Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jumanji -- Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan 2017) is a fun and inspiring adventure film that does more to combat Donald Trump's form of divisive politics than a hundred strident speeches.  The picture rebukes the notion that a single hero can accomplish much of anything and makes the strongest possible argument for cooperation and self-sacrifice.  The picture is morally and ethically sound in every respect and, therefore, I think pretty much ideal for families with children.  At the heart of divisive politics is a failure of the imagination -- a White man in Texas can't imagine what it would be like to be a Black single mother in south Chicago; a San Francisco Black Lives Matter activist can't imagine what it would be like to the Italian-American wife of Detroit police officer.  When I use the hopeless verb "can't", I refer to a failure of the imagination.  Most of us are sufficiently imaginative to be able to transpose ourselves emotionally, if only for a short time, into an encounter with the plight of another who is different from us.  But this is a faculty that goes unused too often and, with disuse, I think, atrophies.  At the heart of Jumanji is a noble thought experiment:  what if a Jewish High School nerd, afflicted with all manner of neuroses were to inhabit the body of Dwayne Johnson, the Rock?  What if a self-effacing studious girl were to find herself in the flesh of a sexy popular cheerleader?  What if a Black jock famous for his athletic prowess were to become a weak, cowardly Black "everyman"?  And what if a cute blonde bombshell were to find herself embodied in a fat, out-of-shape middle-aged man?  These are the transformations fundamental to the plot in Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle and the exercise of imagination necessary to suspending disbelief with respect to such metamorphoses, I think, is preparation for the kind of empathy has been grievously lacking in our public discourse.  I recognize that I'm making large claims for a trivial Saturday matinee action-adventure.  But here is my point:  a lot of movies make you feel debased, exploited and stupid -- the recent installment of Star Wars had this effect on me.  The audience at Jumanji walks out of the movie, I think, uplifted, having experienced a narrative that teaches important moral lessons.  And, so, I recommend the film highly.

In 1981, Chris van Allsberg wrote a spooky children's book called Jumanji.  The books was prescient in many ways -- it imagined a board game that sucks its players into its narrative, that is, an interactive game that is ultimately a precursor to the virtual reality featured in state-of-the-art computer games today.  (It's interesting to speculate that children who read -- or had read to them -- Van Allsberg's book and who looked at its eerie high-detail black and white pictures may have grown up to be soft-ware gaming engineers in part due to the influence of that book.)  In 1995, the book was adapted for a film starring Robin Williams -- I recall the movie as being merely adequate.  The 2017 iteration of the story updates the story to refer to modern computer gaming.  The film's premise is that four very widely disparate High School students are assigned detention and, in the course of cleaning out a storage room, hear jungle drums and are, then, sucked into the game.  The first twenty minutes of the movie setting up the situation is a marvel of efficient, and complex, narrative -- the characters of the kids are established and the plot forces them together for detention.  The jock, the Jewish brain, the girl scientist, and the ultra-vain and self-centered cheerleader all find themselves trapped in the jungle and embodied by avatars that are diametrically opposed in most respects to their real identities.  The film, then, establishes a chase narrative, a bit like something from the Raiders of the Lost Ark series -- the characters have to cooperate to restore an emerald gem to the forehead of a huge panther statue in the midst of the jungle.  There is a bad guy -- he spits scorpions at his enemies, plays with a tarantula, and has centipedes creeping and out of his ears.  He is mounted on motorcycle with a horde of henchmen and they pursue the four heroes on their adventure to restore the gem to the idol's brow.  The film has all the standard action tropes:  the jump from a cliff into the deep water of a plunge pool of a great waterfall, the flight through a narrow canyon in a faltering helicopter, and various battles with lions and tigers and hippos and rhinos -- there are also a lot of snakes.  The action is serviceably managed, but each sequence of this sort is similar to something you have seen done demonstrably better in some other movie-- probably in one of the Lost Ark movies directed by Steven Spielberg.  This doesn't matter, nor does it detract from the film because of the power of the movie's uplifting message -- diversity is good, we are best when we are united in a common purpose, and each person brings unique skills and talents to the table.  (The film's deep structure is The Wizard of Oz -- in that movie, we have the same trek through a hostile landscape, four heroes each with a different skill-set and exceptional powers, and a relentless chase by bad guys; in Jumanji, the winged and flying monkeys in black leather are replaced by the bad guys in leather on their motorcycles.  The Wizard of Oz, in turn, is based on folk tales involving a group of heroes, each with one improbable supernatural skill -- an ability to run very fast or to fly or see with telescopic intensity.  The narrative is designed to allow each hero to use his or her superpowers at least once in the story for the common good.)  Jumanji is generally entertaining for its two hour length with non-stop action and some of the film is quite funny.  In one scene, Jack Black inhabited by a vain and beautiful young woman teaches the studious girl, who is now in the body of a sex-bomb, how to vamp and flirt with men.  When we see her put her wiles to use, the girl imitates Jack Black who, in turn, has imitated another sexy girl -- she walks wiggling her ass to the extent that someone watching from afar asks if she's twisted an ankle.  This likeable film is not without faults -- the sex-bomb avatar is said to possess the skill of "Dance Fighting."   We see her "dance fighting" a couple of times and it's disappointing -- she doesn't really dance, she just fights.  Given the size of this film's budget and its aspirations, it seems to me that he fight scenes could have been choreographed as dances and, therefore, would have been much superior to what is shown in the film.  This failing is a small one and doesn't materially detract from the comic charm of the picture. 

Black Mirror (Season 4) ; U.S.S. Callister

The dystopian science fiction anthology series, Black Mirror, apparently a product of Netflix and the BBC, is notable for having reinventing, in our secular age, the idea of hell.  Several of the episodes posit that consciousness, no longer embodied, but injected into a computer system as a digital code, can be made infinite in its ability to enjoy pleasure (the heaven posited by the famous episode "San Junipero") --  and, conversely, digitized consciousness can be made to suffer infinite torment since anguish inflicted upon an disembodied mind doesn't offer the respite of physical death.  This latter concept is central to the very funny and disturbing episode "U.S.S. Callister". 

On its face, "U.S.S. Callister" is a clever and pitch-perfect (at first) pastiche of the old TV show Star Trek at its most primitive and threadbare.  Jesse Plemons (familiar to me from his great performance as the butcher in the second season of Fargo) plays the part of a man famous for his brilliant computer coding.  Plemons' character has invented a multi-player computer game named Star Fleet -- this is his, and the show's homage to the sixties TV show Star Trek.  The opening scene shows the star-deck of the star fleet cruiser U.S.S. Callister -- imperiously ordering people around Plemons' character plays the part of Captain Kirk; he affects perfect diction and the slightest British accent and, after successfully destroying his nemesis, he kisses each of the comely women in his six member crew on the lips.  This sequence is rendered with the utmost fidelity to the old TV show -- the set is identical and the acting is all uniformly bad with equally terrible special effects embedded in a plodding mise-en-scene.  After this sequence, we see the hero riding an elevator to his place of work -- a software firm in a skyscraper somewhere.  On the job, the hero is mercilessly badgered and abused by his CEO and partner.  When a young woman, who turns out to be the show's heroine, arrives for her first day at work, the attractive Black woman and the blonde receptionist tell her to keep her distance from the coding genius -- he's "creepy" they say.  At the outset, the show sets us up to sympathize with the poor computer-genius geek -- a sensitive soul who keeps in his office every past episode of Star Fleet and who everyone disrespects and mocks behind his back.  But the script's apparent display of empathy for the computer geek turns out to be a brilliant, and disconcerting indirection.  In fact, the computer geek is a monster, one of the most disturbing villains in recent TV and film history.  It turns out that he has seized the DNA from the people who tease or ignore or abuse him in the workplace.  Using these DNA samples, he encodes his co-workers into the video game, Star Fleet, and, then, as their commander (and also God of this realm) torments them mercilessly -- the fearful thing about this torture is that it is infinite; since the people he is tormenting feel themselves to be flesh and blood but, in fact, are merely streams of electronic data there is no end to the suffering that they can endure.  In the vicious games that he plays, accordingly, the computer geek exacts a horrific revenge on the people who have mistreated him in real life.  I'm not inclined to reveal much more about this 75 minute episode, which is intensely exciting, except to say that the new hire, a resourceful young programmer, finds herself trapped in the nightmare game and schemes to free herself -- she has to accomplish this by finding a way to communicate with her "real self", -- that is her embodied self who is working for the computer genius blithely unaware that he has seized her "data" and is torturing her savagely in the game that he plays at night.  (The show poses a fascinating philosophical question -- what if there was another me, exactly identical to the me that I define as myself?  what would I be willing to sacrifice to save this identical self from terrible torture if I didn't feel that torture myself?  This is the fundamental problem of compassion and empathy because, after all, to some extent other people are, indeed, very similar to us -- the program doesn't develop this theme enough to my taste, but the idea is implicit in the story.  As it turns out, the "me" that is trapped in the game has to literally blackmail the "other me", that is the real embodied "me", to get her take any meaningful action.) 

The show is both terrifying and funny.  The computer geek, of course, is probably celibate and he has resurrected his co-workers in the game as figures with Barbie genitalia -- that is, no genitals at all.  One of the characters says that it's awful "to not even be able to take a shit."  In the game, he torments his enemies by turning them into horrifying arachnid monsters or by, simply, removing their faces.  But when a pizza arrives, he has to pause the game -- then, his hapless characters sit around guzzling booze or chatting about their travails.  In the middle of a phaser battle with an bug-monster, a pizza is delivered to the villain in his apartment where he is playing the game and he puts the action on pause.  Everyone relaxes while he is gone.  Someone notes that the bug monster is really "Jenny, from the mail department -- he turned her into a bug forever because she wouldn't cooperate".  When this is said, Jenny as a bug nods her head in a friendly sort of way and wags one of her tentacle tails.  There's some defects in the show:  the ending is a bit unresolved and the heroine has to be blackmailed into helping to defeat the villain by a threat to disclose her private photos, some which she wishes she had deleted, to all her friends and family -- this kind of electronic blackmail is a staple of the series and has been featured on other episodes.  But the heroine, who is sexually aggressive, says surveying her de-sexed computer body, "He's gonna pay for taking away my pussy!", a noble enough sentiment but one that suggests that the blackmail threat would not be too effective on this specific character.  There are other flaws as well, but this is the sort of TV show that once seen can't be unseen -- it will want haunt you.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Greatest Showman

It is something of an irony that 2017, the year in which "the Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey circus closed forever, ends with a splashy movie musical, The Greatest Showman that celebrates the founding of that enterprise.  Hugh Jackman plays the part of Phineas T. Barnum and the film is an exuberant, exceedingly inaccurate, musical biopic.  Brilliantly edited, the film blasts along for 105 minutes, most of which seem devoted to colorful and extravagant song and dance numbers.  There is no particularly virtuosic dancing in the film -- nothing to rival Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire -- and elaborate dance sequences look to me like variants on the kind of large-scale ensemble dancing that characterizes Bollywood productions.  The musical song-and-dance numbers are not conceived as arias apart from the action -- rather, they tend to drive the film forward, contributing to its powerful narrative thrust.  There are some tender love songs and a great pas de deux involving a boy and girl alternately hoisted up fifty feet in the air or twirling vertiginously downward on a thick rope connected to a massive counterweight, but the majority of the music is infectious, if heavy-handed rock and roll, instantly forgettable tunes carried along on a stomping beat -- in fact, at least, two numbers feature the dancers rhythmically stomping on the stage.  There's no denying that much of music is impressive in a driving, propulsive kind of way and the lavish dance sequences are beautifully lit and edited.  The movie is cut in such a way as to jump swiftly from action to action -- a boy and a girl climb a fence, the next shot is a close-up of the boy's boot landing heavily in the garden on the other side of the fence; this type of editing is characteristic of the film -- a gesture is directed to some future place or time and we are shown the objective of the gesture without any intervening motion. 

The film begins with a big production number in a circus ring.  Suddenly, the cheering audience goes silent and the movie progresses into a flashback.  We see Barnum's youth as a poor and despised tailor's boy.  (In one scene, when he is "down and out", a woman with a freakishly deformed face hands him an apple -- later, we see the apple as an inspiration for Barnum to gather into his show as many actual freaks as possible.)  He marries into a wealthy family, to the great dismay of his bride's parents -- exactly how Barnum bridges the social and wealth gap is completely unclear and unimportant as far the story is concerned.  Rather, with fairy tale aplomb, we see Barnum win the girl and, using some worthless titles to sunken ships as collateral, acquire sufficient capital to open his museum.  He recruits a number of freaks -- these sequences are among the best and most touching in the film.  The freaks are despised and their own parents are ashamed of them; Barnum gathers them together into an ensemble that serves as a kind of chorus throughout the film, a "family" as the impressively hirsute Bearded Lady says.  Encountering Charles Strattan, later famous as General Tom Thumb, Barnum responds to the boy's complaint that "people will pay to laugh at me" by saying "their already laughing, you might as well make them pay."  This isn't sufficiently persuasive and so Barnum says to the shy boy:  "I will make you a general, dress you in the finest uniforms, and mount you on the most beautiful horse.  People will look up to you."  Using a similar pitch, Barnum enlists the rest of his company, including the famous Chang and Eng, Siamese Twins, and his human oddities make him a millionaire.  All is well until Barnum, happily married with two little girls, entices Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to tour America.  The showman loses his way, begins to adopt the highfalutin' ways of his critics, and, almost, succumbs to the Swedish singer's feminine wiles.  She kisses him on stage and the image causes a scandal. (This element is a calumny on the good name of the historical Jenny Lind and terrifically unfair and untrue.)  Barnum's freaks are constantly involved in street-fighting with local ruffians and there is a subtext involving societal disapproval of an inter-racial relationship between Barnum's partner and a comely African-American trapeze artist.  In the course of a riot in which racist thugs fight the freaks, P. T. Barnum's museum of oddities burns down.  Barnum seems defeated at first, but, then, his loyal freaks find him in a bar, perk up his spirits, and, revived, the great showman goes forth to win back his wife (and twin daughters) and found the Big-Top circus that bore his name until this very year 2017.  While the freaks do an explosive dance under the Big Top, Barnum rides Jumbo, the immense elephant, through the snowy streets of Manhattan to join his wife for a ballet recital in which his two daughters star.  And, so, there is a happy ending, pleasing to all.  (Unseemly aspects of Barnum's career -- for instance, his exhibition of a tubercular and dying Black woman as the "slave who nursed George Washington", his display of the Circassian "moss-haired" women and the showman's exploitation of microcephalics and other developmentally disabled people in his shows -- are wholly suppressed.)

When the plot of The Greatest Showman is baldly recounted, it's pretty evident that the musical is heavily didactic, maudlin, and sentimental.  And, I suppose, these criticism are accurate.  But the film moves so swiftly and with such sure-footed grace that we are willing to accept all of its absurdities.  The damned thing is so wonderfully entertaining that I am willing to forgive its manifold flaws.  And, I suppose, there is something to be said for the messages of good will that the film so broadly transmits -- freaks are shown to be human and endearing and courageous, diversity is affirmed, and, even, Barnum's most hostile critic is won over -- "you seem to be celebrating the family of mankind," the priggish supercilious critic, now a fan, tells Barnum.  The episodes move with lightning speed, the acting is universally good, and the ethical points that the film endorses are virtuous and worthy.  Much of the dialogue is funny and epigrammatic -- it's like capitalist Brecht on steroids.  This film is so purely entertaining that I'm compelled to recommend it.     

Don Scott's new CD "Blues and Trouble"

Don Scott is a Minnesota musician specializing in austere, acoustic blues. Scott lives near Chatfield and performs in the upper Midwest (and nationwide) during the warm months. In the winter, he works mostly in Mexico. He has toured Europe frequently where he enjoys, perhaps, more acclaim than in the States. In concert, Scott makes a modest appearance, eschewing theatrics and preferring that the music speak for him on its own merits. He sits with his guitar on a stool or chair, wears a white fedora, and looks down at his feet as he plays.  Scott is usually accompanied by a musician playing harmonica or Rosanne Licciardi who provides percussion. On this CD, Scott’s songs are arranged for accompaniment by percussion, standing bass, and piano. Scott provides vocals, guitar, and plays the harmonica.

When I have seen him perform live, Don Scott has played a mixture of original 12-bar blues tunes, compelling covers of old, lesser known traditional blues, and jaunty upbeat instrumentals. Although he is undoubtedly immensely accomplished on the guitar, Scott’s playing is understated, elegant, and tasteful – he doesn’t engage in showy exercises in virtuosity. His best instrument is his voice: Scott sings in a high, piercing tenor that's highly expressive. Scott’s range is the shivery upper register most familiar to blues fans from Robert Johnson. Like Johnson, Scott’s high voice sometimes takes on a keening aspect and, at other times, exudes suave menace. Unlike the delta Blues singer, Scott articulates clearly and his words can almost always be easily understood. (And Scott doesn’t essay the spooky falsetto whoops, howls that Johnson sometimes uses.)

Don Scott’s 2017 CD, Blues and Trouble is a handsomely designed recording that simulates a set that the musician might perform live in concert or at a tavern. There are 13 tunes on the CD, six of them original compositions by Scott – three of Scott’s original songs are instrumentals. The remaining seven songs are by well-known blues artists such as T Bone Walker and Bobby "Blue" Bland – although a deep-dyed blues fan might know these tunes from the original, I hadn’t heard any of the covers on this album in other performances. The songs are all strong and varied. Some of them are funny, others are tragic, even, perhaps, horrific – the instrumentals chug away in an unassuming, and pleasant way: these numbers are, in effect, smooth jazz designed to state a theme and, then, develop improvisation by the musicians. Each instrument gets a break and Scott’s side-men (and women) play their riffs with ingenuity and style. If the CD has a defect, it’s the sonic mix on some of the songs. Scott’s voice, particularly in its lower register, sometimes gets lost in the guitar licks and keyboard. To my ear, the recording engineer should have turned Scott’s voice up about 20 % on about half of the tunes.

My critique of the mix doesn’t apply to the first song on the CD, "Street Walkin’ Woman" (T Bone Walker) which seems to be almost perfectly performed and beautifully recorded. The song is a little blues gem. Of course, it sounds familiar, like its embedded in your DNA. (As far as I can determine, a variant of the song appears on T Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday album in 1967 under the title "Cold-hearted Woman." This tune in turn relies upon Robert Johnson’s 1936 "Kind-hearted Woman Blues" in which the singer pronounces the word "kind" as to be indistinguishable from "cold" – a point that is made clear in the final verse in which we learn that the "kind-hearted woman studies evil all the time." There are only about ten or twelve 16-bar blues tunes and these melodies get recycled endlessly. In the version recorded by Mr. Scott, the "Street Walkin’ Woman" is primarily promiscuous and a drunk – instead of "studying evil all the time" she’s "she’s tall and twisted all the time," presumably from pounding the pavement.)

"Devil Ride" is a moody cover of an Aaron Neville song. The lyrics warn against taking a ride with the devil. It’s an effective song in the voodoo Delta tradition – Robert Johnson, succumbing to satan’s temptations, demanded that his body should be buried on "the highway that my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound and ride." "Devil Ride" is less hopeless and more monitory – but it invokes the old inclination toward voodoo and the dark arts integral to the traditional blues. Almost equally dire is Jr. Parker’s morose "Mother-in-Law Blues". The name promises comic relief but, in fact, the lyrics are melancholy – a drunk loses his woman when her mother-in-law rescues her from the inebriate singer. The song is an interesting combination of angry indignation and sorrow and Scott sings with raw, authentic emotion.

The most fun song on the CD is a cover of Prince Partridge’s "How Come My Dog Don’t Bark". Scott channels Randy Newman in the way that he styles the vocals, an elaborately loquacious and paranoid rant about a dog that seems a little too fond of another man who’s been hanging around the singer’s attractive wife. This song features brilliantly eloquent keyboard work embroidering the singer’s outraged harangue. The tune reaches its climax in a hyperbolic, spine-chilling series of threats – the singer plans to kill everyone in sight and has acquired from his barber a special knife with two razor-sharp edges: "I cut you once, you bleed twice," the aggrieved husband sings.

"Black Night" is a gorgeous ‘lonesome blues’ tune. The song has morose lyrics that are both archetypal and timely – the singer’s brother is in Afghanistan." The guitar work in this song seems to emanate from a hollow cave deep underground and there is a particularly sepulchral low note in the guitar solo that resonates like an earthquake. "Lazy Walk," "Cody’s Funky Butt," and "Sunday Cruisin’" are good-natured instrumentals . To my ear, these tunes are more jazz than blues, basically opportunities for the musicians to improvise on the basis of melodies supplied by the guitar. "Sunday Cruisin" is particularly laid-back and cheerful, a brightly layered groove that sounds a bit like Pat Metheny.

Anchoring the album are two songs written by Don Scott, "Some Other Day." and "8 Days of Hell." Both tunes seem rooted in the songwriter’s personal experiences and are very powerful, perhaps, the best work on the album. "Some Other Day" is a fierce protest about social priorities that give tax breaks to the rich while systematically underfunding Veteran’s Administration hospitals. The words and import are clear and the lyrics succinctly expose the hypocrisy of "supporting the troops" when budget cuts covertly subvert the VA. Blues songs depend on repetition and here the words "come some other day," repeat in a way that suggests the frustration of the singer told over and over again that there’s no room for him at the VA – the line for admission is too long. The melody has a menacing edge and the song cuts like a knife. I’ve seen Scott perform "8 Days of Hell," one of his best songs, and was pleased to see the piece included on this CD. Although modestly entitled "8 Days of Hell", the song measures the impact of a serious war injury on a young man’s entire life. Badly burned in an explosion, the singer is hospitalized first in Saigon and, then, Tokyo where the "smell of death" surrounds the 21-year old soldier. He recovers but his body is permanently scarred and his mind damaged – he vainly tries to forget the episode with "whisky and drugs" before concluding that those means to oblivion are just "a waste of time." Presumably, transforming the experience into a blues song is healing in a way and, in fact, the tune’s melody is mild, even lyrical. On this song, the beauty of the piano and guitar solos seem, at first, incongruent to the bitter, matter-of-fact lyrics – but since the song seems itself a means for controlling the demons summoned up by the "8 days of Hell", the elegant musical accompaniment is probably justified.

"Glad to Have These Blues" is another number by Don Scott that concludes the album. It’s appropriately jocular and stands in contrast to the more anguished tunes on the CD. Rosanne Licciardi provide percussion on the album. Karyn Quinn plays the upright bass and Brian Werner’s piano eloquently supplements Scott’s work.

You can learn more about the Don Scott Duo (Don Scott and percussionist Rosanne Licciardi) at

(Some additional notes:  "Devil Ride" originated as a Gospel tune although its imagery is clearly related to Blues' tunes about transactions with the devil.  Since gospel and the blues are, often, simply two sides of one coin is not surprising that the lyrics tend to bleed into one another.  Scott describes Big Bill Broonzy as an influence on his music, much more so than Robert Johnson.  There is a wonderful version of "How Come My Dog Don't Bark Any More" on Dr. John's album Goin' Back to New Orleans, a record that Scott highly recommends.)





Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Star Wars -- The Last Jedi

The new installment in the Star Wars franchise is fairly awful.  This is not surprising.  The films have generally been mediocre to bad.  In this regard, it is well to remember the lineage of the films.  George Lucas' first episode was intentionally bad -- the director invoked campy movie-serials made thirty or forty years before producing the first picture in the series.  Lucas was capable of powerful dystopian sci-fi, as witness THX1138 and could construct and effectively direct a character-driven film like American Graffiti, a serious film that can compete on some levels with Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.  But he turned away from those models and, indeed, serious science fiction when he ransacked tawdry movie serials for the cardboard characters and effects in the first film.  I recall seeing Star Wars and John Boorman's Excalibur in the same week -- Boorman's movie, as badly flawed as it was, struck me as thrilling, profound, and moving; by contrast, Star Wars didn't aspire to be anything other than amplified kitsch.  The movie wasn't bad by accident -- it was bad by design.

The Last Jedi continues in this tradition -- except that, after almost a half century, the film has forgotten its humble origins and aspires to grandiosity.  The picture is interminable and exceedingly complex.  Three plot lines are intercut ingeniously, action or a sound in one story edited to match an action or effect in the parallel narrative.  In the first plot-line, the virtuous rebels against the evil New Order flee through space, suffering constant attrition through attacks orchestrated by the monstrous Admiral Snoke (pronounced "Snook").  In the narrative, the principal characters are Kilo Ren (a sort of poor man's Darth Vadar, played by Adam Driver), poor Carrie Fischer acting the role of the superannuated Princess Leia and her auxiliary, Laura Dern, in the part of another fleet commander.  There's an obnoxious "fly-boy" who is so irritating that I don't know his name and can't recognize the actor playing the part. 

The second narrative involves a dark-skinned former fighter with the New Order (now defected to the Good) and a Korean (or possibly Chinese) girl.  These two characters are on a quest to locate a crack "thief" with the ability to smuggle them onto the flagship for the evil New Order.  Their mission is to destroy equipment that is tracking the retreating rebels through warp-speed space.  This narrative features an exciting chase involving camelid-like creatures through a gambling hell that seems to be modeled on Macau.  This plot goes nowhere:  the thief, also played by an ethnic character -- he's like the Frito Bandito -- sells out the heroes and they are captured by the bad guys.  This story is insistently "ethnic", involving people of color who are trapped in a thankless, dull, and ineffectual narrative.

The third narrative takes place somewhere on the Orkney Islands in the North Atlantic. On a crest of raw stone rising out of the turbulent waves, Han Solo, the last Jedi knight, has withdraw to brood like Achilles in his tent (Solo is played by Mark Hamill who has grown into a odd bard-like beauty).  A young woman who aspires to Jedi status has sought out Han Solo and tries to return him to the field of battle.  In the course of this tale, the young woman develops super-human powers that later involve her in a duel with Admiral Snoke and her "brother" -- the evil Kilo Ren, also, apparently, an apprentice Jedi. The island sequence is so totally inert that the director had dream up some cute little puffin-birds and some strange-looking mole-like laborers to keep things amusing. 

These three stories all lead to noisy climaxes.  Then, the characters from the separate narratives all gather together in the last half hour -- there is a huge battle in outer space and, then, another huge battle in the desert.  In effect, the film has no fewer than five climaxes -- this is exhausting and gratuitous and, by the last half  hour,  you are praying that the film will come to an end.   The film's emotional structure is one hour of loud fighting and, then, another hour and a half of continuous climax.

On the plus side, the film is fantastically inventive and, often, thrilling.  The first space battle is literally breath-taking.  The images in the film are crammed with strange creatures, odd machines, and curious details.  If we are shown a sea, you can expect that a sea monster will rear up -- even though this is wholly gratuitous:  the film is not about sea monsters.  (Similarly, when someone plunges into a Cenote-like underground cave, we can see the bones of Pleisosaurus-like sea creatures in the murk.)  In some of the battle scenes, the combatants are posed against fully articulated and spectacular fighting between armies of droids and storm troopers -- we see the principal characters burnished by the halos of huge explosions in the background.  The last space battle ends with an apocalyptic explosion so huge that it has a thermo-nuclear aspect about it -- the screen goes white and the figures and machines appear to wither to ashes in a sea of acetylene fire and there is no sound at all; this is a spectacular image.  The final battle is also almost absurdly beautiful -- the opposing armies face-off on a huge salt-encrusted playa and when their treads or boot scuff the surface, the terrain underneath is blood-red.  The fighters extend skids down into the lake surface and cut scarlet wounds into the earth and, a final shot of the battlefield, shows a huge, gory-looking abscess cut into the white salt, a smear of scarlet littered with burning equipment and corpses. 

But these wonderful things are outweighed by the sheer ridiculousness of the project.  Like Grand Opera, a film of this sort requires all kinds of fashion decisions and, about half of them are grotesque or idiotic:  Laura Dern has purple hair and the New Order commanders wear little hats with a perky brim that make the allegedly fearsome enemy look like alert terrier dogs.  Admiral Snoke looks like a giant and elderly Jack Palance with a deep fissure in his brow -- he is dressed like Hugh Hefner in a kind of gold lame smoking jacket.  There's is nothing even approximating acting in the film -- the characters just harangue one another or shriek commands.  (In the opening scene, the acting is so transcendently bad that it's hard to avoid giggling -- later, you get used to the constant screaming and shouting.)  Laura Dern looks prim and proper and seems totally baffled by her lines.  Carrie Fischer must have been drunk or drugged out of her mind for the shoot -- around the middle of the film, she begins to slur her lines so badly that the camera has to shoot her from behind.  (Maybe she lost a tooth -- she literally can't say her "s" sounds.)  The movie relies way too heavily on vast, inexpressive close-ups -- I can't recall a film more infected with close-ups.  But the close-ups don't show us anything because this would require acting and acting, as a matter of course, is prohibited in a picture of this sort.  (There are odd little moments that are endearingly self-critical -- in one shot, we see a strange space ship levitating as it spews steam:  it turns out to be an iron pressing a New Order uniform that will be stolen by one of the characters.  In another scene, Kilo Ren gives an order that is repeated by being bawled at 150 decibels by Domnall Gleeson -- Adam Driver cocks his head and looks at Gleeson with undisguised horror and contempt.) 

My fundamental criticism is that we just don't care about the outcomes of the interminable light sabre duels and battles that we are shown.  First, there is no element of suspense; we know exactly how everything will turn out.  Second, since we don't care about the characters, we don't care about who wins the fight.  Everything is weightless and wholly inconsequential, although the sound and fury tries to argue for the opposite.  By the end of the film, almost all of the rebel forces have been killed -- there's only tiny number of rebels surviving; perhaps, about 20.  But there's no sense of mourning or sorrow for all the hordes slaughtered.  Homer's Iliad is about thirty percent funerals and grief and fury over the death of comrades -- indisputably the epic form has space for appropriate displays of grief.  But there's simply no trace of any recognizable human emotions at all in this film.  A good example is when Kilo Ren inexplicably kills his master, Admiral Snoke.  Why does he do this?  We don't have a clue and huge shots of Driver's saturnine features convulsed in weird grimaces don't tell us anything. 

It's a bad movie, one of a series of bad movies that commenced with an awful movie.  And this seems to be what the audience wants. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Great Day in the Morning

Great Day in the Morning  (1956) is an unusual film noir Western directed by Jacques Tourneur.  The film is so willfully perverse that, perhaps, some critics might find a masterpiece lurking in all of the picture's confused gloom.  I'm not sure myself whether the picture is some sort of idiosyncratic gem or, rather, a mess comprised of half-digested fragments from a once well-known novel -- often when novels are adapted to the screen, the filmmakers retain elements from the text that are striking, but that may not match the narrative distilled from the book in the process of translating it to the screen.  In fact, movies adapted from novels are often characterized by episodes and, even, shadowy figures that don't fit into the film's plot, necessarily much simplified from the novel, but that have been retained from the source to show fidelity to the book.  I have the sense that many of the curious, dead-end incidentals visible in this Western derive from motifs in the book that may have been meaningful in that context but not in the film as finally cut.  (Tourneur is reported to have said that Great Day was a failure because the script deleted too many scenes in the novel integral to understanding the action.)  As it stands, the movie is startling in many respects with a weirdly complex plot, although, ultimately, the picture is too diffuse to be entirely interesting -- the ending in particular is utterly bizarre in every respect and so unsatisfying that one suspects both irony and contempt for the audience in the film's last third.

The picture starts in a promising way with a odd vertical gunfight in a defile in the Colorado Rockies.  A lone gunman battles Indians who are almost directly above him, runs out of shells, and is saved only by the intervention of three riders on the adjacent ridge.  This sequence is effectively designed and packs a visceral punch.  The landscapes are high Rockies -- meadows and deep valleys with spiky snow-capped peaks looming overhead.  The film was shot in old Silverton and environs and the landscapes are splendid and, in fact, unusual for a Western -- we're used to deserts and high chaparral (because that landscape was endemic to southern California) and so it is refreshing to see a film that features real vistas of the great Rocky Mountains.  (The effect is similar to Tourneur's greatest film, the idiosyncratic Canyon Passage, a movie set in the dense forests of Oregon -- a  precursor to Altmans vision of the far west in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)  Almost immediately after being saved by the three riders, the hero, improbably named Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) comes close to being shot by a fanatical pro-Union man among the horseman.  The film is set in 1861 just before Fort Sumter and sectarian passions have reached a homicidal pitch. The film's rhetoric sometimes soars and the characters invective is equally inventive -- Southerners such as the hero (he's from South Carolina) are called "slave-beating, slave-dealing traitors" and throughout the film the issue of chattel slavery surfaces in a variety of odd, displaced subtexts:  there is discussion "owning people' as employees or as lovers and the hero is threatened with "whipping."  The hero's nemesis, Jumbo Means (played by an immense Falstaffian Raymond Burr) founds a tavern across from Pentecost's place, The Free State Saloon, featuring a big mural of an African slave being freed from his chains.  The film's climax involves a mini-Civil war in the mining town in which a ragtag Union militia faces off against southern miners who are attempting to get their wagon loads of ore out of Colorado and into a slave state.  (The sound track also features iterations of well-known Civil war songs.)   The plot is almost ridiculously complex for 92 minutes movie.  Pentecost is pursued by two women, a blonde "good girl" who has come to the mining camp to found a women's dress shop and a dark-haired "jezebel", the saloon-girl Boston.  There is surprisingly explicit erotic byplay and the two women exert their wiles to seduce the reluctant, strangely ambivalent hero -- he seems to like rape:  he kisses the women violently, overcoming their resistance, but when they begin to respond with real passion and affection, he stalks out of the room.  (In an early scene, the saloon girl takes Pentecost to her room and the scene is set for a romantic interlude -- but when she turns away from him the cowboy passes out dead-drunk on the bed.)  With Boston's collusion, Pentecost acquires the town's peculiar saloon, "The Circus" owned by the elephant fetishist, Jumbo Means -- the saloon girl who is Means' mistress has tired of the fat man and rigs a game of chance so that Pentecost wins the bar on a bet.  Pentecost distributes mining claims to miners (Jumbo won these by cheating in poker games) and tells them that he will stake their claim so long as he is paid 50% of any earnings.  When one of the miners defies Pentecost and refuses to pay his share, there is a gunfight and the hero guns the man down.  This causes a riot in town since the shooting is viewed as a sectarian killing based on the hero's pro-Confederate background and the dead man' vehement Union persuasion.  Several people get killed in the shooting which is about to escalate into an all out civil war in the town when the local priest, beloved by all, gets in between the warring factions and is shot to death -- this quashes the riot.  The dead miner's son appears in town and Pentecost takes it upon himself to raise the boy -- he tells one of his girlfriends:  "When he learns to shoot, he'll fill me full of lead and save me the trouble of committing suicide."  There's some more gunfights and Pentecost is wounded.  His adopted son learns that Pentecost killed his father but can't bring himself to shoot him.  When Boston calls Jumbo "fat", he knifes her to death.  (This summary leaves out lots of scenes about love, lust, and female erotic curiosity.)The confederate-sympathizers among the miners have filled the Circus Saloon's warehouse with gold.  Pentecost, now more or less recovered, agrees to help the men get the contraband ore out of the State -- he does this for payment of $100,000.  (Throughout the film, Pentecost is viewed as a pure mercenary -- he states that "I have undying loyalty to myself."  Pentecost's mercenary attitude is just a bolder, less hypocritical kind of war profiteering than Jumbo Means uses to line his pockets.  Characteristic of film noir, the hero suspects everyone's motive and the movie is brutally honest in its demonstration that war fever is generally just war profiteering -- Pentecost derisively says:  "A man's got to be sentimental about a war.")  The climax of the film involves Pentecost helping the miner's escape with their loot -- so that they can better finance the southern cause.  This part of the film, about the last quarter, is shot in very, very dark day-for-night and can't really be clearly seen.  (The denouement begins with dream-like gunfight obviously staged in a California studio --- this sets the tone of unreality for what follows.)  At one point, hand grenades are used to create a diversion and I hoped that the flash of the bombs would show me what was happening in the dark -- but the bombs create huge clouds of black smoke and almost no light at all.  Pentecost pilots a wagon as diversion and the Union militia pursues him until the wagon is destroyed.  He, then, hides in a cave and we await a final shoot-out.  But, instead, it turns out -- unbeknownst to us -- that there is another way into the cave and that one of Union sympathizers, in fact, an officer in the militia, gets the bead on Pentecost from behind. (Pentecost has been this man's rival for the hand of the blonde "good" girl).  The Union soldier spares Pentecost and, even, gives him a canteen to take on his hike to place where he can catch a coach from Santa Fe.  Pentecost promises to fight against the Union, but as a "private" and, thus, the film ends.  The film's effect is that of a series of exquisitely staged episodes that are only very remotely stitched together by the theme of ongoing civil war -- that is, enmity among brothers.  This theme seems so problematic that the film itself threatens to dissolve into a weird chaos of competing themes and issues.  The dialogue is exceedingly brilliant -- almost annoying so:  the film glories in the ultra-hardboiled rat-a-tat epigrams of a noir detective movie.  The movie was written by Lesser Samuels -- he wrote another great noir, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.  The dialogue is all a form of demotic poetry.  The darkness in the end signifies that Tourneur doesn't know what to do with this material and can't figure out a way to convincingly stage some of the confrontations -- so he just plunges everything into dense blue gloom.  This contrasts with the very clear design of the opening third of the film.  Jumbo's "Circus" saloon has yellow walls covered with hieroglyphic-like figures:  Tourneur achieves fascinating graphic effects by posing his characters against the hieroglyphs and glowing yellow field of the painted walls -- it's a proto-Godard effect that is very startling.  Until the descent of darkness, the gun battles are effectively staged and the town is full of vivid minor characters, including one man named "Cannibal" -- "just because you eat somethin' wrong once, doesn't mean you should have to live with it all your life," the big beefy guy says.  I assume "Cannibal" is based on the famous Alferd Packer, the Colorado cannibal who was condemned to hang because in the words of the Hinsdale County Judge, "there weren't but seven Dimmycrats in the county and Packer done ate five of 'em."  (Packer was later pardoned for his misdeeds.) 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

It came from Outer Space

It came from Outer Space is a 1953 flying saucer picture, directed in a workmanlike manner by Jack Arnold and based on a story by Ray Bradbury.  `The picture enjoys a reasonably high status among critics -- it's supposedly one of the best of the genre.  I don't like the picture much and, indeed, must admit I'm not really a fan of Jack Arnold's films.  (He also made Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.)

It came from Outer Space was produced by Universal Studios, renowned for its horror films in the thirties.  The German expressionist designs that made Universal pictures remarkable in that era are gone without a trace by 1953.  The shadowy, womblike grottoes in the Frankenstein and Dracula films have been replaced with well-lit cubicles, crisply designed sets that seem to be film adaptations of some kind of abstract owner's or operator's manual -- everything seems enclosed, even the outdoor shots and there are no shadows to speak of:  rather everything is bathed in a clear, anonymous and clinically bright light.  Even shots in an underground mine or purporting to be outside at night (shot in unconvincing "day for night") are executed with a weird administrative efficiency -- the shots never seem to be "realistic" but they aren't expressionistic or atmospheric either:  rather, the images present us with a series of transparent signs:  the desert set stands for the desert even though it is obviously shot indoors on a soundstage, a fireplace stands as a sign for a house, a small town, in this film Sand Rock inArizona, stands for an America besieged by alien (Communist) forces.  The signs are not only uninteresting and schematic in themselves; generally, the things they stand for are also obvious and banal. 

A science writer named Joe Putnam and his girl, Ellen, a beautiful brunette, see a meteor crash into the desert near the remote town of Sand Rock, Arizona.  The meteor has gouged out a big crater in the desert, somewhat similar to the meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona.  Joe goes into the crater, finds a space ship, and sees an alien, before a landslide covers up the UFO.  A monster, or several monsters, hustle around the desert.  When people see them -- the shots are POV from the monster's perspective (to avoid having to show the critters) -- the folk scream hysterically and collapse in puffs of white fog.  No one believes Joe's claims that the aliens are among us. The monsters are benign -- they are just borrowing people's bodies in order to collect hardware to repair their space ship.  (The people who have been borrowed for this task are affectless, talk in a monotone, and walk stiffly in tandem -- they are assembling copper wire and "metallic parts" to fix their UFO:  this aspect of the plot was later made a part of Spielberg's ET, the construction of the device improvised from hardware with which to "phone home.")  Conveniently, the monster's space-ship has fallen into the rear galleries of an abandoned mine and so the cave where the repairs are underway can be accessed through the mine adits.   This allows the protagonist to spy on the monsters from within the mine.  After about half the town is taken hostage, including Ellen, the hero's girlfriend, there is a confrontation -- by this time the monsters, who look just like zombie townspeople have constructed a very cheesy-looking death ray.  There are some tense negotiations but all is well -- the space monsters are just trying to escape and they jet away from earth leaving the hero to sententiously remarks that "someday they will return."   Many elements of this film were later incorporated into Don Siegel's 1956 sci-fi noir The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a much better film.  It came from Outer Space is based on an plot premise that is ubiquitous in fifties sci-fi and horror films -- the idea is that we will never be able to interact cooperatively with space aliens because the damned things are just too hideously ugly. (For instance, Howard Hawks' film about a space monster found frozen in an Antarctic glacier, The Thing.)   It's probably tasteless to make this reference and unhistorical to boot, but I see this motif in terms of the struggles in this country at that time involving Civil Rights -- race is about a kind of human being who doesn't look like us, but that, nonetheless, has all our rights and responsibilities.  Films like It came from Outer Space and The Thing (among a hundred others) posit that we can't get along with aliens because they look different from us and we find them esthetically unappealing.  It's interesting to note that this motif has vanished from recent films -- no one has any problem with the octopus-monsters in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival because they are ugly.  The problem with the theory that ugliness necessarily breeds conflict is that we live in a world full of things like centipedes and tarantulas and scorpions and the mere existence of the genre of the giant insect movie demonstrates that people are very, very fascinated with what seems ugly and alien to them.  The monstrous and ugly exercise a strong appeal -- otherwise, why would be there such things as freak shows?  Accordingly, the whole premise for many 1950's horror and science fiction films seems fundamentally flawed.  One is reminded of Marlene Dietrich's exclamation after the Beast has turned into the Prince in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast:  "Give me back my beautiful beast."  In Arnold's film, the space critters are disembodied large foreheads with a single small eye and, perhaps, some ivy-like tentacles dangling from their Easter Island-sized jumbo brow -- the creatures aren't even frightening; they just look ridiculous.  Originally made in 3D, the picture has the UFO fly straight into the lens to explode, features some impressive rock falls with boulders lurching at the audience, and, finally, not one but two helicopter landings in which the helicopter seems to land right in your lap. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Spanish Trip

For a few months, this summer I passed a theater near Lake and Hennepin that seemed to be always screening The Spanish Trip, Michael Winterbottom's new installment in a series of films featuring the British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I drove by, saw some other films, but never went to this comedy.   (Coogan is familiar to American audiences -- he has played a British villain a few times and wrote the sentimental, if very good, Philomena, the story of an Irish woman cruelly separated from her baby at birth who, in her old age, searches for the lost child and is reunited with him.  Judy Dench starred in the movie.  Brydon is not well-known to Americans; he is something like an even more maniacal Jim Carrey, not conventionally handsome but irresistibly engaging with sad puppy-dog eyes and an ingratiating manner.)  These "trip" films, no less than the "Road to ---" series starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, are highly formulaic squabbling "buddy" pictures.  In London, Coogan and Brydon, who play grotesque versions of themselves, are assigned a trip -- the two men go somewhere, rent a car, and drive through picturesque landscapes that are lovingly photographed.  They stay at atmospheric country inns and eat world-class, high-tech meals.  The men quarrel with one another and amuse themselves by doing pitch-perfect impressions of celebrities -- these scenes seem to be improvised with the actors striving to one-up each other.  In The Spanish Trip, for instance, Coogan imitates Mick Jagger doing an impression of Michael Caine in Zulu; later, Brydon imitates Marlon Brando playing the role of Torquemada, the grand inquisitor.  Some of the impressions are dizzying -- three layers deep:  Mick Jagger imitating Anthony Hopkins who is doing an impression of James Dean.  These sequences, which involve much braying and strutting and shouting, invariably take place while the men are eating at fantastically elite and expensive restaurants -- one of the film's curious aspects is that wild gesticulations of the two stars are intercut with images of the other patrons who seem to be completely oblivious to the weird antics occurring only a few feet from them.  There is some aspect of My Dinner with Andrei in these films -- typically, Coogan plays himself as a searcher, someone on the prowl for erotic adventures, a man unhappy unless he is moving through strange and exotic landscapes; by contrast, Brydon plays hedgehog to Coogan's fox: he is down-to-earth, married with two children and a devoted wife, and the film contrasts his happy, if seemingly dull, home life with Coogan's perpetual, Faustian anhedonia -- his inability to be happy or to find any kind of lasting satisfaction in the places he visits.  In The Trip to Spain, Coogan becomes increasingly distressed as the film progresses -- his American agents aren't making any headway in finding him roles in the USA (this is a constant theme in these films), his girlfriend is pregnant with another man's child, and his own son, who is supposed to meet him in Mallorca can't come because he has caused the pregnancy of his 19 year old girl friend; worst of all he can't get a film project "green-lighted."  The final scenes in the film embody the contrast between the two men -- Brydon goes home to have sex with his wife, interrupted by a crying baby; then, we see him taking his older child to school; Coogan goes to Morocco, gets lost, and is last seen standing alone in the Sahara desert without water and with a stalled Land Rover -- a bus is approaching, a vision almost like a mirage, but it is unclear whether the people on the bus are friendly or, perhaps, something more problematic. 

I never went to see The Spanish Trip when it was in the theaters.  It seemed to me too inconsequential.  But the show is worth watching on DVD or streaming on Netflix.  The picture is pleasant enough and, in fact, the Spanish Trip is very carefully devised -- the imagery circles around Don Quixote (Coogan plays Quixote and Brydon plays Sancho Panza) in a photographic shoot at La Mancha; Coogan says that Don Quixote, in his delusion, thought country inns were castles.  Brydon points out that the two men are staying in actual castles now repurposed to be country inns.  The song "The Windmills of your Mind" re-occurs at various times and there is also some discussion of the tragedies in the Spanish Civil War.  Brydon and Coogan don't seem to like one another all that much and the film doesn't make any effort to soften their jousting -- they seem to want to inflict actual harm on one another and a lot of their banter is very harsh.  This is a buddy film in which the protagonist aren't buddies at all.  Brydon's impressions get on everyone's nerves and the film doesn't shy away from this unpleasantness either -- in one extended scene in Granada, there is conversation about the "Moor's last sigh" (the expulsion of the Moor's from Spain):  Brydon interprets Moor as Roger Moore and does an extended and very irritating imitation of Moore as James Bond.  (Both men are obsessed with impressions of the various actors playing James Bond -- there are also innumerable impressions of Sean Connery.)  Brydon won't give up on the impression and runs it into the ground and, then, some -- everyone is obviously very upset with his showing off in this way and it's not really funny and, even seems culturally insensitive, a way to not talk about the mistreatment of the Muslims in Spain or the Alhambra or something possible relevant and meaningful -- so the whole scene plays as more (Moor or Moore) than a little bit cringe-worthy.  (The next morning, Coogan goes to the Alhambra before dawn to avoid the tourists, drags himself through its various wonders, and doesn't have much to say about the experience which is shown to be strangely disheartening.  The places where the men eat seem to serve tiny plates with elaborate constructed foods on them -- the film is designed in a similar way.  You get just enough beautiful landscape and gorgeous architecture to keep you hungry.  Winterbottom cuts away from the fantastically picturesque mountains and canyons and old castles before you are satiated -- he leaves you always wanting a little more than you are given.  As the movie progresses, the self-assured and insouciant Coogan becomes more and more beat down -- at the end of the movie, he looks old and very weary.  Brydon, by contrast, seems revived by his family.  The film begins with a beautiful song, Louis Armstrong singing about the fog in old London town and, at the end of the movie, the golden mist rolls into Gibralter from Africa seducing Coogan into taking a car-ferry across the strait into Morocco. The film isn't really narrative and its not documentary -- it's comical in parts but not really funny and there is a tinge of melancholy about the whole enterprise.  The best way to describe the picture is that it is a species of film poetry -- variations on a theme that involves vague impressions of Spain, Don Quixote, the Spanish Civil War, mist and rain, all suffused in a rich atmosphere of middle-aged disenchantment.  The movie is too slight for a theater but works fine, indeed, more than fine, in fact, on TV.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Wormwood (final episodes)

Errol Morris' Wormwood doesn't exactly develop and the documentary remains both literally and figuratively stalled.  (The room in which the protagonist, Eric Olson, harangues Errol Morris has a big clock on the wall always set to about 2:35 -- the time when Eric's father jumped, or was flung, from a 10th story window in a downtown New York hotel in 1953.)  In the last three episodes, nothing really new is revealed and the malaise merely deepens; the Stygian gloom gets gloomier and the ambiguities get more ambiguous. 

Proceedings reach their utmost delirium in the 4th episode when Eric Olson has his father's corpse exhumed so that the body can be examined by a forensic scientist for signs of wrongdoing.  Olson is a great talker and he dramatizes an awful dilemma -- he is trapped in a narrative that he is creating through his investigation but which is, ultimately, completely destructive to him.  The body is dug up (in 1993) after being interred for 40 years and examined and, of course, exactly as everyone expected, the corpse shows signs of violence unrelated to the fall from the window -- there is a big contusion above the mummy's eye, an indication that Olson was knocked unconscious before being shoveled out the window to his death on the pavement 10 stories below.  An important element of the film is Freudian -- the documentary demands that we regard Eric Olson as Hamlet, an unwilling, but obsessed son summoned by his father's ghost to work out the details of Frank Olson's demise.  (Eric Olson remarks that the corpse was well-preserved and that he touched his father's skull and looked at his penis -- this latter detail in furtherance of the film's oedipal theme.)  Later, Olson reviews CIA assassination manuals -- he notes that there are dozens of them extant -- and learns that the agency suggested that killing be accomplished by knocking the victim unconscious by a blow to the temple and, then, throwing the body out a window "75 or more feet above the ground."  Olson confronts William Colby, the CIA director, and persists in misguided and ruinous lawsuits.  (Colby apparently kills himself, although this is ambiguous).  His lawsuit is ultimately dismissed under the Federal Tort Claims act because the Judge concludes that Frank Olson was intentionally murdered -- paradoxically, the law affords relief only if the government's actions were negligent; intentional acts, such as murder, are protected by sovereign immunity.  At the outset, Frank Olson's family discussed the matter with the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh -- Hersch, who broke the My Lai massacre story, has sources in the CIA and he is able to immediately uncover the CIA

Under an Arctic Sky

Under an Arctic Sky is a 2017 documentary about surfing on the northwest fjords in Iceland.  If you are a fan of blowing snow, white-outs, ice, and dangerous driving, you'll be enthused about this forty-minute film.  There are about seven or 8 minutes of surfing footage that also looks so bone-chilling and unpleasant that it's hard to enjoy.  The protagonists repeatedly tell the camera that their hands and feet are numb.  They have  to knock icicles off their surf boards before bounding into the deadly-looking green water.  Although I am sure that the young men featured in the film are fantastically strong, they look like southern California girls with long, blonde hair and somewhat equine features -- they scamper about daintily on their frozen feet on the lava shores of the Icelandic fjords.  (Everyone looks Hitler-youth Nordic, androgynous, and epicene.)The kids fly to Iceland in February when the sun rises at 9:45 at Rekjavik (and sets at about 3:30 pm).  They run into a blizzard, but undeterred, drive 11 hours over ice-covered highways (encountering white-outs created by speeding trucks) to reach someplace on the coast of northwest Iceland.  The highway scenes probably don't look like much to someone from California or Hawaii, but they are sufficiently harrowing to a Minnesotan to make this prosaic aspect of the film, in some ways, the most thrilling -- I can readily recognize the dangers the boys are facing.  (This is not so much true during the surfing scenes).  The lads go out on a schooner looking for "gnarly" waves, but just when they find some nice "point breaks" off the headlands of a fjord, another blizzard blows down upon them and they have to retreat to shore.  They drive some more in awful conditions, having to dig one another out of snow drifts when the caravan slides off the road.  Then, the Northern Lights shimmer over the Arctic landscape and the boys go surfing under that display of green and yellow and pink flares.  The whole point of the scene is to capture images of surfers skimming along monster waves under the pillars and rays of the aurora borealis.  The director, Chris Bukhard, gets those shots but they seem strangely unreal -- the waves are lit with some sort of incandescent phosphorescence, as if there were huge spotlights under the water and the surfers are far from shore, tiny figures coasting along the flanks of the big, glassy swells.  It's the sort of thing that makes you cry out:  "Awesome!" -- which is the sole response that the film seeks to elicit. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Wormwood (and American Vandal)

Wormwood is a chilly immersion in a river of Stygian gloom.  I've now watched three episodes of the six program series available this month on Netflix.  Directed by Errol Morris, the program has an eerie, disembodied aspect -- voices, ghostly faces, documents, and grim-looking corridors and hotel rooms appear in the murk and, at first, the entire enterprise is off-putting, abstract, and perilously close to self-parody.  (See, in that regard, the series American Vandal, another plunge into the river Styx, but this venture a parody of extended, immensely detailed-oriented true crime shows such as Making a Murderer.  In American Vandal, someone has spray-painted penises on twenty cars owned by faculty at a Midwestern high school -- the vandalism has been pinned on one of the usual suspects, a stoner reprobate named Dylan.  But Dylan protests that he is innocent and the show evokes the entire mechanism of film-maker-manufactured indignation at injustice, ritualistic forensic science, and talking-head witnesses inadvertently exposing a culture of ignorance, poverty, and abject victimization existing at the lower fringes of the criminal justice system.  Vandal is intended as satiric parody, but the show's appropriation of the standard tropes of this kind of programming is so pitch-perfect that the audience loses track of the fact that the whole thing is intended as a larky joke -- you actually yearn to know who really spray-painted the "dicks on the cars" and the show engenders considerable and authentic suspense.)  Wormwood involves a scientist complicit in the Department of Defense secret biological and chemical weapons program.  A couple days after Thanksgiving in November 1953, the scientist, Frank Olson, committed suicide by flinging himself out of a 11th floor window at the Statler Hotel in New York -- a purgatorial property that looks somewhat like the nightmarish corridors in the hotel figuring in the Coen Bros. Barton Fink.  Olson was under CIA custody at the time of his death.  Beginning in 1973, DOD documents revealed that Olson was part of a study as to the effects of LSD and that he may have died while under the influence of that drug.  Wormwood is about paranoia and obsession and it shows how the extended Olson family was fundamentally destroyed by uncertainties relating to how Frank Olson died.  The program is structured around an extended interview between Frank's son, Eric Olson and the film maker Errol Morris.  Morris doesn't use his celebrated Interrogatron in this movie -- instead, we see him interviewing the fantastically intelligent and loquacious Eric Olson in some kind of institutional setting. There is a sense that Eric Olson, himself, may be clinically insane -- and this notion is enhanced by the grim room where he tells his story to the inert, almost entirely silent, Morris.  Olson is tall and extremely pale and has an unearthly look about him and Morris is heavy-set with a shaved head that makes him look like a survivor of a Russian penal colony.  None of the people in the film are conventionally attractive and so they all seem, at first at least, garishly ogre-ish, almost monstrous in the film's huge close-ups -- faces half-drowned in deep mahogany-shadow; everyone is lit as if sitting for a Rembrandt portrait.  Encircling the interview sequences are reconstructions of the events leading to Olson's death.  These reconstructions involve baroque camera-angles, strange obstructions of some or most of the image field, and are very extensive -- they comprise a saturnine film within a film:  Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olson as morose to the point of being comatose; a rogue's gallery of CIA operatives, some of them quite famous, accompany the hero on his via dolorosa.  (Participating in Olson's demise was Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA assassin who later killed Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.) These parts are also played by plain-looking actors -- including Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban (playing the sinister Dr. Abrahamson, an allergist, who treats Sarsgaard's paranoia with doses of Jack Daniels apparently laced with LSD.)  The film is filled with bizarre interludes -- the CIA takes Frank Olson to a Broadway musical, a Rodgers and Hammerstein production featuring an aria called "No other Love"; this song is repetitive visual leit motif that alternates with images from Hamlet (in the Lawrence Olivier film), documentary shots of the war in Korea, where the US is accused of using "germ bombs" and where American POWs are "brainwashed", possibly through the use of LSD or other psycho-active drugs.  At one point, Sarsgaard is said to have danced to the song "Hound Dog" and, then, stood on his head in the corner of his room -- although Eric Olson thinks this is probably a lie.  Sarsgaard was surreptitiously  administered LSD in a snifter of Cointreau at a place named Deep Creek Lake -- he was at a fishing lodge with other CIA and DOD scientists.  He's convinced that he "failed the acid test" and that the CIA now wants him to "disappear".  The filmed re-enactments collide with interviews which detail years of litigation and government cover-up.  If the story seems familiar its because Seymour Hersh reported on it in the mid-seventies.  Although Olson and his family members, now all dead except for Eric, seem modest, middle-of-the-road bourgeoisie this is a misapprehension.  At one point Eric, who is psychologist himself working on a "collage" mode of therapy at Harvard, notes that a couple friends joined him for a "sort of séance" in Room 1018A (the place from which his father jumped or was pushed):  the friends are Betty Lifton (the wife of the famous Harvard psychologist and political activist, Robert Jay Lifton) and the son of Marshall McLuhan.  So there's more going on here than meets the eye.  The show is intentionally slow-moving and repetitive -- it's also obsessive and eerie:  the program seeks to recreate in the viewers the general paranoiac malaise that led to the hero's death and is reasonably successful in that venture.  Morris directs from a screenplay written by others and so the film has a curious hybrid aspect -- it's not entirely Morris' work although recognizably a product of his style of film-making. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Singin' in the Rain (some reflections)

Popular art pretends spontaneity.  (This truism applies, in fact, to most art).  Singin' in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly) operates according to odd schisms, divisions, disarticulations.  The film offers us a contrast between the popular, spontaneous cantabile of the movie musical and the highly artificial affectations of the Broadway ballet exemplified by the 17 minute-long "Broadway Melody" sequence providing the first of the film's two climaxes.  Kelly's elaborate and allegorical "Broadway Melody" is supposed to provide the emotional and esthetic climax for the film.  This climax is followed by the movie's narrative denouement, a sequence that is the opposite of the intensely theatrical and expressionistic "Broadway Melody".  "Broadway Melody" is an overt contrivance; the film's narrative climax, following fast on the heels of the dance-ballet represents the unmasking of a contrivance, the demystification, as it were, of the machinery of film -- an intensely analytical and schematic behind-the-scenes shot shows Lina Lamont, the silent film star cursed with a terrible voice, lip-synching the show-tune "Singin' in the Rain" while the petite Debbie Reynolds provides the actual singign from behind the stage's curtains.  It's no accident that the song selected for the narrative climax -- a scene that results in the unmasking of the carefully contrived artifice that Lina Lamont is a great singer -- is a number that previously was defined by its "spontaneity".  The happy lover, Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) walks home in the rain and "spontaneously" expresses his jubilation by dancing through puddles and bathing in the fountains of downspouts.  The sequence is staged to represent a spontaneous, flood of exuberant emotion and Kelly foregoes his more balletic choreography (with the exception of the iconic image of the dancer posed on the streetlight) for almost childish gestures involving play in the rain -- in one shot, he stomps like a four-year old through deep puddles.  The film's climax accordingly embodies the division between artifice and spontaneity that is central to almost all (with the exception of "Broadway Melody") of the film's dance sequences.

Consider "Moses Supposes", a song-and-dance sequence in which Dennis O'Connor as Cosmo and Kelly's Lockwood riff on the rhythmic tongue-twisters that an elocution coach is using to train silent actors to speak like British thespians in their new sound film productions.  The song and the accompanying dance, which is virtuosic in many respects, is supposed to spontaneously originate in the high spirits and satiric sensibility of Don and Cosmo, two rebels who see the elocution classes as high-brow hokum and can't resist mocking the pretense that cinema actors should speak like John  Gielgud or Lawrence Olivier -- again note that the premise of the sequence is the contrast between the ordinary demotic spoken in "realistic" moving pictures and the highfalutin' oratory characteristic of the stage.  But the point is that the elaborate song-and-dance number just emerges spontaneously, as a reaction of the characters to the situation in which they find themselves.  Other notable, and extraordinarily complex and intricate song and dance numbers in the film have the same character -- most notably the song "Good Mornin'" in which the trio comprised of Debbie Reynolds, O'Connor, and Gene Kelly dance with the camera climaxing the sequence by a jazz-dance run that charges toward the lens which retreats precipitously as the actors move up and over furniture that obliging flips onto its side as they approach.  Viewing these sequences, the audience is put into a divided mode of perception, consistent with the other innumerable divisions that drive the film by invoking a kind of "compare and contrast" sensibility in the spectator.  These dance sequences are, obviously, fantastically contrived and the result of the most intricate and tiresome preparation -- everything has been rehearsed to within an inch of its life and there is no room for improvisation:  the dances are literally matters in which a half foot too far in one direction or another would be calamitous, even, perhaps, life-threatening.  And, yet, at the same time the viewer is led to a fictional "suspension of belief" in which one part of our mind obligingly interprets the songs and dances as the spontaneous, improvised, wholly natural expression of strong emotion.  Thus, we find ourselves viewing the dance scenes with a double perception -- they are, at once, intensely prepared and artificial constructions involving elaborate camera motion correlating with the supposedly spontaneous motions of the actors (dozens of feet of rail on which the camera glides and vertiginous swooping crane shots) while at the same time wholly spontaneous, sudden, improvised eruptions of music and gesture that embody the emotions of the characters.  Twice in the film, the direct clash between spontaneity and elaborate preparation is made manifest -- of course, this is theme of the film's cruel, but necessary, climax and, also, the first overt love duet between Don Lockwood and the aspiring chorine played by Debbie Reynolds:  in the latter scene, Lockwood leads the ingénue (obviously much younger than him) into an empty soundstage, contrives an elaborate set with a sunset, purple skies, and wind blowing the fabric of Reynold's diaphanous dress (he sets up a wind machine); it seems that it is only after these elaborate preparations that Lockwood can announce his supposedly "spontaneous" love for Reynold's character.  Thus, the proclamation of love itself, supposedly the outgrown of a spontaneous feeling is disclosed, as being a complex and densely staged artifice.  (It's fascinating that this vast empty sound-stage and the wind machine blowing a diaphanous veil re-appears in the jazz ballet "Broadway Melody"; Cyd Charisse playing a gangster's moll dances a duet with Kelly that features the same metaphysically empty but bright soundstage, a vast abyss like the sky in the earlier love scene, through which the characters spin and whirl while a hidden wind machine makes voluptuous patterns in the woman's 60 foot long, lace veil.  How are we supposed to view the replication of imagery, although somewhat disguised, that we saw in the film's narrative in the climactic ballet?  Is Lockwood drawing upon his experiences on the soundstage with Debbie Reynold's as a basis for this ballet?  Or, are we supposed to view the experience of falling in love as being poetically expressed by certain archetypes -- the empty but vast field of light containing the lovers, the rapturous wind  (think of Dante's Paolo and Francesca) of passion?  Or is there an implication that all love is based on some kind of mutual and obsessive self-delusion -- the obvious contrivance manufactured by the lover in the sound stage is parodied and exposed, as it were, by being repeated in the ecstatic, but essentially ridiculous dance in the "Broadway Melody" sequence.  And if this latter interpretation is a correct one, then, what does this presage for Lockwood's romance with Debbie Reynold's plucky ingénue -- the scene with the gangster's moll ends in disappointment:  the woman is a vacuous illusion and she fades away.  Is this the fate of the love between Lockwood and Reynold's little chorus-girl?)

Viewed in the era of Harvey Weinstein, Singin' in the Rain embodies all sorts of queasy forms of sexism and, in fact, viewed in the light of Hollywood's sexual exploitation of women, the film's narrative climax seems wrong-headed and, even, a little bit nasty.  First, the film establishes an ambience of what we would regard as general and pervasive sexual exploitation.  Lockwood assumes that Debbie Reynolds will immediately grant him access to her bedroom -- these leads to their initial spat.  Dance sequences show crowds of willing women spinning around a single elegantly dressed and powerfully accoutered male (top hats, cane and tails).  Lockwood, like Donald Trump, blithely invades a dressing room full of half-naked chorus girls searching for Reynold's character (do you suppose it is indicative that I can't recall her name in the film?)  In the dressing room, a world-weary chorus girl bluntly propositions Lockwood.  When Reynold's dancer encounters Lockwood a second time, she is part of a sexist display of Betty-Boop-type chorines; she herself bursts from inside of a cake in a classic trope signifying female availability and male dominion -- she's provided as a delectable morsel for the powerful studio bosses at the party.  Lina Lamont (played as big, dumb blonde by Jean Hagen) is subjected to elocution exercises in which she repeatedly struggles with pronouncing the word "can't" -- of course, by the end of the lesson, she has elongated her vowels to be saying something that sounds very much like "cunt."  Later, the word "bush" is repeatedly used in a leering sequence in which a recording device is concealed in potted plant -- "I can't make love to a bush!" Lina Lamont loudly wails.   The next shot shows a close-up of her bosom with a hand groping her breasts -- the hand turns out to belong to a female costume attendant who is putting a microphone into Lamont's bodice.  In this world, all relationships are deemed to be instrumental.  Lina Lamont has no time for the impoverished, if devilishly handsome, Don Lockwood until she learns that he is being groomed as a star -- then, she works desperately to seduce him. 

Lina Lamont is clearly no novice and has been around the studio long enough to understand what men want and how to deliver the goods.  And there is a way in which she can be seen to be a kind of feminist (or post-feminist) heroine in this film.  Lamont precipitates the narrative climax by standing on her rights.  She has a contract, she declares, and she is going to sue unless she is accorded the right to control her own image.  At this point in the film, the image includes the notion that she has a beautiful speaking voice and can sing like a nightingale (these attributes courtesy of Debbie  Reynolds).  Nonetheless, it is Lamont who is empowered, if only briefly by the film's climax.  She is insists that she controls her publicity and will not be silenced.  One of the film's central themes relates to the contrast between image as a kind of speech (and publicity) and silence.  Lamont thinks her voice, which is an angular, nasal horror, is beautiful and wants to speak in her own voice -- indeed, she delivers her final defense to an audience in her own crass, sharp, and vulgar diction.  By contrast, the mousy and subordinate Debbie Reynolds, who becomes more and more a thrall to Gene Kelly's debonair Lockwood (exactly as he plotted in the opening scenes) is content to stand behind the curtain, out of the lime-light and, in effect, be silenced.  The film's narrative conclusion is, therefore, profoundly ambivalent -- the powerful woman, seen at a party surrounded by a crowd of well-dressed gents, is a "cunt"; she's reduced to a bad joke at the end of the film and dashes off-screen never to be seen again.  But, there's a distinctly uncomfortable aspect to this climax:  the woman protected by a contract is humiliated, stripped of her power, and, as it were, exposed.  A feminist reading of the film posits Lina Lockwood, who is willing to destroy another woman to maintain her power, as a kind of problematic heroine. 

(In Singin' in the Rain every movement and every gesture reveals the capacity to turn into dance.  This is evident in the final sequence in which a trio of men -- the studio boss, Lockwood, and Cosmo -- set out to expose Lina Lamont's inability to sing.  The men fall into a rhythmic walk and, literally, dance to the ropes controlling the stage's curtain.  They then hoist it with rhythmic and balletic pulling -- the whole thing is a mini-ballet and a kind of barbaric yawp of male dominance.  I say this because hoisting the curtains is a sort of "lynching" designed to punish Lina Lamont for her presumptuousness in maintaining that she has rights worthy of being enforced.)

I've been reading Virgil's Georgics particularly the fourth and some of that study has leaked into this essay.   The Fourth Georgic involves beekeeping and the poem imparts a lot of technical lore to the reader -- we learn how to make hives, what types of plants bees require, and, even, what to do when a colony of bees takes ill.  But a remarkable feature of this text is its so-called epylline -- that is, miniature "epic" -- the story of Aristaeus and his sick bees, a myth that manages to encompass both a duel with the shape-changing sea god Proteus and the sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.  The structure of Singin' in the Rain, accidentally of course, bears some resemblance to the narrative and mythological trappings of Virgil's Georgic.  Probably about half the film is an account of the technology and trade of movie-making --  we get all sorts of "inside dope" about how pictures are produced and how their effects are achieved.  (In one sequence, the film shows the hero on a sound stage where, at least, three or four movies are being simultaneously produced -- the sets are adjacent with their cameras and crews producing a period picture, a western, and a musical all elbow to elbow.)  The film also proposes two myths -- a broader mythology about the transition from silent to sound films and a more narrow, focused myth establishing the etiology of post-synchronized sound or dubbing.  Finally, the film, like Virgil's poem, digresses radically from its ostensible subject to present its epylline (or mini-epic) -- in this case, the "Broadway Melody" ballet, a 17 minute interruption in the narrative that seems to have only the most tangential connection to the story that supports it.  The interpretative problem for the viewer is to work out the connection between this miniature epic, the digression into an immense and complex ballet, and the rather prosaic technical details of the story presented by the main narrative.  In the case of Singin' in the Rain, the ballet seems to present in a fabulous, allegorical mode the career of Don Lockwood, and, in fact, possibly presages, in a melancholy way, the future of his relationship with Debbie Reynolds' character.  In the film's opening, we are shown a resume of Lockwood's ascent to Hollywood fame, a story that he narrates under the specious motto "Dignity, always dignity", on the red carpet while attending (with Lina) one of their films' premieres.  In images that are a counterpoint to Lockwood's pompous narrative, we see the hoofer and his buddy, Cosmo, playing some very rough gigs in vaudeville, then, migrating to Hollywood where the hero becomes a stunt man famous for his willingness to risk life and limb to get the shot.  The "Broadway melody" sequence similarly shows the young dancer, this time alone, appearing as a neophyte in the Babylon of Times Square, connecting with a raunchy agent, and, then, working his way up through performances in speakeasy saloons, then, in small vaudeville venues, and at last, appearing as a headliner in the Ziegfield follies.  (The ascent is similar to that shown in the prologue where Lockwood dances for nickels in pool hall as a little boy and is then shown with Cosmo performing in what seems to be a brothel.  Furthermore, the diction in the song repeated in the different venues where the hoofer performs becomes increasingly gentrified, the vowels becoming more and more elongated as the hero ascends in status -- this is precisely the point of the elocution scenes in the main narrative.)  After achieving professional success, the hero is seduced into the pursuit of the gangster's moll.  This is Cyd Charisse who certainly has one of the most startling first appearances in film history -- the hero's hat is knocked off and lands on the toes of her outstretched leg and she, then, draws the hoofer's attention from her feet up her fantastically long calves and thighs to her crotch (the camera makes this transit with the hero's eyes).  Charisse isn't exactly pretty or beautiful in his film -- her face is locked into expressionless Kabuki mask, a sort of bruised pouting, and she uses her body like a viper.  (She represents everything that Debbie Reynolds is not.)  The hero pursues the girl through various dreamlike sequences -- including one redolent of his courtship of the heroine in the principle narrative -- but she always eludes him.  At last, the hero abandons his pursuit of this Ewig Weibliche apparition and seems to be disconsolate.  But, then, he sees another young hoofer, dressed like a rube as he was a few years before -- the young man optimistically marches down Broadway and the hero understands that the cycle is beginning again with another new aspirant to show business fame.  The story implies two things -- that with hard work and persistence (and, of course, native talent), a good-looking tenacious kid can become a star; and that stardom doesn't bring happiness -- the hero remains romantically thwarted:  he can't seize the woman that he loves.  Finally, the story shows us that its lineaments are eternal -- the desire for show business fame, the pursuit of the loved woman and her loss at the very height of the hero's success are elements that mythically occur and re-occur.  People are fungible to the archetypes that they represent -- we fill various roles on this stage that is the world.  The effect of the ballet, therefore, is to recapitulate elements of the story's plot and to impart a sort of "dying fall" of melancholy to the proceedings -- it is desire that drives show-business and the nature of desire is that it can never be fully achieved.  (A final point:  the balletic "Broadway Melody" with its somewhat specious "beauty" and gravitas is the very opposite of the slogan that animates O'Connor's great set piece, his antic performance of "Make 'em Laugh" in which he hurls himself about with such reckless violence that he ends up knocked-out and presumably comatose when the number is over.  Throughout the film O'Connor mugs demoniacally and his eyes glitter and face seems completely malleable, rubber features that can be twisted in any way you want -- he represents the exact opposite of Don Lockwood's mantra:  "Dignity always Dignity.")

A key aspect of the "epylline" in Singin' in the Rain is to show a different aspect of the female as archet ype than those depicted in the narrative.  Debbie Reynolds is naïve, helpful, resourceful, and courageous, a good friend -- but she seems to belong to an entirely different species than the serpentine Cyd Charisse.  (She's also is very different from the grasping, vulgar, but, apparently, powerful Lina Lamont -- Reynolds has mousy brown hair compared to the Harlow blonde that Lamont sports and she seems to be about half her size; compared to Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds looks squat and seems to have short troll-like legs.)  Throughout the film, there is an insistence that women are intrinsically fragmentary -- that is, no woman embodies in her own person all attractive qualities.  Debbie Reynolds is the sweet girl next door, but she isn't as beautiful or seductive as the terrifying Cyd Charisse, nor is she as ring-wise, savvy and conventionally beautiful as Lina Lamont.  Reynolds can sing but is too mousy to be a conventional movie star; Charisse is silent, a sinuous body that seeks to enfold the hero in her coils; Lina Lamont has beauty but can't speak without grating on the ear.  The female characters are all incomplete in some sense.  Their fragmentary nature contrasts with the Man in Full -- Gene Kelly who not only can sing and dance, but acts effectively, can effortlessly master the new diction required of sound pictures, and is so complete that he can even dance successfully entirely with himself (as in the "Singin' in the Rain" number.)  It's not accidental that the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence includes shots of the hero dancing in front of a window full of severed female heads -- it's a hat shop but the point, nonetheless, is made that all the women in the film are essentially fragmentary and incomplete.  Kelly's dominion over the film and all its aspects is dramatized by his close relationship with the Studio Boss and depicted in the credits for the movie -- the dances are all designed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and he shares a directorial credit with Stanley Donen.

Finally, the film is significant culturally for establishing in the minds of viewers a vast historical distance between silent movies and the talkies.  (The other film instrumental in exiling silent films to an obscure and grotesque past is 1950's Sunset Blvd.)  This movie was made less that 25 years after the silent era -- but the movie posits the silent films as existing in a sort of "fabulous, formless," and ancient darkness, as being antique ruins of a mysterious and outlandish previous world.  But the distance that separated those films from Singin' in the Rain is the considerably less than the time intervening between the first Star Wars film and this present day. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Godless (final episodes)

In its second half, the seven episode Western mini-series Godless slackens a bit, the breakneck pace of the first two shows decelerates markedly, and the penultimate programs leading to the final, apocalyptic gun battle slip sideways into murky territory.  All plot points lead to La Belle and the final fight between the plucky widows and Frank Griffin's innumerable minions -- it's unclear how he supports an army of the size that he leads in this desert wasteland -- but, despite, all the bluster and violence at the film's climax quite a few things remain unclear and, in fact, unresolved.  Godless has an unsettling aspect of seeming extremely leisurely and digressive in its narrative while, at the same time, strangely rushed --it's the opposite of the Latin motto "Festina Lente" ("Make haste slowly"); this show dawdles in a way that somehow seems a little too swift for the viewer -- things that we expect will be explained remain unclear, either through inadvertence or an attempt at meaningful ambiguity.  I simply didn't understand a number of things in this show.  For instance:

Who are the bison-headed blue-eyed bad guys who inexplicably slash open Michele Dockery's sternum?  (This is significant in the sex scene in which Dockery exposes her breasts and the big scar between them.)  Why has Bill, the sheriff, lost his shadow?  And why does the shadow return in the climactic gun battle?  Who is the woman running the nursery school in the wilderness?  She seems an ambiguous figure, a little like Lillian Gish's matronly protector of children in Night of the Hunter, but  also with a strangely childish and malicious aspect as well.  Why is the half-blind sheriff Bill universally regarded as a coward to the extent that women throw dishwater and slops at him when he rides by?  What has he done wrong?  And, similarly, why is the Paiute widow (played by Michele Dockery) regarded as some kind of fatal witch who has put a hex on the town?  The characters of the women in La Belle are very underwritten -- they are basically just skirts and corsets until the big shoot-out when they are skirts and corsets with six-shooters and Winchesters.  Are they strait-laced or bawdy? -- one woman in particular, a lady with dark-hair, seems particularly Victorian until we see her with another woman prancing atop a table and singing a jaunty whorehouse ballad?  (A more pointed question -- northern New Mexico, of course, is characterized by its Pueblos and its Latino population, old villages dating to the conquistadors in the early 17th century:  where is the Spanish-speaking population?  The show, full of exotic immigrants, shows absolutely no sign of the ancient Spanish culture that is predominant in the area -- in the seven hour movie, the picture never shows anyone speaking Spanish or who seems to be Latino.)

Scott Frank, the director seems to like to keep things ambiguous.  For instance, there is a puzzling sequence, quite graphic and disturbing, in which Frank Griffin, the monstrous, psychotic killer, tends to a cabin full of people dying of small-pox.   The sick have been abandoned by their kin, but Griffin pauses in his relentless pursuit of Roy Goode, his disloyal protégée, to tend to the suppurating sores of a dozen or more people dying miserably in a shack in the desert.  (His men are afraid of contagion and they flee -- Griffin makes two twin boys, lunatics who seem to have butchered their entire family, including a new-born baby, stay to assist him.)  A mysterious Shoshone who tracks Bill, the cowardly sheriff, is later revealed to be a ghost rider with a ghost dog.  Griffin turns out to be very kind to horses and a sort of "horse whisperer" -- he can get the animals to lie down on their sides just by stroking them.  This is supposed to be an emblem for Griffin's charisma, his ability to bind young people to him, the personal magnetism that he exerts on his rag-tag army of desperadoes.  But Griffin's combination of nurturing qualities with psychotic violence, which is meant to be puzzling, seems ultimately implausible.  Jeff Daniels, who plays the wicked outlaw, doesn't know exactly what to do:  sometimes, he "out-Herods Herod" and seems ready to "tear a cat"; but half the time, Daniels seems bemused -- he just mutters into his beard as if he is himself unaware of what his words are supposed to signify. 

The various detours before the big gun battle involve lesbian jealousy and an inter-racial romance.  A German princess hanging around town (she does a Lady Godiva turn down Main Street) is revealed as an artist -- she's painting the brothel-keeper, who is Merrit Wever's girlfriend, in the nude.  This leads Wever (who is Bill's sister and strides around town with six-shooters in men's clothing) to quarrel with the former prostitute (now school-marm); of course, the quarrel arises over a misperception as to the relationship between the lissome German baroness and the whore.  Whitey, the adolescent deputy sheriff, falls in love with a black girl living in the encampment of the buffalo-soldiers.  The girl is forbidden to associate with the white teenager and, in fact, beaten severely by her father to deter her from seeing her boyfriend.  A newspaper man comes to town to write an article disclosing that Roy Goode is hiding in La Belle.  This article turns out to be a summons calling all the characters back to the mining town for the climax -- Bill reads the text and returns; Roy Goode who has left the ranch rides into town; and, of course, Frank Griffin's army of bad guys also marches on the village.  (In the penultimate episode, we see the miners at dawn, before the explosion that has killed them all, walking with wives and girl friends to the fatal pit -- this flashback is a short idyllic scene, a sort of calm before the storm.)

The last episode is largely devoted to a spectacular gun battle derived in large part from the defense of the embattled town in The Magnificent Seven (which is, of course, a remake of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.)  As in Kurosawa's film (and John Sturges' Western remake), we see the army of bandits riding relentlessly across the open plains.  They seem an irresistible force, stirring up huge clouds of dust.  In the village, the women have congregated in the hotel, a structure made of brick and iron so that it can't be burned down.  They are heavily armed and, when the bandits, ride up the street and, then, pause in front of the hotel, the women ambush them with a fusillade from the rooftop and windows of the building.  A sort of Old West Armageddon ensues.  (One must note that Kurosawa's staging of this kind of combat has never been improved -- his bandits are ambushed, retreat, and come back the next day, mounting attacks from various sides of the village.  The army of villains in Godless just mill around in the open street, allowing the women to shoot them down by the dozen.  It's completely implausible if rousing and staged with great bravado.)  The bad guys ride their horses right into the hotel, blasting at the women with their six-shooters, and the fighting in the house turns into room-by-room combat -- shot gun blasts hurl people off roofs and a horse rides through a window falling into a sea of fire.  Just when it seems that the women are doomed, Roy Goode and Sheriff Bill ride out of the roiling sea of smoke, appearing at opposite ends of the Main Street so that they can mow down the remaining bad guys.  This is very spectacular and exciting, but fundamentally flawed in that the combat is staged unrealistically -- the men on horseback pose to be shot down and the bullets never hit the horses and not the bad guys.  A number of main characters are killed, but it would be a spoiler for me to disclose who dies and how.  Ultimately, Roy Goode and Frank Griffin, son and father, engage in a duel in a gorgeous mountain meadow -- the field glitters with white columbine and the scene is filmed in extreme longshot so that we can see in the background the beautiful, indifferent, snowy summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Much of the rest of the film, about ten minutes of denouement is shot poetically, tiny horseman moving across enormous landscapes.  The movie does't end exactly right -- Roy Goode has left the Paiute widow a fortune in green backs buried under a fence post (as in Fargo).  The widow uncovers the saddlebag and the greenbacks and, I suppose, becomes complicit in receiving stolen currency -- this seems morally suspect.  The director's urge to make the ultimate Western, a Western that contains all Westerns is much on display in the last episode:  the battle in the town is modeled after The Magnificent Seven, at the end of the film, a preacher emerges fro nowhere to say a few words over the fifty or so new graves in the cemetery -- throughout the show we've seen the women laboring to build a wood-frame church, a motif that invokes McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  After the gun battle, Merrit Wever's character stalks around the battlefield, firing her shotgun pointblank into dead and dying men strewn in the streets and alleyways.  Her brother, Bill, says "You don't need to kill them but once."  The scene in which the gunman who has put aside his weapons digs up a coffin full of armament and, then, dons his six-shooters, spinning them in his hands, is stirring -- it reminds you of a hundred old movies.  And, in the big shoot out, Roy Goode's Winchester runs out of ammo -- he pitches the rifle at a bad guy who is startled and drops his gun to catch the rifle:  this gives Goode the chance to draw  his six-gun from its holster and blow the villain away.  It's a great move, executed with fine balletic aplomb like much of this show -- a fleeting gesture as pretty as anything in Rio Bravo.    Despite its failings, there's a lot in this series to commend and I recommend it to anyone who likes Westerns.  The leisurely episodes have a fine pastoral ambience, there are beautiful landscapes, many splendid horses, and a number of exciting action scenes.