Sunday, February 19, 2017

Eisenstein in Guanajuata

Peter Greenaway's 2015 Eisenstein in Guanajuata is a silly, pretentious film, further distressed by comically bad acting.  The actors are not really to blame -- they try hard, but the material given them to perform is simply unworkable.  Consider, for instance, a long sex scene in which a brooding, handsome Mexican professor of Comparative Religion initiates Eisenstein into the pleasures of anal intercourse.  The professor obligingly pours a little aceite (olive oil?) down the center of the Russian film maker's back, the fluid draining along his spinal column into Eisenstein's rump.  Then, he penetrates the hero making some small talk about deflowering him and how all virgins must suffer the pain of love -- poor Eisenstein squeals and protests, dipping his fingers in his rectal blood.  Then, the Mexican laboriously thrusts away at Eisenstein's buttocks while similarly belaboring him with a long and tedious lecture about how syphilis spread from Mexico through the Old World, how the Old World is really the New World, and how the Old New World ended up buggering, I guess, the New Old World.  Eisenstein's response is cogent:  "You tell me all these things while your prick is in my ass."  I submit to you that Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro or Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud couldn't make any sense of a scene this idiotic and portentously written.  That said, the scene is visually impressive, filmed with the kind of hollow spectacle that you find in a Vogue or Cosmopolitan fashion shoot -- the two men are posed on a huge bed set within a Pantheon-like structure of classical columns and pediments, the floor made from a mosaic of semi-opaque panels and lit from below.  It's all sublimely theatrical, densely rhetorical, and totally ridiculous.

Peter Greenaway, once the darling of the film world, hasn't really gone away.  His movies are just harder to see.  At least 18 different production companies financed Eisenstein and the film announces that it is a Finnish -- Netherlands -- Belgian -- Mexican co-production and one can imagine that the pitch for this film would have been a hard-sell:  the great Russian film maker suffers an emotional crisis in Mexico, has sex for the first time, and, then, is recalled to Mother Russia with 250 miles of film but no movie to show for his efforts.  Not that many people care about Eisenstein any more -- I am old enough to recall surveys from the early 60's in which The Battleship Potemkin was still considered the greatest movie ever made.  But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein's currency, such as it was, has greatly faded -- I think number one on most lists today in either The Godfather or Vertigo, the products of the high Capitalist era.  Greenaway has always been a peculiar film maker, a formalist who devises his films according to abstract parameters (the letters of the alphabet, the periodic table of elements, etc.) and, then, applies his fantastically overt and dictatorial style to the most lurid material possible -- incest, cannibalism, all sort of murder and mutilation are central to the plots of his films.  An example of the extreme disjunction between Greenaway's style and his subject matter is on exhibit in Eisenstein -- the hero tours the town's famous "Mummy Museum" and Greenaway shows close-ups of the horrific-looking corpses shot in the most beautiful raking light imaginable; this sequence almost justifies the movie -- the director films the rotting bodies as if they were Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo.  To what effect, however, I don't know.

Greenaway's earlier films used to be about something aside from themselves -- they had some spastic connection to real life.  There is a love affair, sibling, rivalry, and a murder, for instance, in Greenaway's best film, the astounding Zed and Two Noughts (ZOO).  In his recent movies, however, Greenaway focuses on works of art:  Nightwatching was about Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch" and Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012 -- which I have not seen) takes as it topic the minor Dutch engraver and painter Hendrik Goltzius.  Thus, Greenaway is making films that are about art -- this puts his scenario not one, but two removes, from any recognizable reality and, therefore, inspires in his viewers, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders.  In Eisenstein, we are advised that the Russian director made October, styled in the West Ten Days that Shook the World, and that this film is about "ten days that shook Eisenstein."  Obviously, there is a reason we might care about the October Revolution (the ten days that shook the world), but do we really care that much about Eisenstein's sex life?  The answer is that we don't and we shouldn't.

The film is full of brittle chatter about the continuity between death and life and, like every movie set in Mexico, features some elaborate Day of the Dead imagery.  Most of the discourse about Mexico comes out of a Lonely Planet tour guide --it's all pretty glib and obvious.  A central image is someone pounding on a radiator -- Greenaway's narrator has to tell us in the end that Eisenstein suffered a heart attack in 1948 (he was only 50), pounded for three hours on his radiator to call for help, and was ignored.  There are interesting anecdotes about Upton Sinclair and his equestrian-obsessed wife -- the couple financed Eisenstein's stay in Mexico until they pulled the plug when it became obvious the director had miles of footage in the can but nothing like a movie.  We learn that Eisenstein's staging of the October revolution was far more violent and destructive than the actual revolution -- he shot in the Winter Palace and broke much more glass than the more fastidious revolutionaries in the actual event.  The movie is handsome, the screen often cut into a triptych, and there is a gorgeous and melodic soundtrack comprised of Prokofiev classics.  The film is shot in the Teatro Juarez, apparently a landmark in Guanajuato, and when Eisenstein enters the place, we see Potemkin on the screen while a full orchestra accompanies the silent film -- it's hallucinatory because no one else is in the theater.  Greenaway uses many shots from Eisenstein's films, sometimes as part of the triptych, sometimes playing incongruously  in windows or doorways behind the characters.  But despite all of the sound and fury, Greenaway doesn't effectively explore what went wrong in Mexico -- my thesis is that something in Mexico defeated Eisenstein's concept of dialectical montage, that Mexico doesn't submit so easily to the discipline of montage made from fragmentary editing and that, perhaps, there is an unity intrinsic to Mexican reality that can't be reflected in snippets of film cut into opposition with one another.  The movie contains two extraordinary camera effects, shots of a kind that I have never seen before.  In one effect, space is distorted Escher-style around a small centrally located lozenge shown in ordinary perspective, the rest of the image wildly twisted and curved into some kind of Einstein- space-time-loop.  The other effect is more subtle, but even stranger -- the camera tracks relentlessly through a space and, suddenly, at the edge of the image we see the figures that the camera is tracking that are at the center of the picture --  how can the figure be within a continuous space at two different locations?  somehow, we see in one shot both the before and after of the character's movement but without any palpable frame between the two.  (On the DVD, there is an interview with the Finnish and Mexican actors who play Eisenstein and his lover respectively -- they confess that they have no idea how this effect was achieved.) 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Castle of Sand

Yoshitero Nomaro's ineffably weird The Castle of Sand (1974) is a very long movie that really delivers two pictures for the price of one.  The first ninety minutes of the movie is a scrupulously detailed police procedural involving two Tokyo detectives' attempts to solve a murder.  The last hour of the film is a rapturous music video that has something to do with artistic inspiration, the love between fathers and sons, and leprosy.  Ambitious and epic in scope, the film exhausts the viewer -- it's one of those estimable projects that no one could possibly wish any longer.

The film's police procedural aspect involves the two hardest working detectives in the history of cinema, a grizzled older cop named Inspector Inanishi and his side-kick, the idealistic and naïve, Yoshimuro.  The two men are tasked with solving the murder of a 65 year old man whose head has been beaten into pulp, the corpse deposited in a railroad yard to make it seem as if the homicide was a train accident.  The cops marshal all sorts of clues -- there are learned disquisitions about Japanese rural dialects and the pronunciation of place names, forensic tests of various sorts, huge ledgers to be studied, and, at the climax, fifty letters, some of which Inanishi seems to have memorized by heart.  An important part of the film, and I suppose an element of its appeal, is its travelogue character.  The two cops seem to take trains to every part of Japan -- there are trips to Hokkaido and the western coast and much of the action occurs in provincial hinterlands, along the way, the detectives visit the great shrine at Ise and a number of bustling cities.  Clues are literally scattered all over the country side and the indefatigable coppers hunt them down, follow all leads, and, apparently, interview, at least, half of the Japanese public before announcing their findings and obtaining a warrant to arrest the culprit.  This part of the film is continuously compelling although fantastically complicated -- solving the crime involves thousands of place-names that are obscure to non-Japanese and ends up, as is often the case with Japanese movies made by people who survived the war, in dead-ends caused by bombing raids, children lost in the country when they were evacuated from burning cities, official records incinerated, and parents lost and orphans relocated to new families.  (Nomuro's earlier film, Zero Focus, involves Japanese women engaged in prostitution in the post-war period on GI strips near American military bases.)  Nomuro keeps things organized by using elaborate titles to announce what is happening.  His story is so complex that there are no interstitial shots -- we don't really see the travel, just the interviews after the cops have reached the places where witnesses are located.  The titles are comically profuse and detailed:  we are told the time of the interview, the city or locale where it happens, and who is being interviewed.  For instance, when Chishu Ryu, the great star from the forties and fifties appears, the subtitle in Japanese tells us the name of his character, that the interview takes place at 8:45 am at a certain address on a certain date, adding that he is a "maker of abacuses."  Nomuro's use of the broad screen cinemascope aspect ratio is brilliant -- he energizes all parts of the big, long image.  The cutting is brisk and, although the action is choppy, the film's police procedural unit is organized around the heat -- as in some of Kurosawa's cop films, it is very hot and humid and everyone is sweating profusely and, about half the shots, are composed around fans that anchor the images in a very densely observed, and plausible, reality.  (The sound direction is also unifying -- we are constantly hearing menacing cicadas sawing away on the sound-track.)  The rest of this review contains spoilers and, so, if you intend to watch this movie yourself, you may wish to stop reading here.

The solution to the crime is bizarre.  A well-known composer has written a piano concerto called "Destiny".  The composer has two girlfriends, a pregnant geisha named Reiki (who dies of a miscarriage) and the daughter of the finance minister, his patron.  Reiki has killed a beloved police man, Officer Kunichi Michi, the man who separated him from his father, a leper.  Officer Michi's identity is not known at first and so a half-hour of the police procedural is spent developing evidence as to his identity.  Once, he is named, the film, then, intercuts the detectives' efforts with the composer's relationships with his two girlfriends -- the affair with the geisha ends in the composer demanding that she have an abortion.  Instead, she miscarries and bleeds to death.  In the last hour of the film, the movie is essentially silent -- we see the composer performing his piano concerto, music that sounds like a combination of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky.  As this music plays on the soundtrack, we are shown images of the leper father and his little boy (who has grown up to be the composer).  The music of "Destiny" accordingly is supposed to represent the turbulent events of the boy's youth.  This part of the film is beautifully shot in images that show huge and beautiful landscapes through which the leper (ringing a bell) and the little boy wander -- there are vast seascapes with the two walking on rough rocks next to the pounding surf, snow- and rain-storms, mountain vistas, and small rural villages.  The compositions remind me of Hokusai, specifically that artist's graphic series engravings (for instance, "Fifty View of Fuji" or "One hundred famous waterfalls.")  The leper is dressed like a coolie all in white with a small conical cap and, with his son, he looks like one of the insignificant little figures beholding nature's majesty in the Hokusai engravings.  These landscape shots are intercut with the concert (a grandiose project involving a huge orchestra with two harps) and the two cops presenting their theory solving the murder to about a dozen skeptical fellow officers.  The parallelism seems to be this:  the composer has used his past, including the murder of the benign Officer Michi, to make his masterpiece; simultaneously, the absurdly hard-working detectives are describing to their peers their masterpiece -- the elaborate piece of deduction that has solved the murder case.  Both the composer and the cops are artists, a parallel made explicit by the fact that the Inspector writes poetry.  The composer has killed Officer Michi, it is argued, because the music that comprised "Destiny" has made the composer's past superfluous to his art -- if the past is superfluous, best get rid of it by killing those who know the past, in this case, poor Officer Michi.  The film ends with two cops about to serve an arrest warrant on the composer who has achieved a transcendent triumph with his piano concerto.  Some closing titles tell us that leprosy, that is, Hansen's disease, is completely curable, and that the real crime committed in the film was the superstitious hatred that resulted in the lepers exile with his little son.   None is this seems plausible and the amount of work devoted to solving the labyrinthine crime is pretty much beyond belief.  However, the film is very handsome and makes its dubious points effectively and the police procedural aspect of the film is not afraid to delve into the more tedious and complicated parts of detective work -- that part of the movie seems a precursor to David Fincher's disturbing and equally complex and detailed, Zodiac

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Tower

The Tower (Keith Maitland) is a documentary about a famous and terrible event that occurred at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966.  On that day, a skilled marksman named Charles Whitman, having murdered his own family, ascended to the top of a clock tower commanding a view of the university campus.   From his perch,Whitman began shooting his rifle and managed to wound and kill about forty people.  Every generation must became reacquainted with the horror of gun violence on this scale -- I recall seeing these shocking images from Texas, a place that seemed particularly rife with violence after President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas a couple years earlier.  Pictures shown on the TV-news and in magazines such as Life presented the facade of the great clock tower as incongruously high, ornate and impassive, a building that looked somewhat like the huge towers of the university in Moscow, a sinister apparition as if from a nightmare or a Hitchcock film.  These pictures made a deep impression on me and the tower itself always seemed to me a sinister agent of doom.

The Tower is a straightforward narrative of the events involved in the sniper attack that day fifty years ago.  The film is constructed from first-person accounts, people who are now in their seventies.  The stories revolve around the account of a pregnant woman who was one of the first victims shot down under the tower.  It was more than a hundred degrees on that day and the woman recalls feeling as if she were melting on the hot concrete.  Black and white footage of the shooting shows her lying next to the corpse of her boyfriend, sprawled on the pavement in the center of the quadrangle.  The film's director stages the action using the technique of rotoscope animation -- in other words, we see people as stylized, naturalistically animated figures moving through an abstract landscape.  The rotoscope animation is mostly accomplished in black and white or tones of grey and, in this way, the film can show us carnage with drowning the pictures in blood.  Rotoscope animation seems somehow associated with Austin, Texas -- the most famous film alumnus of the University of Austi, Richard Linklater, has used rotoscope technology in several of his films, most particularly Waking Life (2001).  In this case, the animated images contrast with the somewhat murky black and white video of the event and provide the viewer with a sense of the fifty years separating us from the killings -- the rotoscope imagery abstracts and clarifies the imagery the way memory simplifies and sharpens contours of what is recalled, while omitting non-essential details.  We see the narrators in the film the way they looked in 1966, their images extracted from the video footage that is also displayed for us.  Then, in the most moving part of the film, it's final 15 minutes, we see the speakers as they look today, after a half-century and, in many cases, still obviously affected profoundly by the hour-and-a-half shooting spree   Much of what happened in the incident has never really been assimilated by the narrators -- no one knew anything about post-traumatic stress in those days:  there were no grief counselors, no therapists, the school was cleaned-up (the sidewalks were covered with blood) and, after one day's closure, re-opened on August 3, 1966.  The policemen who, with a vigilante deputized for the hour, gunned down the sniper are shown at a press conference conducted about two hours after the event.  The young Hispanic cop who emptied his service revolver into Whitman seems particularly damaged by the incident -- when the camera cuts to a close-up of his face, his eyes are completely dead and his features look like a rigid mask.  (In live-action, we see the man as he looks now with the pregnant woman, seated at a table to talk with one another -- they never spoke before the film was made.) 

The movie is full of curious asides.  This being Texas everyone was armed and, apparently, Whitman was under fire from all sides of the campus.  The only people not shooting at Whitman were the local cops whose service revolvers were useless against a sniper three-hundred feet above them.  Some of the local people thought the gunfire was coming from Black Panthers.  Every fifteen minutes during the hour and a half ordeal the clock tower rang out the time.  At one point in the film, a woman witnessing the mayhem from behind a retaining wall next to a big statue of Jefferson Davis says:  "This was the moment that separated the scared people from the brave people" -- accounting herself one of the scared people, living for fifty years with the memory of their cowardice.  The bravest of the brave was a woman who ran out onto the quadrangle, hurling herself to the ground next to the wounded pregnant lady -- this woman lay next to the wounded woman for more than an hour in the 100 degree heat  talking to keep her from lapsing into unconsciousness.  (The woman, Karen Starpattern, seems to have been some kind perennial oddball and hippy -- she died in 1996).  There are mysteries -- we don't understand much about the pregnant woman's situation.  Who was the father?  What was she doing at the school?  The man killed next to her was apparently her great love -- one element of the movie that I thought incongruous and unnecessary was the use of Peter Max style psychedelic animation to depict her love for her companion.  The pregnant woman, who became a teacher and adopted an Ethiopian boy as her child, says that she still dreams of finding her dead baby alive and smiling at her -- the fetus was killed by the bullet that ripped apart her reproductive organs.  She shows the camera a childhood photograph of the sniper, Whitman -- the picture shows a happy little boy playing with two big rifles on a sandy beach.  "I have forgiven him," the woman says.  This is a very moving film, dignified and powerful -- the rotoscope technique allows the events to be shown in a way that schematizes them, turning horror into a form of art but without excessively lurid drama or the specious glamor of aesthetized violence.  We see the events clearly, as if refracted through crystalline prose (it's like Hemingway's description of a battle) but as remembered after the lapse of fifty years.  One of the heroes of the episode (he rescued the pregnant woman) recalls that as he ran across the quadrangle dragging the girl, his horn-rimmed glasses slid down his nose and almost dropped to the pavement.  The black and white video shows this happening in slow motion -- but you need to be told to look for this detail.  This young man was so terrified that he says he crawled into some bushes and almost fainted before he roused himself to run across the shooting gallery to rescue the wounded woman. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Young Pope (II)

Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope, now concluded on HBO, has been greenlighted ("greenlit"?) for a second season.  I'm happy about the news and will look forward to the new series, although I must admit the show continues to confound me -- simply put, I have no idea what the program means and, indeed, many episodes remain enigmas to me.  Even on a simplest level, aspects of the show are baffling -- for instance, why are there two different title sequences and are they emblematic for the content of the episode to follow.  An austere sequence with white titles on black accompanied the first few shows.  Apparently, this wasn't considered sufficiently eye-catching -- often the only thing good about HBO mini-series are their surreal and Gothic title shots -- and, so, about episode four (and intermittently thereafter) we were treated to a slow-motion tracking shot of Jude Law in papal regalia walking past famous religious images -- an animated star precedes him wreaking Monty Python style havoc within the frame of the pictures in the gallery; while a strangulated version of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower plays (just the ominous and monumental descending bass line), the young pope winks at us and, then, the comet knocks over a representation of the old pope, a generic bloke in his garb holding a big cross like a lance.  Sorrentino's visual sense is astounding -- the old pope is shaped vaguely like a bowling pin and, when the comet knocks him down, he lolls on the floor exactly like a pin hit by a bowler's ball:  it's a Strike!  It's strange that there are two opening sequences for the show and this strange confusion exists even on the level of the various anecdotes with which the show retails us -- the show is not so much episodic as anecdotal:  we get snippets of stories usually with a resolution that confounds our attempt to make meaning of them.  An example is the tale of the bedridden fat woman.  An immensely fat woman requires surgery.  A priest sent to New York to ferret out a pedophiliac bishop, the saintly Guiterrez, attends at the woman's bedside -- it's not clear how he knows her or why they are together at all.  The woman is too fat to be taken down the stairs at her grim apartment.  The plan is knock out part of the wall and lower her by crane, bed and all, to the street.  The woman is afraid of heights but, also, intensely ashamed.  She needs the surgery to save her life, but doesn't want to endure the humiliation of being removed from her house through the enlarged cavity of the knocked-out wall around her window.  Guiterrez says that he will be with her as a comforter.  On the day that she is to be moved, we see the wall broken into a big round opening -- again Sorrentino's visual gifts are almost excessive:  the opening in the wall is covered by a radiant white sheet that ripples like a banner of surrender in the wind.  The woman's bed is secured to the crane and pushed out over the void.  As she emerges into the open air, dangling on the crane, she looks down and sees Guiterrez in the crowd below her.  He signals to her.  She, then, demands that the bed be returned to her room and does not leave the apartment.  In the show's final episode, Sorrentino makes a spasmodic attempt to unite all the various subplots in the most simple (some might say "lame") way imaginable -- as the Pope delivers a homily in Venice (itself a masterpiece of poetic obfuscation), we see the characters that we have met throughout the ten episodes, all of them listening to the Pope's words or watching him on TV.   There is a brief glimpse of the fat lady in her bed with the wall still wrenched open and the sheet over the opening still picturesquely waving in the wind.  What in the world is this supposed to mean?  The fat woman's rejection of surgery undoubtedly will have fatal consequences.  Why wasn't Guiterrez with her bedside?  Why does she sprawl in her bed with a look of beatific joy?  How did the rejection of her only hope for survival make her so happy.  Here is the key to Sorrentino's The Young Pope -- the viewer is presented with a series of radiant mysteries, almost Zen-like koans; it is up to us to make sense of these things. 

Why does this work as a strategy in The Young Pope?  I think it is because the show's subject is fundamentally imponderable.  The young Pope imagines himself to be God's instrument on earth while simultaneously doubting God's very existence -- he wavers between dogmatism and skepticism; indeed, the program demonstrates convincingly one aspect of faith -- the more doubtful you are, the more vehemently you proclaim your belief.  And, assuming God's existence, a questionable assumption on all levels, divining God's will is even more difficult.  For this reason, the debates on ethics and social issues that occupy much of the program's time can not be readily resolved -- indeed, such debates simply lead to more questions.  The show's opacity, it's inscrutability is intrinsic to its metaphysics.  In some of His (or Her) aspects,  God is wholly Other and, therefore, some of the weird, self-contradictory actions of the protagonist (and other characters) mirror this characteristic -- much of what the young Pope does remains inexplicable.  One short sequence must stand for dozens -- why does the young Pope sadistically torment the schoolchildren that have come to the Vatican for a tour of the museums?  He cruelly tells them that the rainstorm outside is Jesus weeping for their sins -- obviously, this alludes to a cruelty inflicted on him as a child, but why does he perpetuate this cycle of violence, inducing tears in the children.  (The pope says that he was "just teasing", a casual remark that rhymes with his strange, smug wink at the audience in the opening sequence.)  At every juncture, the work of Sorrentino's camera, his editing, framing, and narrative is to confound expectations and defeat our predictions -- Voiello who seemed to be the paradigmatic voice of institutional (as opposed to charismatic) Catholicism has been tamed and seems to accept the Pope as a saint.  Characters radically reverse their positions --  they seems different from week to week.  At one point, we see the Pope in the throes of some kind of ecstasy -- he rhythmically turns is beautiful head and shoulders one direction and, then, the other.  What are we seeing?  The camera approaches to show us that the Pope is using a bow-flex machine to exercise.  Often, we see an event or something leading to an event before the narrative has prepared us for the image.  For instance, a shot cuts away from the Vatican to show a helicopter lifting a storage container from a ship.  Only a half-hour later, do we learn that this storage container carries the Pope's metal-helmeted tiara or his kangaroo.  A young woman is making love -- who is she?  Who is the man?  (Later, we discover that the woman is an infertile wife to a Swiss Guard, the beneficiary of one of the Pope's miracles.)  Repeatedly, we see a strange painting of a bearded man offer a child his own (female) breast to suckle.  Who is this and what does it mean?  The structure of the show is to dramatically question what human beings can reliably know: people aren't worthy of the divine -- Sorrentino stages his hushed tableaux in vast and elaborate architectural spaces, endless colonnades, plush and vacant chambers, huge places where his actors are dwarfed by the facades and artworks around them.  The effect is like Antonioni's insistence that architecture is, ultimately, destiny.  The Vatican's frescos and corridors shape the characters to its own immemorial and mysterious purposes. 

The heart of this vast enterprise seems to be banal -- Lenny Belardo's search for his missing parents.  But this banal theme is symbolic.  In a crucial way, religion is the search for an authority that validates human beings and guides their striving for a good life.  Religion has a paternal aspect -- the Pope is the Holy Father.  Thus, the search for the father is integral to the broader themes that the show raises.  Everyone is looking for their father, whether on earth or in heaven.  At the climax of the last episode, the young Pope delivers an incomprehensible homily to a huge crowd in Venice -- using a spyglass he scans the thousands gathered in the Piazza San Marco looking for his parents.  Of course, he seems to see them -- to look for the father is to find him, I suppose, in one way or the other (either as a real man or a spirit in the sky or a philosophical dogma).  As the earthly father with Lenny's mother turns away from the young Pope, Lenny collapses, probably the victim of a heart attack.  Looking upward, he sees the clouds transfigured into a giant, vaporous image of Jesus.  The show has been renewed for next season -- so, to be continued --- 

Ruby Ridge (American Experience)

One of the more dank and squalid episodes in recent history, the debacle at Ruby Ridge isn't sufficiently illuminating to epitomize anything.  Similarly, the story is awful enough, certainly arousing terror and pity, but lacks anything ennobling -- it's not exactly a tragedy, rather a comedy of horrific errors.  Standing alone, the siege at Ruby Ridge means nothing -- to be meaningful, the story must be interpreted retrospectively in the light of the burning propane and infants at Waco and, prospectively, in its aspect as the forebear of the various alt.right conspiracy theories that now lurk in the fever swamps of the internet.  The shootings at Ruby Ridge are pre-Internet, but the story, certainly, represents a meme of a sort -- a clash between individual rights as idiosyncratically interpreted by the survivalist movement and the blunt instrument of the government.  The problem is that just about everything associated with the Ruby Ridge siege seems contested, a terrain where official lies intersect with paranoid conspiracy theory in the context of contorted post hoc apologetics on both sides.

The survivors control the story.  One of Randy Weaver's daughters survived the siege sufficiently intact mentally, and physically undamaged, to tell the story.  She is now an attractive, raven-haired woman in her late forties, highly photogenic and articulate and, so, despite its somewhat romantic coloring, her story predominates in the one-hour documentary on the subject aired as part of PBS' American Experience series.  As told by the daughter, the Weavers were an Iowa family that sought refuge in Idaho fearing that the end of the world was imminent.  This is common enough, I suppose in general terms, and a result of reading the Bible too closely and with insufficient skepticism.  The family consisting of Randy Weaver, now the dean of alt.right conspiracy theorists (apparently too crazy or too uncompromising to appear on PBS, which is, of course, government funded through the National Endowment of the Arts), his wife, and three children acquired a tract of picturesque mountain land 15 miles south of the Canadian border where they built a house with their own hands.  A few miles away, the White Supremicists of the Aryan Nation owned a compound frequented by Nazis, skinheads and religious lunatics under the pastoral tutelage of an old man always shown in the film wearing a neat brown suit -- even when the skinheads are burning books and crosses, this guy appears dressed for business as an accountant or third-rate insurance salesman.  The documentary is evasive about the relationship between the Weavers and the Nazis -- but, certainly, there was perceived to be some kind of connection and, at least, in the minds of the FBI the Weavers were neo-Nazi religious fanatics armed and very probably dangerous (Randy Weaver had served as a Green Beret in Vietnam).  The documentary is also evasive about the federal offense that triggered the stand-off -- the film suggests that Weaver was entrapped by FBI agents who placed an order for sawed-off shotguns and, then, served a warrant for his arrest when he obligingly delivered the firearms.  Weaver repelled the federal marshals who, then, set up a cordon around his house.  One thing led to another and there was a shoot-out, apparently, an incident about which nothing reliable is known.  In the course of confused confrontation, Weaver's 14 year old son and one of the federal deputies were killed.  The topography of this calamity is unclear and both sides gave diametrically opposed accounts as to who initiated the shooting.  It is true that the FBI determined that that they had, more or less, accidentally gunned-down Weaver's son -- how this was discovered is obscure in the film.  As is the case with law enforcement, a branch of government often characterized by reckless morons and sadists, the FBI doubled-down on their efforts to massacre the Weavers, attacked the compound and managed to wound both Randy Weaver and an adult accomplice; more problematically, they blew off the head of Weaver's wife, spraying her daughter, the chief witness portrayed in the show, with fragments of her mother's skull.  Of course, no one in the FBI will admit pulling trigger and the FBI spokesmen are elusive about how this happened -- they acknowledge something happened but can't explain what or why.  (This reticence is understandable in light of the fact that the government paid 3.1 million dollars to the Weavers to avoid a wrongful death trial; the criminal case brought against Randy Weaver and his accomplice resulted in an acquittal.)  Accordingly, the film presents a peculiarly obtuse version of the siege as explained by government witnesses -- someone shot the Weavers and, in fact, killed Mrs. Weaver but no one really can explain how this happened.  The story has no climax and no happy ending.  After ten or eleven days, presumably demoralized by the mangled body of Mrs. Weaver rotting on the floor, Randy Weaver surrendered.  His surrender was facilitated by another crazy, Bo Gritz, a far-right Green Beret who periodically advances his lunatic theories in books and internet postings.  (He's like a hill-billy version of Jesse Ventura).  During the siege, the FBI repeatedly told Mrs. Weaver to come out and bring her kids down to the government camp to have bacon and waffles.  The FBI claims that they didn't know that they had shot off the woman's head.  Of course, the Weavers interpreted this as merciless taunting.  Based on the FBI's desire to revenge the federal marshal killed in the shoot-out, I am disinclined to believe the government's apology:  "We didn't know that the poor woman was dead." 

The show is morbid and unpleasant although compulsively watchable.  You can't tear your eyes off the train wreck on screen.  There isn't a lot of useful video -- we see some spooky FBI surveillance images of the Weaver compound:  lots of dogs, mud, children, men wandering around carrying long-guns.  There are dramatic pictures of the Nazis with full regalia, although their role in the whole siege is unclear:  the daughters claim may be summarized as "we were religious nuts, not political lunatics."  We see some shrieking confrontations between wild-eyed ex-biker mamas affiliated with the Nazis and impassive brutish-looking cops -- it's the kind of encounter in which you fervently hope the worst for both sides.  Mrs. Weaver had beautiful handwriting and it is incongruous to see her letters addressed in flowing cursive "to the servants of the Queen of Babylon."  While being hauled away, badly wounded Randy Weaver says:  "If I'd known they were gonna take my bride off this mountain in a body bag, I would have let old Ned cut in on her at the dance --" vaguely recalling some erotic adventures from many years earlier in Iowa.  PBS doesn't know what to make of the material -- scrambling around in the filth, looking for a moral, they end up with cautionary warning about treating people as terrorists just because they look and act different.  But this begs the real question as to whether the Weavers were terrorists of some stripe -- there's no question about the terroristic actions of the Federal government. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Princess Tam Tam

Viewed through the lens of intermittent slumber, Princess Tam Tam (1935) seems surreal, a wonderful fever dream comprised of exquisitely beautiful close-ups, exotic landscapes and shadowy, opulent interiors -- sometimes a woman throws herself around in an obscure ecstasy; a grinning African beats wildly on a tom-tom.  On first viewing, between sleep and waking, the film seemed as gorgeous and hectic as one of Guy Maddin's extravaganzas.  Unfortunately viewed from one end to another without interruptions for sleep, the picture seems less visionary and its pervasive racism more troubling. 

Princess Tam Tam is a French musical comedy starring Josephine Baker.  The premise of the film is that Baker is a Bedouin shepherd girl -- she is supposed to be a desert wanderer and not from sub-Saharan Africa, the first of many peculiar incongruities in the movie.  A famous French novelist is suffering from writer's block and vexed with a glamorous blonde wife who not only berates him for his indolence, but, also, repeatedly slaps his face in the frantic opening scene.  With a comical side-kick, a bespectacled and staid collaborator, the author flees Paris for Tunisia.  There he meets the desert girl, Alwina, played by Baker.  The two men are fascinated by the girl who they regard as a kind of noble savage, an exemplar of care-free uncivilized existence -- in fact, the girl is a beggar, kin to the tramp Boudu played by Michel Simon in Renoir's Boudu saved from Drowning.  Hovering around the girl, we see a sinister haggard-looking man in a fez named Dar -- a role that would be played by Boris Karloff in dark-face if this were an American film.  When this fellow strips Alwina and raises a whip to beat her, the Frenchmen intervene.  They decide that they will write a novel about Alwina, a variation of Pygmalion -- the two Frenchmen teach the girl to wear shoes and speak eloquent French and they dress her in haute couture.  Her education complete, the novelist and his collaborator travel to Paris where they introduce Alwina as Princess Tam-Tam, an Indian princess, to polite society.  Part of their scheme is to induce jealousy in the novelist's beautiful wife who is engaged in a scandalous flirtation with a devilishly handsome Maharajah.  (Husband and wife are both hoping to revive their marriage by making the other spouse jealous).  In Paris, Alwina's primitive instincts urge her to dance -- she sings and dances in a sailor's dive, an ecstasy witnessed by slumming gossip-mongers associated with the novelist's wife.  These trouble-makers get Alwina drunk at an elaborate party hosted by the Maharajah and, once again, the throbbing rhythm of the tom-toms seduces her -- she leaps up and dances frenetically with a mob of blonde chorus girls.  Instead of being scorned, Alwina is the toast of the town, renowned for her prowess as a dancer.  The novelist's wife flees the party in tears and drives wildly through the streets of Paris.  The novelist chases her in his car.  There is a wreck, a reconciliation, and, then, it is revealed that we have been watching an enactment of the novel written by the hero -- in fact, the two men have not left Tunisia and Alwina has not been transformed into a socialite, nor has she traveled to Paris.  In the end, we see her happily helping her husband, revealed to be Dar -- he is a potter and she holds their baby in her arms. 

Obviously shot in a French studio, the film ineptly combines footage of Tunisia with immense, radiant close-ups.  The editing is very bad and the suture between the studio imagery and the plein-aire shots in north Africa imparts to the movie some of its dreamlike aspect.  In one scene, Alwina sings while her husband Dar rows her about an exotic harbor -- it is a gorgeous sequence, but entirely faked in the sense that Baker is clearly posing with a wind machine and a tapestry-like sail in a studio; when we see the two on the boat, the camera focuses obtusely on Dar's strong corked-up hands on the rudder and the chanteuse strangely turns her face away from the camera, dreamily looking out to the open sea -- this is intercut with spectacular inserts of Baker singing.  It's wonderful but completely illogical as mise-en-scene, a characteristic of much of the movie.  The movie is full of every kind of good-natured racism that you can imagine:  Dar portentously intones the words:  "African flowers aren't meant for parlors" -- obviously referring to his crypto-spouse, Alwina.  The Maharajah is filmed like a sinister magus -- he hides in dense, moire-like shadows and has a censer leaking picturesque fumes into his expressionistic apartment; the censer looks like it is left over from a Chinese film and has little bronze dogs veiled in haze on its top.  In the first scene, we see Alwina rustle a sheep -- she just flings the animal over her shoulders and hurries away with it.  The influence of von Sternberg's more extravagant pictures is everywhere evident -- the film features meltingly beautiful close-ups shot in soft-focus using the rim-lighting techniques that silent films employed to make their leading characters so transcendently gorgeous.  At the climax, Baker plunges into a baroque whirl of chorines, shimmying wildly and stretching out her limbs to make her body seem huge, a vast black idol spinning around the set.  (The Maharajah's party features a wedding cake set with wildly cantilevered steps, the whole thing rotating like a lazy-susan.)  Baker's dance numbers are relatively short, but they are exhausting -- she hurls herself around with stage with a kind of unique barbaric splendor:  she can kick about twice as high as she is tall.  The big dance scene near the end of the film is an eruption of motion cut Soviet-style with montage that grows faster and faster as the dance becomes more frenzied -- the grinning African drummer is intercut in shorter and shorter shots with Baker's vast dance.  Here is the key thing about Baker's choreography -- it looks gargantuan; when she spreads her legs to squat on the stage, upper body convulsed in a shimmy,  her body occupies the whole image; it's a strange effect but she makes herself look rough-hewn, the opposite of delicate, robust and colossal.  Although its a cliché, Baker's dancing is evidence of a savage vitality, the embodiment of some sort of primitive energy -- all of her dances are militant war dances. 

In close-up Baker is peculiar-looking. She has bulging eyes and no chin whatsoever, although, in profile, she has a couple of fat deposits on her upper throat -- she isn't conventionally pretty and, in fact, looks a bit like a bug, a cartoon ant, perhaps, cute but a little grotesque.  It's hard to imagine her figure under the clothes she is made to wear -- obviously she has very long legs and fantastically muscular buttocks.  The film's racism is as pervasive as it is hard to decipher.  India, and the mysterious sinister Rajah, is portrayed as an ancient mediator between East and West -- "my house," the Rajah says, "has windows that open to the East and the West."  Africa is viewed as part of the East, at least, the Mahgreb has that status -- apparently, Orientalism and the Orient begins just south of the Pillars of Hercules.  Baker's dancing is viewed as a primitive attribute -- something that she just does naturally.  (In fact, I imagine her every move is intensely studied and practiced.)  Baker's ethnicity as a sub-Saharan African is simply denied by the film.  The movie ends with the proposition that Oriental women are slaves to their husbands and, perhaps, like to be beaten -- Alwina, certainly, seems happy with Dar, a man that the Europeans could not imagine as her lover since he is seen preparing to flog her for some minor infraction in the garden to the novelist's home.  In the end, Alwina has imported ducklings, chickens, goats and sheep into the novelist's villa -- in the final shot, a goat happily eats a book labeled "Civilization."  But, perhaps, we should be grateful -- the film's racism is a kind of bitter herb that has embalmed for our delectation several amazing example of Baker's art. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Redemption (for robbing the dead)

If Redemption (for robbing the dead) were directed by Kelly Reichardt or produced in Spanish by some young director from Argentina or Chile, this 2010 film would be well-known, at least to cinephiles and, indeed, highly praised as an austere, theologically intense homage to Robert Bresson.  But Redemption was produced by a student crew at Brigham Young University and directed by a professor of film and theater arts at that school. (This teacher, David Russell, also wrote the script.)  Therefore, you have never heard of the picture and are not likely to see it -- no one reviewed the movie in the New Yorker and it didn't premiere anywhere near you.  This is unfortunate because the picture, although not a masterpiece, is estimable on its own terms, handsomely filmed, and exceptionally well-acted.  Furthermore, the story is strange, highly thought-provoking, and deeply troubling despite the redemptive aspects of the narration signaled, of course, by the optimistic-sounding title.

Redemption is a period piece, not exactly a Western although it inclines in that direction.  In 1862, the people in a small Utah town discover that an eccentric outsider with an insane wife has been robbing graves to steal the clothing in which the dead have been buried.  This causes ferocious, even, murderous indignation and the villain is arrested and tortured by having his ears "cropped" -- this means that the outer helixes of each of his ears are clipped off with a savage-looking pliers used to castrate farm animals.  The magistrate tattoos on the villain's forehead the words "For Robbing the Dead" in an ornate semi-cursive script.  Then, the grave-robber, a French man named Jean Baptiste is exiled to a desert island in the middle of the great Salt Lake.  A deputy named Henry Heath has lost his toddler daughter to fever.  He is unaware that Baptiste robbed his daughter's grave and took the baptismal dress in which the child was buried.  Heath braves the disdain of the townspeople by bringing food and water to the island where Baptiste has been marooned.  Several thugs go to the island and beat Baptiste who is barely surviving there, his mangled ears festering, half-mad with thirst and wearing ragged black and white prison stripes.  A famous gunfighter from Wichita is hired to kill the deputy as punishment for his helping Baptiste.  (This plot element is carefully set up and, then, with equal care discarded in a farcical gun battle in which both six-shooters jam and the men end up hurling the revolvers at one another.)  Heath discusses the soul with Baptiste, who tells the lawman that his daughter drowned at sea and her body was never recovered.  Heath takes some comfort in Baptiste's assertion that both little girls are alive as radiant spirits in heaven, a place where they don't need the clothing in which they were buried -- the subtlety in the film lies that Baptiste's reassuring words derive in part from his self-justification for robbing the graves and denuding the dead.  When Heath learns that Baptiste did, in fact, rob his child's grave and he goes to the island to kill the grave-robber.  Baptiste has made a primitive raft and tried to escape the island and Heath finds him dead, bobbing in the salt brine of the lake.  He reports her husband's death to Marlys, Baptiste's insane wife.  She demands that some of Baptiste's clothing be buried -- this act reaffirms the symbolism in the film:  our bodies are merely the useless, ragged garments in which we live on this earth.  Marlys asks Heath to say a few words over the burial.  Heath prays:  "Heal his ears.  Wash those words off his brow and take away those striped clothes..."  The film ends with Heath and his wife embarking on a trip to a mountain meadow that they admire as a beautiful and peaceful place, the camera showing the dead child's baptismal garment now discarded on the wood floor of the cabin, but illumined with a beam of pure white light. 

Russell shoots this uncompromising material in fairly long takes, using many close-shots -- too many for my taste.  Like Bresson at the end of Pickpocket, he fades to black between many of his scenes.  As the movie progresses, the landscapes become progressively more beautiful -- the great Salt Lake shimmers sometimes like silver in the sun; other times, the water has a dark oily complexion.  We see clouds sweeping over vast empty expanses of land, strange heaps of tortured-looking rock, the wind stirring in tall prairie grass.  David Stevens who plays Jean Baptiste does a brilliant job -- he is haggard, a ghost of a man.  Early in the film, we see him fixing his eye on beaver Stetson of a recently deceased man -- there is something uncanny and piercing in his gaze.  Later, just before he is apprehended, we see Baptiste hoeing weeds from under a fence, a curiously pointless task, and periodically stopping to preen, imagining himself, I think, as seen in a mirror in his jaunty waistcoat and trousers stolen from a corpse.  (Margot Kidder plays Marlys and she is also indelibly weird -- stirring a boiling pot full of clothing snatched from corpses and, like a witch, crooning that some of the garments "stink.")  Heath, played by John Freeman, is stolid and reliable as a law man.  There are memorable cameos by various minor Hollywood actors.  One old man, a judge, tells a story about how he killed a young outlaw and came to regret his violence -- a very powerful scene that establishes a basis for Heath's begrudging kindness to the grave-robber.  The old judge produces a letter that the man that he killed had received from his brother -- the letter is banal:  there's nothing in it, but an account of weather and crops and some family gossip.  But the letter proves that no one is beyond redemption and that no crime, no matter how despicable, is irredeemable in  the eyes of God.  Russell's discipline is remarkable -- he shoots the scenes in the village in relentless close-ups; everyone looks dirty and exhausted (there is a harrowing series of scenes involving the death of Heath's child that are hard to watch).  There is no effort at scene-setting -- the town is just murky interiors and shadowy wooden corridors and the outside is green thicket with some little pointless-looking fences of the kind you might find in a film by Mizoguchi (another director who seems to have been an influence on this movie.)  The documentary "making-of" film that accompanies the picture on the DVD shows beautiful snow-capped mountains in the background of the places where the town was shot -- apparently, it's somewhere near Sundance in the Wasatch Mountains.  But Russell never shows you the mountains.  He wants the landscape vistas to characterize the unearthly barrens around the Salt Lake and keeps his village resolutely without charm or picturesque appeal.  Scenes showing rowboats approaching the moonscape of the islands (the movie was shot on Antelope and Fremont Islands in the Great Salt Lake) have the eerie beauty of Boecklin -- the oarsman is Charon and this is the Isle of the Dead.

The movie is deeply flawed in some respects.  A subplot at the film's outset establishes the discovery that Baptiste is a grave-robber -- Heath has shot a man and bought a suit in which to bury the dead thug; when the dead boy's relatives come to re-inter him they find the body has been stripped and is lying naked and face-down in the grave -- for some reason, Baptiste also stole the caskets and used them, I think, as firewood.  This subplot has something to do with an accusation lodged against the territorial governor accusing him of rape.  The scenes suggesting the governor's bad deeds are amateurishly staged and very poorly acted -- in this part of the movie, you sense (for the only time) that this is a student film.  There is some kind of Utah in-fighting here, some trace of Utah's famous skepticism about the Federal government that goes back to the old Deseret days of Brigham Young and the Saints.  I couldn't follow this plot-line and it's not filmed with any conviction.  It seemed odd to me that the townspeople despise the obviously mentally ill Jean Baptiste (and his crazy wife) but don't blame the unctuous undertaker who employed Baptiste as his assistant.  The rhythm of the film seems a bit unsteady -- Baptiste and Heath become almost friends and, then, when Heath learns that the man robbed his child's grave all of this falls by the wayside and he goes to the island in a murderous frenzy -- this didn't seem exactly right to me, although I suppose it's plausible:  it's easy to be tolerant when you haven't been the victim of a crime.  The film spends a lot of time setting up a confrontation between the hired gun and Heath -- I appreciate the way Russell stages the actual gunfight as a lethal-looking comedy, but the actual initiation of the fight (the gunman tries to bushwhack Heath) commences so suddenly that we're really not aware of what is going on.  But all of these observations are minor cavils -- this is an interesting film and the climax, Heath's improvised prayer, is very moving.  So far as I know Russell has not made another picture -- who is going to put money into movies made by students at Brigham Young and what is the distribution network for such films?  Is there a market for films about kindness, forgiveness, redemption?  If  Russell were allowed to make even a half-dozen films I think, that on the evidence of Redemption, he would be an important film- maker and, perhaps, would even produce one or two great American movies -- something on the Mountain Meadows massacre, perhaps, or a film about the wives of Brigham Young.  But, alas, this doesn't seem likely. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Pardon Us

Pardon Us, Laurel and Hardy's first feature film, was shot in 1930, but not released until 1931.  A parody of MGM's grim The Big House (1930), a gritty prison film, the movie is not particularly funny -- it is, however, extremely peculiar and, perhaps, worth a glance due to its idiosyncratic elements.  James Parrott directed with fairly elaborate production values -- there are crowd scenes, an elaborate prison set, and some overhead tracking shots made from a crane mounted on a dolly.  I have the impression that the movie was shot concurrently with The Big House and may have used the sets, extras, and, even, some of the camera set-ups employed in the big budget dramatic film.  (This theory is suspect:  Laurel and Hardy were so popular that their early sound movies were often filmed three or four times seriatim -- once in English, then, for French, German, and Spanish audiences.  This would suggest an elaborate and complex shooting schedule inimical to filming Pardon Us between set-ups for The Big House.)  Stan Laurel was the de facto producer of the features that he made with Oliver Hardy (although the film is a Hal Roach Production) and concluded that the movie wasn't funny enough -- he withheld the film from distribution for a year and re-edited the picture to "tighten it up".  ("Tightening up" a Laurel and Hardy feature is an oxymoron -- even at their most disciplined, these films are exceptionally disjointed, often little more than collages of vaudeville routines sometimes interspersed with song-and-dance numbers.  Pardon Us is no exception.)  As a result of Laurel's intervention, there exist at least three version of the film -- two 64 minute cuts are known to exist with different endings; the initial premiere version of the film, 70 minutes long, also can still be seen.

The film's plot is rudimentary and simply a structure on which to string gags and satiric parodies of serious films then current.  (Since modern audiences don't know The Big House this aspect of these films is hard to appreciate -- the prison scenes in Pardon Us are harsh and have cruel aspect; however, I presume, these sequences are tongue-in-cheek parodies of melodramatic excesses in the movies satirized.)  Laurel and Hardy have difficulty crossing an LA street -- they are almost hit by a couple of cars and Laurel stumbles on the curb.  They buy ingredients to brew beer with Hardy announcing that any excess production will be sold to the public.  In the next shot, we see Laurel and Hardy handcuffed and being dragged into a penitentiary.  Laurel has a loose tooth that causes him to make an inadvertent buzzing sound after he speaks -- the sound is an unvoiced linguolabial trill (or "raspberry").  This derisive sound is a plot contrivance used in various ways in the film to get the boys in trouble or to identify them to pursuers when they are on the lam.  The duo are punitively put in a cell with a tough fellow prisoner because the Warden perceives Laurel to be mocking him.  They end up in solitary confinement -- a very long and strange shot in which Oliver Hardy in voice over rapturously describes a farm landscape while Laurel listens from the adjacent cell:  the picture is simply a still-life of the two locked doors in the dungeon of the prison.  (The raspberry sound and the shot of the locked doors held for two minutes while Hardy describes a landscape are obviously experiments with the new medium of sound film.)  The boys later escape.  Excitement is ginned-up by impressive shots of blood hounds hurling across the landscape -- but none of this goes anywhere in terms of narrative.  (We next see two of the dogs apparently as Laurel and Hardy's pets.)  "Corking up" in black face, the boys work on a plantation picking cotton.  This sequence in the film is shot as a kind of idyll with African-American farm laborers singing to one another in the fields.  Back at their cabins, the movie continues in the mode of a musical -- the field workers sing call and response tunes to one another and Hardy, who has a beautiful tenor voice, also croons an extended tune.  The warden happens by and the boys are captured again.  In the Big House, the film pauses for another musical interlude, a barber shop quintet of prisoners singing another sentimental tune about being on the farm "back home in Michigan."  Laurel and Hardy go on a  hunger strike but are tricked into going to the mess hall.  (Again, there is an extended shot in which a guard describes a Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings in great detail -- another rapturous if static experiment with the new medium of the "talking" picture.)  A prison riot ensues and Stan Laurel who has been handed a machine-gun inadvertently uses the weapon to subdue the prisoners, thus resulting in a pardon for himself and Ollie -- this is the part of the film that I vividly recall from seeing the picture as a little boy.  I have written that Laurel and Hardy feature films are best considered as two-reel comedies sutured together.  Here I amend that opinion -- in a film like Pardon Us, coherent units of narrative are generally less than six or seven minutes long.  After a sequence of that length, the scene shifts in a disorienting way, a new genre may be introduced, or the action may be interrupted by a song-and-dance number.  A vaudeville routine involve Jimmy Finlayson as a harried teacher is central to the prison scenes -- but this scene seems imported into the movie from a different source and doesn't fit well with the surrounding context.  The cotton plantation idyll is lyrically filmed and refers to some species of movie that no longer exists and that probably couldn't be shown any more in any event due to its offensively racist content.  (I don't think the minstrel-show material in this film is particularly egregious-- it's well-intended and the African-American laborers are portrayed with some dignity but, of course, the black-face antics are jarring for modern viewers.) The film's extended sight gags wear out their welcome soon enough -- there is an excruciating five or six minute scene in which Laurel tries to curl up in a narrow and flimsy wire-bottomed bunk bed with Olly; the bed is simply too narrow and the homo-erotic implications too obvious and the sequence looks so painful to execute -- Laurel's contortions are cringe-worthy -- that the sequence seem to portray some sort of awful and extravagant torture and can't be construed as funny under any possible interpretation of that word.  Followed by a scene of Laurel and Hardy being locked into disturbingly dark and coffin-like solitary confinement cells, these sequences further, amplify the rather dank and unpleasant character of the comedy.  (The funniest sequence in the film involves a maniacal prison dentist who yanks out Ollie's tooth as a matter of a mistaken identity and, then, pulls out one of Stan's teeth as well, predictably wrenching the wrong tooth from his jaw.  That this sadistic scene is the funniest thing in the movie, and it is actually quite hilarious, gives the reader a sense for how nasty a picture this is.)  The version that I watched was recorded on my DVR from Turner Classic Movies and listed as an hour-long.  But the movie, aired on April 1, 2016, is, in fact, 64 minutes duration -- this meant that when Stan Laurel pulls a Thompson Machine Gun from under the table at the mess hall, brandishes it, and, then, begins to cry, the film simply stopped.  From my childhood, I recall a very violent and aggressively edited riot scene complete with smoke and fire-bombs and Stan dancing around with the machine gun spasmodically writhing in his arms.   None of this was on display in the version that I saw with the DVR simply ending the picture exactly when the climax was about to occur.  I pitched a shoe at my TV and, then, threw a magazine and, even, a pillow -- but the  DVR didn't relent and wasn't persuaded to show me any more of this odd old movie.   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Bad and the Beautiful

Vincente Minnelli's 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful, notwithstanding its lurid title, is a handsome, ultra-subtle morality play contrived to illustrate an interesting, if problematic, thesis:  making art is difficult and artists are intrinsically lazy; therefore, they must be betrayed into doing their best work -- deceit and cruelty are the goads necessary to induce an artist to achieve excellence.  This thesis is illustrated by three interlocked stories in Minnelli's movie, set in Hollywood, and produced with the highest gloss that the old studio system could accomplish.  (This is the kind of beautifully made studio film in which a shot of someone knocking on the door to a house is decorated with a filigree of moving shadows representing the leaves and boughs of the unseen immemorial elms capering in the wind on the lawn -- the studios were so good at these shots that they could impart a distinctive mood to each iteration:  either it is a stormy day or there are light spring breezes or it is high summer without any breath of wind.)  The story concerns a brilliant --he's called "the genius boy" -- but ruthless film producer named Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas).  We first see Shields paying off mourners at this father's funeral (the film is replete with imagery of bad fathers) -- the old man was such a son-of-a-bitch no one would voluntarily attend his obsequies.  Shields is ambitious and, like his father, wants to make movies.  He forges an alliance with a director, a man named Amiel  (Barry Sullivan).  They work together on a series of "Poverty Row" movies including, in one very funny sequence, something called "Doom of the Cat-Men", a fictional film clearly inspired by Val Lewton's low-budget masterpiece Cat People.  For many years Amiel, more ambitious than he is experienced, has wanted to adapt into film a novel called "The Faraway Mountain."  This is a prestige project -- I think the novel is supposed to be something like B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Shields gets the money, but jettisons Amiel for a more experienced and bankable director, a guy who is intended to look like Erich von Stroheim.  (A cruel joke because, of course, von Stroheim couldn't get regular work as a Hollywood director because he was deemed "difficult" after the debacle with Greed.)  Amiel is deeply wounded, but admits in the frame story -- this involves Shields who has gone out of business placing calls to enlist talent to make one last picture -- that he wasn't sufficiently mature enough as a director to make that movie, that his efforts would have failed, and he would have been finished in Hollywood.  As it is, Amiel has made a number of Oscar-winning films after ending his relationship with Shields.  The second story involves alcoholism and misguided, destructive filial obsession.  A famous alcoholic actor with Shakespearian pretentions has died leaving his beautiful and talented daughter bereft, hiding like a ghost in the family manor, and drinking herself to death.  Shields believes in the young woman's talent, casts her in a leading role, and makes her believe that he loves her.  On the basis of the promise of his love, the woman (played by Lana Turner) delivers a splendid performance.  When she brings a bottle of champagne over to Shields' mansion after the film is finished, she finds him entertaining a sluttish extra.  In the frame story, the actress admits that her hatred for Shields drove her to become a great star and that she could not have accomplished this without his betrayal.  The third story involves, curiously enough, the failing of uxoriousness.   A Professor and novelist from the old South has a beautiful, frivolous, highly sexual wife (Gloria Graham).  Shields lures the couple to Hollywood and discerns that the writer will never achieve anything -- his wife is too demanding and she distracts him from his work with her trivial and childish whims.  Shields contrives for a sleazy Latin lover (Gaucho played by Gilbert Roland) to seduce the woman and keep her from distracting her husband -- this plan works out too well:  Gaucho and the novelist's wife are killed when their plane crashes on the way to Acapulco.  This catastrophe frees the novelist to become a world-class screenwriter and author -- he has just won the Pulitzer Prize when the frame-story initiates the three flashback tales.  The film's subtlety arises from this proposition:  in each case, Shields' betrayal is a necessary predicate for the artist to achieve his or her highest excellence; the artists know this intuitively and so, when they are being betrayed, they react in curiously muted ways -- they know that the fall is "fortunate."  An example of Minnelli's brilliantly implicit way of staging the betrayals is in the final story.  The smashed plane where Gaucho and the novelist's wife have been killed lies like a shattered behemoth against a black mountain.  The novelist has to mount a flimsy ladder to view his wife's corpse, embedded it seems in the rock face.  We expect that the man will be overcome and, in fact, will swoon from the ladder on which he is precariously perched.  But, instead he views the corpse with apparent equanimity.  Although a part of him grieves, it's clear that the artistic aspect of his personality is relieved to be free of this dear distraction.  Throughout the film, Minnelli veils his meanings, occludes them with surface detail, and requires the audience to do its work interpreting the material that we are presented.  In the final scene, the viewer is left to decode an ambiguous image -- the three principals of the three narratives -- bending forward into the light in a shadowy room, eagerly listening on another line to Shield's pitch to his producer.  Of course, they will succumb to Shields' blandishments, but Minnelli is reticent about this conclusion -- he tricks the audience into thinking that we are smart and perspicacious:  in fact, it's all on the screen, but we need to be able to read the signs.  The movie is novelistic in the best way -- it swarms with vivid small parts:  there are various flamboyant and self-aggrandizing film directors portrayed (we seem someone like Hitchcock for instance); there is a rich tapestry of characters:  desperate show-girls, Shields' loyal PR man (played by the brilliant Paul Stewart) and his producer, technicians, costumiers, an agent who weeps uncontrollably when his client is cast in a major role.  Minnelli uses the device of signifying his own directorial authority over the large and variegated cast by sweep over the movie sets and parties with magisterial crane shots -- in the very beginning of the film, we see a moving crane, filmed as if in a documentary, symbolizing the power of the director.  He is inventive in the way that he stages scenes -- for instance, in the first encounter with the wounded actress played by Lana Turner, we are in a kind of haunted castle and see the woman only as pair of legs dangling down from a dark attic.  Similarly, a suicide attempt that probably isn't really authentic is filmed from inside a speeding car in close-shot with the lights on oncoming traffic raking across the contorted features of the leading lady.  Kirk Douglas exudes menacing, unpredictable charm as Shields; he justifies his cruel opportunism by claiming that it arises as a result of a character trait that we would label bi-polar disorder today -- after completing each movie, he collapses into a deep, almost catatonic funk.  In one scene, Douglas manhandles Lana Turner -- both of their eyes glint with ferocious intent -- and, as he seizes her hair, she looks up with him with unfeigned and total terror. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

LaLa Land

Except for its last ten minutes, everything about La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) is obvious.  For this reason, it's important not to reveal anything about the film's ending; before I attended the movie, I had read a review of the picture in the London Review of Books that described the LaLa Land's concluding reel -- the knowledge imparted by that review cast a powerful light on the proceedings when I saw the movie and, although it didn't spoil things for me, my experience of the film would have been very different if I had not known how it all comes out.  Generally, in these notes, I don't give "spoiler alerts" -- but in the case of a film that operates according to highly traditional conventions until it doesn't, I am going to make an exception for this picture. 

Here are the elements of LaLa Land that are conventional, indeed, disappointingly obvious:  (1) The film is set in Hollywood, a place where dreams are alleged to come true; (2) the movie chronicles a romance between a moody jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and a barista (a very plain-looking Emma Stone) who imagines herself an actress;  (3) after initially disliking one another, the couple fall in love, singing and dancing in their happiness; (4) both of them are dreamers and the film endorses the rather narcissistic concept that people must follow their dreams in order to be fulfilled; (5) overcoming hardships, both the jazz musician and the would-be actress succeed in achieving their ideals; (6) the seasons of their romance are correlated to the seasons of the year -- a witty device in LA since there are no seasons; (7) the film is a musical, and, like opera, musicals always measure the distance between a world in which passion is given its ideal voice and our world in which romantic love is secondary to other, more quotidian concerns -- this last point is essential to the movie and defines its ultimate tone and meaning. 

Chazelle stages a couple of lavish song-and-dance numbers, including the famous opening sequence during a traffic jam stalled on a ramp above an LA freeway, but the picture generally involves small, half-whispered tunes sung in isolation, or as duets, by the principals.  The music is serviceable but nothing more; the lyrics are credibly witty and well-constructed.  There's not much magnetism between Ryan Gosling, an inert actor who is one of the worst in Hollywood, and his leading lady -- however, there isn't meant to be much charisma associated with this couple; they seem to be too radically different to be plausible as a romantic duo -- they are both dreamers although there dreams turn out to be rather radically different.  The dance sequences don't cheat -- the camera tracks the performers in very long continuous takes.  (Indeed, I think the opening sequence involving the stalled traffic is shot in one continuous take -- shots requiring Gosling to dance, and it seems miraculous that the fellow can hoof it since he can scarcely speak his lines, demonstrate that he's fairly competent; he also seems to be able to play the piano.)  There is none of the crazy, insouciant, surrealism of the great Hollywood spectacle-musicals of the fifties -- for instance, Singin' in the Rain or The Band Wagon.  In those films, the director always carried the song and dance action several steps beyond what the audience could imagine resulting in the viewers feeling a pleasurable frisson of amazement and surprise.  Nothing happens in LaLa Land's dance numbers that you can't see coming; the only exception is a magical, if derivative, sequence at the Griffith Observatory in which the players suddenly become weightless and dance among the stars.  (The scene on the ramp and, later a scene on a mountain overlooking LA, both involve precipitous heights -- I kept waiting for the director to make use of these scary edges and rims, to drop his dancers like cannonballs off the edge of the freeway ramp or to have the lovers roll vertiginously down from the heights over looking the city -- but nothing like this happens.)  Parts of the plot don't make much sense -- the jazz musician seems to play melodious, harmonically pleasing tunes; therefore, it's implausible that his music would be thought too challenging.  There's another problem as well -- a couple of times, the jazz musician has to slum and play with bands that cover pop tunes; those tunes are much better and more memorable, of course, than any of the music in the movie and create a jarring effect -- "I Ran" (Flock of Seagulls) is a much better song than any of the pseudo-Sondheim crooning in the movie; similarly, the funky soul jazz that the hero plays when he "sells out" is more engaging than the expressionistic bebop that we see him performing as a serious artist.  This aspect of the film, unfortunately, invokes memories of the ferocious Sturm und Drang in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York -- that film involved the same conflict, a fanatically pure jazz musician coupled with a woman of more popular esthetic sensibility.  Nothing in La La Land approaches the hectic vehemence of New York, New York, probably a good thing as far as most audiences are concerned. 

Despite my objections to some aspects of La La Land, the movie is entertaining and the story, even if highly formulaic, is appealing.  And the film's final minutes make all the difference emotionally, converting something that is obvious into a film of a greater and more melancholy depth. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Ninth Configuration

A bizarre mess, William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration contains enough material for a half-dozen films.  In fact, Blatty himself cut and re-cut the movie both before, and after, its 1980 release, never really settled on a final draft for the film, and seems to have had irreconcilably opposing intentions with respect to several important themes in the picture.  Any version that you see must be regarded as provisional -- Blatty's ability to re-edit the movie is now curtailed by his recent death -- but the film has the characteristic of being wildly incoherent, a collage of material that can't be unified.  The director, who also wrote and produced the film, never exactly determined its ending -- the version that I saw, released by Hen's Teeth Video --is anomalous:  it's a baroque Catholic tract in favor of suicide.  (Other versions repudiate this theme.)  Like Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, the movie is vastly more ambitious than its director was skillful -- the result is the most curious of all artifacts, an unintended cult movie. 

Blatty, most famously the author of The Exorcist, was raised by the Jesuits.  Despite pretenses to the contrary, he is not a deep thinker -- to the contrary, his ideas are very, very shallow:  Blatty's principle innovation was that he accepted literally ideas inculcated in him by his Jesuit teachers:  unlike most of Hollywood, Blatty believes in metaphysical Evil engaged in eternal combat with metaphysical Good.  In other words, he is Manichean, essentially apolitical and disdainful of sociological/historical explanations for the sorrow in the world.  Blatty sees the pain and cruelty in the world as the result of the Devil's intervention.  Furthermore, he accepts the Christian notion that only a divine sacrifice can atone for the misery caused by people succumbing to the Devil's blandishments.  As a result of these ideas, The Ninth Configuration has an airless quality -- the viewer has the sense of being locked up within a claustrophobic allegory:  it's a bit like William Golding or Flannery O'Connor -- it's interesting, inhuman, and schematic, material that works best in a short format.  This sort of allegory is most palatable when severely abbreviated -- otherwise, the sermonizing becomes tedious.  And this is the case with The Ninth Configuration -- the movie lags horribly in its soft, gooey Jesuitical center:  although I've now watched the picture three times, I find much of the quasi-philosophical discourse (which I know only by reputation) between the principals Kane and Cutshaw literally soporific.  Cutshaw played flamboyantly by Scott Wilson is so aggressively outspoken as to virtually define the concept of boorishness; by contrast, the catatonic whispering Kane is so soft-spoken that you can't hear much of what he says and his affect is so muted that it makes you sleepy just to look at him.  These criticisms aside, it must be said, that The Ninth Configuration is a film like no other, a completely baroque concatenation of spectacularly bad ideas presented as a mishmash of farce, surreal comedy, epigrammatic debate, and over-the-top violence. 

The Vietnam war, we are told by a voice-over, resulted in many instances of spectacular and debilitating madness.  The Department of the Defense felt that this insanity was largely feigned as an excuse to avoid combat.  Accordingly, the military has established 18 treatment centers where different types of therapies are applied to the shell-shocked troops.  For some incomprehensible reason, about 22 crazies are confined in a medieval castle located in a rainy gorge in the Pacific Northwest.  (For byzantine reasons, the film was shot in an actual castle in Hungary -- this has to do with PepsiCo providing funding for the movie in exchange for some sort of concession relating to a bottling plant in Budapest.)  The castle is filled with spooky medieval carvings, religious artifacts, and grotesque mournful figures that look like the hooded and caped statuary in Gotham City in a Batman movie.  (Someone says -- "it's not exactly a therapeutic environment.")  The lunatics in the movie are film-land crazies -- the kind of wacky, zany folks who inhabit movies like Phillip de Broca's King of Hearts.  In other words, they are nothing like real people really suffering from mental illness with the exception of the taciturn and scarily depressed Kane.  Mental illness, of course, is not funny although half of the movie aspires to comedy.  This means that the antics of the madmen have a curiously staged and insincere aspect -- it's like Yossarian's mental illness in Catch-22 or the crazies inhabiting both Altman's MASH and the TV show of the same name.  (Altman's exuberantly staged Brewster McCloud also seems a source for the movie.)   In fact, this aspect of the film is artistically meaningful -- a key issue litigated in the movie is whether the mad men are really mad or just acting, a matter that is the subject of scholarly debate and much allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet.  (Was Hamlet really mad or merely feigning?)  This conversation occurs in the context of a mad man who is staging Shakespeare plays with dogs as his actors.  As will be evident from this example, much of the film is comprised of pretentious and tedious whimsy, albeit interspersed with moments of actual horror and genius.  (There is a nun who exorcises a pop vending machine; a man who talks in nothing but tag-lines from Hollywood pictures -- "that's the kind of hair-pin I am"  from Strawberry Blonde for instance; one guy mimes an Al Jolson song in full minstrel black face.  The wacky inmates are harangued by a tough sergeant who looks just like Lon Chaney in Tell it to the Marines, in fact, a role played by a much-decorated veteran, the haggard and gruff Neville Brand.  Cutshaw, the manic foil for the morose Kane, is an astronaut who has fled from NASA due to fear -- he imagines the interstellar space as signifying the loneliness of the universe without God.  For some reason, Cutshaw calls God "Foot" or "the Foot", an attempt at whimsical blasphemy that is not too funny and excessively surreal.  Ed Flanders, a reliable character actor, plays a relatively sane doctor responsible for managing the place.  Kane, who is portrayed as a psychiatrist, turns out, of course, to be a god-obsessed madman, something like a character in The Brothers Karamazov.   

The film's last quarter seems to belong to another movie.  Cutshaw flees the asylum and ends up in a tough roadhouse where a mob of vicious bikers are partying.  The bikers are led by a malevolent thug who wears eye-shadow under his dark glasses and seems to represent the ne plus ultra in Satanic Evil (with a capital E) as far as Blatty is concerned.  The bikers torture Cutshaw and sodomize him.  Kane shows up and kills everyone in sight.  It turns out that Kane has gone mad because of similar massacres that he committed in Vietnam, including one in which he cut off and, then, fondled the head of a little Vietnamese boy.  Kane, then, commits suicide or allows himself to bleed to death, depending upon the version of the film endorsed by Blatty, an act intending to prove the existence of God by showing that human beings are capable of pure altruism.  Exactly how pure altruism and selflessness can be construed in light of the ludicrously violent bar scene -- Kane kills about six men and two women -- is unclear.  Furthermore, the logic of the ending is so completely woozy that it makes no sense and, in fact, Blatty cut and re-cut the movie apparently in recognition of this problem. 

This is a movie produced so chaotically and, then, remade repeatedly by re-edits that it is important to look at the outtakes and deleted scenes -- first, some of these explain puzzling references in the movie, remnants of dialogue referring to previous scenes that were cut.  Viewed in light of the outtakes, the structure of the film, with Kane flashing back repeatedly to the massacre in Vietnam, seems devised as an echo of Mike Nichols' Catch 22, a similarly chaotic movie, in which Yossarian continuously has visions of the dying Snowden, eviscerated on the floor of the bomber, and interspersed with the action.   Although the movie is garbled and often ineptly staged, it has scenes of real power.  In one shot, Cutshaw comes down some medieval steps carrying the huge corpse of Kane in his arms -- you wonder how the relatively slight Cutshaw can carry Kane and, when the camera cuts to Kane's face, it is just about the deadest-looking, most awful thing you have ever seen on screen.