Sunday, October 22, 2017

Rancho Notorious

Everyone who knows and loves Westerns will recall the miraculous first shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Ford's Stagecoach.  With his Winchester in hand, John Wayne appears on horseback, a beautiful and archaic vision, and the camera tracks toward him so rapidly that, for a moment, his face goes out of focus -- it's as if appearance in the midst of the buttes and desert has somehow unhinged the camera, made it swoon.  The image takes your breath away.  In his 1952 Western, Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang reprises this image in an extraordinary shot introducing his leading lady, Marlene Dietrich.  Like John Wayne, Dietrich is astride a horse, although in this image, her steed is a drunken cowboy at the brothel where she works.  Her "horse" rears up and, then, she goads him with her heels in a race with other inebriated cowboys all of them mounted by whores.  The image tracks the men as they creep forward, climbing over various obstacles, ducking under wire, until the perverse race reaches the finish line.  Dietrich looks stunning and Lang understands that it's not enough to devise and frame a wonderful static image -- the picture has to move, hence, the frenetic action as the saloon girls drive the men they are riding toward the finish line at the other end of the bar-room.  (Certainly, Fellini had this image in mind when he has Marcello Mastrioanni ride the prostitute in the orgy scene in La Dolce Vita -- Lang's version, however, is more startling and kinkier, more perverse.)  The sequence is recounted as a flashback, a story told to the film's hero, a cowboy named Vern (played by Arthur Kennedy) and the image has some of the mythical quality of memory, a sort of archetype recalled after many years. Vern is looking for a place called "Chuck-a-Luck", a robber's roost where the villain who raped and murdered his fiancée is hiding.  "Chuck-a-Luck", in fact, is the name of the ranch near the Mexican border ruled by the imperious and regal Dietrich, playing an aging saloon girl retired to manage a band of criminals staging hold-ups and bank robberies across the southwest.  At "Chuck-a-Luck" there's only one rule:  you can't ask questions because everyone has a criminal past.  Of course, Vern ultimately infiltrates "Chuck-a-Luck", participates in a bank robbery, and, finally, guns down the rapist and murderer in a climactic battle at the ranch.  The film is equipped with a cowboy ballad, although the music sounds more than a little operatic, and, after the final gun fight, the baritone reminds us that his song is about "hate, murder, and revenge."  This is the rather Wagnerian motif that ends each stanza of the "Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck" and we hear it first intoned over the opening credits -- indeed, the words are sung when the title announces that the film is directed by Fritz Lang.  (The effect is a little like the opening of The Wild Bunch in which one of the bandits holding townspeople hostage cries out "Kill them all!" just as the credit "Directed by Sam Peckinpah" is displayed.) "Hate, murder, and revenge", of course, are Lang's signature subjects and he has Arthur Kennedy glower with rage, his eyes bugged out, and his posture distorted like a dwarf -- he actually stoops and twitches like Alberich in the Ring of the Nibelungs deformed by hatred. 

Although only 87 minutes long, Rancho Notorious is packed with action.  After the brutal Kinch rapes and murders Vern's chaste sweetheart (and, then, kills the bad man's sexually ambiguous sidekick), the hero sets out to find the villain and punish him.  Along the trail, Vern learns that a woman named Altar Keane, a famous Western courtesan, is somehow involved.  Lang treats us to some flashbacks involving Keane's adventures and we see how she meets her loyal boyfriend, Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), the fastest gun in the West -- he has helped her out when she plays "chuck-a-luck", that is, a roulette game, in the saloon where she has just been fired for insubordination; she's insulted the owner and whore-master, Baldy, played with sinister aplomb by Wm. Frawley (remember him as "Bub" on My Three Sons?).  Altar Keane has used her winnings  from the roulette game to buy a remote hacienda a few miles from the Mexican border.  There she supervises a gang of nine bandits, bad men who periodically depart from Rancho Notorious to rob banks, stages, and trains.  These bad guys include poor George Reeves, Tv's Superman, his handsome rock jaw, scarred by claw marks (a woman, Vern assumes, although Reeves claims it was a panther that disfigured him.)  Dietrich looks spectacular in her tight jeans and she sits like a man with her legs spread wide apart; in close-ups, her face is an impassive Kabuki-like mask -- inhumanly perfect and inexpressive.  To entertain the boys, she sometimes sings for them -- by the evidence in the film, performing tunes that sound like Berlin cabaret music with lyrics by Brecht and melody by Weill.  Periodically, Lang indulges in the exquisitely staged violence that made him famous:  there's a horrific fistfight in a barber shop and a couple of explosive gun duels.  Lang always stages these sequences with more fury than the viewer expects -- the violence is more abrupt, savage, and physically tangible than the surrounding story and images:  it stands apart as something particularly ferocious and indelible.  When a bank robbery goes awry, one of the bandits is shot and falls backward in a narrow doorway -- there are two other robbers in the doorway and the man who has been hit by the bullet can't fall down because the other bandits are in his way; instead, he twists to the side, slumping between two other men who are frantically firing their six-guns -- the effect is weirdly balletic and, also, statuesque:  the falling man and those surrounding him form a sculptural tableaux.  In the same scene, when someone is shot off a horse, the person doesn't just drop to the ground -- they crash face-first into the earth. 

The film is in Technicolor and looks great.  There are orange sunsets with riders moving through badlands and, then, a shot of a forlorn coyote howling at the sky.  The outlaws form a rogue's gallery that Lang depicts in massive, matching close-up, each man scowling at the camera.  There's nifty dialogue:  someone praises death by hanging -- "It's quiet as eating a banana."  Above Chuck-a-luck, there's a strange mountain pass, a high point walled with mauve sandstone ramparts -- the scene is obviously shot on a sound-stage, but so oddly unnatural as to be surrealistically memorable.  An insert shows Chuck-a-Luck far below, a little hacienda in the great desert.  The sandstone walls are, perhaps, intended as natural but they look man-made because, of course, they are man-made, parapets, I suppose, contrived from paper-mache.  When Altar Keane takes a bullet to save her boyfriend, her breast flowers with a great red wound and she drops decorously to the foot of her bed -- the bed is also covered with mauve fabric.  A posse sets forth in a night-for-day shot:  We see them riding through a canyon with stark, stony walls -- the walls have profiles like Easter Island idols -- and the sky caught between the canyon walls has the bruised, turbulent darkness in the clouds in Jacob van Ruisdael's great painting, "The Jewish Cemetery".  The film is a genre piece but memorably enlivened by little cinematic touches that are pure poetry.  (Dietrich's dominatrix queen of the ranch was an image that seems to have made a powerful impact on other film makers in the fifties:  Joan Crawford, in tight breeches and flannel shirt, plays a variant on the part in the 1954 Johnny Guitar and, later, Barbara Stanwyck also plays a similar role in Sam Fuller's lurid 1958 Forty Guns.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Breaking Point

At a symposium that I recently attended, the speaker made the disheartening observation that most families in the United States are only an unexpected $500 debt away from economic calamity.  This means that a car's transmission failure or a trip to the emergency room or a criminal fine is sufficient to destroy many people economically.  Although I don't know the basis for the statistics, intuitively, this statement seems true to me.  I recall my parents fretting about car expenses.  When I was a child, I sensed that the failure or a washer or dryer, or a blown valve on the car's engine, might mean the difference between poverty and our normal middle-class existence.  I recall that we ate lots of canned food -- slimy green peas and corn and, once a week, feasted on liver with onions, food that I loved but that was, I suppose, something from the bottom of the barrel.  Of course, I made these anxieties a part of myself -- sometimes today, I get irrationally angry when food is wasted or at the purchase of bottled water (when our tap water is completely potable) and I reflexively shut off lights when I leave a room.  Although I am reasonably prosperous and have lived through eras of excess, my sensibilities remain rooted, in large part, in lower middle class values -- or more honestly stated "fears" -- as they existed in the fifties.  For this reason, Michael Curtiz' disturbing film The Breaking Point  (1950) seems to me particularly resonant, its action fatalistic and impelled by anxieties with which I am intimately familiar. 

Based on Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not, the film resolutely denies the glamor with which Howard Hawks invested the same subject matter in his 1944 version Key Largo.  Starring Bogie and Bacall, Key Large is an impressive entertainment, but it has almost nothing to do with Hemingway's novel and, certainly, doesn't explore the neo-realistic depths sounded in The Breaking Point.  In many ways, the movie is classically film noir -- a sad sack loser is trapped in a web of fate that threatens to destroy everything that he cherishes; everyone is morally compromised and violence comes easy to the characters because they have killed people in World War Two and can't forget that experience.  The veneer of civilization is very fragile -- the hero's lower middle class home and family is only a $500 dollar debt away from calamity.  At one point, the hero feels sorry for himself.  His wife blasts him for this self-pity -- 'you have to take care of your wife and your family.  You have to put food on the table.  This is your war.'  The hero stoically agrees with this formulation, but, of course, he is fatally alone, "a man alone," he obsessively repeats, cast on his own slender resources which turn out, at every step in the story, to be inadequate to the challenge. 

John Garfield plays Harry Morgan, a former soldier whose sole business asset is a fishing boat called the Sea Queen.  Morgan is married and has two children and he lives in a small town somewhere near San Diego -- it's on the sea, the kind of place where people beach rowboats on the edge of canals that would be their front lawn in a more landlocked place.  Morgan ekes out a living taking rich men on fishing expeditions -- he says he can "spot a marlin a mile away."  But he's not making it.  He's behind on the installment payments for his boat, can't pay the harbor fees, and increasingly desperate.  Morgan takes a rich man and his vicious mistress (played by Patricia Neal as the ultimate bitch femme fatale) down to Ensenada in Mexico.  The rich man absconds leaving his girlfriend and a batch of unpaid bills with Morgan.  Morgan runs into a sleazy lawyer that he knows from his home town and is steered into participating in a human trafficking scheme.  (The film is prescient about many issues that plague us today.)  The people trafficked are Chinese and the smuggler notes that, after he gets paid, he doesn't care what happens to them -- suggesting casually that Morgan simply throw them overboard once he gets out to sea.  The transaction goes wrong and Morgan ends up wrestling with the Chinese smuggler; a gun goes off and the criminal is killed.  Morgan gets back home but finds that his boat is impounded -- the Mexican authorities are following up on the Chinese trafficker's crimes and his apparent murder.  Morgan can't pay his debts, even though his wife takes up seamstress work and labors all night long -- this is humiliating to the tough-guy ex-combat vet.  The sleazy lawyer posts a bond for Morgan's boat on the condition that he ferry some thugs who are planning a robbery at a race-track out to a  get-away point west of Catalina Island.  There's a heist scene somewhat similar to, and probably a model for, the race-track robbery in Kubrick's The Killing.  The thugs flee the race-track and come to the harbor when Harry's best friend has unfortunately made an appearance to work on the boat.  The thugs, who are cartoon gangsters, gun down Morgan's buddy.  This sets the stage for a climactic and bloody shoot-out on the boat.  (If the film has a weakness, it's the heist plot and the caricatured wise-guys, in their garish double-breasted suits, involved in that robbery.)  The film's ending is quietly devastating -- Curtiz orchestrates one of the most tragic closing images in film history.  Morgan's temptation by Patricia Neal is intertwined in this plot.  Neal uses all of her wiles in an attempt to seduce Morgan away from his long-suffering wife.  Morgan is bored and admits that "a man wants excitement now and then", but he remains (more or less) faithful to his wife.  As the maimed Morgan is hauled off the Sea Queen, Neal pouts and walks away without a backward glance saying:  "This is why I hate mornings."

Curtiz made, at least, seventy films in Hungary before he came to work for Warner Brothers in 1926.  (He shot the pre-Technicolor two-color process features Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, remarkably effective, if primitive, thrillers in the early thirties, before being promoted to A-List movies like Casablanca.)  His direction is miraculously assured and effective.  In a series of three or four shots in the hero's small house, Curtiz establishes the space, provides it with symbolic force, and introduces the members of the hero's family -- as well as their relationships with one another.  This sequence is so brilliantly shot and edited with such consummate, whiplash precision that it is as thrilling, in its own way, as the action sequences later in the picture.   The film is a master-class in classical movie-making; it's lucid and expressive in all respects. The reason that you never heard about The Breaking Point is that, just before its premiere, John Garfield was named as a Communist in Red Channels.  Jack Warner was horrified and, quietly, dumped the film -- it was released with no publicity and, then, simply vanished.  Garfield was hounded by the HUAC and died of a heart attack when he was only 39 years old.  His performance, and that of all of the characters in the film, is exemplary.  This is one of the greatest of all film noir, a movie that both defines and expands decisively the notion of the genre; indeed, the movie establishes a vital connection between film noir and the sort of neo-realism advanced by Italian directors like de Sica and Rosselini -- if you can, see it.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Don Pasqualo

Gaetano Donizetti composed the opera buffo Don Pasqualo in 1843, a couple years before an obscure mental illness permanently disabled him.  The opera is very cruel and very funny:  an old vain man is relentlessly tortured by a beautiful young woman.  The plot's sadism sometimes seems to give Donizetti pause -- after the young woman slaps the old man, knocking him to the ground, the relentless pace of the comedy slacks for a moment and there is even a duet between the two that has the piercing quality of lament.  But, then, the savagery starts up again and the cruelty continues.  In Twelfth Night, the prudish and hypocritical puritan is driven to the verge of madness by the torments Shakespeare's characters devise for him, but, at one point, the heroine, Viola expresses some sympathy and notes that the economics of the house are dependent on Malvolio's probity.  There is no similar moment of reconciliation in Don Pasqualo, a fool to begin with he remains a fool to the end, although one that has been chastened..  The relentlessness of opera's farce, its singlemindedness, suggest that the subject might be an unworthy, or difficult, topic for musical comedy.  But Don Pasqualo was produced at a time when Italian composers could make an opera out of anything -- they could set law decrees and grocery lists to lissome and fluent music -- and, so, the work is surprisingly eloquent, full of cunning quartets, and adorned with some beautiful music.

Opera buffo seems to encourage inventiveness and, even, bold innovation on the part of the director and Don Pasqualo as performed by the Minnesota Opera company (October 7 -15) is crammed with imaginative "business".  The show's premise is that the foolish old man, Pasqualo, is a silent movie star fallen on hard times in Hollywood during the fifties -- in this production the action is posited to take place in 1956.  During the overture, and during several short intermezzi required for scene changes, silent films are projected on the curtain under the proscenium arch.  These films are quite funny and chart Pasqualo's decline from movie star (implausibly playing a corpulent sheik) to leading man in awful genre films ("Tentacles", a 50's monster movie, and "Attack of the Robots" a low-budget sci-fi picture); Pasqualo tries to direct a Western called "Banditos" but ends up burning down the studio.  Pasqualo hates newfangled and modern technology in films -- he is an adamant enemy of Technicolor.  The opera is directed to emphasize the interplay between Pasqualo's colorless, grey mansion and the bright colors associated with his doomed passion for the young Sofronia, the girl who torments him.  In various ways, Pasqualo's world brightens as the opera progresses and becomes more colorful, although his sepulchral zombie-like butler continues to serve him in pallid white face and Pasqualo, himself, is made up so that this cheeks and hair and brow are entirely grey.  The plot is simple and archetypal.  The old Don Pasqualo forbids the marriage of his nephew, Ernesto.  Instead, he says that he will marry a young woman and breed heirs to his fortune.  His physician, the smarmy and sinister Dr. Malatesta, offers to introduce him to a beautiful young virgin said to have been educated in a convent.  The virgin is nothing of the sort -- she is Ernesto's girlfriend, herself a Hollywood starlet.  Pasqualo is tricked into a fake marriage with the veiled and, seemingly, timid girl.   As soon as the wedding contract is inked, the girl reveals herself to be a monstrous shrew.  She immediately drives Pasqualo into debt with her extravagances, acquires jewels and limousines, and, then, demands the freedom to consort with her lover -- in fact, her real betrothed Ernesto.  The scenes involving the marriage and Sofronia's torture of the old fool are realized with slapstick surrealism -- the girl traipses around with a fifty-foot long red train; Pasqualo is so buried in her bills and invoices that he wears them like a thick and furry coat.  The girl invites other stars to the house, now decked-out like the Hearst mansion, and we see lookalikes for Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley and others cavorting like ancers in a Busby Berkeley musical.  One bit of business involves key on a sort of retractable band that keeps getting plucked away from Pasqualo and, then, snaps back against his hips and ribs.  The nasty Dr. Malatesta becomes increasingly uncanny as the show progresses.  He wears a cape that he flaps like Dracula attempting to become airborne as a bat and does impressive magic tricks elongating parts of his body to try to snatch the key off Pasqualo (the key opens a garden gate to a place where the shrew is planning a meeting with her boyfriend.) During the wedding scene, a notary appears with tassels on his sleeves that are flipped around to great effect when the wedding contract is signed.  A "patter" song involving incredibly rapid-fire delivery is so impressive that the two singers involved in this duet, break down the fourth wall, hurry up in front of the curtain and urge the audience to demand an encore from them -- this is accomplished and the show-stopping number is repeated to everyone's delight. 

I thought the opera was successful in all respects.  The music is fascinating and, often, quite beautiful; even at its least impressive, the numbers have a galloping propulsiveness, the so-called Rossini accelerando.  The plot, which is as old as Plautus, and certainly hearkens back to the commedia dell'arte is effective if remorselessly brutal .  The opera was mounted with great verve and ingenuity and I thought all of the "bits of business" required with respect to staging the action during the 1950's were well designed, meaningful, and, often, laugh-out-loud funny.  The tonal character of the opera is a bit monotonous -- mostly three deep male voices bickering histrionically with a soprano screeching at them.  The starlet, played by Susannah Biller, was a little shrill, at first, although this didn't hurt the show's comic effect, but later relaxed into a more full-throated and luscious-sounding voice.  The show really belongs to the hapless Pasquale forever on his knees pleading for the gods to send him madness and the sinister Dr. Malateste and these singers (Craig Coclough and Andrew Wilkowske respectively) were highly accomplished throughout the production. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Kolberg

Your eyes can't quite adjust to Harlan Veit's sinister and monumental Kolberg (1945).  There's an inversion to the film that makes the movie hard to see:  most war films posit peace as the fundamental norm -- violent conflict upsets peace and distracts people from their ordinary business of making a living, procreating, raising families.  War films that register the impact of conflict on civilians, generally, suggest that armed conflict is an anomaly in human affairs, a catastrophe that must be survived and endured, but not the ordinary state of affairs.  This perspective originates, perhaps, most fundamentally in Tolstoy's War and Peace -- Tolstoy says that war is the exception to rules of morality that normally govern human affairs:  there is a sharp distinction between soldiers, who are trade-professionals, and the civilian victims of war.  Tolstoy's distinction between war and peace, as well as soldier and civilian, is intrinsic to most modern film representations of war -- for instance, Gone with the
Wind (which, in turn, derives from Griffith's Birth of a Nation), David Lean's Dr. Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, and, even, Warren Beatty's Reds.  War separates lovers, interrupts relationships, and imposes artificial hardships on people.  But these films all assume as their baseline peace and that, once the soldiers have departed, people will return to marrying and giving in marriage, adultery and petty swindling, raising children, tending to the sick and elderly, and farming or business.  After the samurai are victorious in The Seven Samurai, the peasants have no interest in military affairs and return to planting their rice; for a few minutes in the film, the peasants fought alongside the samurai, an alliance that Kurosawa regards with a kind of ecstatic horror -- this is not the way that the world should be:  soldiers fight wars and the civilians tend to their families and the economy. 

Kolberg was the last production of Germany's UFA studios when it was under Nazi control and it arises from a completely different ideology as to armed conflict.  Kolberg begins with the spectacle of citizens, men, women, and children, marching with locked arms through a picturesque medieval-looking city and along photogenic canals -- the civilian population has proclaimed itself as mobilized, as part of the war-fighting force.  And, indeed, Kolberg's political thesis is that, during circumstances of total war, there is no valid distinction between civilian and soldier -- every civilian is conscripted to the war effort; to the last man, woman, and child, every German is a member of the Wehrmacht.  (This notion arises from Goebbels 1943 speech at the Berlin Sportspalast in which the propaganda minister declared that "the most total war is the shortest war", denying the distinction between professional soldiers and citizenry.  Goebbels intent was to make meaningful the suffering that German civilians experienced due to Allied bombings -- a woman or old man or baby killed in such a bombing was a "hero" of the Reich, that is, a home-front soldier dead on the battlefield.  We have come perilously close to this ideology -- also the ideology of perpetual war -- in our so-called War against  Terrorism, in which the stockbrokers and secretaries killed in the Twin Towers are regarded as "heroes" or "martyrs" to a cause -- of course, a cause that didn't exist until they were killed.)  Kolberg, a huge epic film that celebrates the tenacity of citizens of the town under bombardment by Napoleon's cannons, is an instrument in an ideology that proclaims several concepts foreign to our usual representations of armed conflict:  first, everyone is a soldier; second, soldier's aren't allowed to surrender; and, third, the state of war is what is perpetual in the world -- war gives meaning to existence; by contrast, peace is weak, pallid, existentially vacuous.  Watching Kolberg, the American viewer wants to focus on the relationships between the people, a foreground love-affair, conflicts between characters, that is, recognizable human interpersonal relationships -- but these factors are wholly secondary to the film which has as its motive dramatization of the actions of a collective -- and, so, at least my eyes can't quite find the focus.  It's as if Gone with the Wind were remade with the love affairs as perfunctory ornamentation to a story that is entirely focused on the Burning of Atlanta.  In a standard war film like GWTW, the Burning of Atlanta is background to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler's love affair.  By contrast, in Kolberg, the love affair between "little Maria" played by the Reich's favorite actress, Kristina Soederbaum, and her dashing cavalry boyfriend, is distinctly subordinate to the dramatization of war as a conflict, not between opposing armies, but between opposing Volk or populations.  The curious thing about Kolberg is its peculiar, daunting honesty -- these themes aren't concealed or sugar-coated, they are portrayed front and center with unmistakable ideological intent.  Kolberg is as single-minded and intellectually honest as Potemkin or Earth --  no effort is made to conceal a loathsome ideology.  In some ways, it's more truthful to the reality of war than films like Dr. Zhivago or Gone with the Wind.

Kolberg is certainly spectacular enough and its battle scenes are vivid and realistic.  The film was shot in Agfacolor and the tinting is unstable -- in some sequences characters oscillate between a waxen marmoral pallor and warm golden flesh tones.  But it's a handsome film on which no expense was spared.  (Harlan Veit claimed he had 187,000 extras at his command -- an outrageous lie, but, certainly, there are scenes in the film with lines of soldiers stretching to the horizon, probably as many as 3000 active duty soldiers conscripted to appear in the battle sequences.)  Paul Wegener, the German actor whose peculiarly Asiatic-appearance, had him cast as the Golem, not once but three times, plays the part of the feckless Loucadou -- he is the commander at Kolberg who counsels surrender.  His opposite is the burly and immovable Nettelbeck, a local brewer and the mayor of the town, played by the formidable Heinrich George, a huge square block of a man with a huge square head.  Kristina Soderbaum plays the heroine -- in the course of the movie, she has to mourn her father, both of her brothers, and her lover, Schill, a dashing cavalryman.  In the film's final scenes, Nettelbeck congratulates her on her sacrifices:  "You have offered everything you had.  Death is overcome by Victory."  Soderbaum first flits around like one D. W. Griffith's heroines in Birth of a Nation; she's as fragile as Lillian Gish.  But, this is an Aryan heroine and later we see her manhandling a big loom on which she is weaving, wading through chest-deep water when the defenders flood their own city, and standing outside in a hail of bombs, vainly spraying water on a burning building.  Her eyes are always welling up with tears.  She has a big nose and wide face and is, perhaps, not conventionally attractive -- but her presence is solid and she's one of the few actors with sufficient gravitas to stand up against the huge boulder-like Heinrich George.

In the frame to the narrative of the siege, a general named Gneisenau proclaims that the Germans can defeat Napoleon if all of them, both civilian and soldier join together in the war effort.  This sequence is lavish with huge crowd scenes of marching citizens -- there are so many of them that some of them have to march on barges in the river.  The film flashes back to confrontations between Nettelbeck and Loucanou -- Nettelbeck demands that the city be defended, Loucanou wants to abandon Kolberg and has failed to maintain its artillery (the cannons are all rusty).  This conflict hardens to the point that Nettelbeck is imprisoned and threatened with execution by firing squad.  Nettelbeck gives a message to the King in Koenigsberg to "little Maria" and asks her to hand-deliver the missive.  This requires an immensely adventurous journey by Maria, including running blockades and (she implies) using feminine wiles to penetrate road-blocks.  Bizarrely, Veit doesn't show us anything of Maria's adventure -- he seems to have no idea what an audience wants to see (or, perhaps, Goebbels who cut the film to 107 minutes has the blinkered vision).  Instead, Veit stages an utterly bizarre, almost surreal scene where Maria encounters the Queen of Prussia -- an inhumanly beautiful, serene, and waxen woman -- and is tongue-tied.  (I have no idea as to the politics of this scene -- it's deeply memorable, disturbing, and seems to regard the Queen in the light of the Divine Right of Kings, a system of thought that seems inapposite to National Socialism).  The Queen apparently (off-stage) talks to the King and the dashing and aggressive Gneisenau is sent to defend the town.  (Loucanou just vanishes).  The first thing that Gneisenau does is to burn down Maria's farm because it's on the outskirts of Kolberg and would provide cover to the advancing French.  This drives Maria's father mad and he throws himself into the exuberantly burning farm buildings. There are some battles.  Then, Nettelbeck supervises the populace in digging an immense trench so that the half of the town can be flooded -- this is a bravura episode, reminiscent, however, in some ways to King Vidor's Our Daily Bread in which an irrigation channels is dug to save languishing crops -- there is the same Soviet style montage albeit on a much larger scale.  There are more battles. Maria's brother, a musician, dies trying to save his beloved violin from destruction.  Maria's boyfriend, the dashing Schill, goes somewhere for some reason -- the narrative in the film is not very clear -- and gets killed.  Then, her last surviving brother is carried back to town dead on a bier.  A tremendous bombardment of the city ensues and the place is reduced to smoking ruins.  This bombardment leads to long harangues by Nettelbeck and Gneisenau intended to inspire the populace.  This is another reason that the film doesn't ever quite come into focus.  Although Veit stages grandiose battle scenes -- for instance thousands of French infrantry wading across the flooded part of the city under heavy artillery fire -- these sequences are secondary to the rants and harangues.  The battle scenes exist to illustrate the film's true climaxes which are, in fact, Nettelbeck and Gneisenau's speeches.  Nettelbeck says, for instance, "In this universal time of darkness for Germany, in the black night only one star still shine, Kolberg... they'll have to hack off our hands and beat us to death one by one; rather than surrender, we will be buried in the rubble."  The defenders know they are doomed and steel themselves for the final assault.  But, far away, a the Peace of Tilsit has been negotiated and, at the last minute, there is a cease fire.  The fanatical Gneisenau recalls these events six years later, in 1813 at Breslau.  His eyes flash and he shrieks into the camera:  "Der Sturm bricht los!"  That is, "the storm is now upon us."  This is a citation of Goebbels total war speech and presages the last bloody months of the War -- Hitler's Volksturm, in  which old men, women, and teenage boys were armed to resist oncoming Soviet tanks.

Goebbels didn't like Veit's cut of Kolberg and substantially reworked it -- this results, I think, in the choppy editing that seems to cut from one scene to another before the first scene is fully complete.  (Goebbels also removed the more demoralizing images of civilians crushed in the rubble of their bombed city.)  The movie was released on January 30, 1945 -- but there were then no movie theaters left in which the grandiose epic could be shown.  Almost no Germans saw the picture.  At the time, the movie was released Kolberg was besieged by the Russians.  The garrison pleaded for support but was, instead, sent a print of the film -- shortly, thereafter, they surrendered.  This is a huge production and everyone who was important in Nazi Germany's film industry is in the picture -- the score is by Norbert Schultze, the man who wrote "Lili Marlene."  It's an impressive picture in its own right and deserves close study -- both Stanley Kubrick (who was married to Veit's niece) and Frank Oz have suggested that a great film could be made about the making of the epic.  But no one has yet ventured this.     

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bladerunner - 2049

Denis Villeneuve's Bladerunner - 2049 (2017) is an immense, bombastic, science fiction film that is gloriously spectacular but, ultimately, hollow.  The film feels superfluous -- despite a plot that frantically flails about in all directions, the movie doesn't explore any territory that wasn't previously, and more effectively, represented in the predecessor film.  A case in point is the earlier film's use of Los Angeles' Bradbury Building for the tenement where the bladerunner, a sort of assassin, lives -- 2049 is replete with dank, bizarre locations, some of them fantastically beautiful, but shows us nothing as utterly strange and evocative as the interior atrium of that building.  The Bradbury Building was like the belly of the beast, almost gastric in its ambience, a cast-iron maw in which the characters were trapped like Jonah in the guts of the whale.  There's a lot of wonderful stuff in 2049 but nothing as sublimely effective as the old (and real) Bradbury Building.  Thus, one is continuously afflicted with the notion that we've seen this stuff before and better in the previous 1982 movie. 

Like the earlier film, 2049 is a sci-fi adaptation of classic film noir -- patterned, accordingly, on The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep (or, for that matter, the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski).  A world-weary gumshoe on routine assignment happens onto a criminal enterprise that is bigger, and more terrible, than anyone expected.  As the detective follows leads, his investigation penetrates into larger and darker spheres of corruption -- by tugging at one string on the edge of the tapestry of criminality, the detective inadvertently sets the whole world in motion.  This plot requires an isolated and virtuous hero, incorruptible in a rotten world, who travels from place to place interviewing suspects and witnesses -- gradually, the larger picture is revealed (for instance, the felonious source of LA's water in Chinatown) and the powers-that-be try to cover up the investigation by murdering the investigator.  It's an old plot, dating back to Oedipus Rex, a story that is directly invoked (together with Pinocchio)in Bladerunner -- 2049.   In recent history, the form was perfected by Raymond Chandler in his novels and, then, adapted into films -- stories of this kind involve much deception, savagely swift reversals of fortune, and a fair amount of mayhem; one characteristic of this plotting is that there are always loose ends, elements of the story that don't adequately fit together -- I think both Howard Hawks and William Faulkner (director and writer, respectively, of The Big Sleep) admitted there was at least one murder in the story for which they couldn't account and didn't know who had committed or why.  Therefore, even when plotting is very carefully designed, stories of this sort are difficult to untangle.  But in 2049, the plot is completely jerry-rigged, nothing more than a string on which to hang spectacular set-pieces -- here, the plot exists for the purpose of allowing Villeneuve and company to contrive ever more grandiose and dystopian visions; that is, the plot is adjunct to the imagery; the story exists to justify the dystopian landscapes.  (In super-hero movies, there is a similar phenomenon -- that is, the plot is designed as a framework from which to suspend, more or less, arbitrarily sequences involving expensive special effects.)  This is made very clear by one of the film's innumerable (and problematic) plot contrivances -- all important data preceding a certain year has been lost in a black-out.  This means that the hero has to rely upon personal interviews with eccentric witnesses as opposed to simply doing his research with court records and archival information.  But this plot contrivance is over-powerful and, so, the film admits certain exceptions to the black-out rule -- in other words, no documentary evidence is available before a certain year, except when the story requires such evidence to be available; in that case, some crystals exist with something like micro-fiche embedded in them and they can be read and, therefore, supply a basis for further plot developments.  Other plot contrivances are equally questionable -- why is Las Vegas a post-nuclear irradiated wasteland?  And if it is so deadly there that the place is wholly deserted, then how is it that Harrison Ford (the original 1982 protagonist, Rick Deckard) lives there.  A number of important sequences are impenetrable -- is the film's corporate villain, Niander Wallace (of the Wallace Corporation) blind? why do his eyes appear to be cloudy?  What are the small flying modules that accompany him -- are they some sort of vision equipment?  What is the plug in his neck for?  Why does he slaughter the comely and nubile replicant that drops alarmingly from an amniotic sac, born, apparently, to be immediately and pointlessly killed?  (This material resonates with the original film in which the founder of the Tyrell firm, the first manufacturer of replicants, was suffering from some kind of obscure disease).  What is the  huge wall that surrounds LA?  Is it a sea-wall?  If so, how do the characters end up outside the sea-wall for the final duel?  The list of plot uncertainties or flat-out inconsistencies can be multiplied indefinitely -- this is not necessarily a problem in a classic film noir; no one can understand the plot anyway, but when the audience gets the sense that the plot is completely arbitrary and that the rules can be waived at any time for any reason, a sort of radical disappointment arises and we become disengaged from the film's narrative at, even, the most basic level.  I have no doubt that the millions of dollars spent on 2049 probably insure answers, albeit unsatisfactory ones, to most of the questions that I have posed -- and, indeed, the answers are probably lurking in plain sight in some respects, but I don't think an ordinary viewer will be able to decipher much of what is happening in this film.  We can see stuff occurring and it is often brilliantly staged and indelibly imagined, but its all sound and fury and when you think back over the plot, big chunks of it don't make any sense.  Furthermore, the film cheats:  it doesn't just use indirection, which is, I think, acceptable -- the movie employs outright deceit.  The most noteworthy example is a sequence in which the hero finds a wooden horse hidden in a furnace in a vast junkyard.  This discovery warrants in the hero, Replicant K (played by the totally inexpressive Ryan Gosling). the conclusion that he is himself the quest of his search -- it's the central scene in the Oedipus Rex plot:  the detective finds himself and his own unremembered past at the center of the labyrinth.  The sequence is impressively mounted and shot very, very lugubriously -- everything occurs as if in slow-motion.  Furthermore, there is thunderously portentous music on the soundtrack to underline this sequence.  This is the central revelation in the film, the moment when the hero is revealed to be himself the holy grail for which he is searching.  But an hour later -- the film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long -- we learn that the music, the portentous staging, the reverent stillness and grandiose torpor of the scene was all a lie.  The hero is not the holy figure for which he is searching.  What is deceitful about this sequence it that it is not merely the hero who is deluded.  Rather the film uses all of its resources -- spectacular photography, Rembrandt-lighting, and a thunderous and operatic musical score to impress upon us something that is untrue.  It's okay to show a  hero who is deluded; it's similarly okay to create an ambiguity about what a scene means; but it feels like a betrayal for the movie to deploy every one of its vast resources to unambiguously make a point that is later, rather arbitrarily, withdrawn -- after this spectacular scene, a sequence that is stretched out almost beyond endurance, the film says:  "Oh, never mind."

In some respects, 2049 resembles Children of Men, a similarly dystopian film with a similarly gynecological plot.  K goes to a maggot farm ("protein") to retire -- this means kill -- a replicant.  Unlike Harrison Ford in the first film, the terminally morose K knows full well that he is replicant (that is, a robot although cloaked in flesh and blood).  Ryan Gosling can't act and doesn't try to act.  He looks like a very sad and confused chimpanzee, a hurt look of puzzled bewilderment always on his face.  The maggot-farmer replicant is killed after a suitably violent hand-to-hand fight -- the film is full of brutal mano y mano battles.  The maggot-farmer says a few enigmatic things before and while dying and this leads K to discover that a skeleton has been buried under a tree on the farm.  The skeleton is a female replicant who has died in child-birth.  Since replicants are grown in test-tubes and born fully adult, this is a shocking development and suggests that the robots, who are stronger, more agile, smarter, and better-looking than their human counterparts may not be long content with their role as slaves.  Replicants who can reproduce will rebel and take over the world -- although the planet seems so badly damaged it's probably not worth the fuss.  K goes off in search of the replicant who was "born" as opposed to cultured and this leads to the intricate chain of events that comprises the film's narration.  Central to the plot is a key point that was also integral to the first film -- replicants have false memories implanting in them so that they believe that they have had a childhood and adolescence.  This is supposed to stabilize their psyches.  The film is full of all sorts of baroque flourishes but most of them are merely decorative -- this is epitomized by the opening sequence.  In the brutal fight between K and the maggot-farmer, there is a big pot sitting on the stove, steam pouring out of its sides, and bright blue gas flames heating whatever is within that pot.  The pot is a crucial ornamental element in this scene but no one is dowsed with boiling water and we never find out what is being heated -- K looks under the lid but the camera doesn't show us what he sees.  (Presumably the maggot farmer is heating up some plump grubs for a noon repast, but the grubs look so fat and delectable that they seem to be ready-to-eat live -- I know that any Mexican peasant worth his salt would simply toss the wriggling larvae in his mouth and enjoy the treat.)  The way the boiling pot is shown in this first episode alerts the viewer that most of the ornamental or decorative elements of the story will be inconsequential from a narrative point of view -- and this is a correct foreshadowing of how the film will operate.

Of course, what I characterize as the ornamental elements of the plot are non pareil.  The bad guys hold court in a travertine skyscraper that seems to be combination of Louis Kahn's Salk institute and a pharaoh's tomb -- the place is lit by rippling light as if reflected off water; it's totally impractical and gives you a headache to watch but is a spectacular effect.  The cityscapes, although they are only a few notches above what you can see in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (the ultimate source for all films about a dystopian future -- and is there any other kind?), are jaw-dropping.  Harrison Ford is hanging out in the ruins of Las Vegas -- these sets are also stunning.  In one scene, Ford and Gosling have a completely pointless gun battle -- five minutes later they are drinking whiskey together like old friends.  The gun battle gives Villeneuve and his engineers a chance to configure a variation of the shoot-out in the house of mirrors in Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai.  Here the combatants shoot at one another while holograms of show-girls and musicians -- chief among them Elvis (although Liberace is there too) -- cavort on the stage where the two men are fighting.  It's fantastic and completely meaningless -- there's no need for the two men to fight; they turn out to be on the same side.  At one point, a naked giantess -- she's also a hologram -- asks K if he is "okay"; we know the poor guy has about four holes in his replicant guts that you could push your fist through and his face is caked with blood, one ear half torn off.  "No," you want to say, "he is not okay."  Several memorable scenes include snowfall -- although the CGI operators don't get this right:  falling snow accumulates, of course, on your hair and beard, although it melts on your skin.  This falling snow is a CGI flurry that doesn't really accumulate anywhere at all.  The hero's girlfriend is his sentient house -- I'm not kidding -- and, in one scene, K hires a prostitute to inhabit the hologram of the sentient house so that he can make love to her.  This is also a spectacular scene with the real girl morphing unpredictably into the hologram of the house computer -- caresses involve multiple mouths and four arms.  It's an awesome spectacle in its own way, although we don't really know what's happening. The entire film is immensely beautiful although in a desolate sort of way. 

Unfortunately, the original movie is superior in all respects.  In one scene clipped from the 1982 film, Sean Young playing Rachel as the ultimate noir dame appears out of glistening, metallic darkness -- it's an indelible erotic image, like Rita Hayworth wiggling out of her gloves in Gilda and its better than just about all the other imagery in the new film.  The wonderful and bizarre references to William Blake don't make it into the new film; there's nothing that comes close to matching Rutger Hauer's aria on "tears in the rain", certainly one of the most memorable speeches in film history.  Furthermore, the replicants in the 1982 movie were ineffably strange -- particularly "Priss", the somersaulting, childish "pleasure model" played by Daryl Hannah.  (Indeed, an important aspect of the original film was the strange family formed by the replicants and their touching concern for one another). The original film was far more brusque and elliptical, requiring the audience to be active in piecing together the plot.  2049 is overly explicit and tedious.  The imagery is so beautiful that the story continuously bows and curtsies to it -- if someone is required to cross a street, Villeneuve doesn't use any sort of editing for curtail the shot; instead, we see the person cross the street in real time -- presumably so that we can enjoy the spectacular characteristics of the shot.  At one stage, a character tells K to sit down.  We get a reverse shot of K sitting down, a totemic view that is like an emperor position himself on a throne, slow, deliberate, an action accorded a sacramental dignity like a benediction even though it's just a guy sitting down -- throughout the movie there is a fatal grandiosity. 

You should see the movie because of its pictorial beauty.  Other critics tell you to see the movie on the largest screen possible.  Following this dictum, I saw the film at the Wehrenberg Theater in Rochester in an IMAX format.  The screen was huge and the pictures were stunning but the soundtrack was so grotesquely loud that it spoiled the whole experience.  During the fist fights, punches sounded like howitzers fired and the music was like an avalanche.  When someone opened a door, or worse shut it, the racket was deafening.   I winced every time K got out of his car-shaped aerial cruiser -- I knew he was going to slam shut the door and expected a sound like a gun fired close to my ear. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

R.U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)

RUR is a 1921 play by the Czech writer, Karel Capek.  It's science fiction and Capek is credited with coining the term "robot".  (In Czech, robota means a "serf" or "one who provides forced labor.")  The version of the play reviewed in this note was performed at the Riverland Community College on October 8, 2017, a production of the Theater Department adapted by the show's director, Susan Hansen.

The play is witty and thought-provoking.  The robot attack in the third act is good campy fun and, yet, the play also makes some serious points and has an interesting, unexpected ending.  Like much science fiction, the rational scientists and industrialists in the play don't seem to fully comprehend the dire, catastrophic aspects of the plot that they set in motion -- people are blithely indifferent to the end of the world.  But this is part of the fun of this kind of speculative theater -- if we were take the play's premises too seriously, I suppose, we would all run screaming from the theater.  The show produces the same effect as zombie movies, a genre closely aligned with robot fiction -- the horror is cushioned by the blandly philosophizing responses to the catastrophe as well as the anesthetizing nonchalance of the protagonists. 

RUR begins with a do-gooder girl appearing the RUR factory.  For complex reasons of plotting, the Rossums, father and son scientists, are deceased.  The robot factory is run by a perky industrialist who crows about reducing the unit price of the robots that the business sells and improving their functionality.  The do-gooder activist believes that the robots are a species of slave and that they are being abused by their human masters.  The industrialist argues that the robots are just human-looking machines and that you can't be cruel to a machine.  The do-gooder robot's rights advocate inexplicably falls in love with the fast-talking, facile, but handsome industrialist.  The second act takes place after the lapse of a year.  The activist girl is now living with the industrialist in a "smart house" -- it's like having Alexa around to do things for you.  The "U" in RUR stands for "universal" and the business has made a mistake in designing robots that are capable of communicating with one another.  The robots have gone on a coordinated strike.  Robot soldiers designed to invade and destroy the people of occupied territories have run amuck and killed 700,000 people.  The do-gooder girl learns of these calamities through Skype with a robots' rights advocate.  She decides the delete the secret enzyme and protein formulae necessary to creating new robots.  In the third act, we learn that one of the scientists has taken the do-gooder girl's admonition to make the robots more lifelike -- she has engineered them to feel pain, to be irritable, and to have something like human emotions.  But men is wolf to man:  Homo homini lupus -- and making the robots more like people has triggered in them a will to power.  They have now taken over the world.  They storm the compound where the industrialist, his do-gooder mate, and the rest of the surviving humans are fortified.  Everyone is killed except an old factory manager, a fellow who is religious and likes to work with his hands.  In the last act, the old factory manager is forced to experiment on the robots to figure out a way to reproduce them -- the secret formula has been lost, however, and it appears that the robots, who now control the whole world, are doomed to simply wear-out and fail.  The robots insist that the old factory manager vivisect one of them to try to discover the secret of life -- but this fails.  Enter two new characters -- a boy and girl robot.   These are the last generation of robots built before the humans were destroyed.  The boy and girl robot are in robot-love and, when the old factory manager tests their loyalty, each would rather die than allow the other to suffer.  These robots can laugh and cry -- the pious factory owner declares them Adam and Eve and rejoices that a new generation of super-human, emotionally competent robots will now inherit the earth.  It's not clear exactly how the reproductive problem is solved -- but the show's end suggests that Love will find a way. 

In Capek's vision, the robots clearly represent the "industrial army" that Marx surmised would form the shock-troops of international Communism.  There is copious parody of Marxist doctrine:  the Robots of the World are commanded to unite and rise in rebellion.  Once the robots have taken over, the audience is faced with a nasty satire on the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The robots blindly make more and more goods, but there is no one to consume them.  Several strands combine to keep the show interesting:  first there is the standard robot-film theme -- what defines humans?  How are we different from robots?  This has been a central philosophical concern in the West beginning with Descartes' assertion that animals were simply machines made of meat and that humans were meat-machines themselves but with souls.  The second strand in the show relates to human hubris -- the danger of Utopian thinking.  The robots have abolished all human labor but this causes people to feel their lives are futile -- indeed, futile to the extent that human men and women cease reproducing.  Finally, there is the Marxist strand to the show's ideology, the satirical equation of the industrial army of the proletariat with a mass of soulless robots.  The show is brisk with lots of talk.  The set was a simple utilitarian sitting room with patterns cast on the walls simulating integrated circuits.  The script was clearly updated in a cleverly effective way -- the characters talks about the internet, Skype with one another, and use drones.  When the last human being falls to the floor at the show's end, there is a suggestion that nano-bot therapy will revive him.  The acting was good and the final act, a curious combination of kitsch and emotionally moving material, was excellent. 

East of Eden

East of Eden is a curious combination of optical realism with operatic acting -- James Dean's first movie, features an over-the-top performance by the beautiful young man that clashes dramatically with the pictures commitment to realism.  In the film, Dean plays a young man anguished by the thought that his father doesn't really love him.  His father, played by Raymond Massey, is close kin to the young man in some respects although the film conceals this until the end -- both father and son are dreamers, idealists, men who pursue fabulous but dangerous projects until they are destroyed.  Dean's character, Cal (short for Caleb) is a histrionic, self-dramatizing romantic -- as such he is much more attractive than the other characters, an aspect of character materialized in Dean's outrageous prettiness.  Similarly, his character stands apart from the others -- he is motivated by intense and melodramatic emotions while the rest of the people in the movie seem, more or less, normal, mediocre, oriented toward sex and prestige and money.  Caleb's all or nothing personality sets him apart from others -- and this is dramatized by the fact that Dean's style of acting is so garishly emotive that he seems an apparition from another planet, another dimension of being.  The central conflict between Dean's character and the forces of conventional morality is dramatized in the collision between his style of acting and the way the others in the film portray their characters.

East of Eden, at least in part, is a biblical allegory, a variant on the story of Cain and Abel, a point expressed sententiously by Burl Ives playing the wise and all-knowing sheriff in the county where the story is set -- the terrain, which is symbolic, encompasses both Monterrey and Salinas.  Caleb has a twin brother, Aaron.  Aaron is his father's favorite, a conventional young man anxious to please.  Caleb is tormented by the feeling that his father doesn't love him.  Both boys have been told that their mother died soon after their birth.  In fact, their mother is the madam of a very prosperous whorehouse in Monterrey and a wealthy woman.  Seeking a parental figure that he will love him, Caleb tracks his mother down at her brothel.  She has him thrown out.  The patriarch is obsessed with using ice to forestall decay -- again, another symbol of the old man's desire to defeat the corruption that exists in the world.  He runs a vegetable farm and develops technology to ship lettuce in refrigerated cars.  But this fails and the lettuce rots and the family is threatened with poverty.  Caleb borrows $5000 from his mother and invests it in war profiteering -- it is 1917 and America is on the verge of entering World War One.  The patriarch played by Raymond Massey is now the leader of the local draft board and the film suggests, although only very obliquely, that he is manipulating the conscription to keep his twin sons from serving in the army.  The conventional Aaron is engaged to be married -- he has an equally conventional debutante fiancée.  Inevitably, she is attracted to the beautiful if morose Caleb.  Caleb courts her at a local fair where there is riot in which a German immigrant is threatened.  In the fighting, Caleb erupts violently and repeatedly punches Aaron who will not respond.  Later, Caleb brings a gift of $5000 to his father on his birthday.  Massey's father is an upright and righteous man and feels guilty, it seems, that he has been sparing his sons from the draft.  He is appalled by Caleb's war profiteering and rejects the money.  Caleb, then, drags Aaron to Monterrey where he introduces him to their mother.  The strait-laced Aaron goes predictably berserk, getting drunk and enlists in the military.  Father has a stroke and, ultimately, Caleb, now in love with Aaron's fiancée, cares for his father.  Although the ending is dark in all ways -- it's pictorially very dark in the old man's bedroom -- there is a suggestion that Caleb and his father are now reconciled.  The ending isn't exactly satisfactory involving a couple of betrayals (Caleb and Aaron's fiancé both stab poor, stupidly virtuous Aaron in the back) and, of course, we are left to fret whether Aaron, now impulsively gone to be a soldier, will ever return from War to end all Wars.  Caleb is too high-strung to be a nurse-maid to the dying old man and one expects that relationship to explode into violence a few weeks post denouement.  Furthermore, Caleb is too self-absorbed and narcissistic to be a good boyfriend and we are apprehensive at the prospects of the love blossoming between Aaron's erstwhile fiancée and the erratic, unpredictable and, frequently, drunk Caleb.  In other words, the film's happy ending shows every prospect of being a deeply unsatisfactory, and indeed, prospectively disastrous outcome. 

The film's cinemascope aspect is problematic.  About every five shots, the director, Elia Kazan will indulge himself in some form of spectacle intended to exploit the wide-screen.  Some of these images are very beautiful -- one of them, showing  someone leaning on a shanty in the left foreground while an old school steam engine yanks a line of cars across the horizon toward the right is spectacular in its use of the big, narrow image.  But the plot doesn't really lend itself to wide-screen spectacle.  In fact, it's more of a gloomy film noir story told across a giant screen that doesn't exactly cohere with the pictorially modest narrative -- there are no big screen sequences:  the film is mostly a psychological drama that can be effectively shown in tight close-ups.  Thus, a sort of uneasy incongruence exists between the huge screen format and the novelistic detail invoked with respect to the characters.  Monterrey is evoked in the remarkable beginning with a series of images of a sleepy, corrupt harbor town -- the buildings are standing apart from one another as if ashamed of the company that they are keeping.  A huge black woman sits on a stoop giggling in a sinister way as Caleb wanders among the shuttered brothels.  Salinas, by contrast, is upright and tightly built, a neat little Western city with mercantile facades and nice Victorian houses.  A number of scenes are powerfully effective -- an image of James Dean like some kind of damaged god, flinging huge chunks of ice down from a storage tower is spectacular.  The scene in which James Dean first meets his mother, walking on a bright windy day outside the brothel, is shot in a kind of dusty, luminous light that makes us think that the image is a dream; it looks like a painting by Corot -- indeed, all of the action in Monterrey has the aspect of a dream.  (Hitchcock uses this same dusty, colored light in Vertigo in the scene in which Kim Novak appears in the hotel remade as Jimmy Stewart's lost lover.)  The script is generous -- there are no real villains and everyone is shown to have reasons for their action.  The most violent thing in the film is the shocking image of Aaron on the troop train butting out a window with his forehead, smashing the glass between himself and his father who is horrified that he has joined the Great Crusade in Europe.  Shots of the lettuce farm and the bean fields and corn rows around Salinas have a wonderful documentary urgency.  Images of Caleb's girlfriends, mostly Hispanic migrant workers, have a vivid, realistic ambience and Kazan's images of California in 1917 seem eerily authentic.  Raymond Massey's mask-like staring face after his stroke gives the film's unsatisfactory ending a sense of real horror particularly since Massey is shown to be kind, forgiving, and ultimately Christian in the best sense of the word -- the film never condescends to Massey's piety nor does it necessarily privilege Caleb's callow rebellion.  The scene in which Massey orders Caleb to read aloud from the Psalms is splendid -- it shows Caleb's defiance, Massey's rage and the hidden connection between father and son in a brilliant way.     

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Isle of Lost Souls

The Isle of Lost Souls, a Paramount horror film from 1932, is not a good movie.  In fact, this adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau is so terrible that it is uniquely memorable.  The picture isn't just bad -- it's Ed Wood bad and, therefore, in a weird way, almost good:  what the picture lacks in intelligence, it makes up for with crazy conviction.  Certain elements of the film, for instance, the characterization of the mad scientist's operating theater as the "house of pain" and the mongrel monsters chantng "Are we not men?" in response to Bela Lugosi's recitation of "the law" have entered into popular culture.  (The avant-garde rock band Devo used to chant "Are we not men?" at its concerts.)   It's hard to describe the esthetic category into which most of this film fits -- it's certainly some kind of kitsch but memorable and, even, perhaps, profound because of the film-makers ferocious commitment to this miserable material. 

The tone of absurd non sequitur is established early.  When the rock-jawed hero, Richard Arlen, is fished out of the misty sea, the camera turns to track along a group of sailors watching the rescue.  The sailors have memorably craggy and weathered faces and look very sinister, but there is no reason for the shot and it is both showy and singularly pointless -- none of these interesting faces ever appears again in the film.  In a later scene, a wicked sea captain is threatened with losing his sea-farer's license (is there such a thing?)  The episode exists to make a very limited plot point -- the heroine learns the latitude and longitude where her fiancée was shipwrecked on Dr. Moreau's island and, therefore, can travel to rescue him.  But the sequence bogs down in moronic repartee between a sort of Administrative Law Judge and the evil sea captain: three times, the judge adds to his admonition that the piratical sea captain straighten up and fly right -- each time, the pirate who is about to leave the chamber, pauses, removes his hand from the door to look over this shoulder to receive the Judge's tongue-lashing.  It's all obsessively detailed and utterly meaningless -- the Judge and sea-captain will have nothing more to do with the plot after this peculiar paralytic bit of business.  This is the kind of film where the sound recorded on sound-stage has a hollow echo, a distinct tone of confinement -- and, yet, the characters are supposed to be walking through a jungle near the seaside. 

The plot involves a mad scientist, Dr. Moreau (played by Charles Laughton) who is converting animals to human beings.  Unfortunately, this process, which involves lots of vivisection in the "House of Pain" has failed to remove "all the beast-flesh" resulting in mongrel hybrids -- the half-man half-animal mutants have hairy cheeks and often revert to their animal habits, gibbering like chimpanzees or barking like dogs.  The most wonderful specimen in Moreau's museum of animal to human metamorphoses is "The Leopard Woman" -- so-named in the film's titles.  (This film is a rare case where a title actually serves a narrative purpose -- the title tells us that the heroine on the island, a girl with frizzy hair and enormous almond-shaped eyes is, in fact, a converted feline and, therefore, perhaps, not to be wholly trusted -- the film is very short, a mere 67 minutes, and, therefore, efficiently constructed:  the titles actually carry the narration here, more or less implying to the viewer the eerie-looking girl's back-story.)  Moreau and his assistant, a surgeon exiled from England because of an "illegal operation", regard the girl as their masterpiece and they want to see if they can breed her with the burly Richard Arlen -- "does she have a real woman's passions?" Moreau salaciously asks.  In fact, the Leopard Woman is fetching and attractive to the kidnaped hero who passionately kisses her, momentarily forgetting his blonde fiancée who is hurrying across the south Pacific and into harm's way to rescue him.  Their romance collapses, however, when the Leopard Woman claws the hero's back with her talons -- "it's the damnable beast flesh that always returns" Moreau says.  Fortunately, the hero's pale, blonde, and rather indifferent, fiancée appears, rescues her betrothed from the clutches of the Leopard Woman, and foments a rebellion among the beast-men.  The monsters vivisect Moreau, after first staggering in a menacing way toward the camera in a montage devised to best show the furry make-up and deformed noses and jaws of the beast-men.  As the House of Pain flares vividly in the background, the hero with his fiancée and a mariner set sail -- "Don't look back!" the mariner gruffly advises.  

Some of the beast-men are clearly evolved specimens of orangatangs, gorillas, and chimpanzees. At least one of them is a faithful dog vivisected into a furry little hunchback.  Some of them are evolved moles and rodents; Lugosi's hirsute "speaker of the law" looks like a kind of bear.  One problem with the film is that the supposedly human characters look exceedingly odd as well.  Richard Arlen has aggressively masculine features; he's all chiseled jaw and mouth except that his eyes are soft, seductive, and strangely effeminate -- adding to the peculiar effect is the fact that his ears are pointed.  Charles Laughton's appearance is scarier than any of the half-human brutes in the film:  he has a perfectly moon-shaped face, presumably the result of massive injections of cortico-steroids, and this lunar countenance goes with a generally spherical physiognomy -- he's round in every respect.  But the strangest thing about his appearance is his beard --it's as if someone painted a whale's flukes on his chin or as if he grew a beard the exact shape of the lower-half of the Starbuck's mermaid beneath his lips.  "Do you know what it feels like to be a god!" he declaims to someone.  The picture is a bizarre mess, but, certainly, it was someone's labor of love -- everything is too obsessively designed to be accidental.  The movie's themes, which are dank and possibly racist, are too pre-Code for the film to have been re-made until quite recently -- later versions were produced in the last twenty or so years,  Moreau sends gorilla-men to rape the hero's fiancé -- in this picture, the sordid stuff is not incidental; rather, it's integral to the proceedings. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Jackie

Magnanimity was called the "crowning virtue" by Aristotle.  It is little regarded today and, in fact, the word has been limited in modern usage to refer to eschewing revenge when one has prevailed in some competitive or adversarial endeavor.  The victor shaking hands with the loser in an athletic competition is said to exhibit magnanimity.  This is an example of a vitally important ancient virtue that has been trivialized in the modern, post-Enlightenment era.  For Aristotle and the ancients, magnanimity meant a greatness of soul, a largeness of spirit that would not condone anything petty or cowardly.  Magnanimity was demonstrated by spectacle, by demonstrating greatness of spirit with pomp and circumstance.  Everything about the great-spirited man was bigger than life, more dignified, reserved, and generous. 

Pablo Larrain's biopic Jackie (2016), in large part, is an essay on the topic of  this forgotten virtue, magnanimity.  The film's subject is Jacqueline Kennedy's indomitable response to the assassination of her husband.  Larrain is a Chilean film-maker and he has a baroque Catholic sensibility -- he understands the importance of personal dignity and ritual in the face of calamity.  His film is essentially non-narrative, a study in ambience and character as expressed in small, subtle gestures.  The picture unites several strands of action or discourse:  we see Jackie counseled by a wise family priest (played with great, impenetrable gravitas by John Hurt); she chain-smokes while interviewed by a friendly, if cynical, journalist at Hyannis Port, all the while asserting "I don't smoke."  We see her telling her children that their father will not be coming back to her and planning for JFK's funeral.  Infighting between Lyndon Johnson's lieutenants, most notably the smarmy Jack Valenti, and members of the Kennedy clan comprise one element of the collage that Larrain cuts together and the film's story or plotline, if something so slight can be characterized as narrative, is whether Jackie will insist upon walking on foot with her husband's cortege the eight blocks from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral.  LBJ's people oppose this, primarily, it seems, because it will be too spectacular, obsequies that will politically overshadow their regime, although they cloak their concerns in unctuous language about security.  At first, Jackie refuses to reconsider, then, at an emotional low point, agrees to travel the distance by car; however, when LBJ's aides press her on the point and, when Bobbie Kennedy expresses concerns about what JFK's presidency really accomplished, the die is cast -- Jackie will not be disrespected and she changes her mind, insisting upon making the march exposed to crowds atop buildings and lining the streets.  Her objective is to render her husband's presidency mythical, to impart to his funeral legendary spectacle -- she derives the plan for the funeral from the last rites for Abraham Lincoln, overrules Kennedy family demands that the body be interred in the family plot and insists upon burial in Arlington Cemetery, personally selecting the location.  Although couching these decisions in terms of the res publica, she admits that her husband's burial is compensatory for the insults and indignities that she has suffered, including, it is implied, insults arising from Jack Kennedy's compulsive womanizing.  Someone accuses her of devising the funeral as a spectacle about herself, as evidence of her vanity, and she ultimately concedes the point.  But vanity is the sin most closely allied with magnanimity -- pride is magnanimity's dark side -- and the audience is guided to understand that Jackie's insistence on spectacular funeral rites for her fallen husband is based on her greatness of spirit, her immense imperial dignity.  These points are subtle and the film must be watched very carefully.  The First Lady is shown as suffering from various insults -- in one sequence to which the movie obsessively reverts, she leads a tour of the White House:  this is before her husband's slaughter and, as background, relates to charges that she has been wasteful in redecorating the "People's House."  LBJ and his minions are over-anxious to seize power and, essentially, shove the grieving widow and her young children to the side.  She is forced to vacate the White House on a few days notice and, as a student of history, recalls how Mary Todd Lincoln had to sell household furnishings to make ends meet after she was expelled from the White House.  Finally, she has been physically humiliated -- photographed with her coat and hat and clothing all smeared with gore.  (We see her showering with blood sluicing out of her hair down her naked back.)  In the instant after the shooting, the public saw her scrambling back away from the dying president, seeming to crawl over the limousine away from the scene of carnage.  Although this theme is gruesome and, therefore, treated very elliptically by Larrain, a filmmaker of the most exquisite tact, Jackie feels misunderstood with respect to this act -- at the climax of the movie, she recalls the shooting while standing graveside and a flashback shows us indelibly what she was really trying to accomplish when she scrambled back and away from where her husband was dying.  When Robert Kennedy questions the value of the entire presidency, suggesting that JFK didn't accomplish much of anything, and wondering out loud if administration was merely a group of "beautiful people," Jackie is driven to design a funeral that will forever embalm the president's memory in the hearts of the American people.  In this regard, her resolve is ferocious.  She is willing to subject her small children and herself to the risk of sniper fire from rooftops to make the march on foot and, when someone suggests that general DeGaulle is concerned about his personal safety, she savagely snaps that he can "attend the funeral in a tank for all I care." 

Larrain's movie has an unusual subject and one that modern people don't really have words to cogently discuss.  The film is properly somber; Jackie is typically filmed head-on in middle distance, directly facing the camera.  Most of the compositions are highly symmetrical -- the film seems conceived as a series of immobile images, things that don't move, people standing in solemn, tightly-knit, and motionless groups.  The soundtrack consists of a single noble chord that is suddenly contorted and bent downward.  (Larrain also repeatedly cuts back to the famous concert by the cellist Pablo Casals that took place before the President and First Lady as well as assembled dignitaries.)  The film's thesis is that Jackie invented the concept of Camelot or, at least, exploited the idea and that her husband's funeral was an example of intentional myth-making.  As a result, there is a little too much Lerner and Loewe on the soundtrack and I didn't admire the film's ending, a ball in which Jackie and JFK waltz among similarly beautiful people while Richard Burton croaks the theme from the musical.  (I didn't admire the ending, but acknowledge it as generally thematically correct -- the problem here is that Larrain seems to be buying into Jackie's mythmaking, accepting her work of public relations as being, in fact, a representation of the Truth.  In the end, the legend takes over.  I would have much preferred the penultimate scene in which Jackie presides over the burial of her two dead infants next to her husband in Arlington cemetery:  it is cheerless, brutal-looking day and Jackie watches as two small white caskets are lowered into the crypt (one contains a late-stage miscarriage and the other Patrick, a baby who died 39 hours).  This gesture shows conclusively that what Jackie has accomplished is, indeed, about herself, about her family, and her progeny, and, as the scene progresses, the camera shows us her face in close-up -- she is feral with a sort of unapproachable grief.  The film should have ended with that image.) 

Larrain was invited to Hollywood on the strength of an earlier film about public relations, No, a film about the 1988 plebiscite that removed General Pinochet from power in Chile.  With this movie, he has shown us just about everything worth knowing about the dismal subject of public relations.  Jackie is successful on all levels, a very profound and subtle picture that very few people will have the resources to fully admire.  It is clearly one of the best pictures of 2016. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

American Made

In one of de Sade's plays or novels, a jaded libertine salutes his cowering victim with words to this effect:  "Oh, how shall I be revenged upon you for the illusions that you create in me!"  A similar sentiment transfixed me while watching Tom Cruise in Doug Limon's gaudy American Made (2017).  Cruise plays a TWA pilot who bootstraps casual criminality (he smuggles Cuban cigars into the US through Canada) into a lucrative business arrangement with the CIA and, then, the Columbian drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar.  These transactions, in turn, leads our hero into exchanging guns for cocaine with the Contras and, ultimately, brings him into encounters with George Herbert Walker Bush and Olly North.  (The story is supposed to be a true one.  I will have to investigate this.)  Throughout these adventures, Tom Cruise flashes his million dollar grin at the camera which hovers, generally, about 18 inches from the star's face.  If you are like me, you are merely biding your time, awaiting the inevitable peripateia, the reversal of fortune that will wipe that smirk off Cruise's supernaturally handsome face.  The movie isn't half-bad, but it traffics mercilessly in the audience's desire to see Tom Cruise humiliated and, then, even destroyed.  I can't think of any other star, except perhaps Madonna, who could entrap her audience so intensely in a love-hate relationship of this sort.  (It speaks volumes for Cruise's thousand watt grin that when he gets roughed-up and loses a tooth, everyone immediately notices and comments.) 

Cruise plays a vicious character, but, of course, is too big of a star to really impersonate a man of bad character -- instead, we are invited to impute the character's evildoing to boyish high-jinks, a volatile temperament, and a low threshold for boredom.  (In an early scene, Cruise intentionally pilots a TWA jet so as to cause luggage to drop from the overhead bins as well as to deploy the oxygen masks -- it's supposed to be a funny joke, but one that is disturbing:  the camera's close and affectionate embrace of Cruise makes us identify with him, but what about the sleeping businessmen and infants rudely terrorized in this way?)  As the movie progresses, Cruise runs money to Noriega in Panama, then, exchanges guns for cocaine with the cartel, supplying weapons to the contras, many of whom are transported to the hero's compound in Mena, Arkansas where Cruise' character, named Barry Seal, is supposed to train them for insurgencies in central America.  It's pretty glib and played for cynical laughs and the audience is asked to invest in a wild fantasy of impunity -- no matter what anyone says or does, Seal just keeps getting richer and richer and more insulated from the consequences of his acts.  In one scene, he is simultaneously arrested by the FBI, the  DEA, the ATF, and local Arkansas police.  But a couple scenes later, the requisite strings having been pulled, Governor Clinton himself springs our hero from the pokey.  (This is similar to an early scene in which Seal arrested with Pablo Escobar is released from a Columbian jail through the intervention of the CIA.)  Many critics have compared the film with Scorsese's Goodfellows and, in some respects the movies are similar -- the hero, who expects to be betrayed by the CIA, records his confessions onto video tapes and this provides a framework for his antics, anchoring the narrative in the grainy video that Seals is producing.  A better comparison, however, is Scorsese's glossy and utterly vacuous, The Wolf of Wall Street -- like that film, the movie glories in showers and cascades of greenbacks.   These films are fantasias of greed and we watch stupefied as the hero gets richer and richer and richer, all the time resenting the hero's impunity and glamor, and licking our chops in anticipation of his inevitable comeuppance --  films of this sort (and I count Netflix Ozarks among this number) are symphonies of resentment. 

Cruise is perfect for the role although the extent of his acting is sometimes looking a little sweaty.  The film is colorful and features many gorgeous shots of planes flying over tropical beaches, warm oceans, and ravaged Latin American mountains.  The minor characters are all underwritten and scarcely do more than offer caricatures -- the sexy, loyal, if dimwitted wife, the narco-trafficker, the dullard local gendarme in Arkansas, the moronic, stoner brother-in-law, and the various sinister black-suited factotums of the Federal government.  The narrative sets up a scene in which Barry Seal is complicit in the death of his brother-in-law -- we expect this sequence to engender some remorse in the hero, or, at least, inflict some damage on his picture-perfect marriage to his picture-perfect Barbie doll wife.  But no such thing.  This sequence, uncharacteristically grim for this lighter-than-air picture, just vanishes.  However, the scene casts a long shadow over the end of the movie and essentially wrecks it.  Seal's hapless brother-in-law is killed by the cartel when his car is booby-trapped and explodes.  We see the man get into his car, turn on the ignition, and, then, drive a couple hundred yards before the vehicle blows up.  In the last reel, Seal is on the run and, each time he turns on his car, he winces as if expecting it to blow-up -- in fact, he even urges bystanders to step away from where his car is parked.  But this makes no sense because we have seen that the booby-trapped car starts completely normally, idles without incident, and only blows up after being driven some distance.  Thus all of Seal's wincing when he turns the key in the ignition, his warnings to bystanders, makes no sense at all -- if the car is going to explode, this will happen after it has been driven for a block or so.  Ultimately, the film is entertaining and induces a strong Schadenfreude in the audience based upon our distaste for Tom Cruise -- it's an okay movie, not really memorable, but handsomely designed and mounted.  (Wikipedia assures me that the film is mostly accurate, although Barry Seal was much more corrupt than shown in the picture -- he was, in effect, a small town southern "bag man" and drug smuggler, tied in with the corrupt Clinton administration in Arkansas.  Curiously, the same role was played by Dennis Hopper in a film called Doublecrossed released in 1991.)

The Narrow Margin

Shot in just 12 days in 1952, Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin is a brilliant and exciting film noir.  Set on a train, the movie's title is atmospherically meaningless (film noir have names as interchangeable as the titles of Ozu pictures) -- but the notion of "narrow" is integral to the film's plot and staging.  Fleischer keeps everything as tight as can be.  A fat man's girth as he blocks train corridors is a central plot feature.  For an hour of the film's 71 minute length, the action is confined to the interior of a train speeding cross-country.  Fights are staged in tiny washrooms, places so small that, in one sequence, a figure flailing about actually kicks the camera. There's a gunfight with combatants firing at one another at a range of two paces and, in the film's final shot, the surviving characters liberated from the train, nonetheless, remain trapped in a tight corridor -- instead of using the city sidewalk to reach the Grand Jury room in the Courthouse, the characters slink through a narrow underground tunnel.  It's all obsessive and claustrophobic -- Fleischer doesn't use very many close-ups because he knows that shots of this kind are, paradoxically, expansive:  a face is a landscape and a close-up can open the picture up into a vista of eyes and lips and mouth that seems to burst the limits of the film.  Accordingly, Fleischer opts for extremely tight two and three-shots, characters arranged on the screen in close-packed diagonals, or jammed together in tiny sleeper cars.  There's no music in the film; the action is scored to the panting, throbbing, clanging rhythm of the train itself.

The best action films emerge from a simple, mythic plot:  in The Narrow Margin, two cops are dispatched to escort a murdered gangster's moll from Chicago to LA.  The woman is in possession of some sort of list that is explained once and, then, serves as the MacGuffin generating the narrative.  Various bad guys want the list and are willing to kill to get it.  After a tense opening in which the hero's partner is gunned down, the surviving cop and the dead mobster's dame board the cross-country train.  Three killers follow them and, for the rest of the film, the cop and his adversaries play cat-and-mouse on the speeding train.  This simple and satisfying plot is complicated by a couple of plot twists, one of which is truly staggering.  The bad guys try to bribe the cop, who turns out to be incorruptible, and, then, the mayhem begins.  The cross-country adventure involves encounters with a huge fat man, a figure who shows up at the most inopportune times to block corridors or slow pursuits and escapes, as well as typical, perky 50's housewife who is traveling to LA with her annoying and noisy seven year old and another older woman.  The film nods in the direction of a romantic relationship between the hero and the housewife, always shown in white, and there is also a suggestion that, perhaps, the protagonist will warm to the brutally cynical, bad girl, the mobster's wife who slinks around the train half-naked in black lingerie.  (She does her best to seduce the hero.) The gun moll is spectacularly vicious and heartless, smoking chain cigarettes, and amusing herself by lolling in her bunk listening to jazz music on a little phonograph.  She is so wicked as to be a caricature, but exudes raw sex appeal.  Perhaps, unfortunately, the film proceeds at such a breakneck pace that there's really no time for romance to flower.

SPOILER ALERT! -- I'm about to reveal plot twists central to the film:  Richard Fleischer was the son of the great Max Fleischer, the animator who invented Popeye, Betty Boop and Koko the clown, as well Superman.  Richard Fleischer directs with crazy conviction and he keeps the film accelerating while always maintaining adherence to the rules of the film -- once on the train, we stay on the train.  Thus, a penultimate scene in which some bad guys rendezvous with a car that his been speeding along parallel to the train and, then, are captured by the Highway Patrol is shot from the back of the train -- as the train pulls away, we see the gunman meet his confederates in the sedan and, then, watch as police cars surround the bad guys and arrest them:  all of this immaculately staged in a pool of light that recedes from us as the train picks up speed.  (The geometry of other shots is mind-boggling -- to show what is happening, Fleischer has sequences engineered around what people can see in mirrors or reflected in window panes.  The film is a very system of reflecting surfaces -- a velvet light trap.)  The film's sheer velocity, however, creates holes in the plot that a couple lines of dialogue could fix -- but the movie moves forward without giving the audience some of the information required to process the plot.  The gun moll turns out to be a Chicago city cop from the vice squad and her exaggerated world-weary cynicism is just play-acting -- although it's play-acting with bizarre conviction; the gun-moll is enjoying herself with her cruel asides a little too much.  The pale lady in white turns out to be the gangster's actual wife -- a plot point foreshadowed early in the movie.  To make this plausible, the audience needs a tiny bit of backstory -- someone has accused the hero-cop of corruption and, of course, the fake gun-moll is trying to test the cop's virtue:  this is why we see her listening so ardently when the thugs try to bribe him on the train.  In other words, the fake gangster's wife is trying to implement some sort of perverse internal affairs investigation into the integrity of the hero.  To make this clear, and believable, we need a couple sentences in the dialogue about the fact that someone has made an unjust accusation of corruption against the hero.  In a modern remake of the film, the list of names harbored by the gangster's widow would include the several high-ranking police officers and, at the end, we would learn that the cops who appear to rescue the hero and the widow are, in fact, colluding with the villains and that everyone wants to the widow (and her MacGuffin list) to disappear.  This is a bow to modern cynicism -- in the 1952 film, the corruption doesn't go that deep and, in the final shot, the hero and the gangster's widow, now redeemed by her cooperation with the Court system, are walking down a tunnel toward the courthouse, a presumably happy outcome. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are credited with the direction of PBS' new series, The Vietnam War (2017).  The show is a diachronic survey of the war in Indochina and its impact on American society and politics, encyclopedic in scope and running in 10 roughly two-hour installments for about 18 hours -- it starts at the beginning and ends at the end.  PBS broadcast the show on successive nights, allowing emotionally exhausted viewers respite on the weekend -- the program comes equipped with a call-line number for help if the show triggers acute anxiety in war veterans watching it.  No doubt, the program will be universally lauded and there's no benefit in denouncing the show for what it isn't -- although for the record, the show isn't innovative in any way, doesn't present any perspective that has not been argued ad nauseam about the war, and, follows in form, the Ken Burns' well-established and, indeed, well-nigh patented, techniques in putting together a series of this kind:  there is the plaintive music on the soundtrack, the letters from soldiers read by actors, the "witnesses" who become stars in their own right as the show progresses -- except for the last episode, where there seems to have been a paucity of well-qualified American witnesses (after all we had betrayed the south Vietnamese and left them to their doom), the show is inflected by powerful performances that achieve a Shakespearian level -- there's really no other way to describe this -- by fantastically photogenic and charismatic eye-witnesses to the events shown in the film.  The presence of these "witnesses", who appear in somber, Rembrandt-lit talking-head shots, provides the production with its emotional tone, a sort of Trauerwerk ('mourning work') that is, somber, dignified, and immensely articulate.  As is always the case with Burns, the film exists for its writing -- the images, which presumably once had a real meaning, are mostly just background, wallpaper, to the things said on the soundtrack.  We have no idea whether the war footage and the still photographs that Burns and Novick pan and zoom and scan has anything to do with the actual historical events described in the narration.  The filmmakers recycle remorselessly the famous footage of napalm bursting over targets as viewed from helicopter and there are innumerable shots of anonymous people trudging through anonymous ruins, anonymous troops staggering through ominous landscapes, cannons and mortars being fire, and windrows of corpses -- whether these pictures are in any way correlated to the exact story being told (that is, does every shot shown during the Tet offensive sequence actually show the January 1968 fighting or are these just generic images of mayhem edited together to form a visual "music", a visual accompaniment to the historical narration?)  During the first six or so episodes a title buried in the extensive pictorial and music credits tells us that some of the "footage was staged by its original creators."  I would like to know what footage, how it was staged, and why.  But my broad criticisms of Burns' haphazard and, in my view, disrespectful, use of images is idiosyncratic -- I assume most critics will praise this show lavishly (the estimable David Thomson has already called it "the greatest movie ever made") and it will win every possible award.

And, although I would hesitate to support Thomson's hyperbole, there is no doubt that The Vietnam War is a spectacular, if wholly humorless, achievement.  War is always photogenic and the  Vietnam conflict contrasted idyllic natural beauty with the most savage and ferocious aspects of human nature.  It's all embodied in those aerial shots of napalm strikes -- the napalm is horrifying, but it is also has a ghastly sublimity; it is sublime in the way that Edmund Burke characterized that category of the esthetic -- a terrible beauty that dwarfs human beings and threatens them:  to see is to tremble.  The Vietnamese are a pretty people and their huts and cities had a quaint, old-fashioned charm and there's a shocking, but intensely dramatic dissonance between the people and places and the war ravaging them. As Coppola showed, helicopter attacks are inherently impressive and there are indelible shots in the series showing huge bombs rolling and sporting in the air like porpoises in the Gulf of Corinth.  There's a theory that late capitalism incorporates all other, pre-existing forms of oppression within its fabric -- if we look hard enough today, we can find slaves, indentured servants, gritty working class trade unionists, feudal serfs, and every other kind of economic oppression that one class ever visited upon another class.  So similarly, the Vietnam war, as an expression of late Capitalism, somehow embodied every previous war that was ever fought -- there were small platoon actions in dense jungle, full-blown Pickett's charge assaults up the sides of steep hills, huge artillery duels that would have not been out of place at the Somme or Waterloo, air cavalry swooping down like Stonewall Jackson's horsemen, guerilla war, tank assaults, an aerial campaign that dropped more ordinance than was used in World War Two and, therefore, created cityscapes like Dresden and Berlin in 1945 -- there were battles at sea and on rivers, targeted assassinations, murderous reprisals, campaigns with armored weapons assaulting strategic cities and strongholds and innumerable ambushes and skirmishes.  People fought with rifles, machetes, huge gyroscopically controlled bombs dropped from B52s at 40,000 feet:  people were blown to bits by sophisticated ricjets or had their guts ripped out by sharp bamboo stakes embedded in hidden pits.  Every kind of atrocity was committed -- POWs were tortured, civilians slaughtered, ears were cut off as trophies.  And these atrocities engendered every possible kind of protest:  people debated the war, fought in the streets, peacefully protested or attacked soldiers, and Buddhist monks lit themselves on fire.  The list could go on interminably but here is the point -- the Vietnam war was not just a war in Southeast Asia; ultimately it became War itself, War per se, the thing-in-itself in all its manifold manifestations.  And this is something that is wonderfully (and horribly) shown by film.  Further, this film, which shows us the ultimate War, is wonderfully energized by its soundtrack.  Somehow PBS has acquired the rights (presumably on the basis of tax-deductible donations) to just about every important rock and roll song during the era.  The film demonstrates not only the war is highly photogenic -- it also shows us that rock and roll achieves its apotheosis, it's best and highest use when it is used to accompany images of chaos and destruction -- even Bob Dylan sounds better when used to illustrate burning buildings and bloody windrows of corpses and scoring helicopter attacks to Gimme Shelter or the Hendrix version of "All along the Watchtower" is transcendent:  it's better than Wagner.  In fact, Burns and Novick create a soundtrack that is multi-layered, itself an extraordinarily intricate and beautiful work of art.  Trent Reznor of Nine-Inch Nails (with Atticus Ross) contributes a throbbing, industrial-sounding point-and-shoot computer game basso profundo to the mayhem on-screen.  Periodically Reznor's driving, but mostly  subliminal soundtrack, is interrupted by elegiac string music, plaintive and melancholy themes on the order of "Ashokan Farewell" from the Civil War series -- this is the work of Yo-Yo Ma's "Silk Road Ensemble." And, then, of course, the action is also illustrated, rather forthrightly, by Top-40 hits played in the foreground to both emphasize the action and, also, ground the film in the music of the era. 

Various criticisms can be validly raised.  First, the soundtrack use of Top-40 hits from the late sixties and seventies is sometimes embarrassingly, even crushingly obvious and, indeed, fatuous.  Do we really need to hear "Bridge over Troubled Waters" to illustrate Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial?  It's pretty obvious to play "Ohio" on the roll-out credits after showing the Kent State shootings.  The use of McCartney's "Let it Be" for the closing credits is effective but maudlin.  The use of the song also highlighted the defects in the film's political analysis -- funded by both David A. Koch (one of the notorious right-wing Koch Brothers) and the National Endowment of the Arts, the movie has to walk a tightrope; it's supposed to unify not divide, a refreshing concept in the era of Trump, but, probably, not a viable strategy for a film about a war as profoundly divisive as Vietnam.  Indeed, the film subscribes to the "shit happens" school of historiography (as displayed by use of "Let it Be") -- it's a tragedy with no real villains, incongruously a war in which everyone is a "hero" or "victim."  The film has almost no coherent point of view and, certainly, no coherent geopolitical or sociological argument to propound.  (In this regard, the picture should be compared with Patricio Guzman's four-hour film The Battle of Chile, also a documentary masterpiece, but one that is unified by a righteous and perceptive, if annoyingly, dogmatic Marxist perspective; similarly, some of Chris Marker's documentaries are, possibly, superior to this film because of their carefully articulated Leftist political agenda -- Marker's films not only show us the facts in all their complexity, but attempt a politically cohesive interpretation of those facts, something that Burns and Novick eschew.  The film is summarized by novelist Tim O'Brien reading from his essay "The Things they carried" -- a brilliant text but one that is wholly inconsequential.  Finally, the film's encyclopedic scope, admirable in many ways, also contributes to a sense that the film makers are not presenting a work of art, complete in itself, but rather a comprehensive series of encyclopedia entries on the Vietnam war and allied subjects.  The film addresses in obligatory manner various "highpoints" (or better stated celebrated incidents) in the war -- we are shown the Viet Cong infiltrator summarily executed by a South Vietnamese army officer, the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War pitching their medals over the fence at the White House, John McCain interviewed from a hospital bed in Hanoi, John Kerry attributing atrocities to American soldiers, and so on.  Many of these "episodes" are presented without being really integrated into the historical, sociological, or political matrix in which they were embedded and, accordingly, seem to be more "mentioned" than really explored or analyzed.  In general, the show has a choppy rhythm, alternating between high voltage rock-and-roll infused war footage, talking head witnesses in dim rooms, and political sequences, all of them demonstrating consistent duplicity and skullduggery.  Even though the film is 18 hours long, it seems too short -- the carnage at the Democratic National Convention, for instance, is worth a good three hours on its own merits. 

Before the next year is finished, just about everyone will see all or a significant part of this film.  This is a good thing -- the movie is replete with important lessons and morals.  First, it is pretty clear that the level of political villainy shown by Donald Trump is minuscule compared with the crimes of Richard Nixon -- Nixon, after all, interfered with the Paris peace negotiations to influence the election, an act of treason that he denies baldly when questioned by an incredulous LBJ.  (We have the tapes, shown as a reel-to-reel recorder implacably rolling.)  We are confronted daily with newscasters who seem amazed that Trump lies about everything -- every politician in the show is shown lying repeatedly and with utter impunity.  (Every public utterance about the War seems to have been contradicted by a secret memo somewhere.)  The show features horrific color footage of the napalm attack that burned the clothes off the little girl in the iconic black and white photograph -- everyone who is in favor of war of any kind should be forced to see this:  there is natty-looking napalm attack that blazes brilliantly across the end of a forlorn lane between rice paddies; everyone is congratulating themselves on the beauty and precision of the attack, until a bunch of children come running right out of the fire.  The scene where a GI gives the badly burned child a drink of water from his canteen is the stuff of nightmares but something that people should see.  The vehemence of the Vietnam War vets throwing their medals at the White House is memorable as are a hundred other scenes.  Everyone should also see, and engrave in their heart, the sequence of David Brinkley standing in Arlington cemetery among the uniform white tombstones of dead soldiers.  Brinkley says words to the effect that the next time a politician suggests that we embark on a war, the politician should be forced to give his speech in favor of war among those graves.  The endless footage of men firing weapons at unseen enemies, body bags, helicopters groaning under the weight of ruined and bloody casualties, explosions and jets shrieking across the skies is ultimately numbing but it conveys, by sheer repetition, the tragedy of Vietnam -- no one knew how to stop the thing; it just went on and on and on. The film's theme is stated in the last ten minutes:  What's war for?  The answer is that it provides a limitless reserve of compelling stories about courage, brotherhood, atrocity, terror, fear, patriotism, cowardice, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I don't think this is an acceptable answer -- indeed, it seems dangerously facile to me -- but this is the justification for combat that seems implicit in the history of its representation, going back to the Iliad and before.  The show is disorganized and doesn't hold together except in one sense -- I'm old enough to remember much of this when it happened the first time.  It's my sensibility that organizes and unites the footage and the old songs and the anguished testimony of the witnesses -- the draft ended one year before I would have been subject to conscription to Vietnam.  What unifies this material for me, and much more so, I suppose, for actual veterans, is that this is a history through which I lived.  My memory is what fits this all together within my own experiences of the conflict as shown on the nightly news. Someone wrote this about my generation:  Vietnam is what we had instead of a happy childhood.