Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies is a  2015 documentary constructed from pre-existing TV and film footage and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon.  The movie focuses on ten debates between Gore Vidal and the conservative icon, William F. Buckley -- the debates were a feature of ABC news coverage of the Republican and Democratic political conventions in 1968.  ABC was the perennial Nielsen ratings loser to NBC and CBS -- as a contemporary quip had it:  "If the Vietnam war were on ABC, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks."  NBC and CBS covered the conventions gavel-to-gavel; ABC experimented with a ninety-minute format in prime-time, each night's coverage culminating in a much-ballyhooed debate between Vidal and Buckley.  (ABC's production values were conspicuously limited -- the first night's debate took place in a garishly colored, Pop art set; mercifully, that set collapsed the next day, dropping all the studio lights down on top of the set and forcing the remaining 9 encounters, moderated by Howard K. Smith, to take place in front of a fringe of discretely closed curtains.) 

The documentary features some pundits as "talking heads" and claims for the debates a significance that I think is dubious -- the pundits assert that these debates were the beginning of our current Cable News culture of instantaneous, feigned outrage and lurid confrontational commentary.  (I'm not sure of this -- I recall vividly Joe Pyne's show and other barbarous stuff on late-night TV that seems to me to be more directly ancestral to shows like Bill O'Reilly's The Factor and Hannity.)  Everything in the movie leads up to William F. Buckley's celebrated melt-down, a moment that led to years of litigation between the two men.  Buckley cultivated an aura of suave noblesse oblige and had a particularly ornate rhetorical style -- he interlards his sentences, constructed like edifices by Milton or Gibbons, with curious vocabulary items, words that, I think, he often misuses or distorts in order to embed them, like gems, in his discourse.  On his TV show Firing Line, where he was lord and master, Buckley was wont to sigh at the ignorance of his debating adversaries, roll his eyes or cause them to bulge in pseudo-astonishment at logical defects in his enemy's syllogisms -- often, he would grimace and cause his tongue to dart all around his thin, little mouth, almost seeming to hiss as if his buccal orifice were nest of vipers.  Too cool and nonchalant to be ruffled by his debating partners, Buckley inhabited a bubble of stoic calm -- he might be amused at a debating opponent's errors, but he was too sagacious and perspicuous to ever get angry.  In the ninth convention debate,Vidal punctured Buckley's bubble, calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and eliciting a bizarre reaction from the conservative ideologue -- Buckley's eyes hardened to glinting chips of obsidian and, for some reason, his lower jaw began to saw laterally, sideways, and, through these facial contortions, he managed to call Vidal "queer" and said that he if were to "sock (him) in the goddamn mouth, (he would) stay plastered."  As invective, those words didn't make much sense -- "plastered" applies to being drunk and "sock" is too effete a term for what Buckley's eyes and mannerisms implied that he was about to do.  This startling moment, Buckley's complete on-air melt-down, haunted the Conservative for the rest of his life and he seems to have been as puzzled as anyone else who saw this happen as to what exactly had occurred.  Buckley sued Vidal and, apparently, sought to have all  tapes and records of his infamous melt-down expunged from history.  It didn't work --- a grainy black and white record of the confrontation somehow survived and it is all the more eloquent for being of such dismal quality.  The two men continued to be mortal enemies.  Buckley died first.  Accordingly, Vidal had the pleasure of writing an obituary about his old sparring partner  -- he ended the essay by imagining Buckley burning in hell "and fanning the flames of injustice and old hatreds." 

The film is interesting and has good archival footage of the Miami and Chicago political conventions.  Buckley underestimated Vidal, a man that he had obviously loathed for many years preceding the debates.  While Buckley tried to devise elaborately eloquent arguments about the political situation, Vidal went straight for the throat, hurling a series of carefully scripted ad hominem attacks at Buckley -- Vidal had done his homework, vetting Buckley's writings for extremist remarks to jam down the Conservative writer's throat; furthermore, Vidal had crafted numerous Oscar Wilde style insults and epithets that he memorized and deployed at various times in the debate.  Buckley correctly characterizes Vidal's style as "feline" but didn't really have any adequate defense. In the course of the ten debates, Buckley seems to become more and more panicked by the fact that Vidal was seemingly besting him -- even though Vidal wasn't playing by the rules and, generally, ignored the political events that the two men were supposed to be discussing.  The sense that he was being made a fool, I think, erupted ultimately in Buckley's bizarre and alarming outburst.  At this juncture in history, I don't know what young people would make of this documentary -- I saw the whole thing transpire "live"  on TV when I was 14 and it made an impact on me, although I never quite understood what had happened.  A youthful audience today would probably just see two campy middle-aged queens insulting one another in pompously affected East Coast accents.  And the film does suggest an equivalence between the two men -- both were from aristocratic families, had run for public office and lost, both considered themselves cultural critics, and both may have been sexually ambiguous.  Vidal is elaborately Gay, in some images sporting a huge pompadour; Buckley is less queer but he still seems extremely effete.  The aging allies of both men appear as commentators.  Buckley's younger brother, still missing the point, calls Vidal "whore Vidal" and says, loyally, that if his brother had "socked" Vidal  as he promised he would have killed  him -- "he could have broken him in two over his knee,"  William F's brother says, then, flashes his family's immensely appealing and photogenic grin.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top of the Lake (China Girl)

Top of the Lake is the name for two mini-series detective shows written and directed by Jane Campion.  The first series, set in New Zealand, but featuring a tormented female detective, was released 2013 -- that show was extraordinary for a couple of reasons:  the New Zealand landscapes were ineffably beautiful and surreal and the show's actors, mostly unknown to American audiences were memorably superb.  (Less effective, perhaps, was the show's somewhat tendentious and didactic feminism; the program explored a toxic "rape culture" in Australia and New Zealand.)  The second series, available on Sundance, is not as surprising as the first venture and, if anything, even more prone to high-pitched preaching -- but the program has its pleasures, particularly with respect to the show's arch-villain, the loathsome "Puss" Alexander.  The second mini-series takes place in Sydney, Australia, and, with some exceptions, eschews the spectacular nature photography characteristic of the New Zealand programs.  It's less exotic and more morose, it seems, and has something of the character of the BBC programs featuring Kenneth Branagh as the dyspeptic and sorrowful Swedish detective, Wallander.  In terms of its production values, the show is similar in appearance to the various lavishly mounted crime series that the BBC broadcasts -- it looks a bit like the Wallander shows or the Inspector Lewis series.  The principal, defining difference is the strongly feminist themes that motivate Campion's work.

The first Top of the Lake was about bullying -- the show featured, as counterparts, two memorable bullies.  Holly Hunter played the leader of a commune of damaged women: she embodied the spooky, grey-haired, hag earth-mother aspects of certain would-be female shamans -- as the matriarch of a group of women, many of them cavorting about naked in the New Zealand wilderness, Hunter's character was memorably strange and menacing.  Her adversary was a gorilla-like male thug, the alpha leading an extended family group hunkered down in a compound on the other side of the lake.  This guy was the male equivalent to Holly Hunter's estrogen-laced female shaman, a savage bully who terrorizes his sons, maintains a harem of subservient women, and rapes his own 12 year old daughter.  The show explored ways in which men and women assert coercive power over others and it featured startling and horrific shows of sheer physical force and violence.  The second Top of the Lake has only one really alarming villain, but this guy is so awful that he is "one for the ages" -- "Puss" Alexander.  "Puss" rules by weakness -- he has a borderline personality and he manipulates others by feigning suicide attempts, hunger strikes and, generally, moping around behind the locked door of the brothel that he seems to be sponsoring.  If Top of the Lake 2013 was about the way that men dominate women by sheer threats of violence and physical bullying, the second series is about something quite different -- it shows how a weak man manipulates women (and others) by dramatizing weakness.  "Puss" purports to be damaged by his upbringing in Communist East Germany -- he mouths shrewd paradoxes and nasty aphorisms.  He claims to be a disgraced PH.D candidate from the University of Leipzig -- he is hirsute, physically slight, and walks with a shambling sort of shuffle; he always looks more than a little dirty and his teeth are grey.  (There's an inside joke here:  it seems clear to me that "Puss" is modeled, at least in appearance and some of his ideas, on Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian "cultural critic" and professor from the University of Llubyana back in the Old Country; "Puss" mutters the same kind of glib, profound-sounding nonsense for which Zizek is famous.)  Puss is so bad that he orders his teenage girlfriend to become a prostitute in his brothel and, when the other hookers rebel, refusing to allow the upper middle class girl to turn tricks with them, he puts her out on the street to give blow-jobs of johns under a sinister-looking viaduct.  When the detective heroine gets too close to him, he bites off her nose -- don't worry, they sew it back on again.  Incredibly, no one prosecutes this guy for all the mayhem that he commits.  (This is one of the show's glaring defects -- one would think that the "Puss" would be in big legal trouble for biting a lady detective; but, for some inexplicable reason, no one arrests him for this infraction.)  Puss is the reason to watch this show -- otherwise, it's pretty routine stuff, but I have to admit that the program stirs the audience's blood-lust.  I haven't seen the two final episodes, but assume that "Puss" is punished in some kind of hair-raising way for his bad deeds -- at least, I hope so.

The plot involves a Thai prostitute acting as surrogate mother who has been murdered and set afloat in a suit case.  There's lots of unsavory stuff about rape and prostitution, true to Jane Campion's agenda to explore "rape culture."  Unfortunately, the plot is rife with ridiculous coincidences.  The little girl that "Puss" has groomed to be a prostitute turns out to be the heroine's long lost daughter.  Nicole Kidman is wasted as the little girl's foster mother.  All of the men are portrayed, almost universally, as either self-satisfied rapists, swine, or wholly feckless hypocrites.  The show feature a group of young college kids, all of them boys who rate prostitutes on a program like Face-Book.  They behave in ways wholly alien to any kind of human nature and seem to exist to amplify the point that all men are intrinsically pigs.  Everyone hits on the rather homely heroine (she looks like a depressed hare) as if she were Cyd Charisse and these men use nothing but vulgarities in their hapless attempts to win her affections.  About half-way through the show, I was muttering imprecations at Jane Campion and her tedious, lurid exposes of the savagery of men.  But that's not the point of the show -- "Puss" is the reason to watch and he's reason enough. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fake News and the Hurricanes

Although it's an unseemly thing to confess, I have now watched about eight hours (or more) of cable news coverage of the two hurricanes that recently made landfall in the American South, Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida.  I've watched this reporting at various times in the day both during the week and on the weekend.  The networks providing this coverage are the Weather Channel, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox.  The three cable news networks (MSNBC, CNN, Fox) approach the story with a format that is, more or less, identical -- celebrity news anchors (Anderson Cooper, for instance, or Brian Williams) manage the coverage, acting as an emcee for various meteorologists, government officials (often reached by telephone), and newscasters ostensibly exposed to the brunt of the storm. The nerve center of the broadcast is a huge set with garish maps and enormous screens -- lateral shots sometimes show the set extending for hundreds of feet in a dark cavernous space.  These sets feature brightly colored radar images of the hurricane -- bands of differing rain intensity are portrayed in different colors, purple represents the heaviest rain with a spectrum running from bright red to yellow for lighter precipitation.  The eye of the hurricane is a hollow white spot or sometimes marked with a sort of animated spinning rotor.  Meteorologists comment on the maps on which the spiraling vortex of the hurricane moves -- there is, we learned, a five minute lapse between the weather on the ground and the radar image that follows it.  Helicopter shots show evacuations or lines of people waiting for admission to shelters.  Once, the storm begins in earnest -- this means landfall -- the maps follow the hurricane's progress with intercut sequences showing newscasters exposed to the storm and commenting on its havoc.  Since the aftermath of the storm is less photogenic (unless there are very high waters), the emphasis is on the forefront of the storm and its onslaught -- not on the damage that it leaves in its wake.  The Weather Channel generally follows this same format but it is also committed to providing local forecasts and, so, generally about a third of the screen on your TV is occluded by displays of local data and weather conditions.  The Weather Channel has less sumptuous sets for its emcee newscasters -- it's studio looks like a standard TV newsroom in a mid-sized city:  it has the same graphics but they aren't displayed as huge tapestries on the walls.  The Weather Channel deploys stormchasers all around the hurricane and so they have wider coverage on the ground.  Weather Channel field newscasters seem more intrepid, or foolhardy, depending upon your point of view and report from more exposed locations. 

Harvey was primarily a rain event.  Coverage of that hurricane featured innumerable rescues of stranded people by helicopter and boat -- local citizens joined together to rescue their neighbors using shallow-bottomed fishing boats equipped with outboard motors:  this was called the "Cajun Navy."  It's hot in Houston and wading through chest-deep sewage is unpleasant and many of the victims interviewed were on the verge of nervous collapse.  Although some people drowned in Houston, the primary effect of the mud and heat and humidity was to irritate flood victims beyond their capacities for endurance.  The most noteworthy footage from this storm -- other than the surrealistic images of boats gliding past million dollar houses drowned the flood -- was an African-American woman losing her temper and hysterically denouncing a hapless CNN reporter for her ghoulish interest in the plight of those driven from their homes.  One pattern in the coverage of Harvey was that people's first impulse was to exaggerate the travails that they had endured -- many victims began their story with an account of nearly drowning but, then, inadvertently revealed that, in fact, they had called for rescue because their inundated homes were too smelly and hot and too remote from 7-11 stores still selling bottled water.  A number of victims recounted  hair-raising tales that really didn't make much sense -- or, at least, were narrated in a fashion so inept that the viewer couldn't quite figure out what was deadly peril and what mere (if awful) inconvenience.   The hurricane in Houston is noteworthy because it has produced one major work of art, Chris Ware's cover for the New Yorker for the first week of September 2017 -- the image is almost monochrome with ghostly-looking glass towers standing in the distance under lowering clouds.  The only color in the image is a two-tone (red and white) pickup truck near the foreground, sunk in the grey water up to the top of its wheels and the orange life-vests in the little rowboat equipped with an outboard that has approached the stranded truck.  Some people are standing in the truck's pick-up box, obviously distressed, a man holding a small, dirty-looking dog and a woman wearing a bandana.  A couple of children are crying.  An African-American man has reached out to take the hand of the one the people in the truck's pickup-box while a White man operates the rudder on the outboard.  In the distance, we can see three or four cars, variously submerged in the flat, featureless expanse of floodwaters, the top of a couple signs and some trees also half-swallowed up by the water -- the pickup truck and the boat cast a pale, diffuse shadow of washed-out color, a hazy reflection in the dim, grey water.  It's a striking and evocative image:  the flood seems a very lonesome place, a shadowy, watery and, ultimately, empty space enlivened only by the electric spark, an arc of altruistic energy, in the Black and White hands about to touch.

The storm in Houston followed a convincing and dramatic narrative arc.  Everyone predicted calamity.  Calamity occurred as prophesied and was, even, worse than expected.  A Dunkirk-sized flotilla of civilian vessels rushed to the rescue and people were saved.  The Florida storm, by contrast, was a weird mess that didn't make any narrative sense at all.  Irma a vast and deadly category 5 hurricane (the most intense on a scale from 1 to 5), crawled up toward Florida.  The notion was that the hurricane would make landfall with 130 mile an hour winds, destroy everything in its path, and, then, generate a monstrous storm-surge.  The storm-surge with rescues and dramatic drownings was supposed to be the climax of this narrative.  The governor of the State ordered everyone in south Florida to evacuate and, for days, we saw images of clogged freeways and huge queues at gas stations -- there wasn't enough fuel for people to make their escape from the southern third of the State and special dispensation had to be made to get light-oil tankers to gas stations.  Most of the residents of places like Miami and Homestead, Naples and Marcos Island were said to be in the path of 15 foot storm surges ("with waves on top of them") and were told that their locations were not "survivable."  Accordingly, a vast exodus took place with the refugees either fleeing inland to shelters set up for them in places like auditoriums and hockey arenas or driving (if they had fuel) to Tampa or St. Petersburg or Orlando.  But the storm's transit switched with Irma sliding up the western (gulf) coast of Florida (and not making landfall at Miami as earlier predicted.)  This left most of the network newscasters, at least, the high-powered ones, stranded in Miami and seventy miles from the real action on the west side of the peninsula.  (For half a day, MSNBC had to abandon its journalists in Miami and accept the more primitive feed from its allied Weather Channel).  Furthermore, the refugees were all fleeing directly into the path of the storm -- as it happened, the eye of the hurricane came very close to Tampa and St. Petersburg.  So, from the outset, the narrative was severely complicated by a mandatory evacuation that seemingly ordered the evacuees right into the center of the storm.  Furthermore, the coverage of the ongoing hurricane had bizarre elements.

First, no news is not news:  viewers were repeatedly told, ten to fifteen times an hour, that place like the Florida Keys were too low for anyone to survive "hunkered down" in that place.  (The separable verb form "hunkered down" was used by everyone thousands of times -- the verb describes people either too plucky or moronic to leave their homes and "hunkering down" to "ride-out" the storm; you can even "hunker down" in a boat -- some fools decided to stay on their fishing vessels while the hurricane battered them.)   We would learn that the storm was approaching one of these places, would be told of the total doom of all those "hunkered down" on the Keys or seaside, and, then, there would be no news of any kind -- the storm having traveled over the target zone and, then, up the coast in the direction of new victims.  The news networks determined that the suspense of the on-coming storm was far more dramatic than trying to discover what had happened in those communities where the storm had already passed.  Thus, the story or plot of the storm lacked any kind of climax or denouement -- we were told a bunch of people were in deadly peril, but the newscasters lost all interest in them after the storm hit the places where they were lodged and so all of the suspenseful build-up had no pay-off at all.  It was as if the Florida Keys, for instance, was just forgotten, a complete non-issue after the storm had progressed over that archipelago.  Of course, this is unsatisfactory -- the viewer is intensely interested in the places where the storm has come and gone and wants to know the scope of the devastation there:  but there was no follow-up.  (I assume imagery of those places is now on TV - but there was no follow-up during the height of the calamity.)  The fact that the media proclaimed that these people and their property was doomed and, then, lost interest in them as soon as the storm struck, demonstrated a weird kind of indifference to the human cost of the hurricane -- notwithstanding their protestations of concern, the newscasters really didn't care about these people or their communities.

Second:  retrospective revision -- the big photogenic climax of this storm was supposed to be a rapid onset flood, a storm-surge 15 feet high thundering across the landscape.  Many of the reporters positioned themselves in locations so that they could film the storm-surge when it rolled across the terrain smiting everything in its path.  One guy on MSNBC, in particular, had a clear vantage down a road to the shore about three blocks away and said that he was positioned to film the surge as it smashed ashore.  Tall production crew members were manhandled into the camera's frame to show how high the storm surge would be -- one particularly tall and burly guy was pressed into service to show that the storm surge would be "at least twice as high as he was tall."  Maps showed the entire coastline of Florida swathed in red -- the area that was projected to be wholly inundated by the storm surge.  But, for some inexplicable reason, there was no storm-surge.  So the hurricane's trajectory, the arc of its plot, as it were, had no climax at all.  After a couple of hours, the maps showing the red bands of total storm-surge destruction were inauspiciously abandoned -- and abandoned without comment.  No one mentioned the storm-surge -- it was like a fart in an elevator, an unmentionable bad odor that no one wanted to acknowledge.  Indeed, by mid-evening, when the storm surge had failed to materialize, it was as if no one had ever predicted the storm surge at all, indeed, as if no one had even ever mentioned it

Third:  fakery:  when the storm surge didn't materialize, the people broadcasting from the scene had nothing to do and were left with vast amounts of dead time.   They forlornly pointed their cameras in the direction of the sea but no tide of deadly water was visible.  It was obvious that everyone was severely disappointed, really bummed-out, by the failure of the storm-surge to appear on schedule.  (Furthermore, the damned hurricane wasn't acting like a hurricane should act -- when the eye passed overhead, it never really cleared and the rain didn't ever let up; the newscasters kept predicting that it would lighten and the sky would momentarily clear and the gale-force winds shredding the palms would cease or, at least, dramatically shift direction.  But this never happened and no one really had any explanation for why the hurricane wasn't doing its bit for the story -- I suspect it was that the hurricane was ripped up by the mountains on the north coast of Cuba and that Irma never really re-formed in any coherent manner.)  With nothing to do, the newscasters began showing us the tricks of their trade.  The shots of men and women braving the elements were mostly misleading.  Going behind the scenes, a couple of the networks revealed that their journalists were standing on the third floor of a parking garage, actually under the overhanging concrete ceiling.  A man with a microphone on a boom could push it out into the storm if the newscaster wanted to emphasize the force of the howling winds.  A grip with a light cast its beams on the newscaster so that the man or woman seemed to be standing outside in the gale -- but, in fact, the newscaster was comfortably ensconced under the concrete slabs of the parking ramp.  Using a telephone lens, and with the journalist dowsed in a little rain water, the scene could be shot in such a way as to suggest that the newscaster was actually standing in the open and taking the full brunt of the storm when, in fact, the person was quite sensibly standing under cover and sheltered from the wind and rain.  It's a trick of the trade and, apparently, universally used -- but there is something pathetically inauthentic about portraying yourself as exposed to the elements when, in fact, you are fully sheltered.  (By contrast, the Weather Channel's guy at Naples stood right in the middle of a highway, crouching in the full blast of the storm and, apparently, glorying in the 140 mph gusts of wind -- at one point, a small tornado caught this guy, whirled him around, and he had to run a dozen steps to keep from being flung into the air.  But this journalist, praised for his outstanding bravery, was also generally implied to be half-insane.) 

Some sort of complete news blackout was enforced about Trump's property at Mare y Lago.  This was also bizarre --  Trump's estate was right in the original projected track of the storm (which ultimately went to the West) but no one mentioned this at all.  I presume that security considerations were applicable and the newscasters had a gentleman's agreement not to mention or discuss the impact of the storm on Trump's compound, in effect, southern White House, but this was also exceedingly peculiar.

Donald Trump has repeatedly decried the cable news networks as trafficking in "fake news."  The term is inexact.  But Trump is right -- the news is fake in some sense because it is radically inauthentic.  Journalists cry crocodile tears about the devastation of the storm, but, in fact, they lust to see houses and people destroyed -- it's the same impulse that had me watching ten hours of storm coverage over a couple weeks.  There's a morbid interest in seeing car crashes, train wrecks, floods and hurricanes.  No one wants the storm to spare southern Florida -- except some people, maybe, who live in southern Florida.  Everyone else in the country wants to see the cities devastated and the people, not necessarily killed, but exposed to such calamity that they have to be plucked from the utmost peril and at the last moment.  The news coverage of the hurricanes was not only emotionally inauthentic it was also inept.  We were made to care intensely about certain places -- for instance the Hemingway house in Key West where the heroic curator and his staff were hunkered down -- but, then, the newscasters lost all interest in those places when they went silent after the storm had passed.  This was an indication that the newscaster's professed concern was wholly phony.  Similarly, we were told to await a dramatic and apocalyptic flood that never occurred.  When the storm-surge failed to materialize, all of the reporting on that subject simply vanished.  Between two and three-o-clock in the afternoon, we were advised that the flood surge would kill everyone and would be 15 feet deep -- this was said hundreds of times.  By 5:00 pm, the word "storm-surge" was never uttered again, the charts showing the scarlet track of devastation were quietly put away, and no one even acknowledged the error.  Again, this points to radical insincerity on the part of the newscasters.  (It's like Chris Matthews or Anderson Cooper claiming deep sorrow over Trump's lies and other bad acts, but, in fact, relishing every one of those misdeeds.)

By this morning, the storm was accounted a bust.  (Curiously, the most dramatic and apocalyptic imagery was shot in Miami after the high-buck newscasters had all left for the west coast of the peninsula -- Miami did flood and there were surreal shots of a huge, glittering financial district turned into a vast grey lagoon.)  The journalists prepared to brave the storm surge from their posts atop parking lots were down in the surf, helping to rescue a stranded dolphin.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Nocturnal Animals

What is the origin of the work of art?  How does art relate to the life and experiences of the artist?  These questions are raised in Tom Ford's 2016 film Nocturnal Animals.  Ford is a fashion designer, the auteur of a previous film, A Single Man, that I recall admiring.  Ford is fantastically handsome and has a great eye -- he is said to have saved the Gucci brand from failure.  He has also been accused of objectifying women and designing offensive advertising campaigns based upon that practice.  Ultimately,
Nocturnal Animals looks great and is beautifully mounted -- but it's mostly eye-candy, a feast for the eyes that looks so glamorous that the audience is encouraged to forget the fact that there is almost no substance behind the spectacular and provocative pictures.

It's best to address the provocation first since this is solely a matter of décor, doesn't really relate to the themes in themes in the film and appears to be a defiant gesture on the part of the director.  The picture begins with images of grossly obese naked women, middle-aged and dancing provocatively -- the women are wearing drum majorette hats.  Later, we see these same fat and naked models lying on mattresses in the middle of an art gallery.  The fat ladies are an art installation and they are justified by the script as being an exhibition mounted in the gallery that the heroine, Susan, operates in LA.  The fat ladies are an obvious provocation -- the point, I suppose, is that Ford is putting imagery that overtly objectifies women at the very outset of his film; it's an "in your face" strategy, that some people might find offensive because the director is a pretentious, ultra-pretty male homosexual.  An element of  homosexual esthetics relates to dramatizing a problematic relationship to the female body. Women are either shown as glamorous, ethereally beautiful "Stars" (as represented by Andy Warhol, for instance) or as nightmarish "hags" (generally the approach that Fassbinder took in his films.)  Male heterosexuals have the same problems, I might add, but, generally, idealize female bodies and faces as objects of desire -- Gay men don't feel that desire except abstractly and so they tend to portray women as either Warhol-style "Stars", that is, as commodities, or as unattractive.   Ford, as a fashionista, is a master of both types of representation and makes them clash in his films -- the images of women as grossly fat, fleshy, scarred by surgery, contrast with his movie-star representation of Amy Andrews as Susan.  (Amy Andrews has perfect breasts and so Ford ends the film by dressing her in a garment that reveals the sides of her breasts, the peep-show technique used in 2013 American Hustle)  Susan operates an art gallery and seems to be on the Board of some large art institution -- this gives Ford the opportunity to engage in provocation by showing works of art that some people might deem offensive.  (Susan keeps in her office John Curran's notorious "Nude in a Convex Mirror", an image that is distorted to show a female nude model reflected so as to make her ass enormous -- it's an image that's the counterpart to the naked fat women in the first sequence.)  With these images, I assume that Ford is making a comment about the exploitation of women, both in art,and in popular cinema -- his film contains disturbing imagery of rape and murderous abuse of an attractive mother and her teenage daughter.  Ford seems to be suggesting that we live in a culture that conspicuously trades in offensive images of women -- but he makes this point by simply adding to the number of offensive images that we can see. 

Nocturnal Animals consists of three narratives -- they are all thin to the point of vanishing.  Ford's approach is to set the narratives side-by-side and allow them to comment on one another.  This is thought-provoking and, more or less, succeeds -- the movie is very interesting throughout its 117 minute length and, even, generates a modicum of suspense.  Although it is all very "meta-", the contrast between the three stories is sufficiently interesting to keep us engaged.  The base-line story involves Susan, an Angeleno art gallery owner, who is fantastically wealthy -- although her finances seem built on sand and, maybe, in danger of collapse.  Susan has a spectacularly handsome and dull husband who is some sort of beleaguered investment banker.  The husband is cheating on Susan, although discretely.  This story is noteworthy primarily because it allows Ford to indulge his interest in expensive accessories, gorgeous interior design, and bitchy high-society chatter.  The second story couldn't be more remote from the first -- a man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, drives cross-country with his wife and teenage daughter.  In the desert of West Texas, he encounters a bunch of hoodlums right out of a David Lynch movie.  The hoodlums assault him, kidnap his wife and daughter, and, after raping them, murder the two women.  Gyllenhaal's character fails to rescue his family, escapes, and makes his way to the highway.  Upon reporting the crime, he encounters a Texas cop played by Michael Shannon.  With the cop, he plots violent revenge upon the bad guys and, indeed, manages to kill two of them.  (The cop is dying of lung cancer, has nothing to lose, and is willing to execute the bad guys since they have evaded he long arm of the law.)  In the process of implementing his revenge, Gyllenhaal's character ends up dying.  This story allows Ford to devise absolutely gorgeous Texas landscapes, film Gyllenhaal walking aimlessly through the desert (he looks like Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas), and gives Shannon an opportunity to chew up the scenery as the dying cop.  The problem with this subplot is that it's not an interesting story -- the Texas plot forms the subject of a novel written by man named Edward Sheffield and mailed to Susan.  It's dramatized while we see Susan reading the manuscript.  The relationship between Susan and Sheffield is the subject of the third story -- we meet Sheffield (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal, about 20 years earlier.  In the flashback,Sheffield encounters Susan in New York City after having a childhood crush on her -- the crush turns out to have been reciprocal.  They have a love affair, although Susan's mother (played by Laura Linney) warns her against the relationship, saying that Sheffield is "a weak man."  (Linney's character is a wealthy, nasty socialite right out of a Todd Haynes' movie or a fifties film by Douglas Sirk -- a creature of melodrama).  Ultimately, Susan's mother is right.  Sheffield disappoints Susan and she has an affair with a diabolically handsome man who ends up as her husband in LA.  She's pregnant with Sheffield's child and has an abortion.  Sheffield turns up in the parking lot of the abortion clinic.  Sheffield later writes the novel, Nocturnal Animals (his nickname for the night-owl, Susan) and sends it to his former lover to read.  We interpret the violent and lurid action in the novel as being a reflection of Sheffield's rage at being dumped by Susan and the rape/murder scenes in the novel seem to be his revenge on her.  (A big painting bearing the word REVENGE is important in compositions in the art world plot in the film's present-day.)  In the novel, Sheffield's protagonist is accused of being weak but acts violently and, perhaps, therefore imagines himself to be strong.  Sheffield asks Susan to meet  him.  After hesitating, she goes to a spectacular Japanese restaurant to see him.  The film's audience is supposed to interpret the events in the Texas plot as somehow arising from the shattered relationship between Susan and Sheffield -- Sheffield has dedicated the novel to her.  (It's pretty narcissistic, however, to think that a work of art is directly caused by a failed relationship -- as Carly Simon sang:  "You're so vain you probably think this song is about you."   This seems particularly questionable when more than 20 years has elapsed between the relationship and the work of art.   What's Sheffield been doing in interim? -- the film would have us believe that he's spent the whole time carrying a romantic torch for Susan.)  The glossy surface of the film conceals the fact that none of the three stories is particularly interesting or, even, well thought out.  But the film does raise interesting questions, some of them, perhaps, inadvertently -- is the director suggesting that abortion equates to rape and murder?  The picture is definitely stylishly made, pictorially beautiful, and, although it's cold as ice, it raises some interesting if shallow questions.  But what did Oscar Wilde say about being superficial  -- "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.  The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever comes like a thief in the night, not reviewed, and barely advertised.   The picture seems orphaned, dropped into theaters without fanfare on Labor Day weekend.  Clearly something must be wrong with this expensively mounted period bodice-ripper.  But, in fact, the movie isn't half bad -- it's mediocre but, that said, better than most of the other movies on offer for Labor Day.  Indeed, there's nothing really intrinsically wrong with the picture except to say that it's not nearly as effective as it could have been.

Set in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, Tulip Fever concerns a young woman, trapped in a dull marriage to a much older merchant.  The merchant commissions a painting of husband and wife, hiring a handsome young artist.  The artist and the merchant's wife indulge themselves in a passionate love affair.  When the merchant's nubile servant becomes pregnant -- she's enamored with a fishmonger who gets drunk and shanghaied -- the wife hatches a plot to claim the servant's baby as her own, the product of her marriage to the merchant.  She engages the services of a corrupt gynecologist; he cures fertility problems by implanting his own seed in women with this problem.  The baby is born and passed-off as the merchant's daughter.  The merchant's unhappy wife pretends to be dead, a victim of the city's filthy water supply, and she is carted away in casket.  The plan is for her to be reunited with the painter and leave the city for the colonies.  Unfortunately, the painter has succumbed to "tulip fever", that is, mad speculation in tulip bulbs.  Although we expect the painter's speculation to be dashed by the bursting of the "tulip bubble", in fact, he makes a fortune selling a rare mixed white and scarlet tulip bulb, the "Admiral Mary" for 1400 guilder.  Unfortunately, the hero's creditors dog him and won't trust the painter to retrieve the fabulous tulip bulb.  This induces the painter to send his factotum, played Zach Galiafinakis to travel to the abbey, present the contract for the bulb's purchase to the abbess who has cultivated the flower, and return the bulb to the painter who is anxiously waiting in a roomful of creditors.  But the messenger is Zach Galiafinakis, the same dude who wasin  The Hangover, and we know that this guy should not be entrusted with walking a dog let alone managing an important transaction of this kind.  He gets drunk and ends up mistaking the fabulously valuable bulb for an onion and, so, eats the tulip.  The merchant finds out that his wife has betrayed him about the same time that the painter learns that he has squandered his fortune and now has nothing.  (The sailor returns from the sea and discovers his girlfriend nursing a baby, his child -- they have an argument and the merchant, who is standing conveniently nearby, overhears them talking about the wife's scheme.)  Remarkably, the film somehow contrives a cautiously happy ending out of all this intrigue.

The movie has an impressive pedigree:  Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the novel by Debra Muggach, apparently an international best seller.  Spielberg recruited Dame Judy Dench to play the abbess who cultivates the tulips and Christoph Walz was signed as the merchant.  (Walz is badly miscast -- he is much more handsome, debonair, and attractive than the rather callow, sulking painter; the attraction between the wife and the painter seems implausible at best.)   Some other top-grade European actors and actresses were hired and someone thought it would be a good idea to retain Galiafanikis -- he's not half-bad.  12,000 tulips were planted and, then, the tax credits from the UK that were instrumental in financing the movie collapsed or were withdrawn -- the law apparently was re-written.  Spielberg lost interest and the film was ultimately directed by Justin  Chadwick.  The movie was completed in 2015, but withheld and recut.  It was withheld from the festival circuit in 2016 and, now, has been tossed onto the market like a dog's breakfast, released, as it were, with stealth and under the cover of a weekend with no blockbuster movies anywhere in sight.  Nonetheless, prestige elements remain in the production -- the camerawork simulates Rembrandt and Pieter de Hooch, Tom Stoppard wrote the script, and Danny Elfman composed the score.

The picture could be improved in many ways and so it's a bit frustrating to watch.  I could think of a half-dozen cheap ways to make the picture better.  For a film about tulips, there are almost no shots of the flowers in the entire picture -- hence, the whole metaphor of "tulip fever", a speculative frenzy that the plot equates with the wild and irrational power of romantic love, is wholly undeveloped.  A Steadi-cam and a field of blooming tulips -- hell, you could shoot the scene north of Seattle in an afternoon -- would have immensely improved the picture.  Stoppard's script seems to have been savaged -- there are no fine speeches and nothing in the way of memorable dialogue.  The film is uncertain as to how to view the merchant -- in some scenes, he is clearly crass and indifferent to his lovely young wife and said to be unfaithful to her.  In other scenes, he obviously loves her and, in fact, at the climax, tells the vicious obstetrician that if someone has to die, it should be child.  It's a problematic and underwritten role,  but Walz is a great actor and he ends up imbuing the merchant with a great and weary sense of dignity and kindness.  The merchant's forgiveness is the pivot on which the film turns.  The scenes of 17th century Amsterdam are impressive and the costumes and interiors look authentic.  The painter's image of the young woman holding a tulip is completely botched -- it looks like something from Cosmopolitan -- and other scenes are stupidly conceived:  what is the source for the light in the sealed coffin where the heroine writhes during her escape from the city?  A final shot showing the happy ending for the merchant -- he has emigrated to Batavia and we see someone wearing his hat walking across what looks like a sun-scorched swamp.  (Clearly Walz was not available for this shot).  The image is barren and doesn't count as a picture of the happy ending that the script claims for the merchant.

So how to evaluate this film.  It's okay and reasonably diverting.  I give it a 6 out of 10.  Wait for the DVD. 

Twin Peaks (The Return) -- some concluding observations

David Lynch's Twin Peaks (The Return) is the most conceptually innovative program ever aired on mass media.  People will be debating the merits of this program for the next century.  In some ways, Lynch's Twin Peaks, now an enterprise consisting of more than 30 episodes aired in the early 90's, 19 episodes shown in 2017 concluding on Labor Day, and a film, Fire Walk With Me, is the Finnegans Wake of TV shows -- it's an endless compendium of uncanny situations, innumerable characters, and a peculiar form of dead-pan humor that is utterly singular.  Like Joyce's work, it's questionable as to whether anyone will ever master all of the intricacies of the show and, equally questionable, whether it is really worth the time to unravel the seemingly infinite multitude of riddles and conundrums that Lynch has embedded in the show.  Furthermore, it must be admitted that the series contains long stretches of inconsequential material, intentionally boring sequences, and misfires of various sorts.  The difference between Twin Peaks and other series like Westworld that also contain lots of dead air, filler between the few and far-between scenes that move the plot forward, is that Lynch is fully aware that he is killing time and, in fact, makes the viewer comically complicit in that venture -- scenes exist in Twin Peaks that are intended to infuriate the viewer.  Lynch dramatizes what other film makers working in this extended form try to conceal -- if he has nothing to say to move the plot forward then he digresses in ways that are spectacularly pointless or disturbing and he's not afraid to simply draw a sequence out to an intolerable length with little burps of dialogue, insanely long pauses, and gestures slowed down until they become freeze-frames of themselves.  (Consider, for instance, a scene in which Mel Ferrer playing Albert, an FBI agent, wants to talk alone with his boss played by Lynch himself -- Lynch's character has been enjoying a romance with a French woman who has nothing to do with the plot, a completely superfluous figure who has been flirting with the FBI chief.  The woman is encouraged to leave so that the men can talk confidentially and, so, she departs -- but her departure which is immensely protracted and contains a mini-strip-tease, her putting on make-up, and, then, sashaying around the room takes about five or six minutes, during which time, Albert fumes, Lynch's character continues flirting with the woman, and the audience gets so restless that you can almost hear toilets being flushed and bottles of beer or pop being opened in the background of the scene.  When the woman leaves and the men have their discussion, it's totally inconsequential -- I can't remember anything about it.  So the entire build-up was for nothing, without any pay-off at all.)  I think that Lynch may have finally educated me to be able to watch Fassbinder's vastly protracted TV series  Berlin Alexanderplatz -- I lost interest in that series after about the sixth episode in which Fassbinder spent the entire hour showing some thugs engaged in a half-assed debate in a bar so dimly lit that you could barely see them:  it was an obvious provocation to the spectator, an insult to the viewer, and, I think, presages much of what we find in Lynch's magnum opus.

There is much about the series that I don't understand even on the basic level -- that is, who is doing what to whom.  Accordingly, I can't provide any ultimate assessment of the program's narrative structure or its meaning.  I will be content with identifying a few features diagnostic to the show. 

An epitome to the program's endlessly self-regenerating narratives occurs in the last episode, a program that is really designed to be the start of a new series.  (In fact, the main narrative in the show, if such a thing can be defined, climaxes with all the principals in the same place, the conference room at the Twin Peaks law enforcement center, in the penultimate show -- many of the plot's loose ends are tied-up in that scene, although I will leave it to those wiser than me to figure out what any of it means.)  In the last episode, Agent Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin), who may really not be Cooper, has located a woman in Odessa, Texas who he perceives to be Laura Palmer, the young woman whose murder has triggered all of the events in the series.  Although the woman looks like Laura Palmer as she might have aged -- twenty-five years separate the first series from The Return -- she denies being Laura Palmer and claims that she doesn't know anything about that person.  The woman who denies being Laura Palmer has either just killed her boyfriend by a shot between the eyes or has watched him kill himself.  As she cooly says:  "I've got to get out of Dodge" and so she joins Cooper on a cross-country drive to Twin Peaks.  Cooper and the woman reach Twin Peaks late at night.  They go to Laura Palmer's house and knock at the door.  A woman answers and they ask her if this was the Palmer house.  She says "no."  There then follows a protracted scene that is intended to harass the viewer -- Cooper keeps asking the woman if the house was owned by the Palmers and the woman keeps denying this; then, he asks her who she bought the house from.  The woman speaks to her husband off-screen and mentions a name.  This isn't anyone Cooper knows and so he demands that she tell him who the previous owner bought the house from.  The husband, who we never see, seems to know this as well, but the new name mentioned doesn't mean anything to Cooper.  Cooper and the woman that he claims to be Laura Palmer thank the lady for her patience, go down onto the street, and, then, the woman begins to scream.  As she screams the house turns into a shadow of itself persisting as a ghostly structure on the screen until a closing credit informs us that the show (and the series) is over.  There is a kind of logic to this sequence:  we have seen that the resolution of The Return involves the cancellation of the entire narrative preceding the climax.  The defeat of the spirit of evil known as Bob (the deceased actor, Frank Silva's face floating in a kind of viscous bubble of amniotic fluid) has reversed the plot.  With Bob gone, there is no one to kill Laura Palmer -- Lynch's sense of time is reversible:  an event occurring in the future can cause events in the past.  Thus, Laura Palmer was never killed and her body never discovered by Lynch's favorite actor, Jack Nance,  the corpse famously wrapped in plastic on the pebbles of the beach by an icy lake.  If Laura Palmer is not dead, and never died (or always died but had her death canceled out), then, the whole story ceases to exist -- all preceding episodes never happened because they were never caused by Laura Palmer's death. And, if Laura Palmer didn't die, then, she must be living somewhere.  This explains Cooper's quest for her, although what he is trying to accomplish by bringing her back to a house where she didn't get murdered by her father, Leland Palmer is totally baffling.  But here is the point of the scene:  Lynch views plot or narrative as a house that can be inhabited by various, essentially fungible characters -- the narrative structure persists but the parts that it requires can be performed by different people.  Therefore, Twin Peaks can be thought of as a series of archetypal plots -- yearning young lovers, people menaced by uncanny monsters, adultery and business deals fraught with betrayal, conflict between parents and their children, and so on -- that are connected by an interstitial space.   This interstitial junction is the room (or rooms) curtained in red velvet to which the main characters repeatedly retire (or are cast into those rooms).  This is the place where there is a sinister little man with no right arm who seems to direct the action.  The floor has a op-art pattern, wavy tiles, and there is a tree that has sprouted a kind of talking brain above its topmost branches.  This location seems to be a metaphor for Lynch's own brain -- it's the source of all of these visions and a trope for the power of the imagination.  I argue that all of the manifestations within the space with the red-velvet curtains are symbols for Lynch's creativity.  This is, I think, the White Lodge -- that is, the "good place".  All of the film's plots are tethered in this lodge and this is the source of the stories that the program ceaselessly produces. 

The dark corollary to the White Lodge, a place that represents the dark side of Lynch's imagination, is a sort of hell consisting of a dark theater, gloomy basements, and creatures floating in clouds of slimy-looking ectoplasm.  People who have been trapped by the dark side of the creative power are imprisoned here -- we see the character played by David Bowie (but apparently lost on the cutting-room floor in the first series) reincarnated as a talking tea-pot or possibly boiler; the heroic Major Briggs is imprisoned here and the dark side of Cooper, a maniacal inhuman killer, hangs in the ghostly theater in a cage.  Plots also emerge from this place and there are a series of narratives that begin and end in this space. 

Lynch seems to be influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, probably The Book of the Dead.  (We know this from the first series in which Agent Cooper unfurled a map of Tibet and kept it over his desk in his office.)  I interpret the red space, the positive valence of Lynch's creativity, as a realm of the beneficent deities -- forces that are purely symbolic of virtuous or ennobling human capacities in Tibetan Buddhism.  I view the gloomy Hades of the movie theater and its various fortress-like out-buildings as manifestations of what the Buddhists call Wrathful deities -- these are characteristics of the human imagination that are dark and destructive.  Increasingly, as the film progresses, we find the various plots connected by a sort of Bardo zone, a dark space represented by a highway unscrolling before us in dense darkness.  Lengthy shots on this "lost highway" connect sequences in the last four or five episodes of the show and they seem to signify an in-between place that is no-place, a zone of transition.  As in Buddhism, personality or self are purely fictional:  in the last show, we see Agent Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern), his secretary, stop at a motel; it's a nasty little hole-in-the-wall.  Cooper and Diane engage in what seems to be some version of Tantric sex.  It's not clear whether this activity is liberating or imprisoning -- but Diane certainly seems to be some kind of female goddess entangled with Cooper in a classically Yab-Yum sexual posture, the kind of sexual congress that is supposed to unite male and female principles and yield enlightenment.  The sequence ends with a sinister-looking shot of Diane filmed from an angle that emphasizes the red flame of her dyed hair.  In the next shot, Cooper is alone in bed.  He calls for Diane but she is missing.  He, then, discovers a note that someone has left on the nightstand --it's a woman, not named Diane, bidding farewell to her lover, not Agent Cooper.  Cooper gets up and leaves the motel and it is a completely different place than where he stopped on what seems to have been the night before.  There are different ways to interpret this -- perhaps, the scene with Diane occurred weeks before and there has been an unrecorded lapse of time or, perhaps, as in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, characters go to bed as one person and inexplicably wake up as someone completely different.  Since the individual Self is an illusion, identity is infinitely fluid -- people can go to bed as one character and wake up with a different name and identity the next morning. 

Ultimately, the master metaphor for this indeterminacy of character is the art of acting.  An actor plays many roles.  Thus, Lynch is touchingly loyal to his cast.  Indeed, like Richard Linklater in Boyhood, he uses the process of natural aging to cast doubt on the notion of the Self -- the person that I inhabited when I was 10 is different than the person that I will be when I am 20; in fairness to Linklater, I think his position is the opposite of Lynch:  despite growing up, the hero in Boyhood remains the same person.  (In Lynch's world, several avatars of the same person can exist and act in independent plots at the same time.)   To dramatize this theme, Lynch tries to cast as many actors who were in the first Twin Peaks as possible in The Return -- this results in the very moving scenes with the Log Lady who is obviously really dying.  Even actors who are deceased come back and have roles to play in The Return -- Bob, the spirit of evil, remains active in The Return and Jack Nance, an actor that Lynch generously cast in every one of his films, appears (although he died before The Return was made) at the very end of the show's main narrative, going out fishing and, this time not discovering the corpse of Laura Palmer -- thereby, canceling out the whole story.  (Lynch's loyalty to Nance is touching -- the man couldn't act to save his soul.)  An actor is a person who plays many roles and whose Self is sufficiently elastic to allow him (or her) to inhabit many different parts -- this is absolutely integral to Lynch's world in which people can be possessed by other spirits and, in which the same actor, can have double or triple or even quadruple manifestations.  It's this notion that animates the puzzling scene early in The Return in which Deputy Sheriff Andy and his wife, Lucy, proudly introduce their son Wally to Sheriff Truman.  Wally is dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One and scrupulously imitates Brando's diction and manner in that film.  It's totally gratuitous, a way to sneak in a cameo by Michael Cera, who doesn't otherwise appear in the show, but the little scene speaks to Lynch's thesis that Self is merely playing a part, no one has a stable or consistent personality -- you can always become someone else or play a different role. 

Lastly, Lynch seems to assert that there are an infinite number of stories all around us.  Film making consists of choosing which narrative to follow, either briefly or, at length.  The world is a flux of stories, something that Lynch repeatedly establishes by beginning a narrative with a striking, even shocking, image and, then, simply abandoning the story without explanation.  Who is badly disfigured beat up guy in the jail who makes chimpanzee noises?  What has the deputy done to cause him to be locked in the jail with an increasing number of monsters and avatars of the imagination?  We see a couple in which the young man is suffering from horrific drug withdrawal symptoms.  With his girlfriend, the young man huddles in the roots of a huge tree.  He has a gun and, apparently, shoots himself.  What is this all about?  Who are these characters?  We don't know and the show moves on without any explanation.  One scene will stand for many:  someone has taken a shot at the Twin Peaks' diner.  The deputy sheriff, Bobby Briggs (Major Briggs' son) is directing traffic.  A queue of cars wait for the cop to wave them by.  Someone is honking a horn.  It's maddening.  The honking goes on and on and on and the scene starts to stretch out into absurdity.  Finally, the honking car comes under Bobby's scrutiny.  A fat woman is enraged and says that she is trying to get to the hospital with a sick child.  As she speaks, a greenish ghastly-looking girl rises up from the passenger seat floorboards and begins to spew vomit all over everything.  It's utterly terrifying.  Bobbie, appalled, waves the woman on through the road-block.  And that's it.  We never see the fat woman or the dying child again although they are, perhaps, the most memorable thing in the whole episode, possibly in the whole series. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Unforgiven

It's hard to accept that Clint Eastwood's brutal Western, Unforgiven, was released 25 years ago in 1992.  I recall seeing the film in the theater.  Only a few people were present:  I was alone and there were two couples, hip young professionals that I slightly knew.  At the climax of the movie, Clint Eastwood's tormented assassin snarls that he will kill anyone who opposes him "and kill your wife and burn down your house."  The couples began to laugh loudly and one of the men, imitating Eastwood's distinctive whispered menace, growled -- "I'll kill your dog too."  I thought that was pretty funny, although profoundly destructive to the effect that the director was aiming to achieve and I recall that quip better than the actual ending of the film.  This story illustrates, however, the curious intensity of Unforgiven, the aspect of the film that makes it strangely fascinating -- Eastwood seems to be doing penance for three decades of mayhem on the screen, innumerable bad guys blown away by .45 magnum or six-shooter or shot-gun.  The film has an exaggerated, almost masochistic, abject quality.  Eastwood's anti-gun film partakes in the same hyperbole that characterized his action films.  He's aggressively, savagely, violently anti-violence.  When his character, Bill Munny, gets the fever and almost dies, he has visions of death hunting him down, a snake-eyed death with a head full of worms -- "I don't want to die," Munny moans plaintively and, then, cries out:  "I've done too many bad things."  And, in that line, we inevitably hear Eastwood's mature regret with respect to some of his earlier films, most pointedly, the pictures featuring the cold-eyed sociopathic killer, "Dirty" Harry Callahan.  Unforgiven is an undeniably powerful film, and, indeed, deeply disturbing on several levels.  It's also so relentlessly designed to indict the genre that it's not really much fun -- Unforgiven is the ultimate anti-western and it's so thoroughgoing in its savaging of the genre, so over-the-top with respect to the penance that Eastwood makes the movie perform, that it effectively kills off the form.  The body-count in Unforgiven includes the genre of the Western.  And, if you instinctively love Westerns, this film may fill you with dismay.

Unforgiven begins with tableaux of the lone prairie and a man digging a grave.  The image was a cliché when it was first shown, probably around 1908 and Eastwood makes the picture kitsch by staging the scene against a scarlet sunset.  It's convincingly familiar and, therefore, accentuates the body-blow we'll experience in the next sequence -- a cowboy mutilates a prostitute by slashing at her face repeatedly; his partner pulls him off the woman.  A crowd of whores demands justice but the hardbitten sheriff simply proposes a humiliating transaction -- the two cowboys implicated in the woman's mutilation will pay six horses to the brothel-keeper in reparation for their damage to his property.  Appalled by this outcome, the prostitutes pool their funds into a considerable amount of money, a thousand dollars, and somehow contrive to attract paid assassins to their village, Big Whisky to gun down the offending cow-hands.  (The manner by which the prostitutes induce hired guns to come to Big Whisky is left unclear -- although the viewer doesn't perceive this narrative lapse as problematic.)  Bill Munny (Eastwood) is a pig farmer in Nebraska living on a desolate and impoverished acreage.  Munny was formerly a very bad hombre but he has stopped drinking and reformed.  It was Munny that we saw in the first scene burying his saintly wife, the woman who has reformed him.  (Munny, we learn, was apparently a railroad bandit and once blew up a train killing several women and children.)  A psychopathic kid shows up and invites Munny to join him in riding to Big Whisky, killing the two cow-hands, and earning the thousand dollar bounty.  Munny agrees and, on the way to the village, visits his old partner, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman.  Ned agrees to join him and they set forth on their murderous mission.  The film's opening includes an aspect that troubles audiences and that provides a precursor for the increasingly problematic events that will ensue as this allegory about revenge and justice proceeds -- Munny simply abandons his two small children (they seem to be about ten and six) on the farm to pursue this mercenary endeavor.  This seems completely irresponsible.  This plot element, of course, could be very easily eliminated -- all you need is a kindly old-timer like Walter Brennan or Slim Pickens to stay on the ranch and defend the children.  But the film insists upon the fact that Eastwood's character just leaves the kids, telling them to "kill a few chickens" and that he will be back in a couple weeks.  Obviously, the lure of some old-time violence and gunplay is so powerful that Eastwood's character is unable to resist -- and, even, willing to leave his children to undertake this deadly mission.  And, this, is despite the fact that his skills as a gunfighter have deteriorated to the point that he can barely hit anything with his pistol.  Furthermore, he's apparently forgotten how to ride a horse, can't control his animal, and falls repeatedly off the big white horse.  (Death rides a white horse and so does Clint Eastwood -- recall Pale Rider.) 

The story is complicated by a subplot involving a murderous British killer, English Bob, renowned for mowing down "Chinamen."  English Bob (played flamboyantly by Richard Harris) goes to Big Whisky with a writer who is chronicling his exploits for dime novels.  Big Whisky's sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, brutally beats up English Bob and, even, sadistically threatens to shoot the wounded man and his hapless bespectacled side-kick.  This sequence establishes that the law in Big Whisky, played by Hackman's sheriff, with a small army of deputies, is itself vicious -- we don't learn Hackman's motives and he remains rather enigmatic.  No one is allowed to carry a gun in Big Whisky except for the sheriff and his minions and anyone caught breaching this law is brutally pistol-whipped and kicked to a bloody pulp.  (Eastman's Bill Munny suffers the same fate as English Bob when he first ventures into town.)  Hackman isn't venal and we don't see him stealing or monopolizing business in the tiny village.  Like Eastwood's character, and like people such as Wyatt Earp, he seems to be some kind of reformed gangster himself.  He lives in a cabin that he has built incompetently with rain pouring through his ceiling -- it's rainy season during much of this film -- and, with his big goofy grin, seems oddly endearing when he isn't torturing people or kicking in their ribs.  English Bob's sidekick stays on with the sheriff, banking that there will be more violence to report from him than the Brit -- the obviously Jewish writer stands, quite clearly, for the money-men and producers at the studios such as Paramount who profit from the violence that Dirty Harry and his ilk commit. 

Of course, the film is designed to chart a collision course between the brutal forces of law and order exemplified by Gene Hackman's sadistic sheriff and the equally brutal forces of mercenary revenge represented by Munny and his cohorts.  The whores are unrelenting in their demand for violent retribution, although the woman actually mutilated by her cowboy customer seems strangely remote, a gentle soul who doesn't exactly condone all the violence done in her name.  The film raises a number of ethical issues:  can one implement violence in the name of an offended party who doesn't herself demand revenge?  how is law and order related to revenge?  is there any role for forgiveness in this scheme?  doesn't revenge inevitably bring with it all sorts of unanticipated collateral effects?  who is complicit in the whore's revenge, just the prostitutes or the whole town that created the conditions that must be revenged?  What can be solved by violence?  At every juncture, Eastwood directs the film to make the violence look petty and squalid.  A scene in which Eastwood and his partners "dry-gulch" one of the cowboys, gut-shooting the young man who pulled his associate off the wounded prostitute is exemplary -- there's no attempt made to dramatize the scene.  Eastwood and his fellow simply sit behind a mud hill.  Freeman's character can't pull the trigger -- there is an instinctive revulsion against assassination -- and Munny has to shoot the man.  Then, the characters simply shout at each other across a bleached badlands.  The scene is shot so crudely that it looks like some kind of rehearsal -- and this is Eastwood's strategy.  The bad guy, the knife-wielding psychopathic cowboy, is killed by the kid when the cowboy is defecating -- the boy, then, gets drunk, renounces his share of the bounty, and vows that his days as a gunslinger are over.  This leaves Eastwood to manage the final bloodbath, a scene that is a little reminiscent of the showdown in the saloon in Shane -- except that Eastwood doesn't impose any mythic apparatus on the shootings at all.  There's no real build-up, no suspense -- Eastwood's avenger just shows up with a gun, mutters a few threats, and starts shooting people. Although five people are killed in the last gunfight, it's not staged in a way to be thrilling -- rather, it's like some of the sword-play in Kurosawa's later samurai films:  people get killed so fast you can't really see what is happening. 

Eastwood's direction is spare and simple.  He eschews most of the pleasures of the Western.  Although there are beautiful vistas, we see them only infrequently and the mountain landscapes are not foregrounded.  Most Western directors love the sight of horses crossing streams and rivers -- here there are a couple such shots but they don't dwell on the beauty implicit in such scenes:  the horses splash through ankle deep water and that's that.  The design of the film, the tiny corrupt village in the middle of nowhere, harkens back to such movies as William S. Hart's pioneering Hell's Hinges, a 1916 picture in which a brutalized cowboy seems to rise from the dead to destroy with bullets and fire the entire town that mistreated him.  Everything is shot efficiently.  When Gene Hackman's sheriff tortures Morgan Freeman by whipping him, Eastwood focuses on close-ups to avoid having to pay for bloody special effects showing the lash tearing its victim's flesh.  He keeps the camera at a discrete distance, probably because he doesn't want to spend money solving the problem of how to show the whip actually slashing Freeman's back.  In this respect, the direction is similar to what you would expect on a TV western, the genre where Eastwood cut his teeth playing the part of "Rowdy" Yates, "idiot of the plains" as the actor later called the character.  TV solves problems by finding expressive and inexpensive ways to show action.  Eastwood works in this vein, focusing on a couple of close-ups and some menacing dialogue to make his point.  As Bill Munny, Eastwood doesn't really act at all -- but he doesn't have to; he has only a few lines and he can snarl them in a way that pleases the audience without making much effort to show any emotion other than homicidal, if cool, rage.  However, the film's signature utterance:  Eastwood describing a murder by saying -- "you take away all a man's got and all he's ever gonna get -- remains laconically impressive.

The movie has certain faults with respect to its realism.  Most notably, the town of Big Whisky, which consists of about 12 structures in the middle of a mountain meadow, is far too small to support Gene Hackman's sheriff and his army of deputies.  Similarly, one wonders where the whores get their customers -- there are about six of them and no one seems to live anywhere near this town.  But the Western, like many of its kind, is an allegory and these questions don't really occur to you while you are watching the film.     

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Blot

I would like to claim that The Blot (1921) is a masterpiece, an important film in the history of cinema that has retained its interest and remains compelling today.  The movie's director, Lois Weber, was one of the most important film makers in the silent era, the peer of Griffith and Von Stroheim.  Weber made pictures designed for female audiences and she branded her work in terms of gender -- she exemplified a kind of art rooted in her sexual identity sixty years before this sort of thing recovered its cachet.  The Blot was made at a studio in Santa Monica operated by Weber and devoted to the production of films that she devised.  She wrote and directed her films, didn't rely on literary precedents, and made pictures on so-called women's issues -- subjects like prostitution and abortion.  But, although she was very much a feminist, Weber also had many conventionally sentimental and, even, piously didactic notions -- she preaches almost without respite in The Blot and this detracts from aspects of the film that have real power.  Furthermore, feminism is not incompatible with other more reactionary ideas -- Griffith was a world-class film maker, certainly the equal of Eisenstein, but he was also profoundly racist; Weber, who closely resembles Griffith in many ways, is obviously committed to a feminist vision but, also, structures her film's to endorse conventional wisdom, including some ideas that we would see as noxious today -- for instance, the film's reflexive anti-immigrant bias. The didactic tendency in Weber's films, very obvious in The Blot, and makes her pictures seem more tedious than they actually are -- watching her movie, you have the sense that the damn thing is actually more interesting than it seems.

The Blot concerns a subject rarely considered in films -- home economics.  A middle-aged long-suffering wife manages her shabby genteel household on the tiny salary of a professor at the local university.  The man is not paid a living wage and his wife, who bears the brunt of their poverty, has to constantly economize.  The professor is a mousy little fellow, mocked by his students, particularly a triumvirate of cocky undergraduates from wealthy families. (A title explains "Men are just boys grown tall".)  He has a beautiful daughter, Amalia, who works as a librarian.  One of the three campus hooligans, a man named Philip West is intrigued by the young woman and pays court to her.  West competes for her affections with a minister, a young man who is also humiliatingly poor -- his shoes are scuffed and worn.  (At one point, he polishes his shoes with goose grease, goes on a date with Amalia, and has to fend off her cats who take a predatory interest in his boots.) 

Amalia's family lives next door to prosperous Swedish immigrants.  The Swede patriarch makes shoes "to ruin the feet of society women" and earns as much as "100 dollars a week."  Amalia's mother looks down upon the Swedes as being uncultured, vulgar, and nouveau riche.  The Swedish housewife, for her part, taunts her impoverished neighbors by putting trays of rich food that the professor's family can not afford in her window.  At one point, she even moves the family's garbage can so that the cats owned by the Professor's family, which eat from her leftovers, won't have access to the food.  David, one of the prosperous Swede's children, secretly loves the comely Amelia and wants to help her.  Accordingly, Amelia is the center of romantic interest between three men -- the church-mouse poor pastor, the flamboyant Phil West, and the shy, kindly David. 

Amalia's mother hopes that her daughter will make a good marriage.  When Phil West courts her, she uses all of the family resources to host a lavish tea party.  This leaves the family without money for food.  In a painful scene, the professor's wife tries to buy a chicken on credit from a local grocery -- she is refused.  She retreats to her house and seeing a plump chicken displayed in her neighbor's window as a taunt, sneaks into her adversary's back yard, and snatches for the chicken.  Amalia sees this from an upstairs window and is mortified -- she literally shrieks and staggers backward as if fleeing from a ghost.  (In fact, Amalia's mother hasn't stolen the chicken -- she puts it back on the window sill.)  Phil West, who has seen the professor's wife abjectly begging for credit, in the grocery puts together a basket of food and sends it anonymously to the professor, a man that he has now come to respect.  Amalia doesn't know about this and thinks that the chicken her mother has roasted was stolen from the Swedes -- this crime is the titular "blot".  There are further complications.  In the end, Amalia accepts Phil West's overtures and, presumably, will marry him.  The final scenes of the movie are heartbreaking and extremely effective (and, also, unexpected).  The poor minister, who Amalia probably really loves, comes courting a last time.  He is rejected.  We see a luminous close-up of Amalia's face displaying a complex array of conflicting emotions -- it's a superb and unforgettable image.  Then, we see the rejected pastor walking away.  A final close-up registers the anguish in his face, his sense of deep, almost tearful sorrow.  In a longer shot, he walks down the street and, on this disquieting note, the film fades to black. 

The movie is relentless in its portrayal of genteel poverty.  Amalia is literally dying of starvation in some scenes.  She has a cold because her shoes have lost their soles.  We see her sitting on her bed, carefully stitching cardboard into her shoes, as she shivers with fever, her pale skin almost translucent, every bit as fragile and helpless as Lillian Gish.  Almost every aspect of the film is effective -- the photography is clear, although without flourishes.  The acting is very persuasive.  The picture is fluently edited, designed on the basis of people directing either loving, or yearning, or hostile glances at one another.  All aspects of the social milieu are presented with loving detail -- the rather patrician, Phil West, drives a boat-sized Packard.  The Swedes have a brand new Ford, a model T.  And the poor professor's family have to walk through gales of rain.  But the whole thing is highly schematic, not really predictable, but certainly tendentious -- the bleak ending came as a surprise to me.  I can't quite account for my sense that the film is strangely tedious.  Perhaps, others who see this fascinating picture will disagree with me.  (The Blot will air as part of a tribute to female movie makers on September 7, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies.)