Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ex Libris

Borges said:  "I have always imagined paradise will be a kind of library."  Ample justification for this vision may be found in Frederick Wiseman's remarkably cheerful and fascinating documentary Ex Libris (2017).  This film, an institutional study of the New York Public Library, is built on an epic scale -- the movie is 197 minutes long.  However, it wears its length well and, in fact, is sufficiently interesting, and, even, inspiring enough to avoid tedium.  In fact, the activities of the library are so immense and variegated that, if anything, the film doesn't exactly seem to do them justice -- it could easily be another hour long without losing its peculiar charm.  Some sequences, indeed, feel too short -- there is one scene in which a man in a wheelchair inserts some kind of card in a cassette box and, then, flings the cassettes into a big bin; the man works with astonishing speed and hurls the cassettes as if he is angry at them -- Wiseman eschews names, music, narration, and makes no use of explanatory titles:  he is a purist and presents his images as if unmediated and, so, this sequence, an episode in the huge film that is very interesting and, in fact, departs a little from the idyllic tone of the rest of the movie, remains enigmatic:  who is this man?  what is his actual mood?  and what the hell is he doing?  Why is he working so fast?  There is no explanation of this sequence and so we are left to our own imaginative devices, an interesting approach to documentary filmmaking, but one that is, sometimes, a little frustrating.  Although Wiseman presents his movies, almost all of them institutional studies, as the simple, unvarnished truth, in fact, they are highly complex, and carefully contrived, artifices -- Wiseman spends much more time editing than shooting his films and, of course, carefully controls what we see.  His vision of the institution that he documents is concealed, but, nonetheless, forcefully evident across the length of the film.  In contrast with some of his subjects, for instance his film simply entitled High School, Wiseman has unalloyed affection for New York's vast public library system and this is on fulsome display in this movie.

One of the pleasures of watching Wiseman's films is that gradually, over hours, characters emerge.  We see the same people, none of them ever identified, and, gradually, build up a sense for their personalities and quirks.  Similarly, Wiseman tethers Ex Libris to a sort of loose structure by sequences that punctuate his material -- these are shots of the iconic façade and entrance hall to the main library facility that seems to be at 5th Avenue and 41st Street.  Every fifteen minutes or so, the film reverts to this location, shot at all hours of the day, and we see tourists on the steps taking selfies of themselves in front of the library's famous portico.  We also see tourists in Astor Hall, the entry way to the library, milling about, taking photographs, and sometimes attending noon time presentations by famous writers -- everyone, including the presenter, stands for these talks.  At dawn, the camera shows street people sleeping in the shadow of the building.  The famous lions flanking the entrance to the library first appear about two hours into the film although they are on ubiquitous in stylized forms on flags shown at the various branches of the library that the film explores -- the film tutors us to recognize the red and white flag as the sign for a branch library.  As the film progresses, periodically, we see members of its governing body, people who perpetually proclaim that the library succeeds by its "public and private partnerships", a mantra for the notion that the more the library shows its benevolent public face, that is, the more people it serves, the more private philanthropists will donate to the library.  The impulse in the film is to show that the library is a powerful, behemoth force for good and that it inspires good in others.  To this end, we see a tired-looking blonde woman who seems to be one of the library's executives -- she presides over various meetings, including several in branches serving poor neighborhoods.  A very dignified Black woman with a shaved head seems to have something to do with the Schomburg Center, a Harlem archive associated with the library -- she almost never speaks but is a powerful presence in the administrative scenes.  A number of handsome younger men appear as well, more or less indistinguishable from one another -- they are up and coming administrators and hustlers.   With one exception (an U.S. army recruiting officer), everyone in the film speaks with fantastic, unscripted eloquence -- there are many marvelous, hyper-literate speeches in the film including a marvelous Ph.d-level dissertation on Marxism and the criticism of bourgeois society from the right (the works of ... Slaves without Masters) delivered by a brilliantly eloquent American Indian woman -- she's chubby, wears gaudy silver jewelry, and seems to be speaking to a group of elderly Jewish and Chinese people at a Branch library and, I'm persuaded, that she's about the most intelligent person you and I will hear speak during the next dozen or so calendar months. 

The movie is encyclopedic like the library that it documents.  We see Richard Dawkins pontificating about science and religion, pointing out that the endeavor of knowledge is cooperative (and, therefore, establishing from the outset Wiseman's theme).  A brilliant Black scholar speaks on the Koran and the Atlantic slave trade.  There is a Job Fair, a half-dozen board meetings of the governors of the library (more talk of the public-private partnership),a sequence in which librarians at an after-school day care teach children how to read, images of micro-fiche being made and used, fifteen minutes in the archives of the world's largest copy-right free picture library, a Jewish scholar discussing delicatessens and the sexual symbolism of pastrami and salami.  Elvis Costello in an interview, undercuts one of Greil Marcus' more elaborate theories and presents an image of his father on TV performing "If I had a Hammer," a highlight in the movie.  An older Black poet speaks and we see several chamber ensembles performing in an auditorium associated with the library branch in Lincoln Center.  Old Chinese men read Hong Kong newspapers in the Chinatown branch, old Jews discuss Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera in a book club, and librarians teach the blind how to read braille (Wiseman cuts away to a service dog licking its genitals).  Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers a spectacular poetry reading and a sign language interpreter shows how she imports emotion into her "signing" at plays and musicals on Broadway.  We see conveyor belts sorting books from the circulation library and snapping them into bins to be delivered to the various branches; a little girl tries to get a library card and the head of the custodians delivers a report on physical plant improvements.  The library loans out hot spot electronics and lap tops and the administrators debate e-books and the role of bestsellers in the collection.  Scholars study handwritten letters by Yeats and William Burroughs and a curator shows a group of old people wonderful woodcuts and engravings by Durer and Rembrandt.  Administrators discuss policies toward the homeless -- the homeless are not allowed to sleep in the library, but the film, then, shows us a montage of all sorts of people napping in the reading rooms.  At a lecture, Patti Smith says that history also includes dreams and visions and mistakes. Teenagers use a Branch as a hang-out and an actor recites Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark for an audio book.  More old men are sleeping in a serene, silent branch near a green park.  The great and wealthy gather in a banqueting hall lit by luminaria (brown paper bags with candles in them) for a fundraiser.  The tired-looking blonde lady is dolled-up and looks about fifteen years younger. 

Carnegie's bequest to America was that no one should live farther from a public library than they can walk -- this is the core of the so-called "public private" relationship to public services that the film espouses.  At one point, a woman says that "the library must not fail" and, for a moment, the quotidian seems majestic and heroic.  The head librarian, the tired-looking blonde woman, finds out that the most checked-out resource by local educators is the file on "Baby Animals" -- "everyone loves baby animals," a cheerful Black librarian says, but she points that both parents and children have made the second-most checked-out resource materials on fractions.  There are patterns artfully woven into the film -- in the first five minutes someone asks an information librarian about the Gutenberg Bible.  A half hour before the film ends, we see the Gutenberg Bible on display.  I'm sure there are other motifs that reoccur, but on first watching the film is so long and complex that it is hard to appreciate the movie's structural underpinnings.

Wiseman is 89 now -- he was 87 when he directed this astonishingly youthful and optimistic film.  Unlike Ken Burns, a filmmaker that I dislike, Wiseman is America's cinematic Whitman -- this film is a vast and inspiring catalogue of good things.  Of course, it's not true -- Wiseman doesn't show homeless people being escorted out of toilets by security.  The Board meetings that he films are preternaturally calm and harmonious.  No one gets angry.  There are no quarrels and no disputes as to the library's function, which, in effect, seems to be universal.  The New York that Wiseman shows is sunny, clean, filled with ultra-articulate and super-smart people.  There is no ethnic tension, no disputes between labor and management, no debate about objectives, nothing even approximating racism.  This is a wonderful film that depicts an idealized version of the American community -- in the age of Trump, such a work is salubrious and it should be seen by everyone.  The film is a fiction, but it's not a mean-spirited or bitter fiction. I hope that Wiseman's generosity of spirit is somehow contagious.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Maxwell Anderson, a reliably dull playwright, scored a Broadway success with The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex -- a melodrama about an alleged love affair between Queen Elizabeth and Essex, one of her cavaliers.  Michael Curtiz adapted the play to film for Warner Brothers in 1939 and the movie was a prestige production -- it stars Bette Davis at her most imperious and the perilously handsome Errol Flynn as Essex.  It's not a very good movie, but one that is important I think. 

The plot is static, revolving around the aging Queen's hopeless desire for the much-younger Essex -- it's really just a situation with variations and the unhappy end for Essex is pretty clearly presaged from the first encounter between them dramatized by the movie.  Essex has come from a great naval victory in which he has sent the Spanish fleet to the bottom of the harbor at Cadiz.  Elizabeth, however, petulantly berates him for failing to save for her the Spanish treasure, gold and jewels, on the ships that he has destroyed.  She pouts and, when he expresses dissatisfaction, exiles him to the thankless task of exterminating Irish rebels.  Of course, the whole time Essex is hunting Irishmen on the Emerald Isle, Elizabeth is pining away for him back at the palace at Whitehall.  She writes him letters, but these are intercepted by vicious courtiers, apparently Sir Francis Bacon (played by the ever-stalwart Donald Crisp), and Elizabeth ultimately assumes that Essex is snubbing her.  She cuts off his supplies and troops with the result that the doughty Irish rebels humiliate him in the field.  When he returns to London, she summons him to her throne-room for a long duet in which both the Queen and Essex express love for one another.  Essex has essentially staged a coup -- his men are occupying the castle.  When the Queen says that she loves Essex, he withdraws his troops  as a gesture of good faith whereupon she has him promptly arrested and thrown in the Tower of London.  He broods.  She broods.  There is another duet and, then, Essex has his head cut-off ending the film.  This is all staged with maximum pageantry and the colorful costumes, particularly the Queen's gowns, are truly spectacular -- the film is shot in Technicolor.  The speeches are in faux-Elizabethan verse that is not really effective -- it's more irritating than really poetic.  Bette Davis is astounding as the tormented, unrequited Queen -- she stutters and makes her hands flutter around her hips hidden by the grandiose bustles that she wears:  her performance is integral to how we think a queen should act.  Indeed, Davis' performance seems to have been taken as a model for just about everything (including TV interviews) that Katherine Hepburn did after The African Queen.  And Davis is an utterly bizarre apparition in the film -- her make-up is not so much pale white as a sort of metallic leaden pallor.  Her lips are pinched and her hair is pulled so fiercely back away from her forehead that she seems to be bald.  Her eyes are impenetrable and, oddly enough, here seem very tiny, almost Asian in their configuration -- this is curious because Davis, of course, was famous for her large, seductively luminous eyes.  She seems to be two-dimensional, flat as a paramecium -- she has width but no breadth.  Her gowns are breathtaking -- layers of shimmering satin, pearl brocades, and ice-white ruffs under her throat, but the garments are ultimately inhuman:  they shape her in two dimension and her waist is so tightly corseted that her form looks monstrous.  Indeed, Davis' Queen Elizabeth is conceived as a sort of monster -- she looks nothing at all like the other women in the movie, most of them ruddy-faced and showing lots of décolletage.  The Queen, by contrast, is an eerie mannequin.  She's so scary that it doesn't seem possible that the remarkably handsome, but robust Errol Flynn could possibly love her -- she is like some creature from another planet compared to the other humans beings in the movie.  (The Queen recognizes that she looks exceedingly strange -- in one spectacular scene, she smashes up a bunch of mirrors in recognition that she is too old and ugly to love Essex; this is while her court ladies are both taunting, and regaling her, with Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Nymph" together with Raleigh's reply -- Raleigh is played by Vincent Price.)  As I watched the film, a number of the sequences seemed familiar to me -- the monstrous queen lurking under the groined vaults in her huge, gloomy palace, the shadows of henchmen and musicians limned on the dark, heavy walls, the ever-present sense of violence surrounding the Kabuki Queen.  It's my contention that this film, particularly with respect to its bizarre portrayal of Elizabeth, is a direct source of Eisenstein's even more peculiar and radically strange Ivan the Terrible, particularly the Technicolor sequences in Part Two.  Both Curtiz's Elizabeth and Eisenstein's Ivan are monsters surrounded by relatively normal people.

The dialogue in the film is spectacularly tortured.  In some respects, the interplay between Elizabeth and Essex is like some queer imperial version of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.  Long sequences are just campy bickering. At the climax, Elizabeth asks Essex if he loves her.  Somewhat improbably Essex says he loves her, wants to marry her, and desires, in that way, to become King.  She demands that he love her without requiring that he rule over the country.  He refuses.  She, then, tells him that he would be a terrible King because of his lust for glory and fame.  After sulking a little Essex agrees with her.  He says that she's right to point out that he would be a terrible king.  He, then, says that he supposes he could love her without being king but, if it were suggested that he made this accommodation with her to avoid beheading, he would be shamed.  So, then, Elizabeth agrees he can become King.  But now he is convinced that he lacks "kingly stuff" and sulks some more  before stomping down through a trap-door that somehow connects the throne-room with the Tower.  As he departs, Elizabeth cries out that she'll give him anything to be with him as his lover.  But it's too late -- the bitchy Essex has abandoned her for the tender mercies of the headsman on the scaffold.  This stuff is ineffably silly and shockingly dull, but the film is mounted lavishly and, from a purely visual standpoint, it's surrealistic to see the lively robust Errol Flynn embracing the emaciated, gaunt and monstrous corpse-queen played by Bette Davis.

(An interesting sidelight, this was the first film in which Nanette Fabray, here credited under her actual name Nanette Fabares appeared.  Nanette Fabray was a later fixture in Hollywood, most famous for playing Betty Comden in the Fred Astaire - Vincent Minnelli masterpiece The Band Wagon.)

Monday, September 3, 2018

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour (2018) is a companion piece to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, both films released about the same time.  Both pictures are radical in conception.  Nolan's Dunkirk uses different time scales cross-cut to imply simultaneity when, in fact, the film shows us explicitly that the events occur within wildly different systems of duration -- the pilot's war is only two hours long while the infantryman's travails last several days.  Darkest Hour obsessively materializes the film's title -- the movie is shot almost completely in gloomy shadow:  Churchill speaks to parliament gathered in a black well dark as a cistern; when he goes among the people, he descends to the gloomy underground, boarding a subway, and the edges of the frame are sooty, forming a black oval around the people in the train car; King Edward's chambers are drowned in darkness and, sometimes, Churchill himself is envisioned as occupying a little rectangle of Rembrandt-brown color in the midst of impenetrable darkness, a postage stamp-sized zone of faint light.  Most of the film is set in subterranean quarters, the War Rooms, buried under London and, whenever, anyone goes abroad, the weather is leaden, grey, and rainy.  The only exception to this principle of blackness is a couple scenes showing aerial bombardment -- orange flames flaring against the black and the ill-weather civilian rescue of the troops at Dunkirk, also composed in somber, monochrome.  I know of no picture as universally black as this film except some of the early half-experimental films of David Lynch -- Eraserhead was similarly dark as was The Elephant Man.

Darkest Hour is exceptionally well-made and effectively directed by Joe Wright.  Gary Oldman's performance as Churchill is suitably majestic.  The picture inexorably captures the darkness growing about Churchill beleaguered by a cabinet that insists that he sue for piece with Hitler.  Further, the film equates this darkness with Churchill's periodic bouts with severe depression.  The movie contains several of Churchill's most famous speeches from the era including "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" and "we will fight on the beaches..."  At the end of the movie, as Parliament wildly embraces Churchill's rejection of peace initiatives, Neville Chamberlain laments that he "has mobilized the English language for war."  And this response points to a moral difficulty that is intrinsic to the film and one that the motion picture doesn't really try to solve.  Churchill's rhetoric is courageous, brilliant, and stirring, but isn't there something a wee bit problematic about the premise:  who knows what a negotiated peace with Hitler would have looked like in May 1940?  And isn't peace always preferable to war?  It's easy to stir people to war.  We've seen this task accomplished with almost no effort in this country post 9 -11.  In fact, it's pretty easy to get a consensus that torturing enemy terrorists is perfectly okay -- just ask the commuter in the subway.  In the film, Churchill takes the psychic temperature of his people by riding in a subway car and asking them rhetorical questions about whether they wish to surrender to Hitler.  Of course, if the question is posed in that way, you can always mobilize the man on the street to join the crusade.  In this country, most everyone was in favor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until, suddenly, they weren't.  In fact, every nation enters into war with high hopes of an easy and glorious triumph over evil, subhuman and savage enemies.  But when the boys start coming home in body-bags, the issues suddenly become much more intricate.  Darkest Hour is about a politician steadfastly, stubbornly, and effectively pulling all of the levers of power to urge continued warfare.  Further, the film argues that the man who compromises the least, who remains the most dogmatically true to his principles, will prevail and, indeed, earn everlasting fame.  But, in fact, isn't our current political system in the United States a victim of ideologies that insist that no compromise is possible and that political purity is the only real measure by which a statesman must be measured?  Fundamentally, war is easy; making peace is hard.  And Darkest Hour celebrates uncompromising belligerence as virtue -- "doubling down" on enmity, a strategy in which our present president excels.  Churchill's  war ended with the Soviet Union in ascendancy over half of Europe with many ancient and noble nations under the heel of Communist dictatorship for half a century.  Was this a good outcome to the Great Crusade?  Everything in Darkest Hour collaborates to enforce the impression of the alcoholic and flawed Churchill's greatness -- and there can be no quarrel with the notion that Churchill was a great man.  But were his speeches stirring the British people to a willingness to "die choked in their own blood" before compromising with the enemy all that different from Hitler's harangues, particularly those that he made at the end of the War, summoning the German people to sacrifice themselves en masse in suicidal defense of the homeland?  Didn't Hitler equally mobilize the German language for war?  Is mobilizing any language to make war a good thing? 

Things to Come

William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936) based on a science fiction novel by H. G. Wells is startlingly bad -- worse, it's silly, and silliness, of course, is the kiss of death for science fiction.  The film stars Raymond Massey as an idealist with Socialist leanings who, later, plays the part of his own grandson, a technocrat who is part of the New World Order.  Relatively restrained in the first half of the film, Massey chews the scenery at the film's climax -- his eyes enlarge and seem to protrude from his skull and his voice assumes the ranting tone of Hitler or Mussolini.  It's completely unconvincing, an attempt to achieve an effect by brute force, something that almost never succeeds.  This is a pity because the film's first twenty minutes are very impressive and frightening.  It's Christmas in Everytown (a place bordered by a big distinctively shaped peak that looks like Table Mountain in Cape Town -- in fact, the mountain has the same function of the peak in Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire acting as an imperturbable and constant feature despite the changes in scenery at its base.)  In the darkness, there is "war fever" -- everywhere we see placards announcing the imminence of war -- and the Christmas carols that people sing have a sinister, bellicose sound, slightly off-key it seems.  The shadows of the city are fragmented into a montage of glaring faces and off-kilter, spiky expressionist images.  Soon enough a great armada of biplanes crosses the English Channel, flying over the White Cliffs of Dover to bomb Everywhere Town (of course, it looks like London complete with a statue of Nelson, Trafalgar Circus and St. Paul's Cathedral).  Poison gas is used and a beatific boy whom we saw looking with delight at a model castle and train is shown smashed in the ruins of the city.  The war lasts thirty years, a montage of tanks that become increasingly sophisticated and shadowy marching soldiers.  When it is over, civilization has been spoiled and the wrecked city is now in the hands of a ranting war lord.  Raymond Massey appears in a streamlined prop-driven bi-plane and, disastrously for the movie, hops out of the plane wearing what seems to be a black bathtub around his shoulders and head.  (The film's costumes are absolutely ridiculous -- worse, in some low-angle shots, the genitals of the male actors are pretty clearly depicted in their weird trousers.)  Massey's character gets tossed in the dungeon after he makes a speech about a group of aviators who have preserved civilization through an organization called Wings over the World.  After some pointless vignettes, including the original of time-honored post-apocalyptic scene in which horses pull a car like a chariot into a marketplace, the Wings over the World aviators attack the town, hurtling down "peace bombs" that make everyone fall asleep.  The film, then, fast-forwards to the year 2036, one hundred years from the film's first Christmas scenes.  For some unknown reason, the men of the future have hollowed out a mountain to build a white and gleaming city that looks quite a bit like a fabulous Embassy Suites hotel --it's all white atrium and gardens and glass-faced elevators rising and falling in glass tubes.  The technocrats who run this society have decided to send Raymond Massey's daughter and a young man into orbit around the moon, firing them into space though a gigantic white cannon supported by a huge gantry -- the absurdly phallic space-howitzer is a muzzle-loader.  Anti-progress rioters attack the enormous cannon -- they swarm over its esplanades and causeways like infuriated ants.  But the cannon is fired and the comely couple ejaculated into space in their capsule and Massey, then, gets to rant some more about man exploring the universe before the picture ends at a sprightly 88 minutes.  It's really awful on all levels.  The sets are enormous and impressive but the special effects, obviously projected on screens embedded in the scenery are completely ineffective.  The acting is worse than terrible.  A good way to assess the skill of a film maker is to look at the actors who are not speaking but just standing around -- here the supernumeraries look inert or bored, as if they are waiting for something to happen.  It's interesting to see the film's depiction of the horror that the world felt 18 years after the end of the Great War on the subject of poison gas.  Gas of this kind is the film's bête noire and the best sequence in the film involves an enemy aviator, shot down by Massey's character in a dogfight.  The enemy aviator's canisters of poison gas burst just as a little girl runs up to the scene of the crash.  The enemy flyer gives the little girl his gas mask, musing that it is odd that he is now saving her when a minute or two earlier he was trying to drop poison gas bombs on her village.  Massey chivalrously leaves his service revolver with the dying enemy who, of course, shoots himself rather than succumb ignominiously to the poison gas wafted around him.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Organizer

Mario Monicelli's 1963 film, called The Comrades (I' Compagni), was rebranded for American consumption as The Organizer -- presumably, this name change was designed to highlight the role of Marcello Mastrioanni in the picture:  audiences like stars and Mastrioanni, known in this country from his parts in Fellini pictures, fits that bill.  In fact, the Hollywood name for the film is a bit misleading -- although Mastrioanni plays a significant part in the film, he's arguably not the main character (I think the herculean worker called Domenico Pautasse plays that part) and he doesn't even appear in the picture until about half an hour has elapsed.  Monicelli's picture is heavily influenced by Italian Communism and the film is really about a collective of workers employed by a Turin textile factory who engage in a long and futile strike sometime during the latter half of the 19th century.  True to the film's subject, Monicelli eschews close-ups of his actors -- I don't recall a single close-shot featuring someone's face in the film, although undoubtedly there may be an isolated shot or two of this kind.  The picture is filmed in greyish black and white, evoking old, half-faded photographs and the images by Giuseppe Rotunno are fantastically beautiful.  Monicelli points his camera at groups of men and women, often involved in some sort of hectic activity, and he is expert at staging riots and confrontations between large groups.  The film certainly presents itself as historically accurate and the images of the immense factory with its whirring fly-wheels and puffs of steam and conveyor belts spinning overhead are remarkable -- the amount of labor required to recreate a 19th century factory must have been immense but the verismo effect is integral to the film..

Workers labor 14 hour shifts in a textile factory in cold and rainy Turin.  The film begins with women lighting fires to make breakfast in cramped, but reasonably comfortable-looking, stone apartments.  A teenage boy named Omero leaves home and walks to work and, true to the conventions of this kind of film, there is something ominous about this young man being singled-out in this opening sequence.  A man's hand gets chewed-off by an in-running geared pinch-point when he falls asleep on the job and, so, the workers petition the boss for a longer lunch-break and a 13-hour day.  The factory-director protests that he can't control the terms of employment and says that he's a mere salary-man himself.  The workers plot to blow the whistle ending the work-day an hour early, but they're too divided among themselves to succeed with the impromptu work stoppage and their leader, the huge and robust Pautasse is suspended without pay for two weeks.  Just as groups of workers are fighting among themselves, a train disgorges Mastrioanni's character, a labor organizer who is called "the professor", and who is on the lam from the authorities.  Sinagaglia, Mastrioanni's character, organizes the workers into a cohesive group and they mount a strike.  (Curiously, the soldiers in town support the strike and feed the workers from their rations -- these people are Italians and they eat enormous sandwiches for lunch while swilling down heroic quantities of wine.)  The strike lasts 31 days.  Scabs are brought in by train as strike-breakers and there's a huge battle between the laborers on strike and the replacement workers.  In the fight, Pautasse gets hit by a train and dies.  The police hunt for Sinagaglia who takes refuge with a kindly prostitute -- she  proclaims that her choice was streetwalking or working 14 hours a day with her hands in cold water and that she has no regrets about doing work that has saved her from the factory.  The workers waiver -- both management and the strikers have reached the end of their resources and the question is who will crack first.  Sinagaglia gives a fiery speech and the workers decide to seize the factory.  Singing and carrying banners, they march on the factory defended by a thin line of soldiers.  The soldiers are ordered to fire on the advancing workers, but only a handful of them discharge their weapons.  Nonetheless, the mob withdraws leaving a single worker dead on the cobblestones -- this is, of course, Omeros.  (Omeros' female relatives beat Professor Sinagaglis blamimg h im for the boy's death.) This casualty breaks the strike and the workers return to work.  Professor Sinagaglia is imprisoned.  In the closing scenes, we see Rauol, the man who harbored Sinagaglia in his apartment, fleeing town by jumping an outbound train.  His girlfriend, who is illiterate, begs him to write to her.  Throughout the film, Omero bullied his little brother into attending school -- at one point, Omero thrashes the little boy mercilessly crying out that he doesn't want him to end up as a laborer in the factory.  In the film's final shot, the camera tracks with a crowd of hundreds of workers streaming in to the plant -- the last worker in the procession is Omero's little brother who has now become one of the laborers. 

Monicelli is a prime representative of the school of Commedia illa Italia -- the so-called "Italian Comedy" genre of films.  This a "comedy" of a kind that is not really funny.  The film has some amusing situations and the workers make wise-cracks that are probably funnier in Italian than subtitles, but the picture seems to me a relatively somber anatomy of labor troubles in a factory town.  (Much that the film presents is familiar to me -- I lived through the great and historic strike at the Hormel Foods meat packing plant in 1989 and have seen with my own eyes the National Guard protecting the factory from crowds of striking workers.)  "Comedy" in this context seems to mean a film populated by rustic types who express themselves vividly and with vulgarity -- someone belches explosively in one scene and there is lots of crude humor.  People are always punching or shoving one another and everyone shouts at high volume.  Ethnic humor dominates some scenes -- a worker from Bergamo is prone to making impassioned speeches but no one can understand him because of his dialect.  An impoverished Sicilian inflames anti-South sentiments among the Piedmont-dwelling workers -- they denigrate him as an "Ethiopian" or "Bedouin."  When the workers strike, he alone reports to work because his family is starving.  Standing alone in the factory, the Sicilian demands the right to work.  When the bosses insult him, he tries to stab them but he can't get his little knife open and is marched out of the plant in handcuffs.  (The workers were about to swarm back into the plant following his example but when he is arrested, this emboldens them to remain on strike.)  The big boss is in a wheelchair and seems monstrously cruel -- when he enters a family party at his mansion, one of his granddaughters is playing Blind Man's bluff, waving a stick at a sort of piñata -- the boss almost runs over her with his wheelchair, not hesitating to give her a powerful whack with his cane.  Among the workers, everything looks raw and impoverished -- they live in huge compounds with muddy squares between buildings.  Smokestacks gush black cinders into the air.  When the prostitute invites the Professor into her bed, she first orders him to "clean up a bit."  This is an excellent film, although like the strike it seems a wee bit pointless -- nonetheless, the movie has an authenticity not often seen in films.  Sequences in the picture have been duplicated by other filmmakers -- Bertolucci's 1900 has many images that seem to derive from this picture.  On the evidence of this film, Mario Monicelli seems to be a very interesting director and, certainly, worthy of more study.

Friday, August 31, 2018

8 1/2

Somewhere in the archives of this blog, perhaps, 800 postings before today, there may well be a note on Fellini's famous 8 1/2.  The 1964 film is an inexhaustible work of art that takes on different dimensions every time you view it and, I suppose, should be watched every couple years.  It is also long, dauntingly complex, and, often, quite tedious.  A film's greatness doesn't insure that it is easy to watch and 8 1/2 is irritating, at least a half-hour too long, and, by current standards, so inextricably bound up in the "male gaze" (usually a fictional construct but not here) that it has dated, in some ways, as much as D. W. Griffith's melodramas.  The only reason that 8 1/2, notwithstanding Fellini's cruel instinct for the ugly and grotesque, remains watchable is the performance by Marcello Mastrioanni.  The Italian actor was a great movie star on par with Cary Grant and Clark Gable and, even, when playing the role of the loathsome and self-centered director, an obvious surrogate for Fellini himself, he retains some measure of dignity and, even, winsome charm. 

8 1/2 is darker than most people remember.  The film begins with the hero being gassed and, therefore, suffocated in his car in an apocalyptic traffic jam.  The picture ends (almost) with a fantasy of his suicide.  Fellini confidently suggests that the crisis experienced by his character, a famous film-maker unable to complete (or even begin) the movie that is supposed to be his magnum opus, is also a crisis in the European imagination.  As in La Dolce Vita, a greater film in my view, Fellini equates the malaise of his characters with a broader societal decadence -- attributable in his eyes, I think, to the decline in the authority of the Catholic church.  (The equation of decadence, sin, and the absence of Christian authority is manifest in Fellini's surreal version of the Satyricon.)  For most of the film, Guido (the director played by Mastrioanni) is taking the waters at a spa somewhere near Rome.  He has installed his voluptuous mistress in another hotel -- she natters on and on about her much-beloved husband whom she is cuckolding.  Acting disastrously, Guido invites his long-suffering wife, Luise, to the spa as well.  And he is tempted by a number of other women queued up to quaff the supposedly healing waters at the spring.  It's fairly clear that the spring surrounded by half-moribund geriatric patients is Pierian -- that is, a symbol, perhaps, for the well of inspiration from which an artist must drink on the upper heights of Mount Parnassus. Viewed in this light, the women who cross paths with Guido are all potential muses, female figures implicated in Guido's beleaguered creativity.  This is pretty explicit, at least, with respect to the role of Claudia Cardinale, radiantly beautiful in this film, and an image of an the Ideal that continually eludes the hero.  (She is like the little girl in white on the other side of the stream on the beach with the derelict monster in La Dolce Vita, an allegorical image of lost purity.

Guido's problem is that he always assigns to women a nurturing role and is, in effect, a kind of pampered baby boy.  At the spa, his muse is tawdry, worn-out, meretricious and unfaithful -- that is, his girlfriend with the doting husband.  Recognizing that his plump mistress is unsuitable to inspire his new film, Guido summons his wife.  But, of course, she's disgusted with her husband's perennial philandering and quarrels bitterly with him.  The other problem afflicting Guido is that the various objects of his desire, women as disparate as Anouk Aimee and the peculiar-looking Barbara Steele (most famous for her role in horror films -- she's a Bob Keene picture come to life something that is not necessarily appealing) are all more than willing to make their own demands on our hero.  In fact, Fellini makes this clear by scoring several sequences to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries".  The women in contention to serve as Guido's most recent muse are, themselves, potentially dangerous, not just ideal allegorical muses but also woman-warriors with the capacity to humiliate and, even, emasculate the hero.  The leader of his monstrous regiment of women is the frightening whore, Seraghina, a mountain of a woman who haunts Guido's imagination. 

Like Picasso, Fellini is an artist who always equates his object of desire with esthetic truth and beauty.  His art seems based upon a desire to make beauty tangible in the figure of an idealized woman, an object of sexual desire, who also embodies the spiritual transcendence sometimes achieved the art of the highest order.  For Fellini, meaning and knowledge is intrinsically carnal -- at least, this is the proposition advanced by 8 1/2.  Therefore, it is calamitous for Guido to finally find himself alone with his ideal muse, Claudia Cardinale, because she promptly, and candidly, rejects his advances.  She's dominant and he's submissive, literally, in the driver's seat of the sports car that she uses to ferry Guido to a lonely piazza in the middle of the night where she denounces him as unworthy of her.  This leads to the film's protracted ending.  Guido sits in a darkened theater in which he shows screen tests of the various women that he is casting in his film.  What film?  It is obviously 8 1/2 in a sequence that establishes a dizzying mise en abyme.  The next day, he attends a banquet qua cocktail party on the beach in front of the huge scaffolding that has been built for the science fiction film that he is supposed to be directing but which has no script.  The scaffolding is stark and enormous, a kind of rickety tower of Babel, and, Guido is flummoxed.  He creeps away from his humiliation under the table set for his producers and money-men on the seashore.  His screenwriter observes:  "Why add chaos to chaos?", suggesting that the best recourse in the face of the fragmented and depraved modern world is silence.  But Guido rallies somehow and the film ends with him directing the characters as a ringmaster to his private circus, his menagerie of friends and lovers, his dead parents, everyone in the film dancing in a ring while a little, shabby circus band plays Nino Rota's splendid theme -- it's impossible to imagine the ending without the vulgar, jaunty little tune played by the band.  The outcome is similar to many of Max Beckmann's late paintings -- the world is nothing but a stage, a tawdry cabaret or mud-show circus.  The imagination doesn't aspire to the sublime -- the imaginary theater is just a cabaret with some shop-worn performers dimly trying to do their best for an audience that is gradually vanishing away. 

8 1/2 is one of the most influential films ever made.  Again and again, the viewer will see scenes echoed or quoted in the work of later filmmakers.  To cite one improbable example, a scene in which all of the characters in the movie descend toward the camera on a huge staircase is cited directly in the final moments of Sokurov's The Russian Ark.  The film is also not without its precedents -- Bergman's Wild Strawberries with its unstable mixture of fantasy and realism is a noteworthy source for a number of sequences in the movie, particularly, those in which we see two widely separated periods in time in the same shot, a foreground image of an old man and an idyllic background in which see that old man as a young boy.  And the final ring dance in which all characters join hands and trot along the beach seems to cite the eerie closing shot in The Seventh Seal. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Psychokinesis

On the strength of Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan, a taut and ingeniously staged zombie thriller, I watched that director's made-for-Netflix Psychokinesis (2018).  Don't bother.  Psychokinesis is an incoherent mess that's awful on pretty much all levels.  The film is interesting, however, because it is an ambitious failure -- the picture collapses not because its generic or slovenly; rather, the problem with Psychokinesis is that it's too complex and all-encompassing for its premise and goes off in all directions.  Wildly uneven, the film tries to be a comedy, a superhero picture, a poignant family drama, and a bitter social critique.  It doesn't succeed with any of these objectives, but, at least, dies trying.

There's a nasty edge of Korean extremism in the film.  Squatters inhabit a ruinous slum scheduled for destruction to clear a way for a shopping mall.   The villainous Taesan Corporation sends an army of thugs wearing white hard-hats to terrorize a young woman who operates a fried chicken place in the slum.  In the fighting, the young woman's mother gets dropped head-first on a curb and dies.  (Everyone seems to accept the premise that urban renewal involves rioting, severe beatings with clubs and truncheons, much hurling of Molotov cocktails, and general mayhem.)  The girl's father, with whom she is estranged, is a low-grade security guard at a local hospital, addicted to stealing toilet paper and other small amenities from his employer.  He lives in a filthy apartment and seems generally inept and hapless.  However, when he drinks from spring water contaminated by a mysterious blue fluid leaking from a meteorite, he acquires super-powers:  he is telekinetic and can levitate objects and hurl them around.  The next time the thugs attack his daughter and their friends, the super-hero comes to the rescue -- still inept in the exercise of his powers, he manages to throw the bad guys around, blasting them through walls and sending them sprawling.  The chief bad guy reports to his boss, a weirdly perky and sarcastic girl, who has another woman deliver a savage beating to him while she chirps non sequiturs.  This sets up the big climax, an extended battle between the corporation's goons and the squatters.  The young woman's father levitates himself and flies to the rescue, smashing into buildings and crashing repeatedly.  At the battle, he destroys the Taesan army and, then, turns  himself in to be imprisoned for four years for his role in the riot.  Emerging from jail, he finds that Taesan overextended itself, has filed bankruptcy, and that there is just a big vacant lot where the slum once was located.  His daughter is prospering selling fried chicken under a neon logo of her super-hero father:  the name of her business is "Superpower Chicken".

The movie is weird mélange of comedy and intense violence.  Everyone assumes that the government is completely corrupt and complicit with the construction company -- but this being South Korea, everyone is also oddly inept and befuddled; evil is self-limiting because of its extreme stupidity.  Conversely, good can't exactly ride to the rescue because it is equally dim-witted.  It is assumed that disputes will be solved by battles between club-wielding mobs against the flames wrought by Molotov cocktails.  As in Train to Busan, the director shows a facility for staging sieges -- in this case, hordes of riot police trying to batter down doors held fast against them by the beleaguered squatters.  Similarly, as in the much better zombie picture, the film exploits the notion of the negligent, absent father who becomes a hero to his daughter -- it's not clear to me whether this is a particularly Korean plot point or just a result of the success of the Die Hard pictures in southeast Asia.  The acting in this film is cartoonish and bizarre -- the scene in which the ultra-cute and preppy mob-boss girl has her subordinate thrashed is inexplicably strange.  Everything is shot with the kind of nonchalance and aplomb that HD digital allows and some of the scenes seem simply "too easy" in the way that they are staged and cut -- that is, the director opts for the cheapest and simplest (that is, most generic) solutions.  The mechanism by which the hero acquires his superpowers is risibly stupid.  But, on another level, it's a big movie, staged with hundreds of extras on a vast set, a maze of barricades and crumbling walls and garbage dumps, at the climax lit by large fires.  This picture is a mess, but I predict that the director's next film will be some kind of masterpiece. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Train to Busan

Something is slightly wrong at Seoul Station.  Passengers waiting to board the KTX, a high-speed bullet train, to Busan glimpse some ragged sick-looking people wandering around the edges of the platform.  Something darts down an escalator.  Out of the corner of your eye, you see a fracas that looks a like a brawl among beggars.  And, on the train, there's a girl who seems to be a  junkie squatting in the toilet and trying to tie tourniquets around both legs.  A few minutes later, the girl staggers out of the toilet, suffers a violent seizure, and, then, begins biting people.  Of course, she's a zombie and pretty soon the bullet-train racing across Korea is full of slavering undead monsters:  zombies on a high-speed train -- this is the general premise of Yeon Sang-ho's film Train to Busan (2016).  Although I've seen plenty of zombie films, I don't consider myself in an expert in the genre -- I watched a half-dozen episodes of The Walking Dead a few years ago, a program that seemed to consist of a TV soap opera married to a variant of Survivor (which of our contestants will be the last man standing?), people marooned in quarries or scenic-looking abandoned factories debating this or that between periodic sequences of hyper-violent gore.  Train to Busan is extremely exciting, fast-paced and well-made.  And, once the premise is imaginatively accepted by the viewer, the film actually makes reasonable narrative sense -- no one has super-powers nor is any one preternaturally gifted in combat.  There are no guns and so the heroes don't have the convenience of blowing off the zombie's heads at long-range -- in this film, all the desperate action is distinctly hand-to-hand.  The movie hits the sweet spot in that it is scary, but not so scary as to be unpleasant; similarly, the film is gory but not so horrifically gruesome as to be revolting.  Zombie films are escapist entertainment and Train to Busan meets all the expectations of the genre without becoming so dire as to become unwatchable.  Further, the film is surprising -- the director doesn't hesitate to slaughter his movie stars (the very attractive Gong Yoo and Yung Yu-mi among others.)  Accordingly, there is very real suspense as to who will actually survive this zombie apocalypse.

A divorced father has neglected his eight-year old daughter Su-An.  When she was called upon to sing in her classroom, daddy wasn't present and so she "choked" -- strangely, she was trying to sing "Alohe Oe."  Su-An's father is some kind of hedge fund manager and he has invested heavily in a bio-tech company performing sinister experiments that, of course, go badly awry.  His daughter wants to see her mother in Busan and, so, the father and daughter board the KTX train to that city on the southeast coast of South Korea.  Traveling with them on the train are a baseball team with its comely cheerleader, an aggressive businessman, a hoodlum with his pregnant girlfriend, and two old ladies who are sisters.   There are a host of others but by the third reel all of them are ravening zombies.  The ever-diminishing group of survivors fights off the zombies who ultimately take over the train.  At last, the KTX reaches Busan where, supposedly, the military is in control.  The song "Aloha Oe" is repeated, this time in an intensely dramatic setting, and the film ends with the last of the train's remaining human passengers saved by the Korean army.  The plot is formulaic -- in fact, there isn't much of a plot but merely a series of situations in which the human survivors have to repel the zombies or battle other passengers who, in this dog-eat-dog, have abandoned all decency in their desperate battle to survive.  The film is efficiently staged with long single-take combat scenes in the claustrophobic train compartments and there is lots of clever stuff including taking advantage of tunnels to distract and elude the dim-witted but multitudinous zombies.  Although I didn't see the film, apparently some effects are reminiscent of World War Z (2013) -- the zombies charge around like herds of wildebeest and, if one of them trips, there is a huge cascade of bodies as all of the monsters stumble over one another.  When zombies in an overhead skyway bust through the glass windows, they fall in huge clumps out of the air, crashing onto the pavement and, then, hopping to their feet to continue their rampage.  In one scene, a couple of zombies seize the back of a locomotive and are dragged over the tracks, more and more zombies jumping on the backs of the others until the train is pulling a fifty-foot long (in)human carpet of writhing monsters.  All of this is pretty spectacular and film has a number of impressively staged action sequences.  There is one frightening sequence in which a horde of zombies on a crashed and burning train are only a yard or so away from several of the survivors who are caught in a tiny space between the smashed and fiery rolling stock.  I also admired the opening sequence in which Korean truck driver at an eerie checkpoint drives away only to hit a deer.  The camera lingers on the deer which suddenly rises spastically off the pavement, eyes glazed and muzzle darkened with blood, reborn as a zombie-deer.

Train to Busan is enjoyable escapist fare.  If you can tolerate this kind of film, it is one of the best of its kind.  (You can see this picture on Netflix)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Passage to India

E. M Forster's novel A Passage to India (1924) is astonishing.  Setting aside some political concerns, the book has no defects:  the writing is remarkable, the characters imagined with penetrating and compassionate analysis, and the story itself gripping and, almost, unbearably suspenseful -- the trial scene is among the greatest things of its kind.  Forste'sr mystical digressions are also surprising and effective:  his promotion of the kindly, ineffectual Miss Moore to the role of a celestial deity, a  kind of Kwannon of divine mercy is both fascinating and moving.  The book's end, a long coda featuring a Hindu festival in the foothills of the Himalayas dares to imagine a world in which the British are an inconsequential, even negligible presence in India and, now, seems extraordinarily prescient.  I came to the book late in my life, but better late than never -- reading the novel is a great pleasure.

David Lean adapted Forster's book in 1984 to pretty much universal acclaim.  The picture is long and features prestigious actors and Lean mounts the story with as much pageantry and exotic splendor as the text will support -- although he doesn't do justice in any way to the barbaric glory of the Hindu festival in the book's last scene, reducing that celebration to a couple shots of some bursting fireworks.  The mysticism with which Foster imbues some of his scenes isn't replicated by Lean -- this is probably for the best since mystical experiences generally yield wooly and illegible images that are unconvincing on all levels.  Lean manages the central enigma of the events at the Malabar Caves effectively and the great trial scene is thrillingly well done.   Nonetheless, my close reading of the novel defeats the movie for me -- it seems, more or less, a vapid illustration of events far more effectively conveyed in Forster's resonant and elaborately ornamented prose.  Furthermore, the movie has aged in a way not particularly becoming -- Alex Guinness who plays the eccentric Hindu professor, Godbole, is an embarrassment:  was there no actor on the Indian sub-continent who couldn't be cast in the part?   (And Guiness is actually very good -- but it's a bit jarring to see Obi Wan Kenobi playing the part of the Hindu philosopher.)  In the era of #MeToo, the plot's central thesis, that the heroine invents an attempted rape on the basis of sexual hysteria will be problematic for many viewers.  I watched the film with my son who has been thoroughly educated in denunciation of the so-called "rape culture" said to be prevalent in college campuses.  He was unable to perceive Miss  Quested's experience as a hallucination and was convinced that someone must have tried to rape her -- perhaps, he thought, the guide.  (To the literal-minded young, the scene in which Miss Quested stands bemused before ancient Hindu erotic sculptures and, then, is pursued on her bicycle by lascivious apes seems merely anecdotal and not symbolic as Lean intends.  And, if that symbolism eludes you, Lean's use of actors masked and painted as apes in the celebration that erupts into rioting during the trial will seem merely grotesque.)  Lean's adaptation, of course, doesn't illumine this issue very well.  By contrast, Forster's book makes it clear that Miss Quested has encountered some unacceptable aspect of herself in the echo chamber of the Malabar Caves and, then, been talked into believing that she was assaulted by bigoted members of the British community offended by her apparently close relationship with Dr. Aziz.  The peer pressure on Miss Quested which first forges her accusation and, then, causes her to persist in it is only slightly implied -- the novel, of course, is much more incisive as to the reasons that her vague sense of existential discomfort gets framed as an accusation with disastrous criminal implications. 

Forster's book is an indictment of the racism and hubris of the British Raj.  An elderly widow, Miss Moore and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law travel from England to India.  Miss Moore, an open-minded and kindly woman, meets Dr. Aziz, a Muslim physician.  They forge a friendship and Dr. Aziz is pathetically desperate to make a good impression on his new British friends.  Various members of the community warn the women that they should not fraternize with the local natives, including Dr. Aziz who has been educated in England.  Miss Quested sees her fiancé, Miss Moore's son, as an exemplar of the arrogance of British rule over India and she rejects him.  Dr. Aziz organizes a day-trip to the Malabar Caves, spending much money to make certain the two English women will enjoy the visit -- he even rents an elephant to transport them up the mountain to the small, dark chambers cut into a vast dome of granite.  In one of the caves, Miss Quested has a kind of hallucination and runs down the mountain, plunging through cactus and cutting herself badly.  Later, she accuses Dr.  Aziz of attempting to rape her.  A trial is convened during the Hindu celebration and the proceedings become inflected with radical anti-British sentiment.  Miss Moore, sure that Aziz is innocent flees the country and dies en route to England.  (Her absence as a witness at the trial is of immense importance and, for the Hindus, in attendance she comes to assume an almost divine significance).  Miss Quested realizes at the trial that she doesn't know what exactly befell her in the cave but that Aziz is innocent.  Her testimony to that effect triggers an acquittal, a riot, an impressive monsoon thunderstorm, and, at last, her ostracism from the British community.  A sympathetic English teacher, Mr. Fielding saves her from the mob and she departs with him for England.  Dr. Aziz is soured by the experience and wants nothing to do with the English -- he's cured of his former fawning desire to make friends with, or impress, the White administrators.  He retreats to a Principality in the Himalayan mountains.  A few years later, Fielding comes to visit him and Aziz forgives him and Miss Quested as well for the horrors of the trial. 

The acting in the film is uniformly excellent.  Victor Bannerjee, playing Dr. Aziz, is superb -- he cringes in the presence of the Brits, fawns on them, and, then, later, after the trial, dons a resplendent White caftan (discarding his suits and ties) and proudly rebukes his former friends.  Judy Davis, playing Miss Quested, is suitably confused and plain -- one of the themes in the book is that she is much too unattractive for the extremely handsome Dr. Aziz and he has no sexual interest in her at all.  Lean's cinematography is the opposite of atmospheric -- it's extremely clear, over-lit to my tastes, and his editing is somewhat primitive:  we see someone looking with awe or wonder or surprise or anger -- then, there is a cut to what the person is seeing.  The film has an aspect of a made-for-TV movie of the time, but with much, much higher production values.  Despite these criticisms, one must concede the picture is exceptionally lucid and always makes perfectly good spatial and narrative sense.  Lean has a tendency to stage everything on the largest possible scale, except that when he should adopt an epic approach -- for instance, in the festival scenes in the book's coda -- he shirks that duty and, in fact, films that part of the story abstemiously.  As an example, Miss Quested is driven to the trial through a rioting mob -- hundreds of extras throng around her carriage.  In one shot, Lean shows the carriage passing a military installation where about a thousand resplendently dressed soldiers are on parade.  It's only a single image, maybe eight or ten seconds long, and it must have cost a fortune to produce -- and for what purpose?  Throughout the movie, Lean has the annoying tendency to cut away to spectacle that is completely extraneous to the rather narrow confines of the story which is, for all intents and purposes, a courtroom drama.  When Mr. Fielding and his wife, Stella, pass through a tunnel into the vale of Kashmir, they stand awe-struck looking at the Himalayas -- Lean fills the screen with gigantic white mountains, a vantage that no one could actually have on these peaks without climbing half-way up them.  It doesn't make any sense but its a gratuitous spectacle of the kind that the director favors. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

M

Many critics have greeted Joseph Losey's 1951 remake of Fritz Lang's classic thriller M with derision.  Lang's film is a masterpiece featuring an iconic performance by Peter Lorre with script-doctoring by none other than Bertolt Brecht.  It would seem that a new version of this film, this time set in sunny Los Angeles as opposed to the dank and gloomy streets of Berlin, would be wholly superfluous.  But, Losey's film is memorable and holds its own against the 1930 German picture.  Because it's in English with bright clear settings, the later version is more approachable than Lang's somewhat daunting earlier film -- Lang's movie is too dark for its own good, particularly since time has ravaged most prints of the film, and his soundtrack, pioneering in 1930 (he gives the child murderer a theme -- the killer is always whistling Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") -- is murky and sounds as if it were recorded over the telephone.  No one can replace Lorre, but the serial killer in Losey's film, when he finally offers his allocution, is excellent as well.


Most remakes enhance the experience offered by the original by upping the ante, that is, improving production values and accentuating elements that made the first film notable -- remakes are louder, longer, noisier.  (In Hollywood, loud, long, and noisy often means "more successful.")  Losey reverses this formula.  His M is swift, understated, and, its climax, in some respects more Brechtian than Brecht.  Losey brings the picture in at 70 minutes and there's not a wasted frame in the movie.  His ensemble are mostly well-established Hollywood character actors -- this is a film radical because without a hero.  (A booze-drenched and disbarred lawyer is the closest thing the film has to an admirable character.)  True to Lang's roots in German socialism, Losey's film is about collectives in action -- in this case, the criminals and the cops. (The child murders are mercifully peripheral to the film's main themes.)  As in Lang's picture, the serial murders of LA children infuriate and frustrate the cops who begin harassing otherwise innocuous prostitutes and gamblers.  When the police irrationally begin to persecute vice, the mob decides to use its demi monde network to identify the child-killer and bring him to justice, thereby keeping the heat off its racketeering.  The killer, an anguished man who seems to be of no particular age and have no distinguishing features (other than increasing hysteria), plays a sort of flutaphone to lure his victims to their deaths -- he's a vicious pied piper.  The film is quick to assert that the killer doesn't rape the children before murdering them but he does take their shoes as souvenirs -- a plot point that goes nowhere as far as I could see.  A blind balloon dealer has heard the killer's piping and identifies the man by that sound -- the tune the villain plays here is nowhere near as catchy as Grieg's melody in Lang's M; it's a rather plaintive, dour series of notes that sound like Debussy on a bad day.  The thugs chase the bad guy (who has a bratty little girl in tow) to the Bradbury Building.  There, an army of mobsters invades the closed building and smashes all the doors seeking the murderer whose suit coat (like Lorre's) has been marked with a chalk "M".  This is a bravura sequence with large groups of men charging around in the cast-iron walkways suspended in the great atrium of the Bradbury building (later to become famous for the penultimate scene in the original Bladerunner.)  The murderer is finally captured and dragged into a parking ramp for a sort of trial.  The mob threatens to beat the criminal to death but the chief gangster wants to demonstrate good faith to the cops by turning the child-murderer over to them.  (The cops are portrayed as thugs who torture their victims into confession.)  The mob boss orders the drunken lawyer to "make me a case" -- that is, argue for the innocence of the child-murderer -- to deter the crowd from tearing the man limb from limb.  The lawyer commences his oration and, implausibly, the mob listens to him.  The lawyer's summation is a powerful theatrical soliloquy although I'm not certain that it makes much sense.  When the lawyer equates the child-murderer's misdeeds to those of the gangsters, the mob boss guns him down just as the police converge on the underground parking lot where the "trial" has been conducted. 


M fits in solidly with film noir of the period although it is more theoretical than most pictures in that genre.  Losey makes great use of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood in LA, the place also featured in the wonderful film about Native Americans in the big city, The Exiles (made about a decade later) -- there is the tunnel, the Angel's Flight funicular, and the shabby Victorian rooming houses with steep, long stairways between them.  The location shooting is exciting and vivid, including sequences that seem to be set on the Santa Monica pier.  The final scene with the crowd of criminals, the tormented bloodied murderer, and the besotted lawyer is spectacular.  Losey stages the "trial" on the steep incline of a ramp leading down to the underground lot.  A sign at the top of the ramp reads portentously "Keep to the Right."  The tilted driveway where the action takes place is like the forced perspective in some stage sets, imposing a steep raked perspective on the sequence  -- the images call to mind Max Reinhardt's theater work in Berlin in the twenties, another example of Losey being more true to the Weimar era than the original film. The lawyer's speech is great although not coherent and Losey achieves powerful effects in this climax to his film.  The cast is crammed with character actors who specialized in playing heavies in the late forties and fifties -- it's a rogue's gallery featuring, among others, a very fat and sinister Raymond Burr and the great Norman Lloyd.  (Lloyd specialized in playing psychos and here he's particularly wonderful in a scene in which the thugs are breaking down doors in the Bradbury Building -- Lloyd comes upon a windowed door displaying a big eye, an optometrist's place, and passes by it; then, he pauses, shoots a sidelong glance at the camera, and retraces his steps to maliciously smash the eye to pieces.  It's funny and memorable.)  The killer has retreated to a mannequin factory and the impassive faces of the figures in that place are a counterpoint to the leering and menacing crooks.  There's nothing wrong with Losey's adaptation and a lot of it is excellent.   

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The State of Things

For about fifteen years, between his films Alice in the Cities (1974) and Wings of Desire (1987), Wim Wenders was the most interesting and consistently brilliant film maker in the world.  (Sadly, we know these this only in retrospect, after the "winning streak," as it were, has ended.)  Wenders made The State of Things in 1981 and 1982 under bizarre circumstances and this parable about the relationship between Hollywood and the European art cinema, superficially an unpromising subject, is one of the German directors greatest films.  Wenders' finest work always focuses on unrequited desire -- and there is no greater example of this phenomenon than the strained love affair between European intellectuals migrated from criticism into film making and their Hollywood counterparts.  The Europeans long to make films as simple and iconic as John Ford's The Searchers --they want to please the public and make a movie for the masses.  For their part, Hollywood directors often aspire to make films like Antonioni or Godard -- but the funding isn't available and, in this country, there are precious few interested in movies as art.  And, so, despite mutual longing, ne'er the twain shall meet.  Wenders experienced the agonies of this paradoxical relationship when he was recruited by the quixotic Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios to make Hammett, a film noir backed by the big money and sweetened by being helmed by a prestige European art-house director.  Of course, the experience was a catastrophe for all involved.  Wenders knew how to make quirky film noir pictures -- his wonderful The American Friend (1977 with Dennis Hopper) demonstrated his proficiency in that genre.  And, yet, the pacing and idiosyncrasies of that film were very much European.  In effect, Coppola recruited Wenders for qualities that couldn't effectively be translated into an American-produced genre film; Wenders may have wanted to make a quick and dirty B-movie noir, but he was working for Coppola, at that time the King of Hollwood and the very incentives that lured him to Los Angeles -- the big budget, the high-gloss Hollywood technicians, and the big movie stars -- ultimately defeated the project:  Hammett is a nearly unwatchable mess and, sadly, presages later botched pictures that Wenders directed with American money, including Until the End of the WorldThe State of Things is an allegory about the failure of Hammett and, although the theme may seem parochial and hyper-specialized, Wenders' picture is moving and exceptionally intelligent.

In The State of Things, everyone has a mania for representation.  The little girls on the set film everything with 8 millimeter cameras.  People incessantly take polaroids.  The actress who is the mother of the little girls sketches the other cast and crew around her.  Wenders shows us that people obsessively try to capture their reality in images.  But images, the film reminds us, aren't enough -- the images must be construed as narrative.  "Life isn't worth living without stories," someone says.  So the film documents a curious tension between the desire to simply chronicle existence in images and the need to frame those images by a plot.  Stories are always generic.  The reason we can have surprises in stories or twist endings is because tales all follow certain rules and comply with certain expectations.  Stories necessarily cite other stories.  And, for this reason, Wenders' film, about the need to draft pictures into the service of a plot, is densely allusive -- the characters refer to a dozen Hollywood Westerns, the hero dresses like Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion or High Noon, and, at the film's climax, there's a shoot-out in which the protagonist wields his camera like a six-shooter.  The most fundamental and classically beautiful stories told in cinema are Westerns -- and, throughout, the film The State of Things yearns romantically for the purity of the B-movie studio Western.  It is the clash between Wenders' philosophical deployment of theoretical issues about representation and images with his desire to make a Hollywood genre film that gives The State of Things it's special magic.

There is a plot that emerges tentatively from the curious becalmed stasis in the first two-thirds of The State of Things.  A film crew is shooting a movie near Lisbon.  The movie is a Hollywood science fiction production, a remake of Allen Dwan's The Last Man Alive, a low-budget post-apocalyptic survival tale made in 1961,  The director on the shoot, a German, Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau) runs out of film and money.  After languishing for a few days during which the cast and crew flirt with one another, get drunk, and simply sit around in the hotel bar, Munro goes to LA to shake-down the producer and money-man Gordon for some dough.  It turns out that Gordon has used money laundered by the mob as the budget for the film and he's on the lam, moving from place to place in a Winnebago to avoid his murderous creditors.  (In one of the funniest plot points in all film, the mob decides to kill Gordon for misusing their money when the gangsters discover to their utter chagrin that the movie that they are financing has been shot in black and white and is, therefore, unmarketable in the United States.)  The unseen gangsters, metonymically represented by the shark-like chrome fins of a big, old Cadillac or Lincoln Continental prowling the Hollywood streets, finally catch up with Gordon and Friedrich and there's a climactic shoot-out.  Wenders shows the naïve German director, obviously a surrogate for himself, destroyed when caught in this cross-fire between commerce (the mob) and art.  Henri Alekhan, one of the greatest of all European cinematographers, shot most of the film and it is remarkably beautiful:  stark landscapes of the abandoned hotel and the ruins used as sets for the sci-fi film, barren interiors, and confrontations between characters in which the figures stand like statues within the armature of their own velvety shadows.  The Hollywood sequences, showing a strangely empty LA (it's the weekend but the empty parking lots give the place a post-apocalyptic ambience in keeping with the opening film within the film), are similarly atmospheric and pictorially stunning.  Wenders can't direct English-speaking actors and his cast is bizarre -- the Hollywood maverick director, Sam Fuller, plays himself, a cigar-chomping DP, and he's probably the best thing in the film, but its a caricature.  Viva here credited as Viva Auder, plays the glamorous movie star who has the lead role in the Sci-Fi film -- she can't act to save her soul and seems most effective in the film's one sex scene (she became famous for unsimulated sex scenes in Warhol's 1969 Blue Movie).  John Paul Getty III plays Dennis, the screenwriter who has sunk his own money in the film and will be ruined if the picture isn't produced.  (Getty's character is kinky and anxiety-ridden in keeping with the actor who was renowned for getting his ear cut-off when he was kidnapped by Maoist terrorists in 1973.)  None of these people can really act and just woodenly play themselves with the exception of Gordon (Alan Goorwitz aka Alan Garfield), the terrified but smarmy, money-man hiding in the Winnebago with his loyal factotum, Lou -- he's very good but seems a refugee from a Cassavetes film. The film is so strong that the bad acting actually seems to make sense -- at all points, we are conscious that we are watching a movie and, also, conscious that the movie is sliding into the conventions of bad genre film-making, one aspect of which is poor acting.  The movie is classically structured in three acts.  The first ten minutes shot in sepia is a film within a film -- it features masked characters wandering around a desert and sacrificing one of their members, a child, to their own survival.  This sequence is surprisingly scary and effective and, in fact, looks nothing like a Hollywood film -- it's more like some kind of meditation on Antonioni, the great Italian director whose movies always seem to take place in desolate locations after the end of the world.  The middle sequence, both funny and melancholy, involves the plight of the cast and crew, unpaid, and trapped in the decaying beach-front hotel near Lisbon -- in this hour-long sequence nothing occurs, but the film-making is extraordinarily evocative and poetic.  The final half-hour involves the film's narrative -- Friedrich's hunt for Gordon through the deserted streets of LA, all of this occurring under the aegis of John Ford's The Searchers showing at the NuArt cinema in Santa Monica. 

The film's backstory is remarkable.  Wenders was disgusted with the trap that Hammett had become and so he went to Lisbon to console himself with his girlfriend.  She was acting in a post-apocalyptic cannibalism film directed by the great Chilean exile-director Raul Ruiz --that film is called The Territory, was made with a financing package assembled by the redoubtable King of Exploitation films, Roger Corman (who has a wonderful cameo in The State of Things), and, in fact, had run out of money and film stock.  Wenders intervened in some way, possibly hostile, and, perhaps, diverted money and available film stock away from Ruiz' picture to improvise The State of Things, a movie that, in fact, documents the plight of the cast and crew on The Territory.  It's whispered that there was mob money in The Territory and that the situation became "hair-raising."  Wenders features music by the Del-Byzanteens, a punk group formed by Jim Jarmusch, in his movie.  When he was done with the film,Wenders donated the so-called "short ends" of unexposed film to Jarmusch who used them to make his first credit, 1984's Stranger than Paradise, an anecdote that explains why Jarmusch's picture is composed of one-take sequence-shots all about a minute to two minutes long -- these sequences were shot on the short ends left over from The State of Things. 

I should use this review to pay my respects to my life-long friend Kimball Lockhart (1953 - 2018), a film critic of some note himself and the author of several important essays on Michelangelo Antonioni.  Lockhart died in the end of July 2018.  One of his fondest memories was hosting Wim Wenders for lunch in Ithaca, New York around 1984 -- Wenders was in town for a retrospective at Cornell where Lockhart was in graduate school.  Wenders and Lockhart had cheeseburgers.  Someone made an unkind comment about Wenders' fellow German director, Werner Herzog, and Lockhart told me the film maker became angry and threatened to punch the commentator in the nose.  Rest in peace, my old friend. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Story of Temple Drake

Released pre-Code enforcement in 1933, The Story of Temple Drake is a ferociously fast-paced Cliff Notes version of Faulkner's sensationalistic best-seller Sanctuary.  Because of the novel's infamy, the film had to be renamed so as to avoid creating additional notoriety for the book.  In any event, the Catholic League of Decency protested and, the next year, measures began to enforce the Hay's Code that was on the books but more honored in the breach than the observance before 1934.  The movie plays as a series of brief vignettes chronicling the rape and prostitution of a misguided southern debutante, Temple Drake, here played by Miriam Hopkins.  Hopkins is palpably too old and jaded for the role, but, once these objections are overcome, she's about as good as you can be in the part.  The movie is clearly influenced by the Universal cycle of horror pictures and seems to have been designed for that market -- there's a ruined haunted house infested with depraved yokels and hillbilly gangsters all under the malign rule of a well-dressed suave thug named Trigger.  (The sequences in the decaying mansion parody James Whale's great The Old Dark House.)  The famous corn-crib rape scene in the book is staged with overtly expressionistic lighting effects and there are a number of reaction shots showing Temple peering through a shattered window while the lightning flashes behind her and rain and wind whips down from the black sky that could have been extracted from Universal monster movies by Tod Browning or James Whale.  The courtroom climax to the film is very effective and suspenseful although, of course, it traduces Faulkner's far more bitter and pessimistic ending.  Thought to be lost, the film was rediscovered in 2011 and has been exquisitely restored -- some of the shots are gorgeously lit; this is particularly true of the scene in which Temple kills her rapist/pimp Trigger and, then, stand horrified over his supine body.  The soundtrack is also perfectly clear, not the disfigured, tinny murmur often associated with films of this era and, contributing to the atmosphere, is an absence (mostly) of any orchestral accompaniment.  The director, someone named Steven Roberts, uses only about eight close-ups in the film but they are very beautiful and inserted exactly where necessary in order to heighten the conflict and suspense.

Temple Drake is a wild teenage girl living with her grandfather, a dignified local judge.  (Her father was killed in the First World War.)  She drinks, smokes cigarettes, and engages in petting with her various, gin-soaked and older boyfriends.  Her suitor is Steve Benbow, a virtuous if somewhat stiff and earnest lawyer committed to defending the rights of the underdog.  Benbow proposes to her but she rejects him, preferring to race around the backwoods in a car operated by one of her drunken boyfriends.  The car crashes and the stunned occupants stagger through a stormy, dark night to a ruinous ante-bellum mansion where Trigger and his depraved cohorts are holed-up.  Trigger is so savage that he shoots the whisky jug out of the hands of an old man said to be both "stone-deef and blind."  There's a drab, the abused girlfriend of one of the countrified gangsters -- she tends to a baby that is kept in a drawer "so that the rats don't get it."  Everyone is anxious to rape the comely Temple.  But Trigger reserves her to himself, locking her half-naked in a corn-crib:  there's a scream and, then, cut to black.  We see Temple next in a sporting house in "the City" -- either Memphis, I suppose, or New Orleans.  She's living with Trigger, looks dissolute, and wears silk lingerie.  Trigger has killed a retarded boy at the ruined mansion and one of the yokels, the father of the rat-imperiled infant, is accused of the crime.  Benbow is retained to defend the yokel.  He hunts down Temple and tries to subpoena her.  She pretends to love Trigger to keep the gangster from gunning down the lawyer.  After Benbow leaves, Temple tries to depart herself, gets beaten by Trigger, and, then, kills the mobster.  She rushes to the trial.  When she is on the stand, Benbow can't bring himself to disgrace her and withdraws the witness.  Then, Temple acts righteously, volunteering the evidence that both shames her and saves the man wrongly indicted man from the gallows.  (In the novel, Faulkner has Temple commit perjury and the innocent man is hanged.)  All of this is managed swiftly, effectively, and without undue melodrama.  The material is so lurid that the director manages the actors, if not the rather over-the-top mise-en-scene, so that they are relatively restrained in their performances.  Nonetheless, the scenes in which Temple finds herself alone with the depraved hillbillies, all of them mentally retarded or just pathologically vicious, reminded me in some ways of the ghastly stuff involving the family of depraved meat-packers in Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Films of this sort were shot quickly and there are a number of flaws.  The nasty boyfriend who gets Temple in trouble with the hillbillies just drops out of the  picture -- we see him at one point in a railroad luggage room or some place on this order but the scene doesn't really make sense.  (It is, however, evidence of Thirties racism, the African-American porter refers to the white man, although he's obviously and wretched and cowardly drunk, as "boss.")   Movies of this sort have some signature camera movements that often are intrusive, wobbly, and unnecessary -- a standard approach to some scenes is to start in a long shot and, then, dolly the camera toward the point of emphasis in a kind of swooping L-shaped motion.  The opening shot features this dolly, tracking inward on a lintel engraved with words "County Court" -- but the motion is pointless:  we can see the words perfectly clearly from the long shot.  There's a textbook example of a violation of the 180 degree rule early in the picture -- it actually makes you jump a little.  One sequence framed as shot/counter-shot shows the hero clearly lit; the heroine is shot in soft-focus and very dimly lit and so the viewer can't make sense of the images -- where is the light?  And why is it acting in this way?  But these are minor points and the film is very entertaining despite the compromises that it makes with Faulkner's source material.               

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

We always think ourselves to be in the vanguard of history, liberated from prejudice, free, and civilized.  It's salutary, therefore, to be reminded that there have been many vanguards and that history doesn't so much advance as it loops and spirals.  John Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday was made in 1971 and it chronicles two love affairs involving one handsome, if remote, young man, Bob Elkin -- he is simultaneously engaged in sexual liaisons with a thirty-year old woman, Alex (Glenda Jackson) and a middle-aged Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsch brilliantly played by Peter Finch.  The film is completely matter-of-fact about the gay sex -- there's no hint of prurience with respect to either the heterosexual or the homosexual affairs.  Indeed, if I have a criticism of the film, a picture that I rate highly, it's that the movie is so intensely civilized that, at times, it feels just a little bit wan -- there's passion implicit in the film, but the characters are too British, too well-bred to show it and, I think, the movie suffers a little from its own intrinsically non-dramatic stoicism.

Penelope Gilliat, the former New Yorker critic (she alternated with Pauline Kael) wrote the script and it's highly intelligent and, as I have mentioned, just a wee bit bland.  There are no passionate outbursts, only some mild recriminations, no surprises and no revelations -- Alex knows that her lover is also sleeping with a man; this is pre-HIV and so she isn't concerned, although she would like to have her boyfriend to all to herself.  Only in the last couple minutes in the picture does Alex actually meet Dr. Hirsch and, then, they don't really have much to say to one another.  There are puzzles in the picture that might be, perhaps, more explicable to a British audience -- for instance, Alex babysits the children in a large family.  The kids are irritatingly precocious and nosy and seem to know all about Alex's affair with Elkin.  At one point, in a scene that is shocking now, the six-year smokes some of her parent's marijuana, something that everyone regards as perfectly fine and that no one even much comments on.  (We seem to have retreated from the level of tolerance about drugs existing in 1971).  In the final scenes, the hyper-liberal parents and their protégée, an African writer, have returned from wherever they went and I was mildly perplexed to see that Dr. Hirsch was a guest of the family, dining with them and playing with the nasty little brats.  Ultimately, it turns out that everyone in the picture is connected somehow, although it isn't apparent at first why or how -- I suppose, however, this is purely realistic:  we don't fall in love with strangers; rather, we fall in love with people with whom we have close connections by family or friends.  Indeed, one of the themes of the film, very analytically developed, is the question of how groups of people are related to one another.  In the film, the indistinct, rather enigmatic Bob Elkin is a sexual go-between linking the upper-class world of Alex (her father is a banker or financial minister) and the upper-class Jewish world of Dr. Hirsch -- a key scene involves a Bar Mitzvah ceremony and, then, a lavish party for the celebrant.  Mozart's music, used as accompaniment to many scenes, also links imagery involving Alex and Dr. Hirsch who, of course, will not meet until the film's very ending.  We see close-up shots of the technology linking the characters -- in this case, an answering bureau with mechanical links and wires literally connecting the characters when they speak by phone.  (The old ladies in the messaging service seem to know a lot about the two parallel love affairs because, of course, they are also go-betweens.)  Finally, as it turns out the large, peculiar ultra-liberal family with the dope-smoking children and the African novelist is a link between Alex and the doctor.

The picture is shot in a nervous jittery style influenced by Richard Lester's work with the Beatles and his powerful movie about domestic abuse, Petulia (1968).  Now and then, the film has an aspect not unfamiliar from a Godard picture -- snippets of music, mostly Mozart's great trio from Cosi Fan Tutti, news casts, shots of a hellish-looking London in a red, blazing sunset, images of strange folks in the streets, the soundtrack interspersed with remarks about an economic crisis that Britain is said to be experiencing.  There are lots of jarring close-ups, jump cuts between the two parallel love affairs, close-ups of curious-looking art objects (Elkin is an artist), and odd reaction shots.  The picture starts on the weekend that Alex babysits for the ultra-liberals and shares a bed there with Elkin.  Elkin deserts her to see Dr. Hirsh.  Alex pouts but makes no demands.  Elkin plans to leave for America to the dismay of both Dr. Hirsh and Alex.  We see some of Hirsh's sad patients, desperately lonely and without love.  A dog gets run over and we see the Bar Mitzvah lovingly depicted in the synagogue and, then, at the party.  Alex gets drunk and sleeps with one of her clients -- she's an employment counselor.  (The man is older than her and looks a lot like Dr. Hirsch -- he's been sacked and is miserable and she seems to have sex with him to comfort the poor fellow.)  Elkin arrives during the love scene between Alex and her client -- he's indifferent.  Indeed, he shows little emotion throughout the whole film -- he's not a bad man, not even very selfish, he just exemplifies a sort of nihilistic freedom:  "We're free to do what he wants," he says.  (For present day viewers, the bland, pale Elkin is a weakness in the film -- it's hard to understand how the two highly intelligent characters are smitten with him, although I guess we don't see what he does in bed.  The character is played with intentional blandness by Murray Head and he has a very, very unfortunate Prince Valiant hairdo -- he looks like a depraved Robert Wagner in that 1954 film.)  The film ends with a monologue that ruptures the "fourth wall", a speech directed to the audience by Dr. Hirsch.  In the speech , he recounts, I think, how he met Elkin and cared for his sickness, a cough.  It's like the rest of the film:  too well-behaved to be much of a climax or, even, commentary.  The best analysis of the film is provided by its opening lines -- Hirsh is examining a somewhat hysterical male patient and says to him:  "Do you feel anything at all?"  I think the same words could be directed to Bob Elkin's character who ends the film by departing for America.  I've known about this film for more than forty years and always been put-off by descriptions of the picture -- but I enjoyed the film and it is to be cherished for the spectacular performance of Peter Finch; he is unbelievably handsome and you can't take your eyes off  him:  his own eyes glint maniacally sometimes -- with his swept back hair and startling eyes, he sometimes looks like Udo Kier.   It's a wonderful piece of acting. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Everybody Wants Some!!






 

 
1.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) is a frat-boy genre film. There’s no use in pretending that the core of the movie is anything else.

Movies of this kind are raunchy comedies pitched to teenagers and young adults. Generally, these movies are set in the recent past and are suffused with nostalgia – we had so much fun before marriage, jobs, and children tied us down.

Harold Lloyd’s silent comedies often exploit a college setting and involve frat-boy exploits. The form was transferred to the talkies with the Marx Brothers 1932 pre-code Horse Feathers. In 1947, college students in love engaged in wacky antics and crooned Mel Torme songs in Good News (194 7). The genre’s exemplar is National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) starring, among others a preternaturally young and girlish-looking, John Belushi. The Revenge of the Nerds (1984) is another campus comedy featuring underdog science and math majors. Rodney Dangerfield returned to school to acquire a degree in Back to School (1986) shot in part on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Linklater’s own Dazed and Confused (1991) recounts the last of High School for a group of young people in a small Texas town.

There’s also no point in denying that Everybody Wants Some!! complete with its double exclamation-point title is also related to teenage sex comedies, most notably the leering patriarch of the genre, 1981's Porky’s and it’s "Bro-mance" progeny, for instance, The Hangover (2009).

The question raised by Linklater’s film is whether it is more than a genre exercise in funny sex and heavy-duty drinking. Is Everybody Wants Some!! a genre film that conceals, as it were, other deeper currents?

 

2.

Linklater has made successful genre pictures. His comedy School of Rock (2003) starring Jack Black was an enormous box-office success (and praised by critics as well.) The film spawned a TV show produced by Linklater that ran for two seasons The 2011 dark comedy Bernie, also starring Black was highly regarded by critics and, also, made money. And he both produced and directed a remake of the Bad News Bears (2005), a commercial and critical failure, but a film that shows Linklater’s willingness to work within conventional Hollywood parameters. In this context, it is worth noting that Linklater’s "Before" trilogy, although somewhat experimental in form and modestly produced, has been very successful with art-house audiences and have achieved a wide audience in DVD release (recently through Criterion.) In fact, on the basis of published budget and receipts with respect to Linklater’s major films, it is clear that the director is generally "bankable" – his movies earn back what they cost and, even, often show a significant profit. (The notable exceptions have been Linklater’s The Newton Boys (1998), a baffling Western that no one seems to have liked and that lost an enormous amount of money. Linklater’s 2008 success d’estime Me and Orson Welles, although acclaimed as the best film ever made about live theater, also was a serious disappointment at the box office.)

Like Steven Soderburgh, Linklater’s interests and films are protean. At the height of his career, he has turned away from conventional moviemaking to direct highly challenging and experimental pictures. These works include the controversial adaptation of the Eric Bogosian play, SuBurbia, as well as the rotoscoped and hallucinatory A Scanner Darkly (2006, based on a Philip K. Dick novel) and Waking Life, (2001) a rotoscoped philosophical dream diary. (A measure of the risk taken by these films is that Linklater engaged major Hollywood stars, for instance, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in a Scanner Darkly, shot them live and, then, animated – rotoscoped – over these images.) Only a few filmmakers have successfully straddled the worlds of Hollywood, Independent film making, and experimental film – Linklater is a rare example of a director and producer who has worked successfully in all these forms.  

A theme to which Linklater returns again and again is the effect of time’s passage on characters. (It is not an exaggeration to say that Linklater is the Proust of the cinema – time is central to all of his films and his work is philosophical: even crowd-pleasing comedies like Dazed and Confused are refracted through a prism of nostalgia.) The "Before" trilogy famously measures the effects of time on the intermittent romance of its principal characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – the two characters meet on a train in Europe in 1995 in Before Sunrise. Time is a presence in these films. Although the young man and woman (both of them students) are attracted to one another, they spend only a few hours together in Vienna before parting at sunrise. We meet this couple again in Before Sunset (2004) – nine years have passed and they are both married to other people; they spend an afternoon together in Paris. Then, in Before Midnight (2013), after another nine years, the couple spend an evening on a Greek island, mostly bickering before they reconcile. The films show Delpy and Hawke as they have actually aged of course and are intensely romantic and bittersweet. (The effect is similar to the 7 Up series of documentary films that follow the adventures of 14 British school children, seven years old in the first episode made in 1964. Directed by Michael Apted, these documentaries are produced at seven year intervals and, as remarked by Roger Ebert, represent a "noble experiment" in exploring "the central mystery of life, the passage of time." As I write 63 Up is under production with release scheduled for later this year.) Most notably, Linklater’s majestic Boyhood (2002 -2013) was shot over 12 years and chronicles a child’s life up to his leaving home to attend college – the film uses the same actors and we watch them as they actually age on-screen. I am ambivalent about this film – it seems almost entirely improvised and doesn’t have much of a narration. Viewed uncharitably, nothing much at all happens in the film – people get into quarrels, there is a divorce, step-parents, first love, and, then, the protagonist’s first few days in college. Of course, life is improvised also and, if we are lucky, nothing too dramatic happens to us.

 

3.

Everybody Wants Some!! is a sequel to the picture that first brought Linklater’s talents to the public at large, Dazed and Confused (1993). The protagonist in Dazed and Confused is a high school pitcher, renowned for his blazing fast ball, Mitch Kramer (played by Wiley Wiggins). Dazed and Confused is set in 1976 in a small Texas town. The hero of Everybody Wants Some!!, Jake Bradford is similarly a baseball-player, also a pitcher, who has full-ride scholarship to the fictional East Texas University. Linklater has said that Everybody Wants Some!! is Dazed and Confused "four years later" – the movie takes place in 1980. Many points of resemblance connect the two films, most prominently the sound-tracks of classic rock and roll that date the action in both movies: Dazed and Confused begins with Kramer in bed, listening to Fog Hat’s "Slow Ride"; Everybody Wants Some!! starts Jake’s arrival in the college town, the Knack’s "My Sharona" blasting out of his car-speakers.

Much of Linklater’s work is autobiographical and there are strong currents of memoir in Everybody Wants Some!! Linklater was raised in Huntsville, Texas. His parents divorced when he was seven. Like Eagle Pennell, Linklater was a star High School athlete – he played football in Junior High and, then, switched to baseball in High School. (Linklater played shortstop in High School and was a power-hitter.)

Recognizing his athletic talents, Linklater transferred to Bellaire High School in Houston where he was coached by Ray Knoblauch (Chuck Knoblauch’s father). Bellaire High School was a force in Texas baseball and won the State Championship the year that Linklater played for the team. Linklater holds the Bellaire High School record for the most stolen bases. The future film maker’s father lived in Houston and Linklater resided with him during his senior year. In Houston, Linklater’s grandmother took him to the symphony orchestra (she had season tickets), the opera, and art museums. So while he was honing his skills on the diamond, Linklater also became interested in the fine arts.

Sam Houston State (in Huntsville) recruited Linklater to play baseball on the college team. As shown in the movie, Linklater lived with the team and practiced incessantly. When he was 20, he had dual aspirations – to play professional baseball and, further, to be a novelist. Linklater didn’t play much during his freshman year, but was put on the starting roster as a sophomore. He was assigned left field and batted third in the line-up. Health concerns intervened. Linklater felt weak and dizzy on the field. A doctor diagnosed him as suffering from atrial fibrillation, a heart condition, and he was side-lined. By that time, however, Linklater was taking courses in philosophy – he later dedicated two movies to his college philosophy teacher – and playwriting.

After college, Linklater worked on off-shore oil rigs for a couple of years and lived in Houston when he wasn’t at sea. On the oil-rig, Linklater read voraciously. In Houston, he attended a repertory cinema almost nightly and acquainted himself with film history. With his wages from working on oil rigs, Linklater bought some film equipment and began experimenting with making movies. A little later, he was taking a course in film production from the Austin Community College. In 1990, he independently produced Slacker, a film featuring eccentrics hanging around the University of Texas – the movie cost $23,000 and was a big success in Austin as SXSW. He made Dazed and Confused in 1993, the film that introduced Matthew McConaughy to the world. In 1995, he directed the first of the "Before" films, Before Sunrise. Since that time, Linklater has directed 16 pictures. He is 58 and lives in Houston. His production company is called Detour Films, a homage to Edgar Ulmer’s ultra low-budget 1945 suspense film of that name. Linklater has said that Scorsese’s film Raging Bull (1980) was the movie that changed his life and drove him to make films.

 

4.

Most comedies are directed in Hollywood’s most "invisible" style. Camera set ups are intuitive and designed for maximum clarity. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the gags. Several of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors of the classic period "cut their teeth" on directing Hal Roach Studios two-reelers. Movie comedies are unostentatious but if presentation of space and time is botched audiences won’t get the jokes. (In slapstick comedy, space and time are the essential ingredients in setting up gags – some Laurel and Hardy routines are breathtaking in the amount of time that they use; similarly, telling jokes involves exquisite timing – the dimension of time is what makes the joke work.) The purpose of movie comedies is to instill in the spectator a sense that they are looking through a window to observe the antics of the film’s characters – editing is minimal, camera movement generally not necessary and, so, not used, montage, by and large, non-existent, and close-ups limited to reaction shots and slow burns.

Linklater’s comedies are generally shot using "invisible style." The director doesn’t interfere with the clear presentation of the filmed "facts." Cliches abound – the opening sequence in Everyone Wants Some!! is a museum of trite conventions: the hero arrives in town with the camera surveying his car as it travels through the streets around the campus. This is the one of the oldest techniques in film: showing the hero driving to the place where the action will occur while a sound-cue establishes the era in which the movie will be set. Later, as the young men cruise the campus, the camera centers on the swaying rear-ends of female students, another time-honored cliche. The entire film is constructed of sequences that are shot from the most obvious, clear, and unobstructed vantage.

These observations are not to deny Linklater’s tremendous talent as a film-maker. Shooting a film in the style of Howard Hawks is not simply accomplished and requires tremendous discipline. Furthermore, if the camera style is restrained, the focus on acting is pitiless. And there’s no doubt that Linklater is tremendously successful in directing his young actors, all of whom were, in effect, unknown when the picture was made. (It’s clear that Linklater excels in directing young men – his proficiency directing women is less evident in this movie: the girls are mostly just props.) Furthermore, Linklater takes pain to differentiate his large cast of young men – each character has his own quirks and distinct personality. Achieving clear delineation of character in a setting in which there would be a natural tendency to treat all the boys alike – they are generic "Texas jocks" – is an achievement of a high order. Similarly, Linklater’s clearly lit compositions are, often, fantastically complex – he fills the screen with his actors in long fresco-like takes that involve a half-dozen or more participants. Marshaling characters into complex group shots also requires enormous skill. Therefore, although the movie is clinically lit and simply shot and edited, nonetheless, the intricacy of the group dynamics shown on screen is remarkable.



5.

We have seen that a documentary-like "invisible style" was used by the neo-realists (as in Bicycle Thieves) as a warrant of fidelity to the truth. Of course, the "invisible style" employed by Linklater in Everybody Wants Some!! is also the paradigm mise en scene for pictures made in Hollywood during the classic studio era – as I have noted Linklater’s unobtrusive style is similar to the way Howard Hawks directed films like Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings. (And like Hawks’ films, Linklater’s movie is densely, even aromatically, masculine – Hawks focuses on groups of men trying to accomplish something as a team; this description is literally accurate for Everybody Wants Some!!) No one would claim that Hollywood studio films are fundamentally realistic. In fact, the "invisible style" praised by Andre Bazin can be deployed in ways that are markedly non-realistic – for instance, Bunuel used an "invisible style" in all of his films, many of which are avowedly surrealistic.

In Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater presents a wholly sanitized and ideal picture of campus life. This is emblematic in an early party scene in which one of the boys pulls a girl’s blouse over her head to reveal two of the most spectacularly beautiful breasts in film history – the shot is typical of an exploitation movie, that is, characteristic of the genre of a raunchy frat-boy campus comedy. But the shot also signifies that we are embarking into a realm of pure male fantasy. Everything in the picture is cheery, upbeat, positive and optimistic. (Even comments about the ubiquity of idiotic competition among the boys are presented without cynicism. When one character hurls a pingpong paddle at the hero, we are explicitly told that no harm was intended – "he would have hit you, if he was trying," a character says about the uber-athlete who throws the paddle.)

At Southeastern Texas State no one has acne. The girls are all, without any exception, as beautiful as fashion models and they are all, also, sexually voracious. No one is sad, lonely, or homesick with the possible exception of Beuter who spends the last weekend before college with his farmer girlfriend – and things work out for Beuter as well. Everyone is successful, self-confident – the boys all regard themselves as conquering heroes. Bar fights occur without anyone getting hurt or arrested. Indeed, there are no authority figures anywhere in sight – in an early scene, the coach announces that he can’t be involved in coaching the team since the season hasn’t started. So he and his rules are side-lined. There are no adults, no anxious parents, no police, no professors until the film’s last thirty seconds. During the three day weekend that the film documents, the weather is always perfect – people can sleep or pass-out drunk outside without fear of being frozen or sun-burnt or bitten by bugs. No one gets paranoid when smoking dope. No one gets sick despite the vast amounts of beer and hard liquor (for instance the punch) consumed. The characters swim in a huge, beautiful spring that they have all to themselves – it’s at Blue Hole Regional Park at Wimberely, Texas in the Texas hill country. (Today the park is so crowded, you have to secure advance reservations to swim in the Blue Hole.) Most films present the world as more dangerous or ugly that it really is. Everybody Wants Some!! shows us a world that is impossibly clean, bright, and safe. The artistic kids living in the house on the outskirts of town welcome the jocks to their party. Their home is exquisitely decorated and far more beautiful than such a place could be in real life. In this film, there is no racism and no one suffers from the identity crises that typically affect college students – on the three nights that the film shows, the characters cross frontiers: they spend one evening at a disco, one night at a country-western bar, and, after a sojourn with punk rockers, one night partying with students majoring in the fine-arts. Everyone can dance with well-nigh professional skill. There is no angst about fitting in to these disparate milieu. Kids cross boundaries effortlessly. Identity is protean – you can be a punk rock, country shit-kicker, disco-baseball jock BMOC. All possibilities are open.

(One surprising thing about the film is that Linklater is blissfully unaware of the "rape culture" controversies that now characterize campus discourse on parties and dating. Of course, this discourse didn’t exist in 1980. But Linklater’s film is almost gleefully politically incorrect on this point. Nonetheless, anxiety clearly exists about the portrayal of relations between the sexes as shown in the film. The title embodies this anxiety Everybody want some!! – emphasis on "everybody", that is, both sexes. The girls in the picture are unrealistically shown as being sexually promiscuous and enthusiastically available – although, perhaps, this was the case in 1980 with regard to good-lucking college jocks. But recent history, at the University of Minnesota among other places, has shown that college jocks often overestimate their charm and take advantage of their elite status in ways that can lead to rape charges. For this reason, Linklater shows all of his characters consuming vast amounts of alcohol but never getting drunk – this is a way to avoid consent issues that might be problematic involving semi-comatose girls and sloppy drunk, but still sexually capable, jocks. The film is so persuasive that I don’t know any critic that has raised this issue – but we should note that the fantasy shown on screen doesn’t comport with anyone’s actual memories of what campus sex and dating was like in 1980. Note that the relationship between the hero and the performing artist major is sweet and the degree of sexual contact between the two is left tactfully ambiguous.)

It is curious that the film somehow evokes a sense of melancholy – this arises from Linklater’s concern with the passage of time. The world shown in Everybody Wants Some!! is imaginary. It’s a utopia that never existed, a place where a generous memory has smoothed away all the rough and painful edges. The movie ends with a strange slogan written on a chalkboard: "Frontiers are where you find them." What does this mean? The past is always a different country, particularly the past as evoked by pop songs now almost forty years old. The frontier that we discover in this film is the boundary between real and imaginary, the present and an idealized past – we know that life couldn’t have been so welcoming and sheerly, and unashamedly, hedonistic when we were twenty years old. In fact, real twenty year olds are plagued by all sorts of neurotic doubts. We have outgrown all those simple pleasures (most of which are fantasies anyway). Films about simple happiness are rare. Everybody Wants Some!! has happiness as its theme – and, yet, the movie ultimately inspires this question: if happiness is so simple and abundant, then, why are we unhappy? What has gone wrong with our lives?