Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Square

Ruben Ostland's new film, The Square (2017) is long, complex, and, maybe, just a little too loose to be a masterpiece.  It is also very, very funny.  (His previous film, Force Majeur is less ambitious, more tightly focused, and equally wonderful -- it's the best film that I have seen about the problem of being a man in the modern world.)

The film is about a exceptionally handsome, self-assured and prosperous Swede, the curator of a vast and prestigious museum of modern art whose life.  In Swedish cinema (Bergman for instance) such characters exist to become progressively unhinged by a series of strange events.  In its last half hour, the picture's narrative becomes Kafkaesque -- the hero is harassed incessantly by a tiny boy who shrieks at him and threatens to unleash "chaos".  By this time, chaos is already much in evidence -- both in the hero's personal and professional life. 

I will have to think more about this film before I can reliably report on it.  The movie is 2 and a half hours long and contains many incidents.  Here is the feeling that the picture induces:  you're on a subway and someone seems to be having an epileptic seizure.  Everyone is appalled and averts their eyes.  But everyone feels intensely guilty.  Or you are at a Seven-Eleven in a poor neighborhood in a big city.  A beggar has harassed you into giving him some money.  He's not satisfied and demands more.  How do you feel?

The film's title refers to an art installation at the X-Royal Museum that the hero, Christian, operates.  The Square is a space the size of a small room in the museum's courtyard -- it shimmers because it's boundary is delineated by a strip of fiber-optic light.  Within the square, a bronze plate tells us:  All people will be treated with respect and humanity and all rights and obligations will be protected.

Does such a space exist in our world outside of self-indulgent conceptual art installations?  What if such a space did exist?  How would we behave?  Just before the film's end, we see a dance-team, the Bob Cats, performing an elaborate number in a competition.  What is the meaning of this scene?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hail the Conquering Hero!

Preston Sturges' 1944 Hail the Conquering Hero! is an audacious high wire act balanced between breathtaking cynicism and full-throated, if sophisticated, patriotism.  Sturges' is performing without a net -- when a crowd gathers in the film, the hero assumes it's for a lynching and the stakes are high:  the movie has a number of insert shots of bludgeons, fists wrapped in belt-leather, and a short fracas toward the film's end leaves both participants spouting blood from their smashed mouths.  If our cynicism is too strong, a patriotic mob might tar and feather us; conversely, if the patriotic elements of the film prevail too unequivocally, we're left with military fascism American-style.  The fact that a supposedly frothy comedy raises these options suggest the tension underlying the film, a fraught kind of balance verging on the hysterical that I can admire (as I do the film) but not really enjoy. 

The film's hero (literally and figuratively), Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, played by Eddie Bracken, was born at the precise moment that his father, "Hinkydink" Truesmith perished in the World War One battle of Boileu Wood.  His mother keeps a shrine to the fallen Marine in her living room, an image to which the film reverts in its last shot.  Woodrow has always dreamed of being a Marine but when he reported for duty in World War Two, he was dismissed from Boot Camp after only a month of basic training -- poor Woodrow suffers from hay fever and, therefore, was deemed unsuitable for military service.  Woodrow conceals his dismissal from the Marine Corps by sending letters to his fiancée and mother claiming that he has been shipped to the south Pacific to fight the Japs.  (In the letter to his fiancée, Wilson forlornly ends their relationship -- he feels "unmanly" for not engaging in combat in the war.)  As the film begins, an elaborate tracking shot (probably an influence on similar sequences in Scorsese's Goodfellas) sweeps through a big dance-hall locating the morose Woodrow Truesmith drinking alone at the bar and bemoaning his fate to the barkeep -- he's been working in a San Francisco shipyard.  A cohort of six Marines led by William Demarest burst into the bar, but without any money -- they try to cadge drinks with a tooth ripped from a dead Jap.  Truesmith stands them to drinks and they learn his sad story.  One of the Marines is a kind of fetishist -- any insult to a mother earns his furious anger.  Appalled that Truesmith has lied to his mother, the Marine calls her and announces that Woodrow is returning to town, further representing that he is a decorated warrior.  All six Marines pressgang Woodrow into returning to his hometown where he is met by a chaotic reception -- at least four marching bands vie to salute the "conquering hero" and hundreds of people wave patriotic signs in his honor.  In rapid succession, the City Fathers cancel his mother's mortgage, announce that he and his father Hinkydink will appear on a monument in the town square, and, ultimately, offer him a candidacy for Mayor.  There are other complications -- his fiancée still loves him even though she's now engaged to the somewhat saturnine if very handsome and wealthy son of the town's acting mayor, the villainous Everett Noble.  Woodrow is appalled and feels terribly guilty about the imposture.  At the climax, he delivers a big speech at a political gathering admitting that he is a fraud.  The speech is so eloquent and the support of the real Marines so touchingly earnest and loyal that the townspeople forgive him and he gets the girl.  The six Marines depart for the war standing in a solid phalanx at the back of a locomotive -- they salute Woodrow and he salutes them back and, then, the film ends with an unsettling bit of hagiography, the shrine to Hinkydink over the hearth in the widow's house. 

Summarized thus, the film seems a bit conventional.  But, in fact, it is anything but.  The first half of the film features takes lasting two or three minutes in which the screen is filled to overflowing with crowds of people.  Every square inch of the image is occupied with writhing humanity and the effect is claustrophobic -- one feels trapped by the wall to wall mass of people and this effect correlates nicely with Woodrow's feeling that he is similarly entrapped.  Everyone talks all the time -- there is an endless stream of witty patter, shouted threats and imprecations, bands playing in the manner of Charles Ives (four bands playing four separate songs at one time), dogs bark and children scream and cry and everything is crowded, excessive, thronged.  A couple of examples must suffice:  the six Marines always move in a mass -- they seem to be based, perhaps, on the dwarfs in Disney's Sleeping Beauty; all of them are characterized and have speaking parts and it's simply too much to grasp, a constant torrent of chatter, abuse, threats, boasting, every imaginable type of speech act performed in every scene.  When the nasty Mayor dictates a letter to his son, he continuously humiliates the young man with a stream of emasculating invective -- the quarrel involves whether you can say "both" when you are referring to three things.  During this scene, there a cynical consiglieri who mutters unsavory advice to the Mayor, Truesmith's girlfriend who takes over the dictation, and, in the background, a constant chorus of praise to Truesmith as a parade seems to be perpetually passing outside the window with bands playing and choirs singing.  The sinister aspect of these crowd scenes which are ubiquitous is that the crowd seems to teeter on the edge of becoming a lynch mob and everyone is constantly preparing for extreme violence.  The dialogue is so swift and epigrammatic that it passes before it can be properly enjoyed -- you're always playing catch-up.  The Mayor's slogan is "Horny Hands and Honest Hearts."  Someone says "If all good men wore medals than we could always tell the good from the bad."  A grandmotherly woman consoles a girl by saying:  "There's war for you.  Always hard on women.  Either they take your man away from you and never send him back at all or they send him back to you unexpectedly so that everyone's embarrassed."  All walls are plastered with BUY WAR BONDS slogans and the film ends on a patriotic note, but one that is tempered:  One starry-eyed character says, apropos the election:  "What do we want a soldier for?"  But then he answers his own question:  " It's just like when a girl wants a man."  Someone else notes:  "you see why they don't send McArthur back during an election year."  Somehow all the war-hysteria is both appalling and ennobling.  Eddie Bracken is great as Woodrow -- Bracken is one of those leading men, a bit like Spencer Tracy, who is not conventionally handsome.  In fact, Bracken may be one of Hollywood's most improbable heroes -- he has broad Slavic features, a kind of Mr. Potato-Head aspect, with a nose that someone manages to seem both flattened and hooked at the same time.  Sturges is clearly an influence on a number of more recent directors -- the torrent of words and the dense compositions full of swarming people reminds me both of the TV show Veep and films by Aaron Sorkin.  In fact, Hail the Conquering Hero contains an elaborate "walk and talk" sequence involving Woodrow and his girlfriend -- the scene is clearly a model for similar scenes in The West Wing and other Sorkin productions.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Stranger on the Third Floor

Discussions about criminal justice, and, particularly, the death penalty generally sort people into two categories:  Kafkas and RCMP Mounties.  Kafkas are cursed with a vivid imagination and sense that everyone could be plausibly, and, even, perhaps, justly, accused of a loathsome crime.  RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Polices) Mounties imagine themselves so stalwart, upright and virtuous that no one could ever suspect them of a traffic ticket violation let alone a heinous offense.  Kafkas are given to morose introspection; they read and think too much.  Mounties are beefy, attend Church for all the wrong reasons, and like guns.  Both camps are pretty entrenched and tend to glare at one another with hurt feelings when a debate between them ensues.  The 1940 film,  The Stranger on the Third Floor, depicts an earnest Mounty in the process of turning into a Kafka and its a dark, understated little gem.  The picture is directed by an unknown quantity, Boris Ingster, shot by the incomparable Nicholas Musuraca, and features the ultimate Kafka, tiny Peter Lorre slinking around the urban landscape, wordless until his final serenely insane speech.  Lorre always looks like he's guilty of something; his counterpart in this film, a Mounty, is a rock-jawed young journalist whose profile is a little like that of George Reeves, the Man of Steel famous for playing Superman in the latter part of the Fifties.  (I don't know the name of the actor or the leading lady -- they were minor contract players who have long since slipped into oblivion.)

The journalist witnesses the aftermath of a murder at a diner in Brooklyn.  (He's a regular at that place).  He doesn't see the actual murder just the suspect standing next to the man whose throat has been cut.  This killing turns out to be a benefit to the journalist -- he gets a scoop and by-line when he publishes the story in the paper and, then, is lionized when his confident testimony puts the bad guy on death row.  (The bad guy is the perpetually victimized and semi-hysterical Elisha Cook, Jr. -- here his baby-face convulsed by terror.)  The hero's problem is that his fiancée is a Kafka and thinks there is a reasonably doubt about the provenance of the murder. The trial, in which the Judge is paying no attention, the smarmy prosecutor and public defender gloating together over the crime, and the jurors asleep or almost asleep, is a nightmare to her and she quarrels bitterly with her boyfriend.  Aided by some melodramatic and accusing shadows, the journalist begins to doubt himself.  He recognizes that he has clashed repeatedly with a nosy, vicious neighbor and, indeed, when that neighbor is discovered with his throat slashed in the adjacent apartment, the journalist finds himself accused of that murder.  Then, Peter Lorre appears, haunting the premises of the two murders, and, of course, confesses to the girl with sinister nonchalance that he has killed both men.  After wrestling with the girl, Lorre runs out into the street and gets hit by a truck  This brings the film to an abrupt conclusion -- 30 seconds later, it's all over with Elisha Cook, Jr. revealed to be the taxi-driver who will take the happy couple to their marriage at City Hall.  In terms of plot, there's not much here but it's the details that make the film interesting.  For instance, the truckdriver immediately embarks on a lament about how he is not responsible for running over Peter Lorre -- there's a suggestion that the whole cycle of guilt and retribution is now firing up again, but in a different vein.  After the jury's verdict, we see the couple talking by telephone -- in both of their rooms, giant shadows of chairs are cast on the wall, reflecting the fact that the verdict and the criminal's execution have cast a shadow on their relationship.  About a third of the film is devoted to bravura fantasy sequence in which the hero imagines himself condemned to death by a stylized court and sleeping jurors, locked in a prison cell, and, then, dragged to his execution.  Critics debate whether this sequence signifies the inception of film noir.  (My vote is that it does not -- the fantasy sequence is too airy, involves sets that are too big and spacious, and, rather, seems more related to movie musicals of the late thirties:  the art director had worked with Fred Astaire on films like Top Hat.  Film noir is fundamentally claustrophobic and these sets, which are very large and open, look more like dance-floors. That said, the film's general sense of paranoia and doom make it a good candidate for a proto-noir whatever you think about the fantasy and dream sequences.)  Peter Lorre, of course, is great -- he was acting off the last couple days of his contract with RKO Radio Pictures and is scarcely in the picture.  But it's about him and his haunted face bridges the gap between Mounty and Kafka.  His first lines are indelible:  he orders two hamburgers raw so he can feed them to a stray dog:  "he is homeless," Lorre says about the dog, "and I am also."   

Saturday, March 17, 2018

X-Files (11th Season)

I was already approaching middle-age when the first nine seasons of the X-Files were broadcast.  Nostalgia, regret, and sorrow over forebodings of mortality provide much of the subject in the 11th season of the X-Files.  (This brooding sense of the imminence of dotage afflicted the 10th season when the show was rebooted after 20 years off-screen in 2016).   Accordingly, the show's pervasive autumnal cast makes me feel not just old, but ancient -- I am obviously ten or fifteen years older than the protagonists and if they are now long in the tooth and much afflicted by advancing age, a reader can, perhaps, imagine how I feel watching the program.  Even when the X-Files aims for campy horror and quotes itself in a post-modernist and ironic sort of way, the show isn't as much fun as it used to be.  Senility, it seems, is, indeed, creeping into the exercise.  That said, three of the show's episode were excellent and, even when the program is saturated in narcissistic self-pity, the program is still always pretty good.  Gillian Anderson is as beautiful as ever and the show's periodic gestures toward portraying her as a sort of wizened hag, of course, don't make any sense.  David Duchovny, truth be told, has not aged particularly well -- he look more Semitic than in days of yore and his face seems to have enlarged in an unbecoming sort of way:  the older we get, the bigger our faces, until, in the end, we are walking around with saggy masks of ourselves somehow tacked to our receding and grey hairlines.  This rule doesn't apply to the incandescent Ms. Anderson, but Duchovny isn't the dashing, saturnine leading man that he was once -- I'm not sure, for instance, that he is well-suited for a remake of his last show in "stud" mode, Californication.  He remains, however, a persuasive actor and the wry sense of humor that he shows in the program is one of its saving graces.

As everyone now knows, the so-called "mythology" episodes that amplify the shows's narrative arc -- something about humans bearing within them space alien DNA and a massive government conspiracy to repress this truth -- are generally dull, needlessly pretentious to the point of being sacramental, and incoherent to boot.  This was true when the show was in its first nine seasons and remains even more true today.  Accordingly, the first couple shows of the 11th season, programs that were suffused in stygian darkness and reprised the X-Files mythology, now even sadder and more grim because these episodes focus onan apparently irretrievably missing person, the son that Dana Scully and Fox Mulder conceived and, then, lost about 20 years ago -- the show  teases us with cameo appearances of the young man but he is forever being banished to the series' outer darkness much to the tearful dismay of his two now-aging children.  The mythology shows feature Mitch Pileggi as agent Skinner, Scully and Mulder's persnickety, curmudgeonly, but, ultimately, loyal boss -- curiously, Pileggi was cast as an elder to the principals because of his baldness.  He's still bald but, like many handsome bald men (my friend, Terry Dilley had this characteristic) hasn't seem to age at all; this makes him now look younger and more fit than the somewhat dissipated Fox Mulder.  Another reliable element on the mythology shows is the so-called "Cigarette-smoking man", the deepest of all deep State operatives and the program's leading villain.  Last season (season 10), the "cigarette smoking guy" was smoking through a hole neatly bored in his larynx, a horrible effect that has been (thankfully) abandoned in Season 11.  True to form, the "mythology" shows featured lots of whispered and tearful colloquies between Fox and Dana interspersed with slow-speed and inconsequential chases through the deepening darkness.  By contrast, some of "monster episodes", typically the programs by which the show demonstrated its quirky humor with campy, ironic homages to classic TV and movie "creature-features", have been highly successful, although even these shows haven't complete escaped the show's pervasive aura of sadness.  In one episode, Fox and Dana are dining at an upscale,  highly automated sushi place.  They are alone and communicate, like many long-married couples, by gestures and grunts.  (This show is almost completely silent.)  Fox's fish turns out to be inedible and, so, he refuses the automated waiter's request that he tip the "chefs" -- other machines shown to be industriously assembling sushi in the kitchen.  The "chefs" take umbrage and unleash various cyber-attacks on Fox and Dana, culminating by an assault on their respective homes by armadas of drones.  When Fox finally coughs up the gratuity, the drones all politely withdraw and a small robot thanks him for his generosity.  The entire episode is ingeniously plotted, beautifully shot, and turns the show's signature sense of dread into comedy.  (The episode is also similar to the pitch-black episode "Metalhead" in Black Mirror in which an implacable and lethal mechanical dog tracks the protagonists and eliminates them one by one for some infraction that we can't even exactly understand.)   In another episode, children are seduced into the woods by a grotesquely masked, chalk-white clown.  This show was a little too dire for my taste -- a witch was punishing adultery by dispatching a hell-hound to kill the small children of the offending parties -- but the program was effective.  In the old days, The X-Files, even if were a weak episode, almost always delivered one frightening and uncanny image in each show.  Here the children in the town are all addicted to watching something like the Teletubbies, except that no one seems to notice that the dancing figures on TV are bloated corpses with black holes where their eyes should be -- this horde of zombies led by the monstrously masked psychopomp.  In the last "monster" show of this series, a group of vampire lives in a cult in an old downtown apartment building -- a gruesome, decomposing structure that looks like something from one of Ed Kienholz's environments:  rotting floral wall-paper and lightless shabby, genteel rooms.  The vampires are high-tech -- they seduce their victims into the apartment and, then, surgically suture them to their own bodies, back to back, with a tap between the arterial blood system of the victim and the vampire.  This is all portrayed horrifically with big close-ups of surgical incisions.  It's an allegory for the ultimate in what used to be called "Co-Dependence" and the victims don't seem to mind being slowly exsanguinated hunched on the back of their parasitic vampire like a nightmare rucksack.  The leader of the cult is a faded TV star from the Seventies, famous for her rendition of "The Morning After" (from The Poseidon Adventure) on a network variety show.  Her horror of aging, resulting in the blood cult, is equated slyly to Fox's problems with his vision -- he has to use "bifocals" to read the messages that he receives on his phone, always characterizes the lenses in his glasses as "progressive" as a sop to his vanity.  The show was excellent in all respects, although like most of the "monster" episodes it doesn't make a lot of narrative sense when replayed in the mind -- it's more like a fever-dream.  True to form, the last episode of this season, not yet available to be seen, will add to the show's mythos -- I'll watch but don't expect much to come of that program.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Berlin Babylon (final note)

I have written about Berlin Babylon before.  Unfortunately, my reviews are entered into the Blog last-in first-out for the reader.  Therefore, those readers who have an interest in my earlier comments on this German TV series (Tom Tykwer director) streaming on Netflix should look below.

Berlin Babylon's 16 episodes divides into two parts.  The first eight episodes involve a Cologne detective imported into the Berlin police force and his efforts to track down the source of an illusive image used to blackmail a prominent politician from the hero's hometown.  The first half of the show is used to establish the characters and milieu, something that is done effectively and with great nuance.  The protagonist is Geryon Rath, a shell-shocked war veteran, his police partner, the heavy-set and menacing Wolter, Lotte, a girl from the slums who dabbles in prostitution but desires to be a detective on the Homicide Squad (the German is more blunt -- she wants to work in Mord), Benda, the Jewish chief of police and his maid, Grete, a girl from the country who is friends with Lotte.  All of these characters are interesting and Lotte, in particular, is very engaging -- she looks vulnerable but is fantastically tough and stoic.  I thought the solution and climax to the first part of the show a bit underwhelming.  This is not the case with the second part, or the last 8 episodes that end the program.  If anything, the last few episodes are too emphatic and suffer a bit from grandiosity. 

In the last half of the series, Rath is involved in an intrigue circling around a shipment of gold from a wealthy family in Russia to Berlin.  The gold, a vast fortune, is hidden in a train car.  The other cars in the train contain illegal phosgene, a weapon of mass destruction.  The plot is complicated but involves right-wing nationalists attempting to circumspectly re-arm the Reich.  (The irony in the film is that the covert efforts to re-arm the German Wehrmacht, visualized as a group of superannuated generals, war-cripples, and misguided cops and military men, is foiled by our hero but to what ultimate effect? Of course, we all know that Corporal Hitler is somewhere nearby and that he will occupy the vacuum created by the defeat of the right-wing military conspirators.  In effect, the Germans are being saved by a leap from the fire into the much hotter, and more lethal, frying pan.)  The show's last half has a couple slow episodes but it gains in emotional force and becomes exceptionally powerful, if occasionally absurd, during its last three or so hours.  The climax is packed with remarkable stuff including a terrifyingly suspenseful terrorist bombing, a near-drowning with a car sunk in a deep green-blue lake, and a sequence that derives from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew too Much, a coup orchestrated to occur by the assassinations of key politicians at a Berlin theater where Brecht and Weil's Dreigroschenoper (Three-Penny Opera) is performed.  The show ends with a spectacular sequence on the train laden with gold, the locomotive roaring across low, flat country under a morbidly stormy-looking sky.  This part of the film is choreographed in homage to a great predecessor film, Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, and is exceptionally well-made and beautifully designed.  There are a number of absurdities in the operatic ending to the series but it delivers the goods in terms of excitement and emotional impact. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flint Town (streaming on Netflix)

Flint Town is a radiant documentary about police work in Flint, Michigan.  The program is divided into 8 episodes each about 35 minutes long.  The filmmakers, Drea Cooper, Zachary Cavepari, and Jessie Dimmock, were "embedded" in the Flint police department for about two years, and apparently allowed near total access to crime scenes, the police station, and the homes of the cops whose lives are chronicled.  (The degree to which the documentary is shot like a big-budget Hollywood movie is astonishing and, to some degree, distracting:  in one shot, a lady police officer takes out her keys to open the door of her small, shabby bungalow.  The next shot is an interior to the bungalow, a reverse shot of the first, showing her opening the door from the inside.  Obviously, the construction of a shot/reverse-shot narrative for something as quotidian as merely entering a house shows a level of Hollywood-style flair that seems incongruous given the nature of the material presented -- a tough, embattled police procedural.  Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the five episodes of Flint Town that I have now watched is the documentary's lavishly beautiful photography.  Simply put, Flint Town is gratuitously beautiful and, in fact, contains some of the most ravishing night photography ever committed to film:  squad cars prowl through velvety darkness; the halogen street lights make the streets shine with a sinister gem-like radiance:  the vacant lots and sidewalks are the color of Tiger Eye agate.  In the winter-time, huge flakes are always plummeting down from the night sky and the police cars churn through snow, making tracks that glisten in the darkness.  Red and blue lights oscillate back and forth and the cops are always standing in halos of shimmering radiance.  In one sequence, the cars prowl neighborhoods, providing Steadi-cam tracking images of dark alleys and humble homes while enormous firework explosions, detonated seeming at about 45 feet above ground level decorate the gloom above the homes.  The night-lighting looks theatrical, operatic:  on the wide-screen, one half of the image is mustard-color street lamps and falling snow -- to the right, an American flag is suffused with radiance and glows like a stained glass window in the darkness.  The filmmakers are fascinated with drone effects:  cameras stare vertiginously down onto the spillway of the famously polluted Flint River or examine the patterns made by cars slipping and sliding through snowy intersections; drones rise like balloons, portentously pulling cameras from street-side up through the canopy of trees to gaze across Flint's modest de minimus skyline.  The police or community members sometimes appear for interviews facing straight into the camera posed against velvet-black backdrops that give the brightly-lit figures a kind of statuesque and sculpted quality.  The film simply put is a modern version of film noir imputing to the police a sinister, wildly melodramatic glamor.  Police work looks so fascinatingly beautiful and involves such beautiful weapons and light effects that it is instantaneously attractive.   In one sequence, a young recruit with his field training officer explores an abandoned house -- we see for an instant some clutter on the floor and there are X-Files lighting effects with respect to the beams of the flashlights penetrating the darkness.  Out on the sidewalk, the older cop says that someone is using the building because one of its rooms is full of "feces and urine" -- but we aren't shown anything like this.  The squalor is disguised by the glamorous, fashion-shoot lighting. 

The sheer beauty of the documentary cuts against its hard-bitten subject matter.  The Flint police force is undermanned and can't keep up with the number of calls for assistance that it receives.  Flint itself is poverty-stricken and mostly African-American -- the police force is half black, but also has its fair share of the truculent, overly muscular and baby-faced white thugs who gravitate toward police work, and so there are plenty abrasive encounters with the public, although no unwarranted shootings (at least in the first part of the show.).  The cops see themselves as victims and are increasingly told that they are targets and should expect to be shot.  Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come to Flint for a debate and both decry the increasing "militarization" of police forces.  These speeches coincide with a new sheriff in town, Chief Taylor who has a hum-vee and, in fact, is militarizing the force:  he has set up an elite squad of cops, the CATT team, whose role is to aggressively fight crime -- a task they accomplish by heavy-handed zero-tolerance policing.  This leads to community complaints but also lavish media and community praise.  The local newscasters, white women, love the CATT program with its stylish tee-shirts and the local community leaders, all of them Black, also approve of the CATT team's work because crime statistics seem to show the effectiveness of the program.  (The film doesn't shy away from the fact that the most aggressive voices raised in favor of zero-tolerance tough law-and-order policing are African-American city council-members, church people, and beleaguered middle-class Black women.)   The chief of police is obviously a publicity hound and a loose cannon -- his coffee cup has a pistol-grip as a handle -- but he means well.  In fact, everyone means well and, even, the must thuggish of the white policemen are given little soliloquies in which they express themselves with some degree of eloquence.  (Of course, the Black cops are almost uniformly conflicted and, often, seem on the verge of  tears -- on several occasions, we see them arresting a kid, handcuffing him, and, then, after a profane sermon, letting the kid free.)  There are several engaging characters -- an attractive female cop is living with the most petulant, and aggressively militaristic, white officer; she humanizes him and gives him an opportunity to do something other than make self-pitying and bellicose speeches while flexing his impressive muscles.  A mother and son are both enrolled in Police Academy at the same time.  There is a lot of imagery of the cops reacting to footage of police shootings (both by police and in which police are victims) -- their responses are, more or less, predictable but worth seeing.  The plot involving the aggressive smash-mouth policing by CATT seems to be heading toward some kind of calamity.  The Chief of Police has now deputized a cadre of hare-brained citizens as police auxiliaries and put them out on the streets armed with "conceal and carry" weapons -- this seems to be an obviously bad idea.  The fifth episode shows everyone congratulating the police chief for decreasing crime and a black tuxedo Mayor's Ball in which Flint's mayor lavishly praises the CATT program (the mayor is a stylish African-American lady doctor).  After one shooting, victims bathed in orange light, are sprawled on a lawn begging for help.  "We're soldiers," one of the victims tells a buddy.  A middle-aged Black lady standing on the curb speaks:  "Black on black crime.  No one cares...It just makes me..." She pauses and sighs.  "," she says. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Black Panther

The latest installment in Marvel's comic book franchise, The Black Panther (2018), has been praised by the mainstream media as if it were the cinematic reincarnation of Rosa Parks.  The movie is said to strike a powerful blow for Black equality.  But, alas, the film is awful and insufferably dull to boot.  Coogler, an African American director, has been recruited to give cover to the film's insistent and offensive use of stereotypes about Africa -- imagine if a White director had made a picture about the so-called "Dark Continent" featuring polities that appoint their rulers by "ritual combat" and required the film's heroes and villains to ride around on armored rhinos, showed Amazon-warriors guarding their king with tight blouses form-fitted to emphasize the girls' perky nipples and staged battle involving troops literally chucking spears at one another.  A member of the Wakonda five-tribe council wears a six-inch plate in his lower lip.  People dash around in fetish-masks and live in a stylish city of skyscrapers shaped like the elegant mud towers of Timbuktu -- that is, all of Africa in its most outré aspects both Saharan and sub-Saharan is mashed together in Coogler's epic without any regard for cultural differences.   Of course, our hypothetical White director would be accused of the most arrogant racism if he produced a wild-eyed mélange of this sort, but, as with the use of the N-- word, different standards apply to different folks and the press has generally praised Coogler's incoherent spectacle with words that should be applied to Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright.

The film's plot relies heavily on deus ex machina contrivances including the introduction of a whole new tribe of mountain dwelling warriors about two-thirds of the way through the movie -- these are the "huff-huff-huff" people, burly warriors who either are supposed  to be coughing like lions or huffing like mountain gorillas as their war-cry  We have no idea who they are, but conveniently they are imagined to dwell in a glacial CGI mountain fastness where they can swoop down to the rescue of the hero when he is in peril.  It's the leader of these folks who inadvertently critiques the whole move when he interrupts a tender scene of resurrection, the Black Panther's powers having improvidently (and inexplicably) deserted him to the effect that he has almost died in one of the ritual combats by which the kingdom appoints its dictatorial rulers. (The bad guy, evil Black Panther, hurls the good guy, good Black Panther over the precipice of a waterfall, always a bad idea -- in fact, even a bad idea when Holmes did this to Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls -- because of course a character who has perished in this ambiguous manner hasn't perished at all.)  The husky leader of the mountain gorilla-folk derides the interruption in the action required to restore the hero to fighting status and insists that the Black Panther and his allies get back to their proper work -- that is, hewing and slashing and using explosive shock waves to hurl their enemies hundreds of feet in the air. This, then, triggers a final battle that is ridiculous even by the standards of movies of this sort -- the good guys seem to have super powers that are without limitation and not subject to any rules.  For awhile everyone will fight with great exertion, slinging spears and swords at one another, dodging rhino-knights, and, generally, stabbing and cutting with great aplomb.  But, then, the odds will shift and one of the good guys will be surrounded by a half-hundred enemies -- this poses no problem:  the hero just uses a blue shock wave to blast all his adversaries into orbit, then, reverting to the strenuous hacking and hewing until it's necessary to deploy his super powers again to defeat outnumbering forces.  Of course, it's totally mysterious why the good guys don't use their super powers all the time, or, at least, at the outset to bring this pointless battle to an end -- if one side possesses infinite power, there's not too much suspense as to the outcome.  The final combat also involves a typical confrontation between the two identically matched Black Panthers (in this film you get a good and a bad one) in a special-effects blue void -- here a sort train trestle suspended over an infinite abyss.  This is trite Star Wars stuff involving a bullet train that shuttles back and forth over the tracks, summoned by a magic pebble that one of the heroine's (fighting far overhead on the surface of the world) happens to be carrying in her purse.  As always with these super-hero movies, the film's direction and writing reaches a point of total incoherence where everything is possible and, therefore, nothing matters at all.  And, during the final battle, the token White man (played by the very, very White Martin Freeman) is flying around in a narrow gorge, a slot canyon really, shooting down enemy fighters -- also an effect that we have seen almost ad infinitum and here totally meaningless because there is literally nothing at stake.  In its first half, the movie features a White South African villain named Klaue who is made up to look just like Ohm Krueger and who brings his Boer belligerence to some amusing confrontation early in the film.  After Ohm Krueger/Klaue was defeated I seem to have fallen asleep for a half hour -- the movie lags horribly after this guy is killed -- with the result that I didn't wake up until there was another "ritual combat" at the mock-up of Victoria Falls, probably a better way to elect a head man, I suppose, than an election rigged by Russians.  By this point the film's plot had established itself -- it's a riff on Stalin versus Trotsky.  Wakonda, somehow, is a utopia in Africa that has concealed itself amidst the chaos of the Dark Continent -- it's location is a little obscure but its seems to be somewhere contiguous to Rwanda (those icy mountains) and the Congo.  Wakonda's rulers have preserved against imperialist outsiders the resources of their nation, a magical plant that confers visions and healing and a magical mineral, Vibernium, that can be used to create huge shock-waves emanating from the tips of weapons forged with the stuff.  The Kingdom seems a parody of Trump's America First platform -- Wakonda is a monarchical, quasi-Fascist State where everyone submits their personal autonomy to the power of the King; it's always Wakonda first in that country.  But success has bred an internationalist wing of the monarchy.  One brother, the bad Black Panther, is like Trotsky --he wants to export the Wakonda revolution and, thereby, free the wretched of the Earth; his Stalinist brother wants to keep Wakonda's secrets to itself and consolidate power in the hermit kingdom -- this is the Trump-like good Black Panther.  After dispensing with the Boer villain, the film is about the power struggle between the two Black Panthers.  Needless so say, the film's politics are as confusing as every other aspect of its mythology.  A better critic would have propped his eyes open during the film's incredibly dull middle portion.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak -- as far as I can see the Black Panther's only reliably effective power is to put audiences to sleep. 

The Night Mail

The Night Mail is a poetic documentary produced in 1936 by the British film group led by John Grierson.  The picture is 24 minutes long and quite interesting.  Unfortunately, techniques and esthetic strategies pioneered in this film have now become common-place and so the film isn't particularly exciting to watch.  The movie's ecstatic approach to the facts has been much imitated to the point that this picture that established some of the principles of lyrical documentary now seems a bit pallid and tentative.  As with Werner Herzog what you see is, often, not what you think it is -- the most important example of this film blurring the edges between fiction and documentary is the fact that all the interior shots in the picture showing mail-sorting as the train roars through the countryside were filmed in a studio.  (Apparently, the real train's lurching and lunging was inimical to the images of smooth, understated postal efficiency that the film promotes -- the performers were told to sway a little from side-to-side to simulate the train's motion  But I noticed immediately that the scenes in the sorting car were preternaturally smooth and free of any sense of motion -- a serious defect in the picture in my view since the film celebrates the locomotive's power and formidable speed.) 

The movie is mostly shots of the handsome locomotive, the Royal Scotsman, roaring through England and Scotland on its nightly route from London's Euston Station to Edinburgh and Glasgow.  The train's speed is emphasized -- indeed, at time the train moves artificially fast, an effect achieved by slow-cranking as seen sometimes in silent films.  There are interesting details as to how the mail is collected by the train that slows and stops only once on its route -- in fact, some of the imagery of big pouches of mail scooped up by the train or hung outside to be caught by other stanchions along the rails is fairly hair-raising.  The postal workers are ciphers to an American, mostly because we can't understand their accents and because the soundtrack features, most prominently, the rush and bustle of the train clattering over the tracks.  Although about 20 minutes of the film is conventionally informative, featuring various facts and figures (or instance the tonnage of mail moved nightly), the movie ends with a visual and aural aria -- Auden's poem commissioned for the film, "The Night Mail" a tour-de-force that uses onomatopoeic effects to simulate the train's headlong rush combined with a lavish, percussive score by Benjamin Britten.  This climax is undeniably impressive, although a big over-ripe in the manner of Vachel Lindsay -- Auden's train poem is a sort of proto-rap with many internal rhymes and propulsive consonants.  The picture reminded me, at very points, of Turner's great canvas showing a train blurry with motion blasting through the mist and terrifying a small rabbit in a meadow -- it's called "Rain, Steam and Speed:  The Great Western Railroad" (1844).  "The Night Mail" ends with a characteristic dying fall -- Auden notes that the night mail is important because "no one wants to feel forgotten"; it's a slight melancholy tint coloring the film's final images of several men, dwarfed by the mighty engine caring for the locomotive as if it were a savage and all-powerful god.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Julius Caesar

Joseph Mankiewitz (working with John Houseman) directed this 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The movie seems to have been made primarily as a demonstration that Marlon Brando cast as Antony can speak Shakespearian blank verse -- something that he accomplishes with apparent aplomb.  The movie is generally effective in presenting the play (albeit with the obligatory cuts -- Cinna, the poet, is not in the film).  The picture is tasteful, elaborately staged, and, generally, irritating in just about every way possible. 

The opening scenes take place in a vast space, presumably the Roman forum, and involve crowds of extras parading about as centurions, senators, and centurions. The first shot shows us a triumphal bust of Caesar decked with flowers -- this image is indicative of the problems that will vex the film as it proceeds.  The bust of Caesar looks nothing like Roman art, is not convincingly Greco-Hellenistic, and not stylized or abstract either -- in short, the set decorator wasn't sure whether to cleave to archaeologically exact replicas of ancient Roman art or whether to devise some other form of representation.  The image literally replicates the appearance of the actor playing Caesar -- he looks remarkably like LBJ.  But the scale of the image and is shape is subtly wrong and casts us into an uncertain limbo between stylization and realism.  This is fundamentally the problem with the set decoration throughout the film -- it is lavish but clearly theatrical (there are painted backdrops or matte images that are obviously stylized throughout most of the film).  Yet, some scenes like the large-scale battle of Philippi are shot outdoors in a dramatic and stony canyon in southern California -- this yields a strange mix of stylized and realistic settings that is disconcerting.  (For instance, Brutus has a field tent with his army that seems to be about the size of the Pantheon -- it is pointlessly large and elaborate and seems to claw against the representation of Brutus as essentially virtuous and disinterested, that is, not ostentatiously self-serving).  This mixture of realism and highly stylized imagery probably didn't bother audiences in 1953 -- Westerns characteristically mixed beautiful location footage with soundstage dialogue scene and the bluish half-light used to simulate night (day-for-night shooting) doesn't seem to have bothered anyone.  In fact, the set decoration on this picture was awarded an Oscar.  (The cast is all-star:  John Gielgud, surprisingly young, handsome and agile as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Edmund O'Brien as Casca, Deborah Kerr wasted in the tiny role of Portia.)

As far as I can tell, the acting is all exemplary.  Lines are read crisply and with proper prosody and, generally, everyone speaks clearly and passionately.  The film's peculiarities are rooted in its sources -- when I was a  boy, everyone read Julius Caesar in 8th or 9th grade and so the play is the one work by Shakespeare that, in America, is part of the common cultural property of those High School-educated in the public schools.  The fact that Julius Caesar is (or, at least, once was) universally taught in High School disguises the play's essential strangeness -- revisiting this play, which I have read four or five times and probably seen an equal number of times, I was struck by the play's peculiarity, it's curious form that straddles genres and the odd passivity of its principal characters.  At the outset, in scenes that should be filmed in claustrophobic close-up, Cassius sets upon Brutus and tempts him to envy Caesar.  (Cassius' strategy is clear and, also, clearly effective -- this makes Mark Antony's encomium to the dead Brutus asserting that he alone was never moved by "envy" seem ironic; Antony, of course, is the master of irony, saying one thing but meaning another, most notably in his famous oration over the corpse of Caesar:  the ending of the play, a scene in which Antony praises another corpse, this time Brutus, for not being "envious" is consistent with his earlier assertion, repeatedly stated and charged with vitriol, that Brutus is an "honorable man".  Neither utterance is objectively true and the play repeatedly measures the distance between people's words and their acts:  honorable men don't conspire to butcher their close friends.)  The play poses a fundamental question -- that is, the problem of personal merit.  Caesar is a sort of cipher in the play, a noble doofus.  Brutus is clearly more virtuous and Cassius more eloquent and more passionately ambitious.  And, yet, the populace worships Caesar to the extent that he is offered a crown, not once but three times.  Cassius' seduction of Brutus is fundamentally based on this argument:  what quality does he (Caesar) have that you don't?  But Caesar is, in some ways, blessed by the Gods -- he knows the tide that controls men's affairs and can act in accord with those natural cycles.  His merit is inexplicable but obvious and this maddens Cassius and Brutus.  A curious feature of the play is that it feels to me to be caught mid-way between tragedy and history -- in fact, the play resembles in my assessment Shakespeare's Macbeth.  It's about political envy and the consequences, I think, of imposing human values on a system that is, in effect, divinely instituted -- hence, all the imagery of gloomy horror and the omens/portents that congest the play.  Cassius is too petty to sense that the murder of Caesar has offended those very same powers that inexplicably promoted Caesar to the heights of power.  But Brutus understands precisely that once the die is cast, a fatal mechanism will ensnare and destroy him and that there is nothing he can do to repel this fate.  Hence, film's portrait of individuals caught in the toils of a remorseless  destiny who can't save themselves.  This is rendered obvious in the death scenes of both Cassius and Brutus.  Unlike Othello, for instance, who has no difficulty making his "quietus with a bare bodkin", the Romans can't kill themselves -- they are so engulfed in doom that they don't even have the agency for self-murder.  Cassius has to enlist a subaltern to stab him to death.  Showing a bit more agency, Brutus has someone hold a blade in fixed hands while he "runs upon it."  This peculiar and hopeless passivity of the principal conspirators suggests that they are mired in a nightmare machine that will rend them to pieces regardless of what they do.  We might call this machine "history" although it acts "tragically" -- that is, destroying particular people in accord with some malign rule.  The reason the concept of "tragedy" is misplaced is that the play doesn't really see characters as punished for their hubris -- that is, dying for reasons attributable to their own particular failings; rather, they seem to die because "history" demands it, notwithstanding and possibly even because of their individual merits. In this context, falling asleep is as noble and efficacious as leading a great army in a desperate battle -- this is touchingly demonstrated in the scene in which Brutus bids his slave-boy to watch with him awhile on the eve of the battle; in a reprise of Christ's agony at Gethsemene and is the best, and most touching, thing in the film. The staging of the battle scene further emphasizes this theme of passivity in the face of doom that characterizes the last third of the play.  Clearly, the two armies are shown to be  within arrow-shot of one another -- Antony's forces  are on cliff tops and concealed in rock fall from the defile, Brutus' army marching through that defile only a few yards awasy. Yet neither side sees the other and no one reacts to the fact that Brutus is obviously marching into an ambush.  The way the sequence is shot, the protagonists seem to be blind and their armies equally sightless -- huge forces are adjacent to one another but no one seems to notice this until the signal is given.  Closeups show Antony's handsome, feral face to be that of a sleepwalker. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hour of the Wolf (Varqtimmen)

Hour of the Wolf (1968) is an Ingmar Bergman film about an artist losing his mind on a remote Frisian Island.  The artist is played by Max von Sydow, made to look maniacal or simply hapless throughout much of the film.  Von Sydow, of course, is a beautiful man with valiant features -- he looks like a saint carved in wood by the great German medieval sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider.  But Bergman shoots him in extreme close-up with a lens that spreads his features and gives him a vaguely Slavic appearance; in other scenes, the artist's face is covered in pastywhite make-up and his cheeks rouge above painted lips..  It's characteristic of the film that Bergman vandalizes the appearance of his leading man -- the entire enterprise is self-destructive, willfully perverse, and deeply embittered.  Of course, Bergman was a great film maker but Hour of the Wolf is really too dispiriting to be any fun watching.  In many respects, the film seems to be re-make of Bergman's much greater, and equally disturbing, Persona -- however, the psychological horror on display in Persona here has deteriorated, I think, into a sort of fun-house ghoulishness.  (Bergman was sick with pneumonia during the production of the film and has said that he thinks the movie is far too personal.  The distance between Bergman and his fictional surrogate here is so uncomfortably close that the director himself disliked the picture.)

The film's premise is similar to The Shining.  An artist retires to a remote island to renew his talents and seek inspiration.  But he is afflicted by terrible nightmares that he paints and sketches in his notebook.  He keeps a diary, primarily an account of his night-terrors.  The artist's companion is played by Liv Ullman and her robust, freckle-faced beauty is incongruous among the various cannibals and vampires that inhabit the island.  She's pregnant and its apparent that the relationship between her and the artist is collapsing -- probably unable to bear the weight of commitment symbolized by the unborn child.  As it happens, the artist remains obsessed by a woman named Veronica Vogler, his previous lover and muse and, now, an angry ghost.  The artist is invited to a soiree at the island's castle.  The castle-keeper is played by Erland Josephson as a decadent art collector who has gathered around himself a nasty group of middle-aged and older sycophants.  These people seem to be sexually perverse and they stay up all night drinking and taunting one another with sadistic sexual innuendo.  About half-way through the film, a title is projected identifying the action as occurring thereafterduring the "hour of the wolf" -- that is, the early morning hour when most people die and when most babies are born.  During this hour, the artist is confronted by his demons, including the corpse of Veronika Vogler -- people pull off their faces and deposit their eyes in glasses of water and all sorts of other horrible stuff occurs.  The artist flees these demons and enters a dark, flooded forest, the sort of landscape that Tarkovsky employs in many of his films.  His girlfriend pursues him.  As in Persona, the artist's madness has infected his companion and she begins to see, and participate in, the nightmares that afflict her lover.  The film is all joyless horror and, in the end, the artist vanishes without a trace.  His lover keeps his notebooks and sketchpads and, it becomes clear, that he has probably transmitted his misery and madness to her.  Liv Ullman addresses the camera and says that relationships end with the person's assuming one another's identities.  But, of course, as dramatized by Bergman this is sexist nonsense -- we don't see the tormented artist becoming cheerful, healthy, and happy like his relatively clear-minded girlfriend:  in Bergman-world, the influence goes only one way:  the tortured man injects his madness into his reasonably normal lover.

The film is short (80 minutes) and has some hallmarks of an experimental picture.  Under the opening titles, we hear people giving commands, pounding nails, and using power tools to construct the sets for the film.  This eradication of the fourth-wall, however, is woefully lacking from the rest of the film which takes itself, and its various visions, with the utmost seriousness.  There is nothing playful in this picture -- everything is dark, dire, and miserable.  At one point, after discussing some childhood physical abuse, the nearly nude artist encounters himself as a ten year old boy and, after some provocation, kills the kid -- we later see little boy's corpse with bashed-in head floating in the cold ocean waters where the hero has been fishing.  The struggles of the artist with his corpse-muse are delivered to us with crashing literalness and the movie just suddenly ends -- we're told that the artist vanished forever and his story is preserved only in his diary and sketchpads.  We never see the artist's work and, so, of course, are deprived of the opportunity to assess whether his paintings justify all this campy Sturm und Drang.  In many ways, the film seems like a parody of Bergman, but it's humorless.  Anything by Bergman is worth seeing for his mastery of film technique -- and this picture is no exception:  its chock-full of strange visionary shots, weird and upsetting transitions and long, morose soliloquies.  But it's far from Bergman at his best and most powerful and, indeed, the picture is so sullenly morose as to be seem a bit risible. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Leopard

Luchino Visconti's opulent adaptation of Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard was released to international (if not American) acclaim in 1963, five years after the novel was published.  The film adheres closely to the first 2/3rds of the novel -- that is, the part of the book dominated by the fierce and conservative Prince of Salina (beautifully played by Burt Lancaster -- he speaks in English but his lines are dubbed into gruff-sounding baritone Italian).  Despite its international cast and epic scope, the film is meditative, contemplative and melancholy; it is also essential plotless in the sense that there is no real narrative -- the movie explores a character, the intelligent and sad Prince of Salina and his situation:  at the end of the movie, the hero crosses a squalid plaza in Palermo, ignores a scrawny cat that also slinks from darkness to darkness, and, then, vanishes into the shadows of a narrow poverty-stricken alley.  Although the film begins with resplendent images of the Prince's great villa and estate at Donafugata, lush groves of olive trees and bright gardens beneath a craggy barren mountain, the long film (185 minutes) ends in nondescript darkness. 

Although the film is devoid of much in the way of events, the movie's stately progression of beautiful images explores Sicilian politics and aristocratic family life during the Risorgimento -- the Piedmontese, that is northern Italians, have invaded the island with Garibaldi.  The Red Shirt guerillas and rebels wish to wrest the Kingdom away from Bourbon rule and annex the island to the mainland.  The effect of this campaign is to haul ancient Sicily into the political arena of the mid-19th century -- that is, to destroy the ancient royal prerogatives of people like the Prince.  Although the Prince reluctantly supports the expulsion of Bourbon power and unification with the rest of Italy, he also is clear-sighted enough to recognize that these developments signal the beginning of the end for his class.  Indeed, Visconti posits that the old Prince represents the last of his kind, the last "leopard" as it will to reign with autonomy over his estates and villages.  The old Prince is a liberal of a kind, enlightened and a student of astronomy and the natural sciences and he recognizes that modern democracy will make his class superfluous or, worse, merely parasitic.  As a patriot, he supports the modernization of Sicily, although he doubts that the project will succeed and, at the end of the film notes that the Sicilians, who have never had to rule themselves in the real world, have always retreated into a fantasy existence in which they are robust, unmannerly, violent, and child-like Gods.  Sicily, he thinks, will always resist the processes of modernity:  it's archaic blood-feuds and ancient families will somehow survive, but fatally wounded.  Like Lampedusa in his novel, Visconti develops these ideas through a series of philosophical and epigrammatic dialogues between the Prince and his priest or the Prince and his much-beloved nephew, Tancredi, the impetuous young man in which the old Leopard sees his younger self.  There are a number of long colloquies that stop the action, such as it is, interrupting the film with extended socio-political discourse -- these scenes are of varying interest to an American viewer:  some of them are thrilling and poignant, others are simply dull.  To the extent that there is a story, the film concerns the Prince's maneuvers to effect the marriage of his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the fabulously beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale).  These measures are fraught with peril for the old Prince:  his own daughter, Cosetta, a woman that the Prince greatly admires, loves Tancredi and is his natural match.  But the Prince feels that the blood-lines of the old aristocracy is deformed by marriages between cousins and, instead, promotes the marriage to Angelica, the daughter of a shopkeeper and bourgeoisie Don Colangelo.  Colagelo is nouveau riche, vulgar, and acquisitive -- he's always concerned with what things cost.  But he is the epitome of the new democratic economy in Sicily and has enriched himself by acquiring the estates of the impoverished aristocrats.  (Lampedusa was a great admirer of William Faulkner and the influence of that writer is clear in both novel and movie:  Don Colagelo is similar to the Snopes characters in Faulkner's books -- they are merchants who displace the old aristocrats from their place in the sun.)  Tancredi goes to fight with Garibaldi and there are some large-scale, if rather desultory, battle scenes:  the men seem more occupied with cutting a romantic, dashing figure in their bright uniforms than engaging in combat:  the real core of the fighting involves the summary execution of prisoners and a rabble of women who harry one man to death, hanging him by the neck in the ruins -- Visconti's point seems to be that "valor" consists of killing prisoners and the women are far more ferocious and lethal than the men.  He shoots the battle scenes from a high angle -- streets and barricades swarmed with red and blue-shirted soldiers, charge and futile counter-charges, a kind of absurd chaos.  (The futile cruelty of this warfare is emphasized in the end when Garibaldi sympathizers, now in disrepute, are shot at dawn, after a lavish Ball.)  Curiously Visconti puts more emphasis on the old Prince's trip from Palermo to his estate in the country than on the battle scenes:  the Count's entourage must pass through a checkpoint and Visconti stages this elaborately, with thunderous symphonic music and enormous, sunny landscapes.  The aristocrats picnic on the battlefield, as it were, and Visconti, who was a brilliant director of opera, creates huge tapestry-like images swarming with all kinds of human and animal life:  he is a master at presenting us with action in which there are multiple centers or focuses of interest:  people are grooming horses, girls promenade under little parasols, lackeys jockey for tips, and, yet, all of this teeming activity is organized around the figure of the stiff-backed, implacable, and handsome Prince.  There is a plebiscite and Sicily is annexed to the mainland.  A messenger from Rome pleads with the Prince to become a senator in the Italian government -- instead, the Prince proposes the vulgar and scheming Don Colagelo for that role.  The film ends with a famous 51 minute party and ball sequence that is one of the great glories of Italian film and that has been echoed repeatedly in American movies:  the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather, with all its complex cross-currents is a homage to this scene; similarly, the long wedding scene that comprises most of the first half of The Deer Hunter is an effort to translate this sequence into the American vernacular, specifically lower middle class people in an iron and steel town like Bethlehem, Pa.  Here Visconti's skill at creating multiple centers of focus while retaining the emphasis on the central character is unparalleled.  We see all sorts of things, but the Prince is never far from our thoughts and, indeed, Visconti stations him in most of the images, although sometimes as a small melancholy figure far from the glamorous center of things.  Although the party is spectacular and involves fantastically beautiful and gay dance scenes, the brilliance of the sequence inheres in Visconti showing us everything through the perspective of the old Prince -- the skull is everywhere visible and obvious through the voluptuous flesh of the faces of beautiful women's faces.  Somehow, the scene is both lushly glamorous and, also, a memento mori.  Inexplicably, American critics didn't much like the picture when it was released -- I think it may be too closely concerned with Sicilian and Italian history to interest some people and critics had trouble with Lancaster's dubbing and his mutton-chop whiskers.  The movie was cut from 185 minutes to 161 minutes and, generally, panned.  The absence of plot probably confused American critics -- the film is about a situation and a dilemma and the story, which is really just a procession of beautiful, complex images, is secondary to the old Prince's situation.  But, at its full majestic length, notwithstanding some dull sequences, The Leopard is a film masterpiece and a master-class as well in staging spectacle.  (And, sometimes, Visconti just gets "lucky" -- in a scene in which Tancredi impetuously storms out of the palace, hurrying to join Garibaldi's volunteers, the women clutch at him to hold him back and there are many tearful embraces; just as the young man is about to leave the palace, the Prince's huge great Dane, omnipresent throughout much of the picture, runs up the young man and playfully seizes him by the wrist to keep him from leaving.) 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is lavishly directed in a maximalist style that doesn't always exactly suit the material.  Mamoulian stages the action ingeniously and, often, deploys conspicuously perverse camera angles that, in fact, mirror the perverse elements in the plot.  I have always been surprised at the elaborate and florid prose style that Stevenson uses in his novella -- a style that masks, I think, something fundamentally simple-minded about the story.  Mamoulian's often bizarre camera angles and prolonged superimposed images suggests something of the complexity in Stevenson's prose as well as, perhaps, its fundamentally hollow character.

In the first four or five minutes, Mamoulian fuzzes up the edges of his rectangular screen and makes us see everything as if through Jekyll's eyes.  The opening sequence, really a throw-away that does nothing more than introduce us to Jekyll and his daily routine, is all shot in the first-person.  But when Jekyll lectures on his idiotically simplistic theory of good and evil ("each of us contains good and evil!"  he thunderously declaims), the camera films him from the subjective POV of the learned men to whom he is lecturing before advancing into extreme and unrealistic camera angles -- half of the speech is filmed from a very low angle, as if the camera had burrowed into the floor in front of Jekyll's lectern.  The clash between the subjective point of view in the first few minutes and, then,  the Soviet-style montage filming Jekyll from just about every imaginable angle couldn't be more vivid, startling, and disconcerting. 

The story is familiar and, rather, barren.  The noble Dr. Jekyll (Frederic March, so young here as to be unrecognizable)  who sacrifices himself for charity patients, is engaged to a debutante, Muriel (Rose Hobart).  For reasons that are never fully established, the marriage between Jekyll and Muriel is delayed for a month -- the girl leaves town for several weeks.  Jekyll, who is sexually frustrated, tries out his potion, an elixir that distills from him the simian and vicious Mr. Hyde.  Hyde goes out and finds a member of the demi-monde, "Champagne" Ivy, to torment.  It turns out that Hyde is a vicious sexual sadist.  ("Champagne" Ivy is played by Miriam Hopkins and her performance, alternately lewd and pathetic, is the best thing in the film.)  Muriel returns but, by this time, Jekyll perceives that his inherent sexual sadism makes him unworthy of her.  Further, Jekyll has lost control of the transformation process -- whenever he is aroused, he reverts to the ape-like Hyde.  As Hyde, he strangles Ivy and, then, attacks Muriel.  Hyde is hunted down and killed, his hideous corpse, then, reverting to the placid, serene profile of poor Jekyll.  The transformation scenes are handled with alarming aplomb -- I believe that the effect was achieved by changing the lighting so that make-up otherwise hidden in normal light, gradually appears when red filters are used.  Hyde is horrific:  he has a mat of tangled Negroid hair over his brow, which seems, as Shakespeare puts it:  "villainously low".  There is something of the otter about his sleek head with its massive array of Jack-o-lantern teeth -- he has so many teeth that they seem to bulge out of the sides of face.  In a great early scene, Hyde luxuriates in a downpour, allowing the water to spill into  his gaping open mouth, and he twitches extravagantly -- he is purely and exuberantly bestial.  When challenged, Hyde acts with decisive violence:  he leaps down stairwells, swinging from floor-to-floor like an orangutan and he dives through the fork of a tree as if shot from a slingshot; he scales walls and dives through glass windows.  The scenes in which he torments the pallid and quivering Miriam Hopkins are effectively vile.  Love scenes are shot with opposing rim-lit profiles, the actors posturing as "movie stars" interposed, with huge moist close-ups.  When Mamoulian wants to emphasize a point, he uses a frontal posture -- the actor facing the camera directly and acting for the lens.  The décor is lavish and symbolic:  when Hyde kills Ivy, she sinks out of sight revealing a huge effigy of Cupid and Psyche made from a licked-smooth white alabaster.  Some of Mamoulian's effects are simple and brilliant -- in every scene in Jekyll's laboratory, we have seen a fully articulated but grim-looking skeleton in the corner of the room.  When one of the characters shoots, Hyde, the gunman steps to his side revealing the skeleton looming behind him -- it's just a matter of blocking but the shot takes your breath away and, of course, this is what is intended.  This is a pre-Code film and highly sexual:  Ivy claims a broken rib to get Jekyll to caress her breast:  Jekyll, who seems obsessed with Ivy, is shown strolling through London's streets with Ivy's superimposed white thighs showing through him:  she suggestively swings her foot back and forth and we see this as a leit motif in a double exposure as Jekyll walks home.  Some of these effects are so obvious as to be lurid and tasteless -- there is a repeated image of a pot boiling over to suggest Jekyll's sexual frustrating and many of the forced perspectives full of phallic finials and balusters are pointlessly emphatic.  There's no need, for instance, to film a final confrontation through a veil of flickering fire.  It's an impressive movie but, also, strangely primitive -- indeed, the film has some of the double aspect of its hero: it's suave and ingenious but, often, in the service of ugly notions.