Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Driver

The Driver is a suspense film so minimalist that it verges on pure abstraction.  Walter Hill directed the picture in 1978 and it seems to derive, in part, from some of Jean-Pierre Melville's late crime films, laconic exercises in which almost all of the emotion is submerged beneath a surface that is nihilistically hip:  it is cool to the point of iciness.  (It is worth noting that Drive made in 2011 by Nicholas Winding Refn reprises many of the principal themes and stylistic characteristics of Hill's film -- including casting a vapid pretty-boy, Ryan Gosling, in the role of the titular get-away driver, a part played by the equally pretty and formidably blank Ryan O'Neal in the earlier picture.  In the credits of both films, the main players are designated by their roles as opposed to by their names:  both Gosling and O'Neal play "the Driver.")   Hill is good with violence -- the shootings are always picturesque with unanticipated details:  for instance, O'Neal's driver guns down a bad guy who is taunting him about not carrying a weapon by shooting his concealed pistol through a car window that is half-rolled down on the open door behind which the hero stands -- this creates a photogenic spray of  greenish windshield glass that adorns the asphalt between the two protagonists, a feature on which the camera dwells.  As one might expect, the climax consists of a protracted car chase through the night-time streets of downtown LA ending rather anticlimactically in an enormous deserted warehouse, a brightly lit maze of stacked barrels and burlap bags where the two vehicles play a sinister cat and mouse game with one another.  The car chase is effectively staged and, certainly, thrilling enough in its way -- much better than the baroque action in the Fast and Furious series of films, vehicular battles that are far more spectacular but, also, completely implausible and in defiance of all the laws of physics and gravity.  By contrast, Hill's big car chase generally seems realistic, although the careening vehicles shoot through a few too many red lights without calamity for credibility.  Hill mixes up the shots comprising the sequence -- we get nice pictures from within the cockpits of the cars, good overhead shots, and gripping video-game-style POV sequences shot from immediately behind the vehicles.  The cars glide through densely saturated pools of neon light and their chrome and windows are resplendent with menacing reflections.  A problem with the sequence are the unfortunate shots of the occupants of the two cars -- during a car chase, there is nothing for the driver to do but stare ahead stoically as he tugs and twists the steering wheel.  Ryan O'Neal has Isabelle Adjani trapped with him in his vehicle, a snazzy little rooster-red pickup truck -- and she is very beautiful, opaque, and, also, has nothing to do but glare at the highway ahead of her as O'Neal puts the truck through its paces.  Sometimes, we see the car that O'Neal is chasing -- nothing's more cheerful or expressive in that vehicle:  the two scum-bags just stare ahead fixedly at the road, everyone seeming to be weirdly hypnotized and, almost, somnambulant:  it's a strange disconnect -- the faster the cars go, the more eerily impassive their drivers.  There's nothing to say about the plot -- it's just a contrivance on which to string the action sequences and killings.  The movie is fantastically stylized:  Hill seems to be obsessed with brilliant reds and every possible variety of green.  A bank robbery is notable for the fact that the bank is decorated with a brilliantly red carpet.  The streets of LA glower with different types of green, some of the hues vaguely nauseating.  A train station features Pullman porters in brilliant red costumes -- Hill's more interesting in the colors than the rather perfunctory and sadistic plot.  Once you notice the pattern, it becomes almost absurd -- just about every shot is color-coded to key on a startlingly bright scarlet offset by nasty, indescribable neon greens. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tosca (Minnesota Opera -- March 19, 2016)

The Minnesota Opera Company's new mounting of Tosca, Giacomo Puccini's iconic 1900 opera, is spectacularly effective.  As everyone knows, the eponymous character, Floria Tosca, is herself a flamboyant opera singer.  She loves a painter named Cavaradossi, the show's tenor whom we first meet painting an image of Mary Magdalen that is a composite of his temperamental girlfriend and a local courtesan, Attavanti.  A political prisoner, Angelotti, takes refuge in the church, pursued by the sinister and sadistic, Baron Scarpia.  Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca, takes advantage of the situation to impose himself on the diva -- he arrests the painter and tortures him in order to compel Tosca to submit to his embraces.  She seems to comply but instead stabs Scarpia to death, shrieking the famous line:  "This is Tosca's kiss" as she plunges the dagger into the Baron's heart.  This doesn't avail either Tosca or Cavaradossi -- he's shot by a firing squad and Tosca commits suicide by hurling herself off the ramparts of the prison, the Castello San' Angelo in Rome.  The opera has all the features that attract people to the form:  there are majestic love duets, hugely impressive (if wholly gratuitous) choral numbers, and soliloquy-style arias of heartbreaking beauty.  The characters are vivid, larger than life, torrentially passionate and each vested with a sort of intense tragic dignity.  Cavaradossi, a freedom fighter, is fiercely defiant; Tosca's love is an incandescent kind of rage; Scarpia's sadism is freely expressed, a pure Nietzschean will-to-power -- he desires to seize, to conquer, and, then, to cast away and destroy that which pleases him.  The second act of the opera, surely one of the most savage scenes of sexual harassment ever devised, is particularly suspenseful and, even, terrifying -- Scarpia seizes Tosca and, in this production, tries to rape her on his table set with brandy decanters and candelabra; in a cellar beneath the banqueting hall, Cavaradossi is being tortured by having his head crushed in a spiked vise -- the scene has been obsessively replayed in some of its aspects in Scorsese gangster movies, most particularly in Casino.  And there is a certain horrific profundity in the action:  Tosca, like all victims of torture, cries out that she has never done anything to inspire Scarpia's sadism and, then, she sings a moving aria accusing God of having forsaken her -- all her beauty, her virtue, her good deeds done in secret, all her love for Cavaradossi and her piety are meaningless when trapped in the embrace of the deadly, nihilistic Scarpia.  It's a chilling moment and, as I grow older, Puccini's peculiar mixture of Roman sadism and lush voluptuous romanticism exerts an ever-more powerful hold on my imagination -- I can't quite shrug off these operas like I did twenty years ago.  Like most great operas, described in terms of its plot, the show seems ridiculous -- but, in fact, Tosca achieves great emotional force, primarily through the oceanic tides of its music, and the simplicity of its plot. 

In Act One, the Minnesota opera production features a vast halo of beaten gold, a hollow diadem the size of a flying saucer that is suspended half upright in the center of the stage.  In the center of the halo, there is an alabaster bust of the Virgin Mary tilted on its side so that the Holy Mother seems to have a kind of crooked, leering expression on her lips.  This huge emblem occupies most of the stage, flanked on one side by Cavaradossi's scaffolding and, on the other side, by ebony columns bound with gold rings at their bases.  Overhead, there is a projection of a basilica that becomes a Tiepolo style tromp l'oeil ceiling, a cascade of falling putti and saints at the climax of Act One, an ecclesiastical procession with bishops and cardinals, hordes of altar boys and members of haute bourgeoisie, gilded crosses borne by monks, everyone singing a sacred Te Deum while Scarpia vows to seize and rape Tosca -- the priests and ecclesiastical officials march up and down in a vortex on thesteps surrounding the huge halo and Madonna and great hanging hooks slowly raise the halo into a semi-erect position as the cavalcade passes.  The set director understands that in opera you just need picturesque places for the singers to stand (no one really needs to move except to get into positions) and so the sets are designed with huge symbolic figures at their center, most of the space occupied by these metaphoric images, with balconies and dais on which the singers can be displayed as they perform.  The third act has a similarly majestic set -- a vast house-high image of St. Michael carved apparently from marble and foreshortened with his head twisted like a deadly viper as he raises an immense razor-sharp sword toward a sky full of stars.  Under St. Michael, who hangs like a judgment in mid-air, there is a tall prison wall, an ugly escarpment made of naked, splintery looking wood ramparts knit together with metal hardware -- this is prison wall on which Caravadossi is shot by the fire squad and the platform from which Tosca launches herself in the last 30 seconds before the curtain falls.  The image of the avenging St. Michael seems puzzling at first, but it responds to a very real aspect of the opera:  in the end, the play is mostly about the duel of wills between the great diva and the great sadist Scarpia.  Caravadossi, as the lover-boy, has slipped irrevocably to the edges of the action -- his death is, more or less, comical:  he thinks the firing squad aiming its rifles at his breast has loaded their guns with "blanks" but, of course, very real bullets pierce his heart.  More central, it seems, is the combat between Scarpia and Tosca:  her kiss, administered with a dagger kills Scarpia, and, when she hurls herself off the ramparts of the prison, her final imprecation is a demand that she meet Scarpia again under the Throne of God -- it's jarring that her final desire is not for her lover but her torturer.  In a twisted way, it seems that Tosca and Scarpia are the real, doomed lovers in the opera.  Thus, the image of St. Michael suggests the aura of nemesis that hangs over the libretto -- the show is really about Beauty and the Beast, that is, Tosca and Scarpia, the real protagonists of the opera and the figures that convince the audience of the fundamental equation that underlies all grand opera:  passion is death. 


Rams (2015) is a fierce and laconic parable made in Iceland and directed by Grimur Hakanarson.  The film's title names both of its subjects:  the husbandry of sheep in a remote valley in northern Iceland and the conflict between two brothers, huge bearded men who look like the animals they tend and who have not spoken to one another in forty years.  The picture has a peculiar appeal and, when I saw the movie in  Edina, the theater was half full, a surprisingly large audience for a film on this daunting subject matter.  But, of course, domestic animals have played an enormous part in human evolution and, in my view, most people experience, albeit unconsciously, a gaping absence in their lives once occupied by the care and husbandry of the beasts that have been our constant companions for, at least, 15,000 years.  As children learn the noises that domestic animals make -- the bark of the dog and the crow of the chicken, the pigs oink and the cow's moo -- their brains are educated in a particular way that makes intuitive sense even though today most urban children may never see any of those animals in their ancient economy with human beings:  animals, and the domestic ones in particular, are "good to think with" to use Claude Levi-Strauss' phrase.  Furthermore, there is something about the shape of domestic animals, the cow's comforting bulk, the rooster's strut, the strangely vehement curiosity of piglets or the dog's wagging tail, that calms the mind -- I think most people simply like the way that domestic animals look, their appearance stirs immemorial feelings of well-being and prosperity.  Accordingly, the big, statuesque sheep that are central to Rams, their stubborn balkiness, the hard, marmoreal heads of the rams and the profuse curtains of dirty wool falling from their flanks, the sounds that they make, and the way that the animals flock together or, even, jump up to mount one another's shoulders as they pass through a tight sheepfold -- these images, and their associated sounds, have an intrinsic relationship to what it means to be human; they stir in us inarticulate and primordial emotions, particularly when we see the sheep posed against the picturesque and spectacularly barren highlands of the Icelandic moors -- this is the ancient territory of the shepherd, a primordial aspect of the human soul. 

Rams takes place in a valley that is the home of an ancient stock of sheep, the Bolstadur flock.  The valley is a place where people have the heads of famous rams mounted over their hearths and where the local livestock association meetings begin with the recitation of elaborately rhymed poems about the sheep as the "saviors of the people."  The film begins with a competition in which the two brothers participate -- this year, Gummi's sheep lose to Kiddi's animals, a loss measured, as one character notes, by a few ounces of additional muscle mass in the shoulder's of Kiddi's ram.  An obscure quarrel has divided the two brothers who live side-by-side, their individual pastures marked by carefully maintained wire fences -- as it happens, Gummi is the older brother and, apparently, the entire tract of the valley that they both occupy is titled in his name.  The two men look like (respectively) thinner and fatter versions of Santa Claus -- they are bachelors:  Gummi remarks that Kiddi once was interested in women but scared them all away; Gummi doesn't seem to have developed the taste for human females at all.  The brothers communicate by writing notes to one another delivered by a kind of black border collie, an alarmingly alert and useful animal that is a familiar to the two men and seems owned in common.  Gummi notices that there is something wrong with Kiddi's prize animals.  It turns out that the animals have scrapie, a prion disease, the highly infectious spongiform encephalopathy that afflicts sheep.  The government decrees that all the animals in the valley have to be slaughtered to keep the deadly disease from spreading.  Kiddi reacts explosively -- he uses his shot gun to blast out Gummi's windows for spreading the news of the infection.  Gummi is more cunning.  He selects the best of the ewes from his flock, hides them in the basement with his own prize ram, Graupur, and, then, weeping kills the rest of his sheep (147 of them) with his own pistol.  The people in the valley don't know what to do -- indeed, an important theme of the movie is no one can survive the endless Icelandic winter without the vital distraction of caring for their livestock and, without the sheep, the people have nothing to do:  many of them abandon the valley and Kiddi drinks himself into oblivion -- twice he has to be saved from hypothermia when he falls down in the snow outdoors dead drunk.  The brothers' mutual hatred has enforced upon them a weird kind of intimacy.  When a government employee figures out that Gummi is harboring a dozen ewes and a ram in his cellar, the ancient feud ends instantly -- the two men must cooperate to save the last of the famous Bolstadur sheep.  They drive the animals into the frozen highlands, riding on an ATV with Gummi's arms wrapped around Kiddi in a  tight embrace.  The men encounter a savage blizzard and the film ends enigmatically in a shallow icy grave, a kind of womb in the ice into which the two brothers, both of them naked as newborns, have retreated.  The film is uncompromising and its ending, probably the only way that the movie could have concluded, will probably appall and upset most people.  The reason for the brother's deadly feud is never explained and the film is stark with images of vast treeless landscapes, barren barnyards, obsessively neat and hygienic interiors almost devoid of any sign of human habitation (the brothers' essentially identical farmsteads), and dark, gloomy sheepfolds.  There are few close-ups and parts of the film are intentionally edited to confuse us -- when we see Gummi cutting up wood, the film lingers on his craftsmanlike gestures but we have no idea what he is doing.  (Only later do we learn that he has built sheep pens in his basement).  The director is as taciturn as his principal characters -- we don't know what or how his character's think and their motivations are stripped down to primal impulses, mostly the need to protect the ancestral sheep.  This is a minor movie but one that is intensely felt and, therefore, a picture that I predict will be memorable to those who see it.  Certainly, as I think about the film, it has a peculiar resonance in my imagination.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Experiment Perilous

The curious and eccentric erudition of Jacques Tourneur's 1944 thriller, Experiment Perilous, is demonstrated by the film's title -- in the picture, the protagonist, a medical doctor, quotes Hippocrates:  "The art is long, life short, occasion urgent, experiment perilous, decision difficult."  The film stars actors that you will recall from watching old black-and-white movies on TV late at night -- instantly recognizable figures with curious British-inflected or European accents, neat little mannequins with carefully groomed pencil-thin moustaches wearing dark, immaculately tailored suits with folded handkerchiefs in their breast pockets, all of them perfectly familiar but, essentially, nameless because these actors were, at once, dependable effective and wholly inconsequential.  (Experiment Perilous features George Brent as the physician protagonist, Hedy Lamarr as the damsel in distress, Paul Lukas as the villain, Nick Bederaux, and Albert Dekker)  The picture is elegantly made and directed, crammed with oddities, a strangely dreamlike suspense movie that is without any real urgency at all -- rather, the film is limpid, atmospheric, and exploration of certain moods that are very difficult to describe in words. 

Experiment Perilous begins with a bravura sequence:  a passenger train traverses a dark landscape in the pouring rain.  The train seems to be plowing forward against the tempest on a kind of dike over which torrents of water are pouring.  The people in the train are jostled by the storm and fearful.  An oddly panicked middle-aged spinster, all white with a halo of light-colored hair, approaches the doctor, clutches his arm, and asks that he reassure her of their safety.  Lightning flashes and a great cascade of water pours over the track, flooding them.  But the train is not derailed and the woman tells the doctor her story, an account that is very elliptical, scattered, and difficult to understand:  it involves someone named Nick, terror, and an unhappy marriage.  the narrative is presented in a way that makes it completely mysterious -- we can't understand what the woman is saying although she is obviously very fearful.  But, perhaps, this is because she has been, until recently, an inmate of an asylum or sanitarium.  Both travelers are destined for New York City and the rest of the film takes place in the richly appointed drawing rooms and snowy streets and sidewalks of that city, a place that is imagined as the decadent fin-de-siècle metropolis of Henry James:  the ambience of the film is vaguely like a late story by James, something like "The Jolly Corner".  The spinster from the train dies under mysterious circumstances, the physician meets Nick Bederaux and his wife, Allida -- quickly enough, he intuits that Nick is some kind of vicious sadist, that he is tormenting his beautiful wife and his small son, and that his own observations are, perhaps, not reliable because he has fallen in love with Allida Bederaux.  (Hedy Lamarr's beauty is shocking, inert and passive, and abstract -- for some reason, she has little or no sex appeal despite her astounding face and compact and perfect figure; she is, in fact, chilly and marmoreal a point made by the film when it shows that several artists -- including an alcoholic sculptor -= have successfully portrayed her.)  It turns out that a portrait painter fell in love with Allida while he was painting her -- Nick Bederaux killed his rival and exiled his sister, the spinster on the train, who suspected his perfidy to a sanitarium; he is, now, "gaslighting" his wife to drive her mad and torturing the child with tales of menacing witches (clearly alluding to the little boy's mother) because he suspects that the boy is the son of the painter that he has murdered.  Gradually, the physician deciphers Nick's plot and the film climaxes with the violent confrontation between the two men.  The movie is principally an exercise in style and Stimmung -- until the last ninety-seconds of happy ending, the film is entirely shot in dense darkness, a kind of luxurious opulent gloom:  the streets of New York are frighteningly cold with ice and drifted snow -- people track one another through strangely deserted metropolitan intersections; overhead shots show the snow on the streets and sidewalks striated with marks made by the wheels of carts.  The villain's mansion is an interior space of the kind the Jacques Rivette might imagine -- it consists of odd interlocking spaces, a great aquarium where fish lurk in luminous panels of glass, dark paneled rooms that open on strange hidden doorways accessing gloomy spiral staircases:  there are sinister-looking portraits and weird sculpures and heavy beds like mortuary equipment everywhere.  The doctor hero is fundamentally amoral -- he loves Allida and rescues her only so that he can possess her himself.  People speak in weird aphorisms and the film's principal effect is powerful but indefinable --the movie seems to belong to a genre that doesn't exactly exist and evokes moods that can' really be accurately described.  There is a lavish, but impressionistically disarticulated fire and explosion scene at the end of the movie that features one of the most bizarre and impressive shots that I have ever seen -- the explosion knocks the glass out of the aquarium resulting in a great flood of water and fish pouring toward brilliant, chest-high gouts of flame.  That image alone makes this stylish little film worth watching.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

White Dog

Although Criterion has released Sam Fuller's drab 1982 White Dog in a prestigious DVD format, the crystalline transfer and extras can't disguise the fact that the film is essentially a made-for-TV movie shot on a low-budget with an inept script and lousy acting.  The film enjoys the reputation as a cult-picture and, I suppose, there is some merit to its political argument, but the picture is not as good as it should be.

Kristy McNichols, generally not wearing a brassiere, is a struggling actress who lives in the Hollywood Hills.  (Although she is unemployed, she lives in a mountainside bungalow that would probably retail for $600,000 today -- the place is lavishly appointed and far beyond the means of a girl who seems to be single and about 23 years old.)  One night, the heroine runs over a white German shepherd.  She picks up the dog and brings him to veterinarian.  The girl nurses the dog back to health.  Unfortunately, the animal is an attack dog that has been trained to maul people with black skin.  After the hound mangles a Black actress during a studio shoot, the young woman takes the dog to a secluded valley in the mountains near LA, "Noah's Ark", a place owned by two partners engaged in training exotic animals for parts in TV shows and movies.  Keys, one of the partners, is a Black man played by Paul Winfield.  Keys takes an interest in reprogramming the dog so that it will not attack people of his race.  After some misadventures, including the dog's escape (the beast kills a Black man who has fled into a little, deserted church), the animal seems to have been successfully re-trained.  The dog's previous owner, the man who brutalized the animal to make it into an attack dog, appears -- the heroine denounces him vehemently in the presence of his grandchildren.  At Noah's Ark, the dog undergoes some additional tests to show that he is no longer vicious.  As it happens, Keys partner, Carruthers, a big fat White man, looks like the dog's previous owner.  The dog goes berserk when he sees Carruthers, lunges at him, and has to be shot dead.  Carruthers is also killed.  Fuller likes aerial shots and the film should end with an image of the bloody dead dog lying in the dust of the arena where the final confrontation occurred, a powerful modernist composition in which the dead animal on its side, white against the yellow-brown dirt looks like some kind of hieroglyph or emblem.  But instead of ending on this striking image, Fuller cuts away to a long shot of the various cages and dome-like bars rising over the amphitheater at "Noah's Ark" -- the image is supposed to show the sun setting over the hills, but it is far less effective then the penultimate image and represents a serious miscalculation.  The film is short, but, in fact, too long for the relatively slender material comprising the picture:  the heroine is given a boyfriend, but he has nothing to do and seems to exist only to issue various dire warnings that the girl ignores.  The dog escapes twice -- once, he flees Kristy McNichols' yard perched on the edge of a steep wooded canyon.  The first escape is primarily an opportunity for Fuller to luxuriate in exterior shots of the vertical landscape -- we look down into the valley and see a bikini-clad woman sunbathing on the roof of her house.  The plunging landscape is interesting, but Fuller doesn't really do anything with it.  The second escape involving the Black man mauled to death in the Church allows Fuller to use some stained glass windows to comment on the action, but the sequence, also, leads nowhere -- one would expect that the police would intervene, after all, this dog has brutally attacked two people, but no one seems to take any interest at all.  (I would think the local news would cover a story involving a Black man's corpse found ripped to shreds between the pews in a country church.)  Fuller's point probably is that "Black lives don't matter" -- that is, no one really cares if some Black folk are gnawed up by a vicious dog.  But you can't tell if the weird disinterest by authorities is symbolic or just laziness on the film maker's part.  In an early scene, the dog attacks a rapist who is assaulting the heroine -- Fuller gins up the suspense by having the assault go on and on while the dog does nothing, presumably because distracted by loud noise on her TV.  But the sound on the TV comes from a big battle scene in a World War Two movie, the kind of film that I doubt that single woman would watch by herself on a Friday night.   The dog's first assault on a black victim, the attack in the movie studio, plays out like something designed by Brian DePalma -- the actresses are in a fake gondola appearing in front of a rear-projection of Venice and the dog's attack has a dreamy surrealistic aura, the animal's bloody fur and bared fangs contrasted with a genteel, flickering images of Venetian canals.  This is very effective but begs this question:  are minor actresses allowed to bring their dogs to movie studios where they are shooting films?  Somehow, I doubt it.  The film has some effective sequences -- images of a dog being destroyed in a Pound have a grim documentary verisimilitude and scenes of pet owners hoping that their dogs will be in trucks delivering strays to the Shelter also have a neo-realist impact.  The dog is not sentimentalized in any way and remains a frightening, unpredictable presence in the film.  Ennio Morricone supplies a mournful adagio score establishing a pervasive mood of tragedy.  Fuller has a small cameo as the girl's agent -- but the entire film making subplot is gratuitous.  In effect, the parable comprising the story is good for about a 40 minute film -- and Fuller has to pad this thing out to 90 minutes.  The padding isn't dull, but it is self-evidently unnecessary to the plot.  The movie's point, I guess, is that if you train an animal for attack, you can change the targets of the attack, but not the instinct to attack.  But is this true?  My guess is that you can, in fact, train dogs not to be aggressive -- after all, dogs are domestic animals, evolved to follow human commands, and, if you can make them violent, you should be able to eliminate that inclination as well.  The film seems to be driving toward  a climax in which the dog heroically sacrifices his life in combat with some other wild animal -- perhaps, one of the lions we've seen being trained at "Noah's Ark" --in order to save Paul Winfield's character from attack.  My guess is that something of this sort was planned but, then, abandoned -- possibly because the battle between the two animals couldn't be effectively staged.   As it happens, the ending of the film turns upon the fact that both Carruthers and the dog's previous owner happen to look like Burl Ives.  The notion of an attack dog programmed to savage Burl Ives' lookalikes is, perhaps, too horrible to countenance but there it is, on the Big Screen.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Big Business and Habeas Corpus

Big Business (1929) is a particularly feral Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedy -- one of the last produced by Hal Roach before sound.  The film is a masterpiece.  The comedy duo are Christmas tree salesman, driving a flimsy-looking jalopy through the barren and equally ephemeral suburbs of Los Angeles.  In the back of their car, the boys haul a couple of pathetically emaciated evergreens.  (Laurel ostentatiously puts on a glove to lift the sprigs of tree to keep the needles from biting his delicate hands.)  After a couple of failed attempts at door-to-door solicitation, the pair encounter a curmudgeonly and highly irritable householder played by James Finlayson.  When Finlayson slams his door in their face some of the miserable Christmas tree's branches get pinned between door and door-frame.  This leads to Hardy repeatedly ringing the house's doorbell, an offense that leads to Finlayson emerging from his home with clippers that he uses to cut the tree into three sections.  Hardy has a small knife and he gouges out Finlayson's door bell, triumphantly yanking it from the structure.  This leads Finlayson to uses his clippers to cut Hardy's tie and, then, rip open his shirt over his belly.  The boys, then, retaliate by throwing the clippers through Finlayson's window, breaking its glass.  Enraged, Finlayson attacks their car and the other trees they are peddling.  As he is disassembling their vehicle, Laurel and Hardy rip his house apart and use a shovel to dig up his lawn, all of this mayhem occurring according to strict rhythm of tit-for-tat violence.  A beefy cop comes on the scene as does a crowd of onlookers, but, of course, the spectacle is so enthralling that no one intervenes -- the gawkers (and the policeman) simply enjoy the escalating property damage.  Of course, in the end Finlayson is doing a kind maddened jig around the smoking debris of Laurel and Hardy's jalopy while the boys systematically shred his house.  Finally, the cop intervenes.  Everyone bursts into tears and the cop himself is moved -- sobbing, he goes back to his squad car.  Laurel and Hardy can't resist flashing mischievous grins at him and the film's final shot shows the fat cop swinging his nightstick and in hot pursuit of boys fleeing down an endless avenue between treeless yards and shoddy stucco houses, running toward a dismal-looking Golgotha of an oil field. 

The film is hilarious and, on some level, profoundly disturbing.  Everything is orchestrated so carefully and with such precision that we can predict each move a second before it is made.  We can predict those events because we understand what is happening, at a primal level the logic of the film is encoded in our DNA.  The landscapes are as stark as something from a Beckett play, sun-bleached and thirsty-looking lawns with wretched anorexic-looking trees -- one of them is uprooted in the battle royale between Finlayson and our heroes.  The streets seem to run to infinity between corridors of ugly utility pools -- everything is gimcrack construction, provisional, made to be destroyed just like the battered car with its detachable steering wheel and fenders that can be peeled off the chassis like ripe fruit.  The camera doesn't move.  It impassively records the mayhem with the cold, indifference of the mise en scene in a Bresson film.  Effortlessly profound and deliriously funny, the film poses innumerable questions.  But here is one that is particularly haunting -- in principle it should be easy to duplicate this movie.  There are no special effects and the set is as simple as could be imagined:  an old car, a lawn with a garden hose coiled like a serpent and a battered and tiny sapling -- the house has a chimney, readily knocked down by a thrown brick, a door with a rounded Mission-style top, and a couple of windows in the stucco façade.  Would it be possible to remake this film, shot by shot, maintaining the exact rhythm of the original and staging each retaliatory move in precisely the same way?  I'm certain this could be accomplished.  But would the remake be funny without Laurel and Hardy and Jimmy Finlayson?  Hardy is fantastically cute in these silent films; not so much a bully as a soft balloon. Laurel is grim-faced, his long features a relentless mask signifying revenge.  Finlayson squints at the camera, does double-takes, and literally twitches with melodramatic rage.  My surmise that an exact duplicate of this two-reeler, without the ineffable magic imparted to the proceedings by the three stars, would be depressing, perverse and melancholy -- perhaps, too sad and troubling to watch.  (On second viewing, Big Business seems an allegory for World War One -- no one can exactly figure how the mayhem began, but the result is catastrophic; in the end, everyone is absurdly sorrowful, weeping copiously and swearing friendship, and, yet, within fifteen seconds, the true is over and the warring parties are again at one another's throats.)

Habeas Corpus is a 1928 two-reeler, another Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy comedy.  I have seen clips from this silent film before but never the entire picture.  Habeas Corpus is also amazing, although less minimalist and uncompromising than Big Business.  Down and out as always, the boys apply for work as body snatchers with a mad professor.  The professor is a husky madman, so distracted in thought that, when he shifts his pondering head leaning on his palm, he pokes himself in the eye.  To Laurel's bemusement, he suavely flicks the ashes from his cigarette into the pocket of his smoking jacket and, when the men in white lead him away, he does dignified pirouettes at the threshold of his door.  Murnau's Nosferatu is subtitled Eine Symphonie des Grauens -- that is "a symphony of horror."  Habeas Corpus could be subtitled "an encyclopedia of fear".  The two-reeler is devised to allow Laurel and Hardy opportunities to display every possible type of terror, all known registers of fear -- there is nonchalant fear concealing itself, growing panic, fear rationally controlled and, ultimately, several spectacular episodes of full-blown hysterical terror:  Hardy's knees quiver so much he seems to be doing the Charleston and Laurel literally shakes like a leaf -- I don't recall the emotion of fear ever portrayed so nakedly. The plot, such as it is, has the boys digging vainly for corpses in a graveyard while a police officer, veiled in a long white sheet, spooks them.  The movie also features two extended sequences in which Laurel and Hardy attempt to scale a ten-foot masonry wall -- in the end Hardy simply breaches the wall by accidentally plowing into it.  These sequences of Sisyphean slapstick have a nightmare quality and remind us why children often find Laurel and Hardy films disturbing and, even, unbearably frightening -- the scenes goes on and on, consisting of repeated attempts by the comedians to scramble up and over one another to climb the wall.  Each time, the effort to climb the wall absurdly fails and the heroes become more and more dilapidated, their hair disheveled and, ultimately, their clothing shredded -- the effect is not really funny, but weirdly monotonous and protracted, and strangely distressing:  the viewer begins to measure the wall himself and assess how he would climb over and, with each failed attempt, becomes more and more invested in the scene, not in its characters but rather in the exact geometries and physical forces shown in the picture.  It's the effect of running endlessly in a dream but reaching no place at all.   Laurel and Hardy comedies have the curious effect of absorbing and, then, displaying adjacent movie culture, but in a distorted way.  Habeas Corpus invokes the world of the early horror films -- pictures like The Cat and the Canary and Lon Chaney's London after Midnight.  Similarly, Laurel and Hardy's films from the early thirties often invoke the World War One -- probably because sets were available at the studio built for big budget war pictures then under production.  Similarly, Way out West seems made for nickel on the slipshod sets used for Hop Along Cassidy movies.  The bargain basement use of movie sets built for other films, when the boys are not shown in the desolate reality of suburban LA, also give their films their unique and slightly disreputable forlorn aspect. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

I Knew Her Well

I Knew Her Well (1964)is an Italian film directed by Antonio Pietrangeli.  The movie is poignant and fully realized, the story of a beautiful young woman, Adriana, who seeks her fortune as a film star in Rome.  Not exactly tragic, or, even, overtly sad, the film steers an uneasy path between biting and sarcastic satire and pathos.  The film embodies a kind of weary resignation, a tone of disillusion that never exactly decays into bitterness.  Until the final thirty seconds, Adriana weathers the various minor indignities imposed upon her cheerfully, without complaint, and without any sense that she deserves anything better.  Her suicide at the end of the movie seems unmotivated and unnecessary -- she kills herself on a whim, apparently, because she is tired.  (Of course the film is designed to show us that the meaningless, if apparently pleasantly debauched, round of parties and bar-hopping that comprises her existence has no end in sight -- in other words, the beautiful, but dimwitted, girl from the provinces will never be a star, will never be married to a rich and powerful man, and is destined to be cast off by all of her lovers when they tire of her.  In the face of this future, Adriana throws herself off the balcony of her small suburban apartment.  This falsifies everything that was attractive about the character in the preceding ninety minutes of the film.  And, furthermore, when we see the horrific rural poverty from which the girl has escaped, it seems that her fate as a stylishly dressed concubine and minor-league party-girl is a distinct improvement on the destiny otherwise prescribed for her:  we see that her aged parents are literally dying from hard-work, her adult brother is a simple-minded idiot, and her younger sister has apparently perished working as a prostitute.)

Pietrangeli is a director not known to me.  He worked in the late forties with the great Neo-Realists, both Rosselini and Visconti (he translated La Terra Trema for French distribution).  Pietrangeli began to direct comedies in the mid-fifties and, apparently, achieved considerable success.  I Knew Her Well is his last fully completed feature.  He directed a short film for an anthology picture in the mid-sixties and, then, tragically drowned aged 49 while setting up a shot for a film that was completed by another.  On the evidence of I Know Her Well, Pietrangeli had a unique style and a exceptionally subtle narrative manner -- I Know Her Well is episodic and seems plotless; it is beautifully shot and memorably acted.  (Stefanie Sandrelli's performance as Adriana could not be bettered.)  In my view, Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty bears many close resemblances to the picture, both in its elliptical style and with respect to the exquisitely complex and subtle effects that the film achieves.  An epitome of the film's peculiar mix of the sordid and delicately beautiful is its programmatic opening shot -- the camera pans across a beach covered with trash, each furrow of sand harboring, it seems, a candy wrapper or some shredded advertisement:  Adriana lies on her belly on a stolen towel labeled in English "Beach Club" --she is topless and listening to a transistor radio that plays a pop tune of the kind that was once labeled "bubblegum music."  (Indeed, the film's score is replete with cheesy twist numbers, proto-disco music, crooned love songs and ridiculously light-weight jingles.)  The girl rises, covers her breasts haphazardly and darts through a deserted seaside resort as empty and vacant as a city-scape by de Chirico.  She asks a fat vendor at a food cart to fasten her bikini top and rushes to a low-rent beauty shop where she naps briefly, stretching out her beautiful young body like a cat.  Next, we see her working in the poverty-stricken salon, providing hair rinse and manicure, to a plump girl.  A little later, her lover, a sleazy older man appears in his sports car -- it's twilight with the remarkable desolate grey skies that so many Italian directors portray in their black-and-white films of this era, an empty landscape of barren intersections and flimsy-looking concrete apartment buildings with rows of dark windows like the eye sockets of skulls, everything shot in impeccable deep focus.  The girl's lover treats her with contempt, casually mentioning his wife, and roughly groping her -- she pretends to ignore him by reading a horror novel with a garish cover.  The curious fact that the film explores is that although everyone treats the heroine with contempt she is more beautiful than one of Giotto's angels.  But there is a certain blankness about her, a strange enigmatic emptiness.  One of her lovers complains that she is without curiosity, always pointlessly happy, and lacking even the "greed for money of a successful whore."  Indeed, it's not clear what this young woman wants from life.  She moves aimlessly from one man to another -- some of her lovers are so nasty and negligent that they abandon her before dawn so that she has to pay the hotel bill.  (She has to surrender her bracelet, a gift from the guy who deserted her in the shabby seaside resort, a hotel called the Calypso.)  Her efforts to work in the film industry are laughably inept -- she gets to model some boots, a screen test is converted into a nasty montage that makes her look like a fool, and the film suggests that she poses for pornographic pictures to make ends meet.  At every step of the way, people exploit her and ask her for money -- she has to pay for her own publicity.  The entire debacle of her putative screen career ends with a hellish party where a Turkish bimbo with peroxide hair has been hired to provide a minor award to a washed-up actor played by Ugo Tognazzi.  Tognazzi talks about seducing Ava Gardner but he's obviously fallen on hard-times and when he gets a chance to show his prowess as a tap-dancer, the other producers and film industry executives drive him into a hysterical display that almost causes the man to collapse from a heart attack -- Adriana hovers around this party, brainlessly cheerful, but clearly so unimportant that she isn't even accorded the honor given to the Turkish harlot who, after all, gets to hand Tognazzi his celebratory plaque.  Described in these terms all of this seems cynical and depressing, but, in fact, until its last 20 seconds the movie is relentlessly cheerful, the heroine seems optimistic and appears to be enjoying her life.  The film is buoyed up by the heroine's vacant but endearing style, her goofy way of dancing, and her luminous beauty.  Because she is so gorgeous, we expect her to be noticed and singled-out for some special distinction but this never happens.  Most films of this sort would chart some kind of trajectory -- the girl goes from rags to riches and, then, to rags again.  But this doesn't happen in I Knew Her Well -- to the contrary, she never achieves any success at all; she is the kind of person to whom nothing every really happens.  Adriana is strangely irrelevant to everyone around her; she changes her hair and make-up with each scene and never looks the same -- it's as if she isn't even exactly present to herself.  Pietrangeli doesn't pause to explain; one scene follows another is a bewildering succession -- lovers come and go; there's no plot development, no cause and effect.  When the heroine finds herself pregnant -- she can't identify the father -- an older woman who is apparently working as her madam berates her for negligence.  The tragedy is that the girl loves babies and would probably be a good mother.  In one scene, she stands up a film producer who has asked her to lunch to babysit a neighbor's infant, apparently unconcerned as to how this might affect her vocational aspirations.  There are a number of very tender scenes, suggesting relationships that might be tenable, but are impossible -- for instance, a boxer down on his luck seems to appeal to her, but, after kissing him, she departs on a whim to visit her parent's at their rural hovel.  In the end, the girl succumbs not so much to misery or depression, but to sheer exhaustion -- we see her driving home after a long night of partying and dancing.  She drives a tiny truncated car that seems infinitely fragile on the empty roads that she traverses.  We see a fuel tank or water-tower in the distance, only half built, and know that she has come home.  In her apartment, she zips up her little plastic wardrobe, takes off her high heels and wig and, then, kills herself.   Her death is as inconsequential as  her life.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015) is a big grab-bag of a movie, indeed, a film that feels as if it incorporates several pictures, each of them of a different genre.  Part of the film involves an honorable lawyer's defense of a publicly maligned Soviet spy -- the lawyer, played by Tom Hanks as an inspirational everyman, defends the spy at great risk to his personal reputation even putting the safety of his family on the line.  (His home is attacked by anonymous assailants who use a machine gun to shoot up the knickknacks in the place.)  This part of the film has something of the flavor of To Kill a Mockingbird and features a number of set-piece speeches about democracy and the rule of law that would fit nicely in a Frank Capra movie.  A second film embedded in the first involves the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers and his detention (and cruel interrogation) by the Soviet authorities -- this sub-film climaxes with a spectacular aerial sequence in which the U-2 is shot down, Powers entangled in the plane by his parachute, whipping around the pin-wheeling aircraft like one of the characters in Gravity.  The third element in Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a variant on Schindler's List -- the heroic lawyer travels to Berlin and in the grime and debris of the shattered eastern district negotiates for the release of both the imprisoned U-2 pilot and an economics student that the East Germans are holding hostage.  This part of the movie is shot in ugly monochrome, a dull bluish miasma enfolding the wrecked city, big flakes of snow always falling out of overcast skies.  Ultimately, the hero manages to swap the Soviet spy that he earlier, and unsuccessfully, defended for both Powers and the hapless economics student.  This part of the film is invested with a convincing Middle-European malaise and contains large-scale sequences involving the erection of the Berlin Wall.  Spielberg directs efficiently, keeps all balls in the air simultaneously, and the movie is very exciting and well-made.  Tom Hanks does a fine job, although he seems a generation too old for the part -- he has young children still at home and a perky youthful wife although the actor looks as if he is about 65.  (In any event, his age gives his role a certain weary gravitas that it might not otherwise possess -- particularly in the scene in which he looks around guiltily at the ruin of his house after it has been machine-gunned.)  Most notably, Bridge of Spies features a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the Soviet agent -- Rylance is made up, very convincingly, to look at least twenty years older than his chronological age and his fatigued and hopeless stoicism is exceptionally moving.

Everyone knows that Spielberg is a much gifted director.  He always places the camera in a position to assure the image's maximum legibility.  In effect, Spielberg trains his viewers to know exactly where to look, even if his scenes sometimes teem with extras.  An early example of Spielberg's magisterial abilities with respect to mise-en-scene is a standard issue chase through a crowded subway system.  Spielberg's camera picks up Rylance scurrying through midday crowds to elude pursuing FBI agents -- this part of the film has some of vivid, harried quality of a Sam Fuller picture.  The camera tracks Rylance in a huge moving crowd -- then, suddenly we see two attractive girls in light-colored clothing moving against the flow of the crowd.  Our eye immediately registers the girls and is tricked into following them to the right, away from Rylance who is pushing himself through the mob to the left.  As the camera follows the girls to the right, it catches sight of the FBI pursuers who are behind Rylance but moving to the right -- once the camera centers on the FBI men, it then follows them moving to the left through the crowd.  Spielberg mounts this large-scale and complex sequence effortlessly and the way that he guides the viewer's eye by using the girls in brighter clothing to motivate the camera into a new position is a joy to behold.  In this respect, however, I also express a bit of a reservation -- Spielberg's editing is so didactic and he stages scenes so clearly, that, in a way, the viewer sometimes feels manipulated, press-ganged into seeing things exactly as Spielberg wants us to see things.  For instance, the bravura sequence showing the Berlin Wall being built is constructed as a very long tracking shot between the opposing sides, the bricks of the wall being literally stacked and assembled in the center of the frame -- the scene is impressive, wracked with agitated activity, but, somehow, seems to me just a little bit too tidy for the savage human reality that it portrays.  Similarly, Spielberg's cross-cutting between his three plots is very overt and almost preachy, that is, designed to make didactic points -- when Tom Hanks talks about reciprocity, that is, treating the Soviet spy humanely in the hope that the Russians will treat our captured prisoners kindly, he cuts from Hanks making this speech directly to a close-up of Francis Gary Powers.  I also have a sense that everything in the film is just slightly too large -- the interior spaces are cavernous, particular the court rooms and the Assembly of the People in which Powers is tried.  The law firm where Hanks' character is employed, in particular, is a hive of activity sprawling across a half-acre of open office -- the color scheme and the mobs of secretaries hustling back and forth don't seem exactly persuasive to me; it's as if we've happened onto one of those Western streets strangely crowded with merchants and cowboys and saloon girls and Indians.  There are flaws in the film but it is generally very good -- Hanks' delivers what seems to me to be the worst address to the U. S. Supreme Court ever made; he would score points in Mr. Smith goes to Washington with this oration but not with a real court.  The script has been heavily doctored by the Coen brothers and they seem to have applied their rabbinical interest in the law and its anomalies to the film -- there is a speech at the outset in which Hanks' character talks about the notion of an "occurrence" in an insurance policy and draws stark distinctions between himself and his client that is very amusing and bears the marks of the Coen's wit.  But by and large the movie is pretty humorless, an earnest film that plays it straight -- and Spielberg's obviousness, his tendency to preach, is not merely a flaw but also a structural element of the film that gives the picture its power and draws the audience into the complex plot.  Scenes about children being instructed as to how to save themselves in a nuclear holocaust are simply staged and all the more effective and moving for the schematic clarity with which that information is presented.  At one point, Hanks is riding on a Berlin train when he happens to see (implausibly) East German refugees shot down while trying to scale the Wall.  Later, back in Spielberg-land, a sun bleached utopia of neat one-family homes, Hanks who is riding on another elevated train sees some kids trying to scramble over a cyclone fence.  The kids are just fooling around, but Hanks flinches and we understand exactly what he is thinking  -- these sorts of effects are typical of Spielberg's films and, although they give me pause, they account for much of the power of his movies. 


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Crimson Kimono

Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono (1959) starts with a conventional premise:  it's a buddy picture in which a Nisei (Japanese-American) detective and his handsome White sidekick work together to solve a murder mystery.  As is characteristic of the genre, the odd couple cops encounter lots of colorful eccentric and low-life characters, get into some rough-and-tumble scrapes, and speak in a picturesque hard-boiled lingo.  But about halfway through the picture, the movie detours into weird territory, swerving from a standard police procedural into a psycho-drama involving the two detectives' competition for a beautiful sorority girl involved in the mystery.  The sorority girl, who looks hardened and about 35, seems an ideal romantic partner for the ridiculously handsome and chiseled Caucasian cop, Charlie Bancroft.  (Bancroft is a walking/talking parody of a Hollywood hunk --he is played by Glen Corbett, an actor who looks exactly like the cleft chin cartoon protagonist of Adult Swim animated show, Archer).  At first, the sorority girl seems to fall for Charlie, but, then, demonstrates that she is really in love with the Japanese-American cop, Joe Kojaku.  But Joe Kojaku feels that he is racially disqualified from this romance and suffers qualms about betraying his partner -- this all comes to head, when the jealous Charlie beats Joe to a pulp in a Kendo exhibition during an ethnic festival in Little Tokyo.  This swerve in the film's plot line is so pronounced that the movie loses sight of its rather perfunctory mystery -- the solution to the mystery is not particularly engaging or persuasive and Fuller clearly doesn't care about that aspect of the film at all.  His interest lies entirely in plumbing Joe's self-loathing and Charlie's hysterical and violent jealousy -- indeed, the resolution of the mystery plot is meaningful only in that casts a lurid and perverse light on the relationship between the main characters involved in the love story.  Fuller sets up the mystery to mirror the romantic triangle between his principals.

I said that The Crimson Kimono's premise is conventional.  But from a visual and technical perspective, there is nothing conventional about the film at all.  The movie starts with a blonde stripper gyrating in a darkened burlesque hall -- her name is Sugar Torch and Fuller films her like Eisenstein staging a revolt on a Czarist battleship.  There are discordant close-ups, jump cuts, repeated shots of the same action from different angles -- a kind of jazzed-up Soviet-style montage.  Ultimately, the woman flees a gunman and runs barefoot and half-naked down LA's sordid Main Street until she is shot down right between coming and going lanes of downtown traffic.  The film's mise-en-scene is borderline hysterical -- huge hyper-expressive close-ups, peoples' foreheads beaded with sweat, intercut with documentary style street shots, images of LA's slums that look like outtakes from The Exiles.  Everything is shot in glaring, super-contrast black and white.  The film has a clear visual structure -- the assassination of the stripper in the first scene is book-ended by another woman gunned down in the streets of Little Tokyo during a parade at the film's end.  As the woman lies dying on the pavement, impassive crowds of Japanese people glare down at her -- it is the stereotypical vision of the inscrutable Orient:  What are these people thinking?  Their faces are a riddle and, indeed, one group of onlookers are wearing grotesque masks.  In almost every exterior, Fuller insists on the proximity of Little Tokyo to City Hall -- we see the Los Angeles County Courthouse looming over many of the shots.  Fuller makes the most of his exotic location:  there are karate masters chopping through bricks, women parading in kimonos and masks, a tour of some sweat shops, and a visit to both a Buddhist temple and a graveyard where Nisei soldiers who died in the War are buried.  Despite the touristic approach to Little Tokyo, Fuller is sympathetic to the Japanese-American characters and, mostly, presents them without caricature -- this is a million miles away from Mickey Rooney's horrifying and racist performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Fuller's ripe demotic is so densely poetic that it's almost indecipherable at times.  After the Japanese-American guy wins the girl, the disappointed hero turns to a middle-aged heavily alcoholic female artist, a remarkable character called Mac -- she's like one Howard Hawks' tough-talking dames from the thirties ripened into a bitter lady-alcoholic.  When Mac says that she'll drink with Charlie, presumably to help him get over his romantic disappointment, Charlie responds:  "You're a pearl, Mac."  Mac, then, responds:  "A pearl?  I prefer something made by man to an oyster."  I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.  But this bizarre phrase concludes the movie.