Monday, September 26, 2016

The Sons of the Desert

The Sons of the Desert is a 1933 comedy starring Laurel and Hardy.  In my estimation, the film is as close to perfect as a movie can be, The Great Gatsby of cinema.  Only 69 minutes long, the picture is packed with a complex plot that makes the production a miracle of brevity.  In terms of camera placement, significant gesture, and meaningful ellipsis, the movie is as disciplined and austerely, even geometrically, constructed as a Bresson film.  Stan and Laurel are members of a fraternal order called "The Sons of the Desert" -- the order is clearly modeled after the Shriners in Freemasonry.  They swear a solemn oath to go to their Order's national convention in Chicago but are forbidden to attend by their shrewish wives.  Oliver Hardy concocts a scheme to feign illness and obtain his wife's blessing for a trip to Honolulu for his health.  This deception succeeds and the boys depart, claiming that they are traveling to Hawaii, but, in fact, attending the convention in Chicago.  Needless to say, their deceit is discovered and their wives threaten to enact terrible punishment on their erring husbands. 

Casually brutal and extremely funny, The Sons of Desert, is brilliantly conceived on all levels.  Like many Laurel and Hardy pictures, the film has an anonymous quality -- it is like some reliquiary or tapestry made in the middle ages:  we don't really know or understand the craftsmen that made it.  The picture was directed by a Hollywood hack, William Seiter -- he made many movies, none of them known at all today except this film.  Mae Busch appears as Ollie's wife; she was an Australian actress of the second tier in the silent era and played the role of vamps in the twenties.  (She was in von Stroheim's Foolish Wives in 1922).  A little faded and slightly stout by 1933, she is nonetheless memorable as Hardy's wife, a part she played on twelve other occasions.  Jackie Gleason called her the "ever-popular Mae Busch" -- and she made something like a 100 B-grade or less movies.  Laurel's wife is played by Dorothy Christie, a blonde actress with a wholesome appearance who specialized in playing outer space Queens in Gene Autry serials.  There is no reason for this movie to be as good as it is and so the picture is a kind of miracle. 

(I have written an essay on this film in the Essays part of this blog and invite the reader to peruse that writing.)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Hollow Crown (Henry IV part 1)

Shakespeare's Henry IV part 1 is the greatest of all history plays and, in fact, arguably the best play ever written by anyone.  The play's plotting is fantastically ingenious and the show is packed with extraordinary characters.  Although this may seem a flippant comparison, you judge the success of some kinds of art, for instance, TV sit-coms, by the vibrancy of their supporting characters, the secondary figures who inhabit the world presented and act as warrants of its authenticity.  Mary Tyler Moore will also be virtuous, brave, and kind-hearted --  there are no profundities to her character.  But in her TV sit-com, she was surrounded by indelible secondary presences -- the egomaniacal anchor-man, her melancholy alcoholic boss, the loyal friend, her quirky next-door neighbors, the lustful older woman.  It is these supporting characters and the entanglements that they create that provide the complexity to the program.  Similarly, Prince Hal, even when slumming with the denizens of the Boar's Head Tavern, will always be the paragon of princes, a two-dimensional character to which modern critics impute sinister attributes, I think, largely unintended by Shakespeare.  But, in the trilogy of plays focusing on his wars, Shakespeare surrounds him with vibrant, profoundly realized, and fascinating supporting characters, including the most effective and charismatic second-banana in Western theater, Sir John Falstaff.  Henry IV, part One manages to be both a patriotic myth establishing the foundations of the House of Lancaster and, at the same time, a penetrating and thorough-going critique of the political and military machinations comprising those foundations.  Henry IV, part One is the epic theater to which Brecht's work aspired -- and, indeed, the play is thoroughly modern in its implicit cynicism, its insistence that the personal is the political, and its generosity of perspective: for every valiant knight, we see about a half-dozen grubby proles for whom the knight's valor is an unmitigated catastrophe.  With Brecht's Mother Courage, Shakespeare's Henry IV (Part One) is the most clear-sighted of all plays about war and its consequences. 

Not all productions of Henry IV (One) are equal.  The cinematic scope of the play provides great challenges, particularly when the show is mounted in a theater as opposed to presented as film.  Nothing surpasses Orson Welles' astonishing Chimes at Midnight, although in fairness, we must note that this film is really a pastiche on Shakespearian themes and more a creation of Welles than the Bard.  (That said, Welles was imbued with Shakespeare, dyed, as it were, in his poetry and world-view, and so Chimes at Midnight is a superb guide to the ethos and unique timbre of Shakespearian theater, even though it isn't exactly Shakespeare itself.)   Like many of Shakespeare's greatest works, the play is more powerful in the imagination than on stage -- at least, this is often the case.  The cinematic character of Henry IV (One), its crosscutting between plot-lines that seem remote to one another until they all converge on the blood-soaked plains at Shrewsbury, doesn't necessarily sit well on stage -- Shakespeare here (as in Antony and Cleopatra) discovers film four-hundred years too early.  The BBC Hollow Crown production is handsomely mounted, but, unlike the weirdly tremulous and moving Richard II, takes no chances.  Matinee idol, Tom Hiddleston, plays Prince Hal and he is reliably charming.  (In one scene, he literally rolls his eyes at Falstaff's grandiose deceitfulness -- Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur when, of course, we have just seen Hal do that deed.  Hiddleston's facial expressions when Falstaff makes this claim run the gamut from disgust through rage and, then, indifferent amusement -- it's a master class in acting.)  Falstaff is portrayed along the lines that Shakespeare seems to have intended for this character -- he is a dirty rogue, a lord of mis-rule and no particular effort is made to make him seem warm and cuddly; in fact, the old monster seems to be a direct peril to Hal's soul.  Jeremy Irons is gruff and distant as the aging King Henry IV.  (There is a very funny scene in which Hiddleston imitates the demeanor of his father by parodying the speech patterns and wounded gravitas that Irons displays -- in effect, Hiddleston does his impression of Irons and it has a Saturday Night Live sort of zing.)  The BBC shows fidelity, in general, to Shakespeare's text  -- a couple scenes are played in different order but, by and large, we get the play complete.  Therefore, we see more of the Welsh court than often appears in redacted versions of the play -- including a lovely musical interlude.  Hotspur looks a lot like Kiefer Sutherland and brings the swagger of a young Jack Bauer to his part.  The film presents two important soliloquies (Hal's initial explanation of his slumming and Falstaff's catechism of honor) as voice-over speeches -- I think this technique is unsuccessful.  It's best to have the characters address the camera directly.  This is shown near the end of the film when Falstaff looks straight into the camera and, rather profanely, tells us what he is going to do with the corpse of Hotspur to self-aggrandize his valor at the battle.  The battle scenes derive directly from Orson Welles' imagery in Chimes at Midnight including the pictures of men writhing in the mud as they strangle and stab one another.  Welles seems to have figured-out how to shoot a battle sequence that is simultaneously horrific and stirring on a very low budget -- and, although the BBC production is not low budget, it certainly economizes:  the money is on display in the star turns by people like Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston.  The preparations for battle and the battle scene with its aftermath are convincing and have shocking force -- although there is nothing as startling as the scene in Chimes at Midnight showing heavily armed knights hoisted by winch onto their horses.  Shakespearian comedy is often not too funny -- although some of the scenes in Henry IV are exceptions.  In this version, everything is too squalid and dirt-caked to be funny.  (The film begins with close-ups of meat being cut in an alley outside the Boar's Head tavern.)  There is a lot of whispering in this production and Falstaff has the habit of speaking in a very husky, growling voice, a "hearty medieval tone" midway between a shout and a belch, and this makes it very hard to hear and appreciate the highly complex Shakespearian language. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Hollow Crown (Richard II)

Made in 2012, a prestige production by the BBC timed to coincide with the London Olympics, The Hollow Crown presents the first tetralogy of Shakespeare history plays -- Richard II, Henry the Fourth Parts One and Two, and Henry V.  Richard II, a somewhat morbidly introspective play, dramatizes Henry Bolingbroke's seizure of power from the capricious and weak Richard II.  The play is not often performed -- Richard II's peculiarly passive and narcissistic hero doesn't fit the classic mode of tragic protagonist, he's too self-pitying, unpredictable, and histrionic, in short the opposite of figure like King Lear who is said to "every inch a King."  Richard II is wistful and, at times, delusional -- it's hard to see what point Shakespeare is making about political power in this play and his character study of Richard, although dense and remarkably penetrating, presents a figure that audiences may have trouble embracing.  (Richard II seems to be homosexual although this is only suggested and, unlike Marlowe's Edward II, not in any way thematic to the action -- in fact, Richard II seems much more modern than the moralizing Edward II; the hero is someone who just happens to be gay, although this doesn't necessarily define him.  These observations are not necessarily cavils or criticisms of the play -- Richard II contains some of Shakespeare's most ravishing verse, in particular the astonishing soliloquy by John of Gaunt about "this scepter'd isle" England, and, later, the King's morose apostrophe to "the hollow crown", the symbol of regal power that is not worth possessing since it leads only to death and suffering and murder -- "let us sit on the ground and tell sad tales of the death of kings..."  When presented with good actors and an effective production, Richard II is emotionally powerful, not exactly tragic in the sense of inspiring awe and pity, but, nonetheless, a compelling experience -- the destruction of Richard II is like the pointless dismemberment of a butterfly, ugly to see, but a necessary consequence of the systems of power controlling medieval England.

Richard II is directed by Rupert Gooal.  Ben Whishaw plays Richard with memorable passion -- he swishes about and prances here and there always on the very edge of grotesque caricature, but never quite falling into that trap.  His Richard is fundamentally hysteric, a man who sees ruling as the construction of psychodramas in which he is the principal protagonist.  Wishaw demonstrates how a great actor can venture right up to the threshold of parody, but exercise the tact and discretion to not slip over into the grotesque.  We see Richard II initially as an impossibly slender and girlish maiden-king -- he wears white smocks like a bride.  Richard is called upon to adjudicate a dispute between two knights, each of which claim the other has engaged in "complots" against the King.  For his own amusement, Richard lets the men believe that they will decide the controversy by a battle to the death.  But at the last moment, he capriciously cancels the lethal combat and exiles both -- one of the knights is the ambitious Henry Bolingbroke, the son of old John of Gaunt, a famous man in the kingdom.  Richard exiles Bolingbroke for six years, breaking John of Gaunt's heart.  Later, to enlarge his coffers (his war chest), Richard goes to John of Gaunt's castle, taunts the old man, and, when he dies, expropriates his wealth.  Richard goes off to an Irish war as if hurrying to a holiday in the Bahamas.  Bolingbroke uses the interval in which the King is absent to return to England and raise a rebellion against the Criwb.  Richard II has no real support and, after much sorrowful complaint, surrenders the "hollow crown" to Bolingbroke.  Bolingbroke imprisons the King in the tower, not sure what to do with him.  Finally, he signifies, although obliquely, that it would be best if Richard was not around to trouble his regime.  Richard's apparent boyfriend, Scroop, an opportunist, leads a company of murderers to the tower where they shoot the King to death using crossbows.  (We have earlier seen Richard supervising the painting of a homo-erotic image of Saint Sebastian, caressing the boy who is posing as the arrow-riddled Saint.)  Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, conducts a bloody purge, slaughtering what remains of Richard's supporters -- with a half-dozen severed heads at his feet, he studies the pale, spectral corpse of Richard and, ashamed of what he has done, vows to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The play is effectively staged in spectacular medieval buildings and the final scenes in the movie have a shattering force.  The great peripateia, the scene in which Richard returns from the Irish wars, only to gradually learn that he has no supporters remaining in England is shot on a beach slowly being inundated by a rising tide, a very effective metaphor for Richard's ultimate doom.  The movie has almost no women in it -- there are a few short scenes with a pale girl who is posited to be Richard's queen.   These sequences have no emotional charge and could be omitted without any damage to the play or plot.  Some of the photography is bizarre for no reason that I can ascertain -- for instance, microscopic close-ups of the King when he confronts the rebel Bolinbroke at his castle are distracting and seem primarily intended to show Whishaw's pale and creamy complexion and the length of his eyelashes.  But, in general, the movie is excellent and Whishaw's performance couldn't be bettered -- at the end of the film, when we see his dead body, completely white and seemingly boneless, he seems like one of El Greco's saints, a pale spiral of elongated flesh, tending upward like a flame. 


Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Life of Oharu

Kenji Mizoguchi's long-suffering heroine in The Life of Oharu (1952) endures so much misery in such swift succession that the effect is numbing, if not, in a few instances, grimly comical.  Although the film seems rooted in melodrama, it's elaborate staging, weird pictorial effects, and fantastically beautiful camera-work have the effect of distancing us from the story.  There are two kinds of distance that an audience can experience:  Homeric epic distance that signifies the ultimate indifference of the world to our suffering or the distance that we feel from a pathetic tale in which we really don't have a stake.  Although Mizoguchi's film, for the most part, inspires the first sort of distance, the picture walks a tight-rope between the two species of alienation or Verfremdung (to use Brecht's term) and, more then once, knocks us into the second mode:  it's tough to have sympathy for a punching bag. 

Set in 1686, the film chronicles various misfortunes that befall an attractive young woman who lives with her middle-class family in Kyoto.  The film is derived from a picaresque novel, probably a Japanese variant on John Cleland's Fanny Hill -- I have the sense that the source material is probably cheerfully erotic, cynical, and satiric.  (Certainly, some of the episodes suggest a kind of grotesque humor of the kind we find in Gogol.)  On film, the narrative is mostly very dire and would be unbearable except for Mizoguchi's tendency to make his heroine's suffering so abstractly beautiful and remote that it resembles an exquisitely calligraphic folding screen narrative -- vignettes set in gracefully realized natural settings in which the camera tracks the action, generally at long-range or middle distance.  (I don't think there are any close-ups in the movie.)  Oharu, a lady of a feudal court, falls in love with a low level retainer, a kid who works for a local samurai -- the boy is played by the tigerish Toshiro Mifune.  The love affair is disclosed and the girl, with her family, is banished from Kyoto.  (Her father is a samurai but ends up haplessly dealing in silk fabric.)  The lover is beheaded.  He sends Oharu a scroll admonishing her to never marry except for love.  We expect this scroll to have decisive role in the action but it doesn't -- Oharu ends up giving herself away on just about every motive except for love.  A famous beauty, she is sought as a concubine for a feudal ruler in Edo -- the War Lord's wife is unable to conceive and Oharu is imported to supply the clan with an heir.  (This part of the story is a kind of reverse and sinister Cinderella story -- the clan leader has specifications for the woman that he seeks and a harried retainer has to inspect hundreds of Kyoto beauties before he finds Oharu.)  As soon as her child is born, the baby is taken from her and Oharu, who is despised by the war lord's wife, is sent back to her parents who live in a cottage in the woods  outside Kyoto.  Her father has banked upon Oharu's success as a concubine and over-extended himself in purchases of silk.  In debt, he sells Oharu to a brothel in a bad part of town called Shiwabura.  She gets mixed-up with a wealthy man who wants to buy her from the brothel-keeper but he turns out to be a counterfeiter and is promptly beheaded himself.  Oharu is hired as a domestic servant in a well-to-do middle-class household -- here, her chief duty is to dress the hair of her mistress, a woman who has lost most of lustrous black tresses in an illness.  Oharu is suspected of attempting to seduce the woman's husband.  Willful and, often, cruel herself, Oharu trains a cat to snatch the wife's wig, exposing her bald pate to her husband, and, needless to say, is expelled from this household.  We next see her making fans and happily married.  Her husband goes off on business and is immediately killed by bandits.  Oharu, then, joins a Buddhist convent.  The merchant with the bald wife comes to the convent and rapes her.   When this becomes known to the nuns, Oharu is once again homeless.  She takes up with a young man who has previously shown an interest in her -- he is a thief and her bad luck is such as to result in his immediate arrest and, presumably, execution.  Forced into working as a streetwalker, Oharu is, finally, summoned to the court to meet her son, the prince that she produced with the War Lord.  But, her bad reputation precedes her and she is summarily dismissed.  The film is bracketed by a frame narrative -- we see Oharu as a kind of staggering ghost wandering among great walls and dismal temples in Kyoto:  she's fifty and has been insulted by her client, an old man himself, for painting her face to pretend to be younger.  She squats in the shadows with several other washed-up prostitutes and, then, enters a temple where there are a host of Bodhisattva figures carved in wood and ranked along the walls.  (This is a reprise of the beginning of the film in which one of the Buddha figures reminds her of Toshiro Mifune, her first lover, and this triggers the flashback that comprises the bulk of the film.   At the film's end, we see her again -- wandering in the twilight, a dim, shrouded figure singing a song about the impermanence of the world.  To Western ears, her song is tuneless, a quavering lament, punctuated by percussive and dissonant notes played on the koto.  Mizoguchi's sense for landscape is so powerful that you can almost feel the November chill quivering in the barren trees where the mendicant nun wanders outside the formidably grim and massive city walls. 

It's not clear to me what the film is supposed signify.  Presumably, there is a Buddhist sense that life is suffering, indeed, a kind of protracted and gloomy misery that doesn't even rise to the level of tragedy.  Two episodes are grotesquely humorous and, therefore, stunning -- the one involves the bald housewife and the other dealer in falsely minted coin.   The counterfeiter pitches coin on the floor and revels in watching people abjectly wrestle with one another for the money:  he proclaims that money is God and, then, is unmasked as a criminal who has minted the false coin himself. (One characteristic of the film is that nemesis strikes immediately, without warning -- in one instant, someone is luxuriating in pleasure and proclaiming his or her happiness:  in the next ten seconds, however, fortune will reverse.)  As the counterfeiter praises God-money, a crowd of armed men appear and he flees.  The sequence illustrates Mizoguchi's tendency to follow the action by elaborate tracking and craning shots -- the gambler runs from the room and the camera, surprising pulls back to show the whole brothel; the fleeing man darts through rooms full of brightly clad women, then, down some steps into a courtyard where he charges toward the moving camera before he is brought to ground.  It's an explosive and spectacular scene tracking the man from his arrogant joy through his abject doom, all in one 20 second shot.  Mizoguchi's positioning of the camera is counter-intuitive and, indeed, often very surprising.  When Oharu and her family are banished from Kyoto, we see them crossing a bridge in the gloom -- the film shows us things occurring in a kind of perpetual and eerie twilight.  The camera drops down from the bridge to beneath the span and, then, we see the exiled family walking to the right on the river bank but below the brutal black pier of the bridge span that cuts diagonally across the upper third of the image.   By placing the camera under the bridge, Mizoguchi can use that span itself to comment on the action, indeed, to impose a foreboding black band hovering over the refugees.  It's a stunning image that communicates on all levels. 

The Life of Oharu is the first of three films that made Mizoguchi famous in the West, Ugestsu Monogaturi (1953) and the terrifying and savage Sansho the Bailiff (1954) followed.  It is a great achievement but so absurdly deterministic that it's a little bit funny -- the film reminds me of de Sade's Justine in which the heroine gets raped and beaten on just about every page.  At one point, Oharu watches a Bunraku puppet theater presentation -- we see elaborately dressed geisha puppets manipulated by impassive men, a metaphor, I think, for how Mizoguchi sees his heroine and her fate. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterpieces from the Paul Allen Family Collection (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Seeing Nature is a smallish, if interesting, exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  (Unfortunately, it closes on September 19, 2016.)  The show illustrates the merits of being a museum member -- MIA is free, but special exhibitions are ticketed.  In this case, the show costs $20 a ticket, a pretty steep price, I think, for three mid-sized galleries of pictures -- probably about a total of 60 works. 

Although the exhibition is billed as landscapes, some of the pictures have only a tenuous connection to that subject -- this is particularly clear of three or four canvases by Jan Brueghel illustrating the senses:  the show includes pictures depicting touch, smell, and taste.  These paintings are deliriously overdetermined -- they contain paintings within paintings depicting historical episodes famously involving the sense portrayed as well as hundreds of minutely depicted flowers, fruits, and other artifacts.  The pictures are ingenious and studious, but not exceptionally interesting except for their allegorical subject-matter.  These are the oldest paintings in the show and the most tangential to the theme and since they occur near the entrance to the exhibit (they're the first things you see), it's more than a little confusing.  Pictures of this sort require either a glance or a half-hour of study and the show was crowded when I attended on Friday morning, packed with pensioners, and you don't have a half-hour to peruse these things.  There are several Turners, including a view of the lagoon at Venice with rococo ceremonial barges dissolving into charred brown skeletons in the general blaze of light.  The picture is hung next to a painting by Thomas Moran, also showing Venice -- it's an obvious imitation and casts an interesting light on this artist's later big paintings of the American west (not in the show).  A gaudy large-scale painting by David Hockney depicts the Grand Canyon, the painting split into separate canvases a little uncertainly assembled to make a panorama -- the image bears some relationship to Hockney's collages of polaroids assembled to make a cubist portrait of the thing shown.  Some Monet paintings are predictably pretty and pointless -- a large image of waterlilies and London Bridge irradiated so as melt into a bluish green fog with yellow elliptical portals, vaguely eye-shaped (these are the arches of the bridge).  A big, academic painting of Vesuvius erupting over Pompeii, rather cartoon-like and emphatic, makes a nice juxtaposition with a couple of very subtle Richter paintings -- one of them entitled "Vesuvius" shows a blurred promontory, a hazy sea, and, far away, the ghostly pyramid, almost imperceptible in the haze, of the volcano itself.   A very beautiful painting by Cezanne, part of his series of images on Monte Sainte Victoire is one of the show's highlights -- the picture shows the mountain and surrounding landscape as a collage of theatrical scenery flats, two-dimensional planes that are set adjacent to one another to provide an illusion of depth.  The mountain is a wonderful purplish grey and, like a military officer, has chevron-style epaulettes on one of its shoulders.  An artist unknown to me, April Gornick, is represented by a large, intensely dramatic painting called "Lake Light".  The picture shows some columns of rain falling from clouds above a distant mountain range rendered in silhouette in intense blue colors associated with Georgia O'Keefe.  In the foreground, there is a savannah, lush and green with trees that look vaguely African, and, beyond that, a strange wash of yellowish brown -- either a vast muddy lake or some kind of playa.  The parts of the landscape don't exactly fit together -- there's something vaguely feverish and surreal about the picture.  Another interesting picture is a landscape by Gustav Klimt -- it's a big painting of a birch woods:  the viewer looks down at the forest floor entirely covered, as if with mosaics, by the tesserae of fallen leaves; the birch trunks snake upward, some of them slightly greenish with moss.  It's a curious picture that makes manifest a tension that exists in many of these paintings:  that is, the contrast between the general impression made by a landscape and the individual details comprising the image.  In many landscapes, the eye is divided against itself -- do we take in the vast scope of land and sky, or should we linger on specific details?  (This is particularly problematic in paintings like those by Thomas Church not in the show.)  The Klimt painting seems to be all meticulously observed details and, yet, somehow the canvas is united -- it seems to be a whole.  The show ends with an eerie-looking painting of clamdigger by Edward Hopper.  The man looks gaunt and inexpressive, sitting against a shack with his dog next to him -- yellow grass hides most of the dog and, behind the building, there is a solid mass of menacing-looking green forest. 

Upstairs, in the room devoted to graphic works, there is an exhibition of the so-called "Little Masters" -- these were engravers who specialized in making tiny images mostly a little larger than postage stamps.  Included in the show are some engravings by Rembrandt and miscellaneous 17th century artists, although the majority are by the Beham brothers (Sebald and Barthel), contemporaries of Duerer in Nuremberg.  One of their images, "The Miser and the Still Birth" shows a robust-looking, heroically muscled man -- he looks like Hercules -- carrying a big uterus-shaped bag full of coins.  The bag is contrasted with a tiny dead child set below a nude woman with vulpine features who seems to preen her hair.  It's a startling image, about two by two inches, and much of the picture occupied by an explanatory cartouche in German that I read and that didn't explain anything.  One inch tall and two-and-half inches long is miniature landscape:  viewed with a magnifying glass the little engraving shows a road leading into the perspective of a landscape and, then, crosslng a gorge on the spans of a stone bridge that looks something like the London Bridge as shown in the landscape exhibition downstairs.  There's a castle on a hill and several gnat-sized figures to show the scale, a tour-de-force

The three galleries featuring the landscape show were packed with people.  The little viewing room at the end of the show where a film addressing some of the art works was being screened was packed to capacity, standing room only.  In the next gallery, there were crowds of people loitering around tables where visitors were invited to sketch their own landscapes.  On the wall, there was a wonderful life-sized photograph of Klimt, bald and wearing the monastic white robe that he was wont to don when he went outside to paint.  But at the MIA, you can always get away from the people by going into empty galleries only a few feet away.  A show called International Modernism, drawn from MIA collections, is full of fascinating second tier works, paintings not frequently exhibited but many of them very interesting -- it's a huge show, probably six big galleries, and, I think, there were five people looking at these paintings.  I had the print study room entirely to my self for almost a half-hour and the spectacular collections of Asian art are in galleries almost completely still and deserted.

I Married a Witch

Veronica Lake stars with Frederic March in Rene Clair's 1942 comedy, I Married a Witch.  A big-budget enterprise, directed with suave efficiency, the film slips uneasily between too many stools (and genres) to be wholly effective.  In some respects, the film is a horror movie.  But, primarily, the picture is a romantic comedy as well as a political satire.  Frederic March plays a politician running for governor.  In order to complete his resume, he needs to marry well; his betrothed is played by Susan Hayward in a thankless role -- she plays an irredeemable shrew whom March ultimately spurns.  (She's the daughter of a newspaper publisher who supports March's candidacy and hopes to ride the governor's coattails to greater influence over the electorate.)  March's character, Woolly, doesn't like his fiancée and she despises him as well.  Veronica Lake, as 300 year old witch, is injected into this situation as Woolly's other love interest.  It seems that Veronica Lake and her father were burned at the stake as witches in Salem and their ashes buried under a scary-looking tree on the Woolly estate.  From that place, the witch and her sorcerer father have afflicted the Woolly's with misfortune in love and marriage, a curse that has descended to the present generation as witness the unhappy match that March's character is about to make.  A lightning strike sets the witch and her demonic father free and, as vagrant puffs of steam, they wander about waiting to become embodied.  (This aspect of the film is not very clear.)  The witch's vengeful spirit enters into Veronica Lake and she attempts to seduce the politician.  However, her love philter ends up self-administered and she falls hopelessly in love with Woolly.  The remainder of the film involves the course of true love, not running straight, but unerringly toward a union between Lake's witch, who has now become a mortal woman, and the politician.  Much of the film plays like a screwball comedy with faintly supernatural overtones.  It's all rather mild, but, also, a little disquieting.  The clash in genres and styles is evident in the opening scene -- it's an image  out of an Universal horror film:  a smoking heap of soot and charred wood, the remains of the fire where Veronica Lake's character has been burned at the stake.  The camera draws back from the pyre and Frederic March reads from a scroll announcing that they have just burned at the stake a powerful witch and that her father has been condemned to die by flame as well.  Then, March turns to the audience, a group of rubber-neckers in Puritan clothes, and announces a "brief intermission" -- vendors sell "popped maize" to the crowd of spectators.  It's supposed to be a joke about the audience but the context is a little too horrific, and the German expressionist shadows and angles too dire, to be very funny.  How well you like this film will depend upon your appreciation of the principals -- I've never much liked Veronica Lake, she's a tiny inexpressive Barbie Doll with a curiously gruff, husky voice.  She pouts effectively, but isn't much of an actress.  (The film is worth seeing for one of the gowns that she wears -- the woman's body is entirely covered but she is as close to naked as you can imagine; I'm not sure how the effect is achieved -- it may have to do with lovingly wrapping each of her breasts as if they were Christmas presents -- but it's startling to see.)  I've always found Frederick Marsh stiff and unwieldy -- he's a great supporting man, plays a fine understated villain as in Stagecoach, but he's not persuasive as the leading man in a romantic comedy.  The script is reasonably clever and Robert Benchley is on display as -- you guessed it -- a cynical wit and the hero's sidekick.  The movie was made during the WW II and, I suppose, therefore, it can't be too critical of American political institutions, although the film does show in detail how voters can be bewitched into electing a candidate that they might otherwise reject.  The best scene is the thwarted wedding in which a hapless soprano keeps having to belt out her much-interrupted solo, vamping as the proceedings become increasing embarrassing and chaotic.  It's amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny.                                

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Clint Eastwood's Sully (2016) reprises a famous and recent event in which a skilled pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, successfully landed a commercial passenger plane in the Hudson River.  Most air calamities end in disaster.  In this case, all 155 souls aboard survived.  I was skeptical whether an interesting film could be made about this incident.  But, in fact, Sully is very good and I recommend it.

There's a shot in Howard Hawks' film Only Angels have Wings that I particularly cherish -- it's the opening of the movie, an image showing a sea-going vessel arriving at harbor and docking.  In the scene we see a heavy-set man, apparently the harbor pilot, watching impassively as the vessel is brought ashore.  The heavy man is impassive and does almost nothing, but he exudes an aura of simple competence.  With this man at the helm, you understand that all will be well.  Sully is moving in a similar way.  The film is a demonstration of honest competency that affects audiences with an inexplicable emotion of gratitude.  In part, this is because the film's solid merits as a work of motion picture art are exactly commensurate with the movie's theme.  At 86, Eastwood doesn't have time for frippery or fancy camera set-ups.  He simply does his job skillfully, keeps his focus on the main factors, and takes care to direct the picture so that it is absolutely clear.  There's nothing ambiguous about the film -- ambiguity is not always a virtue and, sometimes, a direct declarative statement is best.  This is particularly true in the context of this film, a movie that is, in fact, quite unusual and complex with respect to its fundamental themes.  Eastwood's concern is with the clash between bureaucrats asserting theoretical principles and human beings required to execute difficult tasks in the heat of the moment.  This conflict, in turn, gives rise to meditations on fame and heroism -- Sully becomes an instant hero to the media, while, in fact, his decision-making is under attack by the regulatory agency governing air travel.  The conflict between Sully's public persona and his private ordeal, similar to events shown in Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers (the publicly celebrated heroes are suffering post-traumatic stress), in turn, leads to an analysis of the larger context in which heroism occurs -- ultimately, we conclude that Sully's calm competence would have been useless without the similarly competent efforts of a multitude of people:  air traffic controllers, stewardesses, ferry operators and coast guard crews and, in fact, all of the passengers on the plane, people who did not panic and who evacuated the aircraft in an orderly fashion.  I think the movie strongly affects people, because it asserts a conclusion very different from most films on the market -- the audience concludes that some forms of heroism are quite common, essential to living in society, and that the simple virtues of competence and cooperation are, perhaps, heroic in their own right.  After the film ended, at the theater where I saw the picture, no one stirred -- everyone stayed in their seats during the first half of the closing credits, fascinated by the actual images of the plane crashed in the Hudson and the pictures of a reunion of Sullenberger and the people who were on the aircraft that day:  they face the camera, looking very much like you and I, and recite the seat number that they occupied on that fateful day.  The reasons the audience was fascinated and moved by the film is because it asserts that everyone who does his or her job capably may be, in fact, a hero of a sort -- the film ennobles the audience and makes them all feel heroic.

There are some weaknesses in the movie.  The climax, although it has a populist appeal, feels slightly contrived -- I doubt that the simulations that vindicate Sullenberger's decisionmaking were actually presented in real time to a huge crowd of reporters and official at a public meeting.  Scenes showing Sully's longsuffering wife are perfunctory -- she doesn't really add much to the story.  (Eastwood is honest about this, however -- most directors would contrive a tearful reunion between husband and wife; Eastwood keeps them apart and ends the movie with a sardonic jape.)  Some of the flashback flying sequences seem to be padding -- there really isn't enough material to sustain the film through its full length.  Tom Hanks, doing his typical Everyman-schtick is bearable in this film, even, I think, exceptionally good -- like the best movie stars he knows when less is better.  The minor parts are impeccably cast and Eastwood's special effects are brilliantly designed and fantastically clear and lucid.  Most importantly, the movie understands that air travel is something that is fundamentally fantastic, the stuff of dreams:  on the big screen, the images of the huge plane slowly turning in the air, flames sputtering from both engines is spectacular and the belly-flop into the Hudson has a visceral impact.  The rescue scenes are modestly but impressively staged.  Most everything about the film has an aspect of sober, unassailable realism -- the hotel suites where official board inquiries take place are exactly right, somewhat shabby but big enough to suffice (good enough for government work) and the scenes on the streets of New York or at its waterfront are all completely convincing.  The script is logical and understated.  Some of the camerawork is stunning -- an image of Sully after a hot shower, sitting in steam next a drapery of white cloth is extraordinary:  the light makes the white terrycloth glow as if it were an annex to paradise. 

Une Visite au Louvre

Straub and Huillet's 43 minutes Une Visiste au Louvre is also on You-tube in a posting that has subtitles if you access your closed-caption (CC) button.  This film is shot in beautiful color and was released in 2004.  The movie is almost entirely images of paintings hanging on the wall -- generally, we see the painting, its frame, and the wall where it is suspended.  These pictures of paintings are the subject of a rapturous, poetic commentary that I take to be words spoken by Danielle Huillet.  Sometimes, a man interjects a question or a comment -- but this is very rare.  (I take the man to Jean-Marie Straub).  The film starts with a documentary-style image, as bland as possible of the Louvre and the Seine with traffic and a bus pulling through the palace's gates.  Then, we see the Victory of Samothrace used as bludgeon against the Italian "primitives" -- painters like Giotto.  (The speaking woman tells us that she's too old to trek through Italy to see those paintings in situ; she makes the same remark about traveling to Venice to see Tintoretto's murals.)  We see a big painting by Veronese, the wedding at Cana -- the narrator extravagantly praise the picture's vibrancy, its underpainted design, and its truthfulness to life.  (David and Ingres are briefly shown and denounced -- line drawings that have been colored, she says, and not real paintings.)  The film seems designed to illustrate three progressions modeled on how Flaubert's realism originated in Balzac's romanticism -- Veronese to Tintoretto, Delacroix to Courbet, and, then, Courbet to Cezanne.  We are never shown any paintings by Cezanne -- instead, the narrator simply exclaims "Cezanne! Cezanne!" as the film concludes by cutting to a ravishing shot of unearthly beauty, a forest vivid with ferns where water is spurting and flowing -- this is shown in an austere but splendid 360 degree pan.  At one other point, the film's shots of pictures are interrupted by an image of trees along the Seine moving in the wind.  The film's commentary is resolutely materialistic -- the pictures are praised for their veracity, their colors, their fidelity to life.  The narrator is highly opinionated:  she doesn't like the "hang" of Courbet's huge "Burial at Ornan" and suggests that if the Louvre can't get something like this right, then, perhaps, it should be burned down.  At one point, the narrator provides a detailed exposition as to the  alleged decay of a Delacroix image of crusaders -- the picture is fading away, the woman's voice tells us, even as we look at it because of the cheap and foul materials used by the Romantics to make their paintings.  This is a film for those interested in Straub-Huillet -- it is interesting but strangely inconsequential. 

Not Reconciled (Nicht Versoehnt)

When I was a boy, every middle class family had a piano that no one played.  Piano seats were equipped with hinges so that sheet music could be stored in them.  In the piano seat, there was also a didactic work by Carl Czerny, an opus named The School of Velocity.  If there was ever a film that deserved to be called representative of the cinematic school of velocity, it is Nicht Versoehnt (Not Reconciled) the first feature film directed by the formidable couple Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet.  Although it is less than 45 minutes long, the movie spans three-generations in German history and has all the ambition of a dynastic family epic like Buddenbrooks.  But everything moves with lightning speed -- people talk as rapidly as possible and the subtitles scoot by so swiftly they are almost impossible to read. Important scenes are accomplished in one or two short shots -- the camera cuts away from action.  Once an action is implied, Straub and Huillet seem to think that there is no need to show it.  Curiously, the movie is also rife with conspicuous still life shots -- in many instances, we see a place for a couple seconds before the actors occupy it.  Most conspicuously, the directors don't shut off the camera when a protagonist leaves the set -- we are left gazing into rooms that feel empty and strangely desolate.  If a phone is going to ring, the camera first fixes the phone with its impassive eye.  The film is shot in workmanlike but fantastically precise, even dogmatically arranged, compositions -- there is nothing showy about individual shots, but they are all diagrammatically designed to show us exactly what is most important so that the narration can move at a lightning speed.  The film's time sequence is scrambled -- the movie is cut associatively:  we see someone eating and, then, a cut to another scene of someone buying a beer or also eating -- this happens even though the two sequences are divided by thirty years and there is no visual reference to tell us this.  With only a few exceptions, the film takes place in a perpetual now -- there are no landscape or costume cues to tell us that we are in the past.  In particular, Huillet and Straub insist that the Nazi era looks exactly like present-day Germany -- the film's present tense is the early sixties.  This is intended polemically -- Huillet and Straub insist that 1965 Germany is an exact continuation of Hitler's regime.  They are "not reconciled" to modern Germany and, indeed, go so far as to insist that acts of terrorism against the Nazis are morally equivalent to similar violence inflicted on the bourgeois German state in 1965.  If it was beneficial to kill Nazi officials in 1942, it is equally appropriate to attack and murder the authorities of the Christian Democratic state in 1965.  The movie is so elegantly made and so fantastically accelerated in its execution that the audience is unlikely to fully grasp the radical, even, fanatical tenor of the film's politics.  Recall that Straub or Huillet commented on the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9 - 11 with the words to the effect that "so long as the United States exists, there can never be too many terrorists in the world."  The Brechtian secondary title of Nicht Versoehnt is "Es hilf nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht" -- that is, "only violence helps where violence rules."

Nicht Versoehnt is not available on DVD in the United States.  Straub and Huillet's hatred for the US is such that they have never authorized general distribution of their films in this country.  (Their movies are generally so rebarbative that they flatter themselves that anyone beyond a tiny percentage of dedicated cinephiles would pay any attention in the first place.)  However, someone has posted all of Nicht Versoehnt on You Tube.  (Watch the version that tells you that it is 44 minutes long -- another version advertised as 1 hour and 22 minutes is just bait to divert you to a screen that tells you that the movie is not available but that you can watch something similar through their site -- like a Jason Bourne movie.)  It's best to first watch a nine minute video introduction to the film made by Richard Brody, also on You Tube and posted near the actual film.  Brody's commentary explains the plot, something that is necessary for most viewers.  (Nicht Versoehnt is based on a well-known Heinrich Boll novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, that would have been very familiar to German audiences of the kind likely to see this picture.  Boll's novel was one that college students studying German in the seventies read as well -- I recall reading the book but, of course, didn't remember anything about it other than it was set in Cologne and involved well-heeled Catholics.)  The version of the movie posted on You-Tube is reasonably clear and has good subtitles although you have to be nimble to read them. 

In the film, the Faehmel's are a distinguished family of architects.  The occasion of the picture, only obliquely established, is a birthday of the family's patriarch, an old man named Heinrich Faehmel.  Heinrich has a surviving son and daughter, Robert and Johanna -- two other sons have died, one as a baby, and the other fallen in WWII at Kiev.  Robert is married to Edith, the sister of a religious dissident called Schrella tortured and, then, driven out of Germany in the thirties.  Robert has been a terrorist.  When his friend Schrella was tortured, he attempted to kill a Nazi official, someone named Vacont.  After his bombing failed, Robert has to flee the country, rolled up like Cleopatra in a rug, but through the intervention of his famous father he is allowed to return.  He is forced to join the Wehrmacht and works with a general blowing things up to provide "fields of fire."  One of the things that he blew up was a beautiful Romanesque abbey built by his father.  Robert is now "stateless" and has returned to Cologne from abroad to celebrate his father's birthday.  Robert, in turn, has a son named Josef.  Josef is studying architecture but seems to have lost his interest in the subject.  (These parts are played by actors unfamiliar to me -- the acting is Brechtian, no one does much more than simply recite their lines, stiffly and as quickly as possible.  There is no emotion shown and no acting as such.)

Robert visits his mother.  She opposed the Kaiser in World War One and, so, was declared insane.  She lives in a rather nice, well-appointed asylum and, in the film's present day, seems to be about 75.  (We see her how she met her husband, Heinrich -- there is a tilted shot down into a airshaft between apartments and we see a striking woman standing at the window.  She looks up at the camera.  Next, we see Heinrich calling at a bourgeois house and asking for the hand of the daughter of the self-satisfied, bespectacled pater-familius.  Then, there is a velvety shot of Heinrich as a young man with his head resting on the woman's lap -- she is played by Danielle Huillet, a lioness both beautiful and terrifying.  This is an example of how the film's narrative is constructed.)  In the asylum, the old woman lives in a perpetual state of oppression -- she acts as if it is always 1942 and, at the climax of the film, uses a gun to fire a shot at a politician standing on a balcony next to where she is located with Heinrich watching a parade of smug, middle-aged war veterans.  (The parade pointedly includes those people who tortured Schrella and Josef, complacently fat and happy in post-War Germany.)  Heinrich doesn't try to stop his wife from executing the politician -- indeed, when she first aims the gun at one of the war veterans, he says:  "Shoot the one over there who will execute your grandson", referring to the fact that vicious political repression seems to be a constant in Germany.  The old woman knows that she will not be prosecuted because she is crazy and takes the shot.  At that moment, her grandson is touring the ruins buried beneath the Cologne cathedral -- in the war rubble, he speaks in praise of dynamite.  In a final shot, we see the whole family gathered together and Heinrich says that his wife didn't kill the politician -- she just wounded him. 

All of this, and much else that I've omitted, is crammed into 44 minutes and, once you know the story, it's marvelous, a primer in the School of Velocity to see how this is all competently, even, effectively shown in the picture.  The flat planes of the present are infiltrated by strange dimensions -- when she goes to get the gun, the old woman opens a door in a façade that seems completely two-dimensional.  But, suddenly, we are peering into a kind of abyss, a deep corridor that penetrates the picture plane.  The parade of German war veterans, never shown on screen, march past a vast, ominous Gothic cathedral that has buried beneath it catacombs full of the debris of past wars.  The present is a tissue that scarcely conceals the violent past.  Of course, Straub and Huillet's politics are insane -- 1965 Germany was not in any way like Hitler's regime -- but the savage conviction shown by the film, together with its astounding narrative technique is remarkable. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sausage Party

Deliriously surreal, Sausage Party is a Pixar animated feature for adults.  The movie is not really funny -- although I laughed out loud a half-dozen times -- but it's fantastically inventive and, in its own way, strangely profound.  The film's premise is that consumer goods are sentient and have their own religions, philosophical beliefs, and erotic agendas.  Needless to say the wieners long to be united with the buns and the film ends with the crassest possible version of Marx's fetish theory of commerce -- a supermarket erupts into an orgy between the produce, the dry goods, the noodles, and every other imaginable product.  Capitalism, while disenchanting some parts of the world, supplants practical utility value with a strange reified eros -- when the brightly packaged products begin to copulate with one another, we see enacted the values of the consumer society in which we live.  This is an over-complicated way of saying that Sausage Party is an exercise in surrealism, primarily designed as a vehicle for ueber-raunchy jokes in the mode of TV shows like Family Guy that, nonetheless, has something powerful, and, even, emotionally gripping to say about our relationship as consumers to the items that we buy and use.

The premise of the film, seemingly a collaboration between some skilled animators and Seth Rogen with Jonah Hill, is that intelligent food items believe that their selection by the consumer will result in their translation into a heaven of bliss.   This faith has been inculcated in the perishable foods by the immortals -- imperishables such as booze and other canned items that know the terrible truth.  The "noble lie" told to the perishables is embodied in a song that the foods sing to one another about their ascension into paradise when they are purchased by customers of the grocery store, huge and powerful beings that the perishables call "gods."  A wiener named Frank discovers that the food's faith in a glorious hereafter in the realm of the gods is a lie -- this is communicated to him by a wise bottle of firewater speaking in a Native American accent.  Frank's fellow wieners are sold on "red, white, and blue day" (that is, the fourth of July) and skinned, boiled alive, and butchered.  One of those sausages escapes, wanders through the nightmarish city, and, ultimately, reaches the grocery where, with Frank, he engineers a revolt of the merchandise against the customers purchasing those items.  The foods and other mercantile goods rise in a revolt and butcher the humans in a spectacular and disturbing battle -- all of this is worthy of Rabelais, not funny so much as grotesque and alarming.  There's no way that the story can end happily within the limits of a conventional narrative -- merchandise exists to be used and sold and, of course, although the human shoppers have been massacred, there is no warrant that others will not appear and destroy our plucky, rebellious heroes.  The film solves this narrative conundrum by exploding the fourth wall and revealing that the animated characters are merely puppets for real actors -- people like Jesse Franco, Katherine Wiig (she plays the horny, but faithful bun), Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Salma Hayek, Michael Cira and others (the film has all-star cast of voice-actors). Under the influence of a flickering aurora borealis induced by bath salts, the besieged merchandise enters a portal to another dimension, presumably where the voice actors portraying the various products will be reunited with their souls, that is the real people impersonating the cartoon figures. 

None of the consumer products are particularly endearing and this is, perhaps, a flaw in the film -- we don't really care about any of the protagonists.  But this film is satiric in tone and not Finding Dory or Toy Story; accordingly, the harsher psychedelic affect of the movie seems to me to be justified.  Sausage Party is not afraid to take chances -- I saw the movie on September 9, 2016 and noted that there is a clear parody of the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack on New York about twenty minutes into the film.  A bunch of products get dropped from a cart and a bag of flour explodes -- we see the animated groceries staggering through an encroaching mist of dust, images that inevitably recall the collapse of the Twin Towers.  Parts of the film have a Human Centipede creepiness; an escaped wiener encounters a used condom who gives a horrific account of his torture by humans and there is a roll of toilet paper so traumatized by what he has to do that he can't really talk.  A douche-bag is the film's villain -- he loses his fluid but replaces it with tequila and fruit juice and engorged with that liquid darts around threatening the other characters.  There' are several homosexual subplots including a luscious lady taco shell's desire for the heroine, a plucky, tough-talking bun (voiced by Kristin Wiig) and a sex scene between an Arab falafel and a Jewish bagel (the bagel imitates the prosody of Woody Allen but is voiced by Ed Norton).  The final orgy between the products is a sight to behold and there are a number of gory scenes dramatizing the way that we treat our food.  The ethnic foods act according to broad (and broadly offensive) caricatures and the movie delights in being politically incorrect.  The closing titles parody product labels and have a tremendous pop art kick -- make sure you stay for, at least, the first couple minutes of the end-credits; in some ways, the Warhol-style labels with the names of the creative staff and actors are some of the best things in the movie.  It's an interesting film and, although some people will be appalled by it, I think it can be recommended.

Hard to be a God

In Alexei German's great and terrifying film about Stalin's death, Krushtalyov, my Car!, there is a sequence in which the film's protagonist, a prominent Moscow neuro-surgeon, is arrested and, then, locked in a fetid champagne truck with a mob of convicts.  As the truck lurches over muddy roads taking the prisoners to the Gulag, the convicts repeatedly sodomize the film's hero.  German keeps the camera very close to the atrocity and the convicts are burly brutes with shaven heads -- as they rape the protagonist, they leer at the camera and grimace and slobber, saliva sluices from their jaws.  The whole thing is horrific, a claustrophobic nightmare of degradation.  German's last film, Hard to be a God, is ostensibly science fiction, a story set on a nearby planet trapped in the dark ages, a place "where there was no renaissance" as the main character tells us in a voice-over in the first scene.  Hard to be a God is 177 minutes long and the entire film is like the scene in the champagne truck in Krushtalyov, a first-person tour of a hell filled with torture and grinning, deformed demons that seems scarcely wider than an elevator shaft.  Whether this is an advance on the historical horrors depicted in Krushtalyov or an epic, demented exercise in sado-masochistic self-indulgence is the fundamental question posed by German's last film, a movie on which he worked for most of his life and that seems to have literally killed him -- the exertions of shooting the movie in the Czech Republic and, then, at LenFilm in St. Petersburg, and the nine or ten years required to edit the thing into its final form (much work done while German was on a IV drip) resulted in his death; the movie was ultimately completed by his wife and son.  The resulting film was premiered at Cannes in 2013 -- most of the audience walked-out but those that remained were convinced that they had seen a film literally like no other. 

At the very end of Hard to be a God, a child remarks that he has been blessed -- he says that Don Rumata, reputed to be a god, has spit on him.  The spit of a god is thought to confer health and well-being.  This sequence occurs about 175 minutes into the 177 minute film.  It explains something that has both perplexed and disgusted us -- throughout the film, Don Rumata has been constantly spitting -- at least, fifty times, we see him spit directly into someone's face or hand.  It is diagnostic of German's approach to film-making that the meaning of this gesture, crucial to an understanding of what is happening in the movie is withheld until the very last minute.   German spares his audience no difficulty.  Like many of the films of Godard, the movie imposes every possible problem on its viewers:  we are cast into an infernal society without any guidance; plot points are made so obliquely that we don't know that something important has been communicated to us until much later, if ever; generally, we hear voices off-screen, but we are almost never shown who is speaking; the screen is thronged with horrific grotesques doing terrible things to one another -- the imagery is radically fractal:  if someone is being tortured in the foreground, the same thing is happening in the background as well, at the edge of the screen, or in the remote distance, and, by infinite regression, it is suggested that this torture is, more or less, universal.  As the film progresses, it becomes literally harder and harder to see what is happening -- in some of the early sequences, there is a horizon and we can see snowy landscapes, albeit darkened with torture wheels and sulfurous fires.  As the film progresses, the shots become tighter and tighter:  huge leering close-ups dominate the image and the environment becomes ever more murky -- things are hanging down from above, dead animals, or bits of meat, or sausages being cured and these objects block our view of the proceedings.  The screen becomes more and more occluded, more densely congested with horrors until, at last, a sort of limit is reached.  Don Rumata responds to the murder of his concubine, a girl with a shaved head and a pasty white complexion, by deciding to kill everyone in sight.  For a long time, he has contemplated murder as the only just response to the mayhem around him.  But the sight of the dead girl, an arrow through her neck, bleeding interminably into the mud and excrement on the floor causes him to don his gear and go forth to war. (No one in this film has any emotions other than disgust and sadistic anger -- hence, I was surprised to hear German in one of the extras in the film say that Rumata's rampage is caused by his love for the dead girl:  in most of their scenes, he slaps her around and repeatedly spits in her face.)  We see Rumata in extreme close-up rummaging among the squalor of his chambers, immense heaps of fabric and armor half-buried in piles of shit and mud -- throughout some of these scenes, white down or feathers seem to constantly rain down sticking in the grease and slime covering the skin of everyone in the film.  (In an unwittingly funny line, Rumata condemns the girl's housekeeping a few minutes before she is murdered -- he says something like "You ought to clean up this house", a statement so fantastically understated in light of the filthy reeking midden in which he is living -- and everyone else as well -- that it is inadvertently hilarious; it would take a front-end loader, a hundred men, and a thousand days to clean up the Augean mess in which Rumata lives.)  Rumata finds that mice are living in his weird armor.  When he gets the rig on, only after extraordinary effort, he has to go on all fours and has horns like a bull -- it's impossible to imagine that he could kill anyone dressed in this ridiculous get-up.  But the imagery is extraordinary, a nightmare from Picasso -- a great bull standing in the muck as the screen swirls with fog and mist.  Rumata slices open the belly of one of his enemies -- gore is always pouring out of people's torn torsos.  For some reason, Rumata's slaves crucify the dying man on a shattered door, so caked with shit and debris, that it is impossible to decipher the shape or boundaries of the man's body -- he is just an assemblage of rotting garbage.  Then, Rumata rips open the body some more so that an avalanche of entrails splashes into the filth, the man's heart still obstinately beating amidst the carnage that has been made of him.  The screen goes black and, then, the camera simply tracks back and forth in the knee-deep mud, showing innumerable corpses, fragments of limbs, heads, everything drowned in mud that is like the mire that we see in the Shrewsbury battle scene in Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight.  The movie has reached the point where it shows us nothing but piles of mud and close-ups of corpses for a couple minutes -- this the film's anti-heroic way of representing the massacre that Rumata has inflicted upon the wicked people of Arkanar. 

In an interview, German said that the planet of Arkanar, a place where the Renaissance had never happened, represents Russia.  He went on to say that the images in the film are supposed to show that the corruption and foulness of life in Putin's Russia may be doomed to induce a repetition of certain grisly aspects of that countries history -- when the filth reaches a certain stage, then, a strong ruler arises to purge the scum and institute a totalitarian regime of virtue.  On the disc, German proudly shows us one of his sets -- in fact, the set in which Rumata's concubine is killed.  Filmed in color (the movie is in black and white), the set is richly ornamented -- it looks like something from Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings.  German proudly comments that it's better than anything that an American crew could make, more complex and detailed.  And, yet, in the film, the set is flooded with sewage, heaped chest-high with garbage to the point that none of the finely wrought details can be seen.  Similarly, German's argument that the film is a parable about Russian history seems rational, even persuasive, until you see the movieHard to be a God is so ridiculously excessive that it defeats any rational explanation. 

Since Hard to be a God is very difficult to follow on first viewing, and since I hope you will see this film, I essay a plot outline.  (If you want to figure out the film on your own, then, don't read this summary -- I'm sure that some of it is inaccurate in any event)  The film starts in an drizzly Autumn, like Melville's "November of the soul."  We see a snow-covered village under the walls of Don Rumata's castle, a picturesque and haunting image in which a dark moat or lagoon seems to open like a great void into the earth.  Voice-over tells us that the Grays are rulers  have castles and that these noblemen are hunting down "bookworms" -- that is, literate people -- and slaughtering them.  We see a woman -- in this film, noblewomen are dressed like clowns, have bald heads, and faces painted white as geishas.  Don Rumata is one of the explorers who has landed on this planet thirty years ago -- he is apparently forbidden from interfering in the planet's affairs although, in the first scene, when he awakes he has dreamed of killing everyone.  There is a turtle that lives in his chambers crowded with armor and an infestation of mice eats his leather gauntlets.  Rumata claims that he is a son of Goran, a god, born from the god's mouth.  Rumata practices his clarinet or tenor sax -- the sound of the instrument is torment to his slaves who put paper in their ears to avoid hearing him.  In two early shots, we seem to be seeing through some kind of circular lens.  Rumata wears a diadem on his forehead and, I think, I have read that, in the novel, this is a miniature camera that records what he sees.  As in Krushtalyov and Ivan Lapshin, my Friend, German flirts with a first-person narrative, seems to take pains to even establish that perspective, and, then, bewilderingly, abandons it -- that is what seems to happen in this film as well although the gesture is covert:  I counted only two shots through the camera mechanism although, to be sure, there is probably about an hour of feverish Steadi-cam first-person footage in the film.  Slaves have bald heads and have their necks locked in a kind of wooden tablet-sahped stocks.  A book is burned and an elderly, demented bookworm is drowned head-first in a privy.  We learn that Irukar is where Rumato lives is surrounded by noisome swamps.  Rumata has a bad knee and wants medical attention.  He seeks his doctor, Budakh, by traveling to several places -- possibly Arkanar, the center of the federation, although this isn't clear.  Someone has synthesized alcohol, but Rumata smashes the still -- apparently, a commentary on the destructive effects of vodka on Mother Russia.  At Arkanar, or wherever Rumata has gone, he meets several other scientists (Earthlings) who are similarly stranded on the planet.  They are part of the original expeditionary team.  The other scientists get drunk with Rumata.  They don't exactly inspire confidence -- most of them have gone native, wear outlandish costumes, get their legs caught in boor traps, and stagger around drunk citing poetry, apparently Pasternak.  In one startling image, a big Mad Max-style truck hauls a flatbed on which two of the Earthling scientists mimic playing rock and roll.  We learn a local expression:  "stolen by the Siu bird" means irretrievably lost.

We are introduced to a hunchback lord, Don Arata.  I don't really understand this scene or where it takes place.  Rumata does sleight-of-hand tricks seemingly to persuade the locals that he is a god.  But a number of people don't think he is really divine. 

Back at Rumata's castle (this is hard to determine because there are no establishing shots), Don Reba comes for a visit.  Reba brings another doctor, not Budakh, apparently a quack. We see that Rumata has taught a slave how to play a kind of primitive French horn.  Servants grow some kind of edible fungus on dead dogs.  There is a Holy Order nearby.  Rumata seems to have been poisoned by the elixir provided by the quack doctor and he passes out.  The Grays and monks enter the castle.  There is a repeated reference to a "tobacconist from a tobacco shop" who is a wise man.  (I have no idea what this verbal motif means.)  The Grays are threatening Rumata and say they will send her to Tower of Joy -- some sort of place of torture that everyone fears greatly.  Rumata tells one of his slaves that he has "the strongest fangs", showing him the bull-armor with horns that he will wear at the end of the movie.  Rumata's mistress wants him to make love to her so that she can bear "a son of Goran".  She hangs a grinning gorgon-style image of Goran over their bed.  But it falls on them while they are copulating.  (There is a funny scene of her wriggling out of her iron chastity belt -- she needs a slave with a crow-bar to pry her out of the thing.) Sex in German films rarely works out -- beds tend to collapse or onlookers show up (not a problem on this planet where people defecate and have sex in public). 

We see an exterior by a misty river and a long Tarkovsky-style tracking shot, very beautiful and complex, with ragged beggars jeering and making faces at the camera.  Outside of a tavern, Rumata encounters the Baron.  The Baron fancies himself the empire's best swordsman.  Rumata gives him some lessons with his sword. The Baron comments that Rumata is a failure as a swordsman because he never kills anyone.  There is a weird violent quarrel about whether fish like milk.  The Baron continues to brandish his sword.

The scene shifts to an exterior shot of a column with a cross-bar.  The wooden assembly looks like a Christian cross and German, who is a believer, lingers for a long time on this forlorn object.  (It seems to stand at the entrance to Rumata's castle.)  Outside the castle, Rumata is threatened by someone.  He pulls the man's nose off and, then, doesn't know what to do with the mucous on his fingers -- ultimately, he wipes it on the wounded man's cloak.  Much of the violence in the film has a Three Stooges quality -- people are constantly hitting or gouging one another.  However, in this film, the violence has real and awful consequences, inflicting ghastly wounds.  Rumata goes into the castle and meets a wet nurse who seems to be suckling the "prince" (Rumata's son?  -- I don't think we ever actually see the boy.)  A siege begins.  A door is knocked down using one of the women as a battering ram.  Rumata confronts the armed men and, with no difficulty, beats them all back -- everyone yields to him and cowers.  As he advances through the castle, however, he is entrapped in a net and, then, hauled around wrapped in rope.  The leader of the force attacking Rumata's castle is Kussis.  Almost immediately, Rumata's dependents butcher him and cut their leader free.  A fat old knight who is one of Rumata's lieges, shows bones and a skull to his boss -- he remarks that these are the bones of the real Don of the castle and, if Rumata, was that man, he would now be 105 years old.  (Throughout this part of the film, people keep suggesting that Rumata is not really a god and that there is something fishy about him.)  Don Rumata has fought 186 duels but never killed anyone, only cut off their ears -- this also seems suspicious. 

Rumata talks to the Vicar of the Order from Beyond the Seas, one of a number of fanatical monastic orders that seem to be springing up.  The Vicar seems to know that Rumata is not a god and says that the people are lapsing into heresy -- that is, beginning to deny Rumata's divinity.  An army of iron-hatted troops associated with this Order surround the castle.  (Typical of this film is that German provides us with a spectacular view from the ramparts of the army below lit by torches investing the castle -- but nothing really comes of this vision:  there is no battle and the invading army melts away.)  Rumata catches one of the mice that are tormenting him and eating his armor; with Three Stooges elan, he drops it down a slave's shirt.  When he leaves the castle, he comes upon scores of people, probably mostly book-men, who have been hanged -- this slaughter includes women and children.  It also appears that corpses have been thrown into the well outside the castle to poison it.  (The hanging corpses have some kind of sticky broth or oat meal ladled over him so that they are featureless, suspended bodies covered in goo.)  Rumata frees a slave.  Someone warns him:  "He's been on the chain since he was three and he'll die."  Upon being cut free, the slave promptly insults Rumata, runs a dozen or so feet and, then, dies.  Monks surround the castle, herding people around with nooses on their necks. 

Rumata goes to see a Baron in a neighboring castle.  The monks and religious fanatics have taken over the place and are killing whores by strapping them to wooden frames and, then, driving huge wooden phallus between their legs tearing them apart.  (German doesn't show us this, just the gory machines with a whore wearing the so-called "hat of sorrow", a dunce-cap, waiting to be killed.)  The priests are flogging everyone and one of the interiors of the castle is dominated by the flabby, well-beaten and bloody buttocks of someone suspended over a barrel -- we never see a face associated with these buttocks.  Rumata finds the Baron in a cage.  (I think this is the man that Rumata earlier discussed swordsmanship with.)  Rumata frees the Baron.  He also finds the doctor, Budakh,  Rumata tries to leave the castle now occupied by religious fanatics with Budakh and the Baron.  The Baron departs on his own on horseback and is immediately shot full of arrows.  We see his corpse in the rain lying face down on a pile of rotting garbage -- someone throws turnips on top of the dead body.  (Exactly how Budkah and Rumata escape is unclear.)

Back at Rumata's castle, Budakh has trouble passing water.  Rumata wants to get advice from Budakh but he is occupied with his painful, intermittent urination.  Rumata's castle is now occupied by religious fanatics. Budakh, at last, tells Rumata that the obligation of a god is to "punish the cruel."  Rumata himself prays to God and says that "if you exist, blow us away, destroy us in our cruelty."  He no longer needs the saturnine and self-satisfied Budakh and releases him.  The monks who now infest Rumata's castle are under the command of a nasty hunchback, Arata.  The god Goran likes cripples, the hunchback maintains.  Arata's henchmen are abusing Rumata's servants and have even killed two of them.  Arata is menacing and, obviously, doesn't mistake Rumata for a god.  He suggests that he'll kill Rumata so that he "can fly off to your daddy"-- referring to Goran.  "It's hard to be a god," Rumata says.  They are in the part of the castle devoted to slaughter of animals and wrinkled sausages hang from the ceiling while beheaded cattle look on impassively.  When Arata threatens him again, Rumata pours boiling water on him and strikes  him -- as always, Rumata's blows, even if lightly administered, knock down his enemies; this is a curious aspect of the film -- whenever Rumata attacks someone or a group of adversaries, they become curiously passive and simply wilt before him.  Rumata revives Arata and threatens to kill all vermin.  Budakh is naked, walking around the castle seemingly applying his medical skills to inventing new ways to torture people.  Rumata tells Budakh and Arata that if, indeed, he kills them all, it will be meaningless -- new generations of equally loathsome oppressors will arise, "there will be a new Arata".

Budakh takes a bath.  The scene shifts to Rumata's barn.  Apparently, Rumata and his courtiers have been displaced from the castle by the interlopers led by Arata.  (Here we see one of German's estrangement techniques -- the camera shows us a huge cylindrical object, tattered looking at its edges, all scuffed and marred, but, apparently, alive; it turns out that we are looking at the side of a cow.)  Rumata's mistress is in the barn and says that they should all flee.  She is pregnant.  Rumata delays saying a "god can't flee without his pants" and he can't find them.  Rumata is eating some sort of porridge when the barn is attacked and the pregnant woman killed -- shot through the face by an arrow.  (This sequence is typical:  we don't know who is attacking or from what location -- the camera tracks the protagonists so tightly that there is no context for their motions or the events that occur to them.  The menace is never visualized as "external" -- it is always close-up, intimate, lethal danger that is within a foot of your face.  When we see a danger clearly visualized, for instance, the horde of soldiers surrounding the castle, there is no attack.)  Rumata arms himself, appearing on all fours like an enraged iron bull.  He tells god that "if you exist, stop me."  A warlord named Arima enters the castle, boasting that he is the Eye of the Order.  His minions begin to mistreat and kill Rumata's servants.  Rumata kills Arima and disembowels him to "find the monster's heart."  He, then, massacres everyone in sight.  The massacre is not shown only its aftermath.

A child prancing among the mangled corpses says that Rumata has never left Earth:  the imagery of the film is the product of insanity ("you're in a nuthouse on Earth") or a brain tumor.  Rumata is sitting in a big mud-puddle with a chicken.  Another earthling, Pasha talks to him.  Rumata pronounces the moral of the work:  "Where Grays triumph, Blacks always come in the end." 

A snowy exterior:  Rumata has shaved off his hair and trimmed his beard and is now wearing glasses.  He takes out his tenor sax and with a servant who plays a kind of French horn, performs a kind of melancholy blues-jazz tune.  A wagon rolls up carrying the corpses of Don Leonardo and Don Fatso -- these were two of the scientist from Earth.  Rumata with his procession wanders off-screen.  A little girl and a tall scarecrow of a man are walking on a path through the misty, snowfields.  The little girl asks the man if he likes the music Don Rumata is playing.  "I don't know," the man says. The little girl replies:  "It makes my tummy heart."  Some horsemen pass by and the movie ends. 

This sprawling, disorderly, and enormously lengthy film is also remarkably repetitive.  The first time we see Rumata he has been dreaming of killing everyone around him.  The character doesn't advance beyond that stage and the "heart of darkness" credo:  "exterminate all brutes!" doesn't change in any way through the film's 177 minutes.  (In effect, the film is a variant on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- Arkanar is like the Congo, a place where madness and cruelty prevail.   The difference between the works is that Conrad imagined Europe, although complicit in the darkness, to be a place where conventional humanism kept brutality in check, although Marlowe, to be sure, notes that even the river banks of the Thames were once one of "dark places" on Earth, at least as far as the Roman colonists were concerned.)  Hard to be a God, offers nothing in opposition to the savagery and filth on screen.  The movie esthetic is, at once, simple-minded and effective:  to persuade the viewer that Rumata should "exterminate all brutes", the film simply immerses the movie-goer in Rumata's point of view -- in that respect, the length and repetitiveness of the film is necessary, although it's a device that brutalizes the audience as well.   The movie's black and white photography is exquisite and the medieval squalor has a picturesque quality -- some critics have made comparison with the Monty Python comedy about the quest for the Holy Grail; in its excessiveness, Hard to be a God is often inadvertently funny and the comparison with the Monty Python movie is a reasonable one.  The film's fantastic mise-en-scene is indescribable and the movie may be enjoyed, I suppose, for its fanatical and brilliant attention to detail and the sheer grandeur of many of its sequences.  (In one extended take, Rumata wanders through one of his filthy, claustrophobic, and immensely crowded chambers to enter a dark room, possibly a stable, and a big white owl appears suddenly to perch on his shoulder -- how many hundreds of takes did this require?; after the massacre, Rumata sits in a bloody pool of water and a flock of little birds emerges about midway through the minute-long take, flying upward apparently from somewhere underground.  How was this accomplished?)  The problem with the film is that we live in a world, perhaps unlike Russia, in which the Renaissance did occur and, therefore, is it reasonable to insist that men are irretrievably savage and cruel and that best fate for humanity is to be exterminated?  Krushtalyov, My Car, I think, is a much greater film and I also prefer My Friend, Ivan Lapshin.  Film making is a profession that involves much grandiosity and there is no doubt that Hard to be a God is spectacularly grandiose, the product of a kind of megalomania in the director, an improbable vision executed with fantastic conviction.  But is it a vision that anyone reasonably would desire to endure?  

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Everyone knows what happens in John Boorman's Deliverance (1972).  My daughter had never seen the film and so I watched it with her. (She was appalled by it after about twenty minutes and took a bath so she wouldn't even have to hear what was happening on screen.)  I believe I saw the picture in a movie theater when it was first released.  The DVD version that I watched had been "formatted" to "better fit your TV screen" -- this was when TV screens were oblong rectangles about two feet tall and three feet wide.  As a result the image was badly mutilated and some of the scenes didn't make a whole lot of sense -- in particular, a scene in which Jon Voight, playing the mild-mannered Ed Gentry, pursues a deer was incoherent with half of the image missing:  Ed wanders around wide-eyed but we can't figure out why because we don't see the deer he's chasing at the edge of the frame.  Boorman crafted the film to make the ominous presence of the woods and river an ever-present force in the imagery -- this effect is lost if half of the image is hacked-off.  (The letter-boxed end-credits show that the film was shot in a very long and narrow Cinemascope aspect ratio.)

In its mangled form, the pictures in the film are primarily close ups or two-shots.  This puts the viewer's focus on the faces and acting -- not an authentic version of the film as directed but interesting.  Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, playing two of the four men involved in the ill-fated excursion, are effectively naturalistic -- they can be recognized as convincing real-life figures.  Burt Reynolds can't act -- he mouths a few threats and platitudes and, then, seems relieved when his fractured femur reduces him to grunting and screaming in pain.  His performance is completely introverted, insular -- in a perverse way, this is effective:  Reynold's part carries the burden of Dickey's macho attitudinizing, the least attractive part of the film today and, indeed, an aspect of the narration that Boorman instinctively opposed and seems to have fought to subvert.  Reynolds is inert and out of his depth, but it doesn't matter because his character is written as emotionally and intellectually limited.  Boorman is one of the great poets of the cinema and he has directed Voight's Ed Gentry "poetically" -- Voight acts broadly, uses expressionistic gestures, and, frequently, seems to over-act:  he's like Lillian Gish stranded between brutish method-actors.  But it's highly effective.  Voight is our eyes on the action, he affords the film with its first-person narration, and his melodramatic representations of horror and disgust and fear are integral to the movie and give the film it's raw charge.  (When he's tied with a belt to a tree to watch Ned Beatty's rape, his eyes expand into huge wet globes; at various points, he trembles uncontrollably, cowers, shudders physically; like Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips, he bursts into tears once the peril has passed -- we seem him weeping over his gravy in the boarding house where he is recuperating with Ned Beatty.)  The contrast between Voight's extroverted performance and the involuted, locked-in playing of the others is important to the film's theme:  only Ed Gentry has a soul sufficiently sensitive to be ultimately and decisively affected by the havoc that he witnesses (and in which he participates) during the nightmare weekend canoe trip.  The movie sticks close to Ed's perspective to the point that the prelude imagery showing the construction of the dam that will conceal the macabre evidence of the weekend and the river-rapids themselves under hundreds of feet of water seems a little misguided -- but it's a mistake made at the outset of the film and it doesn't cast a retrospective shadow of the rest of the proceedings.  Boorman wants us to see everything through Ed's eyes.  This explains curious effects:  in one shot, we see Burt Reynolds literally catapulting through the air -- it's a very short scene but a famous one:  it turns up in all trailers and commentaries on the movie.  The shot doesn't really make physical sense in the movie -- there's no height from which Reynold's could plausibly execute this gymnastic dive.  But in the film the image works perfectly as an impressionistic device -- the image conveys something that Voight's Ed Gentry saw out of the corner of his eye, a glimpse of some kind of violent action, and the physical force embodied in the shot makes it plausible that Reynold's character has shattered his femur in the mishap in the river.  This shot shows us how Ed Gentry perceives what is happening, or, even, more profoundly, how he will remember it. 

There is a fundamental incoherence to the film due I think to conflict between Boorman and Dickey.  (Dickey got into a fistfight with Boorman and broke his nose during the production.)  Dickey wanted to show Ed as a "natural-born killer," someone who glories in violence and, in fact, regards the murder that he commits on the river as his "deliverance" from a life of suburban mediocrity.  In Dickey's view, all real men are, at heart, killers and civilization, like the dam that drowns the wild river, merely masks this inner reality.  Clearly, Boorman doesn't accept this viewpoint.  Dickey's Ed Gentry returns to his wife and children, changed and somehow triumphant -- he now understands his true nature.  Boorman's Ed Gentry is traumatized by the events on the river -- the dead hand of the past reaches out to inflict something like post-traumatic stress on him:  in the last scene, we see him awaking from a nightmare about one of the corpses repressed in the river rising from its cold depths.  In an early scene, Gentry can't bring himself to kill a deer.  Of course, Boorman as a master film maker realizes that the man who is too timid to shoot a deer must scale a 200 foot cliff and, then, kill a man at the climax of the movie.  But this climax will be horribly marred if the hero is already, by mere dint of his masculine nature, a warrior and killer. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Holy Hell

The Good, Plato reminds us, is always beautiful.  But, of course, the Beautiful is not always Good.  Before the show degenerates into incoherence, CNN's documentary Holy Hell seems to demonstrate that moral -- the beautiful con-man at the center of Holy Hell looks great but he's wicked.  Unfortunately, the program is so poorly constructed that its really compelling, even astounding, footage ends up meaning less than nothing.  The documentary is infuriating because its subject is so fascinating and because of the wealth of remarkable imagery that never coalesces into anything meaningful.  The pictures are so impressive that the viewer is tricked into watching the show and, then, finds that it is bait and switch -- despite all the wonderful footage, there's nothing there.

In the early 1990's, a charismatic, if weird-looking, man founded a quasi-Buddhist cult.  The cult involved much orgiastic singing and dancing, lots of sex, and meditation about some isle of bliss called the Buddha-Field.  The leader of the cult is called "Andreas", although confusingly, he shows up under another name at the end of the film, Michel.  Andreas is small, but built like a Venice beach muscle-man -- he has enormous eyes and an erect posture and he pouts and preens like Zoolander.  When Andreas speaks, he mumbles platitudes that he can scarcely pronounce (like everyone in the show, he seems perpetually stoned out of his mind), has some kind of foreign accent that you can't quite place, and glares alarmingly at his interlocutors as if to probe their souls with the searchlights of his dark eyes.  Of course, as time progresses, the cult becomes less about the Buddha-Field and more about pleasing Andreas.  He commissions ballets that his apostles practice endlessly only to perform the finished piece one time for other cult-members.  There are lots of amateur theatricals, dancing on tropical beaches, and strolls through paradisiacal woodlands.  Because Andreas is a narcissist of the first order, everything is professionally filmed and, so, as a consequence there are apparently hundreds of hours of footage showing the cult-leader interacting with his disciples -- he has a throne carried for him by his congregation and sits on it on the beach at Malibu where he dispenses his wisdom.  Cult members are required to have abortions if they get pregnant and their sexual partners are determined by Andreas; all exertions are made to please the holy man.  MTV-style videos proclaim the virtues of the cult and its members are almost all exceptionally handsome or beautiful -- big-bosomed California beach-girls and movie-star handsome young men, everyone parading around half-dressed in the golden light of the Golden State.  Andreas, in particular, is always topless and wears harem-pants that accentuate his genitals and we see that he is never without elaborate make-up and false-eyelashes; at one point, someone says that Andreas was once an actor in porno-movies although this information is never developed.  As the film progresses, Andreas has innumerable plastic surgeries and ends up as an uncanny figure, an ageless deformed hermaphrodite walking slowly as if with fused vertebrae, his face melted into an expressionless lemur-like mask. 

All of this is fascinating and grips the attention.  But the film doesn't deliver the goods.  In its last third, we get the big "reveal" -- Andreas is a homosexual with an interest in teenage boys and, all of the gorgeous kids, that we have seen cavorting with him have been sexually abused.  But from the film's first few minutes, it's completely and obviously apparent that most, if not all, of the men are stereotypically gay -- we can hear it in their voices and see it in their gestures and affect.  Further, Andreas is also obviously gay, some kind of exotic transvestite, and, so, the big "reveal" is a bust, a disappointment -- breathlessly, we are merely told what we have already surmised.  (More interesting is the role of the vast number of glamor girls in the cult -- why were they involved and what was their function?)   Andreas seems misguided and a complete and thorough boor, but it's never really proven that he did anything too bad except exploit a group of exceptionally dim-witted morons.  The former cult members, various talking heads who appear on the show, most of them weeping for reasons that are never quite clear, are handsome but so incredibly stupid that it's impossible to ascertain what they are saying -- they denounce Andreas, sort of, but, then, seem to want to defend him.  We don't see Andreas taking money from these fools and the sexual exploitation would seem to be an obvious given a situation in which no one wears much clothing and most of the cult's dogma seems to be communicated in hot tub sessions.  Although Andreas is wholly despicable, it's certainly not clear that he is any worse that his dullard followers -- they also seem to be ridiculously self-indulgent and narcissistic.  But the worst element of the show is that the ominous music and portentous visuals set the viewer up with an expectation that something spectacular is going to occur -- Andreas is going to kill someone or order a mass suicide or his followers are going to kill him.  But nothing at all happens.  There's no climax and no dramatic arc.  Some of the cult-members leave only to be replaced by new apostles.  Andreas is helped to move from southern California to the beaches of Oahu and there he seems to thrive.  Sure, he gets older and weirder-looking but, then, don't we all?  Furthermore, at the end of the movie, the cult-members who have been denouncing Andreas throughout the two-hour show, all shift gears and start to praise him.  Everyone hugs and sheds tears and basically tells the audience that the Buddha-
field was great and that, although some of the people have spent more than 22 years in Andreas' thrall, that time was well-spent -- in other words, even Andreas' enemies can't quite bring themselves to the point of a principled denunciation:  at the film's climax, a woman speaking to the camera, not her former holy man, calls him some names and, then, gives him the finger -- this is the extent of the film's critique:  some swear words and an obscene gesture.  (The former cult-members are now doing such things as putting on sex-positive shows for "faeries", traveling about the country extolling the benefits of medical marijuana, making independent films -- chiefly, it seems, the one we are watching -- and doing massage and "body work.")  CNN's approach to this material is the epitome of "bait and switch" -- it's suggested that we are going to see something really horrific and vile, but, at the end of the film, we get protestations that the Buddha-Field was pretty much okay and when one of the former cult-members confronts his guru with a hidden camera, Andreas is asked lamely "Are you being a good boy? -- I'm being the best boy, Andreas mumbles -- and, as the material gets thinner and thinner and thinner, the commercial get thicker and thicker.  In the last half-hour of the show, at least 15 minutes are devoted to ads.