Sunday, January 29, 2017

Diana's Garden

It would be nice to report that Vincente Martin y Soler's opera, Diana's Garden is a lost masterpiece, a great work of art unheralded to this day.  Vincente Martin y Soler was born in Valencia and made his mark composing operas that competed with Mozart's (and Salieri's) in Vienna, Prague, and Dresden.  Indeed, I believe Diana's Garden is more or less contemporary to Mozart's Don Giovanni.  In his time, Martin y Soler was highly regarded -- he knocked about Europe at the whim of royal patronage and, even, worked for four years in St. Petersburg.  He is now forgotten as are his compositions.  The Minnesota Opera revived Diana's Garden, a comic opera, for four performances in late January 2017 -- I attended the show on the 28th of January.

Diana's Garden was well-staged and handsomely produced.  The singers were second-rate, but, even, a second-rate opera singer is capable of producing beautiful sounds far beyond the ken of most mere mortals.  The opera itself is filled with ingenious and witty tunes -- half of them are sufficiently audience pleasing as to be hummable.  (You find yourself singing some of the melodies at the intermission and, later, after the show, but, alas, the music is both sprightly and completely forgettable.  By the time you are home, all of the tunes will have vanished from your memory.)  Unfortunately, the opera is torpedoed by a lousy libretto, the work of Lorenzo da Ponti, an otherwise estimable dramatist -- he wrote Don Giovanni  and Cosi Fan Tutti.  Despite everyone's best efforts, Diana's Garden particularly in its second act is almost unbearable tedious.  This problem must be ascribed to flaws in da Ponti's book -- he is not adapting a myth, but instead reworking mythological material into a narrative.  And da Ponti completely botches the narrative -- even by operatic standards, the story doesn't make an sense, is unduly repetitive, and, even, illogical.  Many operas have implausible stories that are laughably childish -- but even the most melodramatic or absurd operas in the canon are lyrical, that is, they make sense in musical terms.  Diana's Garden by contrast has no lyrical development -- it's just a dull variation on a set of uninteresting themes.  Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, lives on an island.  A hillbilly swain washes up on the island and, when he revives, chases three of the goddess' nymphs.  (The hillbilly wearing a shapeless Green Acres hat and suspenders fancies himself as great a lover as "the great Turk" and can't understand why he can't seduce all three of the robust nymphs.)  Diana intervenes and turns the peasant into a tree.  Da Ponti and Martin y Soler seem to forget this bit of magic.  About ten minutes later, it seems that the hillbilly has been turned into a dog owned by a hunter and killed in the chase.  The dog is resurrected and, somehow, this frees the hillbilly from his cut rate Ovid-ian metamorphosis.  In the meantime, Amore has appeared and she gives darts to the hunter and his side-kick, a shepherd named Endimione.  It wasn't clear to me whether Amore was originally written as a pant's role or for a castrato -- I suspect the latter.  The part seems composed as androgynous although the director (Peter Rothstein of Theater Latte Da) imagines the role as a flirtation girl with a page-boy bob who sometimes appears riding a bicycle and other times lolls on a swing high above the action like one of Fragonard's seductresses.  Amore tells the men to throw the darts into the nymphs and Diana so as to seduce them.  But, in a disappointing lapse in the libretto, the darts never get thrown or used in any way.  In the second half of the opera, the stuff in occurring the first half just is repeated ad nauseam.  Diana falls in love with Endimione, tries to seduce him, gets disgusted with herself and renounces love, only to pick up efforts at seduction about ten minutes later.  The nymphs are pursued, almost succumb, then, escape, then, are pursued again, and so on.  There is no advance to the story -- everything is paralyzed around a central dilemma:  the chaste goddess is in love but can't act on her love and so she flirts and teases but doesn't ever really deliver the goods.  The opera's conclusion is completely unacceptable.  The show's logic is that each of the three mortals will end up coupled with one of the nymphs.  But da Ponti is too inept to manage this.  Diana ends up coupled with the boorish shepherd, Endimione and Doristo, the hillbilly, for some reason gets both of the nymphs.  This leaves the third protagonist, the hunter without a date -- I don't know what's wrong with him:  does he smell bad or is he gay?  It shouldn't be hard to devise a scenario in which every lover gets hooked-up with an appropriate mate -- but this seems to have been completely beyond da Ponti's ability.  (You wonder if the guy was unable to count or something.)

The direction is flippant, even a little snarky -- one of the men has to sing an aria with a rope in his mouth  (he's tying himself into bondage); it's pretty clear that Rothstein doesn't have any reverence for the music.  Diana sings while strenuously mixing a martini and shaking it.  Later, she sings an aria while cleaning her shotgun, stroking the shaft of the muzzle lasciviously and, then, driving a swab up and down in the gun's barrel.  Amore has to sing an aria while riding her bicycle.  Rothstein sets the action in the American 1950's and the nymphs and goddesses wear the kind of clothing you might see in a Todd Haynes' film like Carol -- pastel dresses with pointy-bras.  The set is very pretty, a faded rendition of a Claude Lorrain landscape (previously seen as a framed picture before the show begins) covering the entire interior of a broken-down and decrepit hunting lodge full of decaying furniture and stuffed trophies.  Diana prances around with a shotgun, threatening the men (and the nymphs) with that weapon.  At the end, the enclosure of the hunting lodge breaks open to leafy bower where Amore is hoisted high over the action in resplendent golden light on a swing.  There's a tree with golden apples that is supposed to be significant to the action but never does much of anything.  Rapturous moments are signified by gales of falling rose-buds.  At the end of the opera, the heroine and her boyfriend, Endimione, are clad in white wedding garments that look as if a flower shop puked all over them -- they are studded with bouquets incongruously sticking out of the fabric.  The effect is both disgusting and hideous.  It's one of those incomprehensible things about opera and its design -- you have to ask:  "What in the world were they thinking?"

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Wrecking Crew

Genial and chaotic, The Wrecking Crew (2012) is a documentary about studio musicians instrumental to the success of many of the biggest pop music acts in the sixties and seventies.  Incidentally, the film poses an interesting philosophical question about genius in the performing arts.  The movie is continuously interesting, inspiring in a way, and, also, profoundly frustrating.  The Wrecking Crew, a lovingly hand-made film produced on a shoe-string budget, apparently, couldn't afford to purchase the rights to the music that it features -- for this reason, the soundtrack is comprised of snippets of famous songs; it's like the "fair use" doctrine run amuck.  Usually, the fragmentary pop song quoted in the film is sufficiently interesting or induces enough nostalgia in the viewers that we would like to hear the whole tune -- but the movie only gives us eight to ten bars with, perhaps, a reconstruction of an accompanying guitar part or the exposure of a bass riff integral to the music but something that you wouldn't otherwise notice.  The effect is that the viewer is always longing for more music and less commentary.  Its like a dinner comprised of tapas, you get intriguing tastes of this or that, but the main entrée is nowhere to be seen.  Many famous pop tunes from the era can be summoned whole to the imagination with only a phrase or so ringing on the soundtrack.  But some of the most characteristic hits have sneaky key changes or peculiar, spacy harmonies (for instance, the Beach Boys' songs) or involve operatic effects such as those achieved by Phil Spector's "wall of sound" -- those tunes aren't well served by being presented (or better said) "sampled" in 8 second fragments. 

From the early sixties to the mid-seventies, a group of accomplished, largely anonymous studio musicians adapted the raw, often primitive, rock and roll tunes into sophisticated radio-ready top-forty pop songs.  These musicians are portrayed as centered around a mercurial guitar player named Tommy Tedesco -- the film is made by his son, features home movies, and, accordingly, elevates Tedesco to the role of central figure.  This seems entirely arbitrary because any number of other session musicians were equally significant and important to the industry -- for instance, we meet a female bass player named Carol Kaye who seems to have been preternaturally omnipresent and ingenious; she illustrates on her guitar the innovations that she invented for the various songs on which she worked.  These musicians, mostly trained as Jazz players, found that they could escape the bebop ghetto for the mass market of LA-produced rock and roll.  (Something similar seems to have happened in Nashville and Memphis -- I recall knowing people who went to Robert Altman's Nashville five or six times just to see Vassar Clements, a premiere session player in country-western music, perform on film.) Although the musicians seem to have had some contempt for the tunes that they made famous (they call it "chug-a-chug music"), the work paid very well and offered them a wide and, mostly unimpeded, field for the exercise of their virtuosity -- many of the famous groups popular at that time were inept musically or, at least, entirely lacking in ingenuity, and the innovative, sophisticated garnish supplied by the studio players was the ingredient that made their resulting records go gold and platinum.  From a structural perspective, the problem with the movie is that its focus is too broad -- the film touches on innumerable session musicians all described as being eerily fluent and fantastically flexible -- and soon enough we lose track of the narrative (if, in fact, there is any narrative at all).  Much of the movie seems simply to be a list of studio musicians, people of whom you've never heard -- the role of the movie is to correct that injustice and it does, but so fulsomely that, ultimately, just about every player in southern California gets listed at one point or another.  This overly broad focus dilutes our attention to the main characters, several of whom seem to have had remarkably interesting lives -- I'm referring to Tedesco who once appeared in a self-deprecating ballerina costume on The Gong Show (an appearance that Frank Zappa simultaneously praises and condemns), another guy who was married six times and repeatedly lost his fortune to ex-wives (at one point forced into working as a security guard) and the fascinating and beautiful Carol Kaye. (Another curious sidelight is that Glen Campbell, later a number one headliner, began his career playing by ear with "the Wrecking Crew" -- he never really learned to read music and people were surprised that he knew how to sing.) The film's broad point is that many of the famous acts of the time could scarcely play their instruments, had little talent, and wouldn't have been famous but for the accompaniment of the "wrecking crew" musicians.  This point seems to be well-taken with respect to Sonny and Cher, the Birds, the Monkees (a wholly fictitious band in which the "musicians" had no musical training at all and were selected solely on the basis of their appearances), the Mamas and the Papas, and, perhaps, Herb Alpert and Nancy Sinatra.  But the point is less clear where the "wrecking crew's" role was more collaborative and where they performed with headline musicians of legitimate stature.  For instance, the documentary's point is attenuated almost immediately by long sequences involving collaboration with Brian Wilson, asserted to be a Mozart-like musical genius by everyone who worked with him.  And the case is further complicated by the Crew's work with people like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Simon and Garfunkel.  Accordingly the film stands for two mutually inconsistent propositions -- the Wrecking Crew made all the difference, transforming mediocre pop tunes into hits through their musical acumen and, simultaneously, the Crew was merely adjunct and accessory to the musical genius of some acts -- for instance, Brian Wilson's Beach Boys. 

Despite its rather murky structure and overbroad scope, the film is effective because it is so cheerful and bright -- an unabashed celebration of musical accomplishment, one of the few uniquely praiseworthy aspects of human ingenuity.  The joy that the musicians exhibit is impressive and inspiring -- there is, of course, a joy that comes merely from doing a good job, the best job you can do and the film is infectious about this sort of happiness.  The film has a "dying fall" because, in the end, the new singer- songwriters changed the hitmaker Brill Building paradigm and the highly paid studio musicians lost their jobs.  But music and musical tastes are ephemeral and all of the musicians seem to have been pleasantly surprised that for a couple of decades they could earn small fortunes playing as anonymous back-up musicians on hit records.  Someone is always waiting to take your place -- that was the creed of the session musicians and, so, when they were displaced from importance, it was a fall that each of them had, more or less, anticipated. 

The philosophical issue that the movie raises is esthetic.  What was the indefinable "something", the sprezzatura that these musicians contributed to the records on which they played?  How would you define it?  And what ultimately is the distinction between something that is (merely) very good and a work of genius?

Thursday, January 26, 2017


Martin Scorsese's Silence (2017) is fantastically powerful.  When the film ends, the audience sits dumbstruck.  The press has done everything possible to make this film unavailable to most people -- they have praised the movie in terms that make no one want to see it.  But, in fact, it seems to me that some few brave souls are venturing forth to see this picture -- I attended a matinee on Thursday in Rochester, Minnesota, and there were, at least, 15 people in the auditorium.  For a film as uncompromising as Silence, this counts as something like success. 

In simplest terms, Scorsese's movie is an extended meditation on two related subjects:  martyrdom and the role of suffering in the world.  The film's Christian aspect is developed through the movie's subtle, and philosophically acute, consideration of martyrdom -- a "martyr" is a witness to the power of Christ and the film obsessively considers what it means to be such a witness.  This is the film's overt meaning and Scorsese does not turn away from the implications of his material.  The movie is dedicated to the Christians of Japan ad majorem deus, and I think this tribute is authentic and without any admixture of irony.  On a more universal level, the film addresses a fundamental dilemma that afflicts all religious people --why does God permit suffering? And, more importantly, why does God not answer the fervent prayers for deliverance directed to him.  The film's title, Silence invokes these issues and, indeed, the concept of "silence" is intrinsic to the movie's long and serene coda -- the apostate priest never mentions Jesus Christ again after betraying his faith and lives, ostensibly, as a Buddhist.  But what does the priest's silence, his refusal to mention Jesus or the Father and Holy Spirit mean?  Is it negation or, perhaps, like the silence of God that crucifies men upon the anguish of their own doubt, a passion that, somehow, justifies God's ways to men?

Scorsese directs this film, a lifelong project for him, without any trace of ostentation -- there are no flashy shots or montages, nothing merely picturesque, although many scenes in the film are profoundly beautiful.  He doesn't estheticize the violence (as he does in his gangster pictures).  The horrors are shot in lucid documentary style that neither emphasizes nor renders melodramatic the suffering depicted.  Indeed, at the film's climax, we don't see any of the tortured moving or crying out --their horrific plight is rendered abstractly, as a philosophical dilemma.  (Scorsese can use restraint in this way because he has earlier, and throughout the film, made us vividly aware of the hideous and tangible details of the tortures inflicted upon the Christians.)  Much of the film takes place in open air, along the rugged sea coasts and in the mountains of Japan and Scorsese seems to have studied John Ford in his depiction of the natural world -- mists and rain and wild seascapes are shone to us, not as arenas for the depiction of the sublime in the landscape, but instead as locales, places, theaters of human suffering.  The most ferocious images of torture occur in the film's first ten minutes -- Christians are being crucified in a hell of hot sulfur springs and their bodies are bathed in scalding water scooped for the boiling volcanic fumaroles.  Everything is shrouded in boiling mist, but we can see enough to horrify us and, this explains the apostasy of the priest, Father Ferrara, played by Liam Neeson.  Throughout the film, Scorsese shows that the most terrible suffering arises from representation -- that is, the idea that the Japanese inquisitor subjects Christians to lethal torture entirely because their priest will not renounce Christ.  The fundamental moral problem that the film presents is this:  I may have the right to be stubborn, stand on principle, and allow myself to be tortured; but do I have the right to inflict those tortures on others -- in other words, can I legitimately make my steadfast faith a basis for the horrible death of others?

The film's premise is simple enough and terrible.  A Portuguese priest is rumored to have become an apostate.  Once there were over 300,000 baptized Christians in Japan, but the imperial inquisitor is rooting out the heresy and slaughtering the faithful.  Two young men, acting against their superior's advice, travel to Japan in search of the lost priest said to have abandoned his God.  For the first hour, the film follows something of the narrative of a quest movie like Apocalypse Now -- the two priests land on the stormy, rock-girt coast of Japan, are harbored in underground catacomb-like caves by local Christians, but, then, are separated and both, ultimately, captured by Grand Inquisitor.  The more dogmatic of the young priest dies trying to prevent Japanese Christians from being drowned in the sea.  The more flexible priest, a young man who has argued that martyrdom is unnecessary and that the Japanese Christians have every right to deny their God in order to save their lives, finds himself imprisoned by the inquisitor.  A series of gripping philosophical debates occurs and, then, at last, the youthful priest is brought face-to-face with the apostate Father Ferrara.  Several more long dialogues ensue and, then, at last, the young priest is faced with the ultimate decision -- deny Christ and save his disciples from hideous, painful death or allow the faithful to be killed as a result of his obduracy.  The sequences offering the choice between inflicting martyrdom on others or denying Christ are a master-class in film-making -- the moral dilemma is filmed in a way that is absolutely clear, staggering, and horrific.    No single shot stands out, but the entire episode is lacerating, an awful experience for the audience that is, nonetheless, not so unbearable that we look away or resent the imagery imposed upon us.  Scorsese is a past-master of filming violence and he finds the exact level of horror that the audience can tolerate without feeling exploited or distracted from the moral and philosophical problems that the film dramatizes.  Any more gore and the film would collapse into something like a splatter film; any less gore and we might be indifferent to the stakes at issue.  Scorsese finds the exact level of terror and fear that the audience can sustain, and, indeed, sustain over almost three hours -- if the film were more awful, no one could watch it.  If the horrors were less real and tangible, the moral questions presented by the movie would not seem as consequential as they are. 

Scorsese's approach to Silence is fundamentally sacramental.  The movie presents the same awful choice over and over again -- people are told to trample on an image of Christ or the Virgin.  The inquisitor and his men advise that this is merely a formality, an act showing allegiance to the Japanese order that doesn't require the assent of belief.  But it is a gesture that is decisive -- some live and some die when faced with the choice and, of course, the audience is constantly faced with the question of how we would act if confronted with the same decision.  Imagery showing a brass or copper icon pressed down in the mud and offered to be stepped upon occurs over and over again.  Similarly, the tortured priest is required to shrive, again and again, a Japanese man who has proven to be a Judas -- again and again, the man betrays the Christians and, each time, returns to them and pleads to confess his sins and be forgiven them.  This motif in the film would be comical if the movie's general aspect were not so dire.  Scorsese's direction emphasizes ritualistic encounters that occur over and over again, sacramental gestures that are repeated as if in a dream.  The director is sublimely unafraid to repeat himself and, in many ways, the entire movie simply loops again and again around the martyrdom depicted in the opening sequence -- as in Kundun, the very absence of any action advancing away from the fundamental plight suffered by the characters is, itself, a gesture of almost Bressonian renunciation.  (It should also be noted that in films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese developed a technique of incorporating voice-over into the action of a film -- this talent is on display in Silence; the film's use of voice-over, including voices that are divine, is continuously brilliant and technically innovative.)

The acting in Silence is beyond reproach.  The movie is worth seeing, and suffering through, merely on the basis of the performance of the Japanese inquisitor -- speaking in an eerie high-pitched voice, the inquisitor is very essence of reason; he's like a Buddhist Voltaire.  And, yet, the horrors that he inflicts upon the Christians bespeak some kind of intrinsic savagery or sadism, a sadism that is all the more effective because we never see any trace of it.  Exemplary is an early sequence of Christians being crucified at high tide -- the waves smash against the mostly naked men pinioned to their crosses in the stormy twilight.  Scorsese films some of this crucifixion from a sea cave where the grand inquisitor sits impassively, silent himself, observing like the lens of a camera the tortures that he has inflicted. 

Silence is an ordeal -- it is almost three hours although the film is so fraught with terror and suspense that the audience is never bored.  But there is no doubt that the film is an ordeal -- but its one to which, I think, serious filmgoers should subject themselves.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Young Pope

A brash outsider is appointed to lead an institution that he seems to wish to destroy.  His public utterances are distressing, even apocalyptic.  The Establishment is uneasy and the flock fearful.  The outsider has brought in his own loyal advisors and seems unwilling to accept the traditions of the institution.  No one knows the Young Pope's agenda or if he will act in accord with his alarming pronouncements.  If this scenario seems familiar to you, it's a tribute to Paolo Sorrentino's prescience.  Although the new HBO series, The Young Pope must have been conceived and filmed, in large part, at least 18 months ago, the show's writer and director seems to have tapped into an international vein of deep discontent -- a cold current of nihilism animates the film:  the people want change and damn the consequences!  An American viewer will necessarily interpret The Young Pope in terms of Donald Trump's presidency; presumably, international viewers in the eight or nine venues where the program is now syndicated will assess the show in those terms and in light of their own local strong men, the new breed of high-tech Fuehrers infesting the world. 

Sorrentino is one of the world's great directors and he seems to have invested all of his magisterial pictorial gifts in The Young Pope.  Although the Vatican refused (for obvious reasons) to cooperate with this production, the film's sumptuous interiors and majestic gardens and cloisters appear absolutely authentic and contribute to the film's rather Baroque majesty.  The camera glides through hushed marble corridors; life-size alabaster angels and saints inhabit the corners of huge, stone rooms and eerily polished topiary glistens in gardens full of white-robed nuns plucking oranges from flowering trees.  Some sequences seem to be set under the roiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel and the camera repeatedly stares at Michelangelo's Pieta from curious, even unearthly angles (when the Pope faints he sprawls across a woman's lap like Jesus in the embrace of his vast stone mother).  These polished and marmoreal settings burnish a script that is similarly polished and marmoreal -- the characters speak in formal diction, studded with epigrams:  prayers and speeches and, even, Shakespearian soliloquies dominate the dramatization.  Everything seems to be proceeding within a kind of fever-dream, a hallucinated Rome in which enigmatic and symbolic figures are engaged in some kind of titanic struggle.  Sorrentino's writing is florid and as ornate as the interiors that he shows us, an elevated discourse on the politics of religion and the religion of politics. 

I write on the basis of only three episodes, all of them very fine, and, of course, can not predict whether the show will maintain the high level evident in the first few programs.  Typical to this genre of HBO mini-series, Sorrentino begins the story in media res -- we are immediately cast into action that we don't exactly understand.  The show's promise is that the initial mysteries will be solved, or, at least, their terms more convincingly explicated.  And, so far, Sorrentino has made good on that promise.  Aspects of the first couple episodes that seem inexplicable are gradually being developed.  Thus, my summary in this note is untrue to the show -- Sorrentino carefully embeds his plot points in his operatic mise-en-scene and so the viewer only gradually comes to understand what is happening.  Nonetheless, a broad outline is probably helpful:  Lenny Belardo is a orphan, apparently abandoned by his hippie parents in Venice -- Sorrentino keeps flashing back to a nightmare Venice, all pitch-black lagoons and Fellinesque deserted plazas.  Raised in a orphanage, Belardo was nurtured by Sister Mary, a nun played with effectively subtle fanaticism by Diane Keaton.  Belardo, mentored by an older priest named Spencer, rose to become the Cardinal of New York.  At a brokered conclave, the Vatican elects Belardo to be the new Pope, hoping that he will be a bridge between the conservative factions of the Church (represented by Spencer) and the liberal, modernizing elements in the institution.  The liberal, even secular or worldly aspects of the Vatican are represented by Cardinal Voiello.  Cardinal Voiello is a Machiavellian schemer and practitioner of Realpolitik.  In contrast to the gleaming and impeccably handsome young pope, played brilliantly by Jude Law, Voiello is old and ugly, his face decorated by a black wart -- Sorrentino establishes the character in the first episode as representing everything ugly, utilitarian and compromised about the Catholic Church.  The brilliance of the show is that we gradually come to understand the Voiello is the series' real hero, the man who must stand against the Young Pope to save the Church.  Although the movie is often anarchically funny and alludes repeatedly to pop culture (the Pope drinks a Cherry Coke Zero every morning for breakfast and chain-smokes), Sorrentino establishes powerful archetypes in the narrative -- the handsome young Pope is in conflict with the old, ugly and toad-like Voiello; youth opposes old age; innocence is at war with experience, fathers battle their insurgent sons, and, ultimately, God and His Holy Spirit oppose human aspirations and ambitions.  Within the framework of these primordial conflicts, Sorrentino stages the action in the film.

Initially, the viewer's challenge is to work out the character of the Young Pope.  Jude Law smirks and winks at the camera.  He proclaims:  "I may be more handsome than Jesus," and confounds both critics and admirers with strange, mystical declarations:  "Absence is presence" he says as he refuses to appear in public or allow his image to be disseminated to the faithful.  (He delivers his first homily to the public as a black silhouette flanked by two immense columns in the Vatican portico -- as his speech reaches its dark climax, lightning flashes and a torrential downpour gusts across the millions assembled in St. Peter's courtyard.)  Instead of issuing a message of comfort, the Pope proclaims the radical "otherness" of God and the fact that the faithful must pray unceasingly for forgiveness of their sins.  Priests who disapprove of the Pope's brutal message are sent to Alaska or otherwise exiled and, as a sign of his radical conservatism, the pope selects as his name Pius XIII invoking the previous Pope Pius who may have collaborated with the Fascists and who abandoned the Jews to their fate in Hitler's Europe.  The Young Pope's only confidantes are Sister Mary, who seems to be a true believer in his destiny, and a gentle, authentically mystical Priest named Father Bernardo.  But Voiello knows that Bernardo is an alcoholic and enlists him as a snitch and coerced ally in his struggle against the Young Pope.  Conspiracies are afoot in the whispering galleries of the Vatican. 

At least in its first episodes, The Young Pope establishes a high standard.  The show is at once very funny and dire.  (The pope has a button under his desk that he can push when an interview becomes tiresome -- this button summons a young nun who has been instructed to tell him that he has other pressing business.  In the course of one highly contentious interview, the Pope presses the button and the nun appears announcing loudly that "it's time for your afternoon snack", an utterance met with bemused dismay by Jude Law's character.)  We know that the stakes are as high as they can be -- the Pope after all is Jesus Christ's vicar on Earth.  Voiello ministers to a profoundly retarded child, possibly his son, in the evenings -- indeed, his palace seems to be some kind of orphanage where African children play on rugs that Voiello announces as "worth more than the GDP of your home country."  After the Young Pope has given his dismaying homily, we see Voiello with the retarded child.  He prays:  "Please help me to atone for the sins I will now have to commit" and we can surmise that the dark machinery of a Vatican conspiracy to eliminate the Young Pope is in place and, about, to be unleashed.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sound of Jazz

In 1957, CBS broadcast a series focusing on the performing arts -- it was called The Seven Lively Arts and produced by John Houseman.  In December of that year, an episode called The Sound of Jazz aired.  You can watch it on You-Tube.  Nat Hentoff was one of the musical advisors for the program and the show is exemplary.  (I read about the show and its availability on You-Tube in one of the obituaries for Hentoff -- he died this last week.) Commencing with a big band piece by Count Basie, the show tours various styles of jazz, offering complete musical performances with very brief, half-stammered interludes of commentary.  The program's director, Jack Smight, imposed an improvisatorial, fluid style on the way in which the performances are filmed -- the show seems to be shot in something like a continuous take in a large studio where the various ensembles are stationed side-by-side or in front (or behind one another).  The skeleton of the program, its structure, is revealed by an opening pan across a blackboard in which the musicians are listed in the order of their performances -- the shot serves as something like a printed program to the concert.  A lisping, somewhat inarticulate emcee moves between the ensembles, reading from a clipboard that apparently recapitulates the information shown on the blackboard at the beginning of the show.  Although the film is designed to give the illusion of a continuous shot, the camera gracefully tracking from one musical group to another without interruption, the show also features many close-up inserted into the dollying master-shot and many of those images are profoundly moving.  The lighting is haphazard at times and the show is preserved on a murky black-and-white video tape that's verges on the illegible.  Somehow, this adds to the Orphic effect -- the musicians are like shades, ghosts summoned from the Underworld to sojourn for us awhile in this dim and gloomy soundstage, fenced in by cameras, and subject to the rules written on the black- and clipboard.  If you turn around to look at the way that you have come, you will find yourself sliding once more back into the impenetrable and soundless darkness.

Hentoff's taste was impeccable and, as far as I can tell, every musician and ensemble performs flawlessly.  During the Basie overture, the trumpets and trombones catch the light in such a way as to flare violently on screen, then, reverting into ashes and cinder.  For me, the hour-long concert's highlight is Lester Young playing with Billy Holiday on her song "Fine and Mellow."  Young was very ill and Holiday looks immeasurably weary.  She is tiny, sitting on a round stool in the circle of musicians.  During the solos, the camera cuts to close-ups of Holiday listening -- she has an odd Sybilline expression on her face and her eyes glitter in a way that seems strangely unhealthy:  too much fire is blazing there for such a small, feeble-looking person.  As the musicians play (particularly Lester Young), she nods and her mask-like features open into a faint smile:  she seems infinitely intelligent, canny, a woman sensing that there is a thread in the music played to her that might save her life, if only she could grasp that thread and hold onto it.  The trumpeter hits a note so high that there is no name for it -- an effect that would be freakish and off-putting except for the melancholy context.  Holiday's voice is a little ravaged -- it has a grain and grit to it, but her pitch is completely pure and her phrasing impeccable.  "Love is like a faucet," she says, "it's turns off and on."  Then, she says at the song's end the faucet is turned off and "it's gone" -- something infinitely irrevocable in that declaration. The musicians around her wear big, boxy suits and also wear their homburg hats on their heads as they play.  I think you could watch Holiday and Lester Young for hours and always hear (and see) something new in that performance.    Other performers on the TV broadcast are Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Rushing, and Red Allen (among others).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Criterion's restoration of Robert Altman's iconic McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a reminder of the audacity of American filmmakers in the late sixties.  Emboldened by the French New Wave, young American directors wagered that audiences could be attracted to pictures that were, in some ways, even more radical than their European models.  McCabe and Mrs. Miller is, perhaps, the most successful of those experiments, in some respects as adventurous as Godard.  Coupling a traditional Western narrative with astonishing technical innovations, Altman succeeded in creating something new that succeeded precisely because it was embedded deep within the classical tradition.  It is like Manet's painting of the encounter between naked women and insouciant boulevardiers reimagining a pastorial image by Giorgione.-- although the technique and attitude maybe newfangled the subject matter is highly traditional.  Altman emigrated to film from industrial films and TV -- as a TV director, he knew his Westerns:  he had directed dozens of episodes of shows like Bonanza and The Rifle Man.  Although McCabe and Mrs. Miller is classed as an anti-Western, in fact, the narrative is informed by classical Westerns and, ultimately, endorses their ethos and themes.  One must remember that the genre of the Western has always been expansive enough to contain something like its antithesis-- arguably William S. Hart's apocalyptic Hells' Hinges made in 1916 represents an early example of an anti-Western, that is, a Western that challenges the norms ordinary assumptions (in this case, the rectitude of the hero) and we must remember that Stephen Crane's harrowing "The Bride comes to Yellow Sky" is, also, in form, a cowboy-story.  Westerns represent a period of lawlessness in which vigilante actionis necessary to protect and affirm ordinary human rights.  In a Western, the presence of women signifies civilization.  In many Westerns, a single man is called upon to defend a community that has been established in the wilderness.  The form is pastoral and relies heavily on landscapes that demonstrate the powers of nature and the comparative weakness of men -- it is a variant on Burke's esthetic category of the Sublime: the indifferent landscape often serves as a metaphor for the ferocity of the human beings who live in that wasteland.  Almost all great Westerns have a distinctive Stimmung or mood -- this is the mood of irreparable loss:  the frontier is closing, the railroads have criss-crossed the Plains and the Indians are gone with the buffalo.  Soon enough the wild, free life will be domesticated to law and order and the landscape itself will be subordinated to industry and culture:  the lone hero rides away into the West, that is, a sunset denoting both death and the persistence of memory.  All of these elements are distinctly realized in Altman's 1970 picture.  John McCabe is first seen riding across a rocky wooded landscape, a lone figure on horseback draped in what seems to be a buffalo-skin robe.  (Leonard Cohen's lonesome-sounding ballads seemed ahistorical and, even, a wee bit grating at the time the film was released -- now that Cohen has himself ridden off into the sunset, the music seems completely appropriate and elegiac.  At the time, I assume Altman thought he was parodying the tendency for Westerns to have baritone singers intoning manly shoot-em-up ballads at the beginning and end of these films -- but what began as a ironic joke, now packs a melancholy punch:  anti-Westerns have the propensity to become real Westerns at the drop of a Stetson hat.)  McCabe doesn't correct the misapprehension in the tent-camp where he takes up residence that he is noted gunfighter who once killed a bad man with a derringer although, in fact, the protagonist is merely a semi-proficient gambler and small-time pimp.  Women are purchased like chattel and brought to the mining camp called Presbyterian Church where a half-mad preacher has built a steeple and meeting hall ignored entirely by the people who live in the gulch.  A tough cockney whore, Mrs. Miller, partners with McCabe to build a "real sporting house" and her presence in the town domesticates the miners -- they are required to take baths at McCabe's other franchise, his bathhouse, before consorting with the girls and pretty soon the frontiersman are dancing to player-piano waltzes in the lushly furnished brothel.  Women, even prostitutes, are forces of civilization -- when the bride comes to Yellow Sky, the frontier is closing.  McCabe's success engenders envy.  A mining company tries to buy him out.  When he fumbles the negotiations, mostly conducted when grandiosely drunk, the corporation sends three spectacularly bad hombres to kill McCabe.  And, at that point, all the Western tropes are in place.  As in High Noon, the townspeople don't come to McCabe's assistance and, indeed, even, Mrs. Miller is missing in action.  Left to his own devices, McCabe is forced to live up to his reputation as a gunslinger and, in fact, manages to kill the three bad guys before bleeding to death in a blizzard.  (Mrs. Miller is lost in reverie in a Chinese opium den.)  All of the elements in the climax are designed exactly according to audience expectations -- McCabe even gives a little speech about a man having to do what a man has to do.  (Altman's spin on this speech, realistic, I think, is that McCabe's first impulse to flee or buy his way out of the trouble has been thwarted and, therefore, he speaks primarily reassure himself -- in fact, because this is what a hero in a Western dime novel might say.)  Of course, Altman works interesting variations on this standard material, but it is all recognizably true to the genre.  For instance, in one scene, McCabe stalks down a hill, coat open and his six-shooter visible on his hip -- he's dressed in black and this seems to be leading to a standard showdown.  But, in fact, the adversary is a silly, grinning kid looking for his brothel (Keith Carradine indelible in one of his first roles) and no one is going to shoot anyone.  Later, when McCabe goes into the blizzard to fight the hired assassins, he bumbles through a door, falls onto a barrel, and, then, wastes a ludicrous five or six seconds wrestling with the barrel before he gets up -- this scene represents Altman's de-mythologizing staging, but, also, in the context of other classic Westerns (referring, I think, to the scene in The Wild Bunch in which the head gunman's horse gets ensnared in a drift of sand, pitching the riders rather ridiculously off their saddles.)  The final gun battle staged in a snowstorm -- the townspeople have formed a bucket-brigade to put out a fire raging in the unused church while McCabe alone is fighting for his life -- is an exemplary action sequence, tapestries of violent group action (the people working to put out the fire) interposed with the silent and deadly hide-and-go-seek game between McCabe and the killers. (And the implacable snowstorm is a classic example of nature's indifference to the puny human's struggling against it.)  In this sequence, Altman's cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond makes repeated use of his zoom lens -- the sequence should be studied by would-be filmmakers for a variety of reasons but the exemplary use of the zoom to direct and highlight action, a technique that generally seems too overt and, even, kitschy is remarkable in its own right.  (The way that the steadily falling snow controls the motion of the characters and their strategies is reminiscent of the final battle in the rainstorm, another bravura action sequence, in Kurosawa' s Seven Samurai.)  Indeed, as the film progresses toward its climax every element falls into a time-honored pattern -- the implacable killers are like the assassins in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, agents of a capitalist commercial enterprise, and the murder of Keith Carradine's hapless cowboy by one of the thugs inevitably calls to mind the killing of the foolishly bellicose settler on the muddy street in Shane.  One of the pleasures of the classical Western is to trace influences and Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller provides the viewer with a multitude of allusions to analyze and consider. 

I saw this film, probably in 1971, at the old Campus Theater in Stadium Village.  I think my father and I had been watching Dick Cavett and, perhaps, we saw either Pauline Kael or Robert Altman himself talking about the film and this moved my father, who had seen the movie before, to take me to the film.  I have never forgotten the impression made by this picture.  For the first two-thirds of the move, you strain to see what is shown in the frame -- the images are blurry and it is either too dark or the images are over-lit, flaring with excessive light that bleeds out all the colors and makes indistinct the edges of things.  As the film moves toward its climax, however, it becomes increasingly clear and distinct and, at last, the final gun battle is shot with hard edges and clear, prismatic geometry -- it's as lucid and Euclidean as the gunfight at the end of High Noon.  (The end of the film also contains a shot that I've always found to be inexplicably and mysteriously moving -- after the church fire is extinguished, the town's two African-American residents, a husband who is a barber and his wife, both turn away from the fire and the rejoicing among the townspeople and walk swiftly away, bowing their heads against the storm:  the picture reminds me for some reason of Goya's image of winter and it has, at least for me, some enigmatic and profoundly affecting significance that I can't quite describe.)  As the film's allusions to classical Westerns becomes more clear and unmistakable, the images actually seem to become clearer and more readily interpreted.  From the Criterion commentary, I now know that this effect was intentional, a tremendous fraud, in a way, perpetrated upon the movie's producers.  Zsigmond and Altman wanted to leach the color out of the film but weren't willing to shoot in black and white -- accordingly, they "flashed" the negatives, that is, over-exposed the film intentionally to create the blurry, mist-bound Impressionistic effects of the movie's first ninety minutes.  (Someone said that watching the movie was like looking through a dirty dishrag slopped over the camera lens.)   "Flashing" the negative was irreversible -- the studio couldn't correct the apparent "defects" in the footage if it wanted to. This aspect of the movie is blatantly experimental -- no major director would be allowed to do this kind of thing today -- and, yet, the effect pays-off beautifully and contributes powerfully to the film's effect.  Less effective today was Altman's similarly radical experiment with the soundtrack -- he recorded multiple layers of sound, putting a pick-up mic on each actor in his group scenes, then, he fiddled with the mix, bringing to the forefront the lines or bits of dialogue Altman wanted you to hear.  The movie is recorded in monaural and the effect doesn't really work -- the soundtrack remains very hard to decipher and also lacks depth.  I think the effect Altman was seeking to achieve requires placement of the different layers of sound in different locations in the auditorium -- in other words, Altman's multi-layered soundtrack would work well with today's surround-sound, different phrases and murmurs coming from a different virtual space.  But recorded on monaural, it must be conceded that this experimental technique fails -- rather than seeming rich and polyvalent, the soundtrack seems under-recorded, indistinct, and, in fact, one dimensional.  It has some of the characteristics of an overdubbed European film, for instance, an Italian picture dubbed into English.  This flaw, however, is a noble defect, an experiment that doesn't quite work in one of the best and most important films in American history.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Midnight Special

The Midnight Special (2016) is a science-fiction thriller, rather poorly written with a narrative that makes very little sense.  The director, Jeff Nichols, however, invests his relatively slender plot-line with a gloomy sense of portentousness and importance that the subject matter doesn't warrant -- the acting is uniformly first-rate and the film is effectively staged with the outcome that the viewer may well be led to conclude that there is more to this film than meets the eye.  The disproportion between the somewhat tawdry narrative and the complex and gravely serious manner in which the narrative is presented is intriguing in itself and makes the film worth seeing.

A little boy is inexplicably found to have magical powers.  These powers include preternatural wisdom and an ability to use his eyes as 1000-watt searchlights. (The film's principle special effect is a blinding radiance emitted by the child's eyes, beams of light that seem to cause small earthquakes and that can, even, create expanding shock waves like the blast of a nuclear weapon.)  The boy is thought to be Satan by a religious cult living somewhere in west Texas, the community into which this Holy One has been born. The sinister forces embodied in our Department of Defense have also caught wind of this phenomenon and, of course, want to "weaponize" the boy's Klieg-light eyes.  Complicating the situation is the fact that the child is, apparently, allergic to sunlight -- ordinary sunlight seems to have a deadly effect on him, hence the scenes at the beginning of the film of motel rooms entirely armored by duct-taped cardboard against any encroachment of natural light.  The boy's father, played with grim resolve by Michael Shannon, has snatched the boy from the religious nuts who are led by the haggard Sam Shepherd.  Shepherd is harassed by the FBI who load his followers (they are like the Branch Davidians) onto school buses to be interrogated by the authorities about the boy.  The religious cultists dispatch two righteous but deadly "avenging angels" to hunt down the boy and, presumably, kill him.  At the same time, the DOD is pursuing the boy as well.  Accordingly, the film follows the classical conventions of the double-chase -- Shannon and the child are being chased by both law enforcement and the sinister assassins of the religious sect, a cult that seems to have invested its faith in the recitation of geographic coordinates.  Shannon is assisted by Joel Edgerton, the go-to actor when it comes to jug-eared MP types -- here he plays a highway patrolman recruited by Shannon to help in the escape cross-country with the dying child.  (Along the way, the fugitives pick up the boy's earthly mother, one of the cult-members played with Virgin Mary overtones by Kirsten Dunst -- her part is underwritten, however, and she is mostly wasted in the role.  She seems to have been cast because her Nordic beauty is so great that she looks good without any make-up.)  Midway through the movie, the boy's aversion to sunlight is somehow overcome and he begins to flourish.  At the climax of the film, all pursuing forces more or less converge and the boy's laser eye-balls reveal a world "above our world" -- a vision of a elaborate futuristic structures, something like celestial freeway overpasses hovering over the brackish salt marshes of west Florida.  None of this makes any sense but the film has the courage of its convictions and many impressive scenes.  Adam Driver, ubiquitous in American films, appears as a bemused NSA researcher -- he's the closest thing to comic relief in this rather dour movie and is compulsively watchable. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Private Property

Private Property is a suspense film directed by Leslie Stevens on a shoe-string budget and released in 1960.  The film is an early example of an erotic thriller and, needless to say, encountered severe criticism when it was shown -- the Catholic League of Decency condemned the movie and the Motion Picture Association denied the film its certification, a dubious honor last accorded to the Sinatra heroin and sex movie, Man with the Golden Arm.  The picture is nasty enough to deserve its notoriety.  For many years, Private Property was thought to be lost -- it was a minor success d'estime in Europe, but almost unseen in the United States.  A couple years ago, a print was discovered and the picture has been carefully restored by the film school at UCLA.

Leslie Stevens worked with Orson Welles and, later, helmed the TV series The Outer Limits.  He is an effective director with a strong visual flare and works ingeniously within a micro-budget.  (The movie stars his wife, Kate Manx, and was shot at his home, apparently in the Santa Monica mountains above Sunset Boulevard -- the production schedule was 5 days and the budget was $60,000.)  In the opening shot, two drifters emerge through an ugly cleft in the shoreline, seemingly washed up on the shore of the Pacific Ocean -- the Pacific Ocean highway is misty and the film's excellent black and white camerawork, discloses an ugly side of California that seems revelatory:  the beach and highway along the surf and the little gas station where the film's action commences all are swathed in dirty haze, cold-looking, damp, a realm of perpetual twilight.  The drifters intimidate the gas station attendant into giving them cigarettes and bottles of orange pop.  Then, they hitch a ride with smug businessman, pursuing a nice-looking blonde in her corvette -- when the businessman balks in the pursuit, the dominant thug (played by Corey Allen) threatens to eviscerate him.  The businessman has earned the boys' wrath by suggesting that the blonde is out of their league -- he argues that nature requires that the separate classes be kept distinct:  "you don't breed snakes with birds."   The thugs track the woman to her home, a hillside retreat with cyclone fences around a lush garden in which there is a swimming pool -- it's the kind of place that David Hockney painted in some of his more famous pictures.  As it happens, there is a house that is empty adjacent to the heroine's home and the two bad guys take up residence there, spying on her, and, ultimately, inflicting themselves upon the woman.  It's this aspect of the film, the covert voyeurism of the drifters' surveillance of the housewife, that is redolent of the dank exploitation in present-day erotic thrillers.  The housewife is played by an actress named Kate Manx.  She seemed immediately familiar to me as soon as I saw her in the film.  Manx is blonde, with a pointy bra and shapely hips -- she embodies sexual frustration in a way that is explicit, intensely charged, and, perhaps, over the top.  Perpetually playing with phallic-shaped objects, she writhes on the deck by her pool, kicking her spread legs into the air.  In one scene, she lolls on the floor watching television with her thighs spread and her hips cocked into a lascivious posture.  (Manx had small breasts for a Hollywood starlet, but seems to have understood that her derriere and thighs were her prime assets -- she twists into contorted poses that show off this aspect of her body to advantage.)  Manx is fantastically needy, desperate for attention, and has a face so beautiful as to seem like a work of pop art -- her blonde hair makes a halo around her huge and pleading eyes.  This is all more or less for naught because she is ignored by her stolid and staid husband, some kind of a suited businessman, and the two psychos watching her are, apparently, homosexual.  The lead thug repeatedly tells his disciple (played by a very young Warren Oates) that the younger man is "saving himself for his daddy."  This taunting causes Oates' character to demand that the older man, Duke, arrange for his rape of the housewife -- in this way, Duke will show his affection to Boots (Oates' character) and, also, allow his protégée to prove that he is not homosexual.  To this end, Duke insinuates himself into the woman's confidence, pretending to be a gardener.  Predictably, the sexually frustrated housewife is intrigued by the handsome drifter -- he rakes her lawn shirtless -- and invites both thugs into her home.  The film is only 79 minutes long and the last third of the picture involves a nightmarish party at the woman's house in which the housewife dances with Duke who gets her drunk and, then, encourages Boots to rape her.  The extended take showing Duke and the housewife dancing is shot claustrophobically, too close to the action, and the lush garden foliage interferes, forming a black tangled fringe above the image -- it's a menacing shot that goes on and on and you can't deny both the erotic charge of the image and the sense of impending doom; the two dance to some kind of bargain-basement Bolero while Boots looks on lasciviously.  The whole thing is profoundly perverse and, even, frightening  -- when Duke first knocks on the woman's door, he announces that he is looking for the "Hitchcock" residence. Other sequences suggest Michael Haneke's nightmarish Funny Games.  Unfortunately, the film is all set-up with no place to go.  The ending is totally predictable -- at the midway point in the movie, the audience can figure out what will happen.  But the film is stylish and, even, inspiring in its tawdry way -- it demonstrates what can be done with some imagination, an actress of startling and troubled beauty (Manx killed herself in 1964 a couple years later after Stevens divorced her), and a good cameraman working with no real budget at all.  You too can make a movie, it seems, in your backyard. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (some additional thoughts)

Earlier today I wrote about Werner Herzog's new documentary, Lo and Behold.   Readers should refer to my earlier observations before reading this note.

When I came downstairs from my nap this New Year's Day, I found my daughter tuned to Netflix and watching the Herzog documentary that I had seen the night before.  I watched a few minutes with her, enough to understand, that I probably didn't do justice to this film in my previous comments.  Herzog's grasp of film remains as strong and bafflingly imaginative as ever before.  However, he has become an Old Master and, therefore, achieves his effects with far less fanfare and bravado.  Any film worth seeing, probably, has to be watched twice or more before a fair assessment of the picture can be made.  In most of my reviews, the film that I am assessing falls into a genre and is, more or less, like other specimens of its kind.  Much of my analysis is simply an exercise in "compare and contrast" -- however, with one of the terms to which comparison is made suppressed.  More innovative and imaginative films require more attention and there is a distinct risk that subtle effects will be missed.  In a film like Lo and Behold, Herzog's effects are very subtle -- in fact, they are subliminal for the most part and can't be seen without watching for a second time with the eye specifically trained to look for technique and how technique embodies meaning.

My earlier description of the internet bullying episode involving the death of a young woman fails to do justice to Herzog's extremely nuanced and formalistic approach to this material.  First, the sequence, entitled The Dark Side of the Internet, occurs after a very light episode:  we see a computer and robotics expert of Indian or Pakistani origin fondling a small, cylindrical robot marked with an "8" that has been programmed to play soccer.  The young man has said that the team's favorite player is number 8.  The young man picks up the robot and shows it to Herzog.  Herzog, off-screen, asks:  "Do you love it?"  Without any hesitation, the young man responds "We love it."  The next episode will address love, particularly under the aegis of grief.  After the intertitle, we see a posed tableaux.  A man and his wife, both rather formally dressed stand behind a table in the formal dining room of their house.  The color-scheme is beige, brown, and caramel.  Flanking the husband and wife, there are two young women, probably in their late teens.  The girls sit at the dining room table and are a little closer to the camera than the man and wife.  On the table, there is an elaborate and symmetrical display of muffins, cupcakes, and scones -- identical, perfectly baked, items sitting on the table in three phalanxes, each about twenty baked goods.  Again the colors are brown and caramel.  We find out that this is an elaborate mortuary display because the people will be speaking about their dead daughter.   Husband and wife talk mostly; the two girls don't speak (or if they do only for a few seconds).  Herzog shoots the scene with powerful, if minimalist art -- he reverts to the master shot showing the motionless tableaux and the baked goods that no one is touching, that seem somehow sacrosanct.  From time to time, he intercuts close-ups -- sometimes, he shows the person's face who is speaking; sometimes, he shows one of the young women listening to what is being said.  The girls and their mother are clearly beautiful and proud of their beauty -- it's like a grief-stricken version of the Kardashian family and the appearance of these people seems distinctly southern Californian (although I don't know where the family lives.)  Early in the sequence, Herzog pans down from the mother's face to her pale hands resting motionlessly on the table.  At one point, he cuts away to an empty room that the dead girl loved -- the shot is completely still.  The mother is heavily made-up; her eyes are embedded in spectral black make-up.  The effect is gothic -- grief turned to some kind of horror.   The black eye-shadow is jarring, particularly since the woman's hair and her features are pale and blonde.  In my earlier note, I mischaracterized this scene.  I said that it was staged in a lavish and well-appointed living room.  In fact, the shot shows something more domestic and, therefore, more disturbing -- it's a formal dining room that now seems to be no longer used out of respect for one who is dead and can no longer come to the table.  (In fact, Herzog drives home the point -- when he pans down to the mother's hand, a title appears next to the vacant chair, naming it for the daughter who has died.)  Here is my point -- everything that Herzog accomplished in this scene was visible to me on first watching the movie and I admired the sequence and correctly defined its tone.  But I didn't know how it was done.  Now, looking at it again, I can see evidence of the filmmaker's superbly controlled art in every shot.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog's new documentary, Lo and Behold:  Reveries of the Connected World (2016) can be seen on Netflix.  It's not a particularly vivid film visually and, except, for Herzog's dead-pan interlocution, much of the film seems conventional -- Herzog interviews a series of "talking heads."  By this time in his career, Herzog's fame has infected his interview subjects (they seem to know Herzog's films) and, so, they stretch to provide him with the ecstatic touches that characterize his movies, odd little details and poetic insights contrived to belong within a Herzog documentary -- one man rhapsodizes over the distinctive odor of old electronic equipment, others talk about the theological and ethical aspects of artificial intelligence and there's a heavily tattooed lady astrophysicist to provide eye-candy for some of the film's more recondite points.  Herzog stages each interview impeccably, with odd little artifacts visible next to the people that he is interviewing and, sometimes, he intercuts grandiose and visionary images into the discourse:  enormous solar flares, aurora borealis, vast dark corridors lined with computer equipment.  All of this is done relatively unobtrusively, without much fanfare and the film seems modest and unassuming.  It is, also, one of Herzog's best documentaries, reasonably designed and not as discursive as some of his recent films, for instance, his picture about volcanoes Into the Inferno.  The film is fraught with curious ideas, novel and imaginative insights, and raises profound questions as to the role of the internet in altering human consciousness.  Herzog's perspective is not exactly Luddite, although he is deeply skeptical that the internet has changed things entirely for the better.  Indeed, two of the best sequences in the film address the "dark side of the internet" -- these are the most restrained parts of the movie, the least exuberant visually, and, partly for that reason, the most moving aspect sof the film.  In one sequence, we see a family traumatized by the death of one of its members.  After a young woman was killed in a horrific automobile accident, someone began posting images of the girl's mangled corpse on the internet -- millions of people clicked on the gory pictures and the family was devastated.  Herzog's presentation of this sequence is a model of grave discretion -- he films the family members in their exceedingly nice living room, all of them facing the camera, sober and heavy-hearted witnesses to human savagery.  Instead of showing the dead girl (or images of her corpse), Herzog is content with showing us a room where she spent much time and that she loved -- there's art in the room, a large window, and a grand piano.  At the end of this sequence, the dead girl's mother describes the internet as an agency through which the Anti-Christ is working in our times.  In the other powerful anti-internet sequence, we see people who believe that they are afflicted with pathological sensitivity to the radiation emitted by computers and cell-phones.  These people live in an eight-mile square conclave in the mountains of West Virginia where no electronic radiation is allowed -- it would interfere with a powerful radio telescope installed in the mountains.  Again, Herzog doesn't intervene in the material -- he lets the people speak for themselves.  Although they seem to be hysterical on some level -- mostly middle-aged women who have retreated in Faraday cages -- Herzog doesn't dismiss their claims and, in fact, he returns to this community for the final images of the film, as if endorsing, if only partially, an existence that is internet free.  On the other hand, Herzog doesn't dismiss the importance of the Internet and eight of the ten sections (or reveries) extol the world-historical importance of interconnectivity and how it is changing human nature itself.  These episodes address exploration on Mars, the "internet of me" -- that is, hooking all of our environment up to machines, various types of robots, and artificial intelligence.  Some witnesses make dire predictions; others are much more optimistic.  Herzog shows us complex mathematical equations that establish, apparently, that the more connections in a system, the faster it will operate.  In one sequence, he imagines that everyone has fled the dying planet of Earth for Mars -- showing Chicago eerily uninhabited.  Then, we see a group of Buddhist monks in saffron robes -- on the soundtrack, we hear Elvis Presley crooning "Are you lonesome tonight?"  Among all of his visionaries, the most prosaic is Elon Musk, the entrepreneur of the Mission to Mars.  Musk seems discomfited by Herzog and a little stilted.  A brief glimmer of horror runs across his face when Herzog volunteers for "a one-way trip to Mars."  "No, no," Musk says, "we want our volunteers to come back."  In another funny scene, Herzog asks a German scientist whether robots can fall in love.  Obviously, the man thinks the question is absurd.  "Why would you want your washing machine making love to your dishwasher?" he asks.  In the final sequences, Herzog asks if the internet dreams.  This yields a number of interesting responses, including the concept that we can't rule it out that this is already occurring.  In the latter part of the film, we see robots, including a little servile-looking Japanese robot that laboriously opens a bottle of orange juice, pours it, and offers the drink to a woman -- for some reason, the scene is intensely moving.  One of Herzog's interview subjects says that if we could produce a robot half as a clever as a cockroach we would be doing well.  Clearly, the film is very timely today -- several sequences involve hacking; however, the movie was certainly made long before the scandal involving the U. S. election -- indeed several interviews suggest that much of footage was shot in 2013.  In an early scene, Herzog describes a view of a long corridor at a college like Stanford as "repulsive" -- an odd word choice, but exactly the sort of thing that is intriguing about a Herzog film:  the director's point-of-view is peculiar, slanted, and always interesting.  Now, 24 hours after seeing the movie, I am still trying to figure out why Herzog used that specific word.  The other clue that we are watching a Herzog film is exemplified by the beginning and end of the interviews:  often, we see the interview subject carefully posed but silent -- it's an odd effect.  Most disconcerting, Herzog has the tendency to keep the film running after the interviewee has finished his or her statement -- we see the people looking questioningly at the camera.  The effect is to end every interview, no matter how simple and declarative, with a looming, and enigmatic question-mark.