Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Late in the film, Alphonse Cuaron's Roma (2018) establishes a location by showing a Mexican residential street during a downpour.  A man and boy stand under a precarious-looking shelter and speak to another.  The subtitle says "Speaking an indigenous language".  The language is apparently not Mixteca which the subtitles translate, albeit in square brackets -- and, of course, the two Indians are not speaking Spanish.  We don't know anything about these people except that they look poor and they are huddled together against the cold-looking rain and speaking some Indian language that we are not expected to understand.  This shot is one of very few in Roma that does not show the film's protagonist, Cleo, a Mixteca girl who works with another woman from her village as a domestic servant for a upper middle-class Mexican family living in an upscale neighborhood of Mexico City called Roma.  Although the shot doesn't do anything but establish that the succeeding images will take place inside the family's home on the other side of the wall where the Indian father and young son are sheltering against the rain, the image is paradigmatic for the film -- Cuaron's movie, a serene neo-realist classic, is about the people who are outside the focus of most films and most narratives, the people without history, the poor who work as servants in people's homes or who sell food on the street or who labor in hot fields, the Mexican yeomanry, the campesinos speaking embattled Indian languages who have left the farm and their villages for an uncertain future in the big city.  Set in 1970 and 1971, Cuaron's film patiently chronicles events in Cleo's life without, except for a few shots late in film, drawing any conclusions from what we are shown, not hectoring us about poverty and social responsibility, but, rather, simply, applying formally lucid means to show us how this woman lives.  It is up to us to determine the ultimate significance of what the film's close study of Cleo's life reveals.  Although the film is not a documentary and, indeed, has the design of a lyric poem in which certain images prefigure or rhyme (or comment on) other recurring images, many of movie's sequences have the appearance of a closely observed documentary.

The film's subject is demonstrated in Roma's title sequence.  We see some nondescript tiles -- the sort of thing we walk over every day without taking any notice.  Sudsy water spills over the tiles.   Again and again, the tiles are flooded with soapy water.  After about two minutes, the camera tilts up and we see an equally nondescript Indian woman, probably in her late teens, dumping water on the tiles to clean them -- the water swirls into a drain.  The woman is cleaning the narrow driveway into the family compound, a place soiled by dog excrement from the affluent family's pet hound, Boraas.  One of Cleo's chores is to sweep up the ubiquitous dog shit and wash down the driveway floor.  The driveway is one of the film's leit motifs, both visually and thematically.  The narrow driveway gated onto the residential street where the family lives is simply too narrow for the big GM or Chevrolet cars that the parent's drive -- they are forever scraping the sides of the car against the walls of the enclosure.  (In traffic, the family's mother actually gets her car stuck between two trucks.  The scene is slapstick but the point seems to be that the cars made in the USA are simply too large for their Mexico City environs.  (The family owns a little VW beetle but, for most of the movie, its tucked-away in a corner of the courtyard at the center of the living quarters, gathering dust and rarely driven.) Cuaron shows that the pretensions of the upper middle class professional Mexicans living in Roma are too big for the city in which they reside -- the family for which Cleo works is headed by selfish medical doctor,  Antonia, and his wife, Sofia, trained as biochemist, but, possibly, teaching in her profession.  The doctor abandons his wife and family for reasons that the film never establishes and, after the first twenty minutes, is absent from the family home.  (We see him very briefly in a chaotic scene in which Cleo goes into labor and, then, delivers a still-born infant -- as with his family, he makes a commitment to visit her but seems unreliable and doesn't follow through.)  The travails of the middle class married professionals are tangential to the film's parallel plot -- the story of how Cleo gets pregnant with her vicious boyfriend, Fermin, and, then, is abandoned by him.  At the heart of the film is the theme of unreliable men, the dark side of Mexican machismo -- selfishness that results in the women being alone.  (In one key scene, the mother cries out to Cleo that it is the fate of women to be left by their men and "always alone.")  The film's plot, if the gossamer tissue of events shown can be ascribed a narrative, is Cleo's unhappy liaison with Fermin, her pregnancy and the delivery of her child during the Tlat  riots.   These events mirror the collapse of Antonio and Sofia's marriage and the effect of Antonio's absence from the home (he claims to be working in Quebec) on the couple's four children.  In default of their parents, who are occupied with their own sorrows, the children are, in effect, raised by Cleo, at least during the season of marital discontent. 

Roma reminds me a bit of the similarly serene, almost indifferent, narrative in Linklater's Boyhood, also a film about a group of people that we imagine to be "outside of history" -- that is, children.  As with Boyhood, Cuaron's film is resolutely quotidian, most of the picture involves day-to-day activities involving the family, or Cleo and her friends.  Cleo appears in just about every scene in the movie.  Indeed, her central role in the film is often to the detriment of other aspects of the narrative or the depiction of milieu.  In two scenes, Cleo and her friend, the girl from the village, run down crowded streets -- the street scenes have been lovingly reconstructed and the imagery is dense with period cars, beggars, street vendors, and fascinating storefronts with little and big crowds of people everywhere.  We would like to enjoy all this detail but find that our eye can't focus on the running girls and the street scene at the same time -- of course, we are guided to keep our attention on the two girls, thus, perceiving the fascinating anecdotally rich scenes occurring on the street around them as a confused blur.  This is one of the techniques that Cuaron uses to keep our eyes steadfastly fixed on Cleo -- even in big crowd scenes, we keep looking for her to appear and, in almost all instances, our attention is rewarded:  she appears in a door or walking down the street or amidst a crowd of people emerging from a movie theater.  Even when she is inconspicuous amidst all the exotic scenery of Mexico City in 1970 and 1971, we have the sense that, nonetheless, she is somewhere present.

Roma is shot in lustrous black and white.  The movie has no music and the events shown are depicted in sequence shots, often two or three minutes long, and usually recording events from middle-distance.  There are very few close-ups.  I identified two close-shots of Cleo in an early scene in which she sits up in bed watching her boyfriend Fermin practicing kendo in the nude -- his violence and swagger is contrasted with her passivity.  There's a poignant close-up of Cleo, numb with grief, after she has lost her baby.  But, otherwise, we don't see her in close-shots -- most of the time, the camera maintains its distance, both from her and the other characters, and I didn't really have a good sense for exactly how Cleo looks until the scene showing her grief.  This is true of the other actors as well -- we rarely see anyone in close-up; rather, we observe the actors embedded in their interactions with others usually glimpsed across a room or street, part of an ensemble or crowd.  The four children are not exploited for their "cuteness" -- similarly, the dog, Borass, as well as the other canines inhabiting the picture (there is a dog in just about every shot) is not idealized in any way:  he's a typical, defiant, and insubordinate Mexican dog.  The film's technique is not rebarbative -- it doesn't lock you out of the picture like some films of this kind (for instance, movies by Portugal's Pedro Costas):  you can see what you need to see and hear what you need to hear.  But the film's technique is fundamentally epic -- Cleo's suffering occurs in the context of a vast indifferent world:  what happens to her happens to thousands of others amidst millions who are going about their business with no concern of any kind for the plight of the film's protagonist: she is one of a multitude all striving against the obstacles and hardships that life inevitably interposes.  In this regard, Cuaron's epic sensibility casts the struggles of his characters against a background of natural hazards and calamities:  there is an earthquake that hurls debris down on newborn babies (including a tiny child in an incubator that is covered with fragments of the roof -- this is a species of foreshadowing); a wild fire blazing in a forest on New Year's Eve nearly burns down a hacienda -- the party-goers seems to regard the blaze as just another, more spectacular form of entertainment:  children play in the fire and a drunken man, dressed like a monster, sings a long, sad ballad.  Near the end of the film, the characters, including small children, blithely venture into vicious-looking waves at a bedraggled resort near Vera Cruz -- Cuaron stages a sequence in the menacing surf that is intensely frightening and a master-class in how to deploy action across a wide canvas without montage.  The film's Tolstoy-like epic qualities are best embodied in a scene that follows the forest fire:  the family with Cleo walk over furrowed fields in a huge landscape shot to show the cultivated land, wooded hills, and a huge snow-covered volcano at the head of the valley.  The camera tracks with Cleo who joyfully recalls the village in Oaxaca where she was born and observes that the air and the smell of the fields is like her home "except it was drier there."  The shot is extraordinary because of  the natural beauty that it shows, the clarity of the air, the great brooding volcano, and, most importantly, a couple of yapping black dogs that keep shepherding a small flock of sheep into tight spiraling circles in the scene's deep middle distance.  The image seems, somehow, colossal, particularly after the alarming fire sequence -- a grandiose tracking shot that cuts against the urban grain of the crowded streets, the constricted driveway and car-park, the chaotic interiors in Mexico City. 

Not only natural forces threaten the characters in Roma.  In the background, there is a discrete, but menacing subtext of political violence.  Paramilitary groups practice with clubs in the squalid Colonia on the hilltops around Mexico City.  At the dinner table, one of the kids recounts how a boy was shot to death for throwing a water balloon at the police.  Shady-looking military bands periodically march like zombies down the streets.  These images presage a bloody riot that occurs when Cleo, heavily pregnant, goes to a furniture store to buy a baby crib.  Outside, rioters surge forward to attack police and people are shot down in the street.  Cuaron stages this scene with hundreds of extras as something only imperfectly glimpsed by Cleo -- there is no god's eye or privileged view of the bloody chaos.  We see what Cleo sees -- rioters running up the center of the street, people firing guns from behind cars, a girl holding up her boyfriend's head as he bleeds to death on the pavement.  A death squad pursues a demonstrator and his girlfriend into the furniture store and guns him down as the store clerks scream.  (Here, the film relies upon an unlikely coincidence:  Cleo's water breaks during the shooting, perhaps, because of the shock and Fermin appears, carrying his kendo stave in the furniture store, apparently part of the paramilitary death squads roaming the streets.)   Cleo can't get to the hospital in time and the baby dies.  A long grim scene shows medical personnel stitching up a tear in Cleo's vagina while other nurses wrap the dead baby like a Christmas present, swaddling it in white cloth, in the background of the image.  Cleo's distance and isolation from the dead baby is palpable and seems to verify Sofia's claim that Mexican women must bear their suffering alone and without help or support from others. 

In the film's last ten minutes, Cuaron discretely implies an identity between Cleo and Mexico.  Although she doesn't swim, Cleo has fearlessly charged out into the turbulent sea to save two of Sofia's children caught in the undertow.  (The family has gone to a shabby seaside resort so that Antonio can retrieve his book cases from the home -- an event that explains a number of long, tracking shots early in the film in which the books and book cases are prominently shown.)  The movie opens up into a huge landscape -- only the second big landscape seen from a high perspective in the film.  We see the family in their small car driving across a desert that seems archetypally "Mexican" -- cactus, rock outcroppings, and some distant mountains.  The film cuts to the interior of the car where the children are excitedly discussing how Cleo saved them from drowning.  After some dialogue in the moving car, the film cuts to an exterior shot in which we see Cleo's face behind the window, a panorama of the Mexican landscape superimposed upon her features.  This image seems to suggest that Cleo is representative -- that she embodies certain aspects of the Mexican national character.  I am ambivalent about representations of this sort -- I doubt that there is any "authentic" way to be Mexican just as there is no essential or fundamentally "authentic" way to be an American.  Nonetheless, for a moment, Cuaron implies an identity between Cleo and the Mexican land.  The ending is more subtle:  the servants do laundry on the roof of the house.  We see Cleo carrying a large basket of laundry up a steep, daunting iron stair, really more of a fire escape than steps for daily use -- we see  her ascending upward toward the blue sky over Mexico City where a jet is slowly sailing across the heavens.  She vanishes onto the rooftop and the film's title Roma is superimposed over the image together with a dedication, apparently to woman similar to Cleo who was important in Cuaron's life. 

When I told my son, who attended the film with me, that Cuaron seemed to be equating Cleo with the Mexican people, he replied that this would mean that these people were ignorant, uneducated, docile, readily manipulated to their own disadvantage, and politically naïve.  My response was that this was true but that Cuaron also had shown that these people are indefatigable, gentle, loving, selfless and courageous. 

Roma has been shown in some select theaters to qualify for the Academy Award.  The film will be on Netflix in late December or early January 2019.  It's an achievement of high order and deserves your attention.  (I'm unsure how the movie will look on TV -- many of the wide-screen images require the audience to scan the picture and pick out different zones of activity and secondary areas of emphasis  -- for instance, the women walking along the hillside above the swirl of dogs and sheep that the dogs are either herding or harassing.  I presume that audiences will be able to do this on smaller screens although some of the shots undoubtedly may prove puzzling.)           

Sunday, December 9, 2018


The story of  how Eskimo (1933) was made is probably more interesting than what's on the screen.   That said, the movie is pretty good and, certainly, fascinating throughout.  The ethnographic imagery in the film is probably valuable today -- no one hunts or lives nowadays like the Yupik natives shown in the picture.  Eskimo was one of three films directed by W.S.("Woody") Dyke in 1933 -- the other two were Penthouse and The Prizefighter and the Lady.  (Dyke made White Shadows in the South Pacific, a picture started by Flaherty and related to Murnau and Flaherty's Tabu in 1929, directed Trader Horn in 1930, premiered Johnny Weissmueller in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 and inaugurated the sophisticated Thin Man series in 1934.)   It's unclear how Dyke accomplished all this when the credits tell us that Eskimo was shot in the Northwest Territories over the course of two years -- presumably a second crew compiled the ethnographic footing and, then, Dyke added the complicated story using studio inserts and lousy rear-projection.  The film is politically incorrect --no one uses the name "Eskimo" anymore and the leading female actors seem to me to be Chinese or Japanese.   The hero, Mala (played by Ray Wise aka Ray Mala) was the son of a Russian Jew and a Yupik woman.  (He also operated cameras, was promoted as the "Eskimo Cary Grant", and made a number of other films, both as an actor and cinematographer.)  Although some academics have argued to the contrary, the film is not racist -- in fact, great care was taken to accurately depict Yupik life and the film was shot in Inupiak, the local language, at great expense -- the kh sound in that language caused "chopping" or the microphone to cut-off and the Asian leading ladies had to learn Inupiak to recite their lines. 

The film is pre-Code and graphic.  A woman breast-feeds her baby in close-up in an early shot and the film's subject, the Eskimo custom of sharing their women with outsiders, is exploited for all its worth -- in fact, the "weird moral code" of the North is the subject of the picture. (The film was sometimes shown under the titles of Mala the Magnificent or Eskimo Wife-Traders of the Arctic.)  The movie is, in effect, a silent picture with the works spoken by the natives recorded and, then, translated in intertitles.  The dialogue spoken by Europeans is poorly recorded, or has deteriorated with time, and is difficult to hear.  Mala is a great hunter.  In the opening scene, a sort of idyll, we see him filling up his canoe with salmon that he spear-fishes and ducks that she shoots out of the sky with his bow and arrow. He is happily married to Aba and has two sons.  An Indian from another tribe comes to village and Mala shares his wife with him, demonstrating the "weird custom" that forms the backbone of the film's plot.  Learning from the outsider that white men are nearby, Mala and his family travels across the tundra to see them and trade for a rifle.  The white men are trapped in a boat stuck like Shackleton's Endurance in the Arctic ice.  The captain of the boat seizes Aba and gets her drunk, apparently raping her. (There is a big close-up of her drunk and half-naked, giggling at the camera, and accorded full glamor treatment:  she's shot in soft-focus with rim-lighting.) She staggers back to the igloo nearby that Mala has built.  Mala is angry because the Captain "didn't ask his permission" to take his wife.  The ship captain is a vicious fellow and he abducts Aba again, rapes her, and leaves her staggering drunk.   She wanders out across the ice, collapses, and is, then, shot by a white hunter who thinks she is a basking seal.  Mala goes to the ship and kills the captain with his harpoon.  He, then, returns to his people.  Another man in the tribe has two women -- perhaps, they are his wives or daughters.  He gives them to Mala.  But the hero is still grieving for Aba and can't perform sexually.  Mala, then, goes on a vision-quest, changes his name, and takes the two sisters for his wives.  Meanwhile, the R.C.M.P. has sent two Mounties to hunt down Mala for the killing of the white sea captain.  The Mounties get lost and collapse in the snow, but are found, just in time, by Mala and his family.  They save the two men who, then, repay Mala's kindness, which presumably includes a little wife-sharing, by luring the great hunter to a miserable stick-built hut far away at a trading post.  Mala feeds everyone by hunting game and is much liked by all the white men.  A judge appears (played by Van Dyke himself) and orders Mala be handcuffed.  Mala rips his arm out of the cuffs in a disturbing and gruesome scene and flees with eight dogs and a stolen rifle and ammunition.  Unfortunately, the ammunition is 363 caliber and not 30.06, the muzzle measure of the stolen rifle.  Mala has to eat all of his dogs one-by-one and, then, is attacked by a starving wolf.  He collapses and is about to freeze when his tribe rescues him.  He returns to his two wives and children.  (They have been starving in his absence and the movie shoes the drying racks for the meat as bare scaffolds.) The white Mounties appear and Mala leaves with his senior wife, dashing across the ice pack as it roars and crashes and breaks up.  Knowing that he is doomed :   he and his wife are committing suicide -- going to the "long sleep."  The Mounties approach the ice-floe where he is trapped, aim their rifles at him, but are unable to bring themselves to shoot.  A scrap of dialogue, added to the end of the film, assures the audience that Mala and his wife will be okay, that they will simply navigate the crumbling ice-floe to the other side of the bay and escape.  But the audience would have to be idiots to believe that this optimistic scenario is possible.

The acting by the native people is very good.  By contrast, the Europeans and Canadians are wooden and unconvincing.  (The evil ship captain is played by the great Danish Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen and the movie is based, in part, on two of his novels set in Greenland.)   Some of the ethnographic set-pieces are astonishing.  There is a spectacular whale hunt and an even more impressive scene in which men in kayaks shoot and stab caribou who have been driven in a vast herd out into a sort of rocky fjord.  Modern films always assure us that no animals were hurt during the production of the movie -- lots of animals were most assuredly killed during the production of Eskimo.  We see walrus lanced, whales spouting black blood, caribou killed by the dozens, embattled polar bears, dogs being butchered, and, finally, a horrific scene in which Mala fights a starving wolf and, finally, beats the animal to death.  (The scene was actually shot with a real starving wolf and a man with a rifle poised behind the camera to shoot the wolf if it got the upper hand in the vicious wrestling match with Mala.)  The flight over the ice-pack that is fissuring apart is reminiscent of Lillian Gish's hike across a river, leaping from ice floe to ice floe, in Way Down East -- that's a terrifying sequence and the scenes with the ice-pack fragmenting are equally alarming.  The film is unflinching in its depiction of hunting and the dangers of Arctic.  The film remains worth watching despite its exploitative aspects. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

42nd Street

Everyone knows 42nd Street (1933), the movie musical that invented most of the clichés infesting the genre.  The show must go on.  Naïve chorus girls submit to the "casting couch."  When the tough-as-nails leading lady breaks her ankle, a winsome chorine from the boondocks substitutes for her and becomes a star.  With only five hours to rehearse, the show's director mercilessly drives the girl proclaiming that the results will be either "a star of the musical theater or a dead chorus girl."  During the climactic song-and-dance numbers, cameras on overhead cranes record identically dressed women arrayed as the petals of great winking blossoms or regimented to embody strangely surrealistic rotating gears within gears.  A camera at floor level glides through a corridor formed by the spread calves and lower thighs of chorus girls to finally frame the two young lovers cuddling in a pool of radiant light.  (42nd Street is the first movie musical featuring extensive choreography and effects by Busby Berkeley.)  The film is pre-code and is rife with raunchy, almost inexplicable, sexual innuendo.  (Apparently, it was forbidden to pronounce the work "belly" on film -- so a song and dance number involving a shotgun wedding highlights the forbidden word by, first, having someone say it, and, then, abashedly, substitute the euphemism, "tummy.")

I've seen the film a number of times and, for me, the picture always delivers something unexpected, some quirk, or tone to the proceedings that I had hitherto not noticed, or not recalled.  During this viewing, I noticed a couple features to the movie that didn't register with me before.  First, the film is driven by a sense of panic.  The Great Depression has just occurred and the director needs a hit in order to simply survive and pay his creditors.  Everyone seems hungry, frightened, cynically ready to sell themselves for a little money.  42nd Street is very much a product of its times and, certainly, manifests a kind of profound anxiety as to the very sort of entertainment, glitzy and erotic production numbers, that it features.  Second, the picture is pretty explicit with respect to sex.  Casting couch sexual harassment is depicted as the norm in show business -- as in The Producers, big Broadway musicals require "angels" and the money invested by these people seems to be provided as a quid pro quo for sex.  The climactic sequence showing a "just-married" couple "shuffling off to Buffalo" features various kinds of double entendre set in a sleeper car in which the honeymooners are incongruously bedded with a whole dormitory of pajama-clad and cynical platinum blondes -- it's not clear whether these women are supposed to be lesbian couples although, certainly, this seems to be one possibility.  A dignified-looking African-American Pullman Porter picks up shoes from beneath the sleeper berths and the episode ends with him falling asleep while shining a pair of ladies high-heeled shoes.  The big final production number, a wild, sprawling dance sequence set to the song "42nd Street" is genuinely startling.  This number is huge and lavishly detailed:  there are stilt-walkers, dwarves, prostitutes and cops street musicians and hustlers and all sorts of the demi monde depicted on the street and within the rooms of the joints overlooking the sidewalk.  In effect, we are shown a "city symphony" -- a portrait of life in great metropolis immediately after the Depression.  The song is sharp and abrasive and has more than a few hints of the kind of music Kurt Weill wrote for Brecht's lyrics in The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany --it's raw tough music, with a taut satirical edge, all bent blue notes and jazz saxophones.  Furthermore, the dance sequence actually erupts in violence -- a rapist or murderer pursues a young woman who beats him away and, then, dives out of window onto a ledge from which she, then, hurls herself.  One of the themes of German expressionism, clearly influential on this sequence, is the Lustmoerder (the "Lust-Murder") and 42nd Street comes perilously close to depicting this sort of thing, emblematic of the depravity and anomie of the great city, in the final song-and-dance number.  At the end of song, we see the stage raked sharply upward toward a vista of grim black behemoths, mighty skyscrapers with their Babylonian setbacks (they are like ziggurats) towering over the stage in a dim, black void.  These sets are based on Hugh Ferriss' architectural images in his 1929 book on skyscrapers, The Metropolis of the Future, huge monoliths suspended against a shadowy abyss.  Like workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), the dancers march upward in a great phalanx, each of them seeming to carry a blunt, heavy tombstone on his or her shoulders.  When the phalanx of the dancers reaches the top of the ramp, they spin around and we see that the tomb-stones and obelisks that they were lugging upward toward the cyclopean buildings above are, in fact, small four or five-foot tall images of skyscrapers -- no humans remain on the stage.  Instead, we see the dancers transformed into buildings, a forest of them standing at the foot of the higher ranges of steel and concrete sierra.  This is all startling and disquieting.   The city grows monstrously but it's lightless, a dark empire of buildings that sprout in the darkness like mushrooms.  The audience roars its approbation and the crowd pours out of the theater into the dark, greasy-looking night and, then, we see the director (Warren Baxter) whose efforts have made the little chorus girl into the star of Broadway -- he is disheveled and at the end of his tether and he collapses on a stoop while men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns hustle pass him, commenting among themselves that the young woman is a star and that her talent is unmistakably authentic and natural and that the director, collapsed in a crumpled and anonymous heap among them, had nothing whatsoever to do with her success.  It's a curiously downbeat, almost tragic, ending. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Fake or Fortune?

As I grow older, I seem to spend more time reading art history and criticism and books about archaeology.  Both of these fields are immense and variegated and, perhaps, due to old age, I don't really seem to retain much of what I read -- therefore, I have the pleasure of reading about the same interesting paintings and ruins time and time again.  Further, these subjects are so intricate that I don't feel as if I have done more than scratch the surface -- but this is fine with me:  I don't have any real personal or professional need to excel in these studies and can read for pleasure alone.

The British TV show Fake or Fortune? is available on Netflix.  Four episodes constituting the entirety of Series 4 (2014) can be streamed from that service.  In fact, there are seven complete series in the British Broadcasting vaults (although only 2014 is available on Netflix) with four 2018 programs on tap at the BBC.  I hope that more of these shows are broadcast on Netflix.  On the evidence of the 2014 series, the show is fantastically interesting and, indeed, addictive.  Art dealer Philip Mould and his sidekick, Fiona Davis (a BBC journalist) are presented each program with works of questionable provenance -- if the paintings are proven to come from the hand of Renoir or some other noteworthy artist, the canvas will be worth several hundred-thousand pounds.  If the painting is fake, or more importantly provenance can't be reliable (and, in the art world, indisputably) established, then the pictures are worth next to nothing.  Often, the owners of the putatively significant paintings have something at stake -- a family legend must be verified or the paintings must receive maximum money at auction to save a deteriorating castle or pay the inheritance taxes on a farm in France.  The show is genuinely suspenseful, primarily because the presenters fail in demonstrating provenance about as often as they succeed -- their batting average seems to be about 50 %.  Works of art are inherently fascinating and the program delves in detail into the techniques used by artists to make their works:  we learn about different types of canvas, secret marks hidden beneath the paint, various types of varnishes, and the chemical constituency of pigments both ancient and modern.  Canvases are cleaned and x-rayed and subjected to all sorts of different techniques of analysis to show how the picture was made, what it was made of, and with what instruments it was painted.  Mould is a connoisseur and so he applies his practiced eye to the stylistic and color elements of the painting.  Fiona Davis does leg-work, tracking down witnesses and interviewing them or locating European and English experts to obtain their opinions.  Sometimes, the two presenters go to the exact places where landscapes were painted and compare the modern vista with what is shown on the canvas.  Various colorful art dealers and, even, rogues (fakers) are available to provide their opinions.  A third member of the team is Dr. Bendor Grosvernor -- equipped with an Apple laptop, he surfs the web to find internet references to the painters and their work:  his most important tool is a website run by Sotheby's that purports to capture every sale made in the art market during the past eighty years.  Often the history of the people who once owned the paintings is as interesting as the paintings themselves -- we are introduced to a gallery of British aristocrats, politicians (including Churchill), and eccentrics.  Each of the paintings studied poses genuine mysteries and there are even villains aplenty in the show -- in the cases of well-known artists, usually there are catalogues raisonne (indeed, sometimes competing catalogues) and, often, the inquiries by our intrepid hosts stir up dark clouds of professional jealousy and envy -- it seems that those who have made catalogues raisonne are intensely protective of their work and fiercely oppose attempts to add new paintings to their books -- to approve a new painting for admission to the catalogue seems viewed as an admission of failure by the art historian compiling the work.  In several cases, in fact, paintings were rejected as authentic by the editors of the relevant catalogue raisonne notwithstanding what seemed to me like virtually irrefutable, albeit circumstantial, evidence of authenticity. 

Fake of Fortune? has just the right mixture of British professorial attitude, continental arrogance, human interest, and good-old-fashioned detective work to delight most viewers.  Indeed, the show has been very popular on the BBC and I hope that more episodes will soon become available in the United States.

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is a film that I have seen, perhaps, 10 times.  Like all classics, the contours of the picture change imperceptibly with each viewing.  The movie that I watch now on Criterion's new Blu-Ray is different from the picture that I first saw on late-night TV in 1970 transected by more than a dozen commercials.  At 64, I'm more patient, I think, and more attentive to detail -- when I was 16, the movie seemed disappointing after the razzle-dazzle of Citizen Kane.  It now seems to me that Citizen Kane with its snarky subtext about William Randolph Hearst and it's flashy, expressionistic camera-work is very much a masculine movie -- a provocation, something, in fact, like a challenge to duel.  The film is defiant and satirical, a collage of taunts.  The Magnificent Ambersons is quieter, more resigned, and much more subtle-- it is very much a melodrama, a film designed for women and, I think,Welles intended the movie as an example of a woman's picture, a three-hankie weeper.  It's probably unwise, and, certainly, problematic to use gender to characterize films in this way, but Welles' first two movies seem constructed to contrast with one another -- Citizen Kane is an extroverted challenge to the film industry and contemporary media; Ambersons is introverted, restrained, and elliptical, a picture in which a single luminous close-up of the leading lady provides the impetus for the tragedy that envelopes the characters.  Kane is aggressive; Ambersons seems weirdly passive -- in  a late scene, one of the sexually thwarted heroines, Lucy Morgan (Ann Baxter) accepts her lonely, blighted life by improvising in the classic American grain an Indian legend:  the characters belong to the tribe of those "who couldn't help themselves."  Kane spans the globe, or, at least, the American part of the world -- the producers of the film within the film, the newsreel, travel all around the country to seek clues about the great man.  Ambersons is set almost entirely within a crumbling Gothic mansion in a unnamed, but mundane Midwestern City -- a place like Welles' hometown Kenosha, Wisconsin, or Booth Tarkington's Indianapolis.  Both films chart the trajectory from youthful ambition and joy to middle-aged or, even, elderly misery.  The great man in Kane is divided into a trio of women in The Magnificent Ambersons, two of them destroyed by pride and the third simply bypassed by life (someone says that it's not a good vocation to be "the (maiden) Aunt" like poor Fanny).  Kane shows us how men go wrong and fail; Ambersons turns this malign light on women.  Welles is never far from Shakespeare and The Magnificent Ambersons resembles, curiously enough, Hamlet -- the monstrous Georgie Minafer is like the melancholy Prince of the Danes:  his quasi-incestuous desire to protect his mother and defend her reputation, a purely narcissistic endeavor since he perceives any slight to her as a slight to him, destroys poor Gertrude (in this case Isabel Amberson Minafer).  The castle of Elsinore is here the dark, immense mansion in Indianapolis.  Georgie's paralysis is like that of Hamlet -- he can't act accept destructively.  But, unlike Shakespeare's tragic melodrama, The Magnificent Ambersons is not characterized by atrocious acts -- rather, its tragedy arises from what doesn't happen, from desires that are thwarted and acts that go uncommitted.  Isabel's pride causes her to reject Gene's courtship; instead of marrying the man she loved, she marries another.  Later, Isabel's "perfect and selfless motherhood" keeps her from happiness -- she rejects Gene again, this time at the behest of the viciously protective, Georgie.  The film is built from a number of long, tense scenes, that are about repression -- things that are desired but that can't be achieved or, even, in some cases named.  (In this way, the film also contrasts with Citizen Kane and, even, in a way seems to rebuke the earlier masterpiece -- Welles uses very long takes with minimal camera movement:  the impression, even when the camera moves, is often one of profound stillness.  Welles' rejection of the showy editing in Kane permits a more unreserved and intense focus on the acting.)  The paradigm sequence in the film is a long scene in which Georgie Minafer and Lucie Morgan, the woman whom he thinks he loves (she really loves him) promenade along Main Street -- the camera tracks along the two as they walk giving the impression of a static two-shot although the background changes as they stroll alongside the camera.  The girl chatters nervously with a fixed smile about Georgie's tour of Europe -- he wants her to beg him not to go, but she is too proud to humble herself in this way and so she counters his increasingly hysterical proclamations that he is leaving town with banal chitchat and an eerie masklike smile frozen on her face.  After Georgie leaves, she goes into a drugstore, asks for aromatic spirits, and, then, faints dead away on the floor -- such is the disastrous price of pride. 

Welles' constructs The Magnificent Ambersons like a Swiss clockmaker.  Everything fits into place, an effect that makes the travesty of the studio-imposed ending more calamitous.  The first half-hour of the film is like a sonnet, tiny details all exquisitely arrayed to establish different systems of meaning.  The chorus of townspeople say that the Amberson mansion was constructed with $60,000 dollars worth of woodwork -- throughout the film, we see that woodwork, particularly in the form of mighty coffered ceilings and overhead balustrades shaped like ship's prows and fantastical spikes aimed down over thresholds -- the woodwork alone seems to be an elaborate engine for doom and destruction.  The emphasis on street cars and carriages in the opening scenes establishes a framework that will make meaningful later the film's theme about the coming of automobiles and how cars will destroy the genteel life that the Ambersons enjoyed.  Welles sets the camera very close to the ground to show Gene and his friends running toward the Amberson mansion when the hero, a little drunk and excited, slips and falls flat on his bass viol, destroying the instrument and, thus, ruining the serenade planned for under Isabel's window.  This shot, startling with respect to its unusual camera angle and very deep focus (most of the image is the dark night sky) is ostentatiously significant -- it's a sign that something important is about to happen.  And the next shot is one of Welles' boldest inventions:  we see Isabel at her window, bathed in soft, but bright white light -- her face is contorted with anger when she sees that her beaux has fallen on his face, crushing his bass fiddle, shaming himself and (by the narrative's peculiar calculus) shaming her as well.  The audacity of this shot remains breathtaking in its narrative context:  we haven't seen Isabel yet and have no idea who she is.  The spatial relationship between Isabel, in her bedroom window, and the debacle on her lawn is not established -- this is because the shot, a inserted close-up coming out of nowhere, signifies that there is no relationship between the young man and the woman and, in fact, no relationship is even imaginable -- we don't know where they stand with respect to one another.  (Isabel seems curiously old in this shot -- we might mistake her for the matronly figure that she becomes later in the film.  In this regard, the shot also foreshadows the action that dominate the film:  Isabel's renunciation of love ostensibly for maternal purposes, so that she can be a good mother to her bully of a son, Georgie.)  The startling shot of Isabel, intruding into the picture like a lightning bolt, is memorable but we don't know what it means or portends.  Only as the film unfolds across the next hour will we learn the entire and devastating significance of this sequence, which in the context of the film's first ten minutes, can be scarcely deciphered at all. 

When I was a boy, Agnes Moorhead played the witch Endora on the Tv sit-com Bewitched.  Endora was a curious figure, feline, glamorous, and too my eyes for seductive than Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress playing the cute suburban housewife and witch.  I sensed that Agnes Moorhead had charisma, presence of a certain kind that I could not quite  articulate.  Moorhead's performance as Aunt Fanny in The Magnficent Ambersons is the film's anchor and she embodies in the most overt way the price that the characters pay for their destructive pride.  Her scenes with the Georgie are among the most terrifying in American film -- a sequence in which she collapses to the floor with her back to a boiler and, then, proclaims that the boiler is cold because the hot water has been shut-off to the mansion (and, then, cries out that she wishes that the boiler were hot enough to scald her) is one of the most excoriating things ever put on film.  (In its original version, cut after the test audience in Pomona, Ca. responded with derision, Moorhead's acting is said to have been even more terrifying.  And, if we are affected by this sequence, so is the selfish Georgie Minafer.  His love for his mother, indistinguishable from the most grandiose self-love, has smothered her.  But Georgie recognizes genuine obligations to Aunt Fanny, subjecting himself to the humiliation of entering the work place as a common laborer in a dynamite (!) factory in order to save her from homelessness -- unable to love his own mother except in the most destructive manner, Georgie seems to redeem himself by his sacrifice for Aunt Fanny.  In the beginning of the film, an old gossip says that everyone wants to see the arrogant bully, Georgie Minafer, get his comeuppance.  In Welles domestic or bourgeois tragedy no one is poisoned and no one stabbed -- "comeuppance" is the term used for the film's tragic denouement, a concept entirely appropriate to the film's introversion.  And, further, its a "comeuppance" that isn't showy or, even, visible to anyone but the film's audience -- everyone else had forgotten that the magnificent Ambersons even existed.   

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Profound Desires of the Gods

Because Shohei Imamura's epic film, The Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), is, at least in part, a sprawling family chronicle, the viewer's first impulse is to chart the lineage of the people shown in the film.  This turns out to be a daunting objective and one that, I'm afraid, that I probably haven't properly achieved.  But, since understanding the picture involves understanding who is related to whom, I'll start with that exercise.  Imamura, periodically, puts his lurid melodrama on pause to try to unsort the Futori clan family tree -- but these efforts are, often, too little and too late.  Part of the narrative strategy of the film is reflected in its strangely occluded and constricted use of the extreme wide-screen Technicolor format in which the film is shot.  Imamura intentionally blocks his images, hiding crucial aspects of what we are supposed to be seeing.  This pictorial strategy is mirrored by the filmmaker's approach to narrative -- we only gradually tease out of the bizarre occurrences that the film shows something approaching a narrative.  Kagura, the island in the Okinawan archipelago, where the action is set is not easy to reach.  (In one scene, we see a fat pig fall off a skiff bound for the island and, then, immediately succumb to the sharks patrolling the reefs around the atoll.  When the engineer arrives in the island's suffocating heat, the first thing he does is to vomit -- it was a rough ride over the sea to Kagura.)  So, an understanding of the film's plot and the relationship between its principal characters is also intentionally confounded -- the pictures hide things, although sometimes in plain sight; simultaneously the story-line is concealed, digressive, often obscured by anthropological episodes.  My task in this note is to make it easier for you to watch this film -- a monument in Japanese cinema.  And, so, I start with the gens around which the story (or stories) revolve, the Futori clan.

Granddad in the Futori clan is a bearded elder.  If he has a name other than "Dad" or "Granddad", we don't know it.  Futori seems to have had two children, a brother and sister named respectively Nekichi and Uma.  Incest, as they say, runs in the family.  Nekichi is alleged to have had sex with his sister Uma, although it's unclear whether the act was consummated or merely intensely desired (at least, until the film's climax).  Granddad has also raped Uma or, possibly, a daughter who is not in the film named Ushi -- this is unclear to me.  The product of granddad's incest (with either his daughter Ushi or Uma) is Toriko.  Toriko is like Daisy Mae in the old Al Capp comics -- she's a nubile, mentally retarded sexpot who spends her time trying to seduce everyone in the movie.  (Her come-on line is that "my ear is itching", something that she wails while wrapping her legs around the men who try to assist her).  Toriko, accordingly, is Nekichi's sister and Granddad's daughter.  Nekichi was in the war with his buddy, Ryu, sometimes called Mr. Ryugen.  This man is the island's chief politician, a smarmy Jaycee-style  booster, who is married to Uma (Nekichi's sister and would-be mistress).  Ryu is nouveau riche in the island's economy.  A century before the action shown in the film -- which is contemporary to the movie's release (we hear planes flying over Kagura bound for Vietnam) -- Ryu's family were sugar plantation slaves.  The island was converted, sacriligiously from its ancient rice-based economy to producing sugar.  This dislocation has had a profound impact on the island's fragile economy.  The production of sugar cane requires lots of water and fresh-water is one of the things the isolated atoll-island lacks.  (At one point, Ryu shows shackles that were worn by the unfortunate forebears in his family -- the island seems to have been run once as a kind of concentration camp, a place similar to the hell depicted in Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi's masterpiece.)  By 1968, Ryu's family, who are mercantile and a bit like the Snopes in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county, has come to prominence, primarily because of a strategic alliance with island's priestly caste represented by the decrepit and in-bred Futori's -- the alliance arises from Ryu's marriage to Uma, a noro, that is, shamaness who channels the island's ancient Shinto kami (or gods) as well as the ghosts haunting the place.  Uma, notwithstanding her sacred role, is plump and cheerfully lecherous -- Ryu has to torture her periodically to get her to comply with his wishes.  It's suggested that she "prophecies" on order for the purpose of communicating Mr. Ryu's political demands to the others on the island.  We see Ryu torturing her a couple times, Imamura's nod to the pornographic "pink" (S & M) movies apparently much beloved by the Japanese public.  (This raises another difficulty with this film -- in Japanese melodrama, almost all the sex looks like rape:  it's unclear whether the rape is intended to be painful or, in fact, something that is mutually enjoyed by both participants.  Sex on the island involves a great amount of pinching and biting as well as lots of shrieking and grunting. In light of American sexual mores, particularly those existing today, the "consensual" torture rapes in the film will, probably, be even more disqualifying to audience enjoyment than the pervasive incest -- which, often, looks like "consensual" rape as well.)  Nekichi, immediately after returning from the war, is alleged to have had sex with his sister, Uma, the island's chief Noro and his war buddy, Ryu's wife.  But Nekichi has also been poaching fish with dynamite, something that is taboo, and has committed several other infractions as well.  As retribution for his bad acts, the gods have sent a tsunami, as well as a malaria plague.  The tsunami has hefted a huge boulder across a stream or fresh-water spring, thereby, further diminishing the island's water supply.  Nekichi seems to be the scape-goat for all the island's sins (it seems that others, for instance, have been poaching fish with dynamite) and he's blamed for everything that has gone wrong on the island, which is, of course, a lot.  His father, the elder of the Futori clan, accordingly has chained him next to the huge, three-story boulder cast onto the island by the tsunami.  He's supposed to be excavating around the base of the giant rock for the purpose of undermining it and freeing the water supply that it impounds.  Nekichi has been doing this for 20 years, although he seems to have the key to his ankle-chain and spends nights "night-crawling"-- a euphemism for creeping around at night and raping the local girls.  (He also periodically goes out to the atoll's reef and dynamites fish.)  The island's ecology is collapsing and, it seems, everyone is happy to blame Nekichi for these problems -- probably, as a way of avoiding a sense of their own complicity in the environmental calamity.  Because of the Futori clans' crimes, they have also been forbidden to "go to sea" -- that is, they are not allowed to fish or visit the other desert islands nearby.  Into this witch's brew of incest and superstition comes an outsider, Mr. Shimajiri (although he is generally referred to as the "Engineer").  The Engineer is employed by the sugar mill company and he's supposed to survey the island and find water so that the sugar processing can continue.  The Engineer enlists the aid of an earnest young man named Kametano.  Kametano is Nekichi's son and the elder Futori's grandson -- I never figured out who his mother was.  Kametano represents the up-and-coming modernizing young people on the island.  Later, the engineer falls in love with Toriko, the half-retarded Daisie Mae nymphomaniac and has a torrid affair with her.

All of this could be made fairly clear if Imamura had used the Engineer's character as a way to introduce us to the island's denizens.  But Imamura rejects this obvious narrative strategy:  the stranger coming to town and showing us what the people are like in that town when he interacts with them.  Rather, the film begins in media res as it were with melodrama occurring among the Futori clan; the engineer arrives about a half-hour into the 172 minute film.   Indeed, the narrative is often obscured by digressions and hard to follow -- this seems to be an intentional strategy on Imamura's part.  There is a picturesque trip to a nearby bird island led by Nekichi who, despite being chained to the rock, seems generally free to go wherever he wants so long as he doesn't flaunt his freedom.  The Engineer gets a letter in which her wife admits to adultery -- everyone on the island seems to read the letter before it is delivered to the Engineer.  There is a complex plot involving a tract of woods, trees called the Otoki forest that has been preserved because it is taboo.  The Engineer tries to drill a well in the Otoki forest, a task that Nekichi, apparently, sabotages.  Toriko gets pregnant by the Engineer -- her kin try to transport her to the mainland for an abortion but she escapes and swims the gauntlet of sharks back to the island.  Kametano, then, tries to persuade her to jump off the cliff and drown herself in the sea -- this cliff was instrumental in the past as a means of "population control", the island's tenuous resources inadequate if the atoll is too populous.  (There's also a meadow into which everyone had a cram themselves -- those that didn't fit were butchered.)  Toriko refuses to jump off the cliff, although I'm not quite sure what becomes of her.  In a coda to the narrative, five years after the main action, she appears as a ghost.  Ultimately, two strands of the complex narrative collide --  Nechiki dislodges the rock and installs a rice-paddy and the natives of the island perform an elaborate festival called the Dongama celebration:  the festival involves masked oarsmen, much drinking and being beaten with bamboo rods, and huge fetish figures simulating copulation.  Uma, who seems to have lost her gift of prophecy, has sex with the newly liberated Nekichi (or is raped by him -- the level of consent is always problematic) and the two of them flee from Kagura to the Western God's Island, a sort of paradise.  The aggrieved natives, led by the cuckolded Mr. Ryu, don their masks, pursue the lovers, and beat Nekichi to death.  Uma, although left to die tied to the red mask of the sabani (little skiff), becomes a goddess.  Five years later, the entire island has been deforested and reduced to a massive sugar plantation.  Planes now can land on the island and it has been promoted as a tourism destination.  The Engineer returns with his wife.  The island's minstrel, a legless man who sings ballads about Kagura's mythical past, is still pushed around on a cart by one of the women -- but she is now selling icy coca-colas to the tourists embarked on the island.  Kamentano, who participated in the ritualized murder of his own father, Nekichi, has come back to the island to operate a narrow-gage railroad that carries the tourists from the airport to the island's one village.  He sees the ghost of Toriko and, then, a sweeping high-angle shot shows us Uma's skiff sailing into the sunset of the Island of the Western God.

So what is this all about:  it seems pretty clear that, on one level, Imamura is proposing a giant allegory, a sort of Faerie Queen, based on Japanese history and culture.  Imamura makes this clear by starting the picture with an immense image of the red rising sun, sunrise orchestrated with a blast of wailing saxophone and cornet, an infusion of wild bebop jazz -- thereby, combining the ancient with the modern. Shinto mythology proposes that Nippon, the sacred island, was formed by the intercourse of brother and sister kami (or "divinities").  The conversion of Kagura's economy from rice to sugar suggests the depredations of modernity in Japan.  The great rock cast up by the tsunami twenty years before the onset of the movie's narrative seems to suggest World War Two -- a calamity to which the laboring Japanese people are tethered as if by chains.  (The film's soundtrack is raucous with insect and frog noises, weird snatches of bird song, and the ubiquitous clanking of Nekichi's chains).  Island people are incestuous -- they regard themselves as aristocratically isolated from the rest of the world and, therefore, necessarily, and proudly in-bred.  This was Japan's role in the world before the Meiji restoration and the island's disastrous, rapid modernization, a process that left the old Shinto gods largely abandoned except as symbols of a superstitious right-wing patriotism -- you can make the Noro prophecy any way you want.  But the film, of course, is much more than mere allegory and, probably, best read as a commentary on freedom.  People living on a tiny island are not really free and, when they attempt to act autonomously end up committing crimes.  "Only the gods are free," Nekichi says.  "When men try to act like gods they commit crimes for which they must be punished." 

The film's themes relating to freedom are realized photographically by the obstructions that confound our vision -- the wide-screen is always blocked by trees or foliage or the walls of buildings.  Imamura, like many Japanese directors, is enamored with telephoto effects -- the telephoto lens compresses space, cramming everything into the foreground, and making motion toward the camera seem illusory and futile.  The picture is directed with long takes, many of them a minute or more, sequences in which characters occupying a corner of the big, narrow screen interact -- most of the compositions are asymmetrical.  When Ryu torture-rapes Uma, the camera focuses resolutely on a florescent light on which several tiny lizards are crouching motionlessly -- we see Uma's pink flesh out-of-focus writhing below but can't really see what is happening due to the intervening light fixture. (The use of small lizards in the foreground is also characteristics of the film's repeated inserted shots -- the only close-ups in the movie -- of insects, frogs, lizards, and birds.   Editing suggests that the animals are also wide-eyed and watching Kami.  The Futori are said to be "animals" by the rest of the islanders, but they also have a uniquely close relationship to the gods.)

Imamura was given six months to shoot The Profound Desires of the Gods in Okinawa.  The film's footage was not in the can, however, until 18 months had passed.  Nikkatsu Studios, for whom Imamura made this movie, was ultimately bankrupted when the picture failed at the box-office.  It had to retreat into the production of soft-core Roman empire-themed pornography.  Imamura began his career in the early fifties as an assistant to the great Yasujiro Ozu.  Ozu, of course, embodies the serene Zen Buddhist (tea ceremony) aspect of Japanese art.  Imamura is intentionally Ozu's opposite -- "I was interested," he says, "in the relationship of the lower parts of the body to the lower parts of society."  Whereas, Ozu is fundamentally Buddhist in his approach to the world (at least, in his transcendentally calm late films), Imamura embodies Shinto aesthetics, an equally important, but more impenetrable aspect of the Japanese sensibility. 

The Profound Desires of the Gods has been very hard to see.  Although shot in the late sixties, it seems oddly timeless.  I saw  it on video tape 20 years ago and had no idea what the film was about.  The movie is screened at intervals on Turner Classic Movies, generally after midnight -- it is part of the FilmStruck repertoire of pictures sometimes shown on TMC. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Distant Voices Still Lives

Terence Davies' 1988 Distant Voices Still Lives is an audacious exploration of memory.  Memory is non-narrative, unpredictable, and associative -- and, so, these are the characteristics of Davies' film about his childhood memories of lower middle-class family life in Liverpool in the 1940's and '50's  We construct the past from an unreliable blur of textures, sounds -- often music that recalls memories to us -- a certain cast of light, or the fuzzy edge of familiar shadows, the smell of food or the stink of a particular kind of ordure.  Davies' luxuriates in the palpable, tactile aspects of memory:  his film celebrates water-stained walls, ancient wallpaper,  mildew on walls, masonry crumbling between bricks, dim thresholds and windows with faded, sunbleached curtains, narrow domestic stairways and claustrophobic corridors.  Colors are muted as if seen through layers and layers of unsteady and tremulous thought.  The dysfunctional family that Davies' chronicles in this film poses uneasily in the first ten minutes, obviously missing its central figure, Tommy, the monstrous and psychotic father who we see beating his wife and children in sequences that alternate with his agonizing death by cancer.  It's a relief when the unpredictable and sadistic Tommy is not in the frame -- but his absence is also, in some ways, catastrophic and the film doesn't, necessarily, relish his demise.  The film's audience is coerced into the position of the family members -- they fear and despise their father, but he is fascinating to them:  in one scene, the children climb into a hay-loft to watch their father at peace, curry-combing his pony, and they seem almost as appalled and baffled by his happiness in this brief scene as in they are appalled and terrified by his rage.  When Tommy departs from the picture -- and it is Davies' genius to make him always absent (we see a hearse taking him away about four minutes into the picture), there is something vital missing from the picture and from the lives of the family members: the lethal energy has leached out of their lives and so out of the movie.  Life for these children is either placid boredom or unremitting terror.  Thus, the first 50 minutes of the movie (the so-called "Distant Voices") section focusing on the father's depredations alternates between benumbed terror (the wife and children seem stoic, almost zombies) and rebellion:  the eldest son smashes through a window and threatens to fight the old man; the two older sisters have a network of friends and escape from the domestic nightmare to dances and boyfriends and, ultimately, the other spatial center to the film, the public house which stands as the refuge from home, a convivial, densely crowded space that Davies' usually films as a frieze of people drinking and singing together, lined up on one side of the table like the disciples at the Last Supper, the camera tracking along the men and women smoking and guzzling beer and, almost, always singing pop tunes or old ballads or torch songs.  Davies' compositions are exquisite -- he keeps the camera far enough from the people in his movie to respect their dignity and their suffering, but the images are closely observed:  we seem to be close enough to sense what people are feeling.  Many of the shots read as rigidly posed tableaux or portraits -- these type of images characterize the various ritual sequences that Davies' stages:  weddings, funerals, baptisms.  In these sequences, the characters all face the camera frontally, notwithstanding the actual spatial logic of the events shown (the is particularly evident in the christening scenes in which everyone turns directly to the lens). 

Some critics regard the film as autobiographical and assert that the surrogate for the film maker is the eldest son, Tony.  This is wrong.  Davies' second installment in a chronicle that is essentially about his mother's life is the very great The Long Day Closes, a picture in which the young Terence Davies explicitly appears as the baby of the family, his widowed mother's favorite child, and, like Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a nascent artist always observing the landscapes and people around him so as to forge the aesthetic sensibility that will let him depict these things years later.  Distant Voices Silent Lives is about Davies's father's savagery and its effect on his long-suffering mother and his three older, and much-beloved sibilings, Tony and his big sisters Eunice and Maisie.  (Davies' father died when he was six and there is no stand-in for the little boy in this picture).  In no particular, order the film shows Christmas and Tommy's sentimentality on that holiday, an air raid, the mother singing was she washes an outside window sitting on the ledge, this precarious position metaphorically delineated when her husband beats her savagely in the next scene -- in profile, we see the battered woman mindlessly dusting the top of a table.  The girls court and each of them are married and, then, at last, the son, Tony, who has been in the army also marries.  None of these marriages seem particularly happy and, indeed, they replicate some of the brutal dynamics of the relationship between Tommy and his wife -- although without the beatings.  People turn to the movies and the pub for solace.  Distant Voices Still Lives is fundamentally a musical -- everyone has a vast repertoire of songs that they can sing to console themselves or to cheer up others (there's a wonderful scene of terrified people during an air raid singing "Roll out the Barrel') or, indeed, to comment either directly, or indirectly, on the events occurring around them.  (Davies' sisters combat their wretched father by pretending to be Hollywood debutantes, sporting American accents, and smoking "ciggies' and singing sarcastic show-tunes within his ear-shot.)  People also hide from the misery in their lives by going to the movies and one magisterial sequence shows a tableaux of umbrellas soaked in a driving rain, the camera panning up to movie posters and the wet cornice of the movie palace while the soundtrack plays the orchestral theme to "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" - the next shot tracks over the heads of an audience crowding the theater, great halos of smoke decorating the air shot through with the projector's light, and, then, picking out the two sisters, now married, weeping as they smoke and watch the screen.  The following shot, however, symbolically, shows the price of this interlude -- two men catapult in slow motion through glass skylights.  These are the women's husbands who have fallen from scaffolding and been seriously injured.  There are more songs in the pubs and at wedding receptions.  Tony weeps desperately before climbing into the limousine that takes him and his bride away.  No one expects happiness in this world -- they just hope to survive.  In the final scenes, we see Davies's mother with her three children walking away from the pub -- it's dark and they vanish into the squalid darkness on the mean streets of Liverpool.  The film resembles, I think, Joyce's Dubliners in many respects -- it's full of barroom songs and arias from light opera and afflicted with a strange sense of stasis, a feeling of paralysis:  everyone yearns to escape and their songs embody that yearning and, yet, no one escapes at all.   I'm ambivalent about this film -- it's structure and peculiar slow camera movements, the way the lens lingers over rising damp and decay, and the movie's resolutely non-narrative scrambling of time and events is a bit daunting.  The film is never dull but it is certainly bafflingly hermetic -- you need to listen to the commentary by Davies' to understand exactly what he is showing you in some scenes.  It's beautiful, moving, but, also, airless in a way, a private epistle from Davies and directed to Davies alone.  But this is on first viewing of a film that is constructed like no other -- except, perhaps, the later and even more non-narrative The Long Day Closes -- and I believe that further watching will probably bring me to a better appreciation of the movie:  it can not be understood on first viewing and I couldn't tell exactly what was happening until the second time I saw the picture.       

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Devil Doll

Tod Browning made The Devil Doll, a horror film, in 1936.  The movie starts with great aplomb and seems headed for something wonderful, but, then, the picture stalls out perversely -- the last two-thirds of the movie are literally soporific.  I defy anyone to sit through them without falling asleep.  Indeed, the movie is so oddly boring that you fall asleep without any warning -- blinking your eyes is dangerous because there is a distinct possibility you will not reopen those eyes once you have shut them for even an instant.  I tried to watch the last two-thirds of the movie three different times and, on each occasion, found myself asleep until a penultimate scene involving an explosion woke me up.  I didn't really feel all that tired and, so, I must attribute my somnolence to some weird and occult effect of this film:  it is some kind of elixir of sleep. 

Because I have never seen the middle forty-five minutes of the movie, it's questionable whether I can comment on the film.  But since I assume the movie's narcoleptic effect will be universal -- that is, that no one will ever remain awake to see the middle section of the film, I will make some remarks about the part of the picture that you, my dear readers, are likely to see before slumber overtakes you.  Tod Browning was a great, visual director who honed his skills in the silent era and, therefore, when he is working entirely with images, he is splendidly economical and effective.  Once his films get under way, however, they succumb to the truly idiotic narratives that he always seems to be adapting.  At the start of The Devil Doll, we see a flash of light shot directly into the camera lens and blinding us.  There is a sharp cut to a reverse shot showing some dark brush illumined by a searchlight and, off-screen, someone says that "the two escaped convicts" have come this way.  Cut to low shot of boots sloshing through dark, murky water and a bloodhound pulling at a leash.  The next shot shows two men, presumably the escaped convicts -- one of them (played by Henry B. Walthall) says that he has spent 17 years yearning to complete his experiments; the other convict says that the dogs have lost their scent and that he will wreak revenge on the men who framed him to 17 years on Devil's Island.  (The confident convict is played by Lionel Barrymore).  This opening sequence is a marvel of atmosphere and ultra-fast and efficient narration -- It makes Robert Bresson's mise-en-scene seem positively over wrought.  The next ten minutes is equally great.  The two protagonists reach a laboratory where the haggard scientist's wife, a wild-eyed maenad who limps about on a crutch and looks like Marie Curie, is engaged in experiments to shrink animals and people to one-sixth their size.  The shrunken creatures are torpid and inert until someone "transfixes them with the power of their will" -- then, the little beasties spring into action.  Walthall was famous for his role as the "Little Colonel" in Griffith's Birth of a Nation, but here, twenty years later, he looks very sick and old -- in fact, he was dying of some kind intestinal cancer.  (He matches his wife's wild-eyes and has a prophetic look, a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright.)  The mad scientist dies after vowing "to make things small!"  Lionel Barrymore, then, departs with the mad scientist's equally crazy wife -- they go to Paris where he engages in an elaborate and boring scheme to kill the men who embezzled money from his bank and, then, accused him of robbing the place and murdering the night watchman.   (Barrymore plays the part of the revenging villain in drag -- he acts the role of an old woman, a device that derives from Tod Browning's work with Lon Chaney in the silent film, The Unholy Three.) This part of the movie is turgid, doesn't make any sense -- although I was asleep for most of these scenes -- and ends with fiery death of the mad scientist's widow (she is pursuing her crazy dream of making everyone one-sixth their normal size) and the happy engagement of the maligned banker's daughter to a feisty and brave taxi driver.  This last scene takes place on the Eifel Tower.  Watch the movie's first 15 minutes and it's last five -- you won't have any choice anyway.  The film's talky middle part will simply put you to sleep even if you wish to resist the temptation of slumber.

Simon of the Desert

Simon of the Desert is a short film by Luis Bunuel made in 1965 and shot by the wonderful Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figuero.  The movie's short running time, a mere 40 minutes, is explained by the fact that the film was originally designed to be part of an anthology with two other sections.  The anthology didn't get finished and so Bunuel's contribution was, in effect, orphaned -- the movie was not easy to see for many years, primarily because it was too short to stand alone as a feature film and too long for a short subject.  The movie is restrained and enigmatic:  I've seen it several times and don't know exactly what Bunuel means by the film.  Of course, the Spanish director is a surrealist and, I suppose, he would have disclaimed any meaning at all, preferring to regard the film as a sort of open-ended and puzzling comedy.  Simon is Simon Stylites, a saint that we first meet climbing down from a pillar where he has stood with outstretched arms for several years.  A wealthy man in the neighborhood has decided to show-off by building a taller, more ornate column on which the saint can stand.  A number of half-witted monks stand around the base of the pillar -- periodically, they bicker about theology.  A thief who has had his hands cut off in retribution for his crimes is the beneficiary of a miracle -- Simon restores his hands.  (Of course, we can anticipate what will happen next -- the criminal's daughter questions her father whether these are the same hands that he possessed before they were chopped-off and he cuffs her on the ear for her impudence.)  Simon realizes that standing on the pillar is too easy a penance for him and, so, he decides to further mortify himself by standing on one foot.  Satan, in the form of a little girl who looks a bit like Brigitte Bardot, tempts him.  When Simon tells the devil to get away from him, lightning strikes and the girl is revealed to be a haggard and gaunt old lady with sagging jowls and fearsome eyes.  A dwarf tends to his sheep and a young monk who praises Simon skips around the desert like a teenage maiden in a movie by D.W. Griffith.  One monk accuses Simon of over-eating and has a seizure.  Satan appears again, this time as a half-naked woman in a weird self-propelled casket -- it wriggles over the desert like an snake or iguana.  Satan gets up on the pillar with the Saint and cuddles with him.  A plane appears and we next see the Saint in New York City sitting in a rock and roll club with the young woman who is also Satan.  A band plays some aggressive and wild-sounding dance music.  Simon asks for the name of the dance and Satan tells him that is "Radioactive Flesh."  He wants to get back to the desert but has lost his way.

Simon is not much of saint -- he's really more a self-mortifying masochistic eccentric.  It's not clear whether he's just a contrarian or an idiot.  At the rock club, he is dressed like a European existentialist -- he wears a black turtle neck and smokes a pipe morosely.  Clearly, he's not configured for joi d'vivre.  (The only thing he likes doing is blessing people and animals and things -- at one point, he works a piece of meat stuck between his teeth out of his mouth and is about to bless the fragment of food before changing his mind and flicking it away.  Bunuel's point, I suppose, is that sainthood is much overrated.  Our modern saints are gloomy existentialists frequenting joints where loud music is played.  The movie is shot with absolute objectivity.  Figuero poses Simon against the sky in commanding, if futile, postures.  A vast stony desert extends to barren mountains.  New York is all canyons of dark brick and sooty metal.  Oddly enough, the rock and roll music at the end is excellent -- it's a savage instrumental piece that makes the dancers lunge about moronically; the music sounds a little like the uncompromising and thunderous instrumentals by Link Wray.  The bitter joke is that it doesn't take a whole lot of temptation for the Saint to completely lose his way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) is an oddity among American films, an anthology picture comprised of six separate and, indeed, very different tales, all of them set in the American West.  The film is extremely entertaining -- the stories are all interesting, narratively concise, both well-acted and well-performed.  It is a tribute to the overall excellence of the project that every review of the film that I have read names a different segment or story in the anthology as the best in the group.  It seems, accordingly, that there is literally something for everyone in this picture and that different viewers will judge the stories, apparently, according to their own distinct esthetics and interests.  The movie begins with the shot of an old, dog-eared book, a Victorian-era anthology of short stories set in the American West.  A hand turns the page to a color illustration, an engraving that is protected behind a film of onion paper -- the illustrations, generally, show bizarre scenes that seem highly incongruous with a fragment of dialogue or narration in italics at the foot of the picture.  We wonder how this strange image can possibly be relevant to a story set in the American West.  The story follows, always ending with a shot of the last page of the tale, sometimes supplying useful additional information (if you can read quickly enough) and sometimes merely depicting something that we have already seen.  The hand, then, turns the page to the next illustration and, then, the next of the six stories begins.  The movie is unified by its splendid photography and the weird argot spoken by the characters -- everyone talks as if the characters were in Charles Portis' famous novel True Grit:  the speeches are elaborate, florid, and feature exotic words and circumlocutions that are sometimes hard to understand.  (The last tale involves bounty hunters, although I didn't understand that "harvesting" meant killing people for the rewards on their head.  In one tale, a young girl uses the word "apothegm".)  Everyone is wildly loquacious and people express themselves with baroque turns of phrase and elegant courtly, almost medieval, honorifics.  The fantastical quality of the diction and speeches, all of them remarkably gracious and, even, self-abasing -- people seem polite to a fault -- contrasts markedly with the extreme and bloody violence shown in about half of the tales:  people sing little arias to their counterparts showing the most exquisite etiquette before shooting or clubbing them to death or engaging in lynchings, murder, and other mayhem.

The film that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs most resembles is Kurosawa's Dreams .  There is an exotic, off-kilter and, even, surreal aspect to all of the stories.  Although the film features spectacular location-sequences and flawless historical recreations of such things as Indian attacks and wagon trains, the viewer senses something theatrical and dream-like in the narratives -- ordinary logic doesn't apply and there is a weird, almost Elizabethan formality about the way that people speak and the fates that they befall.  Many Coen brothers films are very, very dark and their jaunty aura of insouciance conceals a profound melancholy -- a strain of fatalistic despair underlies films like Inside Llewellyn Davis and the autobiographical A Serious Man.  People are wicked, selfish, and cruel -- the good are snuffed-out but this is fate is general:  no one gets out alive or unscathed.  Everyone is subject to a common, absurd or, even,  comically ridiculous doom.  As The Ballad progresses, the stories get more and more serious -- there are fewer jokes and allusions:  in the end of the film proceeds in deadly earnest.  But the subject matter keeps the audience entertained:  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs delivers all of the pleasures of the classic Western -- there are horse chases, battles with savage Indians, shoot-outs on Main Street at high noon, singing cowboys, stagecoach rides across barren terrain, and, of course, spectacular landscapes and nature photography.  But these elements act in service to a gloomy, nihilistic vision of the Old West as a place filled with random sudden death, wild Indians, and vicious brigands.

These themes are dramatized most efficiently in the opening tale, the eponymous Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  Scruggs is a singing cowboy, first presented two us crossing the enormous iconic desert at Monument Valley.  He's also a psychopathic killer who guns down anyone who crosses his path.  In a bar fight, he contrives a way to have a bad hombre shoot himself three times in the face -- then, he improvises a merry little ballad about a bad guy who had his face shot-off.  The saloon girls and gamblers all do a little jig to the tune.  But, of course, the fastest gun in the West is catnip to other killers and, sooner as opposed to later, someone rides into town who is even faster on the draw.  Scruggs is gunned down and, in a remarkable sequence, his soul, wearing little white wings soars up over the wilderness and the tiny Western village.  Scruggs is equipped with lyre and he sings and plays as he rises to heaven.  (This sequence seems a counterpoint to the last episode in the narrative that seems to be set in Sartre's version of Hell -- "other people" bickering and trapped on a spectral stagecoach that seems bound for perdition.)   "Near Algodones" involves a hapless bank robber played by James Franco -- he robs a little false-front bank set up in the absolute middle of nowhere, encounters a wild-eyed and indefatigably obstinate teller and, ultimately ends up getting lynched not once but twice. He sees a pretty girl smiling up at him from beneath the scaffold, comments "pretty girl" and, then, the screen goes black because the hood has been tugged over his eyes and the trap dropped much to the amusement of the crowd gathered for the hanging.  "The Meal Ticket" is ineffably weird -- the story of a scowling showman who drags a man without arms or legs through the snowy
Rocky Mountains.  The young man recites poetry -- he is called "the Wingless Thrush."  This section is so palpably cold and icy and you feel the sleet and frost coming off your TV set.  The story of the "Wingless Thrush" features a fantastic performance by the human oddity -- he pouts like a girl and has the features of Pre-Raphaelite maiden.  But interest in his recitations from Shakespeare and Byron palls and, in the end, his keeper (Liam Neeson) blithely replaces him with another sideshow act that is easier to keep and maintain.  In "All Gold Canyon" (derived from a Jack London story), an old prospector wanders into an incredibly lush and beautiful mountain valley.  He finds some nuggets of gold, digs dozens of pits in a verdant meadow, and, finally, discovers a rich vein of ore.  (He calls the vein of ore "Mr. Pocket.")   But a claim jumper ambushes him, guns the old man down in his pit, and, then, tries to seize the gold.  The old man revives, kills the claim-jumper, and departs from the valley lugging his sack of gold -- a stag returns to drink from the beautiful mountain stream and butterflies play among the flowers and a big owl views the whole episode with baleful eye.  "The Gal who got rattled" is also based on a short story written during the time of Teddy Roosevelt.  The tale involves a young woman who sets off with wagon train headed for the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  Her brother, who has induced her to leave the East, dies suddenly from cholera, but the girl continues West and her fortunes, it seems, improve markedly when the trail boss proposes marriage to her.  But she wanders away from the wagon train to chase her dog, a terrier called "President Pierce" and ends up in the middle of an Indian attack.  The fight with the Comanches in this section is one of the greatest "last stand" type battles ever filmed and the episode is a classic -- it is both genuinely terrifying and shocking as well.  The final sequence, called "The Mortal Remains" involves people on a hell-bound stage bickering about virtue and sin, all in the setting of imminent and ghastly death.  The film has a great soundtrack, many fine Western ballads and tunes, including everyone's all-time favor "Cool Water."  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, now available on Netflix, is one of the best films of the year and highly recommended.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Sunken Cities (Exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Sunken Cities is an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts, some of them retrieved from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  The objects on display were made relatively late in the enormous span of history encompassing civilization in Egypt.  Most of these things, generally religious statuary and votive offerings, were produced between about 600 BCE and 200 CE.  Thus, much of this material may be attributed to the Ptolmaic period -- that is, a time when Egyptian culture was subject to Hellenizing (and Roman) influences.  The show's gimmick is that brave French archaeologists diving off the sea-coast comprised by the Nile delta discovered two lost cities, drowned beneath Mediterranean sea -- the frisson, as it were, advertised by the exhibition's title is that of bold adventure and discovery, the exoticism surrounding deep sea or high-mountain or deep jungle excavations that accompanies an Indiana Jones movie.  (This is the appeal that the formidable and ubiquitous Zahi Hawass, the big boss of Egyptian archaeology with his trademark broad-brimmed hats and handsome piratical features, brings to innumerable TV shows about lost mummies, pyramids, and secret tombs in the Valley of the Kings.)  This appeal is questionable in my mind -- it confuses archaeology with mere looting, the excitement of finding some wonderful object in a lagoon or desert and, then, without regard for context, seizing the thing and bringing it back to a museum to be contemplated by a sensation-seeking public.  In fact, real archaeological research is intensely dependent on context and involves a lot more cataloguing of pottery shards than the excavation of spectacular golden masks and monuments.

In fact, as it turns out, Sunken Cities is a misnomer.  After a couple of galleries featuring images of divers and murky undersea photographs blown up to mural size, the show settles into its real, and fascinating, theme -- an exploration of religious rites relating the murder, dismemberment, and resurrection of the Egyptian vegetation God, Osiris.  The two lost cities turn out to be Thonis-Heraclieon and, across a two-mile causeway, Canopis.  (Thonis is the Egyptian name for a Nile delta port known to the Greeks as Heraclieon.)   Two large statues of Egyptians pharaohs were found in the silt at Thonis -- they are about 35 feet tall and shown in the museum lobby.  A variety of other objects dragged from the sea are shown in the exhibit, most of them quite small, including small bronze figures, votives, and jewelry apparently donated to Osiris at a large temple to his cult now submerged beneath the sea.  The first two galleries are painted with blue walls to simulate the sea and bubbling water plays from hidden speakers, seemingly an attempt to make visitors feel that they are swimming in forty feet of water and digging in the silt.  Egyptian antiquities are stiff and impersonal and their general aura of imperturbable, stylistic certainty (the exact opposite of the anxieties that post-renaissance art dramatizes) are, for me, a little abstract and off-putting.  But in the first room, I saw a stucco shard marked indelibly with a beautifully outlined ram and, then, a jovial plaque of Bes, the Egyptian god used to scare away demons and ghosts and repel the evil-eye and these artifacts had a real presence -- you could feel the artist's hand working in the wonderfully assured sketch of the ram and Bes had a wacky nonchalance, grotesque, witty, like a cartoon superhero.  These objects intrigued me and, as the real theme of the show emerged, I discovered that, in fact (and to my surprise), the exhibit was genuinely fascinating.  About  70% of the objects on show are loaned from museums in Cairo or Alexandria and, in fact, weren't pulled from the sea at the sister cities of Canopis and Thonis.  These objects are generally images, charms, and religious statues (the Old Testament calls them "idols") relating  to the veneration of Osiris.  There are two splendid figures of Osiris and, his sister, Isis in the show -- carved from beautifully polished graywracke stone.  Similarly, an idol of Tawaret, a destructive goddess of water and chaos, is so exquisitely preserved that it looks like it was made yesterday -- in fact, the four-foot tall idol has the zany exuberance of a sculpture of Jeff Koons:  it's a fat, pregnant hippo standing on her hind legs and grinning through the toothy head of a crocodile.  In the festival month of Khoniak, the birth of Osiris is celebrated -- images show him sitting on the lap of his sister Isis and, in fact, being suckled by her.  (The God is just a smaller version of his fully grown mature self).  During Khoniak, the priests in Thonis made small mummies of Osiris, doughy figures bound in bandages with protruding erections -- this is Osiris vegetans,  a miniature mummy with a hard-on made from clay mixed with grain and seed.  These mummies were sealed in little cases and, then, set afloat -- some of the boats are equipped with seven falcon candleholders so that the small ceremonial vessel would be illuminated when it was wafted out to sea on the tide, the so-called "Great Navigation" which is one of the concluding rites of Khoniak.  Osiris was ripped to shreds, reassembled by his sister, and his body, then, resurrected -- this life-story staged and re-staged by priests as a guarantor the annual life-giving flooding on the Nile.  Later, Osiris was synthesized with Zeus and became Serapis, a furry-looking Herculean deity, great and bearded like Poseidon.  Sometimes, Osiris appeared in his avatar as a sacred bull, Apis -- and there is a spectacular life-size sculpture of a bull in the show.  As time progressed, the art becomes more Hellenic in character although it never loses its stiff,  formal and hieratic Egyptian aspect.  At the end the show, as a valedictory image, we see an almost life-sized statue of a priest of Osiris, the man characterized in a portrait like those favored by the Romans, a real flesh and flood human being -- the priest clutches to his chest a great canopic jar showing Osiris with his uraeus  (rearing twin cobras, also an emblem of the Egyptian pharaohs).  It's a wonderful work of art, combining the particularizing tendencies of Roman portraiture with the stiff, abstract, and impersonal art of the Egyptians and a fine l'envoi to a show that I highly recommend. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Silent Night (Minnesota Opera -- November 17, 2018)

I attended the world premiere of the opera Silent Night commissioned and first performed by the Minnesota Opera Company in 2011.  The opera was disappointing to me and I didn't like it very much.  (I was particularly incensed, I recall, by the vaguely atonal texture of the music -- it seems, at once, perverse and perversely difficult to write a Christmas opera without a whiff of the carols that so much characterize the Season.  Misguided artistic purity, I think, boxed the composer Mark Puts into writing in the style of late Stravinsky or Benjamin Britten as his most acerbic and, as a consequence, no one emerges from the production whistling any of its tunes -- or, indeed, even remembering much about the music at all.)  Apparently, I was in the distinct minority with respect to my disdain for the show -- the opera won a Pulitzer Prize and has been performed eight or nine times since its inception, mostly in the US and Canada.   Silent Night was revived this Fall by the Minnesota Opera Company, perhaps in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the subject of the libretto.  At the end of the first Act, I was puzzled -- the show seemed much, much better than I remembered and, perhaps, my initial impressions had been callow or mistaken.  At intermission, I was baffled.  But by the end of the opera, my initial impressions were confirmed -- Silent Night has a completely disastrous second Act.  In fact, if the show were to end with some sort of brief coda after the first Act, I think I would largely regard the opera as a success -- it's the last forty-five minutes that kills the production.

Silent Night chronicles the famous and improvised Christmas truce on parts of the Western Front in December 1914 (the opera adapts a French dramatic film on the subject Joyeaux Noel, a movie that I have not seen.)  The libretto follows the fortunes of a German Heldentenor and a Norwegian soprano who we see in the first scene warbling out a Mozart-like duet (the composer is very good with pastiches of other, earlier composers).  The proceedings on-stage are interrupted by a German officer who fiercely reads a news report of declaration of war.  In Scotland, two young brothers enlist to partake in "the glory of the war."  In France, a young married man leaves his sad new bride (she's pregnant) to go to the Western Front.  There's an eight minute montage of fighting -- mostly somewhat absurd (this kind of thing is difficult to do on-stage) -- and, then, we see the main characters ensconced in trenches so close to one another that they can hear alarm clocks sounding on the other side of no-man's land.  It's Christmas and everyone is completely miserable.  The German tenor is ordered to the rear to perform a concert for the war-mongering Kronprinz -- fortunately, for the music, he encounters his former mistress, the sad Norwegian soprano.  (The obviously problem here is to find a way to incorporate high voices into the opera's vocal register -- Britten would have just used countertenors like Peter Pears; Puts and his librettist have to find a way to get a woman to the trenches  -- thus, the subplot involving the German tenor and the Norwegian soprano.)  There's a beautiful pastiche song -- again a bit like Mozart or Rossini at his most melodious -- complicated by the fact that the tenor is shell-shocked and prone to wild, discordant mood-swings.  The second pastiche is good enough that the audience on the night that I saw the show gave it an ovation, starved, I think, for something conventionally melodic.  At the Front, the Scotsmen have received a bagpipe.  One of the soldiers plays the bagpipe much to the derision of the German troops who mock the sound of the instrument.  A Scottish officer sings a pastiche folk-song, also an effective number, and this leads the Germans to sing along.  Gradually, the joshing across the battle-lines becomes warmer and more friendly.  The tenor, who has arrived on the battlefield with the soprano, leaps out of his trench and stands between the opposing armies.  This leads to the French and Scotsman agreeing to a truce that will end at midnight.  This is the climax of the opera and, by far, its most satisfying scene -- the camaraderie between the troops is genuinely moving and the slow transition from hate to nasty joking to more gentle humor and, then, something approaching friendship is effectively, and realistically, done.  This isn't a kumbaya moment -- intercut, as it were, with the celebrations are short brutal interludes where the Scottish youth, whose brother has been shot down by the Germans, swears murderous vengeance.  There are several effective, muscular male choruses and the music portrays the reluctant rapprochement between the armies.  But, things start to go a bit sour when the Scottish priest celebrates mass and, then, the soprano sings some kind of wordless threnody, a sort of very high-pitched and, even, unpleasantly screechy lament.  Why wouldn't someone just sing a Christmas carol?  Why does Puts feel he has to invent austere, very cold and cerebral church music for this scene?  (It's invidious to Silent Night to imagine what Ives would have done here -- a cacophony of familiar carols and hymns all mixed together and sung in different keys with a thudding undertone to simulate the big guns and, then, remote, half-heard choruses wafted here and there on the breeze -- alas, there is none of this in the opera:  instead Puts just illustrates the action; he's writing a sophisticated version of movie music -- it's all unimaginatively and literally illustrative.)  Nonetheless, at the half-time, I was pleased with the opera -- I thought that it showed vaunting, almost excessive ambition, used a large cast, and was ingeniously staged.  Furthermore, the climactic truce scene was intensely moving.

But there's another forty-five minutes to go and what follows is unreservedly bad.  The field commanders reprise their suspicions of one another's motive in a way that feels simply repetitive.  Then, everyone agrees to a truce to bury the dead.  This is actually dramatized and, of course, it simply doesn't work.  (In the opera, needless to say, the dead are very well-preserved and not fragmentary -- they look like people sleeping.  But, nonetheless, the whole concept is grotesque and the staging verges on the risible, particularly when the Norwegian singer, still hanging around the gruesome battlefield, participates in collecting the corpses and sings about it.  (A more imaginative and less literal-minded composer would have used a sardonic danse macabre for these scenes -- but, no such luck here.)  The generals rage in three different languages -- the opera is staged in German, English (Scottish in fact) and French.  They shout imprecations in a cacophonous trio.  Then, Scottish are shipped off to another part of the front.  The French are withdrawn from the line of battle and sent to Verdun -- this is supposed to be bitterly ironic.  The Germans are loaded into sinister-looking freight cars and sent to the Eastern Front.  (The librettist seems to think the Eastern Front in World War One had the same lethal connotations as in the Second World War  -- in fact, the Germans were able to win most battles in on the Eastern Front in the Great War and the assignment of the troops to that place seems almost benign.)  More heavy irony clouds the last Act -- the German field commander is Jewish and, as he extols his patriotism and the Fatherland, the German Kronprinz, suggests that he's not even really a "true German."  This is all staged against a backdrop of railroad cars.  Some critics claim that a great composer like Shostakovich can write music that is "ironic."  I'm agnostic a to whether this is true.  But Puts can't write "ironic" music and so the atonal, jagged and wide interval-jumping music in the last part of the opera doesn't really work on any level.  The Norwegian Soprano and the Heldentenor cross No-Man's Land, taking advantage of some remaining comity between the armies -- they surrender to the French who note that they have come to the right army for l'amour.  (I doubt very much that the soprano and tenor are going to be sent to same prison camp.  Therefore, we can't really see their escape to the French lines as a happy-ending -- at best, it's problematic and neutral.)  Most baffling, the last half of the second Act just concerns itself with the mechanics of getting all of its players off-stage.  Once the plot has succeeded in getting all the singers and all the mud-daubed male choruses exiled from the battlefield, there's literally nothing to do but bring things to a wholly puzzling close.  The Western front now is deserted -- a spotlight picks out the grave of the Scottish brother slain in action and the music skids into a dying fall, twenty-or-so inconsequential bars before the curtain comes down.  This is the most diminished, self-effacing, and non-dramatic ending that I have ever seen attempted in any opera -- just get everyone off-stage and, when the singers and choruses are all gone, drop the curtain.  The audience doesn't seem much inclined to applaud -- what are we applauding?:  everyone being hauled away leaving us to behold an empty stage.  It doesn't work and, in fact, the last five minutes are flat-out weird and emotionally confusing -- there's no one on which to affix our emotions, no one with whom to identify and the music doesn't really suffice to hold our attention. 

I don't like the opera.  However, the production was effective.  The Heldentenor was a little growly in his lower register, but when his voice rang out mid- and upper-range, the sound was brazen, like a trumpet of the apocalypse, a tonal allusion to the man's incipient shell-shock and madness.  The set consisted of a ravaged church overlooking a sort of inclined ramp tilting upward and comprised of sand-bag ramparts -- this scenery or, better stated, stage machinery was mounted so that it could be rotated.  The back of the Church doubled as a bunker in the front-lines.  Stagehands dressed as soldiers of the great war pushed the inclined ramp in circles -- it was laden with genteel-looking corpses.  Rear projections depicted images from battlefields in the Great War and a single stark tree stood in accusatory way in the center of the stage.