Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Dr. X

Here is dialogue exactly transcribed from Michael Curtiz' 1932 horror film, Dr. X :   One mad scientist -- If she were my daughter, she wouldn't be up there on that bed with nothing on (other) than a nightgown just to satisfy some lunatic's experiment!  Second mad scientist (referring to the comely and half-naked Fay Wray):  Don't criticize Joanne for her state of undress!  Indeed.  Dr. X is a zany monster movie, tongue firmly embedded in cheek, that delivers a few macabre chills.  The movie is stylishly designed, short at 77 minutes, and, even so, packed with all sorts of bizarre elements.  The scenarist and director seem hell-bent to devise a horror film that contains all elements of all known horror films, something that surpasses with sheer crazy alacrity every other picture in this genre.  Instead of one mad doctor, we get -- count 'em! -- five mad doctors.  The plot and the heavily expressionistic sets, all looming beams and cross-timbers shot from low angles, strange cubist niches, and dense, but articulate shadows (menacing profiles and grotesquely enlarged shadow figures), incorporate aspects of The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, The Black Cat, The Cat and the Canary, and innumerable other pictures.  The story is a compound of Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with comedy sequences and a lame romance tossed in for a good measure.  This is a pre-Code film and some of the violence is stark and realistically filmed; further, the movie ends with a dirty joke, albeit one that takes place as a sound-cue only after the fade-out on the final clinch.  This is the kind of picture where Fay Wray's devotion to her mad scientist father, played by Lionel Atwill, seems more than a little unsavory.  When the cub reporter gets tossed out of a water-front morgue where he trying to snatch a journalistic scoop, he goes into the a nearby building that is obviously a brothel -- the soiled doves tease him while he makes a tough-talking, wise-cracking newspaper-man call to his curmudgeonly boss.  Among the whores is one played by Mae Busch, showing an acre of creamy décolletage -- she's the actress who always appears as Oliver Hardy's wife in the thirties Laurel and Hardy two reelers and features such as Sons of the Desert. 

Cub reporter Tim Taylor loiters near a water-front morgue apparently in New York City.  He has a hunch that a mad murderer who strikes during the full of the moon has killed someone.  His hunch is right and, after the aforementioned detour through the brothel, Taylor ends up supine and hiding under a sheet in the morgue.  (This is played for laughs, hilarity in the morgue.)  The murder victim has sustained a surgical wound to the base of her brain, an incision made by a highly specialized tool.  Her deltoid muscle has been excised as well, evidence of cannibalism.   As it happen, there's a sinister scientific institution nearby -- the Institute of Surgical Research -- where dissections are conducted using the very same special scalpel whose wound appears on the cadaver.  The police investigate, without any real effect -- the police detectives' inquiry is just an ingenious way to provide an great deal of expository information.  Lionel Atwill is the chief mad scientist at the Surgical Institute, a haven for other mad scientists.  It's amusing that one of these scientists is the world's foremost expert on cannibalism.  Two of the other mad scientists are survivors of a shipwreck in which -- you guessed it! -- one of the seafarers was apparently eaten by the survivors.  The fourth mad doctor is a badly mutilated German surgeon -- I'm not sure what his connection is to cannibalism but he's ugly enough to be scary.  (The shadow of World War One hangs heavily over the plot -- the cannibalism expert is missing an arm and the German wears a black monocle to conceal scarring around his eye-socket presumably incurred in the war).  After these characters are introduced, the action shifts to a gothic castle on Long Island set atop cliffs above a perpetually raging sea -- this is Atwill's mansion complete with spooky hanging skeletons, weird Hindu gods, and a nightmare butler, the kind of role that Bela Lugosi would later sometimes play, a sinister hirsute fellow who acts as an all-purpose red herring.  The leader of the cohort of mad scientists decides to stage an experiment -- he will have a woman simulate the lunatic killer's victim and, then, monitor the blood pressure and reactions of the other mad scientists, using this prototype lie detector to determine the identity of the real killer.  During the first experiment, one of the mad scientist's gets killed by an unseen assailant.  This leads to a second experiment in which all of the subjects are literally chained in chairs. -- it's in this experiment, conducted on a dark and stormy night, that Atwill's comely daughter, played by Fay Wray is pressed into service.  Concealed in the woodwork, the resourceful reporter Tim Taylor watches the proceedings and comes to the fair damsel's rescue when the hideously disfigured killer attacks her.  Tyler rears back, spits on his hands, and, then, lunges into fisticuffs with the murderer -- it's the exact same gesture that Huntz Hall would employ before leading the Bowery Boys into brawls in innumerable cheapie films made in the late thirties.  Tyler kills the monster and ends up winning the girl.  He's a scrawny, incredibly irritating chap, prone to playing jokes with a joy-buzzer in the palm of his hand.  (Do you remember this item?  with exploding cigars  and flatulent whoopee cushions, joy buzzers were always on sale on the back page of the comic books that I read when I was a kid; I can picture right now the victim in the ad grimacing with hair standing on end as a result of the electric charge.)   Tyler is a horrible mismatch for the winsome and sophisticated looking Fay Wray and you end up thinking she would better be paired with the dignified and nobly hideous monster than this twerp.  The movie has got just about everything you want in a horror film:  eerie shadows, dark corridors, corpses under white sheets wiggling around, skeletons goosing the hero, hideous murderers, and laboratories full of flashing Tesla coils and bubbling vats of fog-producing acid.  It's all quite funny and the dialogue is totally "over-the-top" -- "I am making synthetic flesh for a crippled world," a villain shrieks.  Another mad scientist shouts to Lionel Atwill:  "Doctor, you've given everything for science including your daughter!"   The film as it now exists is credited to the UCLA Film Archives and the print has been colorized -- this gives the movie the strange yellow-tint of the old German color process, AGFA-color.  The color makes the movie seem even more peculiar.  This is inaccurate -- see below.

(The Joy Buzzer handshake practical joke was invented by S. S. Sorenson, the Danish immigrant responsible for Cachoo (sneeze) powder, itching powder, bug in a ice-cube, etc.  Sorenson invented the buzzer in 1928, which doesn't deliver a real electric shock, but instead relies upon a tightly wound spring to create a tingle when pressed in a handshake.  A patent for the joy buzzer significantly improving the design dates back to 1932, the year of the film.  Joy buzzers and other practical jokes of this kind were manufactured until the mid-sixties in Asbury Park, New Jersey.)

Michael Curtiz shot Dr. X and a slightly later picture with Fay Wray, The Mystery of the Wax Museum in a two-color Technicolor process.  Accordingly, the curious color scheme in this movie is original.  These films were thought to be lost -- at least, in color versions.  However, color prints of these films were found in an archives in the United Kingdom and restored at UCLA.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

MIA (August 2017)

I spent a couple of hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  I was recently abroad for two weeks and looked at art in about ten museums in Berlin and Leipzig.  Therefore, I have a basis for comparison.

The Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin has, at least, 15 Rembrandts, several of them quite beautiful.  But it has nothing to match the MIA's heartbreaking and profound Lucretia.  The Art Institute's Poussin, the intensely dramatic Death of Germanicus is certainly the equal of any painting that I saw in Germany, one of the greatest pictures in the world.  The forest of lances and hands pointing upward sweep the eye into the grandiose vaults of the huge basilica where Germanicus, who has been poisoned, lies dying.  But nothing can keep you from returning to look again and again at the greyish-green andanguished face of the poisoned emperor.  It's an astounding feat of composition and highly theatrical beauty.

Frangonard's spooky image of a palace's park in twilight always amazes me.  We see sculptures along a colonnade, a puff of fountain water materialized in the air, blurred and shadowy trees, a woman's back who looks into the darkness, as sober and upright as a chess-piece or one of Caspar David Friedrich's Rueckenfigur -- some murky figures gesture in the darkness and we can't tell whether these are real and animated courtiers, or mythical nymphs, or the mere statues of such nymphs.  It's almost monochrome, wonderfully dark and atmospheric.

New to the museum is a very dignified and compelling painting of the Dakota war chief, Little Crow.  The painting is said to have been made in 1863 -- at that time, the war chief had fled to Canada in the aftermath of the great Dakota war of 1862.  In the year the painting was made, Little Crow with his son crossed back into Minnesota, tried to steal some horses near Hutchinson and, at that place, the great chief was shot dead.  His body was scalped and mutilated and his corpse thrown on an offal heap in town where hogs were slaughtered. 

The painting is by someone named Henry Cross (1839 to 1918).  In the painting, Little Crow is portrayed life-size as an immensely noble figure.  He looks like a clergyman (Little Crow was, in fact, an Episcopalian deacon) and his big brown hands are crossed in repose over what looks like a Bible.  The Indian chief wears a beautifully tailored suit coat with brass buttons and a high collar nested around his neck.  He is sporting a vest and cravat tied like a black bouquet under this chin.  Little Crow looks enormously dignified and distinguished.  Yet this painting was made when he was either under a sentence of death in absentia for his role in war crimes and atrocities on the Minnesota frontier (and on the lam in Canada) or when he had been shot down like a dog and his corpse mutilated on the prairie near Hutchinson.  I don't know who Cross was or why he shows Little Crow as a heroic figure, dressed as a preacher and resting his hands on a Bible -- but it's a startling image and one that can't be assimilated easily to any of our accustomed narratives about the portrayal of Indians in the American West.  There's no hint of racism in the picture and, yet, the image was made when Little Crow's hundreds of victims, settlers slaughtered on the Minnesota frontier, were still being exhumed from mass graves to be individually reburied.  This is an extraordinary image, recently conserved, and well worth a trip to Minneapolis to see.

Walker Art Center (late August)

In late August 2017, most of the Walker Art Center galleries were closed -- some sort of monumental exhibit is in the "offing" or, perhaps, the permanent collection is being reorganized and objects rehung or relocated.  Three shows are on display:  Katherine Fritsch's "multiples", sculpture by Jimmie Durham, and a kooky and beautiful interactive environment by TeamLab, a Japanese animation enterprise. 

Fritsch's "multiples" are small sleek objects displayed in plexi-glass vitrines -- they are hats, a fly, various tools, some religious icons, and, most famously, a set of twenty fat black rats all tied together by their tails (a so-called Rattenkoenig, referring to the folk belief that groups of rats would entwine their tails to make a kind of living throne for the King of the Rats -- Fritsch is German and this macabre conceit seems like something out of the Brothers Grimm.)  All of these objects are crafted from some kind of super-smooth, bland-looking and rubbery plastic -- the idea is that these objects can be readily produced, perhaps, by injection molding, en masse.  The objects, accordingly, posit themselves as infinitely replicable, a perverse variant on consumer goods -- if you want three dozen turquoise-colored ten-inch tall Madonnas, Fritsch can produce these for you.  The small-scale sculptures look like children's toys and they are brightly colored.  Their surface-texture, however, is like that of an ultra-smooth Gummi bear and there is something more than a little sinister about the super-bland, perfectly colored and, apparently, infinitely reproducible objects -- none of them seem to have been touched by human hands.  It's not much of a show and the conceit wears thin before you reach the end of the display cases.

Jimmy Durham is a peculiar case, an artist who is without any real signature style.  His forte is chest-tall "combines" that look a bit like the work of Rauschenberg.  Durham has tamed, I think, Rauschenberg's wild and unpredictable surrealist assemblies, mostly collages of objects that were non-figurative, into something more easily enjoyed -- Durham's combines are made from bits of broom-handle, odd appliance levers and springs, and the skulls of dead felines; the cat skulls are sometimes decorated with gold or inlaid turquoise or extravagantly painted.  Almost all of these objects are figurative -- menacing or humorous little monsters.  Many of the sculptures have scowling Indian faces -- Durham claims to be Cherokee although no Cherokee tribe in the United States recognizes him as an enrolled member.  (Durham has worked most of his life abroad -- in Paris, Berlin, and now Italy -- and I think his work enjoys a certain cachet in Europe because of its American Indian themes.)  Durham has a number of works that rely on puns -- he calls white people "pail-faces" -- and some of his objects are basically signs bearing messages about the perfidious White man and his wretched civilization.  As opposed to Katherine Fritsch, Durham's works have a variety of funky textures; they are clearly and lovingly hand-made -- glass is embedded in some of them and they have hook-like claws extruding and, even, human teeth.  (One of his grotesque little personages puts forth a tiny hand gripping a couple of human teeth and exhibits in his other metal clip-fist a sign that says "Mr. Durham's actual teeth.")  There are some paintings, some water colors, and, most amusingly, a big case of containing various "petrified" foodstuffs -- petrified cheese and biscuits and bread and chocolate, all of these foods wonderfully and very persuasively impersonated by different-colored chunks of rock.  It's an interesting show, not profound, but playful, and, even, a bit witty.  However, there is something insincere about this exhibit (perhaps this is a residue of knowing that Durham is not a real, but rather a fake, Indian).  It's hard to characterize the importance of sincerity in art.  As great an artist as Andy Warhol didn't have a sincere bone in his body and this doesn't undercut his work.  But Durham's highly personal "combines" somehow require a modicum of sincerity that the artist doesn't seem to possess -- he's simply too facile, too much of a chameleon.

On the seventh floor of the WAC, the Japanese computer animators teamLab have designed an environment consisting a dark chamber forty feet long and wide in which brightly colored crocodiles pursue equally colorful frogs while butterflies flutter across the floor.  Sometimes, a great whale appears and slowly swims through the meadow of leaping frogs and hunting crocodiles where schematic flowers blossom and wave in the wind.  The great whales are a mosaic of bright colors and they slowly roll across the floor surrounded by the leaping frogs and the crocodiles clambering here and there.  You can make your own images, scan them into a computer, and, I guess, these picture will also appear among the moving animals and flowers.  It's interactive -- the animation is something that you can enter and, then, experience on all sides of you and underfoot.  Some big pillows on the ground can be shoved around to alter the surfaces onto which these whimsical creatures are projected.  You can walk among them and when you step on a frog or a crocodile, the creature splats under your heel, flattening and spraying out a cloud of pastel colors in all directions.  It's wholly charming and hypnotic. 


Quietly exquisite, Columbus is a film of extraordinary grace, serenity, and beauty.  This is the premiere production of a Korean-American director who calls himself Kogonada, the name of one of Kurosawa's screenwriters.  The movie is a perfectly realized homage to Yasujiro Ozu, an exceptionally subtle and moving study of a life-changing friendship.  Few films focus on friendship and I don't know any picture that studies friendship so intensely in the context of architectural modernism on the Indiana prairie.  Columbus feels unique because of its intense invocation of a built environment and its romantically optimistic view of the architect as a sort of Promethean striver whose works shape the lives of those fortunate enough to live among them.  Ultimately, the film is utopian -- great architecture, the picture proclaims, ennobles and, ultimately, saves lives.  It's like William Carlos Williams' assessment of poetry:  the architecture shown in the film does nothing but, yet, every day people perish miserably for want of the qualities embodied in that work. 

Architecture is about space and distance, about the texture of materials and about the organization of light; great architecture sculpts the void between structural elements and changes the quality of the light and shadow that defines a building.  To appreciate this vital aspect of the film, Columbus is a movie that must be seen on a large screen -- the picture is so exceptionally beautiful that the viewer needs to be aware of the highly designed color schemes, the exact nuances of light and darkness, and the director's use of bright highlights within his perfectly designed compositions.  All of this might well be visible on a small screen but it would be "mentioned" as opposed to the way that these effects are dramatized in the movie -- the film is so remarkably designed that you need to see it as it was imagined, on a big screen, and, indeed, with a suitably hushed and awestruck audience.

Columbus is a family melodrama, a story about the conflicts between children and their parents.  It's plot, like the buildings that it shows, is classical and beautifully symmetrical.  A famous Korean architect has come from Seoul with his assistant (and possibly lover) to deliver a lecture in Columbus, Indiana.  For complex reasons, this small Midwestern city is a mecca for modernist art -- there are eight or nine famous builidings in the city, many of them designed by the father and son, Finnish architects, Eilel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen.  (We see local tour guides leading groups of people through these iconic buildings.)  While inspecting one of the city's landmarks, the Miller House (Eero Saarinen), the Korean architect collapses, apparently, the victim of a stroke.  His son, Jin, who is estranged from the great man, arrives in town to attend at his father's sick-bed.  Jin stays at an elegant bed-and-breakfast (the most beautiful bed and breakfast in cinema history) and flirts with his father's assistant (played by Paker Posey).  He meets a local girl, Casey, whose life is stalled-out.  She's 19 or 20, working in a library where her boss -- he has a college degree and lords it over the girl -- implies that he wants to have a romantic relationship with her.  Casey has had some bad trouble in her life -- her mother was a meth addict and the parent-child relationship has been inverted:  Casey has had to care for her mother whose addiction has made her unpredictable and who has a predilection for "shit heads" as boyfriends.  When Casey meets Jin, she impresses him with her knowledge of the city's architectural masterpieces even though Jin denies any interest in the subject.  (In fact, he is very interested.)  Casey escorts Jin to the various modernist monuments in the town and a close, if non-romantic, relationship ensues.  Casey admits to Jin that she has had a difficult adolescence and, in fact, was saved somehow from despair by her contemplation of the wonderful buildings in her environment -- these buildings mean something very profound and heart-felt to her, although the movie has the tact to never exactly explain what this means.  (In one remarkable scene, Jin asks Casey to stop parroting the tour-guide spiel and tell him directly what a building means to her -- the camera switches to a reverse angle and films Casey from inside the modernist masterpiece, a 1956 glass bank, and we see her lips move and her remarkable expressive face congested with emotion, but we can't hear what she says.  In another remarkable scene, Casey confesses to Jin how a building's façade saved her life when her mother was entrapped in her addiction -- we can see the building through the windshield of the car in which Casey is sitting but Kogonada keeps the focus on the girl and not the building so that we don't really see it clearly.  Kogonada knows that just as an architect uses voids as well as form, so there is a power in cinema in withholding things that the audience wants to hear or see.)  In a startling admission, Casey says:  "This town is big on meth and modernism."  One of the big-name architects touring Columbus has recognized Casey's superb eye and deep interest in the buildings and has encouraged her to move to the East Coast and pursue a career in architecture, even offering her an internship in an architectural office, but Casey resists -- it's too easy for her remain in town, particularly since her mother's dependence on her gives her an excuse to not leave Columbus.  The famous Korean architect worsens and Jin astounds Casey by admitting that he hopes his father will die.  Casey's loyalty to her mother is such that this statement shocks her.  After much soul-searching and encouragement from Jin, Casey decides to leave town and pursue a career in architecture.  Jin now is trapped in Columbus -- in a way, he has succeeded to Casey's paralysis, unable to leave the city while his father, with whom he had not exchanged words for more than a year before the old man's stroke, hovers between life and death.  The irony is that the young man who greatly desires to leave Columbus is trapped there; the young woman who desperately wanted to remain in town must leave.  The film ends with 'empty frames' derived from Ozu -- silent corridors in Casey's house, a stormy sky, a bridge against the sky, then, a lower shot of the bridge, now less statuesque, with a car moving toward us with its headlights on as the movie fades to black.  In all respects, this film is almost perfectly realized.  Kogonada understands how to interpose architectural images, cubist thresholds and doorways and corridors shot through telephoto lenses with beautifully framed two-shots showing the principal characters on their wanderings through town.  There are several images of willow trees in a green meadow that are so startlingly beautiful that they take your breath away.  The acting is beyond reproach:  John Cho plays the kind, but sometimes, bitter and angry, Jin -- he's superb.  Haley Lu Richardson acts the part of the fiercely intelligent Casey.  Both she and Jin are expert at showing something that films almost never attempt -- as in Ozu's great movies, the characters can be seen actually thinking; we can sense that they are trying to understand and articulate things and that this takes some effort but is worthwhile.  Beyond the two principals, the other roles are also wonderfully realized.  Despite the movie's use of austere modernist buildings as its backdrop and, indeed, raison d'etre, the film is extremely warm and generous.  The only criticism that can be made of the film is that it is so intensely influenced by Ozu (and to a lesser extent Antonioni) that the movie seems a tiny bit derivative -- there are, maybe, a four or five "empty shots" too many and some of the landscapes are, possibly, unnecessary.  That said, if a film maker is going to influenced by another director it's a wonderful thing that Kogonada has chose Yasujiro Ozu as his master.  This doesn't stop me from wondering what this brilliant director's next film will look like when, I hope, he is a little less heavily indebted to the Japanese master. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Cave is commercial filmmaking at lowest common denominator.  As such the movie  displays more about us than about the world or its characters and demonstrates the power of the medium at its most nakedly manipulative.  Let Cave stand for all the instantly forgettable, pseudo-documentary horror films that stagger and stumble zombie-like through the multiplexes one after another weekend after weekend, all alike and all more or less frightening -- each Thursday, it's a new demonic possession or paranormal exploration featuring grainy night-vision goggles that turns out for the worst, another group of attractive, dim-witted teens exposed to hideous risk in some remote cabin or wilderness camp, another serial killer or zombie outbreak or reanimated corpse haunting the torture-porn corridors beneath some festering Balkan city.  Cave is a Norwegian picture accessible with many others of its kind on Netflix.  The movie has reasonable production values -- the camerawork is generally competent and the editing proficient.  The film is dubbed, a ghastly effect, but one that you soon learn to ignore.  The picture shows some spectacular landscapes -- high country in Norway with barren moors and sheets of glacier drooping down from low stony ridges, icy lakes, and huge roaring waterfalls.  (Norway is almost gratuitously beautiful and the outdoors sequences shot in the mountains above the vertiginous fjords are wonderful in their own right.)  The plot involves three thrill-seeking kids in their early twenties -- a feisty tom-boy girl, her clean-cut athletically inclined boyfriend, and, the odd man out and third-wheel, a damaged Afghan war veteran (apparently the Norwegians contributed troops to that conflict and, thus, have a ready store of PTSD plots that they can now deploy as a result).  The war vet has shaggy hair and seems a little petulant, not surprisingly since he was previously intimate with the girl who is now sleeping with his best friend,  The two men are obviously competitive with respect to the girl and, as we suspect pretty soon, it's a serious mistake for this trio to undertake the exploration of deep and watery cave somewhere in the Norwegian arctic.  Even before they are underground, the boys are spooking one another, driving recklessly over the mountain passes, and acting erratically.  At night, alone in the high mountains, the athletic kid seems to see a light following them in the darkness.  As they are canoeing to the cave entrance, the boyfriend whistles the "Dueling Banjos" theme from Deliverance and the girl cheerfully tells the Afghan vet that he's playing the part of "Ned Beatty and so you'll get fucked in the ass."  The vet purports to not have seen the film.  Underground, there's lots of rappelling and trekking through huge rooms.  The explorers find a pup tent full of bloody sleeping bags and it seems that there is someone in the cave with them.  The boy and girl have sex in front of the war veteran.  He creeps up next to the sleeping girl and masturbates.  The film exploits exceedingly primal fears -- the darkness, extremely constricted spaces, watery abysses with floating corpses blocking the passage.  The vet goes berserk and kills the athletic kid.  He has spirited away a set of night vision goggles and torments the girl by stalking her in the pitch darkness.  She rallies and kills him by bashing in his face with a rock.  After some more dangers, the girl emerges from the cave, swimming through an underwater siphon to emerge, confusingly enough, in an open river.  Hiking through the snowfields, the girl is picked up by an older man, a stranger who we have seen surveying the girl as she struggles to climb up cliffs in the river gorge.  (This scene is an obvious homage to Deliverance.)  When he gets out of the truck to get her a blanket -- she is trembling with cold -- this man whistles "Dueling Banjos".  (Presumably, he is the psycho war veteran's father who we hear the killer talking to by cell-phone, possibly an accomplice who has lured other people into the cave and killed them, although this is unclear.) 

The movie is scary, actually thrilling in a few sequences -- it makes the most of scary shadows, tight crevasses, and water-filled cave passages.  There are plenty of "boo!" shock cuts. The plot is so vestigial it can't be counted as a narrative.  Many of the scenes make only marginal sense -- when a tiny wormhole tunnel collapses and almost kills the war vet, no one seems concerned that one of the ways out of the cave is now blocked and inaccessible.  The bloody sleeping bags are never explained and we don't really know the man's intentions at the end of the movie.  The girl escapes from the cave by flailing around in the water, either descending or ascending, it isn't clear which, until she somehow surfaces in the river.  This is really just a haunted house thriller, the gorilla in the decaying mansion, except that the haunted house is a cave.  The dialogue is rudimentary.  How did the vet hide the big night-vision goggles in his gear?  Why do the boy and girl have sex in front of him?  Will night-vision goggles work in the pitch darkness of a cave?  Does Norway even have big, water-filled caves of this kind -- the film was shot in Rana in the Nordland province and "Mexico".  (Norway does have caves like this and, in fact, an expedition into an actual water-filled cave in which two Finnish explorers died in a siphon seems to be the basis for parts of the story.)  The closing titles begin with this legend in Norwegian "Cave 2 coming soon." 

I hope so.  I might actually tune in.  This movie is very short (one hour and 11 minutes) but it's still not worth your time.  But it shows how very little a movie has to contain to meet some of the expectations of its audience and to keep you watching for more  than an hour.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cathedrals of Culture (Berlin Philharmonic)

Cathedrals of Culture is a six-part documentary featuring film essays on important cultural institutions located in Europe and the United States.  The films are helmed by estimable directors -- the 25 minute episode on the Berlin Philharmonic is directed by Wim Wenders. 

This little film is a minor project for Wenders but one that has some interest for longstanding admirers of the German director.  Wenders is a gentle fellow and has an unfortunate sweet-tooth for whimsy and the film is a little too cute for me -- the Berlin Philharmonic narrates the picture in the simplified diction of a fairy tale.  It's a talking concert hall, a conceit that is clever enough, but, frankly, seems a bit childish.  Nonetheless, there aspects of the documentary that are worth noting.  Wenders seems to have shot the documentary, which is really a study of a structure that is important architecturally, in 3D.  (The hall is the work of Hans Scharoun, an architect whose buildings were denigrated by the Nazis as entartete --degenerate -- during the Hitler period -- we see him impersonated by an actor chewing on a cigar in the doc.)  The  3D effect is hard to appreciate on a TV screen, but the program features much elegant Steadi-cam camera movement, gliding through the huge open spaces both in the concert hall's exterior lobbies and the auditorium itself.  Crane shots sweep along noble-looking cantilevered stairways and travel between the building's outer shell, a sort of tent-shaped enclosure, and its actual roof.  The narrator makes the point that the building itself is an elaborate musical instrument, a chamber to display the sonic beauty produced by the orchestra -- and to illustrate this point, we see the Philharmonic rehearsing a piece by Debussy and, then, performing that same opus to a large audience; the camera glides seductively through space, also moving laterally and, then, rotating around a cellist and, then, double-bass player who perform alone on the stage.  These camera movements gracefully gliding through the great building suggest the similar tracking and craning shots in Wenders' signature film Himmel ueber Berlin (Wings of Desire), particularly in the library scenes narrated by the angels in the beginning of the picture.  These sequences were shot nearby at the Berlin Stadtsbibliothek, a cultural institution only a stone's throw from the Philharmonic hall, built in 1961 at the same time the Berlin Wall was being raised.  Wenders set much of the action in Himmel ueber Berlin in the ruinous Potsdamerplatz, an open space where he posed the Circus Alekhan, named after the DP in the earlier film -- a ruined empty zone and space of contemplation now long gone after Germany's reunification.  Wenders shows one of his protagonists making the short walk from the gleaming skyscrapers of today's Potsdamerplatz to the Kulturforum where the Philharmonic was built as a rebuke to the East Berlin authorities and where the picture gallery, the so-called Gemaeldegalerie was designed and erected by Mies van der Rohe.  (I was at the Kulturforum a couple weeks ago and there are several new museums there, including a new museum of applied arts and crafts -- the architecture of the eccentric-looking concert hall is so peculiar and hyper-modern, a bit like Gehry's work, that I was surprised to learn through this film that the building in now over fifty years old.

Ultimately, Wenders best movies have a utopian aspect -- they posit a better world than the one in which we live, particularly Wenders Himmel ueber Berlin and its sequel as well as his interesting documentary about Pina Bausch (also made in 3D) simply called Pina.  Wenders is an idealist and he believes that the progressive architecture of the Philharmonic is an equalizing force -- every seat, he has the hall tell us, is equally good; the orchestra is not on a stage but in the middle of the concert hall exposed on all sides.  Good art doesn't involve tricks -- we should be able to see it in the round, from the full 360 degrees -- hence, the hall's radically open design.  Like the cultural institutions in Sokurov's films, particularly the Hermitage, the concert hall is thought to be a great ark, a ship like the Titanic (actually mentioned by narrator) plowing through the catastrophes of the late 20th century but indomitable, unsinkable, prevailing.  And art, for Wenders, is democratic -- each concertgoer sees a slightly different concert (and hears a different concert) because the seats all experience the orchestra from different angles both visually and acoustically.  This isn't a great movie and I didn't like the aspect of the talking concert hall, but it's worth watching if you are interested in Wenders' work.  (The show is on Netflix.) 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Alexander Nevsky

Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 Alexander Nevsky is silly propaganda with a scenario that makes Star Wars look like Ingmar Bergman.  However, the film can not be dismissed because of its abundant stupidity.  The level of graphic intelligence embodied in the film's design, editing, and photography is truly formidable.  Furthermore, the film is innovative in a number of ways -- it may well be cinema's first example of a music video. 

Single-minded to a fault, Alexander Nevsky is a movie in which everything is subordinated to a huge battle scene that occupies half the film's running time.  Nevsky is a handsome Russian prince who lives beside a vast lake and spends his time peacefully fishing.  (This being Eisenstein, the fishing scenes involving men arranged in picturesque diagonals holding nets in the shallow water have a spectacular quality; the shallow lake extends out to the horizon and the peasants in the water wear snow-white garments like swans and most of the frame consists of turbulent sky and lake.)  A Mongol envoy, a representative of the Golden Horde, approaches Nevsky and asks him to serve the Khan as a "war lord."  The Mongols are straight out of Fritz Lang's Nibelungenlied, sinister Asians on little ponies with high-fashion furs and boas around their snarling faces.  Nevsky declines the offer saying that he first must rally the Russians to defeat the Teutonic Knights, Germans who have invaded his country and are ravaging its cities.  Eisenstein cuts to the Germans in Pskov where the Russian princes are humiliated, kneeling in smoke drifting from dozens of fires.  When the Russians refuse to swear fealty to the Germans, the heavily armored troops (they have ugly buckets on their heads) simply plow over them like so many tanks.  Screaming infants are cast into bonfires and women are slaughtered and the Teutonic Knights, in their grotesque space-alient helmets and armor stalk around menacing everyone.  Nevsky gives a speech in Novgorad.  He summons together an army and fights the Germans on a frozen lake.  After a long and hard-fought battle, the Germans are routed.  Women carrying torches search among the dead and wounded for family members -- a visual feast that Eisenstein exploits to the utmost.  Back at Novgorad, there is a triumphal procession, the outraged populace tears to pieces the leaders of the German army while the rank and file infantry are pardoned, and a couple of wounded men win brides by way of their battlefield valor.  The movie concludes with Nevsky addressing the camera, and, presumably, the German High Command in Berlin:  "Don't invade Russia or this will happen to you!" he asserts.  There is nothing even remotely sophisticated or nuanced in any of these proceedings.  It would be seductive to claim that Eisenstein has some sort of critical or, at least, ironic sub-text to this material -- but that claim would be futile:  what you see is what you get.  The distance between this film and the ideologically complex and politically self-conscious movies that Eisenstein made in the Twenties -- for instance, Strike and The Battleship Potemkin -- is immense.  Alexander Nevsky bears no trace of any ideology except the most naïve, vicious kind of nationalism -- it's certainly not a Bolshevik film and, indeed, could have been directed by Leni Riefenstahl.  What passes for romantic comedy, the byplay between two warriors competing for the attentions of a buxom Bruennhilde, a sort of wild-eyed Russian Valkyrie who we see swinging an axe in combat, is painful to behold.  Eisenstein isn't good at these scenes and they are simply embarrassing -- as embarrassing as the scene in the triumphal procession in which the one buffoonish warrior yields to his equally buffoonish colleague from the battlefield. with respect to the fair Amazon while his mother, symbolizing Mother Russia, rolls her eyes at her wounded son's generosity.  (Eisenstein's homosexuality is implicit in his utter lack of interest in this cartoonish romantic subplot or, perhaps, he simply can't devise any pictorial strategy to invest these proceedings with the statuesque, aggressive beauty of many of his other sequences in the film.) 

Notwithstanding all of these defects, the film rises or falls with its climactic battle and this extended sequence is a bravura master-class in dynamic editing and pictorial composition:  the advance of the wedge of Teutonic knights crossing the white expanse of the frozen lake is an alarming spectacle to behold -- rhythmically cut to Prokofiev's score, the monstrously armored knights (they have iron hands and claws and horns sticking out of their helmets) are genuinely frightening.  When the forces crash into one another, there is a sense of palpable impact, a real thud of steel ringing against steel that the audience feels in their gut.  Scenes in which the German forces kneel on the ice and use their lances to slaughter attacking Russians are chilling and the imagery of  hand-to-hand combat, visualized as men swinging their swords wildly at the camera is brutally effective.  When the ice breaks and the German knights are swallowed up in the depths of the lake, Eisenstein gives us a montage of the Teuton's bucket helmets sucked down into blackness, their cloaks trailing over icebergs as they are pulled into the water.  The entire film is structured as a visual accompaniment to Prokofiev's oratorio-like scores -- the triumphal procession, for instance, features a male chorus intoning the Mother Russia theme and the Germans have a sinister Wagnerian motif, a sort of distorted Dies Irae to characterize them.  Many of these musical cues are presented as part of the action -- the Russians play on pan-pipes during the fight on the lake and the Germans have a monstrous organist, black-caped like the Phantom of the Opera who makes his instrument wheeze and moan as the vicious Teutonic knights celebrate their mass.  At the end of the battle, the black-robed monks close ranks and fight the Russians with crucifixes turned into bludgeons.  Prokofiev's spectacular score is integral to the film and you can't really imagine the movie without the themes that the composer devises:  deep droning bass lines for the Russians with a beautiful and operatic cantabile melody superimposed, the locomotive chug-chug-chug of the advancing Teutons, the wild braying carnival music that accompanies the rout of the Germans, and, finally, the huge choruses singing in triumph at the end of the film.  The interesting feature in this film, Eisenstein's first sound movie, is that he doesn't gravitate toward dialogue -- indeed, the film's dialogue is mostly idiotic -- rather, he immediately understands the importance of music to the action:  ultimately, his entire approach to this subject matter is not analytical but musical.   

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Colossal (2016 dir. Nacho Vigalando) is a disturbing horror-allegory concealed behind the avuncular mask of romantic comedy.  The film takes a completely unexpected direction and moves so rapidly after pivoting that it leaves the audience behind.  The experience is interesting, but the movie doesn't quite succeed -- it's reach is far greater than its grasp and the film's standard issue rom-com style doesn't really match its alarming theme. 

Colossal stands for the proposition that most of us conceal monsters beneath a façade of every-day congeniality.  What seem to be mere foibles are, perhaps, signs of hideous psychic disorder.  The picture makes these ideas literal -- the heroine's alcoholism is materialized as an enormous, mantis-like humanoid giant menacing Seoul.  When the heroine steps into a playground in her hometown in a small New England town, a Godzilla-sized kaiju (or "strange giant beast") appears in Seoul and begins smashing up the city.  Exactly how or why this phenomenon exists is left unclear -- it seems to have something to do with a childhood trauma inscribed in lightning flashes emerging from a vortex of storm cloud.  The heroine is stalked, and, ultimately, terrorized by Jason Sudeikis, cast against type as the film's villain.  Sudeikus capitalizes on his easy likeability -- we expect him to be the lead in a romantic comedy in which he and Anne Hathaway, playing the film's heroine, Gloria, will happily hook-up, not without some complications posed by Gloria's former boyfriend, but nevertheless, two attractive people well suited for one another.  (The film's casting is either inept or subtly brilliant:  Sudeikis excels at self-deprecating humor --  he's a blue-collar regular guy, a man's man, and a little too normal and a little too mediocre, perhaps, for the ethereal, even strangely other worldly Anne Hathaway.  She's too pre-Raphaelite exquisite for Sudeikis and, indeed, this turns out to be the case.)  Gloria has fled her domineering boyfriend in New York City, a place where she works as a writer for an Internet blog -- more accurately stated, he has thrown her out because of her irresponsibility.  We aren't sure how to read her handsome boyfriend with his faint British or Australian accent -- is the guy supposed to be a domineering jerk or is he genuinely concerned about his girlfriend's pattern of staying out all night, partying at all hours, and not contributing the rent?  We can't tell for sure how we are supposed to view this character and this ambiguity floats generally over all of the figures in the movie -- they are hard to interpret and the film presents them in underwritten roles that are either intentionally enigmatic or simply incompetently presented.  The film is disturbing because you can't ascertain whether the sense of confusion that you feel is a result of error or intention, an uncertainty that is systemic throughout the movie.  As it happens, the charming Sudeikis turns out to be a vicious nasty drunk and, even, physically abusive -- he beats up the fragile-looking Gloria not once but twice in the film and, in the final confrontation, she attacks and kills him.  The picture, shot as if it were going to be a charming light comedy, turns out to be aggressively violent, mean-spirited and savage. 

When Gloria comes to the small-town where she was born, she immediately latches onto Oscar, a childhood friend and bar owner.  Oscar seems to be a friendly drunk with two friends who hang around his tavern drinking after-hours.  One of these guys seems to be gay, or possibly a drug addict -- this part is performed by Tim Blake Nelson, who, as always, is excellent.  The other man, Joel, is Nelson's sidekick and, even, possibly his lover -- this is ambiguous.  Gloria seduces Joel and has sex with him.  This conduct may be related to her alcoholism but immediately disturbs the audience -- isn't Gloria supposed to be earmarked for the happy-go-lucky and generous Oscar?  But Oscar turns out to be a monster as well, literally a giant laser-armed robot that is also terrorizing Seoul.  Whenever he and Gloria step into the playground to wrestle or fight, their exploits are reflected in a titanic duels in Seoul between their monster-surrogates, the huge hideous mantis figure and the giant, death-ray projecting robot -- in these battles, buildings are toppled and mobs of Koreans run frantically to and fro.  The scenes in Seoul aren't effectively filmed and so don't seem to add much to the duel between Oscar and Gloria played out in small-town Maine.  In fact, this defect in the film is also intentional -- we are supposed to sense that Oscar and Gloria, with all their deadly flaws, are more horrifying than their surrogate beasts, the big monsters fighting in the CGI-gloom in Seoul. 

The film is better than its execution and more interesting than it seems while watching.  The movie asserts effectively the role that alcohol plays in most people's lives -- booze makes us bigger than life, expands our gestures, and liberates a me that is not me.  This is reflected by the monsters in embattled Seoul.  At one point, Gloria says to Oscar:  "You hate how small you've become..." and we see how his erotic failure has made him monstrous, and how his jealousy has become lethal and savage:  those who are made to feel small often compensate by imagining themselves immense and powerful.  It's a cleverly written film:  at one point, Gloria urges the hapless Oscar to open part of his bar that is decked out with a cowboy theme and Monument Valley murals -- "it's so ironic," she says, "like a fucking Wes Anderson movie."  Gloria's immensely delicate porcelain beauty doesn't exactly fit with her depravity in the film and, of course, she is also cast against type -- it's as hard to imagine her as an out-of-control promiscuous drunk as it is difficult to imagine Jason Sudeikas as a terrifying bad guy.  But all of these misfires seem to be intentional and this is why this problematic picture packs a disturbing punch.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


There are ten episodes of Ozark on Netflix (2017) and the series is an excellent, a superbly crafted crime program.  The show has excellent actors, is well-written, and continuously surprising -- although the general trajectory of the narrative is clear enough, the program's creators deliver surprising twists and turns to the story and the show's final episode convincingly integrates the disparate strands in the plot into a satisfying climax.  The show purports to realism and so there aren't the strange flights of fancy that sometimes elevate Fargo, a similar program, into higher and more complex realms.  Further, Ozark is tightly coiled -- it's pieces all fit together and so it doesn't display the innovative anti-narrative and centrifugal energy that makes Twin Peaks (The Return) so enormously fascinating -- and, it should be said, frustrating.  That said, Ozark is more entertaining in a conventional sense -- it doesn't stretch the limits of the form and the action is neatly focused.  You won't be inspired by Ozark but the show is dependably and continuously entertaining in the best sense -- it has fascinating characters that the writers seem to care about intensely and this concern translates into a convincing and superbly performed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  This program's narrative innovation is to hurl the viewer into the action without any explanation and, then, provide a convincing exposition in later episodes.

The show begins with an assault on the viewer that develops in directions that don't seem fully plausible at first.  A financial planner, played with weasel-aplomb by Justin Batemen (he looks like Rob Lowe but is a better actor) finds himself in trouble with a Mexican drug cartel.  Bateman lives in Chicago and he's apparently a kind of "everyman" and his lack of distinction, his bland good looks and rapid-fire salesman's delivery, provides the viewer with an effective and gripping point of access to the mayhem that will follow.  Bateman's Marty Byrde is married, unhappily, to Wendy (also excellently played by Laura Linnea). Wendy is having a love affair and seems remote from her husband.  Who can blame her? -- he is addicted to watching a rather inexpressive porno-video:  it shows an anonymous woman providing oral sex to a man that we can't identify and, then, some sexual intercourse, also shot from a particularly non-revealing vantage.  (We immediately wonder why Marty is watching repeatedly this uninteresting sex clip -- later, the basis for his fascination will be revealed.)   A group of Mexican villains, the sort of sleek, menacing and handsome bad hombres, that Trump probably thinks are real, invade the story.  They torture and summarily kill Marty's business partner and his wife.  Marty, who is very glib and self-assured, talks his way out of being murdered for money that he and his partner seem to have skimmed from the drug cartel.  Marty has learned that there are business opportunities at Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri; we repeatedly hear that Lake of the Ozarks has more shoreline than California.  He pleads with the drug lord (a sort of clone of the well-manicured and soft-spoken Ricardo Montalban) to be allowed to go to Lake of the Ozarks and launder money for the mobsters.  Surprisingly, the gangster-boss agrees to this and Marty with his wife and two children flee to southern Missouri where the hero starts to launder money with surprising skill and agility.  In the course of this rapid-fire first episode, Wendy's lover is collateral damage -- he is hurled from an 80 story window from a lakeside condo south of the Chicago loop.  Marty confronts Wendy and agrees that their marriage is over and that they are now nothing more than "business partners" in the money-laundering scheme.  These events all transpire with lightning rapidity and, although parts of the story seem profoundly implausible -- for instance, why is Marty so exceptionally skilled at laundering money? -- the accelerated pace of the narrative keeps us involved and not questioning aspects of the story that seem improbable.  (SPOILER ALERT:  I will reveal plot points of significance below and if you want to enjoy the show for its intricate and surprising narrative, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and just tune in the show.)  Only in the 8th episode, a show that is entirely flashback to 2007, do we learn that Marty has been complicit in drug-money laundering for many years, that he is a trusted lieutenant in the cartel's economic schemes, and that Wendy has also been complicit in the criminal enterprise:  in effect, the couple have made a Faustian bargain with the drug cartel, hence, Marty's initially surprising alacrity with money laundering.

By the end of the first show, the program's story has moved from Chicago to rural Missouri and, at Lake of the Ozarks, the show plays out one of the primordial plots in American fiction and the movies -- this is the story of the brash urban City Slicker, who finds himself trapped in the country and surrounded by apparently clueless "rubes."  Of course, the rubes have their own culture and ethics and they turn out to be, if anything, more criminal, more sophisticated in their scheming, and more lethal than the big city criminals with whom the hero has been consorting.  The strength of Ozark is the depth of its characterization of rural, drug-laced criminality.  Immediately, Marty runs afoul of a clan of redneck trailer court trash who steal some of his money.  The leader of this interbred group of trailer trash is imprisoned but the clan is led, effectively and with murderous skill, by the man's 19-year old daughter,  Ruth Langmore.  This girl becomes Marty's reluctant ally and, later, partner and she is one of the best things in the show -- the girl's characterization (she's played by Julia Garner) bears some resemblance to the resourceful adolescent protagonist in another excellent crime movie set in the Ozark's Winter's Bone -- this is Dolly played by Jennifer Lawrence in that film.  Indeed, the wintry look of the show, it's dark green forests and blue twilights, all seem redolent of Winter's Bone and the menacing rednecks in Ozark are cousins to the people in the movie, but Ozark is longer, more complex, and cuts deeper.  Things are as corrupt at Lake of the Ozarks as in Chicago, although it's a different kind of rot:  Marty acquires a "titty bar" as it is called, then, an interest in a failing resort, a moribund funeral parlor (a business venture that proves to be convenient when it comes to corpse disposal), and tries to launder money through an evangelical church (the pastor is unwittingly distributing heroin in hymnals when he preaches on Sunday mornings from a boat on the lake facing a flotilla of other boats, most of them, apparently, occupied by junkies.)  There are corrupt local officials, nasty "entitled" trust-fund kids vacationing on the lake, and a clan of truly deadly hillbillies, the Snell family, who are, at once, principled and lethal and who boss the local criminal enterprises.  (The Snell's make a distinction between rednecks, who they despise, as deracinated and hillbillies -- when someone makes the mistake of calling Snell a hillbilly,  his deranged cobra of a wife blows the man's head off for the insult.)  The FBI is on Marty's trail and there is an anguished, homosexual agent pursuing him -- a nightmare character similar to the tormented FBI man played by Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire.  Marty and his family have rented a house from a sinister old man whose basement is full of guns.  The old man is dying and seems to be harboring a dark secret of his own and he lives on the bottom level of the home rented to Marty and family.  (In one scene, the old man, who is no stranger to violence, says that he is on the run for killing Jimmy Hoffa -- we aren't sure whether this is true or just an intimidating joke.)  Drug cartel thugs have Marty under surveillance and the FBI is watching as well and everything seems poised for a final Armageddon, a siege of Marty's lake-front home that will kill off everyone in the show.  But it's clear that the show is good enough to warrant another season and, so, midway the film starts to develop additional plot strands to eliminate the need to slaughter everyone in the final episode.  Although the final show is brutal enough, it keeps enough of the characters alive for the program to be renewed for another season. 

Here are the simple pleasures that Ozark provides.  The program is well-written and, ultimately, very believable. (I have to confess I don't understand the details of money-laundering which, in part, involves actual washers and dryers -- but this is probably a good thing.)  The program is unobtrusively filmed.  It's not too beautiful for its own good -- often a problem with Fargo -- and we are never distracted by fancy camera techniques, or jiggly hand-held work, or pretentious steadi-cam shots; the show is classically constructed and the technique makes sense without drawing attention to itself.  The program is remarkably deep with interesting characters -- the trailer trash are all delineated and the narrative doesn't condescend to anyone.  All of the acting is pitch-perfect.  Within the standard narrative of a film about gangsters and criminal enterprise, the show works interesting, and unanticipated, variations -- a good example is a scene in the last episode in which the preacher, whose wife has been vivisected by the bad guys, appears to drown his infant son.  He submerges the baby in the icy-looking waters of the lake for a long time, but the outcome of the sequence is completely unexpected, but brilliantly imagined.  Ozark is not gratuitously violent -- in fact, Marty is a character who doesn't carry a gun and has no stomach for violence of any kind; we know that he will use his wits to evade danger and will not debase himself with violent acts.  Although a lot of nasty stuff happens in the show, the worst of it is off-screen.  The program's length is exactly right for the complexity of the narrative -- there are no wasted episodes and no scenes that don't contribute to development of the plot.  This is quite remarkable because almost all extended TV series (for instance, Westworld) have hours of filler -- this show is all tendon and sinew.   

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Paterson (film group essay)


‘I would rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than the king of China,"

Jim Jarmusch


Paterson (2016) is Jim Jarmusch’s film about an unsung poet living in Paterson, New Jersey. In my estimation, the film is, perhaps, the greatest movie ever made about a poet.

Jim Jarmusch is an American film maker, born and bred in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He was a startling apparition on the scene in New York City in the mid-seventies. Jarmusch is tall, dresses entirely in black, and has incandescent white hair. He is handsome, with ruggedly chiseled features complicated by perfect, cupid’s bow lips – Jarmusch’s lips are prettier than Mick Jagger’s or Clara Bow’s. No one has ever photographed Jarmusch’s eyes – he is always depicted wearing sunglasses. Perhaps, his eyes are red or purplish or either entirely black or entirely white. No one knows. Jarmusch is the quintessential punk-rock CBGB hipsters – he looks the way that Andy Warhol wished that he looked.

Jarmusch was a poor student and flunked out of severals schools before ending up a Columbia in New York City. He gravitated toward film, while performing intermittently in rock and roll bands. (He is friends with Neil Young and Iggy Pop and made documentary films about both artists, Year of the Horse in 1997 and Gimme Danger 2016 respectively.) In his last year at Columbia, he studied abroad in Paris, spending most of his time at the Cinematheque Francaise.

Back in New York, Jarmusch applied for admission to graduate program in the arts at NYU. He was accepted and spent a year working as a personal assistant to Nicholas Ray. Ray, a great director, had spent many years in an alcohol-induced oblivion and was dying when Jarmusch worked for him. (According to the story, Jarmusch submitted a script to Ray for credit in a course in screenwriting that the old director was teaching. Ray rejected the script and put a failing grade on it, noting that film was about "action" and the scenario didn’t have enough action in it. Jarmusch rewrote the script and defiantly removed all vestiges of action from the scenario. Ray liked the very pretty young man’s defiance and passed him.) Ray’s protracted dying was filmed by the German director, Wim Wenders, in the film Lightning over Water – Jarmusch is visible in the margins of the documentary shot by the great Robby Mueller. Later, Jarmusch used Mueller as his director of photography on a number of his pictures.

The first film directed by Jarmusch after his student production, Permanent Vacation (1980) was Stranger than Paradise released to much acclaim in 1984. (I showed that film to this group about 1986). Stranger than Paradise is a black and white comedy entirely comprised of sequence shots – each shot equals one sequence in the film. The film is very funny and engaging – the plot involves a young man from a Baltic country who tours the United States with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend. The trio’s objective is to see Lake Erie and the film ends with a sequences in which the characters stare out over a frozen expanse of ice mumbling dead-pan comments that there really isn’t all that much to see. Stranger than Paradise is an excellent film, an important independently produced picture, and was a box-office success – it didn’t have to earn much money to recoup the $125,000 that the movie cost. Stranger than Paradise launched a brief film making movement centered in Soho in downtown Manhattan, the so-called "No Wave."

Jarmusch’s next picture, Down by Law, (1986) was shot in lustrous black and white by Robbie Mueller in New Orleans and had conventional movie stars, albeit eccentrically cast – the film stars the Italian comedian, Roberto Benigni as well as the Soho musical luminaries Tom Waits and John Lurie. Mystery Train (1989) was shot in color in Memphis and involves three groups of lovers who have come to the town hoping to connect with the spirit of Elvis Presley – the Japanese man in the Japanese sequence ("Far from Yokohama") is Masatosi Nagase; he appears as the Japanese tourist and poet who speaks with Paterson in Paterson. Mystery Train is a warm film and very beautifully produced – the action all revolves a seedy Memphis hotel where Screamin’ Jack Hawkins plays a desk clerk. I showed the film to this group in the summer of 1990 and it was a favorite of Terry Dilley. Life on Earth (1991) is an anthology film in which all the stories involve a cab ride in a different city – the movie takes place in Helsinki, Los Angeles, and three other cities, beginning at dawn in LA and ending just before dawn in Helsinki. It is also a very fine film. (While making this film, Jarmusch met Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director, and Jarmusch was cast in a small role in The Leningrad Cowboys Go America.)

In 1995, Jarmusch made his most controversial film, the remarkable Western Dead Man. This film stars Johnny Depp, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum in his last role – the picture cost 9 million dollars. Neil Young wrote and performed the soundtrack. The film is opaque and mystical; it has been derided and despised by Native Americans and admired by some of them as well. (Johnny Depp plays an Indian who is obsessed with the writings of the British visionary poet, William Blake.) The movie was not successful in the United States but was a huge hit on the art house circuit in Europe and Asia. I don’t like the picture and think it is pretentious and dull – but the film has a certain charisma: it creates a mood and doggedly sustains it.

After Dead Man, Jarmusch’s films are generally internationally funded. He made Ghost Dog – the Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker in 2000. This picture is an idiosyncratic gangster film abourt an American hit man obsessed with Yamamoto’s samurai manual, the Hagekura or Way of the Samurai. In my view, the film is too hip by half and doesn’t succeed.

Jarmusch dropped out of sight with respect to narrative feature films for almost five years, surfacing with a new picture, Broken Flowers in 2005. (During the hiatus, Jarmusch made a documentary with Neil Young, Year of the Horse, and edited some loose bits of footage from earlier black and white films into an anthology called Coffee and Cigarettes – these fragmentary films were shot during the production of Jarmusch’s earlier movies and feature people smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee who just happened by the set when those films were made. The snippets are droll but the film as a whole seems self-indulgent to me.) Broken Flowers was Jarmusch’s stab at making a commercially viable romantic comedy and the picture is grounded in an excellent performance by the always-bankable Bill Murray. Murray plays a man who receives a letter telling him that one of his ex-girlfriends became pregnant with his child, had the baby, and that Murray’s characters has a teenage son that is unknown to him. Murray sets out to visit each former girlfriend to discover the truth about his son. The movie was well-reviewed, but even Bill Murray couldn’t make the picture a success in the United States. It tanked at the box office here but did very well internationally, eventually earning more than 47 million dollars world wide. After Broken Flowers, Jarmusch directed The Limits of Control, a 2009 crime film that I haven’t seen and that is reportedly not wholly successful. Jarmusch followed The Limits of Control with an immensely stylish and thought-provoking vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – the film was largely made in the ruins of Detroit and it’s a wonderful picture, moody, romantic, and, also, very funny. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the titular lovers, ancient vampires named Eve and Adam. The film has all the elements that fans expect in a Jarmusch film – dead pan humor, a great soundtrack, gloomy, gothic (Byronic) romance, stunning nocturnal camera work with a bow to some of Jarmusch’s signature obsessions: his interest in Nikolai Tesla and Iggy Pop. (Jarmusch’s 2016 documentary Gimme Danger is about Iggy Pop.)

William Carlos Williams and Paterson
Although it is not necessary to the appreciation of Jarmusch’s Paterson, a viewers enjoyment of the film will be enhanced by some allusions to the work of the great poet, William Carlos Williams and his problematic magnum opus, the epic poem, Paterson.

Williams was born in 1888 and spent his life in New Jersey. His grandmother was English; Williams wrote a notable poem about the last day of her life. His father married a Puerto Rican woman, hence, his middle name. Williams graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree around 1913 and spent most of his life working as the director of pediatrics at the Passaic Hospital. From 1913 until the end of his life, he lived in a large, but plain home on 9 Ridge Road, East Rutherford, New Jersey. The house displayed a shingle that read "William C. Williams, M.D." For most of his life, he was a very busy doctor specializing in obstetrics and pediatric practice. He delivered babies and made house-calls.

Williams was also a very great poet, one of the principal innovators in American verse. With Ezra Pound, he founded the imagist movement about the time of World War One. He maintained close and life-long friendships with Pound and T. S. Eliot as well as Louis Zukofsky and, later, was friends with another New Jersey poet, Allen Ginsberg. (He wrote the introduction to the 1956 edition of Ginsberg’s Howl). In the twenties, Pound was associated with the Objectivist Movement, a style of poetry that makes use of documentary materials embedded in a matrix of verse. Zukofsky is another important Objectivist as is Muriel Rukeyser in her epic The House of the Dead, an angry book-length poem about Silicosis in railroad workers involved in drilling tunnels in West Virginia. Charles Reznikoff, the author of Testimony, a series of books derived from legal reports, is also a well-known Objectivist. Paterson, a book that incorporates legal documents, historical citations, and fragments of letters and other writings, is an example of a work influenced by Objectivism.

Joyce’s Ulysses made a powerful impression on Williams and led him to write a 85 line poem on the city of Paterson in 1926. Williams was at the height of his career as a pediatrician and didn’t return to the subject until the late thirties. He was greatly influenced as well by T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land but felt that the British poet (actually an expatriate American) was overly pessimistic about the modern world. Williams was friends with Hart Crane, a poet who had made the Brooklyn Bridge the subject of his optimistic and rapturous The Bridge and felt that Crane’s approach to modernity was morally superior to Eliot’s gloom. In the late thirties, Williams experimented with form and began to develop his epic into the shape that it took when first published as Paterson Book One in 1946. By this time, Williams’ debt to Joyce was primarily to Finnegan’s Wake. In Joyce’s Wake, the sleeping city of Dublin is imagined as a great giant; the giant’s dreams are the subject of the book. Williams’ imagines Paterson as a giant "asleep on h is right side with head at waterfall (so that) the rushing water fills his dreams." Although Paterson is "eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the City where he persists incognito."

Paterson is very diffuse and contains pioneer accounting books, archival political writings and letters, texts about the Federal Reserve, and descriptions of the controversy between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In form, the poem often follows the model of Pound’s Cantos, particularly the development of "ideographs" consisting of snippets of verse, prose texts, and quotations from economics or history books. Volumes of the epic were published 1948. 1949, 1951, and 1958. Williams was appointed Librarian at the Library of Congress, a position that was highly controversial on account of his friendship with Ezra Pound, then committed to St. Elizabeth’s in Washington on charges of insanity relating to his treasonous conduct during World War II. Williams was an avuncular fellow who liked everyone and whom everyone liked in return. He couldn’t bear being disliked and was treated for clinical depression in 1952. Later, he suffered a series of debilitating strokes but composed some of his finest work after those illnesses in the late fifties. The five volumes of Paterson were combined into a single text in 1963 and published by New Directions. Williams wrote in a variety of forms – he wrote a play performed on Broadway, his autobiography, several novels and a well-received book of criticism, In the American Grain. His short story, "The Use of Force", is one of the greatest of all American writings of that kind – it is equal to similar works by Hawthorne, Poe, Hemingway and Faulkner. Williams died in March 1963 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

In Book One of Paterson, Williams announces the principle underlying all of his poetic practice: "Say it – no ideas but in things..."

In my view, his greatest poem is Asphodel that Greeny Flower", a monumental work, in which these famous lines occur:

it is difficult \ to get the news from poems \ yet men die miserably every day \ for lack \ of what is found there
Some correlations between the poem and the film are worth identifying:

1. The hero is named Paterson. This reminds us that Paterson is the name both of a city and sleeping giant in Williams’ poem;

2. The hero spends his days driving his bus through Paterson – he is like the animate dreams of Paterson in Williams’ poem walking through the city but not knowing his true nature;

3. The Great Falls of the Passaic at Paterson are central to the epic poem and the film;

4. The poem Paterson chronicles the great men and women who were born in the city – similarly, Jarmusch’s film identifies great athletes, comedians (Lou Costello), musicians, and poets who came from the city. In the context of the poem, these people are the "animate" dreams of the city;

5. Williams celebrates the diversity of America and thought of himself as an American Puerto Rican poet – Paterson’s wife seems to be an immigrant (in fact, she is Persian) and the city is shown to be full of immigrants. 
6. The landscape of large brick buildings through which Paterson passes every morning and night when walks to and from work is a landscape vital to Williams’ epic – these are the great industrial textile mills and factories, now largely abandoned, but built around the Great Falls of the Passaic.

La Cienaga (film group essay)

La Cienaga


It’s hot in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. But it’s even warmer down in the city with the unpromising name La Cienaga ("The Swamp"). Mecha and Gregorio have a swimming pool at their decaying country estate, La Mandragola ("The Mandrake"). Tali is "almost Mecha’s cousin" and she decides to pay visit with her husband and four or five small children. It rains incessantly and the servants at La Mandragola are surly. Thunder sounds in the nearby mountains and the kids make expeditions into the cloud forest to shoot at a cow that has died in the mire of a nearby swamp. The swimming pool is so filthy that you can’t see someone submerged in its putrefying waters. The heat has made everyone irritable and Tali suggests that the women drive across the nearby mountain border with Bolivia. School supplies are cheap in Bolivia and the summer vacation will soon be over with the kids returning to the classes.

This is the situation in Lucrecia Martel’s debut feature film, La Cienaga (2001). Entangled, unhappy families immured in their remote country estates are crucial to the plots of several of Anton Chekhov’s plays, most notably Uncle Vanya, and Martel’s picture stands squarely within a rich film tradition of movies chronicling a disastrous weekend in the country – the most famous of these films in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.


Lucrecia Martel

Martel has said that the people and milieu in La Cienaga derive from her memories of childhood in Salta, Argentina – the city that is called La Cienaga (or "the Swamp") in the film. She was born in Salta in 1966. She attended three film schools in Buenos Aires but didn’t graduate from any of them – she recalls that the schools kept going "bankrupt" before she was able to get her degree.

She worked in television for several years and produced an award-winning short subject, Rey Muerto ("Dead King") in 1995. Decisive in her career was the support of the producer Lita Stantic, one of the most important advocates for the new Argentinan cinema that emerged after the so-called "Dirty War" and the displacement of the ruling military junta. Stantic produced La Cienaga, Martel’s debut feature, and her second and third films as well, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008).

The Holy Girl is also shot entirely in Salta. The film involves a teenage girl who is intensely religious. The girl conceives a plan to save the soul of a doctor attending a medical conference at her mother’s hotel. (The film stars many of the players from La Cienaga including Mercedes Moran, who played Tali in the earlier film, as the girl’s mother.) The movie is an extraordinary mixture of Catholic piety and feverish adolescent sexuality. The Headless Woman, also shot in Salta and Salta province, is a disturbing psychological thriller. A woman hits something while driving on a lonely country road. She believes that she has killed a dog. She is traveling to seek medical attention and stays overnight in Salta. A small boy is missing in the impoverished village near the place where the crash happened. Ultimately, it seems that the boy was killed by a hit and run driver. The protagonist is tormented by guilt and fear, but nothing links her to the accident.

The rediscovery of the novel Zama by the Argentine writer Antonio di Benedetto was one of the remarkable stories in international literature in 2016. Benedetto’s Zama was republished under the imprint of New York Review of Books and it achieved international acclaim. The book involves a weary bureaucrat trapped in Asuncion, Paraguay in the 19th century. Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1956, the book was well-regarded in Argentina but unknown elsewhere. Apparently, Martel is at work adapting the book for the screen – this will be an important project with international implications. Martel’s movies, though well-reviewed internationally, have not been widely distributed in the United States – the first of her films to be seen outside of a few large cities in the United States was The Headless Woman. That picture received reasonable distribution because it was marketed through the Spanish director Almodovar’s distribution company.

Some Observations about La Cienaga

Fundamentally, La Cienaga is about accidents. (This theme is also crucial to The Headless Woman.) An accident exposes us an aspect of the world that is literally sickening – there are things that we can’t control that have the capacity to destroy us. Life is a wager and, sometimes, we are on the losing end of that bet. Of course, some accidents, in hindsight, are avoidable – in fact, almost all accidents share this characteristic: if we consider the concatenation of events leading to the accident, the calamity could have been averted at any number of times. Thus, accidents have the uncanny aspect of both being unforeseeable calamities and, also, mishaps that, with due diligence could have been avoided. The severe cuts that Mecha sustains in the opening scene beside the pool display these elements of the concept of the accidental – of course, everyone is staggering drunk and Mecha’s fall, to some extent, is her own fault. But the consequences of that fall go far beyond Mecha’s negligence – in fact, she almost bleeds to death and requires a transfusion from her daughter. This opening sequence has the squishy, nasty, and brutal character of a real accident – what is discounted at first turns out to be serious and the consequences of the cuts inflicted on Mecha go far beyond anyone’s rational control. Mecha and her drunken husband are not in control of their world.

After this opening salvo, the audience views La Cienaga as a kind of horror film, as a high-brow variant on Final Destination, a picture in which a group of teenagers dies one after another in gory mishaps. We are continuously expecting the next potentially lethal mishap – the adults are so drunk, that the unlicensed teenage girl has to drive her mother cross-country to the clinic in La Cienaga. One of the little boys has already shot out one of his eyes and the kids carry weapons in the jungle to take potshots at the animals that they encounter, including a cow that has accidentally wandered into some quicksand. The unlicensed girl is continuously forced to drive. When one of the teenagers dives into the pool, the camera turns its deadpan eye on the filthy and opaque water in the pond, recording a few bubbles drifting up to the surface – will the girl ever resurface? Mecha’s son gets punched in a drunken brawl in which knives are brandished. The kids all go down to a sinister-looking dam where they chop wildly at the water with machete knives – someone surely is going to get badly cut. Then, the dam’s spillways apparently open and powerful blasts of water spray the kids. We flinch when Tali sets up a ladder to climb up to put some flower pots on the ledge surrounding her little courtyard, the place where her toddler son plays and a small tortoise ambles about. At every point, the characters seem poised on the edge of a violent encounter with fate.

The dominance of the accidental over the characters in La Cienaga is not surprising since everyone seems to be half catatonic with the sultry Christmas time heat and the vast amounts of wine that the adults consume. People lounge around in bed, vainly nudging their bedmates for some sign that they are conscious. Everyone seems helpless and forlorn. It’s pretty clear that the road trip to Bolivia that the women plan will never happen. The characters can scarcely stir themselves to get out of bed. There is something profoundly South American about the film’s suffocating ambience of negligence, torpor, and humid, sweaty familial intimacy – it’s always siesta time and the improvements in the world that might avoid the accidents waiting to befall us can be made manana. I have heard South Americans themselves characterize their countries as the "the land of manana" – meaning, we will get to the problem tomorrow, that is, never at all.

Lucrecia Martel affects big pink glasses, the kind of spectacles worn by aggressive lady realtors, and she has not made any other movies with the density of observation in La Cienaga. The picture gives you the impression that it is one of those compilation pieces into which the director has poured a lifetime of memories and disappointments. Argentinan cinema is relentlessly political, obsessively concerned with redressing grievances suffered during the previous 20 years of murderous military junta rule. But Martel isn’t even remotely concerned with that subject. Instead, she works Renoir’s vein – the infinitely rich subject of minor domestic tragedies. As in The Rules of the Game, where we see the servants commenting on the foibles of their masters, Martel shows us all elements of her society – the fading alcoholic gentry, the aggressive urban housewife, the tough street kids in Salto, and long-suffering Indian servants. Her milieu in this film is disappointment and regret – Mecha’s fall triggers recognition of her disappointment in her marriage: she calls the scarcely sentient Jose "a pig" and exiles him from the bedroom that will be her refuge for the rest of her life. Tali seems happily married but her husband, nonetheless, silently subverts her one effort at seeking a little distance from her clamorous family – he buys the school supplies and, thus, cancels Tali’s wish to go to Bolivia. Accidents cost lives – the Indian servant girl is apparently pregnant; her resignation from work at La Mandragola is presented in a code that Mecha instantly understands. It’s pretty clear that the father of her child, the thuggish street kid whose only property seems to be his bicycle is not worthy of her. Undoubtedly, the pregnancy is a mistake, an accident. And, of course, at the end of the movie, the little boy who is associated with the African rat (his mouth seems to be eerily crowded with different sets of teeth) falls from the ladder that he has been told not to touch. We can imagine the pet tortoise slowly ambling by his unconscious body. The only ray of light in this gloomy landscape is the fact that Mecha’s dissolute son, fearing, it seems, his attraction, with Tali’s oldest daughter, returns to his (apparently half-Indian) mistress in Buenos Aires. We have seen this young man wrestling with the younger girl and, even, invading her shower to wash off his filthy feet – there is an obvious attraction between the older boy and the girl. (I equate Tali’s oldest daughter with Martel and think that the film’s peculiar tone of stifled desire and squalor arises from the director’s ambivalence about the young man – Tali’s oldest daughter, Lucrecia Martel’s surrogate, I think, clearly has a crush on the boy just as Mecha’s daughter seems to be in love with Indian servant girl. But this is puppy love, a Summer thing – although its Winter in Argentina -- an affair that is not supposed to last and it’s something that Martel can nostalgically regret while being happy that nothing ever really happened.)

Lucrecia Martel has one of the rarest capacities in the arts – a great and majestic "negative capacity". By this I mean that she sets up the situation and, then, allows it to develop without intervening to install meanings in the events that she portrays. She is willing to allow things to stand for themselves – everything isn’t integrated into some authorial (or directorial) quest for meaning. She makes us work to see the connections but never forces our attention and never requires that we accept any specific ideological or thematic understanding of her material. The most startling thing about the movie, as shown in the scenes at the dam, the dances in Salta, and the sudden spontaneous dance in La Mandragola is that notwithstanding the feelings of intense regret and disappointment that the film embodies, the characters in La Cienaga are, more or less, happy. It is, after all, home sweet home.


Detroit (2017) is Katherine Bigelow's dramatization of the so-called Algiers Motel Incident, a particularly horrific instance of police brutality that occurred in July 1967 in the context of race riots in the Michigan city.  The film is shot documentary style with handheld cameras jammed to within inches of the faces of the actors.  And, the film is unrelievedly ugly, over-edited with pointless jump-cuts and poorly lit to simulate the exigencies of film-making in what was, for all practical purposes, a war-zone.  There is no modulation of effect -- the entire film is shot in the same style regardless of the subject matter portrayed.  Because the movie's subject is irredeemably ugly, I suppose, that one can argue that the picture's technical elements are consistent with its theme and narrative.  The film is also designed and shot in a faux-primitive manner so that the director can integrate actual TV and film footage of the race riots into the picture -- this is done with great aplomb:  the suture between the staged action and documentary footage of the mayhem in Detroit is almost seamless.  There is, however, a disturbing aspect of dishonesty to this technique -- the film is shot like The Battle of Algiers (1966) to simulate a grainy, underlit, and chaotic documentary, a gritty slice of reality, but, of course, it is all contrived:  I have no doubt that every jitter in the handheld camera, every conspicuously underlit shot, every out-of-focus close-up and whip pan or zoom to track action is, in fact, carefully (and expensively) contrived:  millions were spent to make this film look ugly.  With one exception, the cast is entirely unknown to me -- Bigelow doesn't want the audience to be distracted by recognizable movie stars; this would detract from the documentary effect that is so carefully cultivated throughout the movie's 2 1/2 hour length.  But, for some reason, Bigelow authorizes an exception:  the lawyer defending the three brutish killer-cops is John Krasinski, the cheerfully avuncular actor from The Office (and the voice-over for a number of advertisements).  Here Krasinski is cast against type, playing a ferocious and shifty defense lawyer whose tactics assure the film's fait accompli climax:  the acquittal of the three White police guilty of the massacre of Black men at the Algiers Motel.  It seems bizarre to me that Bigelow would carefully cast all other parts in the film with unknown, but highly effective actors, and, then, insert Krasinski into the proceedings -- this epitomizes, I think, a series of unfortunate decisions afflicting the film's last forty-five minutes.

Detroit divides into three acts.  After a colorful, animated overture featuring Jacob Lawrence's images of the great migration of southern Blacks to the north, Bigelow's peripatetic camera is thrust into the center of a party in an after-hours joint in Detroit:  a serviceman returned from Vietnam is being feted by his African-American friends and neighbors.  The cops break up the party and make the mistake of hauling off the people that they arrest in paddy wagons parked at the front of the "blind pig" tavern.  This attracts a crowd that turns into a mob.  The cops narrowly escape the retribution of the angry mob.  Frustrated, the crowd runs amok, burning down businesses and looting storefronts.  Three days of rioting ensue.  Firefighters are attacked on the job and, apparently, there is sniper fire from rooftops.  All of this is filmed in Bigelow's nasty, in-your-face style, but this part of the film, although rather abstract and impersonal, is effectively chaotic and frightening.  In the course of rioting, a White cop with the face of a baby goblin -- the guy has the simpering look of a young Ted Cruz -- shoots a Black man who has been stealing groceries in the back.  This cop is threatened by his boss and, indeed, the police chief says that he is going to recommend prosecution of the rogue officer for murder.  But, inexplicably, -- and this is a defect in the film's narration -- the bad cop is returned to the streets and, a few minutes later, is the instigator of the Algiers Motel slaughter.

The action shifts to a group of young musicians, the Dramatics.  They hope to perform at the Fox Theater and, indeed, are about to take the stage when the police surround the building, announce a curfew, and force the show to be closed before the doo-wop group can strut their stuff.  Two members of the band get trapped in the violence on the streets.  They end up in the annex to the Algier's Motel, a downtown dive notorious for crime and prostitution. At the motel, a bunch of Black men are partying with a couple of White girls and the two musicians take part in the festivities.  The Black men are vying with one another for the attention of the White girls and there is a lot of one-upmanship among them.  Ultimately, one of the men shows off by firing a starter pistol in the direction of the cops and National Guard cordon outside the building on the street.  The soldiers and police riddle the motel with bullets and three White cops, led by the evil kid with the upturned eyebrows and goblin face, charge into the motel searching for a sniper.  Almost immediately, the rogue cop pointlessly kills one of the Black men and plants a switchblade next to his body.  Obsessed with finding a  weapon to justify this atrocity, the cops line up all the people in the motel's annex, beat them repeatedly with the butts of their rifles, and threaten to kill them all unless they surrender the shooter and his weapon.  But, of course, this is a futile exercise because there is no shooter and no gun, just the starter pistol, a sort of cap-gun.  Everyone is covered with blood and Bigelow tracks the action relentlessly, keeping her camera no more than six to eight inches from the sweaty faces of the cops and the people being brutalized. 

The events at the motel are Bigelow's primary concern and, for at least an hour, we are witness to various forms of physical and emotional torture inflicted on the hapless African-Americans in the motel.  This is a harrowing and protracted set piece and there's no point in pretending that it isn't brutally effective and terrifying.  The cops haul the Black men into a room, beat them up, and, then, pretend to shoot them, discharging their guns into the floor next to their cowering victims.  One of the White cops doesn't get the program and, apparently, thinks that they are really shooting their suspects and so he guns down the man that he is interrogating.  By this time, the State Troopers and the National Guard have washed their hands of the proceedings in the motel, withdrawing in order to stay out of what they characterize as a "civil rights" mess.  Complicating this sequence are the reactions of a Black security guard, a man who has been hired to protect a nearby business, and who is complicit to some degree in the brutal conduct of the White cops -- he too thinks that there is a sniper and that, at least, at first the police are justified in using force to protect themselves.  Of course, as the scene progresses, this man has more and more reservations about what he sees happening, although he never intervenes to help anyone.  One of the White girls gets stripped by the cops and there is no doubt that much of the sadism in the scene is sexually inflected -- the White cops are protecting their sexual privileges with respect to the two pretty young Caucasian girls of questionable morality who appear to have Black boyfriends:  the girls are accused of being prostitutes and the film leaves unclear their actual status.  Ultimately, the cops can't find a gun and decide to abandon the motel, now a crime scene.  They simply run away.  One of the brutalized Black men is told that he hasn't seen anything and that the cops haven't committed any atrocities -- when he balks at this phony tale, the goblin-faced policeman guns him down. 

The third act in the film focuses on the aftermath of the crimes committed at the Algiers Motel.  (This incident was the subject of a bestseller by John Hershey.  But the author donated all the proceeds of the book to a civil liberties group and stipulated that the text never be made into a movie for fear of sensationalizing the savagery at  the motel -- the movie never acknowledges Hershey's book and, in fact, in a final title suggests that no one really knows what happened there; it's legal weasel-move and one that calls into question everything we have just seen.)  Bigelow has exhausted herself with the set-piece involving the atrocities and she doesn't really seem much interested in her disheartening and obligatory demonstration of institutional racism in the American justice system.  In this part of the film, Bigelow seems to think that we know the story so well that we can figure out episodes that are confusing or that seem to be pointless.  There is a scene in a morgue in which the father of one of the victims is summoned to identify his dead son -- the sequence is shot in a way that makes no sense:  we don't know whether the father has already identified his boy or is about to see the corpse; a White woman expresses sympathy but the scene can't be parsed.  Similarly, we see a member of the Dramatics fingering tickets and, simultaneously being served a summons -- this sets up some kind of conflict and, in fact, we see the man traveling (where? why?) in the next shot, but this also doesn't make any narrative sense.  (It's as if big chunks of the epilogue section have been left on the cutting room floor.)  The lead singer of the Dramatics can no longer perform because he doesn't want his music to be used "so that White people can dance" -- he points out that the Dramatic's biggest fans are White.  This seems a pretty trite point to make and the kid's revenge on White people, denying them his voice and dance music, is petulant and ill-motivated.  (Bigelow can't settle on whether the man is making a political point or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that precludes him from singing when White people are in the house.)  This character's struggles bring the film to its end and, once again, the movie's frenetic style undercuts its effects:  the singer suffering from PTSD goes to a Black church and asks to be allowed to sing in the choir.  First, we see him in a unheated "squat" -- Bigelow cuts the shot three times, using time- or jump cuts and this form of decoupage is distracting:  it pulls us out of the movie.  There's no reason that this humble sequence should have been cut into three close-ups when a single set-up at a decent distance from the actor would have sufficed to make all the points implicit in the scene.  Later, when the traumatized young man sings in church, we get a montage where, in fact, a restrained single shot or, perhaps, a tracking camera movement on wheels or with steady-cam would have been warranted.  Instead the actor is in profile with the camera about three inches from the man's cheek, the camera cutting frequently for no reason at all -- again, this is completely distracting, draws attention to the film's style, and forcibly knocks us out of any reasonable emotional engagement with the picture.

Bigelow's previous film, also written by scenarist Ned Boal, was Zero Dark Thirty, a terrible picture ineptly shot and staged and, also, relentlessly savage and violent.  Detroit is a great improvement on that film and the massacre sequence in the Algiers Motel has tremendous cumulative force.  In some ways, the film seems to me to be Bigelow's penance for the Right-wing and politically reactionary implications of her previous movie.  The picture reminds me of the much more stylish, and equally horrific atrocity film, Casualties of War, a 1989 Brian de Palma production from featuring a bravura set piece rape and murder and ending with an inconsequential trial in which the perpetrators evade justice.  Bigelow's picture is pitch-perfect in its scenes of cruelty and injustice, but, ultimately, the entire film feels pointless  -- we walk out of the movie stunned and depressed.  But to what end? -- White police are still killing Black men and nothing really can be done about this fact.  Bigelow is a master of drawing hysterical attention to things that are completely obvious and, probably, known by every one -- we see what bad stuff looks like, but this isn't the same as developing any understanding for the forces at work that have led us to these infamous misfortunes.