Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Duke of Burgundy

The metaphor governing Peter Strickland's eccentric Duke of Burgundy (2014) is an entomological specimen -- a butterfly or massive moth pinned through its body within a glass case.  Although this conceit doesn't make much sense of Strickland's S & M melodrama, it does clarify the form of the film and its aspirations:  Strickland is a collector presenting for our delectation the corpse of a soft-core Eurosleaze film, circa 1975, pinned through its belly and tastefully arrayed under glass.  Eurosleaze, the genre favored by such notables as Jesse Franco and Jean Rollin featured idyllic landscapes, dark baronial castles, and topless maidens cavorting in Sapphic abandon that always threatened to become violent or, even, deadly -- focus was soft and blurry; the mise-en-scene casually dreamlike; and the sex, almost entirely off-screen and, therefore, imaginary, was generally perverse.  These films were all a morbid tease with lilting soundtracks, sun-dappled walks in the park, and dubbed voices moaning in ecstasy. (Franco who also specialized in zombie films ended-up more hard-core, directing sadomasochistic female concentration camp movies.)  It's a tribute to The Duke of Burgundy's scrupulous authenticity that the dialogue, such as it is, sounds dubbed. 

In some vaguely Hungarian or Czech village, a group of austerely clad women have gathered to study entomology.  They meet at intervals to listen to lectures on bugs.  The lectures are delivered by fierce-looking dominatrices in shiny jackboots.  Evelyn, a mousy little woman, rides her bicycle to the vine-shrouded manor where Cynthia lives.  Cynthia is severely dressed and she is constantly drinking water so as to better urinate in Evelyn's mouth.  Evelyn knocks on the door, is met by Cynthia, who, then, orders her to perform menial household chores.  One thing leads to another and Evelyn has to be punished.  The film repeats this scenario with only tiny variations four or five times.  Evelyn controls the ritual, writing demanding notes to her mistress on 3 x 5 cards.  She is a bossy slave and persnickety -- she doesn't like it when Cynthia snores.  Evelyn hauls a big chest into the bedroom and forces Cynthia to lock her in the box every night -- even from within the casket, Evelyn is exceedingly bossy, waking up Cynthia with the hissed demand, "Be nasty!"  Ultimately, Evelyn is bored and contrives a session of boot polishing with another harsh and cruel lady-entomologist, Dr. Schuller.  This leads to a crisis in the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, some hard words are exchanged, and Evelyn agrees to be more spontaneous in their love-making -- they deviate from the fixed scenario but, after a while, it is just simpler to revert to their previously well-established rituals.  Cynthia, who has to play the role of the cruel mistress, seems sad and put upon; Evelyn constantly orders her around, probably, because the baronial manor, in fact, is Evelyn's home and she seems to be the world-renowned entomologist in the couple.  All of this is filmed with the utmost languor -- slow tracking shots linger on lingerie and glistening leather surfaces; the casket-like box has a sinister presence; and the women's love-making, to the extent that it is shown, is generally revealed in a mirror poised somewhere in a candle-lit room.  The film's surface is gorgeous in a conventional way, soft light and haloed rim-shots of luminous hair, sun-dappled exteriors.  The S & M rituals, comprising most of the film, are intercut with various shots of moths and butterflies in flight, pupa emerging from cocoons, grubs burrowing through deep rich soil so chocolaty in color that you feel like you could eat it with a spoon.  The entomological imagery doesn't exactly match anything in the film and remains a puzzling tangent that never really intersects with the arc of the narrative such as it is.  (The conclave of women could be bicycle enthusiasts or hydraulic engineers -- the fact that they spend their time in dusty libraries reading about crickets and moths seems arbitrary.)  The film has the strength of its own peculiar convictions -- there are no men anywhere visible in the picture and, indeed, no suggestion that there is anything like another (male) gender in this exclusively female world.  The closing titles are funny:  the film features "entomological collections from natural history museums in Hungary" and not one, but two, "human toilet consultants."

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The League of Youth

Henrik Ibsen wrote The League of Youth during his exile in Berlin during the early 1870's.  The play follows Ibsen's two great verse dramas, Brand and Peer Gynt, and, in contrast to those works, The League of Youth is determinedly prosaic and conventional -- a well-made play after the French manner with a circuitous plot and a complex denouement involving no fewer than three marriages.  The story involves an ambitious young lawyer, Stensgaard, who comes to a small village in the hinterlands, dabbles in a local election, and rattles the status quo both erotically and politically.  Although the play is said to be popular in Scandinavia, it is rarely performed elsewhere -- indeed, there is a possibility that the production mounted by the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, Minnesota between April and June 2016 is the premiere of this work in the United States.  That said, the play is so cunningly constructed with such a wealth of fascinatingly cynical characters that the work is fairly well-known in translation.  My big book of Ibsen plays, reprinted from the 1950's with an introductory essay by H. L. Mencken publishes a translation of the work and my guess is that the play is frequently read and studied -- it is after all an interesting transitional work between Ibsen's visionary verse plays (heavily influenced by Goethe) and his later realistic and, indeed, symbolist works. 

A word of caution is in order.  The version of The League of Youth presented at the Commonweal Theater is "an adaptation" by a Minnesota playwright, Jeffrey Hatcher.  The original play is lengthy and extraordinarily complex with a huge cast of characters.  Hatcher has substantially abridged the play and eliminated half of its cast -- he has switched genders with respect to some of the characters and the climactic roundelay of farcically botched wedding proposals involves, to some extent, entirely different characters than those who end up getting "hitched" in Ibsen's original work.  Hatcher has eliminated the drunken newspaperman, Aslaksen, the cynical doctor/commentator Fieldbo, and has changed Mons Monsen into Mrs. Monsen; some minor roles he elevates, other major parts he reduces or excises entirely.  Several of the erotic subplots are cut -- Stensgaard is an equal opportunity seducer; he makes passes at all of the women in the play regardless of their marital status or age.  As a result, The League of Youth only slightly resembles Ibsen's play -- the skeleton of the work is on display, but much of text's hyper-complex narrative is eliminated.  Things only suggested in the original are made overt and much of the play's elliptical and ironic dialogue is missing.  (In my translation, League of Youth has an eerie dream-like indeterminacy -- we know that Stensgaard is constantly conniving, but we get the sense that he doesn't really have any firm objective in mind.  When he gives a rabble-rousing Communist speech at a local election party, Stensgaard seems to astound himself and spends the rest of the play improvising different schemes based upon the splash that he has made with that oration -- no one knows what to make of Stensgaard including, I think, Ibsen himself.  League of Youth implies something quite unsettling -- for Stensgaard everything is provisional except his Nietzschean will-to-power and he acts by intuition as opposed to calculation.  He's like Donald Trump -- everyone knows he's in the game only for himself but no one can figure out his next move or why he will make that move.)  In some ways, Hatcher's version of The League of Youth feels like King Lear with the entire subplot involving Edgar and Gloucester eliminated -- it's like Hamlet without Ophelia. 

Hatcher's adaptation is probably all to the good.  It seems likely that League of Youth would be much too long, too clogged with speeches and too intrinsically local to be acceptable to American audiences.  (The play caused street-fighting in Oslo when it was first premiered -- the pragmatically vague political agenda espoused by Stensgaard led conservatives to think they were being ridiculed while the liberals were similarly outraged by what they were perceived to be mockery of their party.  This situation is echoed by a scene in the play in which Chamberlain Bratsberg, the local grandee, is not clear whether Stensgaard's maiden speech is denouncing or praising him -- although all the auditors of the speech know quite well that Stensgaard's intent is malicious.)   Hatcher's adaptation is a sprightly 2 hours and five minutes long -- probably less than half the running time of the play as written.  The show preserves the lineaments of Ibsen's complicated plot -- Stensgaard espouses a political position that he changes in every act depending upon who is trying to impress and seduce.  He proposes marriage to all of the women in the play in turn -- desperate to secure an advantageous match.  The proceedings are generally very funny and the script is sharply written -- it has something of the air of a fast-paced screwball comedy, a tone that is foreign, I think, to the original but that works effectively.  Stensgaard's wild egotism and self-serving antics are picturesque and he is amusing without being actually loathsome.  The battered and dilapidated local elector, Lundestad, is funny -- deemed to be a great orator, he is unable to say anything without slipping into tautology and malapropism.  Chamberlain Bratsberg is a wonderful combination of angry indignation and unctuous self-aggrandizement.  Everyone in the play is some species of business failure or crook and the show is wonderfully cynical.  Hatcher superimposes on the play a final speech by Stensgaard who has been rejected by all of the women, his political prospects dashed and his hopes for prosperity ruined -- in livid red light, Stensgaard cries out for revenge, suggesting, perhaps, that the Communist revolutions of the 20th century will be an outcome of the resentment that he feels at his failures in the small Norwegian town.  This is gratuitous but effective -- it's as if Malvolio were allowed the last word in Twelfth Night and permitted to prophecy the coming revolution of the Puritans.  The show is presented on a thrust stage with a couple pieces of furniture that cast members lugged on and off as required -- there was a hand-painted flat representing some birch trees that could be reversed to simulate, very crudely, the interior of a house or saloon.  Good theater doesn't require anything in the way of sets -- the Commonweal production made this eminently clear. 

Villainy: Spotlight and The Night Manager

One of the defects of real life is its lack of villains.  Even Donald Trump, so people say who have been granted an audience with the great man, is charming in person, friendly, and accommodating.  Art repairs this deficit by devising scenarios in which ordinary, banal evil is concentrated in the character of a villain.  The popular cinema is enamored with villainy -- indeed, a film's success can sometimes be measured in terms of the charisma of its villain.  By this standard, the six-part AMC mini-series, The Night Manager, is a great triumph.  Conversely, the Oscar-awarded Spotlight is notably deficient with respect to "hiss-able" villainy and it is worth considering whether this detracts from that film's merit.

The Night Manager is adapted from a novel by John LeCarre and features Hugh Laurie as the bad guy, Richard Roper.  Laurie (with LeCarre) is a producer of the film and he appears in, at least, half of the scenes in the six-hour show.  One can see why Laurie was sufficiently interested in this material to produce this lavishly staged and opulent mini-series -- Richard Roper is characterized as "the worst man in the world" in the opening 15 minutes and Laurie does everything to make his character live up to that reputation.  The series' premise is that Roper is an international arms dealer masquerading as a humanitarian-supplier of agricultural equipment.  His adversaries are a black American spy-master (the actors has huge protruding ears and, amusingly, imitates Obama's hipster cadences) and a heavily pregnant bureaucrat employed in some covert department in Britain's M6.  Roper's vast wealth has corrupted everyone, including the unctuous officials who employ the pregnant intelligence analyst -- whenever she gets close to busting Roper, information is leaked to allow him to wiggle out of adversity.  And, from time to time, the person's complicit with Roper in her ministry try to shut down her operations.  The pregnant analyst, driven by a backstory involving children killed by Roper's weapons in Kurdistan, plants an agent in Roper's household -- this is the titular "night manager," an existential loner and war veteran, played by Tom Hiddleston.  Hiddleston's hunky soldier-of-fortune is also driven by a Jacobean back-story -- a woman that he loved in Cairo was murdered by Roper's agents when she stumbled into evidence of his arms business.  Most of the show involves an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the double-agent night manager and Roper -- at stakes of this conflict include napalm, chemical weapons, and all sorts of horrendous armaments (barrel bombs for instance) and Roper's girlfriend, a cool, if secretly tormented, American blonde bombshell who succumbs, of course, to Hiddleston's charms.  There's nothing innovative in this material -- in fact, the show resembles a slow-moving James Bond film:  the action is set in spectacular locations such as Mallorca where Roper has a sea-side fortress of solitude and involves much carousing in expensive restaurants and casinos.  There are beautiful women who offer themselves to the brave and heroic hero and, then, are tortured for their love as well as lots of MacGuffin-like documents, inventories of armaments that the spies are always stealing and using to blackmail one another.  The Night Manager, living in Nietzschean solitude in a concrete bunker somewhere near the Matterhorn -- he is grieving the death of his love in Cairo -- is recruited by the pregnant lady spy-master to infiltrate Roper's operation.  She, then, monitors his close-calls and various adventures until the climactic confrontation in Cairo -- with her African-American CIA-buddy (probably a former lover), the pregnant lady faces down Richard Roper, and, of course, with the help of the Night Manager, destroys him.  This is standard stuff but given authority by the bravura performance by Hugh Laurie -- Laurie embodies a particularly British kind of malevolence:  he thrusts out his lower jaw pugnaciously like Churchill and glowers at everyone with great bulging eyes.  Like George W. Bush, he has given all of his henchmen nicknames -- his chief torturer is called "Frisky" and his dwarfish homosexual consiglieri is named "Corky."  Roper's menace arises from his high degree of vigilance -- he watches everyone around him with his malign, immense eyes, fixes people in his baleful laser-gaze and penetrates to their deepest secrets.  Of course, he is fantastically powerful and cruel -- he has his mistress tortured and threatens to disfigure her and his opponents are ruthlessly savaged and killed.  Like Iago, he maintains his villainy up to the bitter end -- dragged away in handcuffs, Roper exclaims to his pregnant adversary:  "A wonderful world to bring a child into!"  All of this is staged with great aplomb and conviction -- there is a huge and spectacular demonstration of armaments in the Turkish desert, including a vast napalm drop that allows Roper's to utter a variant on Robert Duvall's famous lines about "napalm in the morning" from Apocalypse Now.  (Needless to say, the impressive napalm blast manages to kill some innocents -- when their charred bodies are brought to Roper for compensation, he has everyone else in the family killed as well.)   Laurie plays the part of the villain enthusiastically -- it's a role in which "to tear a cat" to use Shakespeare's phrase.  The show works on the audience's most primitive impulses -- about half-way through, we begin to desire to see Roper's comeuppance.  Justice requires that evil be punished and the more viciously Roper acts, the more the audience desires his punishment.  In the end, the blandly handsome Hiddleston contrives an elaborate double-cross, Roper is caught in the coils of his own evil, and richly rewarded for his iniquity -- exactly what we have been hoping for three hours to see.  The Night Manager is likewise rewarded for his courage by succeeding to the sexual charms of Roper's beautiful American mistress, who has suffered for her love of the hero.  On all levels, the show is emotionally effective -- good triumphs and villainy on an almost cosmic level is punished.  There isn't anything profound about the show --it's all glittering surfaces, but the director Susan Blier keeps things moving briskly, there are gorgeous sets full of beautiful people, some of the action and suspense sequences are thrilling, and the show can be praised as an entertainment of a high order.

Spotlight (2015) is a film directed by Tom McCarthy that details the efforts of a group of Boston Globe journalists to expose a child sexual abuse scandal systemic to the Catholic church in that city.  The film features superb ensemble acting with respect to the crusading journalists who include Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo.  These journalists comprise the so-called "Spotlight" investigative reporting team and they are under the command of a steely, imperturbable Jewish publisher played by Liev Schreiber.  The film is scrupulously realistic.  I was concerned that the movie, focused entirely on a journalistic investigation, would feature Aaron Sorkin style razzamatazz -- that is, baroque threats, elaborate and programmatic speeches, vehement and continuous insults, spectacular profanity/obscenity, and emotional outbursts about every ten minutes.  In fact, the tone of the film is almost hushed -- everyone is polite and there is almost no obscenity. There is only one outburst, a brief and impassioned speech by Ruffalo's character, that is met by Michael Keaton's simple response:  "Are you done?"  Everyone about the film feels realistic -- the people interact professionally, the lawyers are all suitably discrete and close-mouthed, even the wicked church officials seem plausibly low-key, indifferent, people so ensconced in their positions of privilege and power that they aren't even indignant about the challenges posed to them by the reporters.  The film's irony is that the elaborate investigation seeks facts that are hidden in plain-sight.  The documents central to the film (and this movie involves just as many secret documents as The Night Manager) turn out to be of public record.  The investigation doesn't uncover anything that people haven't known for many years.  Indeed, there is even an element of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in the film -- at the climax, if you can name the film's low-key denouement with that term, the crusading journalists discover that they have been complicit themselves in the cover-up that they are now exposing.  The theme of the film is summed-up clearly enough in one of the statements made by a character:  "If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to cover-up the sexual abuse of a child."  Everything about this film is admirable and it is wholly fascinating -- the film follows the investigation single-mindedly:  there are no deviations for romance and the characters, all obsessives, seem to have little or no personal lives -- they are exclusively devoted to their careers.  The Boston milieu is well-observed and there is no point at which a viewer might resist this film on the basis of plausibility -- everything about the movie seems true.  On the other hand, it is also noteworthy that the film has no villain and no villainy.  At one point, a reporter meets one of the priests who has molested hundreds of children -- he's a bespectacled old man with the demeanor of a confused owl who insists that he derived no pleasure from his sexual encounters, all of which he admits without a twinge of guilt. (The man's savage-looking harridan-sister intervenes to protect him from the astonished lady-journalist).  Clearly, this guy is an inadequate villain to shoulder the weight of iniquity that the journalists have exposed.  Everyone knows that the crime is institutional -- this is described and analyzed as a necessary result of code of celibacy that less than half of its supposed adherents practice -- and, indeed, there is no doubt that the corruption extends to the Vatican itself, but none of this is crystallized in the form of any specific villain.  The Church's misconduct remains institutional, without much of a human face -- the befuddled child molester that we see is like the victims also shown in the film, touchingly human, confused, and, more or less, powerless.  The absence of a villain in Spotlight is certainly noteworthy -- and, probably, pragmatic:  I think the film may have offended big swaths of the public if more villainy on the part of the clerks and prelates were shown.  Instead, the evil is "in the air" as it were, not concentrated in any emblematic figure.  As a result, Spotlight feels just a little bit abstract and bloodless -- the film's primary rhetorical effect is irony:  the newspaper publishes to great fanfare information about scandals that was a matter of public record and that is well-known by all and that was, apparently, simply forgotten.  It seems that we are doomed to "discover" these crimes, pretend to address them, forget them, and, then, rediscover the scandal about every twenty years. The movie is honest enough to not dramatize anything -- in the final scene, we see one of the plaintiff-lawyers about to meet with two children that have been sexually abused by priests.  The lawyer is flawed, fanatical obsessive.  The two children, seated with their drab-looking mother, are vigorously coloring in coloring books -- they look exactly like children that you and I know.  There is nothing special about any of these people.  But this raises the question -- when a subject involves serious and abiding evil, isn't it, perhaps, aappropriate to distill that evil into the figure of a villain?  Or is that just a cheap-shot that simplifies and consoles but also falsifies reality?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Lobster

I was surprised to hear Minnesota Public Radio promoting to its listeners the new film by Yorgis Lanthimos, The Lobster.  Apparently, the producer of the film sponsors some air time and the announcer politely suggested that listeners attend the film, implying that the picture is audience-friendly, witty, and charming:  "A comedy about a world in which people must find romance within 39 days or be changed into the animal of their choice."  Woe  to those who harken to this suggestion and, perhaps, consider the film to be a 'date-movie."  The Lobster is not a ' date movie' -- it is dire, brutal, and appalling, more like Pedro Almodovar's alarming The Skin I live in than The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.   The Lobster's opening shot establishes the tone -- the landscape looks like the Outer Hebrides islands, barren moors and stony headlands; a woman drives her car through the rain, stops by a primitive stone wall, and, then, taking a gun from her purse, strides up to a Shetland pony firing a half-dozen shots into the unfortunate creature.  Rabbits are skinned in big close-up and an endearing border collie gets kicked to death -- the act occurs off-screen but we see the bloody-spattered foot of the woman who has tortured the dog, there is a grotesque verbal account of the animal's death, and, then, we are shown the poor dog mangled, lying in a pool of blood and entrails.  Loners from the tangled woods are shot with tranquilizer arrows and dragged to lie in a hotel courtyard like so much wild game gathered after a successful hunt.  A man caught masturbating has his hand fried in a toaster.  People discovered kissing one another are mutilated, their lips shredded with razor blades and, then, are forced to continue kissing so that they bleed all over one another's faces -- this is the so-called "red kiss" torture.  The transformation from human to animal that occurs as a penalty for not finding romance is not a charming metamorphosis out of Ovid -- rather, the process is more akin to torture porn:  We are told that the victim's eyes, heart, and parts of the brain are extracted to be grafted into the animal -- the victim is exsanguinated and his or her blood delivered to a local hospital to be used in transplants.  The movie ends with a man using a steak knife to gouge out his eyes.  Whatever one may think about his subject matter, Lanthimos is a great director -- his visual imagery has immediate presence and authority and the film is not abstract or remote but rather powerfully palpable and vivid.  The rotting seaside hotel where much of the action takes place is clearly visualized -- you can almost smell the shabby, genteel panic investing the place.  The characters are concrete and plausibly miserable.  The landscape of sodden forest where the "loners" hide in their long, muddy rain slickers  is also extraordinarily vivid.  The experience of watching the movie is schizoid -- the grotesque fantasy elements motivating the plot keep you remote from the action except that the extremely realistic and carefully imagined staging of events involving what seem to be actual people keeps pulling you back into an emotional engagement with the film.  The movie is like some of the exceptionally disturbing films by Peter Greenaway, for instance, A Zed and two Naughts or The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and  her Lover -- it's all as abstract and cerebral as a theorem until someone is stabbed to death in huge lurid close-ups or roasted for a cannibal feast.  (Also disorienting is the fact that the script was apparently written in Greek and, then, translated into English, a language that Lanthimos seems not to know very well -- the performance by the actors involve lines that are, often, recited robotically or as if learned phonetically; it's not clear to me that this effect is wholly intentional.)

The Lobster is a melancholy middle-aged man played by Colin Farrell as a bemused, ineffectual milquetoast.  He goes to the resort to find a romantic partner.  At the resort next to a barren rocky coast, the assembled guests are treated to lectures and demonstrations enforcing upon them the urgency of finding a mate.  Sexual tension is kept to a maximum by maids who wriggle their buttocks over the genitals of the male patrons, but won't have intercourse with them.  (Olivia Coleman, spectacular in the John Le Carre mini-series, The Night Manager, plays the role of the steely eyed and sadistic hotel proprietor -- she is particularly effective in this part.)  Under the pressure of the deadline -- you have 39 days to find a partner or be turned into an animal -- the people form couples that are, more or less, unhappy.  A number of people fail and are turned into animals.   Generally, the patrons fixate on their deficiencies and try to find someone who shares those failings.  For instance, a woman has repeated bloody noses; one of the men smashes his face into a table to cause his nose to bleed and, then, bonds with the girl on that basis.  One couple limps.  The hero, who will be turned into a lobster if he fails in his quest for romance, tries to form a couple with a woman who has "no heart" -- she recognizes him as a potential soul-mate when she begins to choke in a hot tub and he does nothing at all to save her.  (Of course, she is only testing to see if he shares her brutality.)  The two pair off, but she distrusts his coldness and cruelty.  To test him, she kicks his dog to death -- the animal is more than his dog; it is also his brother who has been transformed into a beast.  The hero explodes in rage when he sees his dead dog-brother and he shoots the woman with a tranquilizer and has her turned into a Shetland pony.  Then, he escapes into the woods helped by a maid.  The maid falls in love with our hero.  The two meet in the woods among the loners.  The loners are a group of people who live in the forest and have renounced love.  They are allowed to do anything they want -- they can masturbate and listen to music on their head phones and dance so long as they dance alone.  But if one of the loners is caught flirting with another loner, dire consequences follow --  "the red kiss" involving razor blades and lots of blood and another worse punishment called "the red intercourse."  Unfortunately, the hero and the maid fall in love and are subject to punishment as loners.  One of the rules of Lanthimos' world is that couples bond by mutual disability -- the maid has good eyes, but the hero's eyes are weak.  She goes to the city to get a kind of reverse Lasik surgery -- her eyes will be slightly damaged so that she will be nearsighted and have astigmatism like the hero.  But the villainous leader of the loners instead has the ophthalmologist blind the girl.  The hero is horrified but decides he will gouge out his own eyes to seal his bond with her. 

The film is an allegory, but one that takes itself very, very literally.  Three propositions about human nature and relations between the sexes are argued by the film.  First, the man or woman who has no romantic companion is not a human but a kind of animal -- this is made literal when people fail to couple within the prescribed time period and are turned into beasts.  (It's the opposite of Ovid -- in the classical myth, people turn into beasts when they are loved by the gods; carnal love makes people into animals as in Apuleis The Golden Ass).  Second, people form couples on the basis of their perceptions of mutual affliction --  for instance, I love you because you have a bad hip like mine.  Third, those who are without romantic love, the loners, have their own rules, protocols for being alone, and seem to inexorably hated by those who have formed couples.  These are the rules of the game of love.  There is a fourth proposition  implicit in this allegory, one that is particularly disheartening:  Almost all couples fail to be together -- after an initial honeymoon in the hotel, the couples are sent on a 15 day yacht cruise.  Almost invariably, the yacht cruise ruins the relationship.  Management at the hotel promises that if the couple successfully completes the cruise, "a child will be available" to further cement the relationship.  At one point in the film, the loners attack the hotel and interrogate the man and woman who run the place -- at gun point, even the successful couples, admit that they really no longer love one another. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Shining (Minnesota Opera Company -- May 12, 2016)

The Minnesota Opera Company offers three rewards:  first, each show contains at least a couple of blunders so inexplicable and overt as to be inadvertently amusing -- this is not a criticism of this specific company but rather a frailty to which all productions no matter how sophisticated are heir.  The art form is simply too complex and has too many moving parts to ever operate in a reliable and trouble-free manner.  Second, each season, there are a few, fleeting moments when the stars align and the audience is particularly receptive, all antennae exposed and twitching, so that something inexpressibly wonderful occurs in the transaction between viewer and performers -- when opera is fully successful, it delivers a transcendent experience of rapturous, highly organized passion and synesthetic beauty that is hard to surpass.  And, finally, the Minnesota Opera company is famously receptive to new work and, indeed, sponsors an initiative program that commissions world-premiere operas from the best American composers and librettists -- The Shining based on Stephen King's horror novel is an example of one of these commissions, works that are always fascinating even when they don't fully succeed.

Of course, everyone knows the story of The Shining, although most people remember Stanley Kubrick's iconic film based, apparently, rather loosely on King's long novel.  Kubrick's movie contains so many memorable inventions and so many unforgettable images that it casts a long shadow of subsequent productions -- including a made-for-TV version sanctioned by King himself and this opera.  Kubrick's film, perversely abstract and, yet, exceptionally, frightening is one of cinema's greatest horror movies and so sets a high bar -- a bar best disregarded when considering this opera.  By contrast, with Kubrick's schematic nihilism, the opera based more literally on King's novel, has an almost happy ending -- the Black cook, Dick Halloran (memorably dispatched with a single axe-blow in Kubrick's film after his extended "ride to the rescue"; it's like having the cavalry arrive only to be immediately rubbed-out) survives to more or less save the day; the haunted Jack Torrance is given a politically correct motive for his murderousness -- the poor fellow was the victim of childhood physical abuse -- and, indeed, he breaks the cycle of violence by allowing the Overlook Hotel's boiler to explode spectacularly, bringing the whole place down in a riot of fiery destruction.  There is even a coda set at a lake in Maine that operates on two levels -- first, the audience not familiar with horror films is soothed with some serene and bucolic music dramatizing that all is well; but, second, the horror movie fans in the audience are titillated with the possibility that the decomposing spooks from the haunted hotel will emerge from under surface of the lake to suddenly seize the survivors -- an ending that graces a number of mad slasher films.  (A fish bites and jerks the boy's rod to a burst of sinister music, but no corpselike zombie emerges from the placid waters.)  With these exceptions, the opera follows, more or less, the plot of the movie and the novel -- it is, after all, just standard haunted house stuff, a sort of crudely obvious version of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher".  

Adaptations of this kind always beg the question of whether the transposition of such well-known material into opera is warranted.  Simply put, does singing and orchestration add to the artistic concept, subtract from it, or seem merely superfluous?  My view is that the Paul Moravec's score, a composition that lacks any audience-pleasing melodies, doesn't really harm the material but, also, is unnecessary -- the show is streamlined, periodically frightening, and cleverly staged.  Moravec's music is mostly on par with Bernard Herrmann's famous scores for Hitchcock and Scorsese films -- the composer underlines the horror with growling chromatic scales, shrill quavers in the strings, and periodic explosions of brass and percussion; in most instances, Moravec's music is exactly suited to the material displayed on stage and, therefore, somewhat banal and unimaginative.  When Jack Torrance goes hunting for his wife with an outsized croquet mallet -- a motif adapted from the book and not nearly as fearsome as the axe wielded by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's version -- the music predictably plays "gorilla in the haunted house" trills inflected with sinister menace to make sure we know what to feel.  The great operatic composers like Verdi and Puccini and Mozart conceived of their compositions in terms of musical structures and balanced voices accordingly between the high and low ranges:  a Puccini opera is built up as a series of musical forms -- choruses, arias, duets, quartets, etc.  For the most part, Moravec doesn't do this -- rather, he just writes mood music, prosaically following the action.  You get the effect that the opera is really just a series of hyperactive film sound-cues, a movie soundtrack.  Moravec is a modernist composer; he writes in the tradition of Richard Strauss -- somehow, he manages to compose music wholly lacking in audience-pleasing melodies that is, nonetheless, lushly tonal and, even, late-romantic in texture.  This is quite an accomplishment, but one that is perverse:  it seems that Moravec is dead-set on denying his audiences the pleasure of hearing a pretty-sounding, hummable tune.  (I thought that Moravec's previous commission for the Minnesota Opera was particularly perverse in this regard -- in his Silent Night, a production about the World War One Christmas truce, he managed to write two-hours of music about Christmas without once cloying the ear of his listeners with anything that sounded like a Christmas carol or a religious hymn or even a pop-song or music-hall tune about the season.  I thought this was unnecessarily rebarbative and, even, a little sadistic.  I'm in the minority with this criticism:  Moravec won a Pulitzer Prize for that score.  In The Shining, this defect is less obvious -- the deficit in memorable melodies doesn't hurt the show since, after all, it is about a man trying to murder his wife and children.)

The opera in the production that I saw on May 12, 2016 is handsomely mounted.  Kelly Kaduce, the Minnesota Opera's resident workhorse, sang the thankless role of Wendy Torrance -- she's written as an annoying combination of perky optimism, hysteria, and quarrelsome nagging and the audience can't wait to see Jack go after her with his croquet mallet.  Jack's part is written in a deep baritone and .... performed the part effectively.  Predictably enough, Halloran, the African-American cook, is scored even below Jack, down in the "Ole Man River" range, an element of racial stereotyping that some might regard as marginally offensive.  Danny, the endangered child, is as annoying as his mother, but, fortunately, he really doesn't have to sing more than a few bars -- most of the time, he simply staggers around with his eyes wide with terror.  The set is impressive -- a long flight of stairs runs transverse to the audience connecting the lower half of the stage to an upstairs gallery that simulates a hallway with sinister-looking doors opening into the haunted rooms.  In the lower half of the stage, moving cottage-sized platforms open into the family's small, domestic apartment, the menacing boiler room for the hotel, and a walk-in pantry where Jack is locked after Wendy knocks him unconscious during one of his assaults.  These large, mobile sets offer huge surfaces onto which a nasty-looking wallpaper pattern, fleur-de-lys figures against a vaguely fecal background, is projected.  This wallpaper projection, something that looks like it derives from one of Terence Davies' more mournful films (it almost seems to smell of mildew and dust) writhes and wriggles -- it's as if the hotel has a kind of reptilian skin that twitches with horrid motion.  Sometimes, the wallpaper projection gives way to a Jackson Pollock fantasia of blood and twisted sinew, internal organs in a stew of gore.  Exteriors are managed by projecting large late-Romantic vistas of beetling cliffs and Alpine peaks onto a translucent scrim -- these landscapes can be manipulated cinematically:  we seem to track through them, giving an illusion of motion that is very effective.  When the boiler bursts, a big front-projection of the hotel, clearly derived from images of the infamously haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, bursts into flame, flares with explosions, and, then, crumbles into ash -- collapsing into ruin like Poe's House of Usher.  The assorted zombies inhabiting the hotel are mostly risible -- the exception is a dead woman with a bloated belly and pendulous green breasts:  when she appears out of a bathtub to menace little Danny some members of the audience covered their eyes and others squeaked-out a few high-pitched screams.  Unfortunately, this scary apparition -- she's very frightening in Kubrick's movie as well -- is just a shock effect and has nothing to do with the plot; once she puts in her appearance in novel, movie, and opera she's offstage for the duration.  The zombies periodically dance about and cavort in tableaux that are supposed to embody awful decadence -- these are dancers and chorus members with white faces, red bags under their eyes, and fright wigs.  One of them is a "furry", that is a sexual pervert who imitates a dog -- of course, he's much more funny than frightening:  I think he replaces the guy in the pig-mask in Kubrick's film.  Another zombie, rather disconcertingly, is a fat male transvestite wearing a black bra and panties -- he/she is supposed to represent the ne plus ultra of sinister decadence, an element that seems a little politically incorrect during the week that the Obama administration announced toilet guidelines allowing trans students to use the bathrooms congruent with their gender and not their biological sex:  someone seems not to have got the memo about civil rights for this minority group.  The most frightening aspect of Kubrick's film version was the equation of Jack Torrance's writer's block with his murderous rage -- Kubrick's later films had long gestation periods and the director seems to have often been occluded; accordingly, there is a powerful and frightening element of identification between the director and Jack with respect to that theme.  Stephen King, of course, has never suffered even an instant of self-doubt and that theme is not really important in the novel.  The opera similarly makes Jack's madness the product of childhood abuse and a tendency toward alcoholism -- it's all comfortably rational and, even, politically correct.  The opera is short and efficiently designed -- there is less than two hours of music, probably about the right length for this material.  The first half of the opera is more atmospheric and frightening than the second half of the show.  In the last act, the characters just run around frantically while the music menaces them.  It's all reasonably entertaining, but I don't think this show will survive more than few productions.

In some ways, the audience at this opera was more eerie than the proceedings on-stage.  Matronly women appear in gowns too revealing for their advanced age, showing acres of withered décolletage.  Elderly cavaliers strut around like animated mummies and there are mincing Queens done-up in flamboyant vests and tight trousers, aging rent-boys with rapacious eyes, old courtesans showing their nipples through tight silk blouses.  There was more sinister-looking corruption in the audience, I thought, at the sold-out show than on-stage.       

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Wind Journeys

Cirro Guerra's 2009 The Wind Follows is mostly landscapes.  The film is like one of those early sixties TV westerns in which a man on horseback is shown traversing a desert in one shot and, then, inexplicably riding the high sierra in the next image.  People go from place to place without transition:  one moment the young hero is high in the Andes; in the next shot, he's trudging through jungle.  This is an intentional effect in Guerra's film, but one that is so disorienting that it threatens to subvert the entire film. 

A traveling juglar (the Colombian word is derived from jongleur or troubadour) has lost his wife.  Bereft, the man sets forth on his donkey, riding side-saddle like Christ entering Jerusalem, to return his accordion to someone named Guerra.  The accordion is decorated with polished horns and there is a suggestion that Guerra is the Devil.  (Backstory annotations in Wikipedia but not really on-screen explain that the film is derived from a Colombian myth, the story of Francisco el Hombre.  Francisco was a traveling musician who spread news and revolutionary ideology throughout the remote villages in Colombia in the 1870's; he was reputed to have defeated the Devil -- or, maybe, been taught to play by the Devil -- and, therefore, doomed.)  The musician named Ignacio in the film, refuses to perform on his instrument and simply wants to be rid of it -- apparently, he believes that his musical prowess resulted in the dark forces seizing his wife.  A kid from the village trails Ignacio.  The teenager, Fermin, wants the older man to reveal his musical secrets to him.  (The initial scenes between Ignacio and Fermin look like the sequence in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai when the young peasant played by Toshiro Mifune trails an older swordsman, lingering near him with a mixture of hero-worship and self-conscious bravado.)  There is a musical duel between Ignacio and a musician using sorcery to defeat his enemies.  Ignacio wins the duel but the sorcerer's father, wielding a machete, wounds the horned accordion.  The instrument has to be repaired in the foothills to high mountains, on a picturesque peak overlooking precipitous green valleys.  The man who repairs the instrument turns out to be the juglar's brother -- he looks like a scrawny Allen Ginsberg.  Next, Ignacio and Fermin cross a lagoon as big as a sea and Ignacio is forced, at knife-point, to play a dirge while two men stab one another to death in a fight with machetes on a rickety bridge.  Within a strange grove of trees, Fermin undergoes an ordeal -- he plays the drums until his palms bleed and is baptized by an African holy man with lizard blood.  Ignacio wanders off, apparently angry that the young man has repeated his youthful error of allying himself with the dark powers.  Fermin attends another competition where three sinister judges, possibly blind and speaking an incomprehensible language, officiate -- the prize for the winner is Ignacio's accordion.  Fermin finds that Ignacio has collapsed in the high Andes and is paralyzed -- he is being tenderly nursed by a group of Ahuaco Indians wearing white robes and white conical hats in a picturesque quasi-Alpine village.  Fermin goes back to the bizarre accordion battle in the rainforest pole shed where other men are making cocks fight. He risks being beaten to death by a brutal Black boxer and, after showing he is willing to die for the instrument, the trio of scary judges gives him Ignacio's accordion.  He goes back into the mountains, a trip accomplished between two shots, retrieves Ignacio and, then, descends to a featureless desert -- this travel also occurring between one shot and the next.  In the desert, Ignacio collapses on a salt playa.  The sea is nearby and master with acolyte end up in a ghost town, apparently, an abandoned fishing village.  Guerra's mummified body festers in a casket awaiting burial.  A woman announces that the corpse is not to be buried until the accordion is returned.  The woman tells Ignacio that Guerra left him a message -- it's in the dead body's front shirt pocket.  Ignacio gingerly retrieves the note, reads it, and, then, a bunch of little kids appears out of nowhere -- they are Guerra's children. (Colombian juglar, like African-American bluesmen, are famous for their sexual virility and beget children with local women in every village that they visit.)  We never find out what the message says -- Ignacio plays for the little kids, who seem to be increasing in number with every shot, and Fermin is last seen wandering in the desert. 

The movie is a rough draft for Guerra's much more accomplished 2015 picture, The Embrace of the Serpent -- there is the same general theme of a shaman with mysterious powers leading a young disciple on a quest through a series of magical landscapes.  Both pictures end unsatisfactorily -- the end of the quest seems insufficient to the hardships endured and the wisdom on display gathered through the adventure is suspiciously vague, inflected with dimwitted and fraudulent New Age sentimentality.  The Embrace of the Serpent is much more effective because the film is shot in black-and-white, chastening Guerra's somewhat kitschy eye for the picturesque -- furthermore, the Amazonian setting grounds the latter film in reality.  The Wind Follows was made at 80 locations and the complete lack of continuity between landscapes makes the film seem, more or less, dream-like and disordered from its opening fifteen minutes.  There is no place that counts as normal; no real ground beneath our feet in The Wind Follows.  A quest has to set out from some place real and there isn't any grounding home from which to venture forth.  (I was surprised to learn that the movie is set in a very particular time:  a banner portrays one of the musical competitions as the first Valledupar vallenuto (the type of music that the accordionists play -- a combination of boastful rap and dance-inflected accordion accompaniment.) festival:  this means the movie occurs around Ash Thursday in 1968 -- but why this is significant is unclear to me.)  And, of course, I have no idea what the film is supposed to mean -- it's some kind of spiritual quest, but the object of the quest is unclear and, at the end, we don't get the sense that Fermin, the shaman's apprentice, has learned anything at all.  The movie is resolutely humorless and portentous but none of the ordeals seem particularly imposing or scary because the cutting from desert to savannah to swamp to high mountains occurs in such a disorderly way that we don't have any sense of real terrain traversed by the characters -- if you can get from jungle pole-barn to 18,000 feet above sea-level in the Andes in a single cut, it's pretty hard to see what's at stake in the journey.  We're in Jodorowsky's  El Topo territory, I'm afraid:  The Wind Follows is often beautiful and the landscapes are extraordinary -- but, in the end, landscape is all that the film has on offer. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Tribe

Myroslav Slaboshptskiy's The Tribe (2014) is a film perversely determined to punish the audience for any interest viewers might have in its subject matter.  The Ukrainian director uses long sequence shots as if to dare the viewer to look away.  In effect, the movie is silent because all of its characters communicate by sign language -- there is no music and, indeed, little in the way of Foley effects:  if you saw this thing in a theater, the loudest noise would have been fellow audience members gasping in dismay at some of the images.  The film is resolutely and utterly humorless and the performers, all of them deaf-mutes, are mostly ciphers.  There is a plot of sorts, but it is unrewarding and schematic.  In effect, The Tribe is a crime picture.  A naïve-looking young man arrives at a squalid and filthy-looking institution for the deaf.  At first, he is mercilessly hazed by a cadre of five or six thugs, older deaf students who wear black suits and thin ties to class  -- we see only two examples of education at the school; for most of the film, the picture follows the students as they gather in snowy vacant lots to plot their criminal enterprises or shows them abusing one another in the stark and grim co-ed dormitory in which they live.  It turns out that the shop teacher, himself a deaf-mute, is operating a prostitution business using two of the older girls; in this criminal undertaking, he enlists the assistance of the gang of young men who control the dormitory -- they solicit for the girls at a nearby truckstop.  The hero beats up some bigger boys and rises in the ranks of the gang.  When the lead thug gets run over and killed by a truck backing up -- he is smoking a cigarette and, of course, can't hear the vehicle -- the protagonist becomes the leader of the pack.  The boys mug people on trains, peddle trinkets, and help with pimping the two girls, leaping up to slap at semi-cab windows and displaying small hand-written notes as fee schedules to their customers.  In some ways, notwithstanding the film's peculiar and squalid premise, the movie follows the rules of a standard crime movie:  all is well until the hardened hero falls in love with one of the whores.   He, then, objects to her work and flies into a rage when she is solicited by another older and more aggressive pimp to travel to Italy, apparently to ply her trade there.  He seizes her passport, a document that she has laboriously acquired, and fleeing into a room inexplicably filled to the ceiling with paper trash, begins to eat its pages.  The rest of the gang restrains the hero, tortures him for a while and, after smashing a bottle over his head, leaves him for dead in the lavatory.  The lad is not dead, however, and he returns to the dormitory where he wreaks a gruesome revenge on his tormentors.  All of this is filmed at middle distance in two to three minute takes that spare the audience nothing.  There are several explicit sequence-shot sex scenes that follow various forms of intercourse from inception to climax and beyond -- bluntly stated, these scenes are embarrassing:  you feel ashamed for the young and vulnerable deaf actors engaging in the clinically depicted sex acts; there seems to be an element of exploitation.  The torture and beatings are filmed analytically as well, without any cuts, and there is a long single-take abortion scene that presumably had people fleeing for the exits -- an older deaf woman performs the work on the girl whose feet are tied in a string lasso up over her head having blithely heated a variety of nasty-looking tools over a gas-fired range.  Like the sex and violence, it's completely awful without being informative in any way -- in other words, it's just about what you would expect.  The film is certainly realistic enough, unrelentingly violent, and repugnant -- but to what end?  In the commentary, Slaboshptskiy, whose English is not good, seems to say that this community of deaf-mutes are without any concept of right or wrong -- they act outside of culture (or, rather, within their own vicious tribal sub-culture).  Accordingly, the director asserts that the film's nihilism derives from its subject community:  Ukrainian State-raised deaf-mutes are vicious, primitive beings without morality.  But can this be true?  And aren't we being asked to observe a kind of vicious freak show?  The film provides no commentary -- we don't know if the viciousness that we see is limited to a small group of the deaf students or endemic.  Certainly, it's not helpful that their industrial arts teacher moonlights as a pimp and that the attractive female history teacher seems to flirt with the older boys in the class.  Ultimately, the problem with the film is that we don't with whom to identify.  And the decision to not translate the loquacious sign-language exchanged by the characters seems wholly perverse (and, even, punitive) to me -- it's a language just as much as speaking and, so, why shouldn't we be allowed to know what the characters are saying?  Instead, the film opts to treat the deaf-mutes and their way of communicating as bizarre, freakish, as something entirely "other" to the audience.  Not translating the sign-languages signifies that the viewers are different from the protagonists, remote from them, and apart -- and, yet, the whole premise of the film is to embed us in their world.  But their world involves lots and lots of vehement communication so why aren't we allowed to know exactly what they are saying?   Put another way, why aren't the deaf-mutes allowed to speak for themselves?  (It's interesting to observe that when these deaf people quarrel, they turn their head away and won't look at their interlocutor to show their rejection of what is being communicated; this causes the interlocutor to continually nudge, or slap at the person with whom he or she is communicating, to force that person to look at the signs being made.)   

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Westfront 1918

G. W. Pabst's scathing Westfront 1918 (1930) is companion to All Quiet on the Western Front, but more radically theoretical than the American film.  Indeed, the German movie is so uncompromising that it has never been popular.  Nonetheless, Westfrong 1918 is a powerful anti-war picture and, ultimately, more disturbing than Milestone's film because less sentimental.  It is not surprising that Westfront 1918 displeased just about everyone when it was released; Pabst's later film, the allegorical Kameradschaft (Comaraderie), a 1931 film based on an actual incident in which German miners dug a shaft across the international border to save French workers trapped in a collapsed mine, although equally accomplished, has always been more popular because it has a message that viewers can readily endorse.  Westfront 1918 is so savagely nihilistic that it doesn't seem to have any message at all. 

Westfront 1918 is simple enough:  four German infantrymen serve in the trenches on the West Front.  One of them goes home on leave to find his wife, who has been starving, sleeping with the butcher from another flat in the apartment.  The soldier is exhausted.  He lies down in bed with his wife but won't let her touch him.  As he departs for the front, his wife cries out:  "Can't you say something nice to me?"  The weary soldier pauses, but does not respond.  Returning the Front, the soldier learns that his friend, the "Student", has been killed and that his corpse is rotting in a nearby shell-hole.  The soldier and his surviving two buddies volunteer for a forward mission and find themselves in the vanguard of an attack.  All three men are badly wounded and the film ends in a chaotic field hospital where the dying soldiers are abandoned to perish.  As he dies, the soldier with erring wife imagines her anguished face: again, she cries:  "What can't you say something nice to me?" and, then, something like:  "You must forgive me -- it's not my fault."  Before the final fade-to-black, the fatally wounded soldier whispers:  "No one is at fault."  Of course, this conclusion -- that no one was at fault for the war and the suffering that it produced did not endear Pabst to his colleagues on the Left in the German film industry.  Pabst was later to make a powerfully cynical version of Brecht's Three-penny Opera and, of course, like most German directors in the Weimar period was aligned with the Communists.  The soldier's dying declaration that "no one is at fault" didn't please those like Rosa Luxemburg who declared that the War was caused by Capitalism and, in fact, was diagnostic of the economic malaise that Communism was supposed to correct.  Similarly, Pabst's refusal to ascribe fault didn't sit well with the German right-wing who blamed the defeat of their army and the later collapse of the economy on a sinister cabal of Jewish and Leftist conspirators.  Attacked from both sides, Westfront 1918 was subsequently, more or less, ignored.

But Pabst was a great film maker and Westfront 1918 deserves more attention.  The picture was Pabst's first sound film and it contains several bizarre, documentary-like sequences intended to showcase the new technology.  One extended scene involves a series of vaudeville-like performances for an audience of front-line soldiers -- there is a can-can dancer, several clowns playing comically tiny instruments, and, then, an orchestral interlude.   Although this sequence is clearly a demonstration of the new Ton film's technical capabilities, the sheer weirdness of the performances and their odd non sequitur irrelevance to the savagery of the combat disorients the audience -- what is this all about?  The battle scenes are designed to dramatize a very particular and important point:  the combat soldiers are completely helpless and have no agency -- they are victims, in the purest sense, of deadly forces over which they have no control.  In the opening, the four protagonist are almost killed when their position is shelled by friendly fire.  A friendly looking dog, a version of Rin-tin-tin, is sent with a message that the artillery needs to correct their aim -- but the dog ends up mangled in a shell-hole.  One of the protagonist carries the message, but when he reaches HQ, it seems, that the shelling has petered-out anyway and his message that he delivers is meaningless. (The film's title forcefully reminds us that all the suffering that we see is entirely futile -- the war is lost.)  The last third of the film is an extended battle scene staged to emphasize chaos and confusion.  Someone is picking nits and singing a tune to his buddy when a bunch of men wearing slightly different helmets appears out of the corner of the frame -- people start falling over and the trench fills with smoke.  Apparently, French troops have somehow invaded the trench although we are just as surprised as the Germans by their inexplicable appearance.  Pabst edits all the combat scenes to avoid imputing any active agency to any of the hundreds of troops that he shows.  In most war films, we see someone firing their gun and, then, the film cuts to an enemy soldier falling down.  In All Quiet on the Western Front, the camera is placed behind a machine-gun so we see the bullets knocking down swathes of attacking soldiers.  If someone throws a grenade, the film is edited to show the effect of the grenade.  Pabst refuses to edit his film in any cause and effect pattern.  We see men wildly pitching grenades in all directions but don't ever see the bombs explode -- the only exception is when someone tells a hapless soldier who has been throwing grenades that are not charged to "pull the pin;" the man does this, gets shot, and the grenade blows up in his own trench knocking down a half-dozen nearby soldiers.  We see troops firing but have no sense that their bullets are hitting anyone.  Pabst doesn't use flashy montage-cutting to amp-up the excitement -- in fact, several shots are completely, and daringly, static:  the camera simply surveys waves of men running forward and dying as they are knocked over by explosions and machine-gun fire.  The battle-scenes are not designed to have a front or back -- there is no sense of directionality in the attack sequences.  Groups of soldiers enter the frame from unanticipated directions -- the explosions and gunfire that cut them down seem to come from all sides at once.  In one scene, a group of soldiers lunges into a pit where enemies are hunkered down -- but before we see any hand-to-hand combat, Pabst just cuts away.  Panoramas of the battlefield that we would like to observe as a spectacle are invisible due to whirling clouds of smoke -- attacks vanish as the figures simply wander off-camera or are hidden by mists of poison gas.  Pabst shows soldiers with enormous glaring eyes gazing out at us in utter terror.  The gung-ho commanding officer goes mad and has to be dragged off the battlefield.  The field hospital is crowded to overflowing with screaming men, shell-shocked soldiers gibbering in corners, blinded men begging to be killed, and doctors who seem on the verge of nervous breakdown.  The home-front isn't much better -- people stand in long queues for food that is invariably sold out before everyone can be fed.  A fat man like a figure out of a George Grosz cartoon berates a soldier on the street.  The hero's mother sees her boy returned from the front but is unable to leave the food line to greet him -- she silently lets him pass by on his way to discover his unfaithful wife.  The butcher caught in flagrante delicto with the soldier's wife is a mealy-looking little man who has been exchanging meat for sex is palpably terrified by the fact that he has been conscripted and will have to report to the army the next morning.  At the front, the soldiers' keep a mistress, a French girl who they all seem to periodically rape -- the girl doesn't seem to mind since the Germans feed her.  She falls in love with the student but, of course, he is killed and left to rot in a water-logged shell crater.  The hovel where she is lives with the Germans billeted with her is shelled and we last see her as a refugee, departing the ruined village with a single piece of luggage.  Dying soldiers glare at the camera like figures in a painting by Otto Dix.  In a moment that foreshadows Kameradschaft, a mortally wounded Frenchman who is begging for water, and ignored, reaches out to take the hand of a dead German.  The film concludes with a stark handwritten title:  Ende?!  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Gangs of Wasseypur

A minor assassin in Anurg Kashyap's The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), describes the coal-mining city named in the film's title in these terms:  "In Wasseypur, even the pigeon flies with one wing -- that's 'cause he needs the other to cover his ass."  There must be more than a hundred murders depicted in Kashyap's 5 1/2 hour gangster epic, crimes generally committed by feral kids on motorscooters or gunmen walking up to people in crowded public places and shooting them down at point-blank range.  At times, assassins blow one another up with hand-grenades, called "terrorist apples" by the thugs who seem to be equally divided between Muslim and Hindu criminals.  At the beginning of the film, a half-dozen men with automatic weapons attacks the decrepit palace of Fazil Khan, the leader of one of the two crime-families contending for dominion over the wretched slums and decomposing walled townhouses where Wasseypur's corrupt elites live.  To one not familiar with Bollywood conventions, parts of the spectacular gun-battle are scored, MTV-style to jaunty Hindi pop songs with astonishingly profane lyrics -- at first, this aspect of the film was simply baffling to me.  Indeed, it should be noted at the outset that The Gangs of Wasseypur is not only a huge and gory gangster saga but, also, some sort of musical.

The Gangs of Wasseypur is Anurg Kashyap's fifth or sixth movie and, on the evidence of the picture, the director is a master film maker.  He is also, it seems, wholly remorseless -- in the course of the huge film, Kashyap kills off all of his principal characters, including most of the women, without expending so much as a backward look in their direction.  This is the kind of movie in which an important figure, the mother of four of the protagonists and the wife of a leading Don, is shot to death while shopping, a murder that results, of course, in a cascade of reprisal killings but that is not worth a single frame showing anything like sentiment or grief.  (Although the picture imitates certain aspects of The Godfather, Kashyap's movie has nothing like the spectacular show of grief displayed by Brando's Godfather when his eldest son is murdered -- Italian mafia pictures: for instance the patriarch of the genre, Rosi's Salvatore Giuliani feature extravagant displays of mourning and have an operatic and romantic quality. By contrast, Kashyap's Gangs is peculiarly cold, even nihilistic -- the generations of criminals slaughtered in the film generally die without any one shedding so much as a tear over them.)  The emotional tenor of the film oscillates between a low, mirthless kind of farce and lust inspired by some of the very beautiful leading ladies -- the general tone of the film is raw and objective, Brechtian in its indifference, a turbulent narrative that moves forward so swiftly that the story can't really pause to express any significant emotion.  Bubbling over with weird alienating pop song interludes -- there were 25 tunes commissioned for the film -- the entire enterprise seems fantastically analytical, remote, and completely superficial.  But if superficial, what a surface! -- the movie vibrates with intense, saturated and unnatural colors; the night scenes involve armed men traversing zones of various colored light -- it's like the expressionistic color scheme from Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind gone berserk.  One gang operates out of a slaughterhouse and everyone is literally drenched in blood from head to foot.  In another scene, two burly coalminers fight a duel by alternately bashing one another in the head with hammer-like lumps of coal -- the men are totally black with coal dust and the fight is staged in a torrential downpour as well.  Kashyap films wacky-looking betrothal ceremonies in which the grooms buy their brides while wearing headdresses that look like day-glow octopuses -- there are garish weddings and dances.  Whenever someone important dies, a New Orleans style band with trumpets, trombones and bass drums marches through the crowded streets led by a bare-chested guy in sunglasses crooning his heart out.  Gunmen hiding in heaps of garbage are spotted by street dogs and assassins purchase home-made pistols that backfire every time they are used.  Mothers in garish saris threaten to chop up their miscreant sons with huge butcher knifes:  "I raised you to be a killer," one mother proclaims to her cowering boy.  Currying favor with the poor, gangsters drive around the slums in trucks entirely draped in ribbons and tinsel with dancing Elvis-imitators mounted on them.  Everything is a spectacle and one that is peculiarly and intrinsically chaotic.  At one point, Danish, the son of a crime boss, named Sardar Khan, gets shot by a killer from an enemy gang.  Danish protests that it is just a flesh wound, but he is obviously severely injured.  Sardar Khan, enraged that his son refused to follow his order to go to the hospital, begins to savage beat the wounded man.  Danish agrees to be taken to the hospital but the keys to the truck have been lost -- Sardar brandishes a gun and says he'll kill someone if the keys aren't found.  (It turns out that one of the mobsters has them in their pocket).  The gangsters rush the wounded man to a hospital where the power promptly fails and the doctor protests that he can't perform surgery in the dark, an objection to which Sardar responds that if they have to use a flashlight to illumine the surgery they should do so -- after which, Sardar promises to ram the flashlight up the surgeon's ass.  In the film, nothing works right and there are comical "low-speed" chases, gunmen hunting one another trapped in traffic jams or whose mopeds inexplicably run out of gasoline at the crucial moment.  The only rational response to all of this chaos is modeled by the Fazal Khan -- he spends the last half of the movie stoned-out of his mind with a hash-pipe perpetually protruding from his mouth:  Khan stops smoking hash only long enough to behead his best friend, a nocturnal scene depicted with enormous back-lit jets of arterial blood, geysers so large and fulsome that they would appall even Japanese samurai film enthusiasts.  The dignified patriarch of the Singh crime family pronounces a kind of verdict on all of this disorderly violence:  "you have to be a real fucker to fuck up a fucker" -- a tautological statement that says it all.

The problem with long-form films of this kind is readily shown by the 12 or 13 hour extravaganzas broadcast by HBO and the other cable shows --  typically, a gangster picture of this length is simply too repetitive to be interesting and, after a couple of hours, interest in the entire proceedings flags.  Who cares who is killing whom?  This was a problem, in my view, with the FX series Fargo, a show that was similarly brilliant in its imagery, unremittingly violent, and, ultimately, much too long to sustain the audience's interest.  Kashyap, however, solves this problem by using two devices, one narrative and the other formal.  The narrative device that keeps the film engaging is that The Gangs of Wasseypur is fundamentally a four-generation family saga -- the movie covers a span of 70 years, beginning with primitive crimes involving wetting down coal to falsify tonnage and ending with elaborate internet scams.  Kashyap shows the progression from one generation to another -- the founder of the Khan crime family is a sort of brigand robbing British trains in 1941; this brigand has adopted the identity of a Hindu guerilla and terrorist, thus establishing the multi-generational feud that comprises the subject of the film:  between 1941 and 2009, the Muslim Khan family battles against the Singh mob (apparently upper caste Hindus) for control of the mines and nasty-looking industries of Wasseypur and its twin city, Dhanbad.  Whenever energy starts to flag, Kashyap and his writers simply kill off one generation and replace them with up-and-coming criminals of the next generation -- thus, we see our characters win their wives, the birth of their children, their inevitable assassination triggering their children's quest for revenge.  Kashyap also has a narrative advantage over Western film makers -- his characters can have several wives and, thus, father different lines of mobsters.  Notably Sardar Khan has both a Muslim as well as a neglected Hindu wife, Durga, a woman who is an epileptic.  Khan favors his Muslim family and has four sons by that wife; but he also has a viciously murderous son by Durga.  Accordingly, Kashyap can deploy complex family narratives involving different strands of the crime dynasty and the various subplots involving the women and their children keep the film moving forward at a breakneck speed.  It seems that there is something intrinsically fascinating about a film that encompasses a long period of history (shown in this picture by skillfully intercutting newsreel footage into the movie) -- the tedium afflicting something like Fargo or Vinyl never sets in because as soon as we start to weary of one cast of characters, they are wiped-out and a new group takes their place.  The second technique that Kashyap uses to keep things interesting is that the overwhelmingly oppressive mood of squalid violence is lightened by the musical interludes -- the sheer, bizarre contrast between the bloodbath on the screen and bubble-gum pop of the Hindi songs keeps the everything weightless.  The songs have lyrics that have to be heard (or translated by subtitles) to be believed -- they are relentlessly obscene with double entendre and use the word "fuck" about every five syllables.  Sometimes, the music is integrated into the action:  when one character smuggles pistols into Wasseypur, a band of hippies on the train sing an a capella ditty about penis size, referring the virile member as a gun.  There are numerous weddings and wakes in the film that all feature preening singers in Las Vegas garb wearing big sunglasses.  This continuous flood of music revives the film whenever it seems to lose energy and keeps things percolating.  Through the music, Kashyap can constantly manipulate and change the tone of the film -- no two scenes seem to come from the same movie.  In one sequence, Fazal Kahn flees from a fire-fight in his mildewed mansion -- for five minutes or so, he navigates a series of shadowy recesses and empty alleyways:  the film seems to stop entirely while Kashyap explores eerie, paralyzed imagery derived from David Lynch's more experimental films.  Some brutal scenes are played for laughs; one assassination involves an extended series of misunderstandings involving cell-phones.  There are extended rants that Tarantino-style obstruct the action -- the leader of the Singh family claims that the manhood of his mobsters has been ruined by the fact that the thugs have attended way too many Bollywood crime films; in making this complaint the venerable Ramadir Singh seems to disclose, however, a suspicious familiarity with the very movies that he condemns.  Young lovers quarrel over which film to attend and there are long disquisitions on subjects only tangential to the plot.  The fourth generation of criminals are so feral and nihilistically violent that they can't really function within the parameters of the plot -- as little kids, this generation is too busy kidnapping candy merchants and making them prepare their confections at gunpoint.  The last generation of thugs don't even have proper Indian names:  the two half-brothers are named "Definite", a word that no one understands (no one speaks English) and "Perpendicular".  These kids are so bad that they end up rubbed-out almost immediately or imprisoned.  "Definite" who is Durga's son is released from jail only to bring the whole epic to an end by murdering his half-brother, Fazal Khan, who has just slaughtered the Singh family in an assault on a hospital, a scene that is similar in many respects to the mayhem at the end of John Woo's Hard Boiled

I didn't understand about a fourth of the film.  I assume that this is based on cultural differences -- the women, in particular, were completely opaque to me, strange combinations of lust and astounding Medea-like ferocity.  And there's too much of the film: you have to devote two nights of your life to this stuff and it's not intrinsically edifying.  But there's, no doubt, that Anurgh Kashyap is one of the world's great filmmakers.