Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mammy Water

Until recently Jean Rouch's ethnographic films have been nearly impossible to see.  This is because these movies are, apparently, often shown in college anthropology classes and, therefore, can earn royalties for their presentation.  Werner Herzog famously declared Rouch's Les Maistres Fou, (The Mad Masters) one of the greatest documentaries ever made and a personal favorite.  But, if you wanted to see the short movie, you had to shell out $250 on the assumption that you were licensing the picture to show to your class of anthropology students.  Icarus has now eliminated this problem by issuing eight of Rouch's African films in a box set.  Rouch is said to have been a crucial influence on the French New Wave as well as a founder of Cinema Verite and, so, it is exciting to have an opportunity to look at these movies.

Mammy Water (1953-1955) is short, vibrant, and remarkably beautiful.  The film is very self-assured and, unlike many ethnographic films, dynamically edited and shot.  This is most assuredly not a grainy, surreptitiously recorded collage of blurred or poorly composed footage.  To the contrary, the film looks like a Hollywood feature.  But the short subject is crammed with bizarre and dream-like imagery.  Ostensibly, the movie considers the so-called "Surf Boys" as the narrator calls them using the English words.  These are fisherman who paddle enormous canoe-like vessels out to sea to bring back fish for their families and the market in the town of Chama where they live.  (Chama is an old Portuguese port on what was once called the Gold Coast of West Africa; the city has bone-white fortresses that tower over the incessantly wild and deadly-looking surf.)  The movie's narrative is that the sea is filled with various Djinn, supernatural creatures that have to be propitiated for good fishing.  The sea itself is a deity called Mammy Water, a sort of Neptunian female God.  When the fishermen return from the sea without success, their boats empty, they embark on an elaborate ritual intended to restore them to the good favors of Mammy Water.  This ritual involves leading a white bullock to the sea, slaughtering the animal on the beach, and, then, driving their huge canoe-like vessels through the tide of blood where the animal has been killed and up onto the land.  There is dancing and processions.  A strangely inert king is carried around in what looks like a huge bathtub -- the king gestures benignly at the people:  he's a chubby, ineffectual looking man with a baby face.  In one sequence, the fisherman pilot dhow with sails past a reviewing station where the king blandly watches as one ship after another is intentionally crashed and sunk -- the fisherman diving blithely from the vessels and swimming to shore.  The ritual accomplished, the fisherman as humble, if immensely photogenic, toilers of the sea set sail again.   To reach their fishing territory, the men have to nose their vessels into enormous breakers -- sequences involving the fishermen putting out to sea are immensely dramatic; it seems impossible that the vessels heavily laden with oarsmen can survive the violent surf and, indeed, once they reach deeper water, the waves are so mountainous that the fishing ships vanish momentarily beneath them.  (And, of course, the fishermen all have Herculean physiques -- they are like a crew of Michelangelo's ignudo braving the high seas.)  The movie is effortlessly exuberant -- small boys surf in the towering waves and turn acrobatic flips on the beach.  The narrator tells us that the boys raised on the beach imitate the sea itself with their antics.  The film also has a momentary dark side -- during one episode in which women are dancing, we are shocked to see a corpse with white-painted face propped up in the background.  This is priestess who has died but still participates in ritual by being carried up and down the beach and through the city streets by the dancers.  She has a betel nut clamped between her teeth that the new priestess will have to eat after the corpse has been put in the earth.  This little film is only 20 minutes but it contains the world.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Coco, Disney/Pixar's new animated feature, is a spectacular melodrama exploiting imagery associated with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos.  The film is scrupulously politically correct, although, I suppose, some may find elements of the movie offensive on general principals  -- there's no doubt that John Lasseter, who produced this film, has engaged in cultural appropriation (or misappropriation) on a colossal scale.  (Lee Unkrich directed.) The picture is grandiose, but slow-moving -- there is some brilliant imagery but like most of Miyazaki's movies (Lasseter's acknowledged Sensei), the film is too long and too complex.  Furthermore, Coco has to establish an entire mythology constructed around the Day of the Dead, complete with various rules and procedures governing the skeletal specters and their lavishly ornamented world.  This drags the movie to a stop on several occasions, requires preachy interludes, and causes the film to be tiresomely serious, even, I think excessively reverent.  Furthermore, the plot is too dire to entertain children -- the story involves a broken home, a family deserted by their father, and a reconciliation in the Afterworld that, then, seeps back into the world of the living -- there is a lot of familial Sturm und Drang (or the Mexican equivalent) and, at times, the earnestly constructed and laborious plot involves elements that would seem to be more at home in a play by Eugene O'Neil than a Disney movie.  (That said, the film has a couple of brilliant plot twists that I didn't see coming and that revived my interest in the narration just as it was flagging.)  I'm not sure exactly how Lasseter and his Pixar wizards calculated the appeal of the film -- although I note that when I saw the picture there were a number of large Mexican families in attendance and they seem to watch the film with rapt attention (albeit a bit dutifully as well.)  The subject matters seem to me to be too serious for small children and, yet, a lot of the film's byplay -- for instance, the Oaxacan "spirit guides" (Alebrijes) with their multi-colored coats and wings are too whimsical for adults and teenagers. 

Coco's plot concerns a multi-generational family curse.  In the 1930's, a gifted musician abandoned his family to seek a show-business career.  The musician's spurned wife banned all music from the family -- no one is allowed to even hum or sing or whistle.  The family becomes successful in their village, running a cottage industry making shoes.  The film's hero, a teenage boy named Miguel, senses that he has the heart of a musician and wants to perform for the public -- but his family forbids him this occupation.  On the Day of the Dead, the boy plots to perform at a village talent show, but his fearsome Abuela destroys his guitar.  The hero breaks into the tomb of a popular singer from the village, Ernesto de la Cruz, and steals his guitar.  But as this occurs, through magic, the boy finds himself transported into the world of the dead.  There he has various adventures, most featuring a chase in which he flees deceased uncles and aunts and grandparents who attempt to keep him performing with the specter of his hero, the great de la Cruz.  Like Dorothy in Oz, Miguel has his Toto with him, a Xoloitzcuintl hairless hound named Dante.  Various mythological rules are imposed on the Afterlife -- when the last living person on earth forgets you, your ghost vanishes.  (This is called the "2nd Death".)  Dead people can only visit their families on the Day of the Dead if their photograph or likeness has been posted on the family Ofrenda.  A living person in the kingdom of the dead can only return back to the land of living if they are blessed by one of their dead relatives in the colorful Hades that the film portrays.  There are other rules, many of them more or less creepy.  Indeed, many elements in the film are strangely topical and, therefore, have a creepy sinister edge.  Much to do is made about border crossings -- there are border guards who use computer imaging to determine whether a dead person can enter the world of the living on the Dia de los Muertos and those who are not remembered by their families and, properly, memorialized are denied access at the frontier.  This leads to a curious question of whether the United States is the land of the living or the land of the dead -- in other words where do Mexico and the US lie with respect to this contested, nasty and overtly cruel border.  (There is some sense that the land of the Dead is the US because there people seem to be forgotten and simply vanish -- it's as if an emigrant who is forgotten by his family in Mexico somehow ceases to exist.)  Of course, many Mexican families are, in effect, without male authority figures because the fathers and uncles are away in the States earning a living and, in fact, sending money back to the Old Country -- this state of affairs seems symbolized by a picture showing a Mexican family with the image of the father ripped out of the family portrait.  The concept of the missing father who abandons his family is central to the film and the weird and strangely harsh imagery showing the border crossing (with spooks trying to sneak across the border) probably has resonance with Mexican audiences that is unsettling and powerful.  The film also exploits the sentimental Mexican concept of Familia in ways that American audiences might find problematic -- the plot involves characters faced with the decision of following their own aspirations or sacrificing themselves to Familia.  The film sets up these conflicts and, then, skirts them, but the level of reverence and authority afforded the concept of extended family is likely to disturb many Americans.  The picture is extremely beautiful -- there are virtuosic exhibitions of visionary animation:  the world of the dead is a series of coral-reefs made up of Mexican villages stacked in DNA-style spirals in luminous space and there all sorts monsters, dark chasms, and, even, a vast Cenote representing, it seems, the Mayan Xibalba or Kingdom of the Dead.  The Mexican village where the living characters reside is also exquisitely detailed and the scenes in the graveyard lit with innumerable candles, light reflecting off drifts of brilliantly gold and orange marigold blossoms, are extremely beautiful (these images are also realistic -- they reminded me of cemeteries that I saw in Oaxaca City on the Dia de los Muertos.) Indeed, the film's entire color scheme is gorgeous.  But the film is, I'm afraid to say, more than a little bit of a chore -- and the musical numbers, although spectacular in some cases, are pretty much forgettable.  I wanted to like this picture, but couldn't quite succeed.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Hard Time (for these Times)

Hard Times (for these Times) is an adaptation of Charles Dicken's novel.  I saw the show as performed by The Lookingglass Theater Company -- the company presents its work in the 19th century pumping Station on N. Michigan Avenue across from the old Water Tower.  It's a complex Victorian space with the theater in a curtained-off alcove beyond a huge complex of mechanical devices, bellows, and pumps set in a deep pit below-grade.  The Lookingglass company specializes in a kind of highly athletic theater -- the group is allied with a school that teaches circus arts to students -- and their shows involve much acrobatics, high wire work, magic, and trapeze artistry.  Hard Times, Dickens' novel, is almost allegorical, a thorough-going (and unfair) attack on British empiricism and the doctrine of Utilitarianism as espoused by John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.  The novel is set in a mythical place called Coke City, a place where there are vast textile factories, Blake's "dark satanic mills", and plumes of poisonous smoke rising incessantly from the industrial sites.  Dickens' characters symbolize certain traits in British social and political life and have elaborate names like Mr. Bounderby (a nasty industrialist), Mr.  Gradgrind (an acolyte of Utilitarian ethics), and M. Choakumchild, a close-minded school teacher.  In the context of Dickens' big encyclopedic novels, the book is relatively tightly written, short by the author's standards, and rather schematic.  But it still turns out to be much too complex to adapt to the theater and the play is scattered, disjointed, hard to follow, and, fundamentally, incoherent.  Furthermore, the circus interludes, which are showy and very impressive, don't really add much to the play -- in fact, the circus theme distracts from other aspects of the plot and, I think, confuses things seriously. 

The plot is very complicated for a 2 and 1/2 hour play and there are many, many roles -- most of them played by actors or actresses who appear in two or, generally, three parts.  (This is also a bit confusing).  Gradgrind has educated his children, Tom and Louisa, to be strict and logical believers in utilitarianism.  Gradgrind, who seems to have a good heart notwithstanding his empiricist dogma, takes into his school a girl named Sissy.  She is a waif from a circus -- her father has abandoned her.  A worker in the weaving mills owned by the loathsome Mr. Bounderby has a drunk wife.  She reappears making his life miserable just as he is about to begin a love affair with the kind and gentle Racheal, another worker in the mills.  Bounderby is friends with Gradgrind and asks for Louisa, Gradgrind's daughter, as his spouse.  Remarkably, the young and passionate Louisa agrees to marry the horrible, fat Bounderby (she is 20 and he 50).  This appalls Bounderby's longtime companion, a woman named Mrs. Pegler.  Act One ends with Louisa Gradgrind agreeing to marry Bounderby. 

In Act Two, all sorts of things happen.  It's too much to assimilate and the play would have done well by slowing things down and, maybe, burning another half-hour -- although, then, the show might be intolerably long.  Unhappy in her marriage, Louisa almost has an affair with a member of parliament who shows up for no particular reason.  (She avoids the love affair, but this being a Victorian era story -- bad wishes count just as much toward damnation as bad acts).  Louisa's brother, Tom, who is a gambler steals money from Bounderby's bank and blames the crime on the worker with the alcoholic wife (and the long-suffering Racheal).  (The alcoholic wife has mysteriously vanished from the mise en scene).  There is a strike.  Bounderby's mother appears, giving the lie to the industrialists claim that he was abandoned by her and raised in the most bitter poverty.  Tom  joins the circus to escape from Bounderby -- and, in fact, eludes pursuers and crosses the border.  Gradgrind is horrified at the mess that he has made of his childrens' lives -- but Louisa forgive him.  Bounderby, it seems, will end up bickering forever, but in the clutches of the scheming Mrs. Pegler and Louisa, apparently, joins the circus.  None of this makes any organic sense -- stuff just happens.  Dickens makes Bounderby thoroughly vicious, but, it seems, more or less agrees with him politically:  Bounderby keeps saying of his workers (and later his wife):  "They want venison and turtle soup served to them with a golden spoon" -- that is, they think they are entitled to pleasures to which they are not entitled.  The mill worker torn between the alcoholic wife and Racheal is implored to join the strikers.  But Dickens likes this character and wants to show that he is virtuous and he is not about to suggest that there is any virtue in the strikers, perceived, it seems, as rabble-rousers.  So he makes the character into a scab -- and a feckless scab to boot:  returning to Racheal one night, he falls in the open shaft of a mine pit, is horribly injured and dies.  (This leads to a bathetic but pointless death scene).   The play goes off in all directions at once -- the ending is completely unsatisfactory:  Louisa remains legally married to the awful Bounderby.  Tom, who is a criminal, seems to escape unscathed.  Sissy, the school girl and waif runaway from the circus, seems to be the principal character in the show -- she is clearly dominant in the First Act in which she delivers several speeches refuting utilitarianism.  But in the second half, she is completely forgotten for more than 45 minutes -- and the story involving her father's vanishing is never resolved.  Epitomizing what is wrong with this handsome, but dull-witted show, is a scene near the end of Act One.  Gradgrind conveys Bounderby's grotesque marriage proposal to Louisa.  Louisa doesn't know anything about love.  After all, she's been raised by empiricist Utilitarianists who deny the emotions.  She thinks about whether she should marry a man that she doesn't love.  Then, her mind wanders to running away and joining the circus.  From behind the cage-like scaffold where she is brooding, the trapeze descends and a beautiful young woman and boy perform calisthenically, mimicking sex on the flying trapeze.  After imagining this spectacle, a very pretty thing, Louisa inexplicable agrees to marry Bounderby.  This is doubly atrocious and unpersuasive -- first, any rational utilitarian analysis of the situation would yield dozens of reasons to reject the 50 year-old man's offer.  (Gradgrind must be a terrible teacher and idiot to boot if he didn't teach his kids enough for Louisa to make a reasonable decision here -- obviously, agreeing to marry Bounderby is the worse thing she can do.)  When Louisa's imagination "runs away to the circus," she watches the elaborate love scene on the trapeze and, then, seems to wholly ignore it and chose the passionless match with Bounderby.  Clearly, the play is not suggesting that "running away to the circus" is a road to ruin -- but this is what the action shows us.  If Louisa hadn't spent her precious ten minutes of freedom salaciously imagining sex on the flying trapeze and, in fact, had done a proper utilitarian analysis of the situation, she would have known that her marrying Gradgrind would yield misery for all, not the greatest happiness for the greatest number. 

The show is handsomely lit and the large cast is enthusiastic and wonderfully agile.  The set consist of two wrought-iron skeletons of scaffolding, something like what an enterprising kid could build with an erector set but towering.  The scaffolding contains a second level where actors can climb via ladders and, then, declaim their parts from a narrow gallery about 15 feet above the floor -- I thought the unguarded balcony was a little bit frightening.  Behind the two wheeled scaffolds, there was a large mural, something like one of Piranesi's Carcieri, brick smokestacks gushing smoke and foggy factory roofs. 

Evening at the Talk House

Beggars in Chicago have become more aggressive since my last visit to the big city.  In a train station, an African-American kid approaches and, in a robotic monotone, asks for money.  I open my wallet.  In the same monotone, the kid says:  "Gimme 20."  No, I reply, I can give you two.  "But you have lots of money," he says, peering relentlessly down at my wallet, with absolutely dead, comatose eyes.  "I promise," he says in his flat machine voice, "I promise I won't do no drugs..."  "I don't care what you do," I respond, thinking "Dude, your voice tells me that you are drugged out of your mind right now."  The kid takes my money contemptuously -- "fuck you too," he mutters. The taxi-cab driver drops me at the curb next to a big ragged Black man with a mouth full of snaggle-teeth.  Instead of getting out of the car -- it's a big cold -- the cab driver gestures and the big ragged man pulls open the back of the car and gets out our luggage, stacking it neatly on the curb.  Jack says:  "Do you work here?"  "Do's I look like I work here?" the man says, grinning through his half-dozen remaining choppers.  Jack says:  "No, I thought you worked for the cab."  The man is suitably amused:  "If I worked for the cab would I be doin' this?" he asks, grinning again.  I give him three dollars for his "God bless you!"  We go into a deep dish pizza place and it's too crowded -- the wait is an hour and a half.  As we turn to leave, another ragged Black man, this time lean and sinewy with a whiskey-yellow beard, holds open the door for us and, then, tags along as we walk down the sidewalk.  "I can show you another pizza place, much better," he says, "it's owned by Michael Jackson."  He points vaguely toward the Hancock Tower.  Thanks, I tell him -- the advice costs me three dollars.  On a street corner, a black teenager runs over my toe with his bicycle.  He's carrying a pizza box.  "I got a slice," he says, "but I ain't got no soda pop."  "Okay," I say.  "I need two dollars for the soda pop," he says.  "Don't want to eat the pizza without a drink."  I give him a dollar in coins.  A Black woman stops me in front of a Walgreens.  "I'm homeless and hungry," she says.  I give her a dollar.  But I want to talk to her.  "How do you I know to whom to give money?" I ask.  She looks at me expressionlessly.  The transaction is over, and disappointed with my frugality, she is already turning away.  "No wait," I say. "How do I know to whom to give money?" She glares at me:  "Give to those in need," she says.  "Any fool knows that."  About four blocks later,  a heavy set Black woman comes charging up out of the sidewalk, levitating up a shaft down to a subway.  "I'm hungry," she screams.  "Gimme three fuckin' dollars for a sandwich."  Everyone turns away.  "You heard me bitches!" she screams.  "Gimme three fuckin' dollars for a sandwich."  We are all pretending not to see her.  "Just three fuckin' dollars," she shrieks, "that's all I'm askin' of you bitches."  The line for the play Evening at the Talk House, the Chicago premiere of Wally Shawn's 2015 theater piece, extends out onto the sidewalk.  I'm attending a 3:00 matinee, the afternoon after Thanksgiving at A Red Orchid Theater at 1511 N. Wells.  A Black man stands twelve feet from the line of theater-goers waiting patiently on the sidewalk -- the theater is very tiny and the doors are not open yet.  "I'm hungry and homeless," the man bellows.  Then:  "I'm homeless and hungry,  I'm hungry and homeless."  He declaims his words with melodramatic flair -- for a moment, I suspect him to be an actor, someone hired to make certain points about the kind of people who attend the matinee of a Wally Shawn play the day after Thanksgiving.  But, apparently, he's authentic.  The real McCoy.

A Red Orchid Theater seats maybe 50 people and everyone is basically on-stage with the actors.  Shawn's play has a relatively large cast, about 8 actors and they are all gathered together on the thrust platform that simulates a kind of drawing room, some loveseats facing one another, a third seat looking out to one side, a cart (about three feet from my toes) with bottles of booze and ice and some small sinister-looking vials displayed in plain sight.  The actors enter through the one entrance into the theater and the play begins with a man named Robert who stands among the theater-goers speaking very naturally, although, of course, in a highly self-conscious and sardonic way.  (Robert plays the sort of jaded man-about-town that George Saunders specialized in.)  Robert announced that a man named Ted has called him and invited him to an old hang-out, Nellie's Talk House, a sort of salon where Bohemians gathered previously.  Robert makes some snarky, if funny, remarks about Ted -- Robert doesn't seem to like anyone and, an equal opportunity hater, despises himself as savagely as he detests the others.  It seems that ten years earlier, Robert authored a play with a florid title about midnight and the moon and stars.  The play was something like Game of Thrones, set in a sort of medieval kingdom parallel "or set apart" from our world -- a place where concepts of honor and self-sacrifice and physical courage were joined to Romantic ideals about love and the beauty of the body in violent motion.  The play was a failure and Robert doesn't do that work any longer -- now, he runs or produces a TV show, something called Chicos.  Robert purports to detest the theater -- "an animal occupation," he says,  "One group of human animals staring fixedly at another group -- lots of sniffing and staring."  In an elliptical way, Robert brings us up to date on the political situation -- although the play was written before Trump took office, the piece seems prescient.  Two candidates succeed one another at three month intervals -- "there are too many elections," one of the characters laments.  One of them, an expert on the breeding and origin of dogs is "really remarkably cruel."  Wars seem to be ongoing and the two regimes, which apparently mirror one another, disapprove of anything like high or meaningful art -- the people are fed a steady diet of idiotic comedies like Chicos and Mouse Chatter or a very popular show (in Luxemborg and parts of Africa) called Sea of Blood, a program everyone purports to detest although they admit that the show about "wounds" and "being wounded" is fascinating enough.  The initial monologue, bristling with self-loathing, is similar on a much smaller scale to the vast monologue comprising Shawn's earlier The Designated Mourner -- the world has gone to hell and self-loathing, narcissistic intellectuals can not even be bothered to grieve what has been lost.  Robert narrates a meeting with a TV star, now down on his luck, named Dick.  This is acted out as Dick appears.  His face is all scuffed up and his moustache matted with blood and he has two black eyes.  Dick announced that his "friends beat (him) up", something that he acknowledges that he "deserved" for crossing certain lines, and that the beating, in fact, was, more or less, enjoyable.  But Dick doesn't seem to be enjoying things, can barely walk, and, from time to time, lapses into making weird sounds, barking in pain like a seal.  Dick apparently has suffered some kind of internal injury and he seems more dead than alive.  When explaining why he was beaten, Dick becomes hysterical, making horrible bellowing noises and shaking his head back and forth violently, and, then, flailing at the air.  As the ninety minute play progresses, we learn that three of the eight people at the soiree are working for the government "targeting" -- that is, selecting other people for assassination.  One of them, a woman named Jane, has worked as an assassin herself.  She kills people by scratching them with a poison-laden hat pin -- "not a bad way to go," she says.  Many victims, it seems, are purged by being killed with poison.  When Jane mixed a drink about a yard from me I noticed her lacing one of the glasses with something in a vial, a few droplets from a medicine dropper  and, indeed, at the end of the play one of the characters is, apparently, killed by poison -- we hear the actor gasping and choking with seal-like barks off-stage.  Jane once had a sexual relationship with Robert.  When Robert asks her to recall it, she retches and gags violently -- so much for love and sex.  Nonetheless, Robert very subtly importunes her and you get the impression that he is some sort of party official, someone responsible for determining who lives and dies and that, if Jane were to have sex with him, he might spare her.  He even suggests finding her a small part on the show that he is running -- she was previously on Mouse Chatter but dismissed because not "funny enough."  For her part, Jane is sick of living and wants to be killed with a swift anonymous bullet shot into her neck.  But she knows that this kind of swift and unexpected coup de grace is reserved for more important people and suspects that her death will be much worse.  She recalls a friend who was beaten by her friends who, then, covered her with "really brutal cuts."   Then, they dragged her outside where she was publicly hanged.  "It was a bad hanging, a really bad hanging," she recalls. Someone else acknowledges a man named Felix or Rudy -- "if they want you have a really horrible death, they send Rudy."  Rudy also is in show-business and everyone who knows him grimaces -- "we all know how Rudy is."  The conversation is brittle, sarcastic, cruel -- everyone mocks those who are not present.  At any moment, you expect the nasty repartee and vicious backbiting to morph into a savage beating, the kind of beating that Dick claims that he enjoyed and that has almost killed him.  Periodically, we hear an overwhelming sound like a jet plane passing over the Talk House.  Nellie pathetically wants to bring back the good, old days before criticism has become synonymous with literal assassination. She wants someone to read a purple passage from the play that Robert wrote years ago:  "Midnight in the clearing with Moonlight and Stars."   No one will read this and one suspects that the willingness to declaim this wild Bardic soliloquy is some kind of marker that the person who so indulges will have to be killed.  Finally, poor bruised Dick, who has nothing to lose, reads the passage, something about eating "roast antelope at a feast."  The antelope meat is so delicate it is said "that a small child could easily eat ten servings."  The speaker in the soliloquy must fight on the morrow and so he leaves the antelope-meat feast and plans to go to his own home where he will rest at his hearth with a bowl of raspberries -- the soliloquy is called "the raspberry speech."  It is strangely moving, although, of course, bizarre and Dick performs very beautifully -- his voice is resonant and he speaks with great conviction.  Everyone applauds him.  The speech is some kind of relic and, later, Robert accuses Jane and Nellie of "hiding Dick" or, at least, acting in such a way that the seem to be hiding Dick -- and this suggests that something very bad will happen to them soon.  Robert and friends are discussing another actor who is a pig -- "really just a human head attached to a pig" -- and, about to tell us something really juicy and salacious about this man, when we hear someone gagging off-stage:  poison.

The play is haunting and elliptical.  Horrible stuff is suggested but never exactly articulated.  Shawn knows that ghastly material is best left to the imagination.  The show is also very funny and the production that I saw was excellently performed -- it's really just a bunch of people talking in a small room, but it's very scary, in fact, a terrifying piece of theater.   The tiny venue at A Red Orchid, with the actors no farther than fifteen feet from your seat, make the experience electric and shocking.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Big Country

When I was a boy, everyone listened to WCCO, "your good neighbor in the Northwest."  A St. Paul bank sponsored commercials claiming that it was a "good tree to come to" -- this poetic assertion was supported by a heroic musical theme:  a vortex of arpeggios supporting a surging, forward-driving melody.  At the time, I had no idea as to the source of this music, but it was operatic and stirring and made a deep impression on me and, even today, whenever I hear this melody, I think of great tree, as Yeats said "great-rooted blossomer", a cottonwood, perhaps, lit as if from within, golden and immense, a world of a tree standing in noble isolation.  The music that inspires these thoughts is Jeremy Moross' theme from the 1958 film, The Big Country. 

The Big Country is an epic Western, almost three-hours long directed by William Wyler with an A-list cast -- Gregory Peck plays the hero, Mr. McKay, a former sea-captain from the East Coast who has come West to marry his girl and make his fortune; the girl is played by Carroll Baker and her rival, a schoolmarm, is acted by Jean Simmons.  Charlton Heston appears in a supporting role and Burl Ives won an Oscar for his portrayal of a savage patriarch -- the man has four vicious sons, foremost a loutish brute played by Chuck Connors.  (Connors character attempts to rape Jean Simmons, who he mistakenly perceives to be his girlfriend, not once but twice on-screen.)  The film's premise is that two ranching families are competing for water, a bend of river at a ranch called the Big Muddy.  This ranch has devolved into the hands of the schoolmarm, Julie Maragon, the last member of the family surviving.  She is unable to manage the ranch on her own and the property, which offers the sole water for livestock owned by the neighboring ranches, becomes the subject contention between those ranchmen.  Major Terrell, a genteel fellow, operates a huge ranch with a large ante-bellum style mansion, lavishly furnished, at its center.  From the elegant whitewashed porches of his mansion, Terrell can look out upon vast empty rangelands where he grazes 10,000 cattle.  Terrell's counterpart is Burl Ives.  Ives is imagined as a cruel and relentless old man, an Old Testament patriarch, somewhat like a slightly less version of Old Man Clanton, the cruel father in John Ford's My Darlling Clementine (in that film Clanton was played by Walter Brennan in his sinister mode).  Ives' ranch is symbolically the opposite of Terrell's spread in every respect -- Terrell has a single blonde daughter; Hannasay (Ive's character) has four good-for-nothing and rambunctious sons.  Terrell's mansion is beautiful and refined; Hannasay lives in a squalid compound of huts and log cabins in an arid desert canyon, a place called Blanca Canyon that can be accessed only by a winding path through chalk-colored badlands crouching beneath a high ridge of mountains.  By contrast, Terrell's place, with its neat outbuildings, stands on a knoll surrounded by hundred-mile views of completely treeless chaparral.  Intermediary to these two warring compounds is a tiny town, incongruously strewn across the prairie a bit like the village in George Stevens' Shane and the beautiful, lush bend of water in the rolling prairie, shadowed by cottonwoods at "The Big Muddy." 

The first hour of the film is majestic and stirring.  Wyler sets up the archetypal landscapes where the action will take place -- lets us leisurely tour Terrell's place and shows us the Hannasay Ranch under a savage attack by Terrell's cowboys led by Charlton Heston.  The soundtrack roars and whispers, variations on Moross' indelible theme and the landscapes are vibrant as lensed in extreme wide-ratio aspect, that is Cinemascope -- the wide-screen compositions are often very beautiful and precisely designed and Wyler uses long takes to establish his characters.  The film is an "adult" Western -- everyone is morally compromised and, indeed, Gregory Peck's sea captain, the almost insufferably virtuous McKay, has stumbled into a  hothouse of Freudian passions.  His inamorata is in love with her father, a man whose example McKay can't seem to match.  Charlton Heston, playing Terrell's adopted son, is pathetically eager to win the old man's love -- he's willing to die for Terrell, his father-figure, although, in turn, Terrell is insensitive to the young man and regards him as little more than a hired hand.  The sexual perversity of the Hannasay's is obvious -- they seem to be a variation on Freud's hypothesized "primal horde", a group of feral soldier males raised without female influence and kept in line by the brutality of the castrating father played by the huge and menacing Burl Ives.  Peck's character is neurotically introverted -- he refuses tests and hazing aimed at him and refused to fight because he is too proud to display his heroism and courage for others.  His motto seems to be that if has to earn your respect or love, he doesn't want it.  As a result, McKay performs his heroics in the dark -- he breaks a dangerous bucking bronco called "Ole Thunder" with no witnesses to observe his courageous acts and, then, engages in an epic fistfight with Charlton Heston, his rival for the hand of the Terrell princess, in the dark with no one to witness the battle.  As a result, the rough and tumble cowhands and Terrell, himself, who almost as monstrous as Hannasay, regard McKay as a coward unsuited for the rigors of life on the frontier.  (The effect is a little like Clark Kent, continuously disrespected by Lois Lane in favor of  his alter-ego Superman -- in The Big Country, people are continuously casting aspersions on McKay's manliness, athough he turns out to be the toughest hombre on the ranch.)  This type of plot requires a moment when the worm turns and the courage of the hero is satisfyingly displayed for all to see and admire.  But, perversely, Wyler doesn't really give the audience what it desires -- we don't really ever see McKay vindicated in the eyes of Terrell and his fiancée.  A good example of the film's perverse approach to this material is McKay's heroics in breaking the bucking bronco.  After McKay has achieved this feat, we expect some kind of pay-off -- McKay riding up to his fiancée or her father on the horse.  But nothing of the kind occurs -- instead, Wyler simply stages the revelation as a rather embarrassing scene involving the contrived (and seemingly racist) colloquy between the two women and the Mexican ranchhand whom McKay has sworn to secrecy.  Although the end of the film involves some big gun battles and spectacular scenes of fighting in Blanco Canyon, somehow, it seems, that the inspiration has gone out of the film -- the movie feels a little bit inert and distant.  I can't quite put my finger on what goes wrong with this picture in its last hour but something isn't right -- the movie doesn't deliver what it should.  My best surmise is that Gregory Peck is simply too involuted, too virtuous, too respectable for the film -- he seems too stiff and, ultimately, we can't relate to him.  Peck plays a peace-maker par excellence but so many people get killed in the last half-hour, despite his best efforts that the viewer is put in mind of the famous slogan -- "they made a desert and called it peace"; there's really no one left alive to enjoy the peace that Peck's character imposes.  This film disturbs me because I can't quite put my finger on what is wrong with its last hour -- but somehow all the brilliantly designed preparations for the climax yield an ending that isn't exactly convincing.  This is made manifest in a scene in which Terrell and Hannasay engage in rifle duel and end up shooting each other to death.  To exploit the Cinemascope ratio, Wyler stages this scene in extreme long shot, interposing some inserts of the men facing off and pacing to their death.  We see Terrell shot but not Hannasay and, on my screen, I couldn't see Hannasay's body -- this led me to question whether he had, in fact, been killed and how, exactly, this happened.  It's odd to me that this pivotal scene, otherwise immensely impressive (we see the desert walls of the canyon sprinkled with snipers and sharpshooters emerging from their coverts to watch the final gun battle), isn't managed properly.  The best things in the movie are in its first hour -- this includes a tremendous display of horsemanship when the Hannasay boys harass the dude sea-captain after his arrival in town; the movie delivers copiously all the pleasures of the Western in its first half.  The rest of the film, for some reason, leaves me oddly dispirited although it dutifully crosses most "tees" and dots most "i's" -- perhaps, the problem is very simple:  the movie is just too long.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe

Eyewitness Views:  Making History in 18th Century Europe is an exhibition on display through December at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  (The show is a coproduction with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles).  The exhibit is not interesting as art -- the paintings are mostly journalistic and prosaic, canvases swarming with tiny figures against a backdrop of theatrically beautiful Venetian and Roman cityscapes.  Almost all the paintings are bathed in clear light -- it's the light characteristic of a 1950's Hollywood epic, an illuminating radiance that shows the cast of thousands and the money spend on lavish set decoration to their very best advantage.  With a few exceptions the painters are forgotten craftsman of the late 18th century -- all of the pictures seem to date from about 1740 to 1800 and they depict various religious processions, conclaves of nobles and clergy, baroque and rococo festivals and carnivals, and the vast masque-like spectacles of son et lumiere produced to celebrate the marriages of princes and princesses and the birth of royal heirs.  Although the way that these paintings are made is of little interest, the pictures themselves are copiously crammed with fascinating details and the show is, in fact, quite rewarding.  The men who made these pictures conceived of them as showing vast assemblies of men and women (and lots of dogs as well); the pictures are, often, puzzles -- frequently, the principal action is hidden in the remote background and there is a peculiar democracy to the way that the spectacles are staged:  often we get up-close and personal images of beggars and peasants with the Pope half-hidden in a niche or doorway a thousand yards away.  The viewer has to study the image closely to figure out what is happening -- the emphasis on huge crowds and grandiose architecture makes deciphering the journalistic intent behind the pictures difficult. 

Only a few of the canvases are "painterly", although if you look at most of them with your eyes half closed, you will have the eerie sense of staring at a Jackson Pollock painting, an action painting comprised of innumerable vaguely biomorphic squiggles and splashes. (This is particularly true of Panini's paintings of balls and theatrical spectacles -- that is, his interiors colored with Pompei red and cool yellows.)  Joli's 1759 "Abdication of Charles III" decorates a rather dour and uninteresting conclave with strangely intense chiaroscuro -- the figures are lit through tall windows so that swaths of light sweep obliquely through the crowd of dignitaries; their white powdered wigs shine resplendently in the raking light from the windows.  Hubert Robert shows an opera building on fire in a huge close-up, all fire and ash with fleeing figures darting toward the viewer through cavernous arches -- this picture depends upon painterly effects and prefigures some kind of Romanticism.  Less so, his sequel image -- a picture showing smoke rising from the ruins behind the royal palace with a frieze of spectators looking at the ruins.  Canaletto's pictures of royal regattas in the Venetian canals are hyper-realistic -- indeed, they  give the effect of photo-realism and are somewhat disconcerting for that reason.  The Venetians were fond of water-parades featuring lavishly decorated aquatic floats, basically gilded barges with bas relief imagery on their sides -- the greatest of these aquatic floats was the Bucintora, a two-story barge with 42 oars and an elaborately decorated gold prow:  it was deployed to celebrate the wedding of Venice to the Adriatic, an annual ritual in that City.  There's a 1755 nocturne showing the Plaza San Marco lit by candles at night -- it looks like an image that Paolo Sorrentino might have filmed (in fact has filmed) in The Young Pope or The Great Beauty.  Belloto made a picture of a procession in front of a Polish church -- the 1778 picture is peculiar because a third of the image shows a vacant field with some ruins and cattle grazing in them, a kind of waste lot in front of the church.  (Belloto is incompetent with respect to the tiny figures in the procession -- many of them have outsized heads and the aspect of hydrocephalic dwarves.)  Canaletto's precisionist "Procession on Feast Day of Saint Roch" features an elaborately conceived, if rigorously utilitarian, awning over the marching people -- Canaletto, like Menzel, is not ashamed of painting the most prosaic imagery:  here we see how every knot is tied and can take pleasure in the caternary arches of hanging fabric:  it's altogether extraordinary and has nothing to do with the subject of the picture -- it's just a gift given us by the painter, an artist that I typically don't much admire.  One image encapsulates for me the appeal of the show:  it's Panini's 1756 painting of the Piazza Navona in Rome, cheerfully flooded so that aristocrats can drive around in carriages in the water to splash themselves and their wives while making the circuit of the pond-like plaza.  Apparently, Romans did this to cool themselves down on hot August days -- it's the equivalent of little kids in the ghetto opening fire hydrants.  The drains on the fountains were stopped-up with the result that the piazza flooded and, thus, became a playground for the wealthy.  It's not a particularly well-painted picture -- the handling of the surface of the water cut by the carriage wheels is perfunctory and, unless you read the title, you can't really tell that the plaza has been flooded.  But it's wholly charming and I'm glad to know that aristocratic Romans engaged in this sort of tomfoolery to keep themselves cool in the height of the summer.  In other words, the charm of the picture has nothing to do with how it is made or its painterly composition.    

The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's long and complex comic opera, is on display in November at the Ordway Theater under the auspices of the Minnesota Opera Company.  The production is exquisite and highly recommended.  Oddly enough, the opera is relevant to today's sexual politics.  At its heart, the opera concerns an inveterate sexual harasser, a libertine, who demands that his servants make themselves available to him sexually -- one character says that the old Count has revived the "right of the first night", the infamous droit du seigneur; he's Harvey Weinstein of the ancien regime.  The opera's complicated plot involves, at least, three sets of lovers, all of them adversely affected by the Count's nefarious meddling.  The thrust of the narrative is to force the Count into recognition or acknowledgement of his sexual harassment and shame him into repentance.  (In this respect, the film is similar to Donizetti's Don Pasquale, presented about a month ago.)  With intermissions, the opera is close to 3 and a half hours long and its scope demonstrates that the problem of sexual exploitation is not only ubiquitous and omnipresent but also a failing that perseveres in spite of everyone's best intentions.  Characters try to act responsibly, but fail -- temptation is too great.  Indeed, just about everyone in the opera behaves badly -- everyone is tempted toward one of the twin sins that predominate in this royal court:  violent jealousy and infidelity.  (It's not surprising that these two vices are everywhere manifest -- in a court that is characterized by open and impudent infidelity, the logical outcome is that everyone doubts everyone else's faithfulness:  the royal household swarms with latent Othellos.)  In the first half of the opera, Figaro, the Count's scheming servant, defends his fiancée, Susanna (the object of the Count's sexual aggression) by contriving an elaborate scheme whereby a young man, Cherubino en travesti will be substituted for Susanna and become the victim of the Count's efforts at what, simply put, must be characterized as rape.  The project goes wrong and the Count suspects that the pretty young man (it's a pant's role) is having an affair with his wife, the hapless and melancholy Countess -- she has been publicly humiliated by the Count's philandering one too many times and he assumes she is revenging herself on him.  There's a lot of farcical byplay involving people hiding under beds or locked in cupboards or jumping from second story windows.  But there's an nasty edge to this farce:  at one point, the count menaces the supposed lover (hiding in a cupboard) with a very real and sharp-looking axe and the lighting emphasizes the stark set, a locked door shining with glacial light and the wicked Count casting Nosferatu-like shadows on the palace walls.  (For a moment, the opera threatens to become The Shining with the old bewigged County acting the role of Jack Nicholson's psycho-killer.)  Everyone escapes by an eyelash (or should we say a "cunt  hair"?) in the first act, only to find the plot reprised with higher stakes in the second act. The doubling of the plot has the impact of the multiple parallel story-line in King Lear -- we have the sense that sexual misconduct and its consequences are unavoidable, relentlessly ubiquitous, part of the fundamental texture of this world.

The second act is more profound and, indeed, has a powerful and transcendent climax.  The old Count sings a savage aria vowing to be revenged on his enemies -- we see that his sexual frustration and lust is transforming itself into homicidal rage.  Then, we see the Countess disconsolate on her bed -- the lighting casts the shadow of her bed with its four-posts and Himmel onto the wall like the skeletal image of a gallows or a scaffold.  The Countess is sad, of course, because her husband no longer desires her.  Her great aria highlights her melancholy and transforms her into the moral center of the action -- she alone seems to be virtuous, without guile, and willing to forgive others.  (Strauss clearly studied this opera before writing Der Rosenkavalier --the character of sad, rejected Countess is the implicit background for Strauss' equally charming and melancholy Marschallin.)  Another elaborate scheme is hatched by which the old Count will be tricked into seducing the Countess, that is, his own wife in the guise of Susanna, Figaro's fiancée.  This ruse will humiliate the Count and force him to recognize the virtue of his wife.  But by this point in the opera everyone is hopelessly compromised.  Figaro thinks Susanna is, in fact, having an affair with the lecherous Count and when he sees the Countess dressed like his girlfriend, he becomes violently jealous.  Cherubino announces blithely that he has no problem with his girlfriend, Barberini, sleeping with the old libertine so long as she continues to remain in the Count's good graces and is showered with gifts from the aging lecher.  (Cherubino seems completely depraved in a good-hearted kind of way.)  The lovers all make their way to a park outside the palace where, at last, the Countess reveals herself after a number of misadventures and misunderstandings.  The Countess stands at center stage and sings an extraordinary aria, liturgical music of forgiveness that has a sacred air, and, then, the erring couples gradually join in the ensemble, Cherubino singing in duet with Barberini and Susanna singing in duet with Figaro -- throughout this transcendent music the old Count, now chastened, begs forgiveness.  This scene takes place against an abstract golden sky representing dawn.  A great ivory-colored wall showing a family tree complete with neo-classical cartouches hanging as fruit from the branches has partly collapsed, or, at least, become frayed.  The Countess appears like a goddess in the center of stage strewn surrealistically with the detritus of the palace -- love seats and random bits of furniture, slabs of ivory all, a broken cartouche.  Mozart's last opera was La Clemenza di Tito and it is well to remember that music of reconciliation and transcendent forgiveness is central to his work -- as the lovers unite in their songs and their duets flare like torches, the Countess, now a Goddess from on high, pronounces her declaration of forgiveness on her husband, and by extension, on all of us erring mortals. (I say that the final reconciliation through love applies to everyone in the theater  quite intentionally -- before the final scene, Figaro appears in front of the curtain holding a kind of searchlight; as the house-lights come on, he warns all of the men in the audience that women are fickle and deadly:  they are crows, night-flying owls, sirens and harpies who pluck the feathers from men.  "Look at your companions," Figaro says, "and beware."  It's a wonderful theatrical coup and one that has the effect of bestowing the grace offered in the final scene on everyone in the house. The opera's second act is deeper, more densely designed, and more elaborately strange than the rather conventional first act -- there is a bizarre surprise twist in the plot, a bit similar to the reconsideration of the role of the Queen of the Night in Der Zauberfloete.  (Indeed, this plot twist is so unexpected that I will not spoil it in this note.)  As the pressure for the couples to wed increases, there are curious masked processions in which the espoused men and women seem to threaten the Count -- the imagery becomes more exorbitant and we have the sense that the ancient order, based on sexual harassment, is crumbling before our eyes; we see a colossal cartouche representing the noble profile of an ancestor smashed to bits as part of the mise-en-scene and the imminence of violent revolution is suggested by the final scene involving bits and pieces of broken furniture and fragments from the set from earlier sequences in the opera. 

The production is impressive visually.  The set is constructed of a high ivory-colored wall, a bit weathered in places and obviously splintered and damaged -- the wall is of great age and shows the family tree of the Count's family.  This wall can be rotated to show an interior façade, also  white ivory colored with cornices and high doors and windows opening out into a park represented by several monumental vases.  (I thought of Jane Austen remarking that all her novels were written on single fine piece of ancient ivory, a filigree only a couple inches wide.)  The lighting for the production is extremely complex and beautiful.  Characters often cast double shadows sometimes grotesquely distorted.  The remarkable aspect of the production is that the neo-classical characters in their wigs and bustles and frock-coats sometimes seem to cast shadows on the wall that unmask the perfidious desires and heartless instincts of these libertines -- the shadows are sometimes positively Goya-esque.  Mozart and Da Ponte are clear-eyed about human vanity and folly and lust.  In the final scene involving the three groups of lovers in the garden (Susanna and Figaro, Cherubino and Barberini, and the Count and Countess), there is an element of play-acting -- people seem to amplify their desire by play-acting jealousy or proprietary rage.  Lust seems enhanced by jealousy, by the suspicion that the beloved is sharing her charms with others and this is a distinct element of erotic foreplay on display in the last Act.  Everyone gets to play the part of seducer and seduced; everyone gets to play the role the victim of seduction and aggrieved, outraged cuckold  When the play-acting threatens to become to serious and consequential, then, Susanna literally slaps the characters to their senses.  "Blind infatuation always clouds reason and blurs the senses" -- the erotic atmosphere of lust and seduction is so powerful that no one knows, or can know, the proper object of their affections.  It's the Countess' intervention that restores everyone to their proper role in this world.  Love makes us blind and mad, but love is, after all, the main thing -- and lovers, in the end, must be forgiven their folly.  The opera is enormously moving and powerful.  This is a superbly mounted production.   

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper (2016) is a supernatural thriller starring Kirsten Stewart and directed by the French film-maker Oliver Assayes.  (Assayes directed Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria, a year earlier.)  Stewart is apparently a big-time Hollywood movie star although it is hard to see exactly why she is famous -- she's an inexpressive actress with slouched shoulders who scowls a lot.  She's pretty in a Reese Witherspoon sort of way, but has a rather haggard-looking profile.  Stewart is good in a strangulated, low-key way in Personal Shopper, but doesn't seem to do much acting -- in this respect, she's rather like one of Bresson's photogenic, but blank non-actors:  the audience projects its fears and desires on her.  As the title advises, Kirsten Stewart plays an assistant to a wealthy, cat-eyed celebrity -- a woman famous, it seems, for being famous.  Her job is to purchase fantastically expensive jewelry, accessories, and garments for her boss.  She has no real relationship with her employer; we see her boss in only one short scene highlighting marital problems that the famous woman is having with her German husband.  The husband flirts a little with the personal shopper who can't achieve an audience with her famous patron -- she's on the phone with a lawyer in the room working to protect mountain gorillas or something on that order.  The supernatural aspect of the film relates the heroine's status as the survivor of her twin brother -- he has died unexpectedly due to a heart condition from which she also suffers.  Her brother, who was a medium, promised that he would attempt to communicate with his sister from beyond the grave and the film, largely, documents her encounters with ghostly, and often very scary, phenomena.  These manifestations are taken seriously by the film and shown in literal detail -- in one startling scene, a ghost appears as a haze of diaphanous mist and, then, vomits ectoplasm all over the heroine. (It's not all that different from some scenes in Ghostbusters). The movie contains many sequences set in dark and spooky corridors and old, abandoned mansions -- one of the heroine's sidelines seems to be finding properties that are legitimately haunted and, then, attesting to the specters to enhance the value of the real estate.  (Apparently, people enjoy the cachet of living in a haunted house.)  Stewart's character is alienated, morose, unhoused, without a country -- she lives in Paris but seems to come from nowhere in particular.  She has a boyfriend with whom she rather reluctantly skypes -- he's in Oman, doing some kind of computer trouble-shooting.  As the film progresses, Stewart's character begins to receive text message, perhaps, from her brother's spirit but, maybe, with a more prosaic source.  The text messages require that she go to a certain hotel room in Paris.  It's not clear whether the ghost wants to terrorize her or have sex with her.  The personal shopper becomes increasingly disoriented and frightened -- she has been told to never wear the clothing that she selects for her boss, but violates this rule and begins to traipse around in high black boots, strange BDSM-style harnesses, and expensive sequined dresses.  She doesn't go anywhere in this get-up but contents herself with simply masturbating.  (Fans of Kirsten Stewart take note:  the movie features a lot of nudity of its comely heroine.)  The movie's high fashion surface makes an eerie contrast with its ghostly subject matter -- clothing, it seems is like the mere flesh that we cast aside when we die.  Thus, the picture's very overt and annoying materialism, it's high sheen, seems somehow merely the inverse of the spiritualism that the film espouses -- the notion that there is an unseen world all around us thronged with spirits.  Several sequences in the film are very creepy indeed -- I felt my flesh crawl on a couple occasions.  Ultimately, the movie involves a murder and the heroine's encounter with the killer, an aspect of the film that is fairly rationally explicated, although those sequences involve one extraordinarily puzzling sequence of shots that really can't be reconciled to any narrative theme or thread in the movie -- the imagery has to do with elevators and automatically operated doors.  After the murder and its resolution, Stewart's character goes to Oman where she seems to have an encounter with the ghost of her brother.  It's a dictum in the ghost-hunting world that there are no ghosts and no haunted houses, merely haunted people and the film seems, ultimately, to espouse this notion -- although Assayes also seems to admit exceptions.   The direction is good and the narrative elliptical -- we grope our way into the story and clues as to what is happening are well-hidden, although in some instance in clear sight.  The movie is a haunted house full of dark closets and eerie staircases through which we have to navigate.  This is the kind of puzzle film that requires work on the part of the viewer -- we have to sift through the evidence and, ultimately, form our own hypothesis about what is going on.  Curiously, Assayes doesn't seem to know anything about the thousand paranormal reality shows on TV -- his ghosts harken back to the Fox sisters and their poltergeists, and the accounts of spiritualism written by Camille Flammarion (some of his imagery is based on 19th century spiritualist images).  A poorly made, rather naïve movie about Victor Hugo provides some background necessary to the film's narrative and it resolution -- we see that film as a movie within the movie (the heroine watches it on her phone).  Personal Shopper is continuously fascinating and extremely spooky in an enjoyable way.  It's not profound and the points it makes are clichés -- but they are, ultimately, points worth making. 

Friday, November 10, 2017


As broadcast on TCM, Jacques Tourneur's 1955 Western, Wichita, seems highly prosaic.  In part, this effect arises from the fact that the film was made in carefully composed Cinemascope but has been hacked down to a standard aspect ratio for TV consumption.  (Chris Fujiwara, the author of an excellent book on Tourneur, has seen the film projected in Cinemascope and describes the photography as brilliant and superbly designed.)  The movie begins with a Hans Salter ballad sung by Tex Ritter -- the lyrics extol the efforts of Wyatt Earp in transforming Wichita into a "very nice town", a phrase that is prosaic in the extreme and, indeed, damning with faint praise.  The movie's landscapes are consistent with central Kansas -- we see barren grass-covered hills with no trees in sight, nothing sublime or majestic about this part of the (mid)-West.  Joel McCrea plays Wyatt Earp and seems a little bit too old and placid for the role -- he is surely much too old to be a plausible suitor for the film's romantic interest, Vera Miles.  I'm sure that I have written about this movie before, somewhere in the bowels of this very web-site, and must admit that I didn't recall seeing the picture until the phrase "a very nice town" jarred my ears.  Indeed, there's not much that is memorable in the film.  That said, not every picture has to scale the heights of Parnassus and Wichita is thoughtful, beautifully crafted, and retains the viewers' interest from beginning to end.  Early in his career as a lawman, Wyatt Earp encounters some cowpokes driving a herd of cattle toward Wichita.  Two of the cowpokes try to rob Earp of his nest-egg, money that he is carrying to Wichita so that he can buy a business.  (One of the bad guys is played by Lloyd Bridges).  This establishes enmity between Earp and the cowboys.  Later the cowboys ride into town like an invading army of Goths.  After getting drunk, they "hurrah" the town -- that is, galloping their horses through storefronts and wildly firing their guns in the air.  A stray shot kills a little boy and Earp, who has previously refused to serve as sheriff in  the town, takes up the badge and suppresses the riot (aided by his friend, Bat Masterson).  This heightens the cowboy's hatred of the gunfighter now turned lawman, hatred that is further exacerbated when Earp declares Wichita a "gun-free" city.  There are further stand-offs and, in the end, Earp, rather predictably, kills off the leading bad guys and establishes peace in the city.  The film's tension arises from the fact that it is morally ambiguous.  The cowboys aren't really bad but, merely, drunk, disorderly, and reckless -- individually, they're hospitable and generous.   The townsfolk look to Earp to establish order but once he bans guns within the city limits, this threatens the saloon- and brothel-keeper's livelihood --  there is a risk the cowpokes will boycott the town.  In the end, Earp's chief adversaries are the town's mayor and its leading citizens, most notably Doc Black played by the surly Edgar Buchanan -- indeed, one of these men has gone so far as to hire assassins to murder the sheriff.   There's a feckless, alcoholic newspaper publisher, saloon-girls galore who prod the cowpokes to violence, and genteel citizens hiding in their houses as the drunken mob of cowboys shoots the town to pieces.  The film's interest lies in its politics -- it's position with respect to gun control and the fact that a reforming lawman ends up being despised and threatened by those who put him in power in the first place.  A number of scenes rely on indirection or outright deceit -- a deadly confrontation between assassins and Earp turns to joviality when we discover that the dead-eyed killers are his brothers (Peter Graves plays the role of Morgan Earp).  In the film's penultimate scene, women wildly slash open a big burlap sack, a sinister-looking gesture, that also resolves into joyousness when we see that the sacks contain rice to be flung at Earp and his new bride.  The final two gun battles are botched -- we can't tell the relationship between the belligerent parties in the film's topography.  (In the first of these fights, Earp kills some bad guys by pointing his six-shooter at them when they are at long-gun range -- this looks ridiculous.)  Fujiwara's account of the film suggest that these defects, however, arise from the fact that the image has been cut down by one-third at least -- we are simply not seeing what the director wanted us to see.  At one point in the film, someone says quite reasonably:  "Men who aren't carrying guns can't shoot one another," a statement that is perfectly sound and true. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I. F. Stone

The verbose title of this 2016 documentary, All Governments Lie:  Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I. F. Stone (Fred Peabody) is emblematic of the structural problems existing in this film.  Is the movie about lying as an instrument of government policy or I. F. Stone or something else?  In fact, the film is a miscellany consisting of many of the ordinary suspects: corporate misconduct, government deception with respect to the Vietnam war and Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, targeted assassination by drone under President Obama (a policy that has been acknowledged and doesn't, in fact, seem the subject of much official deceit), manufacturing consent through the mainstream media with Noam Chomsky expounding his view as a "talking head", and some very interesting sequences about hundreds of illegal immigrants found dead in south Texas and unceremoniously buried in mass graves by the local authorities.  This latter subject, a grisly cover-up of scores, if not hundreds of deaths caused by the tropical heat and humidity prevailing in an area where Latin Americans cross the border, was fascinating and seems to contain the germ of another more complete documentary film -- but this part of the documentary, comprising about a third of the movie, isn't really about lying:  it concerns other, perhaps more lethal, high crimes and misdemeanors.  The radical journalist, Izzy Stone, appears from time-to-time talking to Dick Cavett -- he is purported to be the grandfather and progenitor of this kind of reporting and acclaimed in those terms by Matt Taibbi, the political correspondent for Rolling Stone.  But we don't really learn that much about him -- a shame, since he is also an interesting figure.  The various strands in the documentary are not convincingly connected and the film doesn't hang together -- it has an improvised, stream-of-consciousness feeling.  There are also abundant conceptual errors:  a mistake is not the same as a lie and it doesn't help to conflate the two categories:  Was Colin Powell lying when he told the UN about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, armaments about which Hussein had boasted, or was he here merely mistaken as to the information conveyed in that address?  There are numerous incongruities:  people who have hosted network cable news shows complain about lack of access to the public; Chomsky, who claims mass media manufactures consent, has published a number of best-sellers and seems pretty ubiquitous in the media.  Someone says that the best way of skewering opponents is to use humor and commends Stone for his witty writing -- is this correspondent unaware of Jon Stewart and John Oliver?  And, ultimately, how do you distinguish between a curmudgeonly, and witty, far-Left reporter, like Stone, and the reporters who work for Matt Drudge or Breitbart on the Right?  Everything said about Stone could be said with equal force about the Drudge report and Breitbart.  What is the status of these right-wing reporters?  Ultimately, much of the film is consistent with Donald Trump's critique of the fake news provided by the mass media -- the major networks, the show claims, promulgate manipulated or fake news, exactly as maintained by the President and his surrogates.                                                               

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016) is a sentimental Western.  Westerns are not about actual history, but, instead, memory.  Memory recalls the past as either legendary or mythical.  Legends are sentimental -- hence, the films of John Ford; myths are savage exercises in remorseless destiny -- that is, the some of the films of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah.  The greatest Western directors alternate between the sentimental and the savage or, indeed, sometimes, embody both approaches to memory in one and the same film -- both Peckinpah and Ford had the gift of combining the two approaches in a single work of art.  (The director of this film, David Mackenzie, inclines toward the sentimental -- I thought his film Mud with Matthew McConnaughy was close to unwatchable as a result of its goopy sentiment.) 

Although Hell or High Water is set in modern-day west Texas, the scenario ticks off the standard features of the form -- there are chases across barren land (here with vehicles not horses), two rough-hewn brothers sometimes at odds with one another and sometimes allied; the film features a grizzled law man and his Indian side-kick pursuing the malefactors.  Jeff Bridges plays this part of the Texas ranger, a role that seems designed for Ben Johnson (in the Ford mode) or Warren Oates (in the minor key).  There are shootouts in badlands, a cattle drive, trips to the saloon staffed with predatory prostitutes and card players (here an Oklahoma casino), and the film's plot revolves around a villainous bank's conspiracy to rob the two protagonists of their inheritance, the hardscrabble ranch on which the brothers' mother has just died -- a nasty tract of land sitting atop a profitable oil field.  The movie is most satisfying as entertainment, well-written with lots of gruff and curmudgeonly repartee, and the vistas of west Texas (actually New Mexico) are gorgeous.  The film proceeds in a 2nd Amendment Popularist mode:  everyone is armed and there are big gun battles involving the two brothers and just about everyone in Texas who licensed and "conceal and carry" and the engine for the plot is the brothers' unconventional fundraising -- they need to rob enough branches of the Midlands Texas bank to finance the pay-off of property taxes and a reverse mortgage accrued on the widow's ranch.  The Popularist impulse demonstrated by the film is its Robin Hood sensibility -- the two bandit brothers give 200 dollar tips to fat waitresses and intend to pay off the nefarious bank with its own money.  (Of course, the plot has holes in it big enough to drive cattle herd through -- it's not clear why the two brothers who have now inherited the bank don't just refinance themselves since the property is now posited to be fantastically valuable and, of course, would certainly be interesting to lenders as collateral for a loan from a bank in Houston or Fort Worth.) 

Hell or High Water has good acting, although Jeff Bridges sometimes overdoes the grizzled law man stuff -- he mutters his dialogue in a rumbling voice midway between a bull's bellow and an earthquake and I couldn't understand half of what he said.  The Texas Ranger spends a lot of time taunting his Indian sidekick with racial slurs -- I suppose this is supposed to be funny but it just comes off as bullying.  The Indian is a dignified gent and, of course, turns out to be cannon fodder in the shootout at the end of the movie.  When Bridges accuses the Indian of heathen rites and he responds that he's a Catholic, there's a sense of gratuitous meanness in the film -- these guys have been working together for years and Bridges doesn't know this about his compadre or worse just doesn't care.  The tough but heart-of-gold brothers are a little annoying and their byplay is predictable -- the crazy brother has shot their father to death for beating their mother and is dangerously violent; the good brother, played by Chris Pine, tries to be responsible and, even, a good father.  (There's a nice moment in the final shoot-out when the crazy brother atop a pile of flaking gravel surveys the vast landscape pointing his long gun and proclaiming that he is "lord of the plains.")  As in all Westerns, there's too much gun-worship -- a scene in which the crazy brother backs off a posse of vigilantes by spraying them with machine gun fire is not as entertaining as it should be in light of the very real massacre in Las Vegas.  The film ends with a fine, gruff verbal stand-off between Bridges' character and the surviving brother -- it's a tense and suspensefully scripted scene that redeems some of the nonsense preceding it.  The movie is derivative but this is to be expected in a genre film -- the picture that the movie most resembles, oddly enough, is Spielberg's Sugarland Express, a picture about mismatched partners in crime fleeing across the vast landscape of Texas in pursuit of an equally quixotic, and sentimental objective:  of course, that film profited immensely by Ben Johnson playing the part of the relentless Texas Ranger -- in other words, the Ben Johnson part was played by Ben Johnson himself.  The best scene in this picture is a short one -- the protagonists encounter a prairie fire and a herd of spooked cattle that some cowboys are driving toward a river to escape the flames.  It's wholly gratuitous, mysterious, and very beautiful. 


Oculus is a well-made and fairly frightening horror film released in 2012 and directed by Mike Flanagan.  (Flanagan is the current enfant terrible in the horror movie industry -- he has since directed another four or five films since Oculus  and in its November 2017 edition, Entertainment Weekly acclaimed his films as the "best kept secret" in the genre.)  With this feature film, Flanagan adapts for the big screen a student picture -- a short made with only one character and an antique mirror; this short subject was also acclaimed and, apparently, a favorite at festivals.  Oculus is story about murderous ghosts.  The ghosts emerge from an antique mirror -- according the back-story, more than 40 deaths, most of them by self-mutilation have resulted from the monstrous influence of the mirror.  Flanagan seems to work quickly and very, very cheaply.  Although the movie is scary, the suspense is all based on the things jumping out at the characters from the edge of the frame -- in technical terms, Flanagan keeps the off-screen space around his camera full of fearsome, but unseen, monsters.  The creatures are only momentarily visible -- this is both cost-efficient, and effective, because the creatures themselves, shambling entities with weird LED eyes and pale boneless bodies like corpses long drowned, are underwhelming:  the ghosts pay homage to innumerable Japanese films and have pallid skin and long, wet-looking stringy hair.  Horror films are derivative and Flanagan's movie bears a vague resemblance to Kubrick's The Shining -- two children, a suburban  Hansel and Gretel, struggle to survive when their parents go slowly, and horribly, mad.  Curiously, the film also bears a faint resemblance to Rivette's Celine and Julie go Boating -- in a haunted house, a family is tearing itself to shreds and specters, in the case of Oculus, the children as they are now grown up, appear to both obsessively re-enact the family tragedy in the hope of redirecting the lethal past into something less toxic.  The film is curiously static for its first 40 minutes and shows some significant promise:  a young man has been released from a sanitarium where he has been confined as a lunatic.   The young man is said to have shot his father, possibly because he tortured the boy's mother to death; his sister somehow survived the ordeal but is obsessed with vindicating her brother from culpability.  The young man has been convinced by his kindly therapist, played wonderfully by the very reassuring Miguel Sandoval, that nothing supernatural occurred -- the cruelties that the young man witnessed were all the result of the dysfunction in the family arising from the insane hatred between mother and father.  By contrast, the young man's plucky sister, now employed as an antique dealer, is convinced that he misery in the household was caused by ghosts emerging from the sinister mirror.  The girl acquires the mirror, places it in the family's deserted house, and sets up a complicated system of cameras and sensors to record the havoc caused by the large reflecting glass.  The young man has been brainwashed into thinking that nothing uncanny occurred in the days leading up to his shooting of his father and he and his sister debate, at length, the meaning of the events that they experienced during their childhood.  This plot yields numerous flashbacks.  The film's innovation is make the flashbacks ultimately indistinguishable from what is happening in the film's "present tense" -- in some shots, we see the characters as they look today, peering across the room at the little boy and girl struggling with the monsters in the haunted house.  It's all very clever, pretty frightening, and effectively acted.  For a horror film, the picture is surprisingly "talky" -- for the first 40 minutes, the movie is a primarily a debate between the main characters as to whether the allegedly supernatural events twelve years earlier have a purely natural explanation.  This is by far the best part of the picture -- once the ghosts appear and are established unequivocally present, the film devolves into the adults running from one dark room to another with blood pouring from various wounds while the children do the same in the parallel story 12 years earlier as shown in parallel-staged flashbacks.  It's unenlightening, scary on a visceral level (bogeymen keep popping out at you), and deeply unpleasant, particularly to the see the helplessness and terror of the children as their parents relentlessly try to butcher them.  I can't think of any reason why you would want to see this picture.