Friday, March 31, 2017

Guillermo del Toro -- Living with Monsters

About five capacious galleries at the Minnesota Institute of Art have been converted into a kind of circus side-show qua film studio back-lot for an exhibition entitled Living With Monsters.  The show, on display until mid-May 2017, consists of macabre art objects, movie props, prosthetics, and story-boards, together with life-size wax figures and horror fanzine memorabilia -- all of these artifacts are displayed in a setting that is supposed to approximate "Bleak House", the Mexican film director's mansion in Los Angeles and site of his horror movie collection.  I have called these objects "artifacts" and, by and large, this is a fair characterization -- with some limited exceptions, the things exhibited, although skillfully made and interesting in their own right, aren't exactly art -- they are something else:  either souvenirs of horror movies that del Toro admires or intellectual property instrumental in making films of this kind.  There is something of the stench of commercial opportunism about the show and the exhibit is, certainly, a vehicle for promoting del Toro's films, highlights appearing in each gallery on large screens.  I'm not exactly convinced that del Toro is a great film-maker -- in fact, I am on record denouncing his masterpiece, the lugubrious and politically tendentious Pan's Labyrinth, as greatly over-rated.  (Pan's Labyrinth shrinks into insignificance next to the Victor Erice's great and solitary masterpiece on this subject, The Soul of the Hive.)  Guillermo del Toro is the auteur behind Chronos (killer immortal bloodsucking alchemists), Mimic (killer cockroaches in the NYC subway), Pan's Labyrinth (a pretentious allegory that embodies Franco's murderous regime in various monsters), The Strain (killer vampires), Pacific Rim (Godzilla and other giant killer reptiles), the Hell-Boy films (killer horned demons)  Crimson Peak (killer ghosts in a killer Victorian mansion), as well as various and sundry other films, all within the horror genre.  The sorrow of del Toro's life is that the truly great horror films (Frankenstein, Nosferatu, Dracula and The Wolf Man) have already been made and re-made and much of his energy, it seems, has been devoted to pitching remakes of monster movies that already exist  -- The Strain and Pacific Rim, in particular, labored under the defect that they were both imitations of something previously produced in a more perfect form.)

My guess is that del Toro's display of this Wunderkammer at "Bleak House" -- that is in situ -- might qualify as an example of eccentric or "outsider art" in its ensemble effect. We ordinarily think of "outsider" environmental art as comprised of humble materials used in an obsessive display:  that is, walls made from coke bottles set in concrete or facades decorated with hub-caps and colorful broken glass, decaying baby dolls impaled in trees, tinfoil streamers hanging from shrubbery, etc.  By contrast, del Toro's souvenirs seem to have been commissioned -- many of the most spectacular artifacts are life-sized wax figures -- presumably at enormous cost.  The visitor to "Bleak House" and this show can behold the climactic encounter between Frankenstein's monster and his Bride in a beautifully mounted tableaux with Ernest Thesiger as the mad Dr. Pretorius sucking on a cigarette as he observes the action.  Del Toro seems to have ordered dozens of busts of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe in addition to life-size waxworks of both men.  (Is Lovecraft really the literary equivalent of Poe?  Notwithstanding Joyce Carol Oates' admiration for the former, I am skeptical on this issue.  However, del Toro seems to regard the two as masters entitled to equal celebrity.)  In his "Bleak House," Poe sits on a throne-like chair, idly paging through a volume of poems, whilst rain beats perpetually against wet and streaming windows behind him, lightning now and then, flashing to illumine them -- this is del Toro's so-called "Rain Room".  Del Toro has also commissioned life-size waxworks of Schlitzie, the pin-head from Tod Browning's Freaks, as well as her compatriot from that movie, KooKoo the bird girl -- he also has a dapper midget from The Wizard of Oz on display.  In an era of political correctness, these images are border-line offensive as are the pictures of various freaks and human anomalies in the show, some of them also commissioned by the film maker (or instance, Rembrandt-styled paintings of hirsute women or microcephalics.) (Again, a grouchy critic might argue that if del Toro wanted truly alarming images of this kind, he would buy some of Diane Arbus' more unsettling photographs and display some Joel-Peter Witkin's pictures.) There are a lot of grotesque images of crucifixion and other torture by Polish and Czech surrealists and, perhaps, the representative work in the show is a big, murky image of a screaming figure impaled on a cross, a big canvas that del Toro collected because it was apparently featured in an episode of the old TV horror show Night Gallery.  Interspersed among the video monitors showing monsters on rampage, the various mock-ups and story-boards from films, and the wax-works are works from the MIA's own collection -- a Duerer fantasia of a woman snatched by a sea-monster, Barthel Beham's tiny but disturbing image of a woman suckling a dead baby next to a skull (a work that seems to rhyme with some of del Toro's Victorian mortuary photography, including a photograph of two sisters fondling the corpse of the third sister), a cheesy art nouveau triptych of lovers in misty mountains flanked by bats (a painting that has always been a riddle to me), and two of the Institute's masterpieces:  Francis Bacon's screaming pope and Balthus' "The Music Lesson."  In general, the comparison between these works of critically sanctioned "high art" and del Toro's third-rate surrealists and movie-monster kitsch doesn't run to the benefit of the more conventional art -- for instance, I think Bacon's painting is subtly diminished by the circumstances of its display:  perhaps, it wasn't as a good a painting as I have previously thought.  On the other hand, Balthus' eerie, strangely composed and serene "Music Lesson" becomes more meaningful in the context of this show.  I have never noticed that "The Music Lesson" can be seen as a kind of metamorphosis -- the girl in ecstasy, possibly masturbating on the couch seems to be melting into the furniture and the little girl creeping across the floor with her haunches suggestively raised mimics the shape of the piano at the edge of the picture:  it's as if the "music lesson" is devised to implement the transformation of the girls into pieces of furniture, perhaps, little pianos or other musical instruments. 

The show is creepy enough and, certainly, filled with all sorts of graphic violence.  On the TV monitors, we see people disemboweled, ensanguinated, corpses being autopsied, huge monsters menacing tiny children.  No one has ever used the adjectives "waxy" or "waxen" in a positive sense and so the waxworks dominating the show are particularly eerie and discomfiting.  But what's wrong with the show can by summarized, in an important respect, by what I heard a dozent telling a crowd of bewildered retirees -- pointing to an elaborate black dress featured in Crimson Peak, the guide told them that it took seamstresses in the studios 7000 (or maybe 70,000) hours to complete this costume.  The result is a heap of dark cloth on a mannequin in a corner.  The labor seemed to me to be grossly disproportionate to the outcome.  In the next room, the Dozent announced that he had never heard of H. P. Lovecraft.  "Have any of you ever heard of Lovecraft?"  No one had.  The Dozent said:  "I've never heard of him either so I can't tell you much about him or his writing."  My guess is that none of the nice pensioners obediently following the guide through this maze of torture, deformity, and mutilation had seen (or would ever intend to see) any of del Toro's movies.  So, as with the dress, one's natural inclination is to ask "What's the point?" 

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Macario (1959. Mexico) is a hungry sort of movie.  In an early scene, a poor woodcutter sits down to a meal of beans and tortillas with his wife and five children.  As the family prays over their repast, one of the children takes advantage of  his parents' closed eyes, to try to snatch an extra serving for himself.  His father interrupts crossing himself to slap at the boy's wrist.  To a well-fed American, this seems funny and we are tempted to laugh at the child's impetuousness.  But this misses the point -- everyone in this impoverished family is hungry:  there are too many mouths and too little food.  This is rendered completely clear when we see the family's mother empty out her olla, drizzling the few remaining beans on her plate and the plates of her daughters.  Macario, the eponymous hero of the film, is tormented by hunger.  We see him lurching through the market place at Taxco, hunched under a mountainous pile of chopped wood, resentful of a church procession on the Day of the Dead in which chubby little boys carry fat, roasted turkeys on silver platters, meat to be offered to the ravenous dead.  Macario's greatest desire is to have a turkey cooked to perfection that he can eat without sharing it with anyone.  And, so, when a woman in town insults her, Macario's wife steals one of her turkeys, carries it home, and kills the bird -- the whole world is hungry;  she can't stash the carcass on the thatched roof of their hut because of circling birds of prey overhead and, when she tries to hide the turkey, near the house an emaciated, starved-looking dog approaches limping.  No one gets enough meat in this part of Mexico.

As Macario departs for work, cutting trees in the mountains, his wife presses the roasted bird upon him.  He takes it in a sack into the woods and there encounters three supernatural figures:  the first is a villainous-looking Mariachi with silver coins sewn into the seams of his pants -- I watched this film in Spanish and don't know the language and so I am only surmising when I equate this figure with the Devil.  The next figure who appears is an old man who looks like a hermit wearing white rags and holding a pale staff -- I think this may be God.  The third supernatural arises from a kind of grotto -- the man is emaciated with deeply set, glaring eyes.  Clearly, this figure represents death.  Death claims to be hungry and, so, reluctantly, Macario shares his turkey with the cadaverous figure, splitting the bird down the middle.  As a reward, Death strikes at the parched earth with his rod and creates a fountaining spring.  The spring water is an elixir -- it can prevent people from dying, but only if Death himself agrees that his victim may be spared for a time. 

Returning from the forest with his jug full of medicinal water, Macario finds that one of his children has fallen into the well and, apparently, drowned.  He uses the elixir to bring the child back to life.  News of this exploit reaches Taxco.  A wealthy innkeeper's daughter is dying and Macario is recruited to save her.  The town's physician and undertaker look on with increasing dismay and indignation as hordes of pilgrims flock to town, staying at the innkeeper's hostel while Macario revives the sick and dying with his magical elixir.  Ultimately, his fame backfires on him:  Macario is called by the inquisition to account for his healing powers.  Narrowly escaping torture, Macario is asked to revive the comatose daughter of the chief prosecutor.  But Death appears and tells him that he is forbidden to spare the girl.  Macario escapes through a window and flees into the mountain forest.  Death summons him into a vast cave where candles represent the flickering souls of all people on earth.  Death snuffs out a candle and Macario dies.  His wife finds him face down near a misty lake.  It is apparently the day after she handed him the purloined turkey -- the story of Macario's fame and fortune as a healer seems to have been a dream or a kind of alternate reality.  Next to Macario's corpse, we see that the roast turkey has, indeed, been shared with someone -- half of the turkey is intact and the other half has been reduced to well-gnawed bones. 

Macario is an exceptionally handsome film, shot in lustrous, deep-focus black and white.  Scenes shot in the Mexican highlands have the beauty of Bergman's exteriors in Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal, a film that this movie resembles.  The sequences involving Macario's encounters with Death or his wife have some of the passionate intensity of early Kurosawa.  Some sequences are intrinsically Mexican -- the Day of the Dead scenes are grotesque and funny at the same time and scenes shot in the Churriguresque gloom of Taxco's baroque churches show figures moving through sepulchral, incense-laden murk against backdrops like gilded grottoes, angels and wood-carvings dripping with gold.  Some quirk of the photographer's lens causes each of the flickering candles in the huge, sculpted cave to shimmer in the shape of a tiny radiant cross.  The acting, as far as I can tell without subtitles, is broad but serviceable -- Macario has an odd, unflattering haircut featuring bangs over his eyes.  The film's scenario is direct and the fantasy is rooted in the obvious reality of Mexican poverty.  In this film, happiness is shown in two scenes:  in the first, the family sits down to a dinner with, at least, four roast turkeys adorning their table -- having enough to eat is a guarantee of happiness.  In another sequence, divine vengeance is suggested by a thunderstorm that causes all of Macario's children to hustle into bed with the woodcutter and his wife -- this scene is also infectious in its simple, and unforced gaiety.  The images of the inquisitorial hearing and, then, the expressionistically rendered torture chambers are brilliantly shot -- we have the sense that the compositions derive from Goya.  Much of the movie seems to have been shot on location -- closing credits affirm this -- and Mexico is a very beautiful country.  For this reason the documentary-style exteriors have a particular grace and splendor.

Macario won a number of international prizes and was featured at film festivals around the world.  Then, the picture seems to have been forgotten.  The movie is representative of the so-called Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, an era that lasted from the early thirties to about 1960 -- in this period, Mexico produced many lavishly mounted films rivaling those made in Hollywood.  (Bunuel was also active in Mexico
City at the Azteca-Churrubusco studios where parts of Macario were shot and lived in Coyoacan.)  Macario is a fairy-tale, but it's sufficiently rigorous to interest adults -- indeed, the movie is based on a novella, "The Third Guest" by B. Traven (the German author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and, if the plot sounds familiar, this is because Traven's source was the Grimm Brothers, specifically a tale called "Gevatter Tod" or "Godfather Death."  I have seen another picture by the director Roberto Gavaldon, The Golden Cock, another fairy-tale adaptation about a peasant who sells his soul for an invincible fighting rooster -- that film was also very powerful.  Movies produced during the Mexican Golden Age are an important subject for study, but almost impossible to see -- as noted above, I had to watch Macario in a format without English subtitles.  Criterion should explore release of the best of these films in restored versions -- if, for no better reason that to highlight some of the leading ladies who graced these pictures, particularly stars like Delores Del Rio.  There are, at least, a half-dozen Mexican pictures made during this period that have been shown recently at the Museum of Modern Art to considerable acclaim and these films deserve as much consideration, I think, as similar films made in Sweden, Italy, and Japan.  It is also important to observe that many of these movies have iconic status with the Mexican diaspora -- Macario, for instance, in Los Angeles' barrios has the status of It's a Wonderful Life and, in fact, is shown on Spanish-speaking television each Christmas.     

Monday, March 20, 2017

Material Girls: Living in the First Material World (MIA)

Material Girls is a tiny exhibit on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through April 16, 2017.  The show presents three prehistoric figurines, all of them apparently female, with accompanying material intended to settle scores in the battle of the sexes.  I studied the exhibit because I was curious how prehistoric art of this kind could be a " examine the implications of their historic and contemporary interpretation through a gendered lens."  After all, no one really knows much about these objects and, so, their interpretation is a matter of pure speculation. 

The three objects are respectively Cycladic, Japanese, and upper Paleolithic.  It is not possible to draw any art-historical connections between the three figurines.  All three are charismatic works of art, beautiful in their own right, and exceptionally interesting.   The Cycladic figure is the largest, a white slab of polished limestone with schematic features representing female sexual characteristics.  The object is almost completely abstract, icy-looking, and glacially enigmatic -- these kinds of objects are found in the Cyclades, Greek Islands and date to about 2500 BCE.  Clearly designed to be seen in the blinding light of the Mediterranean, or, I suppose, somehow embodying that light, the figures have a cool modernist elegance -- they look like designs by Paul Klee.  The oldest statuette in the show is an example of Magdalenian arte mobiliar or Gravettian object -- a sandstone shard about five inches in length chipped to depict a round head surmounting two heavy, pendulous breasts and an egg-shaped convex belly.  The object is carved in high relief and when lit from above the pubic area of the figure, beneath the oval belly is cast into a delta of shadow.  The figure is featureless and her thighs seem to come together below the knees to make a kind of mermaid-like appendage -- she has no eyes, hands or arms, and no feet.  This chip of sandstone was carved about 20,000 years before Christ.  The sandstone has a warm color -- it looks like a loaf of bread and, in some light, has a honeyed complexion.  The object's shape and color and texture all are memorably consistent -- this figure is a part of the earth and partakes of the earth's forms and colors:  one imagines it would be cold to the touch at first, but, then, would warm in your fist.  The third object in the show is the strangest, a Japanese Doju figure, probably made about 2000 years BCE.  This object is ungainly, a hollow ceramic doll covered with a whorl of spiraling abstract designs, possibly representing some kind of fabric or tattooed flesh.  The creature has short stubby arms and tiny flap-like legs.  The figure's head consists of two vast insectoid eyes, greatly disproportionate in size, reposing in the creature's skull like two coffee beans each set on their side -- the immediate impression is that the female figure has the eyes of a large predatory insect, a mantis of some kind or the glittering compound eye of a dragonfly.  The little ceramic is pot-bellied and possibly pregnant with small spike-like breasts, each equipped with clearly delineated nipples.  Dojus come in four varieties and were apparently made for a period of four or five-thousand years -- about 15000 of them have been found throughout the Japanese islands. The kind of Doju displayed in the show is considered to be some kind of "watcher" or "sentinel" -- hence, the huge staring eyes.  It is a generic figure, similar to hundreds of others of its kind.  These objects had some kind of ritual use and were apparently "deactivated" when discarded -- they generally show signs that someone has defaced them intentionally, broken off a foot or an arm, to show that the object should no longer be used and is now kaput

All three of these objects are simply labeled "female figure".  The purpose of the show is simple, clear, and questionable.  For various reasons, the women curating this show object to the appellation "Venus" when applied to this kind of art.  The sole political purpose for the show, it's "gendered lens", is to insist that the term "Venus" should not be used to describe objects of such remote and differing provenance.  In general terms, it is possible I think to agree with this contention, while being, nonetheless, critical of the vulgar and argumentative way in which the show's thesis is advanced.  I quote the principal text:

Scholars -- all or mostly men -- simply assumed that these figures, with their exaggerated breasts and genitalia, were depicted naked for prehistoric titillation like "pinup girls" or as symbols of fertililty.  The name was also a kind of mean joke since the sagging breasts and swollen thighs of these obese figures didn't actually conform to the slender, small-waisted and idealized Venus figures of the classical Greek or Roman world. 

The curators go on to suggest that the figurines were intended as "companions in the afterlife" or "dolls" or were "deceased ancestors" or, possibly, coming round full-circle to what they seem to be condemning, representations of a "great Earth Mother goddess figure." 

There is much to unpack in the censorious paragraph cited above.  First, I am not sure that "all or most" current scholars studying these sorts of figurines are men.  The most controversial theory recently developed about the upper Paleolithic figures is the product of Leroy McDermott and Catherine McCoid (see their article "Self Representation in the Upper Paleolithic," published in 1996 in which they are argue that the Venus figures are self-portraits made by pregnant women peering down at their gravid bodies.)  A You-Tube video about the so-called Venus of Hohenfels bears the title "Prehistoric Pinup" but no one featured as a commentator on the six-minute film uses that term -- the two scholars called-upon to interpret the figure are a woman and a man who seem to get about equal screen time.  "Prehistoric Pinup" was produced by Nature films -- I'm not sure who deserves the credit (or blame) for the title, but it is surely not the archaeologists who appear in the film.  The author (or authors) of the comment above, apparently Kaywin Feldman, Mia's Nivin and Duncan MacMillan say that the breasts and genitalia of "these obese figures" are exaggerated.  This is a questionable remark and suggests that, perhaps, our presenters have not seen many of the women that live around the area where I practice law.  In all candor, I think that the rather heavy-set and voluptuous figures in the prehistoric objects look quite familiar -- they are certainly no less exaggerated and considerably truer to life, in my view, than, for instance, a standard-issue Barbie Doll.  The comment about "sagging breasts" and "swollen thighs" suggests a preference for a certain body-type that it seems that our curators do not share.  Calling these figures "Venuses" is said to be a "kind of mean joke" -- what is the evidence for this assertion?  Is their some reason that a multi-gravida woman claimed to be "obese" with "sagging breasts" and "swollen thighs" can not be a Venus or Aphrodite figure?  If so, what exactly is that reason?  The nomenclature invoking Venus dates to 1864, the year that the Frenchman Marquis de Vibraye termed one of these figures La Venus Impudique  ("immodest Venus") -- a reference to Venus pudique, a Greco-Roman nude who modestly shields her genitals from view.  (Needless to say, the ancient Magdalenian figure didn't show such modesty and didn't really have hands with which to decorously cover her crotch.)  Vibraye probably thought he was being clever, but I don't detect any aspect of "a mean joke" in his appellation.  The "mean joke" seems to be in the eyes of the undoubtedly stylish, young, and slender women curating this small, lapidary exhibition.  (There may be an element of anthropological condescension in the Venus terminology.  Many of the Paleolithic figurines are girdled with fat around their upper buttocks (and not flabby below) -- this distribution of fat is characteristic of certain African desert dwellers, particularly the steatopygean Khoisan of the Kalahari.  One such woman was exhibited throughout Europe and the United States in the era after the American Civil War as the "Hottentot Venus" -- a name that may well have had some derisive connotations.  Whether Vibraye had this in mind when he coined the name for his find, La Venus Impudique, is unknown and, indeed, probably unknowable.)   In any event, the tendentious aspect of this show, it's so-called "gendered lens", is the proposition that art historians, museum curators, and, ultimately, the museum-going public should stop calling naked female figures dating to the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods of the Upper Paleolithic by the name "Venus".  This may not be an unreasonable recommendation but it is one that will necessarily fail.  Substituting the bland term "Female Figure" for The Venus of Willendorf, for instance, is not likely whatever the dictates of political correctness.  And, indeed, when the exuberantly sexual goddess (I don't know what else to call her) carved from a mammoth bone was extracted from the cave at Hohenfels in 2006, the figure was immediately dubbed The Venus of Hohenfels

(The subliterate advert for this show in the colorful MIA brochure tells me that the exhibit was "Conceived of by Kaywin Feldman, Mia's Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President (sic)..."  I now understand the Minneapolis Institute of Art burdens the name of its director Kaywin Feldman with a title "Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President.  This grotesque appellation led me to believe that there was someone called Mia's Nivin working with Kaywin to put this show together under the supervision of Duncan MacMillan.  The error is mine, but, not, I would submit entirely my fault... And why would you write "Conceived of by..." particularly in the context of a show about fertility goddesses  -- is this another "mean joke"?) 

Second thoughts on Lear

In an earlier note, I observed that Joe Haj, the generalissimo of the Guthrie Theater, also director of this Spring's King Lear, denied the audience an important line in the hustle of events leading to Cordelia's hanging and the play's denouement.  Casting a woman as the executor of Edmund's order that Cordelia be murdered rendered it impossible for the character to observe that if the task were "man's work", he would accomplish it.  Shakespearian drama is a skein of tightly woven assonances, events and characters that rhyme or echo one another, and pulling out any single thread can run the risk of unraveling the whole.  The blunt-spoken, but hideously serviceable soldier who kills Cordelia has his virtuous counterpart in a tiny, but consequential role called "First Servant".  When Albany and Regan set about to pluck out Gloucester's eyes, the "First Servant" opposes them,  In Haj's staging, the First Servant stands to the side, dressed as a butler, trembling a little and hunched as if to make himself as small as possible.  He abides the mutilation of Gloucester's first eye but can not tolerate the enucleation of the second.  After crying out that Albany should desist, he squares his shoulders and wrestles with the evil duke.  For his courage, the First Servant is stabbed to death by Regan, but not before he has inflicted a mortal injury on Albany.  In the grand design of King Lear, this servant who resists the cruelty of his masters stands in contrast to the stolid complicity of the soldier dispatched to hang Cordelia at the end of the play.

Cuts are inevitable in Shakespeare, particularly in a long play like King Lear.  An example of a cut that makes perfect theatrical sense is the suppression of the second half of the very first speech in the play.  Some minor character announces that he had not expected the King to act so expeditiously in dividing his kingdom.  Having made this observation, vital to the narrative, the man then demonstrates Shakespeare's knowledge of Elizabethan legal jargon by appending an impenetrable remark that uses the term "moiety" -- most lawyers aren't exactly sure what "moiety" means and, although, the line is programmatic and, indeed, meaningful thematically, no viewer can sort out the meaning in real time.  Therefore, cutting this part of the first speech makes excellent sense.  (It might be objected that the idea of "moiety" -- that is, the part of a whole that remains after another part has been distributed, usually in the context of a legacy or last Will and Testament -- is broadly significant thematically.  Cordelia's "moiety" in keeping with her inability to speak is "nothing" and the play frequently reverts to a calculus that defines the residue of things remaining as zero or close to zero.  But this is too complicated for any one to reliably hear.)  In one of Edgar's sexually inflected speeches, Mad Tom admonishes his listeners to avoid "the deed of darkness" and keep their hands out of "plackets" just as they should keep their bodies out of brothels.  I listened attentively for the word "placket", an Elizabethan term applied to the opening in a woman's skirts and undergarments, but was disappointed.  Again, the cut was probably judicious.  I would guess that most modern audiences would have no idea what the word "placket" means.  More problematic, I think, is some byplay between Regan and Gloucester before the notorious eye-gouging begins.  In this byplay, Regan plucks the venerable Gloucester by his beard.  This gesture, particularly when committed by a woman against an older man, was considered particularly villainous, an emasculating insult all the more potent because inflicted upon Gloucester by a woman.  The problem that a modern director faces with this gesture is that there is no way to present this act without it seeming risible.  I have earlier argued that the lurid wickedness presented in the Gloucester subplot is so absurd that it is intrinsically laughable -- and that a clear-sighted director might, in fact, elect to stage all of that part of the play for laughs, that is, as a bitter and black farce.  Keeping the beard-plucking in the scene might have accomplished this and I would have liked to see Haj make the attempt.  But the ancient gesture is now likely untenable and this part of the play had to be omitted.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

KIng Lear (Guthrie Theater -- March18, 2017)

The idea of King Lear always so much surpasses the capabilities of any mere production that the show in performance rings a wee bit hollow and runs the risk of seeming slightly silly -- grandiose and outsized passion sloshing over the boundaries of the merely human.  When emotion exceeds representation, the residue either outlines the characters with a kind of cartoon garishness or, in the alternative, seeps into the atmosphere, imbuing the play with a kind of turbulent, stormy fearsomeness that you can't quite focus on any one character or scene.  (This is how it feels to read King Lear).  At the Guthrie production presented in March 2017, the play's famous grandeur clung to some of the characters and made them seem ridiculous -- an outcome not necessarily to be decried.  An example is the subplot involving poor, gullible Gloucester and his villainous illegitimate son, Edmund.  The Guthrie production, as is the custom at that theater, is pedantically color-blind, and seemed, as well, dogmatically committed to some kind of parity between the sexes -- more than half of the supernumeraries were female, creating the curious impression of two Amazon armies contending in battle over the bisected carcass of King Lear's Britain.  Gloucester was played by an avuncular African-American gentleman, an actor who had the regal bearing of Mr. Jefferson on the TV sitcom of that name or the pompous dignity of the life-enfranchised king of some minor African state.  Gloucester spoke with the slightly comical authority of a maître-de or Pullman porter, an effort at dignity always slipping into something pointlessly ostentatious.  The rage animating Edmund, also performed by a Black actor, was so great that the player lisped out many of his words, out-heroding Herod and all but twisting (figuratively) his villainous moustaches as he contrived evil -- there was, I thought, the faint edge of minstrelsy about both performances, a kind of extravagant eye-rolling that wasn't afraid to display a racially stereotyped element.  Generally, speaking Joseph Haj, the director of this show, played the scenes with Edmund and Gloucester for knockabout slapstick comedy -- most notably a farcical fake duel staged between Edmund, the evil son, and Edgar, a white man playing the good boy.  In light of the play's general, and abiding darkness, this approach to the Gloucester subplot, I think, made sense and lightened the tone of the proceedings in a way that made the subsequent, and nightmarish, darkness all the more effective.  (The blinding scene in Lear is also "over-the-top" but Haj, I think, lost his nerve in the part of the play -- there's no intrinsic reason that you couldn't play this scene also for the very blackest of black fact, this may be one of the only ways to successfully stage this episode.  Haj went for horror here and had the monstrous Regan put out Gloucester's second eye with the spike heel of her shoe, straddling her poor victim in a slinky-looking silk evening gown and, thereby, imparting sexual overtones to the scene that were interesting, but, I think, tangential to the point.  The multi-cultural casting inadvertently gives Regan's act a sort of Fu Manchu dragon-lady aspect that is, also, completely unintentional.) 

The Guthrie's staging was austere and mostly effective.  I didn't like a couple of scenes in which Haj used the equivalent of the pointlessly tracking or spiraling camera movements favored in films by many post M-Tv directors -- two or three times, he had one character stand, more or less, motionless while another, more agitated, figure whirled in tight circles around the interlocutor.  It's effective when you see this done the first time but so heavily choreographed that viewer is likely to be distracted by all of this showy and non-naturalistic motion.  The barnlike set looked like the inside of an ancient astronomical observatory, a vaguely dome-like coffered structure rising up over the stage where there is planted, perhaps, a single barren and schematic-looking tree.  For the storm scene, a part of the play that I thought extremely powerful, there was some strobe-light lightning but otherwise nothing at all showy or cinematic -- the actors simply declaimed their lines as if standing in a strong wind and the hovel on the moor was mimicked by a simple trap door leading down into parts unknown beneath the stage.  The costumes were vaguely Edwardian, a decision that was a good one because pretty soon unnoticed and unremarkable -- the play after all isn't about clothing, but the absence of clothing.  The action all tends toward stripping the characters naked either literally or emotionally.  Everyone expects nature to correct the carnage and injustice threatened by the plot but nature, as Gloucester remarks, is wholly indifferent to human concerns and all cries for relief fall on ears not only deaf, but, in fact, wholly nonexistent:  there is no minister of Justice to right the wrongs that we see:  "as flies to the we are to the gods, like wanton boys they kill us for their sport."  An idiosyncrasy in this production is the strong suggestion the Lear, in the throes of his madness, kills his own fool -- in the fool's last scene, it seems that Lear drives a dagger into the fool's lower back and, thereby, lays him low.  This is a solution, albeit an unworthy one, to a puzzle in King Lear -- what happens to the Fool, a figure so important in the first three acts of the play?

In Shakespearean theater, the privileged instants are those that can be defined as a kind of nakedness or an unveiling.  The Elizabethan world that Shakespeare presents is one in which everyone is always acting -- each man and woman plays a part and ostentatiously acts his or her role.  A king must be "every inch a king" in comportment, nobility of utterance, and dignity.  Peasants and clowns must also play their roles -- they must be steeped in manure as it were, speak in malapropisms, and quite self-consciously insist upon their rural nature.  Lawyers are lawyerly and counselors speak in orotund terms very obviously embodying the fact that they are acting a part.  It's against this general background of ubiquitous or universal play-acting that Shakespearean drama works to rip through the masks adopted by the characters, tearing asunder the roles that society requires that men and women play.  It's for this reason that we are never exactly certain whether Shakespeare's mad scenes involve sane men feigning madness or those who have been driven literally insane by the woes heaped upon them.  Is Hamlet faking madness?  What about Edgar as "Poor Tom"?  In fact, in the mad scenes in Lear, we see Edgar losing control of his act -- he acts so effectively as a mad man that he becomes temporarily insane.  This is a privileged moment in the play, an instant when someone who has hitherto been merely acting a part becomes his part, when the inauthenticity of play-acting becomes suddenly, and frighteningly, authentic.  Similar, it's obvious that Lear is adopting the pretense of being a king, that he is a play or toy king, particularly in the opening scene in which he contrives a kind of mini-Shakepearian play within the play, forcing his daughters to recite previously memorized speeches as to how much they love their dear old dad -- this is obviously a kind of pernicious theater and one that sets into the motion the whole horror-show.  Of all Shakespeare's plays, the climactic scenes in King Lear are the most brutally plain-spoken -- the dramatic trajectory of the play moves from Lear pretending to be a great and wise king, through his madness, and, then, at last to "unaccommodated bare forked thing itself", Lear's final two scenes with Cordelia  are noteworthy exactly for their lack of the wild fustian rhetoric that animates most of the rest of the show.  Curiously, for the most theatrical of all playwrights, Shakespeare's epiphanies occur when, for a moment, the mask of theatricality is suddenly abandoned -- a man playing a mad man suddenly realizes he has reason to be mad, a king is stripped of all the diction of command and, for a few lines, expresses himself just as any other man might under such horrific circumstances.  (I observe that the gender-blind casting deprives the play of one fine and beautiful speech -- Edmund summons a soldier and deputizes him to hang Cordelia.  Shakespeare humanizes the murderer by having him brusquely say that he can neither draw a cart nor eat oats, but that "if it is a man's work, (he) will do it."  The man's work is nothing of the kind -- it involves hanging a half-conscious and helpless girl.  But the scene is instantly memorable and the assassin's insistence on his own dignity, the fact that he like all others are playing a role assigned to him and that he must play that role to its utmost, and that, in fact, it is in playing of the role imparted to him that this minor character defines his humanity -- he is no mere animal because he is acting a part -- all of this I find intensely moving.  But in this play, the actor assigned the part of killing Cordelia is a woman and so the poor player can not say "if it's a man's work, I will do it", a significant loss to the play.) 

Shakespearean tragedy, particularly one as bleak and nihilistic as King Lear, raises an interesting esthetic question.  How is it that we can watch this play and depart the theater in an elevated, even, happy mood?  Why isn't the effect of all this murder and mayhem a deep melancholia imparted, like a virus, to the audience?  The answer, I think, lies in Shakespeare's remarkable exuberance.  Shakespeare, however we imagine him, can only be imagined as a supremely happy person -- the vividness of his poetry and the sheer generosity of his imagination suggest to us that the writer was a person who approached life with tremendous, unwavering joy.  In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein makes the profound observation that "the world of the happy is quite another from the world of the unhappy."  (Tractatus 6:43).  In discussing this point in the context of art, the great critic Arthur Danto says that although the facts may be exactly the same for the happy and the unhappy artist, the world presented by the happy person will be very different from the world presented by the one who is unhappy.  The facts of the world involve all sorts of ingratitude, injustice, brutality, and horror -- this is the same for the happy and the unhappy.  But the happy writer will present these facts in a way that can create an esthetic distance from suffering -- we rejoice in Shakespeare's gargantuan appetite for the world, his sadistic interest in torture and suffering, and his linguistic exuberance even though he is presenting a fable that is one of unmitigated horror.  Dave Hunter has made this point on several occasions and it is worth repeating:  a happy writer somehow transmutes the unbearable facts of existence into something that we can contemplate with some degree of equanimity even pleasure.  Another example might be to compare Colson Whitehead's horrific novel about slavery The Underground Railroad with Heinrich Heine's equally horrifying poem "The Slave Ship" -- Whitehead's novel makes us ashamed, unhappy, and frightened; Heine finds something hideously humorous in the hypocrisy of the slave-traders, makes a powerful moral point and one that does not scant on the suffering of the slaves -- and, yet, his poem doesn't distress us to the point of apathy and doesn't add to the unhappiness in the world.  I would argue that Whitehead's book, however brilliant it might be, just adds another layer of unhappiness to the misery that already exists in the world.  This is the opposite, perhaps, of the effect of a true work of art. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Last Sunset

The sexual hubris of Hollywood's dirty old men is on display in Robert Aldrich's 1961 Western, The Last Sunset.  A 16-year old virgin falls in love with a grizzled gunfighter (played by Kirk Douglas), a man 30 years older than her.   The screenwriter and filmmaker, Dalton Trumbo, can quite come up with compelling reasons why such a romance might be catastrophic.  Accordingly, they engineer a climactic reveal to bar the match -- it turns out that the young woman is...(gasp!)...the gunfighter's daughter.  Presumably, if incest were not an obstacle, no one would think twice about this sexual liaison.  Clearly, I've mortally wounded The Last Sunset by the spoiler that I've just disclosed -- on the other hand, even a blind man could see how things will have to work out in this picture at a range of a dozen miles or so.  Simply put, there's not much surprising about the film's final showdown. 

That said, The Last Sunset is a reasonably well-written and neatly plotted Western that delivers with respect to the standard formulas.  An implacable lawman bent on revenge (the unfortunately named Sheriff Stribling -- Rock Hudson) has pursued a deadly gunfighter attired all in black to a ranch in Mexico.  The gunfighter is an Irish killer and poet named O'Malley (Kirk Douglas).  He plans to hide out on a remote ranch where his ex-girlfriend (Dorothy Malone) is living with her alcoholic husband played by Joseph Cotton.  The gunfighter spent one night of passion with Dorothy Malone 17 years ago.  The product of that brief encounter is a handsome teenage girl whom Cotton's rancher has raised as his own daughter.  O'Malley immediately tries to renew the love affair with the rancher's wife, although she resists him -- hesitantly, it must be noted.  Stribling arrives at the ranch and the men decide that they will cooperate to drive a thousand head of cattle over dangerous terrain to a railhead on the American side of the Rio Grande -- this is a way for Rock Hudson to get Kirk Douglas to the States where he can serve a warrant on him. This plot contrivance doesn't make a whole lot of sense but has the salutary effect of putting the show on the road as it were -- moving the action, that is, away from the ranch and out into the hostile terrain of northern Chihuahua.  There are renegade Yaqui Indians to be encountered, a group of nasty hombres led by Jack Elam (make this note to yourself -- if Jack Elam offers to join your cattle drive, turn him down), and various other hazards including (in a ridiculous scene) quicksand, thunderstorms with lightning, stampedes, etc.  The movie seems to have been written under the aegis of J. Frank Dobie, the Homer of the Texas cattle-drives, and features some of that author's trademark scenes -- notably, there is a wonderful image of St. Elmo's fire flickering across the horns of the longhorn cattle.  Trumbo's script is pretty much blarney, although it has some picturesque lines.  O'Malley does his killing with a derringer because "you can't hit anything at more than 20 feet with handgun and it's (the derringer's) slug is a lot bigger."  Joseph Cotton turns in a slobbering, ugly performance as the alcoholic rancher -- it's fine, but humiliating, and when Cotton is killed in a cantina early in the film (a dispute over who ran away and who didn't in the American Civil War), a little of the wind goes out of the film's sails.  Dorothy Malone looks fantastic in the movie -- she has a bruised ripe look, pouting at the camera in her skin-tight blouses and one shot, that shows her poised like a Mexican senorita, fire in her eyes, against the blue velvet night is extraordinarily beautiful.  There are some other fine scenes -- an image of the cattle swimming directly at the camera through the Rio Grande is thrilling and there are plenty of horse-chases.  The final show-down is staged classically, the combatants measuring out the precise length and breadth of the film's aspect ratio for the gunfight that everyone seems to witness (although, as I have said, the outcome is never in doubt).  A love scene between Douglas and the 16 year old ingénue doesn't become embarrassing because of the subtle pastel tints of purple sky in a little lagoon behind the lovers -- it's too pretty to be embarrassing.  And there is some nice singing of old Mexican songs, including a lovely rendition of "La Paloma" -- "koo-koo roo-koo, koo-koo-koo-roo, koo- koo-roo."   

Family Plot

Family Plot was Alfred Hitchcock's 53rd and last picture.  It's an intricately plotted crime film, mostly played for laughs, written by Ernest Lehman, the scriptwriter for North by Northwest.  The story in Family Plot involves not one, but two larcenous and romantically involved couples.  William Devane and Karen Black appear as exquisitely polite kidnapers who hold their victims for ransom -- they exchange their prey for million dollar gems that they blithely stash in the chandelier in the foyer of their posh LA apartment.  Barbara Harris and her boyfriend, a cab driver played by Bruce Dern, are less ambitious and more amateur crooks.  Harris specializes in defrauding old ladies by conducting fake séances.  In the course of one of those séances, Harris learns that an old lady named Raintree is obsessed with guilt over having persuaded her sister to relinquish and disavow her illegitimate child, the last of the Raintrees.  The old woman enlists Harris' psychic to hunt for the missing heir so that the Raintree fortune can be bequeathed to him.  Harris agrees to find the lost heir in exchange for a payment of $10,000 to her by the old woman if she is successful.  The narrative challenge posed by this plot is that there are really two strands of story and Hitchcock seems to be interested in seeing how long he can keep the two plots separate from one another.  (It's a feat similar in form to what Hitchcock accomplished in Psycho in which a story carefully established in the first third of the movie is completely annulled by what happens in the last two-thirds of the picture.)  As it happens, of course, the lost Raintree heir is the wicked jewel thief and kidnaper.  The dogged efforts of Harris and her boyfriend to unmask the jewel thief and establish his true identity, of course, result in disclosure of their criminal activity -- or, at least, threatened disclosure.  Although Harris only wants to advise the jewel thief that he is an heir to a large fortune, Devane and Black misconstrue her motives and decide that they must "eliminate those two (Dern and Harris) ourselves."  All of this sounds promising and could be the basis for a fun movie, but Hitchcock seems exhausted, parodying himself at times, and directs the movie in a remote haphazard way.  Late sixties and early seventies on-screen candor has not done this film any favors -- Harris makes vulgar unremitting sexual demands on Dern and, instead of the graceful double-entendre in North by Northwest (or a film of similar emotional temperature, To Catch a Thief), Lehman's script is vulgar and crudely suggestive.  (Hitchcock caught up with, or perhaps, shaped the cultural relaxation of standards as to nudity and violence in Psycho and later his horrific masterpiece Frenzy, a film that I'm not sure that I would be willing to see again -- it seems that he was frightened by what he was capable of, scared of his own imagination, I think, and, although, Family Plot is full of dirty talk and nasty toilet images -- there's a big close-up of a portable toilet that Karen Black demands the debonair William Devane empty -- it's relatively decorous except for the vulgarity, all dirty talk but no action.)  It's unfair to demand of a great director that he provide the world with a classical "late work" -- that is, a summation of his career obsessions in a kind of simple, broadly drawn and powerful parable, but this film, with its busy, humming plot, and farcical complications, doesn't have that quality at all.  (Unfair to demand this of Hitchcock, as well, I think because he did deliver a "late work" in The Birds, a movie that, I think, summarizes in a very naked form all of Hitchcock's perverse themes.)  Hitchcock's greatness resides in his ability to wed the analytical, objective/schematic way of telling story through pictures that he learned in the silent cinema with a swooning point-of-view subjectivity.  But there's little of those elements in this film.  Suspense is limited to an attempted murder involving dysfunctional brakes and a stuck accelerator on a mountain road -- Hitchcock had done this winding mountain road thing before and here he takes scarcely any interest in the proceedings, in fact, playing the whole thing for farcical laughs.  At the end of the sequence, Bruce Dern is shown in large close-up with his face comically squashed by Barbara Harris' shoe -- an image that seems more suited to an Abbot and Costello picture than a Hitchcock film.  One lovely shot seems to summarize the film's elaborate plot:  we see an abandoned and neglected graveyard with many small, branching paths running between the unkempt graves.  A funeral is underway but two figures sneak away, both proceeding in opposite directions.  The camera is located high above the graveyard and we watch as the two figures turn this way and that in the labyrinth of pathways, seeming to diverge, before they inevitably encounter one another.  The principal vehicle of satire in the film seems to be the contrast between the upper class thieves and kidnapers and the proletarian phony mystic and her dimwitted cabdriver boyfriend.  (Bruce Dern who always looks a bit weird here is shot like Ichabod Crane, a tall disjointed figure with a crazed look and a thatch of unruly red hair.)  But America is relatively without class distinctions (or refuses to acknowledge those distinctions) and a contrast that would have made sense in a British picture -- that is, between a felonious Peer of the Realm and his Lady and a cockney hack-driver with his moll -- here isn't really legible.  This is particularly true because the rather smarmy William Devane is no Cary Grant and Karen Black is certainly no Grace Kelly.  In this film, Hitchcock seems too exhausted to even establish his fundamental obsessive object of desire -- the glacially cold, blonde ice-mistress.  In one shot, that could have been lifted from DePalma's Dressed to Kill, we see Karen Black all clad in dark leather stalking through the velvet black night wearing a garish blonde wig.  But soon enough, she strips off the wig and reveals that she is not Hitchcock's muse, the lethal blonde.  And the real blonde in the movie, Barbara Harris is foul-mouthed and gamine -- she comes across as a child actor told to mouth dirty lines. 

Wild Strawberries

My father's theory explaining Ingmar Bergman's morose film-making was climactic:  anyone living in a place where winter nights last pretty much all day long will likely be afflicted with melancholy.  It was an esthetic of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I've traveled in Scandinavia in the summer -- in May and June and July, it's always daylight:  you wake up with the sun high overhead and, at night, when you pull shut the curtains it is still bright and white outside.  (My father's Bergman was the director of The Seventh Seal and Winter's Light; I don't think he had ever seen the sunniest of all films, Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.)  These considerations lead me to the thematic question central to Bergman's great Wild Strawberries (1957) -- what exactly is the nature of the rot that entered this bright, verdant world and eaten it away at its core? 

Wild Strawberries is a road movie.  An old professor, Isak Borg, must travel from Stockholm to Lund where he will be awarded some kind of prize for life-time achievement.  (It's an underwhelming ceremony -- after much pomp and circumstance, the old man is bestowed a funereal black top hat.)  Instead of taking a plane to Lund, the old man rises early after a night of uneasy dreams and, after bickering with his loyal housekeeper, sets off in his old hearse-like automobile with his embittered daughter-in-law.  The great Swedish director, Viktor Sjostrom, plays Isak Borg and his acting is startlingly life-like -- he captures perfectly the old man's cantankerous nature, his indomitable pride, as well as his child-like fears and anxieties. (The production was apparently horrific -- Sjostrom, who was 78, kept forgetting his lines and, then, punished his memory lapses by smashing his head against tree-trunks until blood was flowing.)  The old man intends the road trip as valedictory -- he wants to bid farewell to places that were important to him and, further, intends a visit to his 96-year-old mother.  Along the way, the professor, Isak Borg, meets three young people excited about traveling to Italy, a beautiful girl and two boys competing for her affections.  After a near collision, the travelers pick up a husband and wife whose squabbling has escalated to physical violence -- hence, the crash that has destroyed their VW Beetle.  Borg sees his mother, an ancient and profoundly dignified woman who seems icily indifferent to the emotional needs of others.  (In flashbacks, we see her as matron of the household, imperiously ordering her children around and humiliating them in the process -- "People are weak today," she sneers, noting that she bore ten children and, apparently, disliked intensely all of them.)  At Lund, there is a tense reunion with between Borg's daughter-in-law and her estranged husband, Ewald, a cadaverously handsome man.  The clash between husband and wife arises from Ewald's demand that his wife, Marianne, have an abortion -- "how could anyone bring a child into a world like this?" he argues mercilessly.  As a kind of explanation, another flashback shows us Borg spying on his wife with her lover -- in the vision, Borg stands in the ruins of burnt house and watches as his wife first rejects, then, embraces, then, appalled and revulsed, again rejects her lover.  (What is the cause of all of this embittered hysteria in Bergman's women?  Unfortunately, the obvious answer is not flattering to Bergman.)  The old man gets his top-hat and goes to bed, haunted by premonitions of death.  His housekeeper, Agda, refuses to allow Borg to use her first name -- she refers to him as "the professor."  But in an extraordinary final scene, the buxom old woman notes that she will keep her door open should Borg "need anything from her."  It's pretty clear what she means and there is a distinctly bawdy aspect to her invitation -- perhaps, she knows that the old man is now sexually incapacitated and that the offer is intended to humiliate him, although, probably there is something more, something even steadfast and abiding in her proposal. 

Wild Strawberries is most noteworthy for the various dream scenes that comment on the action.  (In my view, these scenes are also a weakness in the film in that they are often overly allegorical and explicit -- one of them has Kafkaesque elements:  Borg is accused of being guilty of guilt.  And are there "long shots" in dreams?  I don't think so.)  In an early sequence, Borg wanders a street on which the clocks have no hands, encounters faceless specters, and, finally, watches a hearse catch its wheel on a lamppost, the casket spilling onto the starkly white paving stones and the corpse sprawled out obscenely on the road -- the dead man turns out to be Borg who is somehow also alive.  (These scenes are brilliantly shot and derive from Sjostrom's silent fantasy film, The Phantom Carriage -- in fact, the entire movie is a commentary of Sjostrom's classic picture, a touchstone to Bergman and a film that he screened each year on New Year's Eve.)  Images premonitory of death are intercut with radiantly beautiful scenes depicting Borg's childhood.  These sequences center around the family's summer cabin on one of Sweden's fjords and, of course, dramatize the abundance of nature, an aspect of the world that Bergman embodied in his voluptuous young blondes and the "wild strawberries" that give the film its title.  The question that the film raises is a simple one:  in the midst of such beauty and sensual abundance, why do human beings make one another so miserable?  Agda and Borg bicker incessantly, although one can detect an element of comic interdependence in these encounters -- after all, this is the only way that they can really interact.  But why has Ewald damned the world as being unworthy of his child?  What malign spirit has caused the husband and wife in the VW Beetle to be so violently enraged with one another that, ultimately, Marianne -- a woman who is no glowing picture of happiness herself -- has to bar them from the vehicle so that their rancor will not poison the trio of young people?  Certainly, people's loves are thwarted -- flashbacks show us that Borg seems to have lost the love of his life to his brother Sigfrid.  (He was in love with Sara, a cousin, who ultimately married Sigfrid, resulting in her giving birth to six children.)  Presumably, the same pattern of lost love and regret will afflict the young people departing on their trip to Italy -- of course, the girl will choose one of them, or, perhaps, someone else and there will be a lifetime of regrets, although one would hope that those regrets would not be psychically crippling.  (The parallel connecting the two rival suitors and Sara with Isak's competition with Sigfrid for his Sara is made palpable by casting Bibi Andersson in both roles.)  Is the infection in the world merely death?  Or is the world infected at its source by the ice-cold mother with her glacial contempt for the children to whom she has given life.  She is the one who made Borg and she will unmake him as well -- dispersing the family toys, the old woman ask Borg take these souvenirs that she never cared much about, including a clock notable for having to no hands.  Far from being a dark or shadowy film, Bergman shoots Wild Strawberries across the length of a single radiant day -- Borg opens the curtains and the sun is high in the sky already shining; in the final scene, the old man goes to bed and has a vision of a sunny afternoon at the family's lake cabin, men and women in resplendent white garments fishing in a rock-girt bay.  If our lives are swaddled in brightness, from whence comes the darkness? 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

The influence of David Lynch rests heavily on I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, a movie made for Netflix and directed by a newcomer, Macon Blair.  The premise of the film is that ordinary bland virtue is menaced by satanic evil, wickedness so terrible that it physically marks and deforms those it afflicts.  As in Lynch's films like Blue Velvet, the movie's raison d'etre is to show that there lurks beneath our quotidian, dull existence a world of seething, grotesque evil.  This proposition is questionable, even adolescent, I think, but makes for an effective, if lurid movie -- a tale that starts out in ordinary reality but quickly detours into imagery that is the equivalent of a hysterical, high-pitched scream.

As in Lynch's films, something has to slightly derange the protagonist, in this case an "assistant nurse," that is, the person with whom we identify as someone of reasonable kindness and ordinary good will.  At the hospital where she works, a woman dies shrieking obscenities at her TV set.  This leads the nurse, who has witnessed this event, to question her existence -- what is the meaning of things if we are all doomed to simply vanish "into carbon", she questions.  The socio-economic milieu and setting of the film are vague -- the nurse, who lives alone on what seems to be minimum wage work, occupies a small, but comfortable house.  The scenery vaguely suggests the American south, possibly some place like Georgia, although it isn't clear where the story takes place -- the movie was made in Portland, Oregon.  Returning home from work, the nurse finds that her house has been invaded, her computer taken as well as some antique silver that her grandmother owned -- the grandmother's spectral figure appears from time-to-time, a typical sixties matron with sunglasses, clad in a stylish pastel outfit, and smoking a cigarette.  (The grandmother's apparition plays the same general role as that played by the ghost of Elvis Presley in Lynch's Wild at Heart.)  The police, predictably enough, are no help and, so, the nurse enlists the aid of an eccentric neighbor, a nerd played by Elijah Wood.  It turns out that the computer and silverware were stolen by a grinning white-haired boy who is the thrall of an older, greaser -- a middle-aged man with slicked-back hair and a morose, impenetrable expression who looks exactly like one of Lynch's sinister drifters (we see him initially at a campfire in the deep woods, filmed over his shoulder in profile, a weird brooding figure that exudes a sense of unpredictable, ghastly evil.)  The drifter has a girlfriend that he is sharing with the white-haired kid, a feral girl  with completely dead and staring eyes.  At first, the film plays like a variant on The Big Lebowski -- the nurse doesn't understand why people have to "be assholes to one another" and she is on righteous crusade to recover her stolen goods.  But this path leads her into increasingly strange places and encounters, for instance, a confrontation with an old skeleton of a man named "Killer Sills" who runs a salvage business and trafficks in stolen goods.  When the nurse finds her silverware with the old man, she walks out with it, there is a fight and the old man is violently knocked to the ground, either seriously injured or killed.  One of Lynch's premises is that evil is contagious and as the film progresses the kindhearted nurse becomes increasingly contaminated by the dark realm into which she has entered.  The film's violence is shocking and erupts suddenly and this will be the pattern for the rest of the movie -- although the film ultimately amps up the mayhem to an unconvincing level.  The white-haired thief is the son of a crooked lawyer involved in money-laundering or some kind of activity that requires that he have a heavily armed body-guard.  The lawyer is a sinister drunk with an idiotically perky wife.  As it happens, the boy with the sinister hobo (who he met in jail) and dead-eyed girl are plotting an armed robbery of the lawyer's house -- apparently, he keeps his ill-gotten earnings there.  The nurse and her sidekick get drawn into this fray through a series of plot contrivances and, ultimately, there is a savage shoot out in the lawyer's house --people get their hands blown off, have "morning star" throwing weapons embedded in their face, and die in other grisly and picturesque ways.  It's all completely over-the-top if scary.  The hobo hunts the girl and the badly wounded Elijah Wood in a sinister forest.  By the end of the film, the imagery has deviated into gothic Flannery O'Connor territory -- one guy wanders through the woods bellowing with an eight-foot cottonmouth snake gnawing at his cheek as if a visible manifestation of his evil and Elijah Wood is bleeding to death under the tall and menacing trees.  The end of the film is cluttered with bizarre epiphanies -- for instance, the grandmother's ghost appears to show the nurse the way out of the forest -- and the action has long since departed from anything that might be reasonably plausible.  Nonetheless, the movie is reasonably diverting, well-acted, I think, with a gallery of memorable villains and ne'er-do-wells.  It's second-rate David Lynch, but, then, even Lynch was capable of doing second-rate work imitating his best films -- for instance, Lost Highway and, I think, Wild at Heart.  Macon Blair directed.  There is an undeveloped Christian subtext and the movie's title is derived from an old Gospel tune, "The World is not my Home."  

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Logan is arrant nonsense redeemed by the sheer conviction with which the movie is made.  It's the kind of movie that makes you ashamed of your reactions.  Although very little of the movie makes any objective sense, the damned thing is so skillfully directed and its actors perform with such fanatical devotion that the whole enterprise somehow equals something greatly disproportionate to, and exceeding, the sum of its flawed parts.  About a quarter of an hour too long at 137 minutes, the picture is, nonetheless, immensely entertaining and, even, emotionally affecting and there wasn't any part of the film that I didn't enjoy on one level or another.

The story involves human mutants who have extraordinary powers of various sorts.  These mutants are regarded with skeptical revulsion by ordinary people and, so, have formed a kind of alliance among themselves, or league -- these are the X-men.  Some number of films have been made, adapting the characters invented in Marvel comic books for live-action on the screen.  The first X-men picture was made 19 years ago and directed by Bryan Singer -- I recall that it was stylish but uninvolving.  A half-dozen sequels followed and, in the course of these pictures, one of the mutants emerged as particularly appealing to audiences -- this is Wolverine, a monster played by Hugh Jackman.  Wolverine has the ability to sprout stainless steel claws from his knuckles and can also, apparently, survive ghastly wounds by some sort of process of immediate hiscinsence  -- if you shoot him, he can flex his impressive abdominal or trapezius muscles, excreting the bullet, so that the new flesh can then grow to seal off the wound.  This process has left Jackman's torso covered with horrible-looking scars but, apparently, he has always been able to heal from the mutilation and maiming inflicted on him by the half-dozen or so sequels that he has survived.  In Logan, the mutant hero drives a limousine in El Paso, has fallen on hard times, and is drinking himself to death -- cirrhosis of the liver is seemingly an affliction for which he lacks the resources to heal himself.  Like an aging gunfighter who has hung up his six-shooter, the hero doesn't want to get involved when sinister government agents initiate a relentless pursuit of a ten-year old Mexican girl who possesses Wolverine's magical powers (and does him one-better by extruding razor sharp claws from her feet as well.)  Wolverine's mentor, the aging and sickly Patrick Stewart, is hiding at an abandoned smelter where he lives in a fallen and very picturesque metal water-tower.  Stewart is attended by a mutant named Caliban who possesses some sort of super-powers that don't stand him in good stead in this picture.  The poor guy has bulging eyes and sensitive pale skin and spends much of the film being tortured by the government agents -- they pitch him into the sun where his skin blisters and welts in the light.  Of course, Wolverine is, at heart, a good man despite his rough and gruff exterior and, ultimately, he agrees to rescue the little girl from her enemies, an army of Department of Defense bad guys in armored personnel carriers and equipped with fleets of drones.  The little girl believes that others of her kind will rendezvous in North Dakota at a certain location revealed by an X-Man comic book. (This is a weird metafictional device -- the characters are acting on a comic book in which they are characters, but I thought it strangely charming.) The child persuades Wolverine to take her to that place and a frantic cross-country chase ensues.  The movie concludes with a full-scale battle between a hundred government special forces troops and the mutant children led by Wolverine and the feral senorita, Wolverine, Jr.  (It turns out that the little girl is the hero's daughter, although apparently produced by injecting his "genetic material" into the belly of kidnaped Mexican girl sacrificed to produce the little monster-ette or monsterling.  Everything that you can imagine is wrong with the plot.  North Dakota looks like New Mexico and, then, the High Country of the Sierra Nevada.  Hugh Jackman's character is dying of some mysterious ailment, but so slowly that he can accomplish all sorts of acrobatic feats of murder and mayhem before ultimately succumbing to his disease.  There is a magic potion that injected into Wolverine acts like spinach to Popeye -- it gives him short-term super-power.  Wolverine has been cloned and he has to fight himself.  And there is even a magic bullet that has the power to kill mutants who can rejuvenate themselves after being horribly wounded -- but not if shot by the adamantine bullet.  Parts of the movie will be incomprehensible to people who are not familiar with the X-Man saga -- for instance, the hero's name is apparently James Howlett and, so, why is he called "Logan."  (The one name title, Logan is a homage to George Stevens' Shane, a film that the movie shamelessly cites and, even, cannibalizes for some its last lines -- the mutant clone Wolverine that our hero has to battle is a variant on Jack Palance's smiling gunman in the Western.)  The picture is also relentlessly vicious, filled with R-rated gory action -- after a battle in the smelter, the ten-year old girl emerges howling like a wild animal and hurls a severed head at her enemies.  The plot was ancient in 1978 when Brian DePalma made the operatic predecessor to this film, and a hundred other pictures featuring mutants with special powers -- that movie was called The Fury and, also, involved evil CIA and military agents working to cruelly "weaponize" children with mutations that confer on them super powers.  Just about everything in Logan is borrowed from other movies. 

But with all these reservations, I thought Logan was excellent, continuously compelling from beginning to end, ingeniously staged, and acted with stunning intensity -- Jackman and Stewart emote as if they were performing together in King Lear or Hamlet.  The movie has too many close-ups for my taste but they are immensely expressive and the feral girl could not be bettered -- she is strange and terrible and, yet, at the same time, recognizably a little child.  The archetypal plot involving the weak and innocent being defended by the warrior with special powers, fundamentally the story of Shane, works effectively in the movie and the chase structure keeps the action hopping and lunging forward.  At first, I was concerned about the film's quality -- an initial exhibition of Wolverine's lethal powers involve his massacre of a gang of chollos, the Mexican criminals presented in an overtly racist manner, and the killings themselves edited incoherently into a blur of meaningless quarter-second shots.  But this inept opening is not characteristic of later action scenes and some of them are stunning in their choreographed savagery -- there is one sequence, in particular, in the final battle in which the camera tracks Wolverine as he kills one enemy after another, all in a continuous shot:  the imagery has a raw, ferocious power that grips the audience and doesn't relax its hold.  In the end, I can't really account for the power for the film's emotional power except that the people who made this movie seem to have been convinced that they were working on a masterpiece with the result that, although the material is brutal, meretricious, and idiotic, the movie is the best of its genre, a big epic production that is, I would argue, the best superhero movie ever made.     

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Get Out

Get Out (2016) is an ingeniously written horror film.  The picture is directed by the comedian Jordan Peele (part of the comedy duo Key & Peele) and has been portrayed, in some reviews, as primarily comedy.  This is misleading.  Peele has made a classical horror film, a movie that respects the genre and that is, in fact, remarkably restrained and, even, earnest.  Horror films are almost all satirical on some level -- they project fears in amplified form so that we can understand the social, political, and psychological aspects of those things that frighten us.  Frankenstein is a grave and alarming satire about science, optimism, and medicine; on some level, Dracula satirizes the concept of romantic love and its Byronic practitioners.  Indeed, I would argue that the greater the horror film, the more meaningful and pertinent its satiric component.  The writers who call Get Out, a comic horror picture are confusing satire with comedy.  Except for a few amusing sequences, intended to relieve the audience's suspense, Get Out isn't very funny and, in fact, people who go expecting to laugh out loud will be disappointed.  In common with many of the best horror films, Get Out is also not too scary -- gross-out special effects and gratuitous shocks would be a distraction and Peele eschews these elements.  The picture is intelligent, dignified, and, even, a wee bit tedious -- Peele is concerned with establishing in a lucid way all of the pictorial and plot elements that he needs for his complex narrative.  Accordingly, the film is disproportionately exposition -- a lot of things have to happen for the audience to grasp clearly what is happening.  When the gory climax finally arrives, Peele's approach is reticent -- the violence is a lot less shocking, although still disturbing, than we might expect.  An example of Peele's tact and his use of implication as opposed to gruesome imagery is a surgery scene close to the end of the picture.  The operating theater is elegantly appointed and the surgery is performed on an unconscious man with his head inserted into a kind of stark white halo.  The surgeon intends to remove the man's scalp and, then, saw through his skull to expose his brain.  This is accomplished but by imagery that never directly shows the surgery -- we see the brain, for instance, exposed as a reflection in the surgeon's glasses.  When the surgeon saws through the skull, the camera angle is beneath the halo-like enclosure and so we see only the slightest trace of blood outlining the incision.  Most horror directors in the last fifty years would have shown the surgery in close-up and emphasized the gore associated with the procedure -- this tendency dates back to Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face (1960) and has continued ever since.  Peele is working on a very low budget -- the movie cost less than 5 million dollars -- and the movie's horror is philosophical, even metaphysical, and, so, there's no point in wasting money with elaborate and lurid special effects involving the surgery.  This doesn't mean that there isn't a certain grim visual elegance to the sequence -- indeed, as a kind of sop to convention, the surgical theater is illuminated, in part, by two candles mounted on tall candelabra.  (The presence of the candles is highlighted when someone bursts into the operating room and knocks one down.)  In general terms, Peele's direction is modest, intelligent, and impeccably tasteful -- in some respects, Peele's visual style reminds me of John Huston:  there's no unnecessary grandeur or spectacle; the scenes simply accomplish what they set out to accomplish.

The film's satire involves race relations and, in fact, the movie is a not-so-subtle attack on White liberals.  At its heart, the movie involves a scheme to reinstitute a kind of slavery.  In fact, one of the most chilling scenes in the movie is a silent course of competitive bidding that we discover to be a slave auction, a Black man's body is being sold to the highest bidder.  The movie toys with issues relating to interracial romance and there is a lot of cringe-inducing racial insensitivity on display among the White people, all of them Obama supporters.  This is the sort of movie that suffers if you know the plot and can anticipate the twists and turns in the narrative and so I will try to avoid spoilers.  It suffices for me to say that the story involves an African-American photographer who is invited to his white girlfriend's house for the weekend.  A group of sinister people appear for the birthday party of a deceased patriarch -- a celebration of the dead man's life is held every year at the same day in the upper class suburban neighborhood where the hero's girlfriend lives.  This aspect of the film suggests Rosemary's Baby with its coven of Manhattan devil worshipers and, of course, the progenitor of this sort of secret society film, Val Lewton's indelible The Seventh Victim.  The white people gathered for the party are very, very white and they don't really know how to interact with a Black man.  This is peculiar because there is another, weirdly mismatched inter-racial couple.  The other Black people at the party, however, have their faces frozen in rigor-mortis smiles and speak in an oddly formal way.  Alison Williams plays the Black man's girlfriend -- she is exceptional:  her long, rigid jaw here signifies something implacably Caucasian about her and she can be either meltingly romantic and sentimental or horribly cold and cruel.  The heroine's parents are played by Bradley Whitford, best-known as a political operative on The West Wing, and the comedian Catherine Keener -- Keener as a psychiatrist is, also, both frighteningly bland and highly sinister.  The film's satire, focusing on White America's love/hate relationship with African-Americans is thought-provoking and highly incisive. 

The best horror films are operatic and feature imagery that is both horrible and beautiful at the same time -- they are, in fact, "sublime" in the sense that they show us images that both intrigue and attract as well as repel.  Peele is too rational and lucid to achieve the kind of effects that the greatest horror films have attained -- but his film is clever, fascinating, well-written, and brilliantly directed. 

Que Viva Mexico!

As deliriously beautiful as it is stupid, the wreckage of Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! casts an intriguing light on the famous Soviet director's other works:  is it possible that lurking beneath the surface flash and dazzle, there's really nothing of substance in those pictures?  Que Viva Mexico! is the kind of disaster that lesser film makers can't recover from -- it's Eisenstein's Heaven's Gate.  The fact that the director successfully completed three films after this catastrophe, and, indeed, made those movies under the oppressive supervision of Stalin, is a testament to Eisenstein's fortitude and, even, perhaps, something like genius.

After flirting with Hollywood, Eisenstein accepted funding from the American novelist Upton Sinclair and Charlie Chaplin to make an epic in Mexico.  With his ace cameraman Edward Tisse and his editor Grigori Alexandrov, Eisenstein toured Mexico, shooting miles of footage that he intended to edit into a film ostensibly celebrating the Mexican Revolution, a mass movement that preceded the Bolshevik uprising by seven years and that was thought to be a sort of harbinger of events in the Mother Russia.  (This story is told, albeit in a wildly idiosyncratic and unreliable manner, by Peter Greenaway in his recent Eisenstein in Guanajuato.)  Eisenstein kept amassing footage with no real plan as to how it should be edited into a final picture.  When he was summoned to Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein had to abandon his raw footage in Hollywood where it had been developed by the bemused studio in the hope of salvaging something from the enterprise.  Since no one knew who owned the hundreds of reels of film, years of litigation ensued (Eisenstein himself died at 50 in 1948) and, during one of the cyclical thaws in US - Russian relations, the mountains of unedited footage were returned to the Soviet Union in the early seventies.  Tisse was long dead, but Alexandrov, Eisenstein's editor, was very much alive -- we see him spry and ironical in the preface to the film -- and he patched Que Viva Mexico! together.  The restored film, in fact, a chimera that only approximates Eisenstein's blurry and imprecise concept, was released in the late seventies. 

Eisenstein's reputation would be better if the film had remained unseen.  Much of the black and white photography is grandiose in a showy, jaw-dropping way -- the film's high contrast shadows laced with brilliant tropical light and stern hieratic compositions are astonishing (you want to press pause to enjoy the stills).  Eisenstein shoots everything from a low-angle and his campesinos, village maidens, and priests have a sculptural statuesque quality.  He creates bizarre symmetrical compositions and, sometimes, uses extraordinary deep focus, a face or mask looming on one side of the frame while violent action occurs on a sunbaked hilltop five-hundred yards away.  Much of the film looks like the prestigious co-production with Fidel Castro, I am Cuba, a movie of equally hallucinatory beauty embellishing moronic narratives, albeit stories that are developed more thoroughly than the half-witted sketches in Que Viva.  Que Viva Mexico's prologue seems to be mostly about a comely Indian maiden's breasts and her tryst with a simpering boyfriend in a hammock zebra-striped with the shadow of an overhead ramada.  The movie is unintentionally condescending and, even, racist.  Frequent Disney-style (Eisenstein greatly admired Walt Disney) shots of animals, including monkeys, intercut with human activity suggests that the Mexicans are not merely child-like but instinctual creatures like the parrots and simians surrounding them.  A sequence entitled "Fiesta" follows, focusing on a young woman's attempt to earn enough money to buy an elaborate silver-coin necklace that will be her dowry.  This story is tangential to other documentary style images of religious processions and masked dancers.  (There is extraordinary footage of hundreds of peasants crawling on their knees up the steps of the great pre-Hispanic pyramid at Cholula -- a Catholic church manned by photogenic and scowling priests is at the pyramid's summit.)  We see a bullfight very badly edited -- Alexandrov can't get the close-ups to match the long-shot documentary images of the bloody spectacle.  At one point, Eisenstein obviously has someone pushing the bull horns mounted on a wheeled assembly, chasing his actors around in a deserted and dusty arena -- the POV effect is risible.  The longest sequence in the movie is entitled "Maguey" and takes place on a high llano where gigantic maguey plants dwarf the human actors:  two volcanoes rise picturesquely over the bizarre-looking plantation.  The story is utterly ridiculous -- an evil landowner exercises droit du seigneur with respect to another comely Indian maiden, this young woman about to be married to an equally pretty Indian boy.  The white-pajamed peasants rise up after drinking vast quantities of pulque -- they can't quite manage to get the foamy stuff into their mouths and its drizzles down their jaws and beards and puffs up their moustaches into a creamy-looking pastry of maguey-beer and whiskers.  The villains have handle-bar moustaches or eerily eroded faces and they leer at the camera and drink mescal toasts to a portrait of Porfiro Diaz.  One of them is even a privileged woman with a strangely immense derriere -- she rides sidesaddle on a little pony, hunts down the campesinos, and kills them with her dainty pistol.  There's an amateurishly staged fight among the surrealistically oversized maguey plants.  The peasants lose the gun battle -- it looks like something from a home-movie with extras melodramatically clutching their breasts and, then, falling sinuously to the ground.  The hero and his buddies are buried up to their shoulders in the desert sand and, then, trampled to death by the villainous landowner's churros.  These scenes are also ineptly edited and comical in effect.  The poor, raped Indian girl is last seen attending to her trampled and dead lover, stuck upright like a post in the dirt.  A final sequence involving brave peasant women called Soldaderas supplying victuals and moral support to their rebel husbands was mercifully never shot.  The movie ends with fantastic images of a Day of the Dead festival.  The corpses imitating wealthy bankers and ranchers and politicians tear off their skeletal masks to reveal (unconvincingly) that they are actually just heaps of bones -- the "doomed classes" as the narrator (Sergei Bondarchuk at his most portentous) tells us.  Other calvaras peel off their masks to show laughing Indian boys and girls, the revolutionary future for Mexico.

It's a cruel comment but one that must be made:  the high-contrast black and white, the ridiculously gorgeous compositions, the dense montage cutting between masks and dancers, the lances of bright light piercing darkness and the emphasis on the volkisch purity of the Indian peasants -- all of this looks like something shot by Leni Riefenstahl, although with less intelligence and elegance. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Girls (Season 6)

Lena Dunham's Girls, now in the sixth season, continues to develop and maintain high standards of excellence.  It's my understanding that the program will end with this season and, presumably, Dunham and her creative partner, Jenni Konner, want the show to conclude on a high note.  On the evidence of the first three episodes, this objective will be achieved and, then, some. 

The 2017 series begins with a throwaway episode, amusing but unnecessary and slight.  Dunham and Konner know that, for better or worse, much of the program's appeal lies in its exorbitant use of nudity and graphic sex -- accordingly, the first episode keeps Dunham's character naked for half the show and features some spectacular sex scenes.  The bare naked ladies and the unblinking eye for sex in its most demystified form is the hook that the show's producers set firmly in the viewer's jaw.  (The plot is slight and unconvincing:  Dunham's character, Hannah, has been dispatched to write about a "surf camp" for wannabe female surfers at Montauk -- the camp is basically a cover for sexual hook-ups with the handsome instructors.  Hannah ends up in bed with the character played by Riz Ahmed, the hunky Pakistani dude cast as the victim in The Night of.  Predictably, she gets her heart -- not exactly broken -- but, rather, slightly bruised.  Sex is often weightless in Girls, a minor diversion, and this is the case with regard to the liaison displayed in this episode.)  The show uses Dunham's lumpy and mostly shapeless physique for some slapstick about her ability to surf.  There's not much to the episode except the show's trademark nudity featuring the heroine's pleasant but unexceptional body.  Someone has told her that you can become more attractive and healthy by exposing the interior of your vagina to the rays of the sun and so Hannah obligingly irradiates herself for the camera's eye. 

The second episode is much better, and, indeed, both frightening and memorable.  Again the action takes place outside of Manhattan.  Mernie and her selfish folksinger husband, Desi, go to a cabin in the woods near Poughkeepsie.  I'm not sure exactly why Hannah accompanies them, but she becomes a witness to an explosive confrontation between Mernie and Desi.  It turns out that Desi is addicted to opiates.    When Mernie throws his drugs away, a ferocious battle ensues.  People get flung around the room and Desi, banished to the outside of the cabin, stalks around shrieking threats.  Finally, he smashes his hand through a window and cuts himself badly.  The quarreling between husband and wife has a savage and brutal intensity and the physical violence is shocking.  The episode ends with Hannah retrieving the bleeding and exhausted Desi from the woodpile where he has collapsed outside.  To the tune of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris", the trio stagger to their car and, numb with fatigue, drive back to the city.  There's not much to the episode, but what we see is startlingly realistic and alarming.  The show doesn't exactly achieve tragedy, something that would be difficult in the scope of 27 minutes, but that's not the objective -- rather, Dunham wants to portray the real squalor and desperation of drug addiction, the sense of claustrophobia that ensues when people who don't like one another very much are trapped together for a long and hideous weekend. 

Girls third episode is a classic, a fully accomplished and brilliant piece of film-making, sharply written with a tightly argued dramatic trajectory.  After a couple of establishing shots, we see Dunham standing before a posh Manhattan condominium checking and rechecking her address.  There is just a slight hint of hesitance, even shyness, in her approach to the building.  In the next shot, we see her proceeding past the doorman in the condominium's elegant lobby -- she walks away from us in the middle of the image and the camera tracks forward very slightly, imparting a curious sense of importance and portentousness to the shot.   This is followed by symmetrical shot taken from the front -- now, Dunham is walking in our direction, the camera again moving very slightly and slowly toward her.  This combination of symmetrically disposed shots of Dunham walking away and toward us, linked by the device of the very slight, almost imperceptible camera movement, suggests a highly classical film grammar.  It appears that the episode will be designed as a sequence of matching shots that are carefully composed -- the slight motion of the camera, not a zoom, but an actual tracking shot, imparts a weight to the imagery and foregrounds the concept that the mise-en-scene will be built from matching book-ended shots.  And this is how the show proceeds:  Hannah has been invited to the apartment of a famous novelist that she has impugned on her blog.  The program is structured as a sequence of shots showing Hannah in one frame, then, the novelist in a separate frame, devising a back-and-forth rhythm cutting between the two equally matched antagonists in the debate that follows.  Gradually, the two characters come to occupy the same shot and, finally, at the episode's X-rated climax, we have a vertical shot showing the novelist and Hannah occupying the same bed.  At the end of the episode, the distance between the two characters has been re-established and, indeed, if anything, they are now more remote from one another.  We see Hannah at one end of the room, the novelist as far apart from her as possible, and, between, them the novelist's teenage daughter who is playing a flute.  There is a close-up of the novelist, now portrayed as an attentive and doting father, followed by an identically composed close-up of Hannah looking at the novelist.  Then, I think, there is a scene on the street showing Hannah walking away from the novelist's apartment, an image like the opening establishing shot that signifies the show's ending and the closure of its formal system of images.  Throughout the show, the use of space between the antagonists, the way the characters are framing, and the very slight camera movements create a sense of intensely lucid clarity -- the positions of the characters in the frame and vis-a-vis one another are both formally beautifully and, also, thematically meaningful.

In this episode, Dunham reprises to some extent the violent two-character confrontation central to David Mamet's underrated 1991 film Oleanna.  Indeed, I think the show is designed as a counter-punch to Mamet's sexually charged imagery and debate in that film.  (Mamet's daughter Zosia is a regular on Girls.)  In Oleanna, a female student accuses her professor of sexually harassing her and the issue is debated throughout the picture.  Dunham's rejoinder involves Hannah's assertion in her blog that the charismatic novelist has abused his power to coerce unwilling young women into giving him oral sex.  The novelist doesn't exactly deny the charge but engages in a self-pitying, if intensely intelligent, justification for his behavior.  Hannah responds with a claim that she was sexually abused as a child and staunchly argues that the novelist's behavior verges on the criminal.  Of course, neither side can convince the other and underlying the debate is the sexual tension between the two antagonists that renders both of their positions intrinsically uncertain and, even, perhaps, inauthentic.  All of the smart and hyper-articulate talk, on its face, combative and profoundly antagonistic, may also be about something else -- indeed, may also be some kind of predicate to seduction or seduction itself.  And, in fact, Hannah ultimately finds herself slipping into the position of the other young women seduced by the novelist, although not in exactly the same way.  The program is brilliantly written and realistically observed, although the dialogue has the heightened aphoristic quality of a play by Wilde mixed with some Shakespearian poetry.  In the end, we are left with an understanding that, of course, issues involving human sexuality are unfathomably complex, that "no" doesn't always exactly mean "no" and that "yes" is equally ambiguous.  Girls has the courage to allow its characters to be flawed, indeterminate, and, even, profoundly annoying -- all of which we see in this very fine, and brilliantly designed, episode.  (Matthew Rhys plays the novelist -- it would be fun to know who he is imitating; one certainly has a sense that the show's observations are satiric.  Dunham, who wrote the episode, surely had some well-known writer in mind.)