Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Although Noah Baumbach's film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), now in theaters and streaming on Netflix, proclaims itself beholding to the short story, in fact, the movie seems designed according to the specifications of the novel -- indeed, at one point, an allusion is make to an antecedent to the film, the family chronicle Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.  Since Baumbach's film details three generations in an extended family, it is difficult not to see these reference as a wink to the audience.  The movie is hyper-realistic, detailing events that seem to occur over a period of ten weeks or so with a coda, perhaps, three months later.  Short stories are focused and limited in scope, Baumbach's picture, however, has a host of minor characters, some of them portrayed with Dickensian zest, and indulges in a number episodes and subplots -- some of them fairly remote from the film's principle subject.  This is a prestige product with a deep bench -- there are A-list actors everywhere that you look and most of them are given dramatic scenes with emotionally intense monologue on which to chew.  Once acclimated to the film's somewhat diffuse approach, I found The Meyerowitz Stories thoroughly entertaining, although not without some serious flaws.

We're in Woody Allen territory with this film: the characters are hyper-articulate, highly educated Jews in Manhattan.  The characters are all divorced or getting divorced; people have difficulty with relationships and there isn't much stoicism on display -- everyone expresses him- or herself loudly and melodramatically.  The patriarch of the clan, Harold Meyerowitz is an elderly sculptor who hasn't really established his name in the art world -- he understands that he is a footnote in the art history of his era and this outrages him.  Meyerowitz, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a disagreeable narcissist -- he makes every conversation about himself and has either abandoned or suffocated his three children.  (He's done the same to the women in his life -- married four times, we see that his current spouse, played with appropriate pathos by Emma Thompson, is a helpless alcoholic.)  The two children that he abandoned, Danny and Jean, (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel respectively) are lost souls -- they are ruined, feckless, incapable of maintaining serious relationships.  The son that he suffocated with his attention doesn't like the old man, although he bustles about being officiously helpful to him -- this part is played by Ben Stiller.  As is often the case in troubled and dysfunctional families, the grandchildren get along better with the old man than his own sons and daughters -- in this case, there is a loving granddaughter who deeply admires her artistic grandfather and, in the film's final scene, even searches out his artistic legacy.  (His dealer once sold a sculpture to the Whitney Museum and it has been lost in that institution's warehouse.)   The film is structured around a series of confrontations between family members, heightened when Harold suffers a brain hemorrhage. This family crisis pulls all the characters into close, and uncomfortable, proximity and Meyerowitz' ultra-articulate Jews are forced into encounters in which they reveal their grievances, fears, and emotional wounds.  It's a bit too much.  Years ago, I saw a Broadway play directed by Robert Altman named Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.  The show was noxious in that every fifteen minutes one of the characters would bare an emotional scar and, then, pontificate at length on how someone else was responsible for inflicting that life-changing wound.  The last forty minutes of the movie frenetically reveal all sorts of emotional injuries and this culminates in a lengthy and excruciating scene in which Ben Stiller cries pathetically at a gallery opening -- poor old Harold has one piece in the show but thinks it's all about him.  It's so realistic that the sequence ends up being just embarrassing.  This is followed by an equally bathetic speech by Adam Sandler.  The point is not that these speeches are unrealistic -- to the contrary, they are realistic and the kind of thing that you often hear at funerals, for instance, when grief-stricken relatives are invited to speak extemporaneously:  this is always painful but the suffering has nothing to do with art.

The general theme in the film is that adult children need to make peace with their parents, accept their flaws, and break away from the family melodrama.  This is convincingly dramatized and some of the movie is quite funny.  Baumbach is alert to people's misunderstanding of themselves -- although Harold is not a great sculptor, something his vanity keeps him from seeing, he was probably a great teacher.  His métier was teaching young people about art -- but this is not how he saw himself.  The film has several minor characters who are indelible:  Judd Hirsch is excellent as Meyerowitz' contemporary who has been wildly successful -- he has an opening at MOMA attended by Sigourney Weaver.  Adam Driver, who is ubiquitous, plays one of Ben Stiller's clients.  (Stiller is some sort of financial planner).  Candice Bergen has one short, but moving scene -- she's a gracious woman and apologizes in a dignified way to her children for being part of the carnival around Harold that left the kids essentially abandoned and forced to raise themselves.  Even underwritten parts, such as Jean, have nice scenes:  when someone asks her why she is loyal to her selfish, incredibly vain, father she says simply:  "Because I am a decent person."  Baumbach's approach to his material is more serious and less joke-oriented than Woody Allen's consideration of similar issues of family dysfunction -- Allen's movies are "situations"; he sets up a "situation" and, then, works out its consequences.  Allen, of course, is a consummate short story writer, not a novelist, and, so, his films are much more tightly designed.  A slight relationship exists between this film and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums -- this is manifest, particularly in scenes, that seem forced, involving the granddaughter's film making.  (Her movies are fake pornography with lots of simulated sex and nudity -- Adam Sandler, playing her father, watches those films with no apparent discomfort, a whimsical misstep, I thought, in the film's verisimilitude.)  Curiously, the figure that Harold Meyerowitz most represents is Larry David as portrayed on Curb Your Enthusiasm -- Dustin Hoffman with a patrarch's beard comes across as whining, unfunny Larry David.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Rancho Notorious

Everyone who knows and loves Westerns will recall the miraculous first shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Ford's Stagecoach.  With his Winchester in hand, John Wayne appears on horseback, a beautiful and archaic vision, and the camera tracks toward him so rapidly that, for a moment, his face goes out of focus -- it's as if appearance in the midst of the buttes and desert has somehow unhinged the camera, made it swoon.  The image takes your breath away.  In his 1952 Western, Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang reprises this image in an extraordinary shot introducing his leading lady, Marlene Dietrich.  Like John Wayne, Dietrich is astride a horse, although in this image, her steed is a drunken cowboy at the brothel where she works.  Her "horse" rears up and, then, she goads him with her heels in a race with other inebriated cowboys all of them mounted by whores.  The image tracks the men as they creep forward, climbing over various obstacles, ducking under wire, until the perverse race reaches the finish line.  Dietrich looks stunning and Lang understands that it's not enough to devise and frame a wonderful static image -- the picture has to move, hence, the frenetic action as the saloon girls drive the men they are riding toward the finish line at the other end of the bar-room.  (Certainly, Fellini had this image in mind when he has Marcello Mastrioanni ride the prostitute in the orgy scene in La Dolce Vita -- Lang's version, however, is more startling and kinkier, more perverse.)  The sequence is recounted as a flashback, a story told to the film's hero, a cowboy named Vern (played by Arthur Kennedy) and the image has some of the mythical quality of memory, a sort of archetype recalled after many years. Vern is looking for a place called "Chuck-a-Luck", a robber's roost where the villain who raped and murdered his fiancée is hiding.  "Chuck-a-Luck", in fact, is the name of the ranch near the Mexican border ruled by the imperious and regal Dietrich, playing an aging saloon girl retired to manage a band of criminals staging hold-ups and bank robberies across the southwest.  At "Chuck-a-Luck" there's only one rule:  you can't ask questions because everyone has a criminal past.  Of course, Vern ultimately infiltrates "Chuck-a-Luck", participates in a bank robbery, and, finally, guns down the rapist and murderer in a climactic battle at the ranch.  The film is equipped with a cowboy ballad, although the music sounds more than a little operatic, and, after the final gun fight, the baritone reminds us that his song is about "hate, murder, and revenge."  This is the rather Wagnerian motif that ends each stanza of the "Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck" and we hear it first intoned over the opening credits -- indeed, the words are sung when the title announces that the film is directed by Fritz Lang.  (The effect is a little like the opening of The Wild Bunch in which one of the bandits holding townspeople hostage cries out "Kill them all!" just as the credit "Directed by Sam Peckinpah" is displayed.) "Hate, murder, and revenge", of course, are Lang's signature subjects and he has Arthur Kennedy glower with rage, his eyes bugged out, and his posture distorted like a dwarf -- he actually stoops and twitches like Alberich in the Ring of the Nibelungs deformed by hatred. 

Although only 87 minutes long, Rancho Notorious is packed with action.  After the brutal Kinch rapes and murders Vern's chaste sweetheart (and, then, kills the bad man's sexually ambiguous sidekick), the hero sets out to find the villain and punish him.  Along the trail, Vern learns that a woman named Altar Keane, a famous Western courtesan, is somehow involved.  Lang treats us to some flashbacks involving Keane's adventures and we see how she meets her loyal boyfriend, Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), the fastest gun in the West -- he has helped her out when she plays "chuck-a-luck", that is, a roulette game, in the saloon where she has just been fired for insubordination; she's insulted the owner and whore-master, Baldy, played with sinister aplomb by Wm. Frawley (remember him as "Bub" on My Three Sons?).  Altar Keane has used her winnings  from the roulette game to buy a remote hacienda a few miles from the Mexican border.  There she supervises a gang of nine bandits, bad men who periodically depart from Rancho Notorious to rob banks, stages, and trains.  These bad guys include poor George Reeves, Tv's Superman, his handsome rock jaw, scarred by claw marks (a woman, Vern assumes, although Reeves claims it was a panther that disfigured him.)  Dietrich looks spectacular in her tight jeans and she sits like a man with her legs spread wide apart; in close-ups, her face is an impassive Kabuki-like mask -- inhumanly perfect and inexpressive.  To entertain the boys, she sometimes sings for them -- by the evidence in the film, performing tunes that sound like Berlin cabaret music with lyrics by Brecht and melody by Weill.  Periodically, Lang indulges in the exquisitely staged violence that made him famous:  there's a horrific fistfight in a barber shop and a couple of explosive gun duels.  Lang always stages these sequences with more fury than the viewer expects -- the violence is more abrupt, savage, and physically tangible than the surrounding story and images:  it stands apart as something particularly ferocious and indelible.  When a bank robbery goes awry, one of the bandits is shot and falls backward in a narrow doorway -- there are two other robbers in the doorway and the man who has been hit by the bullet can't fall down because the other bandits are in his way; instead, he twists to the side, slumping between two other men who are frantically firing their six-guns -- the effect is weirdly balletic and, also, statuesque:  the falling man and those surrounding him form a sculptural tableaux.  In the same scene, when someone is shot off a horse, the person doesn't just drop to the ground -- they crash face-first into the earth. 

The film is in Technicolor and looks great.  There are orange sunsets with riders moving through badlands and, then, a shot of a forlorn coyote howling at the sky.  The outlaws form a rogue's gallery that Lang depicts in massive, matching close-up, each man scowling at the camera.  There's nifty dialogue:  someone praises death by hanging -- "It's quiet as eating a banana."  Above Chuck-a-luck, there's a strange mountain pass, a high point walled with mauve sandstone ramparts -- the scene is obviously shot on a sound-stage, but so oddly unnatural as to be surrealistically memorable.  An insert shows Chuck-a-Luck far below, a little hacienda in the great desert.  The sandstone walls are, perhaps, intended as natural but they look man-made because, of course, they are man-made, parapets, I suppose, contrived from paper-mache.  When Altar Keane takes a bullet to save her boyfriend, her breast flowers with a great red wound and she drops decorously to the foot of her bed -- the bed is also covered with mauve fabric.  A posse sets forth in a night-for-day shot:  We see them riding through a canyon with stark, stony walls -- the walls have profiles like Easter Island idols -- and the sky caught between the canyon walls has the bruised, turbulent darkness in the clouds in Jacob van Ruisdael's great painting, "The Jewish Cemetery".  The film is a genre piece but memorably enlivened by little cinematic touches that are pure poetry.  (Dietrich's dominatrix queen of the ranch was an image that seems to have made a powerful impact on other film makers in the fifties:  Joan Crawford, in tight breeches and flannel shirt, plays a variant on the part in the 1954 Johnny Guitar and, later, Barbara Stanwyck also plays a similar role in Sam Fuller's lurid 1958 Forty Guns.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Breaking Point

At a symposium that I recently attended, the speaker made the disheartening observation that most families in the United States are only an unexpected $500 debt away from economic calamity.  This means that a car's transmission failure or a trip to the emergency room or a criminal fine is sufficient to destroy many people economically.  Although I don't know the basis for the statistics, intuitively, this statement seems true to me.  I recall my parents fretting about car expenses.  When I was a child, I sensed that the failure or a washer or dryer, or a blown valve on the car's engine, might mean the difference between poverty and our normal middle-class existence.  I recall that we ate lots of canned food -- slimy green peas and corn and, once a week, feasted on liver with onions, food that I loved but that was, I suppose, something from the bottom of the barrel.  Of course, I made these anxieties a part of myself -- sometimes today, I get irrationally angry when food is wasted or at the purchase of bottled water (when our tap water is completely potable) and I reflexively shut off lights when I leave a room.  Although I am reasonably prosperous and have lived through eras of excess, my sensibilities remain rooted, in large part, in lower middle class values -- or more honestly stated "fears" -- as they existed in the fifties.  For this reason, Michael Curtiz' disturbing film The Breaking Point  (1950) seems to me particularly resonant, its action fatalistic and impelled by anxieties with which I am intimately familiar. 

Based on Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not, the film resolutely denies the glamor with which Howard Hawks invested the same subject matter in his 1944 version Key Largo.  Starring Bogie and Bacall, Key Large is an impressive entertainment, but it has almost nothing to do with Hemingway's novel and, certainly, doesn't explore the neo-realistic depths sounded in The Breaking Point.  In many ways, the movie is classically film noir -- a sad sack loser is trapped in a web of fate that threatens to destroy everything that he cherishes; everyone is morally compromised and violence comes easy to the characters because they have killed people in World War Two and can't forget that experience.  The veneer of civilization is very fragile -- the hero's lower middle class home and family is only a $500 dollar debt away from calamity.  At one point, the hero feels sorry for himself.  His wife blasts him for this self-pity -- 'you have to take care of your wife and your family.  You have to put food on the table.  This is your war.'  The hero stoically agrees with this formulation, but, of course, he is fatally alone, "a man alone," he obsessively repeats, cast on his own slender resources which turn out, at every step in the story, to be inadequate to the challenge. 

John Garfield plays Harry Morgan, a former soldier whose sole business asset is a fishing boat called the Sea Queen.  Morgan is married and has two children and he lives in a small town somewhere near San Diego -- it's on the sea, the kind of place where people beach rowboats on the edge of canals that would be their front lawn in a more landlocked place.  Morgan ekes out a living taking rich men on fishing expeditions -- he says he can "spot a marlin a mile away."  But he's not making it.  He's behind on the installment payments for his boat, can't pay the harbor fees, and increasingly desperate.  Morgan takes a rich man and his vicious mistress (played by Patricia Neal as the ultimate bitch femme fatale) down to Ensenada in Mexico.  The rich man absconds leaving his girlfriend and a batch of unpaid bills with Morgan.  Morgan runs into a sleazy lawyer that he knows from his home town and is steered into participating in a human trafficking scheme.  (The film is prescient about many issues that plague us today.)  The people trafficked are Chinese and the smuggler notes that, after he gets paid, he doesn't care what happens to them -- suggesting casually that Morgan simply throw them overboard once he gets out to sea.  The transaction goes wrong and Morgan ends up wrestling with the Chinese smuggler; a gun goes off and the criminal is killed.  Morgan gets back home but finds that his boat is impounded -- the Mexican authorities are following up on the Chinese trafficker's crimes and his apparent murder.  Morgan can't pay his debts, even though his wife takes up seamstress work and labors all night long -- this is humiliating to the tough-guy ex-combat vet.  The sleazy lawyer posts a bond for Morgan's boat on the condition that he ferry some thugs who are planning a robbery at a race-track out to a  get-away point west of Catalina Island.  There's a heist scene somewhat similar to, and probably a model for, the race-track robbery in Kubrick's The Killing.  The thugs flee the race-track and come to the harbor when Harry's best friend has unfortunately made an appearance to work on the boat.  The thugs, who are cartoon gangsters, gun down Morgan's buddy.  This sets the stage for a climactic and bloody shoot-out on the boat.  (If the film has a weakness, it's the heist plot and the caricatured wise-guys, in their garish double-breasted suits, involved in that robbery.)  The film's ending is quietly devastating -- Curtiz orchestrates one of the most tragic closing images in film history.  Morgan's temptation by Patricia Neal is intertwined in this plot.  Neal uses all of her wiles in an attempt to seduce Morgan away from his long-suffering wife.  Morgan is bored and admits that "a man wants excitement now and then", but he remains (more or less) faithful to his wife.  As the maimed Morgan is hauled off the Sea Queen, Neal pouts and walks away without a backward glance saying:  "This is why I hate mornings."

Curtiz made, at least, seventy films in Hungary before he came to work for Warner Brothers in 1926.  (He shot the pre-Technicolor two-color process features Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, remarkably effective, if primitive, thrillers in the early thirties, before being promoted to A-List movies like Casablanca.)  His direction is miraculously assured and effective.  In a series of three or four shots in the hero's small house, Curtiz establishes the space, provides it with symbolic force, and introduces the members of the hero's family -- as well as their relationships with one another.  This sequence is so brilliantly shot and edited with such consummate, whiplash precision that it is as thrilling, in its own way, as the action sequences later in the picture.   The film is a master-class in classical movie-making; it's lucid and expressive in all respects. The reason that you never heard about The Breaking Point is that, just before its premiere, John Garfield was named as a Communist in Red Channels.  Jack Warner was horrified and, quietly, dumped the film -- it was released with no publicity and, then, simply vanished.  Garfield was hounded by the HUAC and died of a heart attack when he was only 39 years old.  His performance, and that of all of the characters in the film, is exemplary.  This is one of the greatest of all film noir, a movie that both defines and expands decisively the notion of the genre; indeed, the movie establishes a vital connection between film noir and the sort of neo-realism advanced by Italian directors like de Sica and Rosselini -- if you can, see it.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Don Pasqualo

Gaetano Donizetti composed the opera buffo Don Pasqualo in 1843, a couple years before an obscure mental illness permanently disabled him.  The opera is very cruel and very funny:  an old vain man is relentlessly tortured by a beautiful young woman.  The plot's sadism sometimes seems to give Donizetti pause -- after the young woman slaps the old man, knocking him to the ground, the relentless pace of the comedy slacks for a moment and there is even a duet between the two that has the piercing quality of lament.  But, then, the savagery starts up again and the cruelty continues.  In Twelfth Night, the prudish and hypocritical puritan is driven to the verge of madness by the torments Shakespeare's characters devise for him, but, at one point, the heroine, Viola expresses some sympathy and notes that the economics of the house are dependent on Malvolio's probity.  There is no similar moment of reconciliation in Don Pasqualo, a fool to begin with he remains a fool to the end, although one that has been chastened..  The relentlessness of opera's farce, its singlemindedness, suggest that the subject might be an unworthy, or difficult, topic for musical comedy.  But Don Pasqualo was produced at a time when Italian composers could make an opera out of anything -- they could set law decrees and grocery lists to lissome and fluent music -- and, so, the work is surprisingly eloquent, full of cunning quartets, and adorned with some beautiful music.

Opera buffo seems to encourage inventiveness and, even, bold innovation on the part of the director and Don Pasqualo as performed by the Minnesota Opera company (October 7 -15) is crammed with imaginative "business".  The show's premise is that the foolish old man, Pasqualo, is a silent movie star fallen on hard times in Hollywood during the fifties -- in this production the action is posited to take place in 1956.  During the overture, and during several short intermezzi required for scene changes, silent films are projected on the curtain under the proscenium arch.  These films are quite funny and chart Pasqualo's decline from movie star (implausibly playing a corpulent sheik) to leading man in awful genre films ("Tentacles", a 50's monster movie, and "Attack of the Robots" a low-budget sci-fi picture); Pasqualo tries to direct a Western called "Banditos" but ends up burning down the studio.  Pasqualo hates newfangled and modern technology in films -- he is an adamant enemy of Technicolor.  The opera is directed to emphasize the interplay between Pasqualo's colorless, grey mansion and the bright colors associated with his doomed passion for the young Sofronia, the girl who torments him.  In various ways, Pasqualo's world brightens as the opera progresses and becomes more colorful, although his sepulchral zombie-like butler continues to serve him in pallid white face and Pasqualo, himself, is made up so that this cheeks and hair and brow are entirely grey.  The plot is simple and archetypal.  The old Don Pasqualo forbids the marriage of his nephew, Ernesto.  Instead, he says that he will marry a young woman and breed heirs to his fortune.  His physician, the smarmy and sinister Dr. Malatesta, offers to introduce him to a beautiful young virgin said to have been educated in a convent.  The virgin is nothing of the sort -- she is Ernesto's girlfriend, herself a Hollywood starlet.  Pasqualo is tricked into a fake marriage with the veiled and, seemingly, timid girl.   As soon as the wedding contract is inked, the girl reveals herself to be a monstrous shrew.  She immediately drives Pasqualo into debt with her extravagances, acquires jewels and limousines, and, then, demands the freedom to consort with her lover -- in fact, her real betrothed Ernesto.  The scenes involving the marriage and Sofronia's torture of the old fool are realized with slapstick surrealism -- the girl traipses around with a fifty-foot long red train; Pasqualo is so buried in her bills and invoices that he wears them like a thick and furry coat.  The girl invites other stars to the house, now decked-out like the Hearst mansion, and we see lookalikes for Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley and others cavorting like ancers in a Busby Berkeley musical.  One bit of business involves key on a sort of retractable band that keeps getting plucked away from Pasqualo and, then, snaps back against his hips and ribs.  The nasty Dr. Malatesta becomes increasingly uncanny as the show progresses.  He wears a cape that he flaps like Dracula attempting to become airborne as a bat and does impressive magic tricks elongating parts of his body to try to snatch the key off Pasqualo (the key opens a garden gate to a place where the shrew is planning a meeting with her boyfriend.) During the wedding scene, a notary appears with tassels on his sleeves that are flipped around to great effect when the wedding contract is signed.  A "patter" song involving incredibly rapid-fire delivery is so impressive that the two singers involved in this duet, break down the fourth wall, hurry up in front of the curtain and urge the audience to demand an encore from them -- this is accomplished and the show-stopping number is repeated to everyone's delight. 

I thought the opera was successful in all respects.  The music is fascinating and, often, quite beautiful; even at its least impressive, the numbers have a galloping propulsiveness, the so-called Rossini accelerando.  The plot, which is as old as Plautus, and certainly hearkens back to the commedia dell'arte is effective if remorselessly brutal .  The opera was mounted with great verve and ingenuity and I thought all of the "bits of business" required with respect to staging the action during the 1950's were well designed, meaningful, and, often, laugh-out-loud funny.  The tonal character of the opera is a bit monotonous -- mostly three deep male voices bickering histrionically with a soprano screeching at them.  The starlet, played by Susannah Biller, was a little shrill, at first, although this didn't hurt the show's comic effect, but later relaxed into a more full-throated and luscious-sounding voice.  The show really belongs to the hapless Pasquale forever on his knees pleading for the gods to send him madness and the sinister Dr. Malateste and these singers (Craig Coclough and Andrew Wilkowske respectively) were highly accomplished throughout the production. 

Friday, October 13, 2017


Your eyes can't quite adjust to Harlan Veit's sinister and monumental Kolberg (1945).  There's an inversion to the film that makes the movie hard to see:  most war films posit peace as the fundamental norm -- violent conflict upsets peace and distracts people from their ordinary business of making a living, procreating, raising families.  War films that register the impact of conflict on civilians, generally, suggest that armed conflict is an anomaly in human affairs, a catastrophe that must be survived and endured, but not the ordinary state of affairs.  This perspective originates, perhaps, most fundamentally in Tolstoy's War and Peace -- Tolstoy says that war is the exception to rules of morality that normally govern human affairs:  there is a sharp distinction between soldiers, who are trade-professionals, and the civilian victims of war.  Tolstoy's distinction between war and peace, as well as soldier and civilian, is intrinsic to most modern film representations of war -- for instance, Gone with the
Wind (which, in turn, derives from Griffith's Birth of a Nation), David Lean's Dr. Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, and, even, Warren Beatty's Reds.  War separates lovers, interrupts relationships, and imposes artificial hardships on people.  But these films all assume as their baseline peace and that, once the soldiers have departed, people will return to marrying and giving in marriage, adultery and petty swindling, raising children, tending to the sick and elderly, and farming or business.  After the samurai are victorious in The Seven Samurai, the peasants have no interest in military affairs and return to planting their rice; for a few minutes in the film, the peasants fought alongside the samurai, an alliance that Kurosawa regards with a kind of ecstatic horror -- this is not the way that the world should be:  soldiers fight wars and the civilians tend to their families and the economy. 

Kolberg was the last production of Germany's UFA studios when it was under Nazi control and it arises from a completely different ideology as to armed conflict.  Kolberg begins with the spectacle of citizens, men, women, and children, marching with locked arms through a picturesque medieval-looking city and along photogenic canals -- the civilian population has proclaimed itself as mobilized, as part of the war-fighting force.  And, indeed, Kolberg's political thesis is that, during circumstances of total war, there is no valid distinction between civilian and soldier -- every civilian is conscripted to the war effort; to the last man, woman, and child, every German is a member of the Wehrmacht.  (This notion arises from Goebbels 1943 speech at the Berlin Sportspalast in which the propaganda minister declared that "the most total war is the shortest war", denying the distinction between professional soldiers and citizenry.  Goebbels intent was to make meaningful the suffering that German civilians experienced due to Allied bombings -- a woman or old man or baby killed in such a bombing was a "hero" of the Reich, that is, a home-front soldier dead on the battlefield.  We have come perilously close to this ideology -- also the ideology of perpetual war -- in our so-called War against  Terrorism, in which the stockbrokers and secretaries killed in the Twin Towers are regarded as "heroes" or "martyrs" to a cause -- of course, a cause that didn't exist until they were killed.)  Kolberg, a huge epic film that celebrates the tenacity of citizens of the town under bombardment by Napoleon's cannons, is an instrument in an ideology that proclaims several concepts foreign to our usual representations of armed conflict:  first, everyone is a soldier; second, soldier's aren't allowed to surrender; and, third, the state of war is what is perpetual in the world -- war gives meaning to existence; by contrast, peace is weak, pallid, existentially vacuous.  Watching Kolberg, the American viewer wants to focus on the relationships between the people, a foreground love-affair, conflicts between characters, that is, recognizable human interpersonal relationships -- but these factors are wholly secondary to the film which has as its motive dramatization of the actions of a collective -- and, so, at least my eyes can't quite find the focus.  It's as if Gone with the Wind were remade with the love affairs as perfunctory ornamentation to a story that is entirely focused on the Burning of Atlanta.  In a standard war film like GWTW, the Burning of Atlanta is background to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler's love affair.  By contrast, in Kolberg, the love affair between "little Maria" played by the Reich's favorite actress, Kristina Soederbaum, and her dashing cavalry boyfriend, is distinctly subordinate to the dramatization of war as a conflict, not between opposing armies, but between opposing Volk or populations.  The curious thing about Kolberg is its peculiar, daunting honesty -- these themes aren't concealed or sugar-coated, they are portrayed front and center with unmistakable ideological intent.  Kolberg is as single-minded and intellectually honest as Potemkin or Earth --  no effort is made to conceal a loathsome ideology.  In some ways, it's more truthful to the reality of war than films like Dr. Zhivago or Gone with the Wind.

Kolberg is certainly spectacular enough and its battle scenes are vivid and realistic.  The film was shot in Agfacolor and the tinting is unstable -- in some sequences characters oscillate between a waxen marmoral pallor and warm golden flesh tones.  But it's a handsome film on which no expense was spared.  (Harlan Veit claimed he had 187,000 extras at his command -- an outrageous lie, but, certainly, there are scenes in the film with lines of soldiers stretching to the horizon, probably as many as 3000 active duty soldiers conscripted to appear in the battle sequences.)  Paul Wegener, the German actor whose peculiarly Asiatic-appearance, had him cast as the Golem, not once but three times, plays the part of the feckless Loucadou -- he is the commander at Kolberg who counsels surrender.  His opposite is the burly and immovable Nettelbeck, a local brewer and the mayor of the town, played by the formidable Heinrich George, a huge square block of a man with a huge square head.  Kristina Soderbaum plays the heroine -- in the course of the movie, she has to mourn her father, both of her brothers, and her lover, Schill, a dashing cavalryman.  In the film's final scenes, Nettelbeck congratulates her on her sacrifices:  "You have offered everything you had.  Death is overcome by Victory."  Soderbaum first flits around like one D. W. Griffith's heroines in Birth of a Nation; she's as fragile as Lillian Gish.  But, this is an Aryan heroine and later we see her manhandling a big loom on which she is weaving, wading through chest-deep water when the defenders flood their own city, and standing outside in a hail of bombs, vainly spraying water on a burning building.  Her eyes are always welling up with tears.  She has a big nose and wide face and is, perhaps, not conventionally attractive -- but her presence is solid and she's one of the few actors with sufficient gravitas to stand up against the huge boulder-like Heinrich George.

In the frame to the narrative of the siege, a general named Gneisenau proclaims that the Germans can defeat Napoleon if all of them, both civilian and soldier join together in the war effort.  This sequence is lavish with huge crowd scenes of marching citizens -- there are so many of them that some of them have to march on barges in the river.  The film flashes back to confrontations between Nettelbeck and Loucanou -- Nettelbeck demands that the city be defended, Loucanou wants to abandon Kolberg and has failed to maintain its artillery (the cannons are all rusty).  This conflict hardens to the point that Nettelbeck is imprisoned and threatened with execution by firing squad.  Nettelbeck gives a message to the King in Koenigsberg to "little Maria" and asks her to hand-deliver the missive.  This requires an immensely adventurous journey by Maria, including running blockades and (she implies) using feminine wiles to penetrate road-blocks.  Bizarrely, Veit doesn't show us anything of Maria's adventure -- he seems to have no idea what an audience wants to see (or, perhaps, Goebbels who cut the film to 107 minutes has the blinkered vision).  Instead, Veit stages an utterly bizarre, almost surreal scene where Maria encounters the Queen of Prussia -- an inhumanly beautiful, serene, and waxen woman -- and is tongue-tied.  (I have no idea as to the politics of this scene -- it's deeply memorable, disturbing, and seems to regard the Queen in the light of the Divine Right of Kings, a system of thought that seems inapposite to National Socialism).  The Queen apparently (off-stage) talks to the King and the dashing and aggressive Gneisenau is sent to defend the town.  (Loucanou just vanishes).  The first thing that Gneisenau does is to burn down Maria's farm because it's on the outskirts of Kolberg and would provide cover to the advancing French.  This drives Maria's father mad and he throws himself into the exuberantly burning farm buildings. There are some battles.  Then, Nettelbeck supervises the populace in digging an immense trench so that the half of the town can be flooded -- this is a bravura episode, reminiscent, however, in some ways to King Vidor's Our Daily Bread in which an irrigation channels is dug to save languishing crops -- there is the same Soviet style montage albeit on a much larger scale.  There are more battles. Maria's brother, a musician, dies trying to save his beloved violin from destruction.  Maria's boyfriend, the dashing Schill, goes somewhere for some reason -- the narrative in the film is not very clear -- and gets killed.  Then, her last surviving brother is carried back to town dead on a bier.  A tremendous bombardment of the city ensues and the place is reduced to smoking ruins.  This bombardment leads to long harangues by Nettelbeck and Gneisenau intended to inspire the populace.  This is another reason that the film doesn't ever quite come into focus.  Although Veit stages grandiose battle scenes -- for instance thousands of French infrantry wading across the flooded part of the city under heavy artillery fire -- these sequences are secondary to the rants and harangues.  The battle scenes exist to illustrate the film's true climaxes which are, in fact, Nettelbeck and Gneisenau's speeches.  Nettelbeck says, for instance, "In this universal time of darkness for Germany, in the black night only one star still shine, Kolberg... they'll have to hack off our hands and beat us to death one by one; rather than surrender, we will be buried in the rubble."  The defenders know they are doomed and steel themselves for the final assault.  But, far away, a the Peace of Tilsit has been negotiated and, at the last minute, there is a cease fire.  The fanatical Gneisenau recalls these events six years later, in 1813 at Breslau.  His eyes flash and he shrieks into the camera:  "Der Sturm bricht los!"  That is, "the storm is now upon us."  This is a citation of Goebbels total war speech and presages the last bloody months of the War -- Hitler's Volksturm, in  which old men, women, and teenage boys were armed to resist oncoming Soviet tanks.

Goebbels didn't like Veit's cut of Kolberg and substantially reworked it -- this results, I think, in the choppy editing that seems to cut from one scene to another before the first scene is fully complete.  (Goebbels also removed the more demoralizing images of civilians crushed in the rubble of their bombed city.)  The movie was released on January 30, 1945 -- but there were then no movie theaters left in which the grandiose epic could be shown.  Almost no Germans saw the picture.  At the time, the movie was released Kolberg was besieged by the Russians.  The garrison pleaded for support but was, instead, sent a print of the film -- shortly, thereafter, they surrendered.  This is a huge production and everyone who was important in Nazi Germany's film industry is in the picture -- the score is by Norbert Schultze, the man who wrote "Lili Marlene."  It's an impressive picture in its own right and deserves close study -- both Stanley Kubrick (who was married to Veit's niece) and Frank Oz have suggested that a great film could be made about the making of the epic.  But no one has yet ventured this.     

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bladerunner - 2049

Denis Villeneuve's Bladerunner - 2049 (2017) is an immense, bombastic, science fiction film that is gloriously spectacular but, ultimately, hollow.  The film feels superfluous -- despite a plot that frantically flails about in all directions, the movie doesn't explore any territory that wasn't previously, and more effectively, represented in the predecessor film.  A case in point is the earlier film's use of Los Angeles' Bradbury Building for the tenement where the bladerunner, a sort of assassin, lives -- 2049 is replete with dank, bizarre locations, some of them fantastically beautiful, but shows us nothing as utterly strange and evocative as the interior atrium of that building.  The Bradbury Building was like the belly of the beast, almost gastric in its ambience, a cast-iron maw in which the characters were trapped like Jonah in the guts of the whale.  There's a lot of wonderful stuff in 2049 but nothing as sublimely effective as the old (and real) Bradbury Building.  Thus, one is continuously afflicted with the notion that we've seen this stuff before and better in the previous 1982 movie. 

Like the earlier film, 2049 is a sci-fi adaptation of classic film noir -- patterned, accordingly, on The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep (or, for that matter, the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski).  A world-weary gumshoe on routine assignment happens onto a criminal enterprise that is bigger, and more terrible, than anyone expected.  As the detective follows leads, his investigation penetrates into larger and darker spheres of corruption -- by tugging at one string on the edge of the tapestry of criminality, the detective inadvertently sets the whole world in motion.  This plot requires an isolated and virtuous hero, incorruptible in a rotten world, who travels from place to place interviewing suspects and witnesses -- gradually, the larger picture is revealed (for instance, the felonious source of LA's water in Chinatown) and the powers-that-be try to cover up the investigation by murdering the investigator.  It's an old plot, dating back to Oedipus Rex, a story that is directly invoked (together with Pinocchio)in Bladerunner -- 2049.   In recent history, the form was perfected by Raymond Chandler in his novels and, then, adapted into films -- stories of this kind involve much deception, savagely swift reversals of fortune, and a fair amount of mayhem; one characteristic of this plotting is that there are always loose ends, elements of the story that don't adequately fit together -- I think both Howard Hawks and William Faulkner (director and writer, respectively, of The Big Sleep) admitted there was at least one murder in the story for which they couldn't account and didn't know who had committed or why.  Therefore, even when plotting is very carefully designed, stories of this sort are difficult to untangle.  But in 2049, the plot is completely jerry-rigged, nothing more than a string on which to hang spectacular set-pieces -- here, the plot exists for the purpose of allowing Villeneuve and company to contrive ever more grandiose and dystopian visions; that is, the plot is adjunct to the imagery; the story exists to justify the dystopian landscapes.  (In super-hero movies, there is a similar phenomenon -- that is, the plot is designed as a framework from which to suspend, more or less, arbitrarily sequences involving expensive special effects.)  This is made very clear by one of the film's innumerable (and problematic) plot contrivances -- all important data preceding a certain year has been lost in a black-out.  This means that the hero has to rely upon personal interviews with eccentric witnesses as opposed to simply doing his research with court records and archival information.  But this plot contrivance is over-powerful and, so, the film admits certain exceptions to the black-out rule -- in other words, no documentary evidence is available before a certain year, except when the story requires such evidence to be available; in that case, some crystals exist with something like micro-fiche embedded in them and they can be read and, therefore, supply a basis for further plot developments.  Other plot contrivances are equally questionable -- why is Las Vegas a post-nuclear irradiated wasteland?  And if it is so deadly there that the place is wholly deserted, then how is it that Harrison Ford (the original 1982 protagonist, Rick Deckard) lives there.  A number of important sequences are impenetrable -- is the film's corporate villain, Niander Wallace (of the Wallace Corporation) blind? why do his eyes appear to be cloudy?  What are the small flying modules that accompany him -- are they some sort of vision equipment?  What is the plug in his neck for?  Why does he slaughter the comely and nubile replicant that drops alarmingly from an amniotic sac, born, apparently, to be immediately and pointlessly killed?  (This material resonates with the original film in which the founder of the Tyrell firm, the first manufacturer of replicants, was suffering from some kind of obscure disease).  What is the  huge wall that surrounds LA?  Is it a sea-wall?  If so, how do the characters end up outside the sea-wall for the final duel?  The list of plot uncertainties or flat-out inconsistencies can be multiplied indefinitely -- this is not necessarily a problem in a classic film noir; no one can understand the plot anyway, but when the audience gets the sense that the plot is completely arbitrary and that the rules can be waived at any time for any reason, a sort of radical disappointment arises and we become disengaged from the film's narrative at, even, the most basic level.  I have no doubt that the millions of dollars spent on 2049 probably insure answers, albeit unsatisfactory ones, to most of the questions that I have posed -- and, indeed, the answers are probably lurking in plain sight in some respects, but I don't think an ordinary viewer will be able to decipher much of what is happening in this film.  We can see stuff occurring and it is often brilliantly staged and indelibly imagined, but its all sound and fury and when you think back over the plot, big chunks of it don't make any sense.  Furthermore, the film cheats:  it doesn't just use indirection, which is, I think, acceptable -- the movie employs outright deceit.  The most noteworthy example is a sequence in which the hero finds a wooden horse hidden in a furnace in a vast junkyard.  This discovery warrants in the hero, Replicant K (played by the totally inexpressive Ryan Gosling). the conclusion that he is himself the quest of his search -- it's the central scene in the Oedipus Rex plot:  the detective finds himself and his own unremembered past at the center of the labyrinth.  The sequence is impressively mounted and shot very, very lugubriously -- everything occurs as if in slow-motion.  Furthermore, there is thunderously portentous music on the soundtrack to underline this sequence.  This is the central revelation in the film, the moment when the hero is revealed to be himself the holy grail for which he is searching.  But an hour later -- the film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long -- we learn that the music, the portentous staging, the reverent stillness and grandiose torpor of the scene was all a lie.  The hero is not the holy figure for which he is searching.  What is deceitful about this sequence it that it is not merely the hero who is deluded.  Rather the film uses all of its resources -- spectacular photography, Rembrandt-lighting, and a thunderous and operatic musical score to impress upon us something that is untrue.  It's okay to show a  hero who is deluded; it's similarly okay to create an ambiguity about what a scene means; but it feels like a betrayal for the movie to deploy every one of its vast resources to unambiguously make a point that is later, rather arbitrarily, withdrawn -- after this spectacular scene, a sequence that is stretched out almost beyond endurance, the film says:  "Oh, never mind."

In some respects, 2049 resembles Children of Men, a similarly dystopian film with a similarly gynecological plot.  K goes to a maggot farm ("protein") to retire -- this means kill -- a replicant.  Unlike Harrison Ford in the first film, the terminally morose K knows full well that he is replicant (that is, a robot although cloaked in flesh and blood).  Ryan Gosling can't act and doesn't try to act.  He looks like a very sad and confused chimpanzee, a hurt look of puzzled bewilderment always on his face.  The maggot-farmer replicant is killed after a suitably violent hand-to-hand fight -- the film is full of brutal mano y mano battles.  The maggot-farmer says a few enigmatic things before and while dying and this leads K to discover that a skeleton has been buried under a tree on the farm.  The skeleton is a female replicant who has died in child-birth.  Since replicants are grown in test-tubes and born fully adult, this is a shocking development and suggests that the robots, who are stronger, more agile, smarter, and better-looking than their human counterparts may not be long content with their role as slaves.  Replicants who can reproduce will rebel and take over the world -- although the planet seems so badly damaged it's probably not worth the fuss.  K goes off in search of the replicant who was "born" as opposed to cultured and this leads to the intricate chain of events that comprises the film's narration.  Central to the plot is a key point that was also integral to the first film -- replicants have false memories implanting in them so that they believe that they have had a childhood and adolescence.  This is supposed to stabilize their psyches.  The film is full of all sorts of baroque flourishes but most of them are merely decorative -- this is epitomized by the opening sequence.  In the brutal fight between K and the maggot-farmer, there is a big pot sitting on the stove, steam pouring out of its sides, and bright blue gas flames heating whatever is within that pot.  The pot is a crucial ornamental element in this scene but no one is dowsed with boiling water and we never find out what is being heated -- K looks under the lid but the camera doesn't show us what he sees.  (Presumably the maggot farmer is heating up some plump grubs for a noon repast, but the grubs look so fat and delectable that they seem to be ready-to-eat live -- I know that any Mexican peasant worth his salt would simply toss the wriggling larvae in his mouth and enjoy the treat.)  The way the boiling pot is shown in this first episode alerts the viewer that most of the ornamental or decorative elements of the story will be inconsequential from a narrative point of view -- and this is a correct foreshadowing of how the film will operate.

Of course, what I characterize as the ornamental elements of the plot are non pareil.  The bad guys hold court in a travertine skyscraper that seems to be combination of Louis Kahn's Salk institute and a pharaoh's tomb -- the place is lit by rippling light as if reflected off water; it's totally impractical and gives you a headache to watch but is a spectacular effect.  The cityscapes, although they are only a few notches above what you can see in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (the ultimate source for all films about a dystopian future -- and is there any other kind?), are jaw-dropping.  Harrison Ford is hanging out in the ruins of Las Vegas -- these sets are also stunning.  In one scene, Ford and Gosling have a completely pointless gun battle -- five minutes later they are drinking whiskey together like old friends.  The gun battle gives Villeneuve and his engineers a chance to configure a variation of the shoot-out in the house of mirrors in Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai.  Here the combatants shoot at one another while holograms of show-girls and musicians -- chief among them Elvis (although Liberace is there too) -- cavort on the stage where the two men are fighting.  It's fantastic and completely meaningless -- there's no need for the two men to fight; they turn out to be on the same side.  At one point, a naked giantess -- she's also a hologram -- asks K if he is "okay"; we know the poor guy has about four holes in his replicant guts that you could push your fist through and his face is caked with blood, one ear half torn off.  "No," you want to say, "he is not okay."  Several memorable scenes include snowfall -- although the CGI operators don't get this right:  falling snow accumulates, of course, on your hair and beard, although it melts on your skin.  This falling snow is a CGI flurry that doesn't really accumulate anywhere at all.  The hero's girlfriend is his sentient house -- I'm not kidding -- and, in one scene, K hires a prostitute to inhabit the hologram of the sentient house so that he can make love to her.  This is also a spectacular scene with the real girl morphing unpredictably into the hologram of the house computer -- caresses involve multiple mouths and four arms.  It's an awesome spectacle in its own way, although we don't really know what's happening. The entire film is immensely beautiful although in a desolate sort of way. 

Unfortunately, the original movie is superior in all respects.  In one scene clipped from the 1982 film, Sean Young playing Rachel as the ultimate noir dame appears out of glistening, metallic darkness -- it's an indelible erotic image, like Rita Hayworth wiggling out of her gloves in Gilda and its better than just about all the other imagery in the new film.  The wonderful and bizarre references to William Blake don't make it into the new film; there's nothing that comes close to matching Rutger Hauer's aria on "tears in the rain", certainly one of the most memorable speeches in film history.  Furthermore, the replicants in the 1982 movie were ineffably strange -- particularly "Priss", the somersaulting, childish "pleasure model" played by Daryl Hannah.  (Indeed, an important aspect of the original film was the strange family formed by the replicants and their touching concern for one another). The original film was far more brusque and elliptical, requiring the audience to be active in piecing together the plot.  2049 is overly explicit and tedious.  The imagery is so beautiful that the story continuously bows and curtsies to it -- if someone is required to cross a street, Villeneuve doesn't use any sort of editing for curtail the shot; instead, we see the person cross the street in real time -- presumably so that we can enjoy the spectacular characteristics of the shot.  At one stage, a character tells K to sit down.  We get a reverse shot of K sitting down, a totemic view that is like an emperor position himself on a throne, slow, deliberate, an action accorded a sacramental dignity like a benediction even though it's just a guy sitting down -- throughout the movie there is a fatal grandiosity. 

You should see the movie because of its pictorial beauty.  Other critics tell you to see the movie on the largest screen possible.  Following this dictum, I saw the film at the Wehrenberg Theater in Rochester in an IMAX format.  The screen was huge and the pictures were stunning but the soundtrack was so grotesquely loud that it spoiled the whole experience.  During the fist fights, punches sounded like howitzers fired and the music was like an avalanche.  When someone opened a door, or worse shut it, the racket was deafening.   I winced every time K got out of his car-shaped aerial cruiser -- I knew he was going to slam shut the door and expected a sound like a gun fired close to my ear. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

R.U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)

RUR is a 1921 play by the Czech writer, Karel Capek.  It's science fiction and Capek is credited with coining the term "robot".  (In Czech, robota means a "serf" or "one who provides forced labor.")  The version of the play reviewed in this note was performed at the Riverland Community College on October 8, 2017, a production of the Theater Department adapted by the show's director, Susan Hansen.

The play is witty and thought-provoking.  The robot attack in the third act is good campy fun and, yet, the play also makes some serious points and has an interesting, unexpected ending.  Like much science fiction, the rational scientists and industrialists in the play don't seem to fully comprehend the dire, catastrophic aspects of the plot that they set in motion -- people are blithely indifferent to the end of the world.  But this is part of the fun of this kind of speculative theater -- if we were take the play's premises too seriously, I suppose, we would all run screaming from the theater.  The show produces the same effect as zombie movies, a genre closely aligned with robot fiction -- the horror is cushioned by the blandly philosophizing responses to the catastrophe as well as the anesthetizing nonchalance of the protagonists. 

RUR begins with a do-gooder girl appearing the RUR factory.  For complex reasons of plotting, the Rossums, father and son scientists, are deceased.  The robot factory is run by a perky industrialist who crows about reducing the unit price of the robots that the business sells and improving their functionality.  The do-gooder activist believes that the robots are a species of slave and that they are being abused by their human masters.  The industrialist argues that the robots are just human-looking machines and that you can't be cruel to a machine.  The do-gooder robot's rights advocate inexplicably falls in love with the fast-talking, facile, but handsome industrialist.  The second act takes place after the lapse of a year.  The activist girl is now living with the industrialist in a "smart house" -- it's like having Alexa around to do things for you.  The "U" in RUR stands for "universal" and the business has made a mistake in designing robots that are capable of communicating with one another.  The robots have gone on a coordinated strike.  Robot soldiers designed to invade and destroy the people of occupied territories have run amuck and killed 700,000 people.  The do-gooder girl learns of these calamities through Skype with a robots' rights advocate.  She decides the delete the secret enzyme and protein formulae necessary to creating new robots.  In the third act, we learn that one of the scientists has taken the do-gooder girl's admonition to make the robots more lifelike -- she has engineered them to feel pain, to be irritable, and to have something like human emotions.  But men is wolf to man:  Homo homini lupus -- and making the robots more like people has triggered in them a will to power.  They have now taken over the world.  They storm the compound where the industrialist, his do-gooder mate, and the rest of the surviving humans are fortified.  Everyone is killed except an old factory manager, a fellow who is religious and likes to work with his hands.  In the last act, the old factory manager is forced to experiment on the robots to figure out a way to reproduce them -- the secret formula has been lost, however, and it appears that the robots, who now control the whole world, are doomed to simply wear-out and fail.  The robots insist that the old factory manager vivisect one of them to try to discover the secret of life -- but this fails.  Enter two new characters -- a boy and girl robot.   These are the last generation of robots built before the humans were destroyed.  The boy and girl robot are in robot-love and, when the old factory manager tests their loyalty, each would rather die than allow the other to suffer.  These robots can laugh and cry -- the pious factory owner declares them Adam and Eve and rejoices that a new generation of super-human, emotionally competent robots will now inherit the earth.  It's not clear exactly how the reproductive problem is solved -- but the show's end suggests that Love will find a way. 

In Capek's vision, the robots clearly represent the "industrial army" that Marx surmised would form the shock-troops of international Communism.  There is copious parody of Marxist doctrine:  the Robots of the World are commanded to unite and rise in rebellion.  Once the robots have taken over, the audience is faced with a nasty satire on the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The robots blindly make more and more goods, but there is no one to consume them.  Several strands combine to keep the show interesting:  first there is the standard robot-film theme -- what defines humans?  How are we different from robots?  This has been a central philosophical concern in the West beginning with Descartes' assertion that animals were simply machines made of meat and that humans were meat-machines themselves but with souls.  The second strand in the show relates to human hubris -- the danger of Utopian thinking.  The robots have abolished all human labor but this causes people to feel their lives are futile -- indeed, futile to the extent that human men and women cease reproducing.  Finally, there is the Marxist strand to the show's ideology, the satirical equation of the industrial army of the proletariat with a mass of soulless robots.  The show is brisk with lots of talk.  The set was a simple utilitarian sitting room with patterns cast on the walls simulating integrated circuits.  The script was clearly updated in a cleverly effective way -- the characters talks about the internet, Skype with one another, and use drones.  When the last human being falls to the floor at the show's end, there is a suggestion that nano-bot therapy will revive him.  The acting was good and the final act, a curious combination of kitsch and emotionally moving material, was excellent. 

East of Eden

East of Eden is a curious combination of optical realism with operatic acting -- James Dean's first movie, features an over-the-top performance by the beautiful young man that clashes dramatically with the pictures commitment to realism.  In the film, Dean plays a young man anguished by the thought that his father doesn't really love him.  His father, played by Raymond Massey, is close kin to the young man in some respects although the film conceals this until the end -- both father and son are dreamers, idealists, men who pursue fabulous but dangerous projects until they are destroyed.  Dean's character, Cal (short for Caleb) is a histrionic, self-dramatizing romantic -- as such he is much more attractive than the other characters, an aspect of character materialized in Dean's outrageous prettiness.  Similarly, his character stands apart from the others -- he is motivated by intense and melodramatic emotions while the rest of the people in the movie seem, more or less, normal, mediocre, oriented toward sex and prestige and money.  Caleb's all or nothing personality sets him apart from others -- and this is dramatized by the fact that Dean's style of acting is so garishly emotive that he seems an apparition from another planet, another dimension of being.  The central conflict between Dean's character and the forces of conventional morality is dramatized in the collision between his style of acting and the way the others in the film portray their characters.

East of Eden, at least in part, is a biblical allegory, a variant on the story of Cain and Abel, a point expressed sententiously by Burl Ives playing the wise and all-knowing sheriff in the county where the story is set -- the terrain, which is symbolic, encompasses both Monterrey and Salinas.  Caleb has a twin brother, Aaron.  Aaron is his father's favorite, a conventional young man anxious to please.  Caleb is tormented by the feeling that his father doesn't love him.  Both boys have been told that their mother died soon after their birth.  In fact, their mother is the madam of a very prosperous whorehouse in Monterrey and a wealthy woman.  Seeking a parental figure that he will love him, Caleb tracks his mother down at her brothel.  She has him thrown out.  The patriarch is obsessed with using ice to forestall decay -- again, another symbol of the old man's desire to defeat the corruption that exists in the world.  He runs a vegetable farm and develops technology to ship lettuce in refrigerated cars.  But this fails and the lettuce rots and the family is threatened with poverty.  Caleb borrows $5000 from his mother and invests it in war profiteering -- it is 1917 and America is on the verge of entering World War One.  The patriarch played by Raymond Massey is now the leader of the local draft board and the film suggests, although only very obliquely, that he is manipulating the conscription to keep his twin sons from serving in the army.  The conventional Aaron is engaged to be married -- he has an equally conventional debutante fiancée.  Inevitably, she is attracted to the beautiful if morose Caleb.  Caleb courts her at a local fair where there is riot in which a German immigrant is threatened.  In the fighting, Caleb erupts violently and repeatedly punches Aaron who will not respond.  Later, Caleb brings a gift of $5000 to his father on his birthday.  Massey's father is an upright and righteous man and feels guilty, it seems, that he has been sparing his sons from the draft.  He is appalled by Caleb's war profiteering and rejects the money.  Caleb, then, drags Aaron to Monterrey where he introduces him to their mother.  The strait-laced Aaron goes predictably berserk, getting drunk and enlists in the military.  Father has a stroke and, ultimately, Caleb, now in love with Aaron's fiancée, cares for his father.  Although the ending is dark in all ways -- it's pictorially very dark in the old man's bedroom -- there is a suggestion that Caleb and his father are now reconciled.  The ending isn't exactly satisfactory involving a couple of betrayals (Caleb and Aaron's fiancé both stab poor, stupidly virtuous Aaron in the back) and, of course, we are left to fret whether Aaron, now impulsively gone to be a soldier, will ever return from War to end all Wars.  Caleb is too high-strung to be a nurse-maid to the dying old man and one expects that relationship to explode into violence a few weeks post denouement.  Furthermore, Caleb is too self-absorbed and narcissistic to be a good boyfriend and we are apprehensive at the prospects of the love blossoming between Aaron's erstwhile fiancée and the erratic, unpredictable and, frequently, drunk Caleb.  In other words, the film's happy ending shows every prospect of being a deeply unsatisfactory, and indeed, prospectively disastrous outcome. 

The film's cinemascope aspect is problematic.  About every five shots, the director, Elia Kazan will indulge himself in some form of spectacle intended to exploit the wide-screen.  Some of these images are very beautiful -- one of them, showing  someone leaning on a shanty in the left foreground while an old school steam engine yanks a line of cars across the horizon toward the right is spectacular in its use of the big, narrow image.  But the plot doesn't really lend itself to wide-screen spectacle.  In fact, it's more of a gloomy film noir story told across a giant screen that doesn't exactly cohere with the pictorially modest narrative -- there are no big screen sequences:  the film is mostly a psychological drama that can be effectively shown in tight close-ups.  Thus, a sort of uneasy incongruence exists between the huge screen format and the novelistic detail invoked with respect to the characters.  Monterrey is evoked in the remarkable beginning with a series of images of a sleepy, corrupt harbor town -- the buildings are standing apart from one another as if ashamed of the company that they are keeping.  A huge black woman sits on a stoop giggling in a sinister way as Caleb wanders among the shuttered brothels.  Salinas, by contrast, is upright and tightly built, a neat little Western city with mercantile facades and nice Victorian houses.  A number of scenes are powerfully effective -- an image of James Dean like some kind of damaged god, flinging huge chunks of ice down from a storage tower is spectacular.  The scene in which James Dean first meets his mother, walking on a bright windy day outside the brothel, is shot in a kind of dusty, luminous light that makes us think that the image is a dream; it looks like a painting by Corot -- indeed, all of the action in Monterrey has the aspect of a dream.  (Hitchcock uses this same dusty, colored light in Vertigo in the scene in which Kim Novak appears in the hotel remade as Jimmy Stewart's lost lover.)  The script is generous -- there are no real villains and everyone is shown to have reasons for their action.  The most violent thing in the film is the shocking image of Aaron on the troop train butting out a window with his forehead, smashing the glass between himself and his father who is horrified that he has joined the Great Crusade in Europe.  Shots of the lettuce farm and the bean fields and corn rows around Salinas have a wonderful documentary urgency.  Images of Caleb's girlfriends, mostly Hispanic migrant workers, have a vivid, realistic ambience and Kazan's images of California in 1917 seem eerily authentic.  Raymond Massey's mask-like staring face after his stroke gives the film's unsatisfactory ending a sense of real horror particularly since Massey is shown to be kind, forgiving, and ultimately Christian in the best sense of the word -- the film never condescends to Massey's piety nor does it necessarily privilege Caleb's callow rebellion.  The scene in which Massey orders Caleb to read aloud from the Psalms is splendid -- it shows Caleb's defiance, Massey's rage and the hidden connection between father and son in a brilliant way.     

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Isle of Lost Souls

The Isle of Lost Souls, a Paramount horror film from 1932, is not a good movie.  In fact, this adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau is so terrible that it is uniquely memorable.  The picture isn't just bad -- it's Ed Wood bad and, therefore, in a weird way, almost good:  what the picture lacks in intelligence, it makes up for with crazy conviction.  Certain elements of the film, for instance, the characterization of the mad scientist's operating theater as the "house of pain" and the mongrel monsters chantng "Are we not men?" in response to Bela Lugosi's recitation of "the law" have entered into popular culture.  (The avant-garde rock band Devo used to chant "Are we not men?" at its concerts.)   It's hard to describe the esthetic category into which most of this film fits -- it's certainly some kind of kitsch but memorable and, even, perhaps, profound because of the film-makers ferocious commitment to this miserable material. 

The tone of absurd non sequitur is established early.  When the rock-jawed hero, Richard Arlen, is fished out of the misty sea, the camera turns to track along a group of sailors watching the rescue.  The sailors have memorably craggy and weathered faces and look very sinister, but there is no reason for the shot and it is both showy and singularly pointless -- none of these interesting faces ever appears again in the film.  In a later scene, a wicked sea captain is threatened with losing his sea-farer's license (is there such a thing?)  The episode exists to make a very limited plot point -- the heroine learns the latitude and longitude where her fiancée was shipwrecked on Dr. Moreau's island and, therefore, can travel to rescue him.  But the sequence bogs down in moronic repartee between a sort of Administrative Law Judge and the evil sea captain: three times, the judge adds to his admonition that the piratical sea captain straighten up and fly right -- each time, the pirate who is about to leave the chamber, pauses, removes his hand from the door to look over this shoulder to receive the Judge's tongue-lashing.  It's all obsessively detailed and utterly meaningless -- the Judge and sea-captain will have nothing more to do with the plot after this peculiar paralytic bit of business.  This is the kind of film where the sound recorded on sound-stage has a hollow echo, a distinct tone of confinement -- and, yet, the characters are supposed to be walking through a jungle near the seaside. 

The plot involves a mad scientist, Dr. Moreau (played by Charles Laughton) who is converting animals to human beings.  Unfortunately, this process, which involves lots of vivisection in the "House of Pain" has failed to remove "all the beast-flesh" resulting in mongrel hybrids -- the half-man half-animal mutants have hairy cheeks and often revert to their animal habits, gibbering like chimpanzees or barking like dogs.  The most wonderful specimen in Moreau's museum of animal to human metamorphoses is "The Leopard Woman" -- so-named in the film's titles.  (This film is a rare case where a title actually serves a narrative purpose -- the title tells us that the heroine on the island, a girl with frizzy hair and enormous almond-shaped eyes is, in fact, a converted feline and, therefore, perhaps, not to be wholly trusted -- the film is very short, a mere 67 minutes, and, therefore, efficiently constructed:  the titles actually carry the narration here, more or less implying to the viewer the eerie-looking girl's back-story.)  Moreau and his assistant, a surgeon exiled from England because of an "illegal operation", regard the girl as their masterpiece and they want to see if they can breed her with the burly Richard Arlen -- "does she have a real woman's passions?" Moreau salaciously asks.  In fact, the Leopard Woman is fetching and attractive to the kidnaped hero who passionately kisses her, momentarily forgetting his blonde fiancée who is hurrying across the south Pacific and into harm's way to rescue him.  Their romance collapses, however, when the Leopard Woman claws the hero's back with her talons -- "it's the damnable beast flesh that always returns" Moreau says.  Fortunately, the hero's pale, blonde, and rather indifferent, fiancée appears, rescues her betrothed from the clutches of the Leopard Woman, and foments a rebellion among the beast-men.  The monsters vivisect Moreau, after first staggering in a menacing way toward the camera in a montage devised to best show the furry make-up and deformed noses and jaws of the beast-men.  As the House of Pain flares vividly in the background, the hero with his fiancée and a mariner set sail -- "Don't look back!" the mariner gruffly advises.  

Some of the beast-men are clearly evolved specimens of orangatangs, gorillas, and chimpanzees. At least one of them is a faithful dog vivisected into a furry little hunchback.  Some of them are evolved moles and rodents; Lugosi's hirsute "speaker of the law" looks like a kind of bear.  One problem with the film is that the supposedly human characters look exceedingly odd as well.  Richard Arlen has aggressively masculine features; he's all chiseled jaw and mouth except that his eyes are soft, seductive, and strangely effeminate -- adding to the peculiar effect is the fact that his ears are pointed.  Charles Laughton's appearance is scarier than any of the half-human brutes in the film:  he has a perfectly moon-shaped face, presumably the result of massive injections of cortico-steroids, and this lunar countenance goes with a generally spherical physiognomy -- he's round in every respect.  But the strangest thing about his appearance is his beard --it's as if someone painted a whale's flukes on his chin or as if he grew a beard the exact shape of the lower-half of the Starbuck's mermaid beneath his lips.  "Do you know what it feels like to be a god!" he declaims to someone.  The picture is a bizarre mess, but, certainly, it was someone's labor of love -- everything is too obsessively designed to be accidental.  The movie's themes, which are dank and possibly racist, are too pre-Code for the film to have been re-made until quite recently -- later versions were produced in the last twenty or so years,  Moreau sends gorilla-men to rape the hero's fiancé -- in this picture, the sordid stuff is not incidental; rather, it's integral to the proceedings. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Magnanimity was called the "crowning virtue" by Aristotle.  It is little regarded today and, in fact, the word has been limited in modern usage to refer to eschewing revenge when one has prevailed in some competitive or adversarial endeavor.  The victor shaking hands with the loser in an athletic competition is said to exhibit magnanimity.  This is an example of a vitally important ancient virtue that has been trivialized in the modern, post-Enlightenment era.  For Aristotle and the ancients, magnanimity meant a greatness of soul, a largeness of spirit that would not condone anything petty or cowardly.  Magnanimity was demonstrated by spectacle, by demonstrating greatness of spirit with pomp and circumstance.  Everything about the great-spirited man was bigger than life, more dignified, reserved, and generous. 

Pablo Larrain's biopic Jackie (2016), in large part, is an essay on the topic of  this forgotten virtue, magnanimity.  The film's subject is Jacqueline Kennedy's indomitable response to the assassination of her husband.  Larrain is a Chilean film-maker and he has a baroque Catholic sensibility -- he understands the importance of personal dignity and ritual in the face of calamity.  His film is essentially non-narrative, a study in ambience and character as expressed in small, subtle gestures.  The picture unites several strands of action or discourse:  we see Jackie counseled by a wise family priest (played with great, impenetrable gravitas by John Hurt); she chain-smokes while interviewed by a friendly, if cynical, journalist at Hyannis Port, all the while asserting "I don't smoke."  We see her telling her children that their father will not be coming back to her and planning for JFK's funeral.  Infighting between Lyndon Johnson's lieutenants, most notably the smarmy Jack Valenti, and members of the Kennedy clan comprise one element of the collage that Larrain cuts together and the film's story or plotline, if something so slight can be characterized as narrative, is whether Jackie will insist upon walking on foot with her husband's cortege the eight blocks from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral.  LBJ's people oppose this, primarily, it seems, because it will be too spectacular, obsequies that will politically overshadow their regime, although they cloak their concerns in unctuous language about security.  At first, Jackie refuses to reconsider, then, at an emotional low point, agrees to travel the distance by car; however, when LBJ's aides press her on the point and, when Bobbie Kennedy expresses concerns about what JFK's presidency really accomplished, the die is cast -- Jackie will not be disrespected and she changes her mind, insisting upon making the march exposed to crowds atop buildings and lining the streets.  Her objective is to render her husband's presidency mythical, to impart to his funeral legendary spectacle -- she derives the plan for the funeral from the last rites for Abraham Lincoln, overrules Kennedy family demands that the body be interred in the family plot and insists upon burial in Arlington Cemetery, personally selecting the location.  Although couching these decisions in terms of the res publica, she admits that her husband's burial is compensatory for the insults and indignities that she has suffered, including, it is implied, insults arising from Jack Kennedy's compulsive womanizing.  Someone accuses her of devising the funeral as a spectacle about herself, as evidence of her vanity, and she ultimately concedes the point.  But vanity is the sin most closely allied with magnanimity -- pride is magnanimity's dark side -- and the audience is guided to understand that Jackie's insistence on spectacular funeral rites for her fallen husband is based on her greatness of spirit, her immense imperial dignity.  These points are subtle and the film must be watched very carefully.  The First Lady is shown as suffering from various insults -- in one sequence to which the movie obsessively reverts, she leads a tour of the White House:  this is before her husband's slaughter and, as background, relates to charges that she has been wasteful in redecorating the "People's House."  LBJ and his minions are over-anxious to seize power and, essentially, shove the grieving widow and her young children to the side.  She is forced to vacate the White House on a few days notice and, as a student of history, recalls how Mary Todd Lincoln had to sell household furnishings to make ends meet after she was expelled from the White House.  Finally, she has been physically humiliated -- photographed with her coat and hat and clothing all smeared with gore.  (We see her showering with blood sluicing out of her hair down her naked back.)  In the instant after the shooting, the public saw her scrambling back away from the dying president, seeming to crawl over the limousine away from the scene of carnage.  Although this theme is gruesome and, therefore, treated very elliptically by Larrain, a filmmaker of the most exquisite tact, Jackie feels misunderstood with respect to this act -- at the climax of the movie, she recalls the shooting while standing graveside and a flashback shows us indelibly what she was really trying to accomplish when she scrambled back and away from where her husband was dying.  When Robert Kennedy questions the value of the entire presidency, suggesting that JFK didn't accomplish much of anything, and wondering out loud if administration was merely a group of "beautiful people," Jackie is driven to design a funeral that will forever embalm the president's memory in the hearts of the American people.  In this regard, her resolve is ferocious.  She is willing to subject her small children and herself to the risk of sniper fire from rooftops to make the march on foot and, when someone suggests that general DeGaulle is concerned about his personal safety, she savagely snaps that he can "attend the funeral in a tank for all I care." 

Larrain's movie has an unusual subject and one that modern people don't really have words to cogently discuss.  The film is properly somber; Jackie is typically filmed head-on in middle distance, directly facing the camera.  Most of the compositions are highly symmetrical -- the film seems conceived as a series of immobile images, things that don't move, people standing in solemn, tightly-knit, and motionless groups.  The soundtrack consists of a single noble chord that is suddenly contorted and bent downward.  (Larrain also repeatedly cuts back to the famous concert by the cellist Pablo Casals that took place before the President and First Lady as well as assembled dignitaries.)  The film's thesis is that Jackie invented the concept of Camelot or, at least, exploited the idea and that her husband's funeral was an example of intentional myth-making.  As a result, there is a little too much Lerner and Loewe on the soundtrack and I didn't admire the film's ending, a ball in which Jackie and JFK waltz among similarly beautiful people while Richard Burton croaks the theme from the musical.  (I didn't admire the ending, but acknowledge it as generally thematically correct -- the problem here is that Larrain seems to be buying into Jackie's mythmaking, accepting her work of public relations as being, in fact, a representation of the Truth.  In the end, the legend takes over.  I would have much preferred the penultimate scene in which Jackie presides over the burial of her two dead infants next to her husband in Arlington cemetery:  it is cheerless, brutal-looking day and Jackie watches as two small white caskets are lowered into the crypt (one contains a late-stage miscarriage and the other Patrick, a baby who died 39 hours).  This gesture shows conclusively that what Jackie has accomplished is, indeed, about herself, about her family, and her progeny, and, as the scene progresses, the camera shows us her face in close-up -- she is feral with a sort of unapproachable grief.  The film should have ended with that image.) 

Larrain was invited to Hollywood on the strength of an earlier film about public relations, No, a film about the 1988 plebiscite that removed General Pinochet from power in Chile.  With this movie, he has shown us just about everything worth knowing about the dismal subject of public relations.  Jackie is successful on all levels, a very profound and subtle picture that very few people will have the resources to fully admire.  It is clearly one of the best pictures of 2016.