Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favreau is a great, warm-hearted, and generous spectacle.  Ostensibly a remake of a Disney cartoon produced forty years ago, the film is, in fact, an intense adventure movie, more similar to the pictures in The Lord of the Rings cycle than to the easy-going animated 1967 feature.  Although everything (with the exception of Mowgli) in the movie is computer-generated, the movie looks photographically realistic -- the animals have the actual texture and appearance of beasts that we might see in a National Geographic special and the jungle, although full of vertiginous heights and cascading waterfalls, looks like a real place.  Indeed, the jungle has some of the hazy, primordial character of the jungles in paintings of the mid-Victorian sublime school -- for instance, Church's majestic view of the volcano Cotopaxi with its foreground dropping into an abyss occupied by a huge waterfall.  (Probably, the inspiration for many of the landscape images are similar forests and mountains and muddy ravines in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films.)  The animals are not anthropomorphized -- the wolves have long spindly legs and alert canine eyes and some of them look more than a little mangy.  It's more than a little incongruous to hear them speaking, since the animals are shown naturalistically, but, after a while, the audience is educated into this convention and we really don't notice that the beasts are constantly bickering or muttering among themselves.

The film's plot is an extended chase sequence.  She Khan, a huge Bengal tiger, is the apex predator in the rain forest.  The tiger has been disfigured by the "red flower" (fire as it is called by the animals) and, indeed, sustained his injuries at the hands of Mowgli's father before mauling the man to death.  Mowgli escaped, was raised by a pack of wolves, and seems to be about 11 years old when the film begins.  At a "water truce" called during dry season, (all animals can drink from a puddle around the normally submerged Peace Rock without fear of attack), the tiger threatens the wolves and demands that they surrender the "man-cub" to them.  The wolves are willing to fight and die for the boy, but he leaves them, traveling with a black panther, and, later, a bear to an overlook above an Indian village.  The notion is that Mowgli must return to his own kind.  But Sher Khan intervenes and, ultimately, the animals league together to battle the tiger while a forest fire, inadvertently set by Mowgli, rages around them.  The film is filled with bravura action sequences -- a huge cobra embraces Mowgli, hypnotizes him and, then, tries to swallow him alive; there are landslides and an orangutan, the size of King Kong, also threatens the little boy, demanding that he bring him the promethean fire that terrifies the other animals in the jungle.  (Critics have noticed that the scenes with King Louie, who speaks with the voice of Christopher Walken, incorporate many of the mannerisms of Coppola's work with Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.)  Many of these action sequences contain images of great, almost visionary power:  in one scene, a herd of water buffalos charges down the flashflooding funnel of a muddy ravine.  The tiger has spooked the herd of buffalo in which he knows that Mowgli is hiding.  After a spectacular stampede, we see the great herd dispersing across a vast savannah, having emerged from the muddy chaos of the ravine, the animals slowing down, trotting this way and that in random groups, rain clouds scouring the distant horizon -- it's an image of breathtaking beauty.  Similarly, at the height of the forest fire, a herd of elephants emerges from the darkness, the huge animals silhouetted on the cliff tops against the glare of the flames.  The elephants use their tusks to divert the river and put out the fire, again a sequence of majestic splendor that is both brilliantly imagined and stunningly staged.  The film is full of small incidental details -- clouds of butterflies in distant beams of light, tiny forest creatures scampering underfoot and a strange gymnastic landscape of twisted and gnarled trees.  There are some defects with the film -- the battle between King Louie, the orangutang, and Mowgli with his protectors (the black panther and the bear) takes place in a crumbling Hindu temple sacred to Hanuman the monkey god, a sort of cross between a cathedral and Angkor Wat.  Much of the battle scene involves the huge red orangutan trying to squeeze through narrow vertical passages to seize Mowgli.  At the end of the film, the boy's final encounter with Sher Khan takes place within a sort of vast mangrove tree, a labyrinth of narrow passages and constricted spaces in which the tiger repeatedly gets caught -- it's the same general idea as the fight in the temple with the King Kong figure and this duplication of scenic effects lessens the power of the film's climax.  Nonetheless. Favreau throws one astounding image after another at the audience:  after King Louie has been immured in the collapsing Hindu temple, a thousand monkeys pour onto the ruins to desperately claw at the rocks to free the ruler from the fallen man-made mountain:  it's a spectacular, moving, and unexpected bonus, a memorable image provided out of sheer generosity since the scene of the monkeys trying to rescue the orangutang is completely superfluous in terms of the film's plot.  And this film is crammed with similar gifts.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Beresina oder Der Letzten Tage der Schweiz (Beresina or the Last Days of Switzerland)

At the outset of "Premature Burial," Edgar Allan Poe announces that some topics are simply too terrible for fiction, adducing among his list of horrors, "the passage of Beresina."  Poe refers to an episode during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, mass slaughter that occurred when thousands of panic-stricken French soldiers tried to cross a bridge that was too small to accommodate the crush of retreating troops.   It is curious that a spry, even merry, Swiss satire has been named after this calamity.  Apparently, the Swiss troops allied with Napoleon demonstrated rare fortitude at the horrific bridge crossing and, even, sang an inspiring tune to keep up their spirits:  Mutig, mutig, lieber Brueder  -- Courage! courage! dear brothers... In Daniel Schmid's 1999 comedy, the song of the Swiss guards at the Beresina bridge is a code that triggers a geriatric monarchist rebellion, a coup d'état that leaves Switzerland under the rule of a kindly and ambitious Russian prostitute. 

I don't know much about Daniel Schmid -- he appears as one of the directors impersonating mobsters in Wim Wenders great neo-noir, The American Friend.  He has made one famous documentary, Tosca's Kiss, a picture about an Italian nursing home for opera singers, a noble and moving work that I saw when I was in college and, of course, was unable to understand at that time in my life.  On the evidence of Beresina, Schmid is certainly a capable satirist, although he works in a broad style that is tantamount to caricature -- there are faint influences of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove in the film, as well as a tiny bit of Brecht, but, by and large, the movie is a cheerful bagatelle; although there are multiple assassinations at the climax of the picture, the film generally feels light and confectionary and it is certainly very, very pretty.  Elena Panova plays Irina a Russian prostitute from some place called Elektrostal.  She has an extended family that she hopes to import into Switzerland, a place that she regards as a kind of paradise on earth.  In her letters to family members, always visualized as a dour crowd occupying one large, cluttered room, Irina portrays herself as circulating in Switzerland's high society where she has many benefactors.  In fact, she is a call-girl specializing in mostly sado-masochistic fantasies to which the Swiss elite seem to be addicted.  (Her madam is played by Geraldine Chaplin.)  The girl has broad Slavic features, creamy white skin and a lush figure generally set off by leather dominatrix garb -- the actress is incredibly beautiful and, of course, part of the pleasure in the film is simply watching her.  Irina is spying for security forces in Switzerland, led by an inept spymaster who keeps losing parts of his reddish moustache to the bondage masks in which Irina locks him.  A mafia chieftain named Tedeschi is laundering money through the Swiss banks -- a crime in which literally everyone, including the crusading investigative journalist, is complicit.  Poignantly, Irina wants to become "a Swiss girl" and worships the country, immersing herself in its history and spectacular landscapes -- there are stirring oaths taken at the foot of towering glaciers; in one scene, a bad guy places a phone call from a phone booth improbably located on an escarpment overlooking a vast river of ice.  (She tours the National Museum to learn more about her adopted country where she acquires a friend, confidante, and drinking buddy in Benedetta, a female janitor who works the subterranean torture chamber exhibits in place.)  One of Irina's customers is an old man who is a member of Cobra, a monarchist conspiracy plotting to kill the top members of the government and replace them with a King -- the entire country is imagined as resting on a maze of subterranean tunnels linking one place with another.  Irina serves the government efficiently and Tedeschi is captured.  Unfortunately, Tedeschi knows too much about corruption in Switzerland and he has to be murdered.  Irina's utility to the Swiss secret police diminishes and the government, now regarding her as an embarrassment since she knows the fetishes of most of the cabinet ministers, decides to deport her.  (Previously, she has been promised citizenship for her efforts.)  After a botched attempt at suicide, Irina accidently triggers an uprising in the Cobra cell.  All of the principal politicians in the State are assassinated and Cobra seizes the airwaves announcing that Switzerland's monarchy will be restored.  At a spectacular coronation ceremony, Irina is made queen of Switzerland.  The film ends with a lavish display of fireworks.  The final reel of the film, particularly the scenes involving the coronation of the Madonna-like whore, have a brilliant, enameled even cloisonné appearance -- it's like the scenes of the Mad King Ludwig swooning in his Wagnerian castles in Syberberg's Requiem for a Virgin King -- there seems to be some genuine nostalgia for the monarchy and, when the prostitute embarks  from the cathedral on a kind of gondola across one of Switzerland's vast lakes, the sky lit by fireworks, the film's ending seems bigger and more grandiose and more moving, in fact, than the relatively tawdry subject matter.  Last but not least -- the movie is a kind of musical:  there are several amusing songs and the picture ends with a fantastic turbo-charged polka tune by Florian Ast.   

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Everybody wants some!!

In Richard Linklater's 2016, Everybody wants some!! nothing much seems to be going on.  You watch the film, an account of a freshman college student's first three days with his roommates at a school somewhere in Southeast Texas, with mild amusement but the whole enterprise seems a wee bit pointless.  Only later, on reflection, does the film's structure and content appear innovative, even radical.  On consideration, the film has a strange quality that is more than a little unnerving.

In setting, costume, and incidental detail, Everybody wants some!! is ostensibly realistic.  Every effort is made to duplicate the appearance of a Texas college town in 1980 -- haircuts, vehicles, tastes in music, clothing styles are all reliably reproduced.  The plot is bland and inconsequential to the point of vanishing -- the film's bland subject matter is exemplified in the generic title, possibly the worst name for a film made by a major director, in recent memory.  (No matter how hard you try, you can't keep the name of the movie in mind.)  The picture features a large cast of impeccably attractive and affable young actors -- since the protagonist has been recruited to play baseball, all of the boys in the movie are athletic and beautiful.  The movie is shot from the perspective of the freshman, using completely unobtrusive film grammar -- there are no memorable shots in the movie, very little intrusive editing (a montage showing the boy's first baseball practice is an exception), no visual arias or self-consciously pretty images; everything is direct, clear, even, self-evident.  The characters are without mystery or depth -- exactly what you would expect in a film about young college athletes.  There are no middle-aged adults, children, or elderly people in the film.  Everyone is between 18 and 24 -- one guy who turns out to be 30 looks like he is 19.  At the end of the film, we see a college professor but, only, briefly -- after their three days of strenuous drinking and partying, the two freshmen students fall asleep in their first class.  A baseball coach lectures the boys living together in the team's house on decorum, drinking, and relationships with girls -- everyone agrees with the coach's comments and, then, ignores his directives for the rest of the film.  The film resembles Animal House but without the conflict with authority figures and without the jokes.  The hero listens to "My Sharona" as he drives up to the sprawling old house where the baseball team lives.  He encounters some mild hazing when he meets the other boys who will be his roommates.  The kids go out to drink, meet girls at a disco called "Soundmachine" and, then, go line-dancing at country-music bar.  The next night, they have a party at their house.   They go to a bar to hear a punk band.  The hero pursues a girl who turns out to be sophomore studying Theater Arts.  The baseball players go to a party at the theatrically decorated house where the Theater Arts majors live and the hero stays up all night talking to the girl.  At dawn, they go swimming in the river and, perhaps, sleep together.  Then, the hero attends his first class -- the teacher writes these words on the blackboard:  Frontiers are what you make of them, possibly a comment on the fact the film's events are liminal, occurring n the frontier between the summer and the first day of college.  The hero and his buddy fall asleep and the movie ends.  The picture is casually vulgar and features endless drinking and pot-smoking with lots of sex between the compliant girls and the handsome young athletes.  There is literally no conflict.  No one gets sick or vomits after drinking; all of the girls are beautiful; the boys are all handsome and competent.  Although there is a Black kid on the team, there is no racism and no sense of racial difference.  The pretty girls all seem to want pretty much what the boys want -- that is, to hook-up for casual sex.  In its form, the film refers back to Linklater's famous Dazed and Confused -- but Everybody wants some!! lacks the melancholy sense in the earlier film that time is passing and that those who remain mired in High School are doomed, most probably, to lives of futility.  Clearly, the movie is not realistic -- the absence of ugly or, even, ordinary-looking people in the large cast signifies that we are well within someone's fantasy vision of an idyllic past.  (I assume the movie is autobiographical-- I think Linklater may have matriculated as a college baseball player).  A movie assumes a certain meaning based on the identity of its director:  if Dumb and Dumber were directed by Ingmar Bergman we would have a different reaction to the film than we might have otherwise -- we would be searching for evidence of Bergman's trademark ideas and obsessions in the picture.  So, similarly, we necessarily interpret a film based on our expectations as to the director's previous work and thematic concerns.  Everybody wants some!! is resolutely cheerful, optimistic, and free from conflict.  The film is a rarity -- a work of art that is completely lacking in drama or anything akin to drama.  Furthermore, the film presents an idyllic floating-world, a series of encounters that are seemingly weightless and without any consequence whatsoever.  In its way, the film's thematic material is as austere as that exploited by Bresson although in a different tenor -- there is nothing in the film to suggest any kind emotional conflict:  it is disconcertingly easy, stress-free, lacking even the slight but pronounced "dying fall' of melancholy that we perceive in Dazed and Confused.  So what are we to make of this peculiar film?  If it were directed by an unknown auteur, we would be tempted to consider the movie as a cynical attempt to cash in on the youth market, a genre film but without enough crassness or sex or cruelty to be particularly interesting.  But this movie is made by an important American director, the man who created the densely experimental and deeply problematic Boyhood as well as a host of other challenging films.  Ultimately, the viewer has the sense that the movie is all preliminary, some kind of scene-setting, for a conflict that may occupy a sequel film -- or, perhaps, a conflict that may never arise at all.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Embrace of the Serpent

The Embrace of the Serpent (2016) is an ambitious and beautifully executed film directed by the Columbian, Cirro Guerro.  Made in lustrous black and white, the movie is frustrating because it is very close to being a great film.  The picture can't quite achieve the epiphany that it seeks -- and, indeed, I think the ending succumbs to a bit of woozy, fortune-cookie mysticism.  But the attempt is noble and the film's integrity is noteworthy.  I just wish the director and screenwriter had come up with something slightly better than the 2001 style light-show in the film's penultimate scene. 

The Embrace of the Serpent derives it's power from a narrative structure that intercuts two periods of time separated by about thirty-five years -- this device allows the viewers to see how the main character has aged in the intervening years and lets us assess the effects of events occurring in the first time frame on the later history of the people shown in the movie.  The passage of time represented in films is always inherently moving -- the great Andrei Tarkovsky said that filmmaking is "sculpting in time" and one need to think of the bone becoming a space-craft in 2001 or the Frisbee signifying a lapse of forty-years in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America to recall how powerfully, and profoundly, movies can shape our perception of time and its ravages.  In 1906, an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate is approached by another Indian acting as the servant of a white man, a dying German named Theodor von Martius.  Martius' servant asks Karamakate, who may be the last survivor of his people, to heal the German.  Karamakate hates the Whites and, at firsts, refuses.  But he sees an omen -- a capybara plunges into a stream in front of him, and this apparently persuades him to help the German.  Later, it becomes apparent that the German ethnologist and the shaman have some kind of mystical link:  the German has dreamed the same dream that motivates the Shaman.  Karamakate tells the German and his servant that there is a powerful healing plant called the Yakruna that grows at a place called the "workshop of the Gods" and he agrees to guide the white man to that place.  The film then adopts the classical structure of Aguirre and Apocalypse Now, a journey upriver through a landscape devastated by war and madness.  White men have invaded the jungle and enslaved the natives, torturing them into producing rubber on great plantations.  Many of the tribes that once inhabited the rain forest have been exterminated and there is some kind of pointless war underway, apparently between Peru and Columbia.  On  the way upriver, Karamakate keeps the German alive by insufflicating him with some kind of powder, probably a kind of cocaine.  The small expedition of three men have various encounters with people living in remote outposts along the river -- they meet a horribly mutilated native who is tending rubber trees for his masters (the man begs that they kill him), a Capuchin priest who is maintaining a kind of brutal orphanage for the children of the tribes that have been annihilated and, at last, reach a ruinous fort where the local people are all drunk on rum and Yakruna has been debased into a kind of recreational drug.  The Columbians attack the fort and the people all dive into the river, vainly hoping to swim away from the carnage.  Karamakate sees that the holy Yakruna is being misused and burns the last tree bearing the sacred, hallucinogenic blossoms.  The German violates one of Karamakate's taboos, eating fish in the wrong lunar season, and dies horribly of seizures in the jungle.  This story is intercut with a "modern" narrative:  a specialist of jungle flora from Boston has come to the Amazon to find the Yakruna plant, thought to be associated with a high-grade of rubber needed for the war effort -- this story seems to take place in 1941.   The scientist encounters Karamakate, now an old man, living alone in the jungle.  He persuades Karamakate to lead him upriver to search for the sacred Yakruna.  In this quest, Karamakate, now a hollow and embittered man, asserts that the white man will have to be his guide -- he argues that the diaries preserved from the 1906 expedition will have to lead them since Karamakate has become empty and has lost his soul:  he says that he is a chullachagui, that is a body without a spirit, a shadow of himself, something like a mere photograph compared with the actual, authentic man.  Traveling upriver, the two men encounter a savage religious cult led by a self-proclaimed Messiah -- this is what remains of the Christian orphanage after the Capuchin father was discredited for his cruelty to the boys living in the place.  The Messiah is surrounded by masked men dressed as inquisitors and he crucifies children along the river to mark the boundaries of his domain.  Karamakate cures the Messiah's sick wife, a teenage girl with leishmaniasis, and, then, poisons the cult members with a psychedelic potion that causes them to literally devour the flesh of the Messiah --it's like Martin Sheen killing Brando in the end of Apocalypse Now.  The travelers reach a bizarre landscape of huge dome-shaped peaks of black rock rising above the river.  On one of those peaks, the last Yakruna plant in the world is found.  Karamakate brews some Yakruna tea and the two men drink it, experiencing spectacular hallucinations.  (These hallucinations involve envisioning the river as a great, scaly serpent and, then, an intergalactic tour after the manner of the last couple reels of 2001 are filmed in vibrant, super-saturated color.)  In the morning, the Bostonian scientist awakes with a hangover and Karamakate has vanished.  The movie is packed with strange events, visionary encounters, and spectacular imagery of wild animals -- a jaguar symbolizes death to the German and we see the animal's impassive eyes in enormous close-ups, an anaconda gives birth to babies, some of which the jaguar devours.  As in Fitzcarraldo, the hero carries a phonograph with him up the river and, in this film, listens to Haydn's Creation -- Karamakate tells the White Man that the music is the voice of his ancestors speaking to him from the dream-time.  The scenes with the religious cult are terrifying and the landscapes, of course, have an extraordinary, almost dream-like vividness.  When an Indian steals a compass from Martius, the German tries to recover the instrument saying that if the natives rely upon the compass to find their way they will lose their own sense of direction in the forest.  But Karamakate reproaches him, saying that "Knowledge belongs to all men", a theme reprised in the end of the film when Karamakate entrusts the sacred wisdom the Yakruna blossom to the scientist from Boston.  The first forty minutes of the film is very powerful:   in particular, a scene in which the old Karamakate weeps in his hammock because he has become a mere chullachagui, a simulacra for a man, is extremely effective -- Karamakate says that he can't even make the healing cocaine mixture that he used to keep the German upright for so many weeks any longer.  And the scientist from Boston, who has read the journals of the German, actually has to make the cocaine powder based on what he has learned about the first expedition in the diaries that were brought of the jungle by Martius' servant.  The movie is remarkable for most of its length.  However, it's inconclusive and, as might be expected the psychedelic imagery in the last few minutes, although colorful, can't really provide the audience with the visionary impact that the experience is supposed to have on the man from Boston.  The film is remarkable and, of course, well worth seeing -- you should seek it out -- but it's slightly disappointing in that the movie's promise in its first few minutes isn't exactly kept. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Showtime's 12 episode series, Billions, is the Iliad of extortion.  The program's paradigm scene involves someone grotesquely wealthy or powerful arrogantly exercising influence only to be brought down by blackmail of one kind or another.  The wealthy or powerful person is humiliated, sometimes publicly shamed, other times merely privately disgraced.  This incessant motif makes the show addictive -- it's human nature, an outgrowth of our intrinsic resentment of those superior to us to desire to see our betters chastened at the very height of their pride, brought down by their overweening hubris..  But the flagrancy of this plot device, and its ubiquity in the program, also brings Billions close to pornography.  There's something more than a little disreputable about a program that entertains us so effectively with what are, after all, impulses of Schadenfreude that are, perhaps, more than a little shameful themselves.  Billions declares a simple, dispiriting thesis: everyone has dirty little secrets and those secrets can be used to wield power over others.   The show's objective correlative to this premise is surveillance, spying, industrial espionage -- to the hammering sound of music that simulates the rotor noise of a hovering aircraft, each episode begins with a sinister shot of downtown Manhattan, the skyscrapers gleaming in a purplish dawn while ferries inscribe white wakes on the harbor, the image of an exotic fortress under siege by an implacable eye in the sky. 

This theme the rich and powerful are always subject to blackmail is exemplified in the figure of Chuck Rhoades, one of the show's two protagonists.  Rhoades is a government lawyer, the chief prosecutor and United States Attorney for the Federal Courts in the Southern District of New York -- in other words, the guy who is supposed to police the crooks on Wall Street.  Rhoades is played by Paul Giamatti displaying a perversely charismatic mix of sulking self-pity and righteous indignation -- he is the kind of person who hectors his fellow citizens about dog shit left on the public sidewalk:  "if everyone let their dogs shit wherever they wanted, we would be up to our eyeballs in the stuff," Rhoades bellows, his own huge wet and morose eyes rolling in their sockets.  Rhoades is a practicing bondage enthusiast and masochist, not really a problem for him because his wife, Wendy, is a sadistic dominatrix who likes to loll around in leather corsets and helpfully tortures Chuck more or less on demand.  (The eye-opening first scene in the series features Wendy stubbing out a cigarette of Chuck's hairy torso and, then, cooling the wound by urinating on him -- this is a completely meretricious scene characteristic of Cable TV in general:  seize the audience's attention by something so over-the-top that the viewer will return for more.)  Of course, Chuck's sexual enthusiasms make him subject to blackmail.  Similarly, Wendy's enthusiastic participation in those activities exposes her to extortion as well.  Just about everyone in this show is motivated by either extravagant greed, or it's opposite, some kind of economic or personal duress constituting blackmail in one form or another.  Chuck's nemesis is Danny Axelrod, a fit and ruthless hedge-fund manager as wealthy as Croesus.  Axelrod made his first fortune with a series of lightning trades implemented between the first jet crashing into the World Trade Center and the second impact -- in the disaster, Axelrod lost most of his friends (and his wife's brother, a firefighter), but made millions.  (For much of the first series, Axelrod's secret as to the source of the seed money for his fortune remains carefully guarded -- this is so that he can be threatened with black mail.)  Wendy, Chuck's wife, a psychological therapist, works as a highly compensated counselor and "success coach" for Axelrod's team of semi-psychotic "assassin" traders -- these people go to strip clubs for "body sushi" and fire machine guns at deer munching on the shrubbery on their multi-million dollar Long Island estates.  Chuck, the prosecutor, disdains his wife's complicity in the highly profitable Axelrod Capitol enterprise and engages in a personal, obsessive vendetta to destroy the trader.  It appears that everything that Axelrod does is corrupt -- he apparently trades on insider information (this part of the show, although probably scrupulously researched is a little arcane for most viewers).  Accordingly, Chuck is desperate to chasten the arrogant hedge fund manager and personally motivated in this feud because of his wife's close and, even, intimate relationship with her boss -- Axelrod has Wendy swim naked with him as a test of her honesty.  Axelrod is played by the British actor, Damian Lewis, a handsome wiry fellow with a perpetual smirk on his face -- he is the opposite of the plump, rather doughy and unattractive Giamatti.  (We see Giamatti creeping around on his knees in a Des Moines bondage and discipline dungeon; in another scene, Giamatti sullenly opens a can of cat food for his pet.  We are told his salary:  the poor guy only pulls down $180,000 a year, probably a quarter of his wife's compensation.  By contrast, Axelrod lives in billion dollar beach front compound, roams acres of his glittering office in a Westchester County forest, the walls of the place decorated with spectacular modern art, and flies in his private jet to Montreal to attend a Metallica concert where he hobnobs with the band backstage.)  The heart of the show is the conflict between Giamatti and Lewis, a sort of duel of titans pitting the billions of Wall Street against the full, unleashed power of the Federal government.  At the heart of the conflict is Chuck's resentment as to the fact the Axelrod has bought, and paid for, his wife.  Wendy sashays around Axe Capital, always dressed in severe black and wearing high-heeled leather boots -- she describes the strenuous psycho-calisthenics that she uses to keep Axelrod's minions in top fighting spirit as "sessions" and, of course, exudes cool, sadistic mastery over everyone that she encounters.  She is the only person in the show unaffected by Axelrod's aura of imperturbable financial and personal infallibility -- she sees through him like she sees through everyone else.  Billions has a deep bench -- there are a host of fascinating secondary characters:  the U.S. attorney's office is full of scorpions of various kinds, all blackmailing one another and scrambling to climb over the corpses of their competitors:  when the team of lawyers are not furiously conspiring to undercut one another, they are sleeping together -- after all, this is Cable, and there has to be one explicit sex scene every two episodes.  Chuck's father is vampire who berates his poor son and sets up one of his many mistresses to compromise his enemies.  And, of course, Axe Capital is a rogue's gallery of rapacious traders, many of them afflicted with spectacular vices; they are captained by Wags, Axelrod's Mephistophelian factotum -- a cheerful little guy with a goatee who brays "Powerball winner!" when Axe pays someone off with "five sticks", that is five million dollars.  Axe has an avuncular, vicious lawyer, a beautiful blonde trophy wife who is every bit as cunning and criminal as her husband, two spoiled kids, a chef, and a terrifying head of security, a man that we see, at one point, apparently enjoying some kind of sexual encounter with a female dwarf in what looks like an abandoned slaughterhouse.  There are various informants, snitches, a corrupt Federal Judge that Chuck gleefully blackmails before sending him to prison, nasty pension fund managers, cops-on-the-take etc.  All of this would be completely ridiculous but for the fact that the show is very carefully written, well-designed, and brilliantly acted.  Indeed, in the season finale, broadcast in second week of April 2016, Billions concludes with two spectacular confrontations -- in the first Wendy denounces Chuck about stealing her personal patient-therapy files and using that information in an attempt to damage Axelrod -- although Chuck has acted badly, even, with criminal intent he refuses to back down, crying out "If you work for a criminal and spend your time helping criminals in their criminal enterprise, what does that make you?"  Wendy parlays Chuck's confession as to the theft of her files, recorded on her cell-phone, for five million dollars and, then, quits Axe Capital, throwing Chuck out of their house for a good measure.  Axelrod has been tricked into savaging his own offices in search of a listening device allegedly planted by the Feds.  After shredding the office walls to the studs and ripping out all ceilings, the computers heaped up in a pile and trashed, Axelrod finds that Chuck has come to see him.  The two men's final confrontation is the climax of the 12 hour show and it is thrilling -- further, thrilling in an adult way:  there are fisticuffs, no explosions, no car chases.  Billions is not without its longuers:   like all of these programs, there are detours and subplots introduced into the narrative web for the purpose of padding the plot so that it fits into the time allotted for the series -- probably, the show is about four hours too long.  But when Billions cleaves most closely to its central premise -- the perverse triangle between Axelrod, Wendy, and Chuck and the ferocious duel between the two men -- the show is a dirty pleasure.  At the end of the show, Chuck declares:  "The only enemy worse than someone with unlimited resources is -- " and here he throws out his arms in a gesture suggesting crucifixion --"a man with nothing to lose."  This sets up the show for next year and, if I am alive then, I will be tuned-in. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Amundsen der Pinguin

If you want to watch Amundsen der Pinguin, you will need to use You-Tube on your computer.  The 2003 made-for-TV film (d. Steven Manuel) was produced in German but the movie is helpfully subtitled in Portuguese.  The picture quality is a bit murky -- the move looks like it has been uploaded from someone's cell-phone and the images are both blurry and slightly faded.  The story concerns some German scientists monitoring penguins at the South Pole.  One of the penguins disgorges an enormous ruby.  Two evil, if inept and comical, bad guys try to bird-nap the penguin.  But the frisky, engaging little fowl is sent to Bremerhaven and, then, Cologne.  Somehow, the penguin ends up in the custody of a Pippi Longstockings kind of heroine -- a plucky eleven-year old girl who hauls the penguin around in her backpack.  The villains appear and attempt to seize the penguin but the girl eludes them, escaping on bicycle, then, train with the criminals in hot pursuit.  Ultimately, the bad guys catch her and the penguin.  (Somehow, her goofy uncle, a penguin specialist in Bremerhaven, is tangled up with the caper -- the bad guys also capture him.)  Everyone ends up at the South Pole again where the penguin leads the characters to a pirate ship entombed in the bowels of a glacier.  A vast pirate treasure beckons.  The villains are defeated and the girl takes from the ice-bound pirate ship a cross studded with emeralds.  In Punta Arenas, the heroine has a vision and enters an ancient church where she returns the stolen cross to the altar.  Back in Cologne, the film ends with the revelation that the heroine has come back with one of Amundsen's penguin eggs -- Amundsen turns out to be female.  The movie's special effects are rudimentary and the acting perfunctory.  The film's principal appeal seems to be the penguin, an endearing little creature that paddles around happily in the bathtub and that runs around with a cute waddle -- the little bird peeps around corners, nervously skitters down sidewalks, and dives like a Stuka from the prow of the boat when Amundsen is returned to her native waters.  The heroine's battle with the bad guys occurs over a long weekend when her parents are mysteriously absent (no doubt there was an explanation given in German that I didn't understand) and, so, the film borrows some scenes from the Home Alone franchise.  The bad guys are too buffoonish to be frightening.   The film is efficiently made although its camerawork is a much too agitated for the subject matter -- the camera flits around like a nervous fly during many scenes.  The only reason anyone would watch this picture is to gaze upon Till Lindeman, the lead singer of Rammstein, trapped in a thankless role as one of the cartoon bad guys.  Lindeman looks like a mournful Fred Flintstone and, without his eye-liner, he doesn't seem too unearthly -- he's a big, clumsy brute playing the kind of role that Wallace Beery would have acted in the thirties:  he has a "mug" not a face.  While attempting to administer mouth-to-mouth respiration to the penguin that is cleverly simulating death, Till gets his nose pinched by the penguin's beak.  For the rest of the film, before he falls in a glacial crevasse and, apparently, perishes, Till runs around with a Band-Aid on his proboscis.  'Nuff said? 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Forbidden Room

David Bordwell in his excellent book on cinema narrative defines some art films as "parametric."  By this, Bordwell means that the film-maker has imposed certain constraints on his narrative that may be arbitrary and, even, rebarbative.  The constraints channel the content of the film in certain ways and may limit the picture's expressiveness.  Such parameters impose upon the film restrictions that the subject matter works against, or, indeed, must overcome -- the director limits his or her means of expression, ordinarily to foreground aspects of film grammar that we might not otherwise notice.  Ozu will almost always shoot his films with a stationary camera located at the perspective of an observer on a tatami mat; if possible, late Bresson customarily shoots people approaching or leaving an encounter by showing their feet and ankles striding across the ground.  In Notre Musique, Jean-Luc Godard criticizes the standard Hollywood technique of organizing dialogue scenes on a shot -- reverse shot basis:  Godard uses every possible technique to stage dialogue scenes in that film except the shot-reverse shot parlance customary to classical narrative film. 

Guy Maddin's new film The Forbidden Room (co-directed with Evan Johnson) is an example of a movie built around a peculiar parameter:  the film's content is entirely based on lost films, movies that no longer exist except in single still photographs or in archival footage so severely deteriorated as to be unwatchable.  Maddin imagines what these lost movies might have been like and, then, intercuts them into a rigorously symmetrical structure.  In his commentary, Maddin describes the structure as a series of concentric rings or a doll with smaller dolls nested within.  The exterior elements of the film -- that is, its opening and closing sequences involve the imagined reconstruction of a lost film called "How to Take a Bath".  These sequences feature a bawdy narrative written by the poet John Ashbery -- Ashbury's lines are spoken by an elderly Canadian actor (Louis Negin, the disgusted "scoutmaster" in "Sissy Boy Slap Party") wearing a bathrobe alarmingly flared open to reveal his hairy torso and a nasty scar associating with the excision of the man's appendix.  The actor wears hornrimmed glasses similar to images that I have seen of Ashbery and, probably, imitates the poet's manner.  Sunk in the murky waters of the bathtub, there is a submarine.  Inside the submarine, four men are melodramatically awaiting their death by either asphyxiation or explosion -- a slab of some kind of plastic explosive is melting and has become dangerously volatile.  (Maddin revels in images of things rotting or melting in puddles of fetid fluid.)  Apparently, the slightest tremor might set off a blast.  The four trapped submariners are joined by a lumberjack, one of Saplingjacks, a group of Canadian outdoorsmen.   As the doomed sailors, progress through the submarine, opening one locked hatch after another, the lost lumberjack explains that he has come from another narrative -- the story of the Saplingjacks' effort to rescue a girl captured by a group of brigands, the Red Wolves, and held in a cave replete with papier-mâché stalactites.  Writhing on a bed of sleeping bandits, the nearly naked girl dreams that she is lost in a jungle.  She encounters a debauched Filipino night club inhabited by a tropical vampire, the Aswang -- a creature that turns its victims into horrible-looking, deformed bananas.  In the night club, a lounge singer performs a song about a man obsessed with buttocks.  The lounge singer is visualized as a writhing mess of decomposed film -- we see hands and shoulders extruding sometimes from the flicker of the rot eating the film where the man performs.  The tale of the fetishist is acted by the redoubtable Udo Kier.  Kier has parts of his brain removed in a vain attempt to excise his paraphilia.  (In the end, Kier has had his whole cerebellum cut and looks like a paralyzed zombie -- nonetheless, with his last strength he reaches out to grasp at a woman's ass.)  A volcano appears in the background -- a cone into which natives throw sacrifices.  The volcano, about chest-high, belches fire and spills lurid red magma all over everything and a squid-thief, his face bearded with the tentacles of the cephalopod in his jaws, is bonked by a boulder spit out by the lurid peak -- the man falls down dead or unconscious.  Next we see the Baron Pappenheim, lonely in his apartment located in a windmill.  Pappenheim has suffered some kind of loss and is seeking a "Gardener Boy" -- this part of the picture has some of characteristics of a German homo-erotic Kammerspiel from the late 'twenties.  (It resembles slightly Dreyer's Michael.)  A motorcyclist passes the windmill, a structure that sits alone in a garishly colored, expressionistic moor.  A woman is riding on the motorcycle -- she has an accident and breaks all her bones.  An x -ray of her fractured pelvis splits open like a cavern to reveal a group of "skeleton women" who murder a man by forcing him to wear a poisoned leotard.  On the Berlin-Bogota railroad a doctor who has charge of a crazy man (he is gnawing on the bars in his cage) tries to seduce a beautiful woman.  She produces her inner child, a waif that she promptly guns down with a pistol.  By this point, we have reached the center of the film and it, then, reverts to the various episodes continuing their narration in reverse order:  the skeleton women have an orgy while the man in the poisoned leotard dies, Baron Pappenheim nurses a sickly "gardener boy" who seems to be older than he is, the natives offer more sacrifices to the volcano, the Filipino night club continues to offer bizarre entertainment to its habitués, and the kidnapped woman wakes up and is rescued by the Saplingjack hero with his four companions.  In the submarine, the heroes venture into the "forbidden room" where they discover the Captain.  As the men begin to hallucinate due to lack of oxygen, one of them feverishly pages through The Book of Climaxes.  A violent series of climaxes ensues:  lovers embrace, animals attack, planes crash and trains fall off bridge trestles, two Zeppelins smash into one another above the clouds, two mountain-climbers falling off a precipice, wrestle with one another, pull out pistols as they are plummeting to their deaths and engage in a vertical gunfight, a lonely woman commits suicide by walking out into a turbulent sea.  We learn how to take a bath again and the film ends. 

Maddin's movies have always had an appearance unlike anything else in modern cinema and this picture is particularly spectacular:  every possible kind of film stock is used, including ancient Technicolor that has a peculiar burnished and musty looking bronze tint; much of the film is shot in a grisly-looking black and white (often tinted) and the surface of film is scabrous with nicks and flaws -- much of the movie looks as if it were aged like kim chee by being buried for several years in the earth.  The pictures are distorted by Evan Johnson -- his role seems to be to distress the film and devise distortions to afflict the images -- there are double and triple exposures, leering faces superimposed over roiling magma; an image of  Lake Winnipeg has been distorted to look like one of Turner's lost canvases -- all boiling waves and a luminous, sinister mist.  Landscapes are clearly interior to a studio and shot with obviously fake boulders and trees -- many of the images are viewed through house-plants with lenses smeared with semen or vaginal fluid to create a sweaty, ecstatic blur, faces bleeding into one another and images rotting so that they flicker around their edges as if the figures depicted were embedded in decomposing halos of white light.  Some of the people shown are just cardboard cut-outs; others seems to be hypnotized or asleep.  There are curiously incandescent orgies where women fantastically beautiful in the manner of depraved silent film heroines writhe and wriggle atop heaps of half-naked bodies -- the film's standard shot shows someone ranting, a diatribe voiced by a disembodied face or head that seems weirdly bloated and, then, a cut to an androgynous figure squirming in some kind of quasi-orgasmic ecstasy.  There are rotund oratorical intertitles and much of the film is silent - when people speak their voices sound from a void that bears no spatial connection to what we are seeing on the screen.  Sometimes, we hear snippets of poorly recorded Wagner, ancient recordings on wax gramophones, and fragments of Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht.  Of course, the film is too much, too long, too fragmentary, too weirdly ornate, too contrived, too dull, too fascinating, too much of everything and, in the end, a kind of exhaustion afflicts the viewer -- you can't assimilate what you are seeing and there is no thematic continuity, just a series of fetishistic and perverse obsessions.  It's not Maddin's dream nor is it the dream of any of his characters, all of them covered with beads of sweat and grimacing hysterically at the camera -- the film is conceived as kind of dream of cinema itself and it is both remarkable and a complete, and alarming dead end, a sort of reductio ad absurdam  or ne plus ultra of the notion of film as oneiric spectacle.

Maddin's recent films occupy an uneasy terrain between performance/installation art and the cinema.  In this way, his movies are similar to the cinematic events contrived by Peter Greenaway and Apichatpong Weerasthul.  Viewed innocently, The Forbidden Room is a huge, baffling collage in which certain organizing principles are faintly visible but an artifact that makes no real sense.  In fact, the film was shot in public at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Art in Montreal -- the set was open and some of the supernumeraries are, apparently, people who came to the museum to watch the movie being made -- in Paris, the production of the film was call "Spiritismes," in Montreal, "Hauntings."  Accordingly, the process of shooting the picture, itself, was on display as a kind of installation in the French and Canadian museums.  Furthermore, Maddin improvised the film using a curious protocol -- each morning of the production he staged and filmed a séance inviting the spirits of the photoplays of some 42 lost films to appear and advise him on his project.  Then, after the séance, Maddin (who asserts he doesn't believe in spirits or ghosts) shot footage in which he imaginatively seeks to reconstruct films that have otherwise vanished -- movies known from one or two reviews, or a few frames of poorly preserved footage, or still photographs.  For instance, "Seeking Gardener Boy" was a Danish Kammerspiel; "Skeleton Women" was a Chinese silent horror movie, How to take a Bath refers to "How to Undress for your Husband", a lost sex-ploitation film made by Dwain Esper in 1937, and the jungle-cabaret scenes resurrect a lost Filipino production, a box-office hit in 1919 in Manilla.  The sexually inflected orgy scenes always refer to Jack Smith's legendary Flaming Creatures a film seminal in more than one way and that can't be shown for a variety of obscure reasons, thus a picture that is lost for all practical purposes.  In the center of the movie, it's "soft, squishy heart" as the director says, there is a repeated image of the British actress Charlotte Rampling --a closeup that throbs like a bloated, beating heart.  Like the repeated shots of Lillian Gish as the mother of humanity rocking her cradle ("out of the cradle endlessly rocking") in Griffith's Intolerance, this image anchors the film.  But anchors it in what?  Ultimately, this picture, like most of Maddin's films, exists on the frontier between installation art in a museum and a film that you might watch in a movie theater -- it's too narrative, perhaps, for the more abstract genre of museum installation art and, yet, much too complex and confusing to be reasonably understood as narrative movie.  This picture is not to most people's taste but anyone concerned about cinema as an art should watch this film -- and, not only watch it, but study it closely.   

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Don Juan

John Barrymore, acting as Don Juan in the 1926 film of that name, is a prick.  By this I mean, the actor is needle-thin, a spiky syringe of a man in tight trousers that emphasize his dancer's buttocks.  Barrymore is like an embodied stiletto, deadly as a dagger thrust in the darkness.  (In fact, the film's prologue shows Don Juan's father mortally pierced by courtesan wearing an improbably décolleté gown from which she fishes a thumb-length but deadly lancet.)  The other edged or cutting instrument in the film is Barrymore's famous profile -- whenever possible the actor rotates into a position so that the camera can scrutinize his delicately aquiline and intricately serrated silhouette.  The movie is opulently produced. No one passes through a door that is not an arched entrance high as a house.  There are elaborately detailed Moorish piazzas with cloister-walk colonnades, numerous lofty balconies to which the hero can climb or from which he may swan-dive to evade jealous husbands.  One of the pleasures of silent films of this era is that the intertitles describe the upcoming location, generally in bursts of imagistic poetry or fin de siècle epigrams vaguely like those written by Oscar Wilde, and, while we are reading that text, we can enjoy the delicious anticipation of wondering at the appearance of the next set promised by the title:  for instance, the title promises us that we will next see Don Juan confined in a "slimy cell in the Castello San Angelo below the level of the River Tiber" -- a fearsome-looking prison with the Tiber river pouring by at eye-level, just as we imagined but, of course, always better.  The movie's plot bears no resemblance to either the poem by Lord Byron or Pushkin's verse narrative or Mozart's opera.  Rather, the story involves Don Juan's entanglement in a feud between the Borgia family and their aristocratic enemies -- a quarrel that results in a maiden being coerced into nuptials with a brutal and lecherous Borgia henchman.  Don Juan rescues the girl (Mary Astor), swooning as her detestable husband ravishes her.  An extended duel follows fought from room to room and level to level of the villain's vast palazzo -- this reminds us that films have never improved on the sword fights climaxing silent films:  the whole episode is shot with a tracking point-of-view camera interspersed with long and medium distance images, all of them packed with balletic action.  When Barrymore's sword deflects his opponent's saber and hurls it  into a wall (where it is embedded quivering), the hero pitches away his own blade and plunges headfirst down a long flight of marble steps to engage the bad guy in hand to hand combat, an exhilarating, pointless battle executed for the sheer hell of it.  Later, the girl is picturesquely tortured on the rack, her body neatly stretched into a lascivious arc by a vicious executioner.  Barrymore disposes of the hooded executioner, dons his costume, and spends a minute or two torturing the girl for our benefit (and ostensibly to persuade observing villains that he is the real McCoy).  During this scene, Barrymore leers like Dr. Jekyll suddenly transformed to Mr. Hyde and one senses that he is getting all too much entertainment out of inflicting pain on creamy white flesh of the terrorized heroine.  At the climax, Barrymore seizes the girl in his arms, dives out of a window, catching hold a convenient vine, caroms off the wall with real and frighteningly visceral force, the woman half-knocked senseless it seems, as he descends post-haste a cataract of ivy on the ancient turret.  Then, throwing the girl across the pommel of his horse, he flees through the night-time terrain of the San Bernadino Mountains, a dozen of the grand inquisitor's men in hot pursuit.  After a spectacular chase, Don Juan chivalrously deposits the heroine in a hollow tree and turns on his pursuers, a bit like John Wayne in True Grit -- whirling his poignard around his head, he cuts down the dozen men, leaving them dead in the dark meadow.  All of this is filmed with the utmost conviction and spatial logic and the scenes of Don Juan on horseback, shot from only a few feet away, must be managed by rear-projection but are done so skillfully that we have the illusion that we are on horseback as well plunged into the midst the violence.  The movie is crammed with horses charging through narrow medieval alleys by torchlight, ballets between satyrs and nymphs performed for the benefit of decadent royalty (in this dance scene the mostly nude female dancers throw themselves with wild abandon from balconies to be caught by the burly fawns), over-the-top mad scenes, and gorgeous women, somehow managing to appear both pristine, even Madonna-like in their virginal innocence and truly alarming in the insinuations of depravity that they suggest.  In his bedroom, Don Juan has one of Michelangelo's incomplete marble slaves, a figure seeming to melt into a sort of orgasm,  and, in his high-ceilinged banquet hall, there is a conversation nook the size of King Arthur's table equipped with a couple of effete-looking gentlemen and a half-dozen ladies of enormous beauty but dubious respectability.  The movie reminds us that the great action heroes of the silent era had a graceful athleticism and elegance that film has completely forgotten -- for worse (not better) modern action heroes are modeled of the stolid, granite immobility of John Wayne and the heavy-set, automaton violence of Arnold Scwartzeneggar's killer robot.  The last action hero to embody the virtues of casual strength, gymnastic ability, and elegant ferocity that we behold in actors like the young John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks was Burt Lancaster.    

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Paris Belongs to Us

Shot over three years beginning in 1957, Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us wasn't released until 1961.  Accordingly, Rivette's film has the curious distinction of being the earliest film produced in the French "New Wave" and, yet, a picture belatedly released after Godard's Breathless and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.  Critics are prone to speculate that film history would be different if Rivette's rebarbative and profoundly idiosyncratic movie had reached theaters first.  This sort of conjecture is meaningless.  Rivette's films are both ultra-cerebral and anti-sensuous; they don't have any of the jocular, jazzy, improvisatory elements that pleased audiences attending early Truffaut and Godard pictures.  Those two film makers annotated American B-movies, producing a kind of transfigured pop art.  Rivette's sources are minor Shakespeare plays, obscure philosophical treatises that involve a kind of hermetic riddling that is more akin to Georges Perec than low-budget gun and girl pictures made by Monogram Studios.   Rivette is a minority taste, one so refined that I'm not sure that I share it. (I repeatedly fell asleep while watching Paris Belongs to Us and had to rewatch key portions of the film that I had missed while slumbering).  If Paris Belongs to Us had secured pride of place in the French nouvelle vague, it would have been ignored -- Rivette's specialized subject, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and his austere, classical style can't be effectively imitated and his work has had little influence on other filmmakers.

Paris Belongs to Us is remarkably self-assured, crisply and effectively shot and edited -- the acting is theatrical and stylized but, also, plausible and competent:  the players are, after all, acting the part of aesthetes and theater-folk.  The film begins in media res -- a woman mysteriously reciting Shakespeare's Tempest goes to a next door apartment when another young woman is melodramatically mourning someone's death.  It's unclear whether the dead man is Pierre, the brother of the Shakespeare-citing heroine, Anne, or someone else.  In the next scene, at a boulevard café, Anne meets her brother Pierre and they discuss the death of a musician named Juan.  No one knows whether Juan was murdered or committed suicide -- it is clear that the musical score that he wrote for an avant-garde production of Shakespeare and Fletcher's Pericles has gone missing.  At a party, the actors working on Pericles lament the death of Juan and one man, an American "political refugee" named Philip Kaufman (he's fled McCarthy's Black List) claims that a conspiracy is afoot and that people are being killed or "disappeared" in the service of this plot.   The objectives of the conspirators are not specified but, in general terms, they seem to be apocalyptic.  It is uncertain, however, whether Kaufman is suffering from alcohol-induced fantasies, is mad, or, in fact, telling the truth.  Kaufman and Juan both had a relationship with a woman named Terry who also believes that a conspiracy is lurking, some sort of omnipresent plot to destroy the world.  Anne searches for Juan's lost score -- it's the film's MacGuffin to use an analogy to Hitchcock's movies.  (And Rivette was a great admirer of Hitchcock, frequently writing about the Master in his columns for Cahiers du Cinema; in many respects, Paris Belongs to Us most resembles an exceptionally abstract and bloodless Hitchcock thriller.)  The movie is very long and most of the encounters that Anna has with others are enigmatic and inconsequential.  Eventually, the production of Pericles that the characters are mounting under the direction of a man named Gerard is invited to perform a thirty night run at a huge and prestigious theater.  During the transfer of the play to the big, commercial theater, the production is coopted by another director and Gerard is forced off his own show.  (There's almost some comedy in this part of the film -- the actors ham it up outrageously for the Parisian version of Broadway and the new producer suggests bringing in a pirate ship manned by dwarfs each less than "one meter tall.")  In Paris Belongs to Us, people keep finding suicide notes and Anne learns that Gerard is going to kill himself -- someone sends her a note that if Anne doesn't call Gerard before midnight, he will commit suicide.  (She gets the note fifteen minutes late.)  In a remarkable sequence, Anne dashes around Paris looking for Gerard -- she hustles here and there in a taxi through empty streets at dawn, an early morning hour that seems endlessly and surrealistically protracted.  At last, she finds Gerard with a woman with whom he has spent the night.  Anne is a little miffed because it seems that she may once have been Gerard's lover.  She goes to a film club and watches (with the other players in Pericles) the Babel sequence from Lang's Metropolis, everyone laughing in a weird way at the spectacle on the screen.  Terry calls her and says that Gerard has, in fact, killed himself.  Anne goes to see Gerard's corpse; Kaufman is there and continues to rant about the conspiracy that is murdering members of their group.  The principals adjourn to a country house outside of Paris where we learn that Terry has killed Pierre, claiming that Pierre conspired to derail the production of Pericles and deprive Gerard of his control over the show.  Anne watches some white birds in flight over a lake and there is an inserted shot of Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite -- it's not quite clear where the ending takes place.  In the final half-hour, Juan's death is blamed on Falangist assassins and Terry denies the existence of the cult of conspirators -- Terry carries cyanide tablets and, perhaps, people are dying from simple despair and ennui.   Rivette's narrative is an engine for producing contradictions -- every proposition asserted by a character is simultaneously denied.  The films opening epigraph is from the poet Charles Peguy -- "Paris belongs to no one."  Gerard, the director of Pericles, is shown as a magisterial figure brooding over the whole city of Paris from the roof of a grand theater -- but he turns out to have no power at all notwithstanding his impressive status in that image.  Terry says that it was folly to believe that killing one person in 1945 would bring an end to the conspiracy that afflicts the world -- presumably referring to Hitler and suggesting that the conspirators are some kind of crypto-Nazis; but, in the next breath, she says that a conspiracy that has lasted for "thirty years" is not easily unmasked -- since the film's opening title tells us that the movie begins in "June 1957" this would mean that the conspiratorial plot was first hatched in 1927 -- is that the year of Lang's Metropolis?  Obviously, there is not one conspiracy but either none or many.  Anne protests that Pericles is inconsistent and incoherent but contains some great passages -- it is either by Shakespeare or not by Shakespeare.  In the end, Terry, who has asserted the primacy of the conspiracy, claims that there is no conspiracy at all.  At one point, someone mocks Juan's soundtrack for the play as atonal beeps and squeaks and random bits of percussion -- this seems to be the soundtrack we hear to the film and, during the movie's long middle portion, the audience wants to call out to Anne:  "we know where Juan's soundtrack went; it was appropriated to be the soundtrack of this film that we are watching."  But once we draw this conclusion, it is refuted -- Terry has the tape and plays it near the end of the movie.  At various points in the film, the movie resembles Val Lewton's sinister The Seventh Victim -- in Lewton's picture, a coterie of strangely conservative and dull Greenwich Village devil worshipers are killing renegade members of their group.  In Paris Belongs to Us, there are eerie overtones suggesting that actors and crew working on Pericles are, in fact, the true cult -- people in the group seem to communicate by secret gestures and there is a sense in which the intensely motivated, if a bit dimwitted, theater folks would be willing to kill to protect their endeavor.  In one memorable scene, Anne interviews a cadaverous actor who speaks to her in sepulchral tones while his child-like mistress, "my ward" he calls her, prowls the apartment barefoot -- what exactly is going on with these people?  Certainly, anyone who has attended the rehearsals of a close-knit group of actors and crew staging a show realize that there is a distinctly cult-like aspect to this kind of endeavor.  Rivette shoots the film in tight spaces, tiny cluttered apartments full of posted images and books that seem to be clues -- although clues to what we can't quite tell.  Everyone shows enigmatic half-smiles to the camera or nervously looks away when certain things are said.  Time either dilates or compresses -- Anne's dawn hunt for Gerard seems to take a whole day during which the time never advances one minute.  People are always knocking at closed doors, finding mysterious notes -- in one scene, we hear whistles and are told that the police are sweeping an apartment building for conspirators but we never see any police presence.  Gerard's body is just left lying in a bed.  As the film progresses, the grey streets and narrow corridors seem to be claustrophobically closing down -- then, the movie opens into a landscape:  a lake, some people at a fire like figures in a Brueghel painting burning something, an anguished grouping of actors, then, a flock of birds flying away.  As in some of Pynchon's works, there is, of course, a savage, deadly, and merciless conspiracy -- and there is no conspiracy at all.  The world is full of vicious meaning; the existentialists were wrong -- reality isn't meaningless or absurd but, rather, a great book of hieroglyphs for us to read; it's all text, but, unfortunately, text in a language that we can't read.   

Friday, April 1, 2016

Wind across the Everglades

A peculiar psychodrama with Jungian overtones, Nicholas Ray's Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is a fascinating, botched melodrama.  Shot in intensely saturated and moody Technicolor, the movie's interiors and natural settings have a feverish quality, a bit like imagery in one of Douglas Sirk's more garish films -- some of the outdoor shots have a curiously overlit and claustrophobic character:  it's nature as a series of small, shadowy chambers where men are pressed together in barracks-like confinement.  Ostensibly, the story concerns a young teacher (Christopher Plummer) pressganged into becoming an Audubon warden for the Everglades.  The warden's mission is to protect "plume birds" (mostly large alien-looking herons) from the depredations of poachers, embodied by a gang of swamp-rats led by Cottonmouth, a massive, sadistic brigand played by Burl Ives in a spectacular, scenery-chewing performance.  Cottonmouth is the patriarch of his rag-tag mob that is a kind of "primal horde", and the huge red-bearded pirate keeps a venomous snake in his pocket, or caresses it on his lap, as his fearsome pet.  Ray was raised in Lacrosse under the "scourge of alcoholism" -- his father was a violent drunk -- and the film portrays Cottonmouth as the ultimate paternal tyrant:  the all-male community of swamp-rats, always shown tromping through knee-deep mud, has vaguely homosexual features:  the men bunk together, generally in pairs comprised of a burly, older brute and pretty young boy.  For entertainment, Cottonmouth makes the men fight with one another, taking bets on the outcome -- when one of his "boys" is beaten in a gladiatorial battle, Cottonmouth bellows at the battered and exhausted man (a tiny jockey who fights with a riding crop) until he rises from the filthy mud, only to collapse again.  Then, Cottonmouth tenderly lifts the muddy boy out of the muck and carries him in his arms to his own shack.  Although the film nods toward heterosexual romance -- there's a brothel in the town of Miami and the hero has a girlfriend, the picture's primary emphasis is same sex, man-on-man aggression:  the weird commune of plume poachers and, ultimately, the duel between Plummer's game warden and Cottonmouth.  The protracted encounter between Chistropher Plummer and Burl Ives comprising the last third of the film is the main event -- it's a nightmare father and son bitchfest, involving competitive drinking, various kinds of ordeals and tests of strength, and can end only with the death of one of the protagonists.  Although Cottonmouth repeatedly has the game warden in his power, he hesitates to kill him -- Cottonmouth's motivations are obscure until the relationship is interpreted as a sort of Abraham-Isaac gig:  Burl Ives is the pater familius to his boys in the swamp as well as to the hapless game warden who keeps falling into his clutches.  Cottonmouth embodies the evil, but life-affirming and hedonistic father:  he chews on "swamp cabbage" to keep his belly free from parasites, gnaws on melons and roast alligator and generally attests to the "sweetness of living" -- he's like Zorba the Greek stranded in the marsh and surrounded by gay boys.  Although we see the figure initially as a terrifying tyrant, Cottonmouth becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses and, indeed, in the final ordeal sequence, his patriarchal cruelty seems to mold Plummer "into a man."  The script is by Budd Schulberg and its too, too busy, with many flights of unmotivated poetry  -- Cottonmouth is not only an Old Testament patriarch, brigand, and gang-leader, but, also, an embodiment of the savagery of nature:  in some sense, he's supposed to represent the cruelty and indifference of the mighty Everglades themselves.  Ray was a master of small, but pointed details -- although the plot outline is sketchy, and some scenes start with promise, seem to develop, but, then, go nowhere, the director keeps things lively with local color.  A one-armed Seminole Indian, like a spectral Charon, leads the game warden through the darkness of the night-time Everglades.  There is a poison tree like something out of William Blake:  "you don't carve your name on that tree," someone says, "it carves its name on you."  The madam at the Miami whorehouse where Plummer's characters looks but doesn't touch requires that her girls maintain six inches between their torsos and her customers while dancing -- she scans her brothel through a lorgnette.  When Plummer gets drunk in the whorehouse, he moves his fingers as if to mimic the Black blues singer at the piano.  There's a lyric interlude midway in the film, a sequence that looks like Peckinpah at his most mild and poetic:  it's the 4th of July and, at Miami, the lovers go to the beach and, on a flag-bearing sailing barge, the whores cruise by saluting (and embarrassing) their customers, and Plummer, with his best girl, retreats from the sun under a ramshackle bandshell.  While a tuba player performs overhead, he and the girl embrace.  Plummer says something like:  "You're bold and fine -- it's a devastating combination," she replies:  "I like devastated men."  This snippet of dialogue exemplifies what's wrong with Schulberg's script:  it's clogged with trite aphorisms and failed poetry.  Much of the film is a mess.  The impressive wild-life photography doesn't generally match the rest of the film and, in truth its incongruous to see soul-baring father-son confrontations, staged in the best fifties method-acting style, cut together with panoramas of sky and water infused with Maxfield Parrish light mingled with Mutual of Omaha "Wild Kingdom" animal sequences.  But the film belongs to Burl Ives and he, certainly, puts on a show.  At one point, he demands that his swamp rats smile -- the camera obligingly pans over the rogue's gallery containing such notables as the novelist Mackinlay Kantor, the clown Emmett Kelly, and a very young, squint-eyed Peter Falk; they all contort their lips into a sinister grimace.  "Eat and be et," Cottonmouth declares as his credo.  And when a viper seizes him in the film's final scenes, Cottonmouth, who seems now to be a combination of Falstaff and King Lear, howls to the snake:  "Bite deep, brother, bite deep!"