Wednesday, May 31, 2017

I am not your Negro

At some point during his illustrious career, the African-American writer, James Baldwin accumulated notes for a book about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers.  Baldwin was older than these three men and seems to have regarded himself as a kind of older brother to these luminaries in the struggle for Black civil rights.  The book was never completed and, indeed, remained embryonic -- there are only thirty pages of notes, but they are, apparently, splendid in their own right.  Raul Peck's silly and meretricious I am not your Negro (2017) is a film-essay about the oppression of African-Americans in this country.  The picture uses text by Baldwin, read very effectively by Samuel E. Jackson, as its structure and guiding principles.  Although Baldwin's prose is often super-heated to the point of melting into a sheer white-hot rant or paranoid harangue, I don't blame the hyper-sensitive author for the idiocy of this picture.  Baldwin's points are exaggerated but probably valid for the time they were written, although, I think, less pertinent today.  The problem with the film is the visual imagery adduced in support of Baldwin's critique is completely disconnected from the arguments that the author makes -- indeed, not merely disconnected but, even, actively distracting, subverting, as it were, the viewer's attention from Baldwin's preaching to the glossy images supposedly illustrating his words. 

I should observe that my distaste for this film is a minority opinion.  Critics have generally raved about this film's perspicuity with respect to race relations.   However, as I noted above, a distinction must be made between Baldwin's words and the pictures used to complement them.  Baldwin is photogenic; he's so ugly that he's cute and he has huge eyes bulging with worry and a broad toothy grin that is very endearing when he suffers himself to smile or show pleasure at something.  On the subject of race-relations as everything else, he is a single raw and pulsing nerve.  Fantastically eloquent, he's never at a loss for words -- his rhetorical stance is to make a statement so hyperbolic that it is impossible to credit and, then, double-down on the assertion, amplifying and expanding it.  Some of what he says is self-delusional -- for instance, he repeatedly characterizes himself as a man of sorrows, a victim's victim, someone who stands before White society as an abject and despised creature.  But this is most abundantly not the case -- we see a huge crowd of White students at Cambridge rise to give him a standing ovation when he has just told them that their culture and its values are rotten to the core.  A motif in the film is his memory of where he was located when he first heard of the deaths of his three specimen Civil Rights' heroes -- in one case, he was vacationing on the beach in Puerto Rico, in another case, he was enjoying his supper at someone's home while touring London -- in the third instance, he was sitting poolside in Hollywood with a crowd of movie stars.  Baldwin's account of the funeral of Martin Luther King is vulgar -- he spends an inordinate amount of time establishing where he was located vis a vis Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte and other stars of motion pictures and the music recording industry.  When he bursts into tears, he is consoled by his friend "Sammy" referring, of course, to Sammy Davis Jr.  Notwithstanding Baldwin's propensity to showboat, he is a very effective critic of White society and most of what he says is relevant to the state of race relations today.  Where the film goes off the track is in Raul Peck's bizarre imagery.  Peck delights in playing excerpts from Fifties musicals to demonstrate how detached from carnal reality most White people were in that decade -- he scapegoats Doris Day and, even, seems to suggest that her screen persona has something to do with lynching.  Characteristic of Peck's shoddy, dishonest pictorial accompaniment is a sequence interposing photographs of Bobby Kennedy and Lorraine Hansberry, a Black poet and activist who challenged the Attorney General to take a more activist stance during the Civil Rights movement.  Kennedy rejects Hansberry's plea and, then, we hear Baldwin note that she has died -- the impression is that Bobby Kennedy somehow engineered her death.  Similarly, the film shows us pictures of the dead Malcolm X while Baldwin bewails the fact that "they" have killed him -- who is this "they"?  Is it the nefarious Kennedy brothers again or just White society in general?  Clips of old movies are shown devoid of any context and when lacking anything to illustrate  Baldwin's harangues, the camera just indulges in pretty Steadi-cam tracking shots of swamps and bayous or, sometimes, elevated railroad lines or residential neighborhoods in the South.  There is a striking sequence appropriated from some Chamber of Commerce film made in the early sixties urging White merchants to market to Black people -- is this supposed to be a bad thing?  Neutral?  Or a good thing?  And there is a problem that the film radically decontextualizes powerful images -- we see race riots, poverty, police beating Black people, etc. but we aren't told who these people are, or what pushed them into the roles that we see in the film.  I have long argued that Ken Burns has had an immeasurably adverse effect on documentary filmmakers -- Burns perfected the technique of having a celebrity read a powerful prose text while his camera decorously swoops and zooms and tracks through old photographs that generally have very little to do with the subject at hand.  And this adequately describes what Peck is doing with this film -- he's firing in all directions with film imagery deployed to attack just about everything in Western civilization, but the pictures are not effectively linked to the words; they seem to be just wallpaper to the celebrity narration provided Samuel E. Jackson.  Not content with decrying the state of Black and White race relations, Peck loads up the film with images from cowboy and Indian movies -- but he completely ignores the purpose for the scenes that he shows or what they originally meant in the context of the films from which these clips have been extracted.  Is a shot from the anti-war anti-Vietnam allegory Soldier Blue to be taken as an indictment of the genocide of the American Indians?  If so, we are asked to accept for real an atrocity that, in fact, has been staged by Hollywood -- it's incongruous as if Claude Lanzmann were to illustrate Shoah with clips from Schindler's List. Or are we supposed to see the image as just one more picture made by White people to cynically exploit Native Americans?  Is it really fair to set up John Wayne only to knock him down again and again.  The man's been dead for forty years.  At one point, the film shows an aerial shot of a big box store like Walmart.  White people fill the store pushing shopping carts before them.  What if the all the people in the store had been black -- the case of many urban Walmarts where I have shopped?  Is the Walmart bad in one case and good in another?  Is it only bad and an example of mindless consumerism when filled with White people?  But don't Black people patronize those stores just as much as Whites?  In many instances, I suppose one could say that Baldwin spoke truth to power, but Peck fills the movie with so many absurd lies, primarily as a matter of film's visual aspect, that he undercuts everything his hero tells us.    

Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant

I am not a person who wins competitions.  However, once, many years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by KQRS radio and won a prize.  KQRS was, then, thought to be part of the counterculture -- it played rock and roll album cuts and, on Sundays, featured the King Biscuit Flour Hour.  On the station, broadcast from a swampy part of St. Louis Park, you could hear Bob Dylan songs like "Positively Fourth Street" uncut.  I don't recall that the contest required anything more than that I place a phone call and supply my name -- something that I did.  A week later I was informed that I had won two tickets to the Minneapolis premiere of Ridley Scott's Alien.  I was interested in film and I had seen Scott's earlier movie, The Duelists, a picture based on a story by Joseph Conrad, very beautifully shot and acted.  Therefore, I was excited at the chance to see Scott's new film, screened at the old Skyway Theater on Hennepin Avenue.  I attended the movie with my girlfriend, Tarin H-- , and I recall that the film was one of the most frightening experiences in my life.  Indeed, I thought the movie was so fantastically disturbing and scary that it verged on irresponsibility to unleash such a gruesome and horrifically fanged creation on an unsuspecting audience.  I don't think I was unique in my response to the film -- in those days, standards for film violence were very different and all of us had been raised on TV and, therefore, the unprecedented level of gore and suspenseful horror in the film was something to which none of us were accustomed.  I recall the audience staggering out onto Hennepin Avenue in stunned silence. 

I'm now 62 and, I understand Ridley Scott is 80, and Alien: Covenant is undoubtedly the last installment of this franchise that the British director will make.  I'm sorry to report that the movie is almost good -- that is, respectable enough, but not really very interesting and, certainly, not frightening at all. Alien: Covenant is a much bigger movie than its prototype shown now so many years ago.  The first film, Alien, was, as Pauline Kael pointed out, merely a gorilla in a haunted house picture -- but it was artfully made with a sure sense as to what would appall audiences and Scott understood that a monster that is fully seen becomes nothing more than an interesting zoological specimen as a opposed to a presence that might haunt our nightmares.  The cunning of the first Alien film was that Scott never really showed his monster -- and this is key:  the thing was a incoherent collage of slime, fangs, and scales, and, indeed, a ghastly presence, not a tangible bogeyman.  The unfortunate crew members on the space ship were massacred one by one by something that couldn't really be seen or, even, intelligibly described.  Alien is a once in a lifetime event, both for director and audience.  Alien: Covenant, a very fancy film with Wagnerian pretensions (it begins and ends with Wagner's "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla") is reasonably disgusting, replete with bursting torsos and face-gobbling monsters, but it is isn't even slightly scary.  And if a horror film isn't scary, then, it will have to be something else.  The Bride of Frankenstein isn't scary but its very witty -- alas, there's nothing funny about Aliens:  Covenant.  The second film in the franchise, Aliens wasn't really scary but it had an exciting combat plot -- it was an effective war film with scenes of sacrifice, derring-do, and heroism.  Again, there is nothing like this in Scott's new film -- the special effects are big and loud but not convincing and there's no consistent "through-plot", no real object to all the mayhem.  Some of the imagery is quite beautiful and the first half hour of the picture featuring a neutrino burst that damages the space ship "Covenant" and, then, the exploration of a planet that looks something like the more spectacular fjords in Norway is very effective.  But, once the creatures start dismantling a cast that is nothing more than cannon fodder -- no one really differentiated except those anticipated to survive until the last reel -- the movie loses its way and becomes repetitious and, even, tedious.  The film fancies itself philosophical and one plot point turns on the distinction between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, but the philosophy seems strangely disconnected from the lurid murders that comprise most of the film.  It seems that a lonely robot named David has a desire to create.  Robots, apparently, are sublimely knowledgeable but they lack the imaginative instinct to create something new.  David decides that he will engage in DNA-splicing to manufacture a horde of ravenous monsters -- hence, the genealogy of the beasties harassing our protagonists.  David battles his successor robot and tries to rub out the heroes in Alien: Covenant because like Milton's Satan, a figure expressly invoked in the scenario, he will not serve -- non serviam.  The film traffics in the Wordsworthian and Miltonic sublime -- there are vast canyons and towering mountains, enormous ruined cities filled with petrified corpses like the bodies cast in ash at Pompeii.  Giant storms vex the planet and there are colossal towers, some of them shaped like human heads.  It would all be quite picturesque except that Scott leaves 80% of the film in bleak, blue-grey darkness, the same murk that afflicts most special effects - driven films -- it's all shadowy and dimly lit because, I suppose, the director is concealing the limitations of his CGI.  Most of the action scenes are not properly established or coherently imagined -- if we are going to deploy a giant toothed crane to destroy a monster, the script should first alert us to the fact that such a crane exists and can be deployed.  Instead, the big crane just appears out of the director's bag of tricks.  Furthermore, there are annoying lapses:  in an early scene, a robot inspects a set of embryos in some kind of cryogenic cabinet.  One of the embryos is rotten and so the robot throws it away.  At the end of the film, another robot puts an embryo in a tiny round canister into the same cryogenic cabinet -- one expects him to put the new replacement embryo (a monster of course) into the spot vacated by the embryo that was found decomposed an hour earlier.  But, instead, the robot puts the two new embryos that he has disgorged -- he has been incubating them in his mechanical belly (it would have been far wittier to have him pull them out of his rectum) -- in a new location in the register of fetuses.  Why?  It's a tiny detail but symptomatic of a certain carelessness that afflicts this movie.  Michael Fassbender, who is now in almost all American films, gets to play two identical twin robots -- and, therefore, also can impersonate Milton's Satan, and, as Wagner is playing, gets a chance to march down an endless corridor as god's most perfect Aryan -- Hitler, Satan, and a German matinee idol all rolled-up into one.   

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

Mark Frost and David Lynch's reboot of Twin Peaks airs on Showtime.  I have now seen the first four hours of the program.  I have no idea whether these episodes are representative -- indeed, all evidence suggests that they are not since the show is bafflingly unpredictable and wildly disparate in its emotional valence and tone.   Although generally darker than its predecessor, Lynch veers wildly between horrific imagery and broad comedy.  Although the show revives many of the characters famous from the iconic episodes first broadcast in the early nineties, Twin Peaks: the Return is provocatively different from its earlier incarnation -- I use the word "provocatively" with literal intent:  Lynch seems to set about to shock his fans by transforming the already weird and wildly discursive subject matter in the nineties' series into something even more peculiar, disturbing, and bizarre. 

Consider, for instance, Lynch's nods toward the bucolic and quirky village of Twin Peaks, one of the most widely imitated and admired aspects of the earlier series.  In the new program, only about 15 or 20 % of the show happens in Twin Peaks.  And what we see of the town and its inhabitants is very different from the way Lynch visualized the place in the earlier series.  In the first Twin Peaks, the town consisted of the sheriff's station, generally shown in a stock shot as a building with a sign announcing its meaning, the great Northern Lodge, a huge redwood chateau next to a foaming waterfall, the high school, the diner that famously served the best coffee and berry pies in the Northwest, and the roadhouse on the edge of town.  In the first four hours of this series, we see the Great Northern, the primary set for the earlier show, for only about two or three minutes; the sheriff's station looks the same from outside but is often filmed with picturesque lighting effects caused by sunshine diffusing through the trees behind the place -- the interior of the sheriff's department seems much larger now, a maze of corridors and hallways with rooms filled up with odd-looking electronic and computer gear.  Hawk, Deputy Andy, and Lucy occupy the station, although in the third or fourth episode we also get a glimpse of Sheriff Harry Truman, played by someone different from Michael Ontkean, the actor in the first show.  The other locations in town haven't featured yet in the show except for the Roadhouse,  now larger with a better stage for the dreamy, retrograde crooning that Lynch favors.  (The director seems to have adopted a pattern of ending each episode with one of his trademark and hallucinatory song sequences -- a group of somnambulant musicians keening weird but tuneful songs while the crowd slow-dances.) 

The most alarming aspect of the new show is the way Lynch treats his familiar (and much loved) characters.  Kyle McLaughlin, Agent Cooper in the first series, here has morphed into, at least, three separate characters.   It's as if the show occupies some kind of quantum reality in which multiple but divergent universes eerily intersect. Fans of the first series will recall that Cooper ended the show in 1992 trapped in the monstrously evil Black Lodge, a system of rooms with a hypnotically tiled floor and draped in red velvet.  Some version of Cooper emerged from the Black Lodge, but this figure was possessed by the demonic Bob, an embodiment of sheer, bestial evil.  This avatar of Cooper, now wearing shoulder length black hair and horribly gone to seed is wandering the world, seducing and, then, murdering teenage girls and leading some kind of gang of mutant criminals.  Cooper, previously a knight of impeccable honor and goodness, has now become a monster with jet black puppy-dog eyes -- his eyes seem to have no white in them at all.  Kyle McLaughlin is effective in this role, but it is unsettling to see him playing the part.  Another version of Cooper remains trapped in the Black Lodge, although apparently he is ejected somehow, ending up in a nightmare fortification, something that looks like one of Hitler's bunkers along the Atlantic ocean.  In the fortification, there is a woman with a resemblance Josey Packard from the first show, but with her eyes sewn shut.  Another unseen monster is banging on the door of her prison and Cooper ultimately gets sucked into some kind of machine that transforms him into a cloud of ions only to reemerge in a foreclosed-upon suburb near Las Vegas.  There someone named Dougie, who looks like a fat version of Cooper, is a paying black prostitute for her services in a foreclosed and vacant home.  Cooper in his black FBI suit and tie appears just as the Dougie, creeping across the floor seems to vomit out his heart.  Dougie vanishes and Cooper takes his place.  As it happens, assassins are plotting to kill Dougie but he avoids their attack by accident -- when the gunman trains his highpowered rifle on Cooper, our hero is bending over in the prostitute's car to pick up a key to the Great Northern that he has found in his pocket.  (This sequence is a model for the show's bizarre and digressive narrative style -- the prostitute seems to think Cooper is the same as Dougie, although he looks very different, and doesn't trouble herself much about the fact that the man she was just servicing has suddenly changed clothing, sports a totally different haircut, and is lying, shoeless -- Cooper's shoes didn't ionize -- next to heap of puke the size of a rotisserie chicken.  Lynch's world is so strange that people don't really register things that are totally wrong and out of place.  After the assassin is thwarted, one of his accomplices places a bomb -- or maybe just a tracking device on Dougie's SUV.  We see this occurring through the window of one of the few houses in the foreclosed neighborhood that is occupied.  In that house, there is a bedraggled woman with absolutely psychotic-looking eyes who is contemplating taking a single enigmatic pill with a shot of whiskey.  The woman looks like a meth addict in the last throes of her affliction.  In the room with the woman, there is a little boy who is playing on the couch and who looks out the window to see the assassin rigging the bomb on Dougie's vehicle.  The woman cries out mechanically "1-9-9" -- meaning, I suppose, "danger" and getting the 911 number wrong.  This tiny sequence is invested with a great sense of peril -- we are fearful for the woman and, even, more fearful that something will happen to the little boy.  But we don't who these people are or why they are shown.  It's vaguely similar to the old granny with her eerily self-composed grandson, a seven-year-old made up to look like a miniature David Lynch, in the first series.  But here the effect is more disturbing -- something very bad is happening in that house and a child is at risk.  But, at this point, Lynch simply shows us this as a materialization or embodiment of the free-floating anxiety that characterizes the show's tone.)  Dougie goes to a casino where an apparition, something like a floating red ice-cream cone, shows him how to win at slot machines -- he breaks the bank with 28 or so consecutive jackpots.  This part of the show features Cooper as suffering from echolalia -- he mutters autistically like a berserk "rain man" in the casino and doesn't know who he is. 
Throughout the show, Lynch alarms us repeatedly by the simplest of all expedients -- he shows us how the iconic figures in the first series have now aged:  the log lady is on oxygen and cancer has denuded her skull -- she is mostly bald.  (Indeed, the woman playing the log lady died a couple days after these scenes were shot.)  Miguel Ferrer, playing Albert, the sardonic forensic specialist at the FBI (he's like Jack Webb on Dragnet at his most surly) was also sick and died during production.  When he walks, he seems to lurch unsteadily.  Deputy Andy's weird male-pattern baldness is even more strange in this show and Hawk, still handsome, has grey hair.  The nymphets who were an important part of the first show are now stout middle-aged matrons.  The one-armed man seems to have had a stroke so that one of his eyes doesn't seem to focus and the giant is now elderly, strangely imposing, as he utters prophetic statements in a distorted voice.  In one scene, particularly shocking for devotees of the first show, Cooper is handed a cup of coffee.  He no longer knows how to drink it and burns his mouth, spitting the coffee on the floor.  This is like a slap in the fact to Twin Peaks' fans who relish, and can quote by heart, some of Cooper's more eloquent encomia to the joys of drinking coffee.

As far as I can presently ascertain, the show consists of three interwoven plots.  At Twin Peaks, the log lady has told Hawk that something is missing in the Laura Palmer file.  This leads Hawk, Andy, and Lucy to carefully study the file with a photograph of the dead Laura Palmer prominently displayed in the center of the conference room table.  This part of the program is shot deadpan with absurdist dialogue of the kind that you might expect in a play by Eugene Ionescu -- for instance, Lucy admits to having eaten one of the chocolate bunnies that were part of the evidence amassed in the Laura Palmer homicide investigation (she ate the bunny as an anti-flatulent measure).  The characters debate at length whether the missing candy is what the log lady meant, first concluding that this was her message, then, deciding they are wrong and, then, after much discussion returning to their initial conclusions that perhaps Lucy's misappropriation of the chocolate bunny was the subject of log lady's gnomic phone call -- it's a characteristic Lynch device, a conversation that chases its own tail.  The second strand of the show involves a very frightening murder mystery taking place in Buckhorn, S. Dakota, a place shown on the map as near Spearfish.  In this case, a woman has been killed -- her body is missing but her severed head has been put atop the bloated corpse of what seems to be an old fat man (whose head is correspondingly missing).  The third element of the story involves a strange instrument apparently accessing another dimension that is buried in the bowels of a billionaire's skyscraper in New York City -- some sort of monster with a body pale as a maggot has come through the tool and torn apart two young lovers while they were having intercourse.  (The boy was hired to watch the instrument, a black lens, encased in a crystal box, and catalogue surveillance footage taken by a half-dozen cameras showing the infernal machine.)  The FBI is involved in investigating the Buckhorn murder as well as Cooper's mysterious reappearance after being missing for 25 years -- this is the evil Cooper, the murderer of young girls, now confined in federal penitentiary in South Dakota.  Finally, the FBI is also investigating the mutilation death of the young lovers ripped to shreds in the skyscraper's basement in Manhattan. 

Lynch's stages all of this with fantastic gusto.  The question is whether his willfully outlandish grotesquerie, astounding and profound at first, will pall into some kind of tedious whimsy.  This was the fate of the other show, although primarily because Lynch was not involved in most of the second season.  Generally, an experienced viewer can figure out what is meant by a director's deviation from the anticipated norm.  What makes Lynch unique and, perhaps, great is that there are aspects to his work that simply can't be assimilated to any known form of reference.  And, yet, these weird effects don't necessarily seem pointless or arbitrary -- instead, they are reference markers showing us that there is more in the world than can be dreamt of in our science or philosophy.  They are devices that recall to us the ineffable strangeness of actual reality -- the fact that things really happen that don't make any sense at all.  For instance, why is a scene between the three FBI agents, featuring a bizarrely seductive female G-man, shot in a deep blue tint? -- is it supposed to be night?  Is this some kind of archaic use of day-for-night?  Or are we being shown, metaphorically, that the FBI are "in the dark"?  Why does the female agent swivel her hips like Marilyn Monroe when she walks, a gait that no real human being could ever accomplish?  Sheriff Andy and Lucy have a child that they call Wally Brando.  When we see Wally Brando we are astounded to see that he is played by Michael Cera dressed as a manikin of Marlon Brando in The Wild One -- this is like the "jelly on springs" gait of the female G-man,  in the case of the woman, a shot that seems to be an allusion to Some Like it Hot.   But, even, more astonishing, Cera speaks with the diction of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, mumbling and pausing idiosyncratically -- it's utterly bizarre, extremely funny, and wholly inexplicable.

At the opening of the show, we see a reprise of Agent Cooper's colloquy with Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge at the end of the last episode in 1992 or 1993.  Laura Palmer says:  "I will see you again in 25 years."  I recall the original scene and being struck by the fact that Lynch has, in fact, waited for a quarter century to return to these characters.  In the new show, Laura Palmer winks lewdly as she speaks those lines, an effect achieved, I think by CGI but an image that, nonetheless, causes your skin to crawl and that sends, inexplicably, a cold shudder up your spine. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Children of Paradise

In every sense, Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise is larger than life and more emphatically intense.  First, the 1945 film produced under German occupation is very long -- the picture runs for three hours and ten minutes.  Second, the production is lavish -- the sets are vast and impressive; the forty minutes of proscenium theater reproduced in the movie is a lavish spectacle of another kind, a lost world of pantomime and melodrama lovingly recreated for the screen.   Images of exteriors, Parisian thoroughfares, embody an adage about filmed versions of the past:  the streets were more crowded in those days, elbow to elbow with pedestrians, and representatives of the various human types and occupations were far more vivid in the past than they are today.  A vista of the so-called "Street of Crime" shows about a half-mile of extras on promenade under detailed matte-glass paintings of tenements and theater buildings.  Third, the film's screenplay is less a script than a kind of poetic libretto -- everyone speaks either in an impassioned demotic consisting of insults or imprecations or utters aphorisms or, even, verse poetry of a very high order.  (The script is by the great surrealist poet Jacques Prevert.)  Fourth, the movie's plot jams more conflicts, love entanglements, and criminal enterprise into a film than we are used to encountering.  In general terms, the complex plot involves a spectacularly beautiful woman who is adored and wooed by not two, or, even, three admirers but, at least, four -- and one has the sense that Carne's affection for his leading lady, Arletty (playing the courtesan and actress Garance) is such that he might gladly have multiplied her lovers (and, therefore, complicated the narrative) by adding dozens, if not hundreds, of inamorata.  Indeed, Carne takes it for granted that everyone who sees Arletty in this role will fall in love with her and, therefore, she is the central solar radiance around which the various plots and subplots revolve.  In one scene, Garance walks in the rain with a great pantomime artist, comes to his garret, and, then, nonchalantly offers herself to the young man -- the scene has a blatant, direct eroticism that is still startling today and Garance's unmistakably direct proposition is one of the few instances in screen history of a great and beautiful actress suggesting that a man sleep with her that is both delicate, impressively forceful, and, for some curious reason, neither emasculating nor demeaning to the male character.

Simply stated Arletty's Garance is the prize sought by the young, fantastically poetic and fragile-looking pantomime -- the actor has something of the quality of a very fine, and elegant, piece of chinoserie; he is like carved ivory.  Although the mime loves Garance with his beautiful soul, the woman's body belongs to a garrulous and vain Shakespearean actor -- a figure whose volubility contrasts with the mime's silence on stage; it is the classic duel between gesture and word.  (Although the Shakespearean actor performs parts in the Theatre des Funambules, the pantomime venue, where the company seems to be enacting variations on Venetian commedia dell'Arte -- the young mime is a suitably balletic and refined Pierrot whose love, played by Garance, is also the subject of the ruder and more aggressive intentions of Harlequin.  Throughout the film, Carne reprises famous etched and painted images of the French theater including Watteau's monumental and enigmatic portrait of the melancholy Pierrot.)  A wealthy baron also yearns to make Garance his mistress and courts her.  Finally, there is a roguish thief, a sort of bandit, whose criminality is based on Nietzschean philosophical proposition, a figure who seems like someone in a novel by Dostoevsky -- the thief also loves Garance, but is too proud to woo her, although she seems to express an interest in him. (Prevert's notes in the film's script indicate that the bandit, Lacenaire is "impotent.")  The complex interaction between these figures and a host of minor characters provides the subject matter for the film's melodrama. 

The Children of Paradise is presented in two parts with an intermission -- apparently, you could either see the film complete on one night or in separate installments.  The first part, "The Street of Crime" sets up the complicated story, climaxing with Baptiste's inexplicable flight from Garance's bedroom -- an exodus that provides an opportunity for the Shakespearean actor (Frederick Lemaitre) who is opportunistic, with less refined scruples, and conveniently lodging in the next room with balcony access to Garance.  The first half of the film isn't flawless -- the pacing flags in a long and mostly extraneous scene set at the "Red Breast" tavern, a sort of picturesque "lower depths" milieu where nonetheless all of the major characters are implausible congregated.  The film is full of portents and prophecies -- most of the characters in the movie were real people living in the years 1827 and 1828, the time that the movie portrays, and Carne delights in teasing his audience with allusions as to what would actually happen to these people, portents that had to come true since Carne knows the fortunes of his characters after the film's final curtain.  The long and dull scene in the tavern, however, is followed by the sublime love duet between Baptiste and Garance that ends with him bolting from her room.  After that debacle, Garance becomes the mistress of a wealthy baron, a man who is savage and remorseless duelist.  This development occurs only after Baptiste, playing the somber and melancholy Pierrot at the Funambules glimpses Frederick Lemaitre flirting with Garance backstage -- Carne and Prevert have designed the film so that exquisite reconstructions of 19th century pantomime mirror (or comment on) the narrative.  The second half of the film, "The Man in White", ostensibly resolves the plot conflicts in the first part of the movie, although the tone is different, darker, and the plot seems not so much a continuation of the film's first 100 minutes but, rather, a variation on its themes.  With the lethal Baron, Garance has returned to Paris after living for several seasons in Scotland (where she inspired a duel resulting in death involving a young man.)  Frederick Lemaitre is now a successful actor on the stage and no longer forced to rely upon pantomime to make a living.  There is an amusing sequence at the beginning of Act Two, extraneous to the film's plot but very funny about Lemaitre subverting a poorly written play in which he is the principal.  Ultimately, all the characters attend a performance of Lemaitre's Othello, another commentary on the jealousy that is now rife among the protagonists.  (Lemaitre wants to renew his affair with Garance; Lacenaire continues to hover around her protectively and Baptiste, who is now married with a young son, obsessively laments his lost opportunity with Garance on the stormy night several years earlier.  For her part, Garance is determined to make love to Baptiste -- although she doesn't want anything like a relationship with him.)  The dead-eyed Baron, grasping that Garance can't love him, tries to induce Lemaitre into a duel -- we've already seen that Lemaitre is inept in this realm.  Lacenaire joins the verbal fray and, for a delicious ten minutes, the characters exchange barbed witticisms until Lecenaire theatrically draws a curtain to reveal Baptiste outside the theater window in Garance's arms.  Of course, the Baron is too noble to waste a bullet or sabre-slash on a mere mime and, instead, forces poor Lemaitre into agreeing to a duel.  Garance makes love to Baptiste and, the next morning, Lacenaire, not someone you want to trifle with, goes to the Moorish bath where the Baron is relaxing and stabs him to death -- an act so vicious that Lacenaire's loyal henchman looks like he is about to throw-up.  Baptiste's wife arrives at the rendezvous between Garance and Baptiste.  The carnival is in full, chaotic spate on the street below -- there is now not one, but a hundred Pierrots dancing down the boulevard.  (I think this is Carne and Prevert's ironic comment that the Sturm und Drang depicted in their story could be replicated in the lives of a thousand men and women a thousand times -- ultimately, we are all trapped in the primordial roles of the Commedia dell'Arte: either moribund jealous husband, or prancing Harlequin or a moonstruck doomed lover.)  Garance departs through the crowd and is lost. Presumably, Baptiste returns to his family.  Lacenaire coolly awaits the police anticipating that he will be guillotined for the murder.  Curiously, we don't see Lemaitre again -- this is, perhaps, due to the fact that for the French audiences Lemaitre was a famous 19th century thespian on the order of Edwin Booth and they understand that he was unscathed by these episodes and went on to be a famous actor and favorite with Victor Hugo. 

Children of Paradise is brilliant but strangely uninvolving.  The film feels designed for eternity -- each scene splendidly acted and staged.  In part, the movie's emotional detachment relates to Arletty's problematic performance.  Commentators are too chivalrous to mention this point but it deserves notice:  Arletty was 46 when the movie was filmed and she is no longer in first blush of her beauty.  This doesn't mean that she isn't spectacularly, even fabulously gorgeous, but it is a curiously cold and marmoreal beauty.  There is something impregnable and unapproachable about her perfectly symmetrical features -- indeed, she looks very much like a Greek or Roman statue of Venus.  In the opening sequence, we see her exhibited as a kind of sideshow attraction -- naked Truth in her bath looking only at herself with a small mirror.   The show is a bait and switch:  men enter expecting to see a nude woman and instead find the actress allegorically impersonating Truth in a kind of rotating tub, only her bare shoulders, throat, and face visible.  Carne and Prevert clearly refer to the notion that Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth, but this formula doesn't get you too far with a plotline.  Furthermore, Garance's perfect and almost mask-like beauty seems classically simple, stripped of ornament or decoration -- her face requires no make-up; it is perfect unadorned.  This comports with Garance's motto:  "Love is simple," a motif repeated with almost Wagnerian regularity in the film.  But, of course, the entire narrative is designed to show that love is not simple and that it exists, at least as far as this plot is concerned, in, at least, four variants -- one for each of the male characters.  It may be that Carne and Prevert felt that love was simple for women but made overly complicated ("sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought") by the male characters with their habits of erotic displacement, sublimation, jealousy, and intellectualizing.  If that was their concept, I don't think anyone would accept that notion today. 

The Children of Paradise occupied a contested position in the history of French cinema.  The nouvelle vague critics, particularly Truffaut, pretended for many years to detest the movie and its genre, the high-toned "cinema of quality."  But, of course, these young men had an oedipal fixation on the film.  The movie was the most exquisite product of their father's generation and carried with it suspect values and history -- Arletty was the mistress of a Gestapo officer and people who marvel that the movie was made during the Nazi occupation of France are naïve.  The film was made with the complicity of the Germans and, of course, was intended to demonstrate that French culture could not only survive, but thrive, under the Nazi regime.  Although Carne and Prevert wove Resistance themes into their huge canvas, the movie is, by and large, the product of collaboration with the Germans.  These facts alone would give people like Truffaut and Godard a basis to disrespect the film's achievement.  But the film's Oedipal influence runs deep -- in my view, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, involving the relationship between a French man and a German both in love with a beautiful and dangerous woman is a response to, and commentary on, The Children of Paradise.  Similarly, a number of Godard's films, most particularly Contempt, a movie that relies upon the perfect beauty of Brigitte Bardot also unconsciously I think mirrors certain aspects of Carne's film -- in Contempt, the characters are making a movie that we see from behind-the-scenes and the themes in the film within the film resonate with the love triangle that drives the film's narrative.  Toward the end of his life, Truffaut apologized to Carne and said that he would have given all of his films to have himself created The Children of Paradise. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

La Boheme (Minnesota Opera)

Puccini's La Boheme, a perennially audience-pleasing work, was presented by the Minnesota Opera Company in St. Paul on May 20, 2017.  This is a new production with impressive sets, particularly for the crowd scenes in Act Two and the nocturne in the third Act.  The singers performed well, although they were sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra -- none of the actors had the kind of brassy attack necessary to cut through the dense swaths of orchestral commentary with which the score is replete.  Nicole Cabell was an attractive if slightly too understated Mimi.  Mary Evelyn Hangley as Musetta also seemed a bit too timorous for her extroverted role and was, I thought, screechy in her top register.  On the other hand, Musetta is flamboyant conceived and the irregularities in timbre in her high notes didn't necessarily seem to me to be out of character.  The opera's first and last acts take place in a confined garrett, a sort of manger mounted on a pedestal among shadowy flats representing facades in the city of Paris.  The second act opens onto the street where the Café Momus provides a backdrop to large choral forces playing pedestrians, street vendors, and, ultimately, a military band.  This scene was well-managed with a kind of Dickensian grandeur.  The third act, occurring at one of the barricades in the City, was also Dickensian -- a heap of rubbish occupied one side of the stage between towering painted flats representing tenement buildings. The checkpoint itself was a kind of cast-iron fence with cage-like booth and gate.  A flicker of snow fell from high above the topless flats depicting adjacent buildings and some scruffy snow was also drifted against the alley-like space between the structures lining the city streets.  The third act is the highlight of the opera and, in my estimation, the set for this scene, a nocturne ending at dawn, was less poetic than merely utilitarian -- I wanted the set for this part of the opera to be a little more romantic, more lyrical, I suppose, than strictly functional.  I didn't notice any lighting effects of any significance -- in the death scene in Act Four, the garret's skylight glows with white light.  There was no attempt to represent the onset of dawn in the third scene.  The sets and staging were a little lazy, not noteworthy in any way, but functional enough.  There were no major blunders in costuming or mise-en-scene.  Rodolfo showed his love for Mimi by grinning at her stupidly -- this was a little disconcerting and I wish the hero had been a little more circumspect and winsome in showing his affection.

I have seen La Boheme five or six times and, for some reason, always forget the libretto's structure.  The opera is designed to contrast the profane love between the courtesan Musetta and the starving artist, Marcello, with the more ethereal passion of Mimi and Rodolpho.  This is not clear at the outset since Musetta does not appear until Act II.  The opera's two middle acts (II and III) insist on the comparison and, indeed, the show's most beautiful music are the parallel duets between lovers in Act III at the Barrier d'Enfer.  Musetta and Marcello are always jealously quarreling, breaking up and, then, reuniting.  Marcello sings that "our love is based on music and laughter", neglecting to mention the powerful currents of rage and jealously that also characterize their relationship.  Musetta is frivolous and carnal.  She declares that "because (she) is surrounded by desire, (she) is joyful."  By contrast, Mimi is a specter, a white ghost who lives in a "little white room" where she makes white cloth flowers that have no odor.  Her love is inflected with death.  Mimi is associated with winter and, although she sings about the change in the seasons, it is clear that her existence is stark, cold, minimalist.  This is easily overlooked by audiences -- Mimi's arias are, sometimes, punctuated by a throbbing, brazen chord decorated with a filigree of bird-song.  (This chord with the bird-song will re-occur in Puccini's Madame Butterfly.)  We are not aware of the significance of this blazing burst of sound until the last ten bars in the opera's score -- at that point, the chord is identified with death and, indeed, accompanies Mimi's demise.  Love is about desire and the flesh in the case of Marcello and Musetta; love signifies death in the case of the white maiden with the white odorless cloth flowers.  At the Barrier d'Enfer, Mimi sings: "To be alone in Winter is like dying." 

Puccini likes liminal scenes, moments that are on the threshold between overt displays of love or death.  The classic example is the scene at dawn in his last opera Turandot.  The most gorgeous music in La Boheme is the transitional scene at the Barrier d'Enfer, the "gates of Hell".  In this scene, sleepy guards admit milk maids to the slumbering city -- it is before dawn -- and Mimi, who has fled Rodolfo for a sketchy viscount, encounters Rodolfo again and expresses her undying love for him; Musetta and Marcello also sing together, Marcello alternately attracted and repulsed by Musetta's fickleness.  The two sets of lovers sing together, making vows that we know will be broken, possibly even before the end of the day.  Originally, there was another act intervening between Mimi's death -- her demise now comes very quickly on the heels of Act 3.  In the omitted act, Mimi reverted to her opportunistic relationship with the viscount -- this despite her Act 3 promise to return and live alone in "(her) little white room."  Mimi's infidelity is referenced briefly in the death scene in Act 4, a puzzling allusion embedded in the opera as it now exists but otherwise unmotivated.  It is interesting to consider the provisional ad hoc or improvised nature of Italian opera in the late 19th century.  La Boheme is one of the greatest, and most beloved works, of the operatic repertoire and, yet, its libretto only scarcely makes sense -- and contains what we would now call "continuity errors" based upon the suppression of one of its acts.  We regard La Boheme as high art, but to the first audiences at the Teatro Regio in Turin, the show was just a popular amusement, a crowd-pleasing bagatelle 


Monday, May 22, 2017

A Quiet Passion

Mawkish, embarrassingly obvious and literal, and vulgar as well, A Quiet Passion is an insult to Emily Dickinson.  Terence Davies' bio-pic is handsomely produced, features clever and well-written dialogue, and will impress many people as civilized, if not exactly, entertaining.  But it isn't a good movie and don't let fawning reviews to the contrary mislead you about this film.  Many people will admire A Quiet Passion for what it is not -- it is most assuredly not a big bucks effects-driven Marvel comics extravaganza.  But that doesn't, in itself, give you any assurance that the picture is worth seeing. 

A Quiet Passion's failure is particularly painful because Terence Davies' is a fine director and capable of making great films.  I particularly admire his documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City, as well The Deep Blue Sea and The Long Day Closes, this latter film a masterpiece in my estimation.  Further, A Quiet Passion is not without merits -- indeed, the first half of the film is reasonably effective and well-written.  Davies' imagines the Dickinson family as a ultra-witty in the manner of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde -- everyone speaks in sprightly aphorisms and, even, the dullards are highly articulate.  The picture begins with a scene establishing Emily Dickinson's non-denominational and highly idiosyncratic religious faith -- it's overly preachy, doesn't bode well for the rest of the movie, and indicative of an irritating aspect of Davies' film:  an attempt to make Emily Dickinson an activist feminist and enemy of the patriarchy in the sense that these terms are used today.  Some of the early dialogue in the film is very baldly expository and very bad.  However, as the film introduces more characters, the script improves and, for forty minutes, the picture is reasonably effective as a portrait of a close, argumentative and hyper-voluble family.  Midway, however, the movie begins slip off the rails.  First, there is a montage of Civil War casualties that is not well integrated into the film and really beside the point -- is this Emily Dickinson's vision of the Civil War or that of her brother or father or, rather, Davies' arbitrary intervention?  Then, Emily gets sick and the film treats us to three scenes of the poet suffering violent seizures, a protracted death scene involving Emily's mother, and, then, an equally protracted and graphic death scene for the heroine herself.  This is ruinous to the film, a macabre spectacle that has nothing to do with any of the movie's legitimate subject matter.  Worse, these sequences are baldly interpreted by voice-overs of Dickinson poems, most obviously, "Because I could not stop for death..." which accompanies her funeral.  Throughout the film, the script suggests that Emily Dickinson's poems bear a cardinal one-to-one relationship to things suffered in her life -- but this is naïve in the extreme and doesn't take into account that fact that Dickinson's verse is highly learned in its allusions and clearly reflects wide, if eccentric, reading.  In some respects, the film is reminiscent of a recent movie about John Keats, Bright Star, that was similarly simple-minded and obvious about the relationship between the poet's craft and his (or her) life.   Ultimately, Davies'  morbid film suggests that the only thing of any real interest in Dickinson's life was her end-stage renal failure -- this does her and her work a disservice.  Readers interested in a first-rate and profound film about a poet, his life, and relationship of that life to his verse should watch Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hell in the Pacific

Hell in the Pacific (1968) is the lurid title for a curious, lyrical film made by John Boorman.  Less exploitatively dubbed, the film would be called Mutual Assistance on the Palau Islands -- the Palau Islands is so-called Hell where this picture was made.  The film is essentially silent -- there are 15 or so transient ejaculations in the movie, (mostly grunts, curses, or threats) but they are not vital to the story and, indeed, contribute nothing to the narrative.  The film is shot in very wide-screen aspect and Boorman's staging is extremely eloquent -- he makes profound use of the long, narrow image, emphasizing the remorseless sweep of empty horizon around the desert island where his protagonists are stranded.  Since much of the film has a hallucinatory, febrile aspect, Boorman's imagery doesn't necessarily clarify things -- indeed, the film's staging often demonstrates an attempt to create the maximum uncertainty about the image and relationship of the figures within it.  There is a very faint suggestion that the two antagonists are among the dead, that this is some kind of filmed Noh play in which two deceased aviators encounter one another in an ambiguous landscape of blinding sun, murky jungle, and jagged spectral reefs that surround the island like rotten teeth.

A Japanese soldier is stranded on an island.  We see him at dawn scanning the horizon with his binoculars.  There seems to be a corpse or castaway lying on his beach.  We're puzzled that he pays no attention to the dead man -- this is the first of Boorman's obfuscations and intentional miscues. The dead man is a just a log of drift wood washed up on the beach.  But there is something different on this morning.  The Japanese soldier sees a yellow raft and shortly thereafter encounters the occupant of the raft, a grizzled American pilot played by Lee Marvin.  The next ninety minutes chronicles the relationship between the two enemy soldiers.  Furthermore, the film dramatizes a clash between two radically different, if highly stylized methods of acting.  The Japanese soldier is played by Toshiro Mifune and he bellows at the camera (and Lee Marvin) with a booming artificially deep "samurai voice" -- he sounds like professional wrestler threatening his opponent.  Mifune is graceful as a cat and embodies disciplined self-restraint -- even sitting casually on his beach, he seems to be meditating.  When he runs or takes up a defensive posture, he dances like a samurai warrior in a sword-play film -- his outline is crisp and well-defined.  By contrast, Lee Marvin lurches around like an affable orangutang -- he is extroverted, passionate, unsteady and unpredictable -- his figure is lanky and his limbs seem awkwardly disjointed.  Furthermore, he seems far too old for the part -- Lee Marvin's age gives the film it's eerie Noh play aspect:  he's like the ghost of a World War Two airman recalling something that happened long ago.  Marvin is destructive -- we see him crushing Mifune's carefully contrived instruments for conserving rain-water or catching fish in the lagoon.  By contrast, Mifune is like Odysseus -- he is a man of many resources, continuously cutting bamboo to make spiked palisades and defending his territory by hanging empty shells, like wind chimes, from braided vine and sea-weed. 

The interaction between the two characters begins with baffling hostility.  Both of them recognize that mano a mano duel will be mutually deadly -- we see this in an early stage where the two men are at stand-off on the beach.  Each imagines himself lunging at his enemy and, then, being killed in that attack.  This opening sequence is a classic analysis of the way men preserve their pride by avoiding direct combat -- it's obvious that the result of fighting would be dire to both of them and, so, they content themselves with less certainly lethal forms of combat.  Mifune starts a big fire, apparently in the hope of burning up the American.  But this merely produces clouds of choking smoke in which Marvin's character can hide.  The two men wrestle over Mifune's water reservoir with the predictable result that the carefully collected water is lost to both of them.  Marvin pisses from a cliff top on Mifune and they steal one another's food.  Ultimately, Mifune captures Marvin, yokes  him to a big piece of driftwood and torments him pointlessly until he escapes  In the next shot, we see Mifune yoked to the same driftwood, staggering up and down the beach as Marvin teaches him to fetch like a Labrador Retriever.  Finally, the two tire of the mutual sadism and begin to cooperate although they remain suspicious of one another and continue to steal one another's food.  (Marvin complains that holding Mifune prisoner makes no sense because he still has to cook for him, wash him off, feed him, and "take (him) to the john" -- when he delivers this speech, he sounds comically like an aggrieved housewife.  And, in fact, the film is strangely funny -- from the outset, the men have decided that mutual murder is not an option and, so, their combat seems a matter of play, games that they use to pass the time.  This is made explicit in one scene in which Mifune rakes an elaborate Zen garden into the sand of the beach.  Marvin walks across the garden ruining its perfection.  Mifune curses and rakes over Marvin's footsteps -- it's pretty clear that this is a pointless game both men can play all day long.  (It's like staging horseshoe crab races, something that Marvin does on his piece of driftwood).  In many ways, the odd couple nature of the pairing (Mifune's grace and ingenuity to Marvin's blundering aggression) suggests an Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy comedy crossed with one of Beckett's plays, Waiting for Godot or Happy Days.  Lalo Schifrin provides a baffling variety of soundcues for the proceedings -- percussives burps and bubbles, screaming saxophones, discordant atonal music, and, even, vaguely classical-sounding riffs.  The island is the third character in this film and it is impressively realized, a shaggy dome-shaped protrusion above the waves with an austere gallery of sea-cave carved into one side of the lagoon, a dismal-looking beach, and strangely vertical interior.  Boorman is a master of locating the action within this arena and, indeed, even expands his landscape away from the island to it encircling reef of black, jagged stones and, then, the perilous purple high seas beyond.

About the 80 minute mark, Boorman recognizes that his story has no place to go and that cooperation between former enemies is not intrinsically photogenic.  The two men collaborate on building a raft and, ultimately, escape from the island.  This sequence is initiated with a lyrical montage of bamboo trees cut from a hilltop dropping like parachutes down into the lagoon -- the trees will be pruned and, then, used a flotation devices.  Around this point in the film, Boorman recalls another castaway narrative, Lord of the Flies, and the movie devolves into an unsatisfying allegory -- it was best with Mifune's ingenuity channeling Robinson Crusoe.  After some impressive seafaring, the two castaways reach an island where there are buildings, albeit in ruins, a Life magazine showing the war, now possibly ended, and plenty of booze.  It appears as if the Japanese and Americans have both occupied the island at some point and both have left cultural traces in the debris.  At this point, Boorman has no idea what to do to end the movie and, in fact, the DVD presents the ending as shown and with an alternative ending.  In the baldest terms, the men's return to something like civilization -- the island is covered with ruins but empty of people -- reminds the men that they are supposed to be enemies.  It's not a satisfactory climax and the film ends with an empty enigma.  I can imagine a half-dozen better ways to conclude the movie, but most of them would require Boorman breaking from the parameters established at the outset -- it is a essentially a silent movie and must remain one, and only two characters are allowed. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ingeborg Holm and Terje Virgen (A Man There Was)

Ingeborg Holm (1913) and Terje Virgen (1917) are silent films directed by Victor Sjoestrom.  A founding father to the Swedish film industry, Sjoestrom was recruited to Hollywood in the twenties where he made several notable films including The Scarlet Letter (1927) and The Wind (1928).  Ingmar Bergman revered Sjoestrom and cast him as Professor Borg in 1954's Wild Strawberries.  Some critics have suggested that Sjoestrom, and not the more melodramatically inclined D. W. Griffith, was the greatest of the first generation of film directors.  Griffith's great works look back to the conventions of late 19th century theater; Sjoestrom, at least in his best films, seems modern -- although Ingeborg Holm was made 104 years ago, and is badly damaged, the film retains its power to appall and has a relentless documentary urgency.  Terje Virgen, based on a heroic poem by Henrik Ibsen, is more dated.  However, it retains considerable power as well. 

Ingeborg Holm's story is simple and chilling.  The father of a happy bourgeois family borrows money to begin business as a grocer.  He falls ill and, after a debilitating sickness, dies.  During his illness, the clerk at the grocery store mismanages the enterprise and drives it into debt.  The dead man's widow, Ingeborg Holm tries to run the grocery but is unsuccessful.  Under pressure from creditors, she retreats to a workhouse with her baby and two small children.  The workhouse is a poor place to raise children and, so, everybody agrees that Ingeborg Holm's three kids have to be "boarded-out" -- that is, placed in foster care.  This is accomplished with Nordic efficiency and a tearful Ingeborg bids farewell to her children.  Later, Ingeborg's little girl becomes ill and her foster parents send a letter to the workhouse demanding money to finance medical care.  The workhouse officials decline payment, apparently, condemning the child to death.  Ingeborg learns that her daughter is gravely ill and escapes from the workhouse -- the place has high walls like a prison.  After an exhausting journey, she reaches her daughter's bedside but is immediately captured by local officials who detain her like a common criminal, ship her back to the workhouse, and, then, submit an invoice for their services to the same officials who refused payment for the little girl's medical charges.  A little later, Ingeborg's baby is brought to the workhouse for a reunion with her mother.  The baby doesn't recognize her mother and Ingeborg collapses with grief.  Fifteen years pass, and Ingeborg's son, who has become a seaman, returns to the harbor city where the story takes place.  He has preserved a picture of his mother, a keepsake that she left with him when he was boarded-out.  The young man goes to the workhouse where he is told that his mother has lost her mind.  She is brought to see him.  (Ingeborg Holm seems to be the prototype of the "log lady" in David Lynch's Twin Peaks; she cradles a piece of wood in her arms, crooning to it as if it were an infant.)  Her son shows her the picture that he has carried throughout his travels, a photograph of his mother.  She recognizes herself and, also, acknowledges her son.  They embrace and the movie ends.  It's a vague simulacrum of a happy ending -- except, of course, nothing can reverse the misery that Ingeborg has suffered and we are left wondering about the whereabouts of the heroine's other two children.  Presumably, the little girl died and the baby, of course, has gone permanently missing. 

Although the story is grim, the film is surprisingly nimble and remarkably ingenious.  The picture is 74 minutes, but doesn't drag and, indeed, is a model of efficiency.  When Ingeborg's husband dies, we don't see a funeral, nor does anyone have time to mourn the man's passing.  The film cuts directly from the husband's deathbed to Ingeborg's dismay at discovering that she has been left penniless.  The movie coolly chronicles a remorseless series of events, one succeeding another, each blow more devastating than the last.  Sjoestrom doesn't waste any time on showing tears or sorrow -- the emotion is implied in the pitiless occurrences that the film documents.  Furthermore, we are not asked to wallow in Ingeborg Holm's suffering -- indeed, we experience a certain distance from her misery based on the fact that the character is played by the formidable Hilda Borgstom.  Borgstrom embodies a pre-W.W. I style of beauty that is as archaic as the Venus of Willendorff.  The woman is massive, and spectacularly voluptuous.  (She embodies the attributes of the zaftig Gibson girl, the kind of beauty that Mae West flaunted in the face of the androgynous flappers and depression era girl Fridays populating Hollywood pictures in the late Twenties and Thirties.)  Sjoestrom dresses his heroine in form-fitting, knee-length black coats and, as she charges fiercely about the countryside during her escape, she is like a force of nature.  The sheer viciousness of the powers arrayed against her is dramatized by the fact that grief, in the end, drops her to the floor -- but it's like a cow being dropped to the floor of a slaughterhouse by a sledgehammer blow.  And, as the film progresses, the heroine becomes increasingly disheveled -- when she is brought back from the country by two puny deputies, Borgstrom looks like a maenad, her hair in disarray and smudges of dirt all over her enormous breasts and hips.  Ingeborg Holm is supposed to symbolize motherhood, the maternal instinct, and, I suppose, there is some element of fin-de-siècle allegory in the film, but the actress is so vibrant and imposing that she swallows up everything extraneous to her and seems simply to be -- that is, to project and austere and terrible kind of truthfulness.  And, indeed, the film as a whole has the purity and clarity of the truth. 

Sjoestrom stages the film without any close-ups (except for inserts of writing and several shots of the photograph that Ingeborg has given to her children.)  He uses a tableaux staging that was common in films before Birth of a Nation and brought to a high level of expressiveness in the serials made by Louis Feuillade (Judex and The Vampires.)  Sjoestrom has mastered this method of story-telling and his tableaux mise-en-scene is remarkably flexible and, indeed, even, imposes a sort of stately and forceful rhythm on the material.  The viewer peruses the image, studies its elements, and, then, notes the position of parties in space.  Sjoestrom uses a variety of blocking techniques to direct the viewer's eyes to what is important in the scene.  Furthermore, the tableaux technique, necessarily, keeps the audience at a distance -- the highly charged emotions of the film would be unbearable and would feel exploitative if the picture used the effects Griffith was simultaneously perfecting in the United States -- that is, close-ups and the use of montage (cross-cutting) to further manipulate viewer response.  As it stands, Sjoestrom's picture exudes a raw and direct honesty that makes it seem absolutely convincing and truthful.  And the truth is dignified:  it doesn't require exclamation points. 

Terge Virgen seems more conventional and, indeed, employs many of the techniques of Griffith's melodrama.  There are no close-ups but a number of two-shots devised according to the so-called American Plan -- that is, two figures visible from about the waist up interacting in the frame.  Sjoestrom retains some of the elements of his tableaux style -- some shots are held for a long time so that action can be developed advancing from very deep focus to relatively close to the lens of the camera.  (In general, many shots have deep focus with action occurring on varying planes in the pictorial field.)  Worse, I think, Sjoestrom seems to have discovered beauty -- about a quarter of the shots in the film are self-consciously beautiful, that is, carefully framed and lit to cause the audience to gasp in awe.  At least, this was my reaction to several of the shots in the film's first five minutes -- images that establish the hero as a kind of heroic and wild-eyed giant, the figure of a prophet or bard posed against wild sea-scapes with towering waves battering rocks.  This film has been reconstructed with tint and the night shots, dyed a deep midnight-blue are particularly impressive.  (There are clearly a half-dozen shots in Ingeborg Holm that must have been tinted in the film's premiere prints -- but no effort was made to restore that aspect of the movie; it is resolutely and unostentatiously in plain black and white.)  Ibsen's story is like a romantic fantasia out of the works of Victor Hugo -- the hero is an "ancient mariner" with a literally "glittering eye", apparently half-mad.  His story is told in flash-back.  The man is a fisherman who braved a naval blockade to buy bread and wheat for his village -- the place is starving and the hero's children have nothing to eat.  The French capture the brave seaman after an impressive sequence involving a boat chase across the ocean and between the rocks of a sea-girt shoal.  Virgen is thrown in jail and held there for some years.  When he returns to his village, his wife and children have died of starvation.  When a French ship, also bearing women and children runs aground on the shoal, Virgen encounters one of the French officers who captured him, callously swamping his small skiff and ruining the provisions that he was bringing to his village.  At first, the hero plots revenge, but, then, his better instincts prevail and he acts to save the castaways, the officer and his wife with baby whom he previously planned to drown.  All of this is conveyed with the utmost flourish and the robustly handsome Sjoestrom plays the part of the hero.  Sjostrom has a huge head -- he looks like a bull -- and he glares at his foes with impressive ferocity.  When called to act the part of madness, he accomplishes the role with rolling eyes and bared teeth -- you couldn't ask for a more powerful embodiment of Coleridge's ancient mariner who "stoppeth one of three" and holds him there with the savage charisma of his "flashing eye."  The picture is also fantastically efficient -- a vast amount of information is conveyed in a mere 54 minutes -- and there are several action scenes that would be creditable in a Hollywood blockbuster made today.  But, whereas Ingeborg Holm seems to present the naked and terrible truth, Terje Virgen is an exercise in the beautiful -- and beauty, I think, should be subordinate to truth.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Twin Peaks (third season finale)

David Lynch returned to direct the last episode of Twin Peaks and his influence is immediately evident -- the show suddenly seems dire again, propelled by dark influences.  After solving the murder of Laura Palmer, apparently in the middle of season two, the show lost its way.  Although another 13 episodes were produced, most of them are inconsequential and several, even, embarrassingly bad -- in this regard, an episode directed by Diane Keaton is particularly noteworthy for its slavish imitation of Lynch's mannerisms but without displaying the slightest understanding of the basis for those devices.  Flailing around to fill time, Twin Peaks didn't adopt the typical expedient of simply slowing down the action of the principal plot or repeating everything two or three times.  Rather, the show deserves some credit for striking out in new directions, seemingly hoping that one of the various subplots bruited about in the show would take hold and yield something substantial.  In this respect, the show's concept should be lauded, if not its execution -- the wild proliferation of subplots is ambitious if nothing else.  First, Agent Cooper is expelled from the FBI for crossing the Canadian border to solve the mystery  of Laura Palmer's death.  This means that he must be deputized as a law man employed by Sheriff Harry Truman.  Ultimately, Cooper is restored to FBI status but only after a dizzying series of other adventures.  Leo who seems to be comatose is entrusted to the care of his adulterous wife and her boyfriend -- they alternately torture and neglect him and this is played, grotesquely, for comedy.  Then, Leo revives and becomes a henchman for Agent Cooper's nemesis, Windham Earl.  Earl has earlier killed the only woman that Cooper ever loved and, now, he threatens the FBI man's new girlfriend, a ex-nun who has left the convent to join her sister at the Twin Peaks café serving hot coffee and the place's famous pies.  There is an incomprehensible subplot involving the Packard family and their saw mills -- this involves Jack Nance and Piper Laurie in all sorts of futile bickering. (Lynch was loyal to Jack Nance up to his death, casting him in every one of his movies and the poor guy never learned to act -- he just grimaces and lurches around like a marionette on a string.)  As an element of this story, the Chinese femme fatale beloved by Sheriff Truman departs for Seattle and, more or less, vanishes from the show, but only after the Sheriff is convinced of her perfidy.  Mr. Horne, the proprietor of the Great Northern lodge, the site of most of the film's eerie happenings, goes mad and reenacts the Civil War with tiny soldiers on elaborate battlefield models built in his office.  His beautiful and seductive daughter, Audrey Horne loses her virginity to an attractive stranger in a Cessna parked at the local airport.  James, the sensitive hoodlum, has an affair with a married woman, is accused of a crime, and has to flee, also vanishing from the show.  A running gag involves the pregnancy of the dispatcher, Lucy Moran, unsure whether the father is the feckless Andy, one of Truman's cops, or the handsome and malevolent seducer, Dick Tremain.  A beauty pageant forms the subject of about four episodes, mostly played for comedy -- the pageant is a fundraiser to protect the habitat of some kind of white-footed weasel.  (The weasel earns our affection by trying to bite off the smarmy Dick Tremain's nose.)  Windham Earl murders a number of supernumerary characters and tortures his mute henchman, Leo.  Ultimately, Earl kidnaps Agent Cooper's love interest, the ex-nun, thereby triggering the confrontation in the show's final episode.  I've undoubtedly missed a number of other subplots -- something involving the one-eyed woman obsessed with drape-runners (she develops superhuman sexual and physical powers), a trial involving David Duchovny appearing in drag, another half-dozen adultery plots that I can't keep straight -- but the reader will get the impression of the chaotic superfluity and gratuitousness of the 12 shows intervening between Lynch's direction of the terrifying episode in which the Laura Palmer crime is solved and the program's finale.  It should be said that much of this material is mildly amusing, but it doesn't amount to anything and is, more or less, instantly forgettable. 

In Twin Peaks' final episode, Agent Cooper is lured to a place in the woods called the Black Lodge.  This is a focal point for the evil lurking in the woods also embodied by the owls.  There is a circle of saplings and an oval inscribed on the ground and, then, the trees dissolve into red velvet curtains, offering access to the Lodge.  In pursuit of Windham Earl and his kidnaped girlfriend, Cooper enters the Lodge and finds that it is a series of disorienting corridors, all draped in heavy red velvet curtains that enclose a series of rooms with nightmarish inhabitants. (It also reprises the velvety interior of the brothel, One-Eyed Jacks.)  During the last half of the episode, Cooper staggers from room to room, increasingly damaged by the horrors that he encounters.  This half-hour of television was unlike anything ever broadcast before and, indeed, has not really been imitated since.  The closest correlate to this elaborately staged and hallucinatory  "freak-out" is Lynch's last movie to date, the inexpressibly strange, terrifying, and ultimately tedious Inland Empire, a picture that is less a movie than the protracted sadistic martyrdom of Lynch's erstwhile girlfriend, Laura Dern.  Similarly, the end of Twin Peaks features the torture of Agent Cooper both physically and mentally by a series of nightmare apparitions -- there are giants, dancing dwarves, doppelgangers, and, even, the ineffably bizarre Little Jimmy Scott crooning a ballad.  (Jimmy Scott was an African-American hermaphrodite who's voice never deepened from the falsetto that made him famous -- he sounds a bit like a demented munchkin, although the performer had real taste and intelligence as a jazz singer.)  I have the sense that Lynch was disgusted with the project when he directed the ending and that his principal motives in staging this finale were contempt and disgust -- the thing plays like an intense "fuck you", a vehement insult administered with surly bravado to an ignorant audience.  There is no way of making any sense of the enigmas heaped on enigmas in the final episode and the cumulative effect of the show is a sort of vertiginous nausea, the same effect produced by the almost three hours of Inland Empire. Lynch makes no effort to naturalize anything -- it's all equally weird and disorienting and, furthermore, the entire enterprise has a sort of Plan 9 from Outer Space aura of cheapness, improbability, and obsession.  It doesn't cost much of anything, I suppose, to build a set consisting entirely of the quasi-digestive or vaginal folds of red velvet curtains -- the mutants that Cooper encounters don't act and, when they speak, use voices that are so severely distorted that subtitles are necessary for us to understand what they are saying.  (Of course, it doesn't really matter what they are saying -- it's all gibberish anyway).  The climax is an insult to narrative integrity or the idea of closure; it all has a desperately improvised feel.  But, Lynch, for better or worse, is a great filmmaker and the mess at the finale of Twin Peaks inspires a dream-like horror -- there is evil and it is real and present and worse, as we see in the final shot, it is not only predatory but infectious.  The show ends with the fanatically virtuous Agent Cooper smashing his forehead into a mirror, demonstrating that Bob, the monster of "Fire Walk With Me" has now taken up residency within him.   

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums

Although, like most cinephiles, I revere Kenji Mizoguchi, honesty compels me to report that watching his 1939 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is hard labor.  There are a number of reasons for this, but, most notably, the subject is a little thin, even threadbare -- the film's melodramatic story is so bathetic and sentimental that it would shame a Hollywood hack from the same era.  From a cynical perspective, one could argue that Mizoguchi's material is so barren and cliché-ridden that the director feels compelled to lend false weight to story by tricking it out in a relentlessly mannered mise-en-scene.  About half the shots are puzzles -- the viewer has to work out the subject of the shot that has been intentionally hidden in a jumble of shadows and lattice-work.  Most of the images are filmed from a distance too remote to allow us to see what we have been trained to desire -- a close-up of an emoting face.  In fact, there are no close-ups in the entire film and nothing like montage -- most of the shots are sequence-shots averaging two or three minutes, a few of them as long as nine minutes.  At every stage in the proceedings, Mizoguchi seems dead-set on making his audience occupy the worst seats in the house -- he deliberately de-emphasizes the melodrama by making it hard to see.  One watches the film with awe at Mizoguchi's ingenuity in delaying audience recognition as to key points, his indirection, and his elaborate moving camera shots that seem perversely designed to make it as hard as possible to see what is significant in the image.  At every juncture, Mizoguchi constructs the film to avoid close-ups.  He is similarly adverse to editing the scenes -- by setting his camera a long way from the action or stuffing the frame full of people and things so that he can subtly re-position to highlight narrative points, the director can avoid montage.  At one point, he refuses to cut away when his hero laboriously wraps the sash of his robe about his waist and, then, ties it -- a process that takes about 45 seconds; in other scene, a character uses her hairpin to pick seeds out of a watermelon, the camera impassively recording the entire operation. The lengths to which Mizoguchi goes to avoid the standard expressive syntax of cinema -- that is, inserted shots, montage, expressive close-ups -- is truly extraordinary and The Story... is so single-minded in its rejection of these devices to qualify the pictures as something like an experimental film, an example of avant-garde filmmaking of a particularly challenging type.  (I am mindful that I saw The Story... on a TV with a large, but not enormous screen; Mizoguchi's images are designed to be projected in a format that is 40 feet wide -- I think some of the difficulty that a person watching on TV experiences might be moderated if the image were large enough to be explored without squinting, something that would surely be the case in a movie-house.)

Another difficulty posed by The Story... relates to its subject matter -- the Kabuki theater.  The film features three extended sequences documenting Kabuki performances and, of course, a Western audience is clueless in evaluating this sort of material.  This is problematic because the plot turns on audience response to the recondite art of Kabuki acting.  Kiko, a young actor, has been adopted as a foster son by a famous Kabuki star.  Kabuki is dynastic -- that is, fathers pass down to their sons the tricks of the trade.  (Like Shakepeare's theater, it's an all-male enterprise.)  Unfortunately, Kiko is not a very good actor -- his peers tell him that skill comes with experience, but he doesn't seem well-equipped as an artist in this theatrical form.  Kiko's father begets a biological child and a wet-nurse is procured to care for the baby.  The wet nurse, Otoku, a woman from a lower middle-class or, even, peasant background, turns out to be a devotee of Kabuki.  She acknowledges that Kiko is a bad actor but thinks that he can become more accomplished with her assistance.  Kiko falls in love with the young woman and this appalls his foster father.  He disinherits the young man who elopes with the wet nurse, Otoku.  For five years, Kiko works on perfecting his art in provincial theaters and, then, as an itinerant actor with a  troupe of traveling players.  He gradually improves and becomes successful, although he and Otoku live in poverty, consigned, it seems, to the margins of a theatrical practice that is centered in Tokyo.  Otoku pleads with Kiko's brother and the actor graciously consents to allow Kiko to perform a key role, substituting for him, in a show featuring their formidable father.  (Mizoguchi inserts a bit of humor here:  he has someone say that Kiko will regain his self-confidence and his masculinity by appearing in the production with his father.  But the part is that of a courtesan and involves much simpering and flitting about the stage in stylized women's garments.)  The show is a success.  Otoku is welcomed to the famous actor's family -- he has forgiven her because she has served as a muse to his erring son and helped him to perfect his art.  After another triumphant performance featuring the old Kabuki star and his two sons (they play lion cubs dancing beside their leonine father), Kiko is acknowledged as a star.  But Otoku is now dying; the harsh conditions of their life as itinerant players has damaged her irreparably.  Kiko visits Otoku who is dying in a shabby boarding house.  Then, he is feted in a spectacular night-time river procession, big barges rowed through the lagoons and channels of old Edo -- we see Kiko acknowledging the adoration of his fans while poor Otoku is dying in a tenement on the other side of town.    

The scenes involving the Kabuki performances are fascinating, although Mizoguchi doesn't want those theatrics to overwhelm his melodrama and, accordingly, shoots the spectacle from deliberately inexpressive and remote angles.  (We see much of the action through mazes of rope, counterweights, and scenery backstage.)  In the scene in which Kiko plays a courtesan (who is really the spirit of a cherry tree), we don't know whether the hero is acting competently or failing miserably.  Mizoguchi must be confident that his Japanese audience can't gage the effectiveness of the performance either.  The suspense in the protracted scene is noteworthy but exists only because the performance registered is so mannered and remote from reality that we don't know the criterion by which it should be judged.  Mizoguchi seems as ignorant as the audience and we have no clue that Kiko is succeeding spectacularly until the audience reaction at the end of the show.  (Kabuki seems to be some kind of lavishly staged combination of dance and opera -- the scene with the courtesan involves her haranguing a woodsman with an axe and, then, engaged in decorous combat with the woodsman.  Of course, as a cherry tree, she doesn't want him to chop her down.)  The subject matter is remote and, of course, Mizoguchi does everything in his power to make it even more remote.

I suppose an earnest critic studying The Story... shot by shot would be able to make sense of Mizoguchi's various divagations and picture-puzzles.  The reason The Story... is undoubtedly a work of genius is that all of its perverse pictorial strategies are meaningful -- you can make sense of them if you exert yourself.  (In this way, Mizoguchi resembles mid- to late-period Godard:  it's not easy but you can generally solve the riddles posed by his pictures.)  Some elements of the mise-en-scene are probably obsessive -- in all of his films, I notice that the director has a propensity for devising "people corrals", that is wooden enclosures that fence groups of people off from the rest of the action and that serve to hold them in place.  Sometimes, these corrals are little footbridges incongruously plopped in the middle of Mizoguchi's generally shadowy landscapes -- he shoots most images outdoors in Stygian gloom; even his idyllic sequences seem to be staged in the Elysian Meadows.  In one scene in The Story..., we see two "human corrals" apparently channeling passengers onto a train.  The chief suspense in the shot is whether the protagonists will enter the train through the corral on the far left or the central corral (or fenced walkway) -- of course, Mizoguchi is playing a trick here:  there is a third corral in the foreground that is not revealed until the hero uses it to access the train.  (I think the point is that the hero is riding "third class" -- that is, an indication of his poverty).  Later, Mizoguchi brings this obsession to a climax by tracking first to the right, and, then, left along a series of compartments open to the camera and filled with people -- this is supposed to simulate a train with its passenger compartments arranged in a linear succession.  It's an extremely complex shot, undoubtedly very expensive and wholly gratuitous -- the hero is looking for Otoku but doesn't find her.  Clearly, the shot exists to indulge Mizoguchi's interest in showing groups of people restrained by, more or less, artificial barriers.  In some instances, the expressive intent of Mizoguchi's peculiar staging can be readily deciphered.  At the end of the movie, we see the boat procession proceeding among palaces under a leaden sky.  The penultimate shot is difficult to decipher.  We see a row of dignitaries from behind in shadowy silhouette -- they are watching as the boats laden with actors pass.  But the foreground of the image is also a plane of black water extending up to the place where we see the profiles of the people watching the procession.  The shot poses a riddle -- where are the dignitaries if we see the lagoon between the camera and their location?  It takes the viewer fifteen or twenty seconds to decipher that fact that the spectators are located on a barge themselves floating in the river and that the procession is proceeding between floating barges occupied by spectators -- another example of Mizoguchi's obsessive "people corralling."  This complex shot recognizes the equally complex social environment governing the film, the shadowy patterns of adulation and blame that are as fickle as anything written on water.  Mizoguchi uses the puzzle-image as a way of deferring and granting greater emotional power to the film's final shot, an image of Kiko with his hands ceremonially outstretched in an ambiguous gesture that both acknowledges his fame and, yet, abjectly surrenders to it as well.     

The Story... can be distinguished from Hollywood melodrama of the same general tenor by a couple of disquieting thematic factors, quite apart from the alienating camera placement and staging.  First, there is little trace of any erotic attachment between Kiko and Otako --she sternly undertakes to "nourish" his achievements as an artist.  Her role is secondary to his accomplishments on the stage.  Her self-sacrifice is not to a man but to the principle of artistic excellence -- this makes Otako's masochistic conduct, if not palatable, at least, comprehensible.  Finally, the film has an authentic bite that a Hollywood production on the same subject would probably lack.  There is a terrible scene in the middle of the movie where Kiko demands money at Otako has saved -- they are both starving and no one is paying the bills for the itinerant theater company.  (In a later funny scene, we see the traveling players booted off the stage by a group of ferocious-looking lady Sumo wrestlers.)  When Otako refuses to give him the money, he wrestles with her and, then, callously slaps her face, blaming her for their plight.  It's an alarming sequence and I don't know that a Hollywood-made movie could tolerate this bleak a view of its protagonists. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2)

Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2) poses this  question:  Does God have a penis?  No doubt, if God is played by Kurt Russell.  This is merely one of many peculiar issues intrinsic to this film, a creepy psychosexual drama hidden within a typically bombastic summer action film.  Although one of the characters in the movie, either lizard-headed or blue-skinned, overtly asks this question about the deity's genitalia, the issue taps into a simmering stew of family-based neurosis lurking just below the explosions and supernovae cluttering the screen in this film.

But, first, an assessment:  Guardians (2) is a lot less fun than its predecessor, one of the best films of the genre.  Since fun is all a popcorn-movie of this sort offers, Guardians (2) is a failure.  Audiences expecting the larky Mad-magazine inventiveness of the first film, a dazzling display of imagination from the first frame to the last, will be sadly disappointed, although if the crowd's reaction at the packed theater where I attended the show is any measure, no one will admit to this disappointment -- at least, in public.  Most of the zany spoof in the first Guardians doesn't make it into the Wagnerian-scaled super-epic -- indeed, large sections of the film are played straight, a serious deficiency since the script is clogged with lines and speeches that are too bathetic or exclamation-point-ridden to be taken seriously.  The special effects are brilliant -- but this is no more than what we expect from a summer blockbuster.  And, of course, the film is too long and simply too chaotic.  The climax is sheer din, a confused triple or quadruple battle in which God as Kurt Russell battles his creations who are themselves engaged in aerial dogfights ala Star Wars whilst the entire planet where this deafening combat is occurring collapses into its own fiery core -- and there's a ticking time bomb to boot.  This is simply too much.  New characters are introduced as apparent auxiliaries but, then, turn out to have key roles and, even, deliver long and heartfelt speeches -- we wonder who are these people?  The wise-cracking group of Guardians are inexplicably divided up for much of the movie and so we don't see them together for much of the proceedings.  Of course, Baby Groot is adorable although the movie is so self-admiring that it requires someone say this out loud to drive home the point.  The best thing in the picture is the opening titles:  Baby Groot dances disco-style to an eighties pop-tune while the rest of the Guardians engage in a touch-and-go, pitched battle with a vast flailing monster, a creature somewhat like a carp but with multiple, hinged jaws -- as the Guardians are flung about Baby Groot amuses us with his dance, all the action tangential to his antics.  It's a cinematic tour de force, shot in a continuous fluidly executed shot and the most impressive sequence in the movie.  Unfortunately, it's all downhill from this sequence and the slope is long -- the movie is about two hours and 20 minutes in length, at least a  half hour too long. 

So what is all this sound and fury about?  Any description of the movie's plot quickly devolves into seriously creepy, even kinky, psycho-sexual issues.  Simply put the film is about fatherhood and the damage that fathers inflict on their children.  This theme is developed both through perverse allegory and overt stretches of dialogue that sound more than a little like an Eugene O'Neil play set in outer space.  Kurt Russell as God has used his magnificent virile member to inseminate a number of planets, hoping to beget an offspring worthy of him.  But, alas, this project has failed and God, like Blake's Nobodaddy or Goya's Saturn has simply exterminated those of his progeny that don't meet his specifications.  In effect, this means that whole races have been wiped-out and reduced to sooty looking skulls and femurs stored in the cellars of the planet Ego, the name for the Eden where he lives.  (The place is colorful -- it looks like a Terry Redling canvas fitted out with glass appendages by Dale Chihualy.)  Russell is a "celestial," that means immortal, and he apparently tests his millions of children by trying to kill them -- so far only one of his offspring seems suited for immortality:  of course, this is "Star Lord", as Chris Pratt's character is called.  Star Lord, however, has another father, or, at least, step- or foster-father.  This is a "colored man" -- I think he is either green or blue -- named Vondu the Ravager.  Vondu speaks with a good ole boy West Texas accent and is a space pirate.  He kidnaped Pratt's character when he was a little boy, apparently to use him for thieving valuables stored in tight places.  The Ravager is "daddy" -- he's warmly affectionate, non-judgmental, exceptionally violent, and loving when he's not torturing or murdering people.  In effect, our hero has two fathers, both of them lethally flawed:  Kurt Russell is the Celestial, a lawgiver, and some kind of interplanetary sadist -- he kills his children for not living up to his standards.  The Ravager is like Fagin to Dickens' Oliver Twist -- he's a criminal and brute but, at least, he doesn't have aspirations to be God.  (At one point, Russell's God begins to destroy planets out of some obscure fit of pique -- we see a vast gelatinous tsunami, a tidal wave of gunk, pouring forward and just about to obliterate a cowering woman with her baby in her arms.)  As I watched the film, I wondered how many children, the product of first marriages that had failed, owe fealty to two fathers:  the cold Celestial lawgiver for whom you can never be good enough and the Ravager, a warm-hearted but irrational pirate.  Indeed, even those not entrapped in divorce probably experience their father as two avatars:  a cold, critical destroyer of worlds and a happy-go-lucky mostly drunken brute who mingles beatings with affectionate embraces.  Guardians goes so far as to transfer this scenario to its female characters as well -- it is hinted that father-figures amuse themselves by compelling their daughters to compete with one another for daddy's affection.  This leads to savage sibling rivalries, exemplified in this film as a murderous internecine battle between Gamora and her mostly robotic sister.  Since fathers seem to be deeply destructive, the film suggests a third-way -- this is some kind female parthenogenesis as practiced by the golden people.  The goldens are a race that arises without copulation or male interference except as sources for DNA.  Eugenically perfect, the goldens have been constructed by gene-splicing and they are attractive, slender, personages made entirely of gold.  Needless to say, there are no fathers interfering in this world.  The goldens are led by a dominatrix Queen, a platinum-colored woman who controls her drones with an iron fist.  (The drones attack our heroes from a myriad of pretty gem-like intergalactic dive bombers, all remotely piloted from separate consoles like old arcade video games -- it's a very neat idea.)  All of this oedipal hysteria reaches an allegorical climax when the Guardians must penetrate the bowels of the planet Ego to destroy the brain of the Great Father embedded there within a spiraling fibrous architecture of petrified tissue.  The attack on the brain is an attack on God the Father and he responds with suitable fury, flooding planets and causing super novas to erupt and, at last, unleashing a horde of rock-solid erections, huge monolithic obelisks that burst upward through the surface of Ego.  In this apocalyptic battle, the Guardians seem to suggest another non-patriarchal form of family.  (In one snippet of dialogue, someone says that the Guardians are "friends".  "Friends," is the rejoinder, "but you are always shouting at one another?"  "Then family," one of them answers.)  This is the post-nuclear family, however, the queer family with GLBTQ aspects -- all the siblings in this family look completely different and, thus, they all seem to have separate fathers.  It's a rainbow family comprised of people with different skin colors (red, green, blue) and skin textures (scales, metal, fur or bark).  The rainbow family is  the inevitable enemy of the evil and controlling father.  But it's all oedipal hysteria, the weird engine that drives the summer's first Blockbuster, the tiresome Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2).