, the show, even if absurdly difficult, must go on.  The studio executive slaps George Clooney, who has slithered into a flirtation with Communism, back to his senses -- henceforth, the actor will be a reliable servant of Das Kapital, that is, Capitol Studios.  Repenting of his assault on the poor, trembling actor, the hero confesses to his priest:  "Forgive me, father, for I have struck a movie star."  Ultimately, the Coen brothers, as shown most powerfully in Fargo and A Serious Man, are moralists and their film is didactic, an edifying entertainment about fortitude, faith, and common sense virtue.  The yodeling cowboy, who can shoot a villain at 70 paces riding upside down on his horse, can't pronounce a line of drawing room chatter to save his soul -- but it doesn't matter because the cowboy is a good man and he will be awarded, perhaps, with true love, by the end of the film.  The aspect of this movie most likely to make critics uneasy is the Coen brothers' approach to the blacklist and the Red scare -- as far as this film is concerned, a cadre of sinister Communist writers were in the employ of Moscow and, led by a homosexual song-and-dance man (played spectacularly by Channing Tatum) actually meet a Soviet submarine in Malibu Bay, that actor in a role resembling Gene Kelly, defecting to the Russians.  The Communists are led by Dr. Herbert Marcuse, as far as I know a real person, and the film certainly, and perversely, I think, seems to endorse the idea that Hollywood was infested by cryto-Communists, at least some of them homosexual.  Like the ferociously opinionated rabbi, the Coen brothers seem to want to pick a fight on these issues with other Hollywood intelligentsia -- I'm not sure that they endorse all of Tailgunner Joe's theories about the Communist conspiracy, but, at least, the evidence of their apparent acceptance of some of his more lurid theories is visible, on the screen for all to behold.  Furthermore, the movie betrays, I think, more than a little evidence of standard issue Christian piety, also a peculiar trait in a film made by these ultra-hip Jewish directors, but, I think, characteristic of the fundamentally moral and didactic aspects of their best films.  (Many of the Coen's best films involve a strange issue of iconoclasm -- the prohibition upon depicting the divine and there are allusions to this topic in the film:  when Saul is confronted by the blaze of light that converts him to Christianity, the incomplete film cuts to a title "Image of Divine Presence"; at the end of the film, a character looks to the sky where a water tower is labeled "BEHOLD" to see nothing but an empty heaven full of light.)  Hail Caesar! is not one of the Coen brothers best films by any means, but it is diverting, clever, and contains several wonderful parodies of films made in the mid-fifties and, viewed in the context of their larger work, is very interesting in its development of themes important to this writer-director team.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Murder of a President (American Experience - PBS)

A successful documentary makes researchers of its audience -- you want to know more and should be inspired to seek additional information about the subject, if nothing more than venturing a few click-and-point Wikipedia searches.  By this standard, PBS documentary about James Garfield, The Murder of a President, succeeds. The 100 minute program flies by without longuers and the terrain covered is mostly terra incognito -- the Gilded Age, a period in American history somewhere between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson and, generally, I think, poorly understood by most viewers.  Before tuning into this show, I knew very little about James Garfield -- indeed, I think my knowledge was limited to an old Believe it or Not cartoon that I saw as a boy:  Alexander Graham Bell's prototype metal detector failed to find the lead slug poisoning poor Garfield because the iron springs in his bedstead confounded the instrument, an assertion that the documentary doesn't make, focusing instead on the sinister Dr. Bliss and his medical malpractice.  For my ignorance, the show substituted a procession of miracles and wonders, stuff so improbable that you couldn't make it up.

Garfield was raised in wracking poverty -- unlike other great men, he didn't romanticize his miserable boyhood and very reasonably thought that his early hardships had been a grave impediment to his success and not a spur to later fame.  With her life savings, Garfield's mother financed one quarter of college for her son (tuition and board was $17).  Garfield was so astonishingly brilliant that after a couple of years at Case-Western, he was promoted from janitor (working for his tuition) to a full professor of literature and ancient languages.  He married, a match that seems to have been unhappy until he engaged in an extra-marital affair, confessed his transgression, and, then, revived his love for his wife, Lucretia.  Of course, he fought with distinction in the Civil War and was elected, without campaigning and while at the Front, as an Ohio Senator.  (Garfield didn't want to leave the battlefield, but Lincoln told him he had enough generals and that he needed more senators.)  Garfield's uncanny luck continued through 1880 when he delivered an oration at the Republican nominating convention in Chicago, impressed the delegates, and, then, was drafted as the presidential candidate to break a deadlock -- on the first 32 ballots Garfield received less than five votes; he had fifty votes on the 33rd ballot and 399 on the 34th.  Elected to the presidency, he served only 200 days when he was shot in the back by a deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Abruptly enough, Garfield's luck changed -- one might say he was lucky until he wasn't.  Garfield's medical treatment was entrusted Dr. Bliss, a vicious quack, who essentially murdered the president by his ministrations.  Bliss had been a wound doctor in the Civil War and didn't believe in the "germ" theory of disease -- indeed, he felt that sepsis was a sign of recovery.  As a result, Garfield's wound suppurated and the President rotted away from within; unable to keep down anything but milk, Garfield was fed by rectal infusions of rich food (things like beef broth and eggs laced with opium).  The last third of the documentary details Garfield's slow-motion slaughter by Bliss and it is nightmarish -- the viewer learns about such aspects of Gilded Age medicine as "nutritious enemata," "laudable pus," and "pus cavities."  Ultimately, Garfield demanded that he be transported to the New Jersey coast so that he could die in a room in his beach house overlooking the sea.  The wounded president was transported by train and, by this time, regarded as a martyred saint -- crowds strew the railroad tracks with straw to soften Garfield's ride and two-thousand volunteers laid the last couple miles of track to the cottage door; when the train stalled on a steep gradient near the beach house, the multitudes simply pushed the cars uphill.  The last part of the movie contrasts Garfield's protracted death with the imprisonment and execution of Charles Guiteau, his assassin.  Guiteau was a bizarre figure, probably a paranoid schizophrenic in the grip of tertiary syphilis.  Abused as a child for his stammer, Guiteau compensated by becoming an orator and claimed that an obscure speech that he had delivered had catapaulted Garfield to the presidency -- in fact, Guiteau was the paradigmatic loner assassin, afflicted by delusions of grandeur; he was a sort of refugee from the Oneida commune in New York, a place where free love via coitus interruptus was practiced, although the talking heads that comment on the action note that Guiteau was so hapless, that even at Oneida, he couldn't get laid.  Garfield was apparently an advocate for equal voting rights for freed slaves and, at one point, the Fisk Jubilee Singers serenaded him at his home; Frederick Douglas endorsed him for President.  The film suggests that Garfield was, in today's parlance, "an uniter and not a divider", and that he was a champion for the working man, an enemy of the so-called Stalwart wing of his Republican party, the Gilded Age robber barons representing what we call today "the one percent."  PBS is much condemned on the Right for supporting liberal policy by encoding that agenda in its works -- Ken Burns specializes in advancing the policies of the liberal Democrats in his documentaries.  This film, made in the manner of Burns by Rob Rapley, is no exception -- the film ends with the mantra that Garfield supported "equality of opportunity," suggesting that the hero was a sort of proto-Bernie Sanders.  (Indeed, the notion of the brokered convention resulting in Garfield's nomination seems attractive to the film-makers.) 

The documentary is not without serious flaws.  For some reason, the film makers have tarted-up the production with period reconstructions -- probably about a third of the documentary consists of actors in costume acting out scenes on sets furnished with period details.  The show begins with a tawdry exploitative sequence -- Garfield's assassination and, then, a gory scene in which his wound is probed with metal sounds while the poor actor playing the wounded president has to bellow and writhe in pain.  It's unpleasant, undignified, and, essentially, meretricious -- PBS can't compete with Game of Thrones and so shouldn't try.  Furthermore, the period reconstructions are distracting -- you end up comparing the features of the actors with the photographic images of the actual personages involved.  None of the actors can summon the intelligent ferocity shown in the eyes of the protagonists as depicted in their 19th century photographs -- Guiteau's face blazes with zealotry and Garfield has the gaze of a gunfighter.  (He also has a remarkable beard that seems comprised of steel wires or, in some pictures, looks as if it were sculpted in bronze over the lower half of his face.)  Only Paul Giamatti could successfully play Garfield and he's not in the show and, therefore, the period reenactments are unsuccessful -- I thought that the protracted scenes showing Garfield's death agony were like, most sex scenes,  at once gratuitous, implausible, and tasteless.  The documentary, based on a book by Candace Millard, draws parallels between Guiteau and Garfield that are, perhaps, farfetched -- Garfield survived a near-drowning on the Erie Canal and emerged from the experience thinking that providence had spared him for greatness; Guiteau survived the fiery wreck of the Stonington, a collision between a steamer and a ferry in the Long Island Sound and, also, felt that his life had been spared for an apocalyptic destiny.  The show also needs villains -- VP Chester Arthur, a strangely soft and girlish-looking plutocrat, is portrayed as the puppet of the sinister and corrupt Roscoe Conklin, a New York politician representing the cabal of Robber Barons called the Stalwarts.  Several confrontations are staged between Garfield and Conklin, the Trump-style bad guy, and these are replete with baroque and sinister threats -- you have the sense that these scenes belong in Billions or The Wolf of Wall Street.  Ken Burns' style documentaries are immensely long and Garfield's amazing life doesn't really fit into the 100 minute format -- there are strange and unsettling lacunae in the story:  we don't know the Democratic candidate for President that Garfield defeats and there is no accounting for the 15 years between 1865 and 1880 -- what was our hero doing in that period?  Finally, we don't know for sure what happens to Chester Arthur or his Machiavellian master, Roscoe Conklin -- it is suggested that the office emboldened Arthur to defy Conklin but this seems too convenient to me.  Notwithstanding, these defects The Murder of a President is thoroughly fascinating and highly recommended.   

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Blue Bird

In Winona, Minnesota, there is a tooth-shaped pillar of rock atop one of the steep, green bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river.  The bluff and its molar-like excrescence at its crest is called "the Sugar Loaf" and it is a local landmark.  No one really stops to think about what the term "sugar loaf" means.  But, in fact, a century ago sugar was, apparently, sold in crystallized pillars or blocks, columns of sugar that were called "loaves."  This is apparent from Maurice Tourneur's intensely poetic fantasy film, The Blue Bird, a picture that was famous in 1918.  In that film, a character, the mother of the child-protagonists, bids her daughter Myltyl to bring "the sugar loaf" to the table; the girl obliges by taking from the shelf a two-foot high stela , a rounded pillar of marble-white sugar that looks, more or less, like the leading edge of a tube of lipstick.  Made 98 years ago, The Blue Bird is intrinsically foreign to modern viewers -- it contains a lyrical glimpse into a world that is long-gone, the world of the diaphanous symbolic impressionism too fragile and esthetically intricate to survive its brutal bludgeoning by World War I. 

The Blue Bird is a fairy-tale based on a symbolic play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a theatrical spectacle from 1908 that was widely popular before the Great War.  The film version is, as it were, an after-vision of that once famous spectacle of son et lumiere, a fading bruise on the retina like a shadow retained in the eye after we have gazed at something too bright for us.  The story is a literary attempt to capture the evanescent and primordial simplicity of a fairy tale.  Two children, Tyltyl and his sister Myltyl live in a humble foresters's cabin in the middle of a forest -- on one side of their cottage, there is a shanty occupied by a poor sick girl and her hideous mother; on the other side of their home, a palace rises above the trees, the domicile of the rich children.  The mother of the poor dying girl visits our hero and heroine and asks of they will give her a "blue bird" that might cure her sick daughter.  The little boy and his sister are afraid of the hag -- she is stooped, carries a club-like crutch under her arm, and has masculine features sometimes half-concealed by grotesque round goggles that she wears.  The children fear the witch and refuse to help her.  Tourneur cuts periodically away from the encounter between the hag and the children showing the dying child, a little girl propped up in her bed and delicately lit by the window through which she gazes -- the composition and lighting is derived from Edvard Munch's painting and engraving of "a dying girl."  The children go to sleep and dream.  In their vision, household objects become "ensouled" (a concept that their mother has earlier impressed upon them.)  We see the soul of the water, the fire in the hearth, and, most remarkably, the bread and sugar-loaf in their kitchen.  The family's dog and car appear as dancers crouching yet graceful and the hag from next-door is transmuted into a fairy.  It is evident that imagery from this film had a long and profound influence on later Hollywood pictures:  in particular, the fairy is, more or less, identical with the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, likewise the dog, who seems a bit humble and cowardly, later disports himself with pugilistic gestures that are exactly imitated by the cowardly lion in that same film from 1939.  In the company of the fairy and the various ensouled and animate household items, the boy and girl depart on a mystical journey, seeking the elusive "blue bird of happiness." 

On the evidence of this film, Maurice Tourneur was one of the great fabulists in film history.  The fantastic journey undertaken by his protagonists delves into a number of magical realms, all of them portrayed vigorously and with ingenious and effective special effects.  The film's lyrical fantasy is grounded in periodic glimpses of a solid, realistic world -- the children's parents share a single grubby bed and wear shabby nightclothes:  they look convincingly intimate in a way that later films would censor and repress:  by the thirties, men and women could not be shown occupying the same bed.  Periodically, Tourneur cuts away from the arabesques and fantasy chiaroscuro of his elaborate sets to simple outdoor landscape -- and the effect is invariably invigorating.  Like Griffith, Tourneur knows how to turn an unprepossessing stretch of real estate -- a stony beach or a curving path up a hill in a forest, into mysterious and beautiful landscapes.  Much of the film is set before spectacular black silhouette castles and palace or spiky landscapes of stylized trees -- these sorts of silhouette furnishings are very similar, and precursors to, the German film made a decade later, The Adventures of Prince Achmed directed by Lotte Reiniger.  Conceived as a series of ordeals that the enterprising children must survive, The Blue Bird explores dream terrain expressionistically imagined to correspond with certain psychic states.  The Palace of Night is full of dark chambers and menacing veiled figures; pale gibbering faces loom out of the darkness -- these are night terrors, brooding thoughts, images of sickness.  Obligatory to all epics styled on the Odyssey is the visit to the underworld and the spirits of the dead -- here the children encounter their dead grandparents, visualized as living cadavers convincingly palsied with age -- a baby with a peculiarly shaped face and head creeps on the floor and a mob of dead children gather around a dinner table.  (The film reminds us that in 1918 most people had more dead, than living, children.)  One of the film's rare dollying shots tracks into the cottage filled with dead children and there is packed into that slight camera motion more wonder and dread than you might find in a half-dozen Marvel comic book superhero stories.  In the ornate Palace of Happiness, true and false pleasures vie with one another in a placid, neo-classical garden -- they are sylphs that leap and caper like Isadora Duncan. A final stop in this phantasmagoric itinerary is a garden where the souls of unborn children wait to be born, an astonishing vision:  grizzled Father Time opens the gates and the children stream forth to find their mothers -- throughout the film, Tourneur luxuriates in pale Madonna-like mothers, figures such as might have been painted by Raphael.  In our world of abortion on demand, I think, that it can't be denied that mawkish Victorian imagery of this sort, when thoroughly and unabashedly expressed, has a peculiar power and disquieting effect.  A fundamental esthetic device is inducing surprise in viewers and every shot in this film contains something strange, inexplicable, or unexpected. At the end of the film, the children approach the camera and address the audience directly -- of course, the blue bird of happiness, the antidote to the dying girl's sickness, was always at home, always singing in its neglected cage in the corner of the cottage but disregarded by all those around, a memorandum later developed at the end of The Wizard of Oz

The 1918 version of the film is, probably, the third adaptation of Maeterlinck's play.  The play was adapted two more times, including in the early nineteen-seventies by George Cukor.  Cukor undoubtedly had seen Tourneur's version when he was a young and, probably, was influenced by it.  But this strange and poetic film is now almost a hundred years old, belongs to a different world, and, probably, has lost its ability to impress filmmakers today and, so, I suppose no more versions of the story will be filmed.  The carefully conserved version of the film shown on Turner Classic Movies was badly damaged and to viewers used to HD TV probably unwatchable -- the decomposition was like a silvery waterfall pouring over the images or, sometimes, vertical columns flickering like fire on the edge of the image.  This is a patina that appeals to me but would repel most people.