Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
Fellini had first moved beyond 8½’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in 8½ had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in 8½ was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to 8½’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.
Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.
Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:
When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’
Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.
Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing are far out of reach, even though they cost only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”
Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.
Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.
The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.
Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.
Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.
Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.
The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.
When it comes to hoping against hope, silent film buffs are among cinema’s most starry-eyed dreamers. A perennial April Fool’s Day joke is that a print of the long-lost, lusted-after Tod Browning/Lon Chaney horror pic London After Midnight (1927) has surfaced in some dusty basement or other; I never cease to be amazed by how many people fall for that old chestnut year after year. Of course, who can blame them when discoveries like John Ford’s Upstream (1927) and Beyond the Rocks (1922), which features the only teaming of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, actually do return from the presumed-lost list.
Speculation about the possible recovery of Behind the Door has been rampant for years. This war melodrama based on a wildly popular short story by Gouverneur Morris published in the July 1918 issue of McClure’s magazine—one of its Win-the-War issues—was a runaway success when it was released. Although the war was over, emotions were still running hot over the many casualties inflicted by the dreaded Hun. Behind the Door’s lurid revenge fantasy hit all the right buttons. Yet, like so many silent films, its popularity could not prevent it from fading from view. Only fragments from the estate of the film’s star, Hobart Bosworth, remained in the U.S. Library of Congress, and an export print said to be stored at Gosfilmofond, the Russian national archive, remained tantalizingly out of reach for decades. Happily, the fall of the Soviet Union and an attempt at a reconstruction by the Library in 1994 got the wheels turning on a proper restoration. Rob Byrne, film restorer and president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, explains the process:
Film historian Robert Birchard lent his copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script to help ensure that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence and as a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original color tinting scheme is also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls. A new 35mm preservation negative and a print are now housed in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Collection at the Library of Congress. Another 35mm print is also housed in the archives of restoration partner Gosfilmofond in Moscow.
The return of Behind the Door is a timely one, as American xenophobia has reared its ugly head once more.
The action takes place largely in flashback, as Captain Oscar Krug (Bosworth) returns to his decayed home and taxidermy business in Bartlett, Maine, an old and broken man. Chancing upon a blood-stained handkerchief covered in dust in his ruin of a shop, Krug casts his mind back to April 4, 1917, the day the United States declared war on Germany, a message delivered to the film audience by a telegraph operator who writes the message out as he receives it and runs outside to announce it to the townspeople going about their daily business. Almost at once, the crowd is ready to tar and feather anyone of German ancestry, starting with Krug.
Krug is a kind man who fixes a broken doll for a tear-streaked little girl and romances Alice Morse (Jane Novak), the banker’s daughter, much to her father’s displeasure. But when he is accused of being anti-American or a spy, Krug staunchly defends himself by reminding his detractors that his grandfather fought with Admiral Farragut (“Krug wasn’t too German then!”) and who himself fought with Commodore Dewey at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Nonetheless, it takes a bloody donnybrook with Bill McTavish (James Gordon), “a sea-faring man” and harsh critic of Krug’s ancestry, to win the town over. Bygones being bygones, Krug and McTavish become best friends as they sign up to serve their country onboard the Perth. Alice, tossed out by her father when she tells him she married Krug, follows her husband to sea and stows away to be with him.
The acting in the first half of the film is broad, with Bosworth’s declamatory style and gestures exactly the kind of thing modern audiences tend to laugh at. The fight between him and McTavish, however, seems heart-racingly real, as the two men bleed, stumble, and fall quite convincingly. Although much more shocking to watch, it has the same effect as the extended fistfight in The Quiet Man (1952)—instilling harmony and respect between adversaries. Bosworth also tends to tone it down when playing opposite the more natural acting style of Novak, but the lurid story in which Bosworth finds himself may have convinced him to beat his points home with a baseball bat.
The second half of the film is what Behind the Door’s enduring reputation rests on. A horrifying series of events that sees two ships sunk, Alice and Krug cast away and down to their last drop of water, and criminality so shocking I wouldn’t dream of revealing it here makes for exciting and pitiable viewing. Krug’s nemesis, a U-boat captain named Brandt, is played with menacing villainy by Wallace Beery, and their confrontation on the deck of Brandt’s U-boat is genuinely chilling. Krug slips into a raging madness from that point forward, and put me in mind of Sweeney Todd in looks and demeanor. And perhaps unintentionally, the story seems to confirm that Hun-like behavior may be bred in the bone.
The restoration looks great and the score by Stephen Horne is superb. Although there is some uncorrectable damage near the beginning of the film and some short missing sequences that are filled with stills, they do nothing to detract from this exciting melodrama, which is now available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.
In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:
In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.
This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.
There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.
Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.
Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.
It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.
Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.
What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.
We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.
Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).
Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.
Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.
This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.
Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.
Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.
Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.
The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).
The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.
Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.
Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.
Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.
Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.
Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.
A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Perhaps it was Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be that made him think he could offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.
Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas  and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow , and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur  and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses ). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.
Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.
The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.
This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.
Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.
Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.
Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.
Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.
Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
Eighty-four-year-old Carlos Saura has been making movies since 1956, with 47 directing credits to his name, including his masterpiece on childhood trauma in fascist Spain Cria Cuervos (1976). Nonetheless, Saura lamented during a personal appearance he made some years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center that the only films he’s known for seem to be his dance films.
I understand how this can be frustrating to a consummate film artist, but in fact, Saura originally aspired to be a dancer, and his own enduring love of the form has resulted in a significant number of the best dance films on the planet, from his incredible flamenco trilogy Blood Wedding (1981)/Carmen (1983)/El amor brujo (1986) to his dance-specific documentaries, including Flamenco (1995), Tango (1998), and Fados (2007). Jota joins the dance documentary group, which are filmed dance recitals created on a soundstage that simulate a live performance in a theatre for the movie-going audience. In choosing to train his gaze on jota, Saura has chosen a dance form close to his heart and roots, a rhythmic, lively dance from his native province of Aragón in the northeastern part of Spain.
The opening title card informs us that the original dance incorporated Arab and Asian elements, and exerted a strong influence on flamenco. Of course, like all art forms, as jota traveled to other parts of the world, it changed, acquiring embellishments, as well as different pacings and stylings. Very cleverly, Saura opens the film with a youth dance class conducted by jota star Miguel Ángel Berna so that we can learn the basic steps that comprise jota in its purest form. After this lesson, it becomes relatively easy to recognize the characteristic heel-toe combination and low kicks that comprise the basic steps of jota in the performances to come. Incorporated into these performances, of course, is the characteristic music that is also considered jota, including in classical pieces by Luigi Boccherini and Pablo Sarasate.
Saura takes a historical look at jota, beginning with a bride’s song from Aragón’s Ansó Valley. The dancers are all in traditional dress from the region and dance a simple, circular jota as they honor the bride. Saura also introduces the music of jota with an Aragónese cantada performed by singers Nacho del Rio and Beatriz Bernad, and accompanied by Miguel Ángel Tapia on piano. Their loud, lusty singing, what Saura has called the “barbarous voices” signaling the independence of Aragónese women, takes place in front of a wall of historical posters and pictures, including one for the film Goyescas (1942) starring Imperio Argentina, who will be shown later in historical footage singing and dancing jota.
There are strikingly dramatic sequences in the film, for example, La Tarántula, which, unlike the Italian tarantella, builds slowly with a dancer laying on the floor covered in a white gauze slowly rising as a group of women dance around her and, finally, spreading her diaphanous, winglike “body” as they all fall to the ground. In another, Berna, dressed all in black, postures solo in front of a four-way mirror. The most affecting of the sequences shows a boy sitting in a classroom look up at rear-projection screens behind his teacher’s desk and watch archival footage of the Spanish Civil War—the battles, overhead bombers, frightened citizens running for cover, and dead children. Not only is Saura going through the history of jota and of Aragón, but also his own history.
Nonetheless, most of the film is a joyous celebration of dance and community, with the requisite number of flamenco jotas. My favorite sequence was the jota from Galicia, which gathered musicians playing everything from the Irish bodhrán to thumb cymbals and featured Carlos Núñez on the Scottish bagpipes and two dancers, one of whom leaped into the circle to dance barefoot, snapping his fingers because he lacked castanets.
The film ends with what I can only call the lounge lizard version of jota, called modern, and a fiesta of people of all ages dancing together to the sounds of the professional singers and musicians, while gigantic, papier-mâché figures circulate among them. Despite being confined to the soundstage, Saura finds visually varied ways to increase audience interest, with mirrors, overhead shots, projection, impressionistic painting, and color screens backing the dancers. This film, called J: Beyond Flamenco in English presumably to capitalize on the familiarity and popularity of flamenco, preserves the more folksy jota form and entertains us with it in all its many forms.
J: Beyond Flamenco screens Saturday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 16 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
There are few things I can think of that are as restful and exhausting, rewarding and frustrating, and the very definition of partnership as cultivating a garden. Like the fabled Garden of Eden, human beings can find peace and contentment surrounded by nature, but the minute they start thinking they are the masters of their surroundings, the garden will chew them up and spit them out like pollen from an Anneslea fragrans blossom. Gardeners must be patient, humble, and vigilant to partner successfully with their plants, soil, and climate for bountiful harvests and blooms.
Rosie Stapel seems to have cooked up the idea for Portrait of a Garden, her directorial debut, with Daan van der Have, one of the two featured gardeners in this lovely documentary, and the location choice is more than appropriate. There aren’t many places on earth more plant-mad than the Netherlands. Just as you’ll rarely see a Parisian going home for dinner without a baguette or two in hand, the Dutch provide a brisk business for their ubiquitous city and village flower markets.
The Dutch estate garden featured in Portrait of a Garden was founded in 1630, and has seen its ups and downs in the intervening 400 years. Van der Have and pruning master Jan Freriks had a good deal of restoration work to do when they dug their hands into the soil some 30 years ago. The 85-year-old Freriks is something of a rock star in the horticultural world; his books are known and loved by the estate staff, tree nursery owner and gardening enthusiasts they meet during the film. Freriks is handing down his knowledge to Van der Have, who is no spring chicken himself, in hopes that his skills built over a lifetime of observation, experimentation, and practice won’t die with him.
Stapel takes us through one year in the life of the garden and its tenders, beginning in fall. We first meet Van der Have and Freriks as they work on a wall of espaliers, energetically applying their pruning shears to maintain the flat profile of the trees against their natural inclination to branch and spread. We’ll see them throughout the film sawing away at tree limbs and twisting the branches of pear trees over the lengthy arch of an arbor they have been working to create for some years. They’ll reminisce about Van der Have tempting Freriks out of retirement with the chance to work on an estate garden where heirloom varieties of edible and inedible plants are grown and survivors from the earliest days of the garden still leaf and bloom.
It’s fascinating to watch the various techniques the two men and the other garden staff use in their work. White caterpillers of metal hoops and polyester tissue protect the tomato beds from birds and other animals. A multipronged hand hoe is raked across a bed to create perfectly spaced rows for planting. Thin cotton strings are pulled to hoist individual bean vines up to hang from a crosshatching of string above them. Bales of hay are spread by hand to keep beds warm during the cold winter and early spring. Stapel films the work straightforwardly, with slow, swooping boom shots and slower time lapse photography than audiences are used to seeing. The latter technique works quite well to preserve the relaxation the garden engenders in the viewer, even as the people on screen work hard at the many tasks they have to keep up with daily. Her ingenious shots are complemented by the meditative solo lute of Jozef van Wissen, who scored this film as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
At harvest time, Stapel’s experience in film art direction and production design comes to the forefront. She shows gardeners harvesting armfuls of luscious-looking rhubarb for the chefs who work in the estate restaurant. Then it’s a veritable card deck of fruit and vegetable varietals, shot overhead and labeled like still lifes at the Rijksmuseum, showing off the richness of our floral heritage. Freriks sees agriculture and gastronomy becoming less diverse because of industrial farming and the decline of growers who use cross-breeding techniques to develop new hybrids that can strengthen a plant line; the estate itself uses only organic pest control such as crop rotation, soil replacement, nontoxic pesticides, and visual inspection to protect the plants against damage or destruction.
Van der Have dreams of having a banquet under the pear arbor when the branches finally meet and the fruit hangs heavy above him. Freriks, however, hates that kind of thing. He prefers his plants and knowing that the work he started long ago as a steward of the earth will far outlast him. Rosie Stapel has ensured that the man himself and some of his words of wisdom also will be accessible for a long time to come.
Portrait of a Garden screens Friday, March 10 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 3 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
Most countries in Europe suffered a lingering malaise after World War II that extended far beyond rebuilding physical, cultural, economic, and governmental structures. Most difficult to navigate was rebuilding trust and national unity. Human nature being what it is, feelings of loss, betrayal, and cruelty burn in the breast with something akin to an eternal flame if not confronted openly. In tiny Luxembourg, a landlocked country sandwiched between France and Germany that owes much of its national culture to both those neighbors, a return to normalcy often meant hiding from wartime crimes. In Tomorrow, After the War, director and coscreenwriter Christophe Wagner attempts to lance the wounds of the past.
A thin layer of snow covers the open fields through which newly freed Resistance fighter Jules Ternes (Luc Schlitz) trudges to his small village following the defeat of Germany and liberation of the lands they occupied, including Luxembourg. He tries the door of his family home, apparently as empty as the streets nearby. Suddenly, his sister Mathilde (Eugenie Anselin) comes around the corner and calls his name. They embrace, and she informs him that their father (Jean-Paul Maes) has not returned from the labor camp to which he was sent as punishment for Jules joining the Resistance. Jules gets more unwelcome news when Armand (Jules Werner), a shady functionary of the village government, comes in and kisses Mathilde, his fiancée.
Jules tries to pick up his life as it was before the war. When he learns his old boss, a Jew, was deported to a concentration camp, he hires on as an auxiliary police officer. He also resumes his romance with Léonie (Elsa Rauchs), who works for a German family who are running a successful farm confiscated during the war by the Nazis. She says they were not Nazis and lent money and protection when possible to locals in need. Of course, the family’s prosperity and nationality now mark them as targets by Luxembourgers wanting payback against Germans and collaborators. Jules, besotted with Léonie, is caught in the middle, a position that becomes even more uncomfortable when the family is found murdered. His probing into the crime, motivated by strong, personal feelings, turns up information that conflicts with the official story, jeopardizing futures throughout the village.
Tomorrow, After the War is fairly derivative of the better detective shows one might find on TV, with its accumulation of clues and lies to be uncovered, and a few sex scenes that no film seems able to do without these days. Nonetheless, Jules is no standard-issue moody detective. He was an ordinary man before the war who became a cop afterward—and not even a full-time cop at that—because there were no other jobs to be had and the chief of police (André Jung) put him on as a favor to Jules’ father, with whom he fought during World War I.
The very ordinariness of Jules gives the film a foundation to look realistically at the compromises that have to be made when life is not proceeding as usual, a lesson that should have ramifications for those of us who haven’t experienced a whole world in upheaval—yet. Almost all of the characters in this film bear some degree of guilt for their actions or complicity in the world order that overtook them during the war years. With one exception, none of them appear to be guilty of much more than wanting to live, however painful their circumstances have been, and none of them is headed for sainthood.
To underscore the real choices that have to be made in extremis, the film depicts violence quickly and effectively. For example, Jules’ comrade is shot in the head for refusing to give up the location of his Resistance cell to their Nazi captors, a graphic horror that terrorizes Jules. His father, semi-crippled in body and mind, is a verbally abusive drunk whose only “crime” was surviving the Battle of the Somme. The murder victims are shown in economical, but vivid detail with shotgun wounds and buzzing flies destroying the pastoral in which they lived.
The cinematography is exceptionally good, with breathtaking landscape shots that add to the moodiness of the story and fine attention to detail, for example, placing an abandoned German tank in exactly the same position as one shown in a still photo of the period. I liked how the opening scene in the snow seems to suggest a world purified after so much bloodshed, interrupted by the figure of a dead horse lying in the field as Jules passes by. As Jules seems to be putting his life back together, a lovely scene of him and Léonie cycling in a bath of sunlight offers them and us a reprieve from the background gloom in which their rekindled love began.
For me, the pièce de résistance is Mathilde and Armand’s wedding. All of the conspirators are gathered to celebrate a festive occasion at last, but Jules, too aware of the thin veneer of civilization all around him, has a final confrontation with his father. Heroism is the ideal, but neither his father nor Jules can live up to what the world expects of them. In the homely scene of a village wedding, we realize our real aspirations are none too lofty. In the end, if we grab for something more ambitious and ideological in dangerous times, we might very well end up paying the ultimate price.
Tomorrow, After the War screens Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, March 14 at 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
My Name Is Emily: This film about a teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny, as she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
Although Ireland is a modern country and vibrant part of the European Union, the cliché of the quirky, twee micks who let their freak flags fly in the soft Irish mist dies hard in film. My Name Is Emily is no exception, but its protagonists’ eccentricities arise from very real causes—traumatic loss and mental illness. And while these characters skirt the edges of those touched by the faeries, their grounding in something to which we can relate puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this well-constructed mash-up of grief processing, teen romance, and road picture.
We are introduced to our protagonist and guide, Emily (Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films), as she floats, bounces, and bubbles underwater. She has a very lengthy voiceover at the start of the film by which she introduces us to her parents (Deidre Mullins and Michael Smiley) and their odd and loving marriage. Apparently, Robert is a withdrawn person who has retreated to his study to read as many books as possible. The family is held together by the very pleasant, always smiling mother, who doesn’t get a name in this film. One day, Robert decides to emerge and regurgitate everything he’s read, becoming a teacher and then a wildly popular publishing sensation and lecturer who thinks the problems of the world could be solved if everyone had sex all the time.
Everything goes off the rails when Mom is killed in a car accident while lovingly lighting Robert’s cigarette as the two listen to the car stereo really loud because it “makes them feel young.” Robert’s behavior becomes more and more erratic until he is committed to a psychiatric hospital in the north of Ireland after yelling while naked on a Dublin street. Emily is placed in a foster home, where her foster mom, June (Ally Ni Chiarain), embarks on annoyingly cheerful attempts to make the sullen Emily happy. Emily is labeled a weirdo in her new high school; classmate Arden (George Webster), a young man with family troubles of his own, becomes smitten with her; and the pair takes off in his gran’s ancient Renault to spring Robert from his asylum.
My Name Is Emily is something of a sensation in the Irish film world because of the plight of its writer and director. Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with ALS nine years ago and given four years at most to live. His determination to continue his film career, which got off to a good start with the warm reception of his 2007 short film The Sound of People at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, helped him beat the odds not only to make and release My Name Is Emily, but also to live well beyond expectations and start work on another screenplay. It is perhaps Fitzmaurice’s underlying sadness and struggle channeled through his actors that keeps this film from triviality.
Robert, though obviously always a bit of a strange bird, can’t help but suggest Fitzmaurice’s incapacity, but also his vital love for his wife and daughter. Smiley is on top of his game, aided and abetted by Mullins in a sadly underwritten part that she infuses with warmth from her brilliantly beaming face, making her presence—and absence—felt through Emily’s affecting memories of her. Their connection broken, young Emily, played skillfully by Sarah Minto (a terrific physical match with Evanna Lynch), signifies her father’s ultimate failure of her by commenting on the failings of adults who underestimate her emotional intelligence. In the guise of sparing her feelings, they have told her her mother just went away; it wasn’t true, she says, because she couldn’t feel her mother watching over her anymore.
Minto sets an important tone with her unguarded love for her mother and Robert, providing a contrast to Evanna Lynch’s guarded, clenched teen Emily. Stubborn, reticent to the point of near-muteness, she refuses to dissect the aptly chosen Wordsworth poem Splendour in the Grass as instructed, instead interpreting its sexual longing and wistful memory for her uncomprehending yahoo of a teacher (Cathy Belton). Already noticed by Arden, played with touching unsureness by the extremely handsome Webster, Emily rebuffs him with an “I can take care of myself” when he tentatively tries to ingratiate himself by defending her in class. Her prickly remoteness, however, is underscored with slightly lingering looks that preface their eventual romance.
I liked the dynamic Fitzmaurice sets up between Emily and Arden, the former a wildly intelligent, emotional matchstick, the latter an exasperated realist drawn to her spirit and breaking free from his abusive father (Declan Conlon) in a crackerjack scene. He stands with her in a downpour trying to thumb a ride north, then just walks away; seeing the wisdom of his surrender, she follows him. She’s not the surest of leaders, but she always moves first; he defers to her when it’s safe and looks out for her when it’s not. The balance in their relationship is something one doesn’t often find in movies, and it is a definite strength.
On the downside, the film is so artfully photographed, it’s really quite distracting and threatens to take over the human story. I knew I might have trouble from the start when the newly born Emily with a doubtful set of dark-brown eyes dissolves to the blue-eyed, teenage Emily. Fortunately, the film does not repeat this kind of gaffe, and the script only rarely punts to plot conveniences and jumps of logic. I bristled mightily at a philosophy Robert and Emily adopt: “A fact is just a point of view,” painfully close to the newly minted abomination “alternative facts.” Fortunately, Arden objects as well, and Emily begins to experience a world in which the truth can, but doesn’t always hurt. And while Emily slowly reveals herself, she still retains her delicious, singular mystery. My Name Is Emily rewards patience with its generosity of spirit.
My Name Is Emily screens Saturday, March 4 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 7 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing. He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation. Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport.
Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements. Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works. Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.
Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.
The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea. One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.
Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one. This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.
Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed. The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor. Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe.
Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation. Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.”
Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk. Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults. The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas. The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941). These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.
Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one. Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era. But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue. In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux. Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke.
The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew. The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged. The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist. By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.
The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals. As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and agents dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.
Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.
I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:
The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.
You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.
Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”
I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”
Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.
I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.
The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took a sarcastic tone as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.
White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”
It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.
Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.
So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.
But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.
Almost since the day it was released, The Manchurian Candidate has known an aura of perceptiveness bordering on the prophetic. This quality extends from its alarming anticipations of the spate of assassinations of high-profile American political figures in the 1960s, to the dogging accusations of conspiracy and corrupting influence of Russia behind Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, which sent political journalists scurrying to use the film’s title for an appropriate likeness. This, if nothing else, proved that The Manchurian Candidate remains a touchstone, in spite of the fact that John Frankenheimer’s fourth and greatest film is hardly a cool, analytical, realistic take on the exalted spheres of power and policy at the height of the Cold War. It is, rather, a wild, perverse, near-surreal study in personal and political horror, a look into a point in the modern psyche where all opposites blur together and evolve far faster than our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps, indeed, only such a film could really hope to encompass the schizoid extremes of the age. Cinematically and generically, the film is just as unique. The Manchurian Candidate plays out one level as straightforward and gripping tale, and indeed could well be the first truly modern political thriller, replete with the usual paraphernalia of the style–conspiracy by cabals within government, the lurking sniper, and the relentless, almost outmatched lone hero. Generations of such films, from Alan Pakula’s tense 1970s conspiracy dramas to the Bourne series, owe it something. But on another level, it’s a madcap fever dream that captures the tone of the most hysterical conspiracy theory, and on yet another, a bleak and epic revision of the Greek tragic mode for a malign epoch, one where the entities on high playing infinitely cruel games with people’s fates are no longer gods, but nations and ideologies, with the fixtures of identity that hold us to fate remaining unchanged.
Like many of his generation’s talents, Frankenheimer emerged not from the studio system or direct from the stage as before, but from television in the late 1950s, ranks that also included the likes of Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer had learned how to deal with the straitened productions and how to put across the intimate, often socially conscious vicissitudes of early television drama. He gained particular credit for shooting a Rod Serling script for The Comedian, which established Frankenheimer’s interest in tales about difficult and obnoxious characters, whilst his first two films, The Young Stranger (1957) and The Young Savages (1961), both wore their civic ethics on their sleeves and boasted titles concerned with teen misfits whose resentments and short fuses put them at the mercy of hypocritical power or leave them stranded between communities and afflicted by alienation and troubled states of mind. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was a portrait of dogged humanism persisting in a man totally removed, for good reason, from humanity. Such straightforward studies set Frankenheimer neatly amidst the likes of Mann and Ritt as a maker of solid, adult, if rather middlebrow dramas. But his third film, All Fall Down (1962), whilst still revolving around a young man’s attempts to make sense of the world and people around him, signalled a shift into more complex and pensive dramatic concerns, and also made him acquainted with the potential of Angela Lansbury, largely untapped in her time as an ingénue in Hollywood. With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer was handed a doozy of a script by George Axelrod, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel, which took as its starting point an eerie and widespread legend thrown up in the early years of the Korean War that captured GIs and allied soldiers were being subjected to “brainwashing” techniques of intense indoctrination induced under stress to make them mouthpieces for propaganda. Condon’s concept went several steps further in proposing that some might well have been programmed as unwitting sleeper agents waiting to be pressed into some covert action.
The Manchurian Candidate’s antihero, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is glimpsed at the outset as a barking martinet, rounding up his unit for a night patrol to their sneering contempt and dutiful obedience, as he’s forcing them to abandon their off-duty boozing and whoring to go hump around enemy territory in the dark. But the squad, under the command of Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is lured quickly into the hands of a waiting Communist outfit by their double-agent guide Chunjin (Henry Silva). The enemy leap out of the dark, successfully knock out the entire squad, and take them to waiting helicopters to be spirited away. The opening credits set the seal on this brief and creepy opening (in a way, not so coincidentally, reminiscent of the prologue commercial break as used in TV), and when the film recommences, Raymond is being met on his return home by saluting senior officers and wildly enthusiastic crowds celebrating his homecoming as a hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The return of Raymond and his fellow soldiers sees all apparently easily reabsorbed into everyday life. Even Raymond, who lives under the thumb of his archly political and vicious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury), uses his new status to get a job working for a political journalist, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), and break out on his own. But a gruelling, terrifying, recurring dream begins to afflict the former squad members, including Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards), in which they remember their time in captivity. Russian and Chinese military leaders and scientists have gathered to listen to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who boasts of the effectiveness of his new hypnotic controls over them, and even demonstrates this control by having Raymond murder two of his squad mates. The terrible immediacy of these dreams is enough to have Marco and Melvin awakening in the night in blind terror and muck sweats. Ironically, only Raymond seems not to be afflicted by such dreams, but this proves to be because he’s the special object of these machinations, deeply implanted with a series of controls and commands, chosen specifically as a programmed weapon that can be switched on and off on cue, and destined for an ultimate goal that will shake the world.
It’s easy to imagine that if The Manchurian Candidate had been made today (not discounting Jonathan Demme’s solid remake from 2004) it would have hinged much more on the question of whether Marco’s obsessive dream-memories are real or imagined. Frankenheimer’s opening offers outright depiction of the unit’s entrapment and capture, giving the game away right off the bat. But it’s actually a very clever move, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s similar ploy in Vertigo (1958), one that stops the audience from wasting energy asking if all this is real to watch instead to see what’s going to give the game away, thus building tension and dread about what will happen when the veils drop. The missing time during which the squad was in Communist hands is slowly revealed in two dream sequences replete with virtuoso cinema work and brazen wit. Frankenheimer’s camera pivots in long, deadpan revolutions that see the apparently anodyne surrounds of a hotel lobby filled with lady flower fanciers turn into a technocratic amphitheatre where Soviet and Chinese bigwigs listen whilst the hypnotised soldiers lounge in various states of attention and boredom, and the chirpy chairlady of the flower fanciers (Maye Henderson) transforms into Yen Lo explaining he’s given the soldiers the suggestion they’re being forced to wait out a rainy day in New Jersey in their company; African-American Melvin sees the women as black. “Always a little humour,” is Yen Lo’s motto, and Frankenheimer’s, too: the funny aspect to all this both introduces the film’s key motif of bottomless evil wearing an everyday face and also mediates the slow pivot from humorous disbelief and strangeness to a horrifying understanding of what is actually happening. Intimate displays of violence result, as Raymond shoots the squad’s young “mascot” member through the head, his brain matter spurting with iconographic precision across a giant poster of Stalin’s face.
The creed of the surrealists is made manifest in The Manchurian Candidate, as dreams point the way to reality, knitting connections that would seem otherwise ridiculous or tendentious with startling alacrity. It’s true both within the story and in contemplating how the film’s ideas work. At its heart, though, is a simple observation, that the so-called extremists of modern life need their opposites to gain definition, to provide meaning, feeding off them and gaining strength, even finding common ground of outlook in the desire to shatter the status quo. In this regard there’s nothing fantastical about The Manchurian Candidate: it simply exacerbates and provides a thrillingly strange metaphor to illustrate this point. Undoubtedly, in 1962, the aspect of Condon’s satire that would have seemed most timely was its biting portrayal of McCarthyism: Tailgunner Joe is transmuted into Raymond’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (a pearl of a comedic performance from James Gregory), who breaks into the press conferences of the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and gives fiery speeches on the Senate floor denouncing Communist infiltration. Iselin is quickly revealed as an alcoholic twit whose gift for theatrical display is manipulated and pushed along by Eleanor. One of the film’s broader (if still very funny) gags comes when Iselin, frustrated by trying to remember the number of communists that are supposed to be in the State Department, begs Eleanor to give him one that’s easy to remember: Frankenheimer cuts from her staring at the bottle of Heinz steak sauce he’s shaking to him announcing to the U.S. Senate that 57 Commies infect the department (indeed, given the recent outbreak of “alternative facts,” this also feels weirdly timely again). The droll depiction of Iselin as stooge and feckless puppet of the imperious and ruthless Eleanor, again like the dream sequences, soon shades a comic element into something much more foreboding and terrible, as Eleanor soon proves to be connected with the plot that has turned Raymond into an unwitting puppet himself.
Whilst the plot takes the paranoid essence of the fear of Communism evinced at the time to a perfect consummation – they really are trying to take over our minds! – central to The Manchurian Candidate’s impudent take on Cold War politics is its exploitation of the suspicion that the far wings of both sides of politics at the time, and perhaps in any time, are essentially the same, with motivations that seem completely opposed but often hide mirroring wants. This note is sounded both comically here, as Yen Lo takes the chance to go to Macy’s when in New York whilst the manager of the local cover operation takes pride in turning a profit, and with daunting seriousness, as Eleanor plots a scheme wherein she uses the Communists to stage a coup that give Iselin, and thus her, powers that will “make martial law look like anarchy” as prelude to a savage and possibly cataclysmic war of revenge. The essence of the Marxist view of history, that it is driven by impersonal forces, is embodied in Raymond’s loss of identity and control, and sublimated into greater causes; but so, too, is the faith in the individualistic and the entrepreneurial in American capitalism, as Eleanor carefully crafts her ascent to absolute power, complete with studious brand-building. Another biting observation here is the way republics fosters a peculiar but extremely potent aristocracy, to which Eleanor and Raymond belong–Raymond’s horror for sentimentality and other common pursuits (“Twelve days of Christmas one day of Christmas is loathsome enough”) stem both from his schooling in such snobbery and his attempts to rebel against the precepts of slogans and officially prescribed feelings.
Not mentioned in the film is a telling touch from the novel, in which some of Eleanor’s monstrosity is revealed to be the product of sexual abuse by her own father, a deeply buried mandrake root of evil based in the desire, like that of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, to keep power entirely within a gene line through incest. This last aspect, constantly lurking under the dense Freudian-mythical matter at the heart of the human drama, does come out when Eleanor, with her son seemingly under perfect slavish control, kisses him in definite erotic prelude. There’s scarcely a taboo untouched in The Manchurian Candidate, befitting a film about the utter perversion of contemporary communal life by forces within it and working upon it. Thanks in part to Harvey’s dynamic if, unavoidably, often unpleasantly phlegmatic performance, “lovable Sergeant Shaw” is one of the great cinematic characters, so uncommon in his barely suppressed fury layered over a very deeply repressed sexuality, his stringent honesty and astringent snobbery, his detachment from and contempt for the usual signifiers of healthy all-American identity, as well as his mother’s relentless perversion of the bodies both politic and familial. He has much in common with the tortured young heroes of Frankenheimer’s early films, with his feelings of exclusion from the run of everyday life, his bitterness towards his parents, and his status as puppet being manipulated for other people’s ends. Sometimes he seems like the barely human cyborg he’s been programmed to be, except that a constant undercurrent of virulent trauma and raw feeling sometimes slips his façade, as when he drunkenly narrates to Marco the story of his one busted romance, with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the good-natured daughter of her mother’s political enemy, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).
Raymond is privileged a flashback that seems initially much less gruelling than Marco and Melvin’s dreams, a recollection of romantic happiness in which he met the energetic and outgoing Jocelyn and her upright liberal father, only for Eleanor’s swift action in killing the romance to present a spectacle of coercion and emotional violence that makes being captured and brainwashed seem almost preferable. Slowly but surely, the deep humanity of Raymond emerges, even as his helplessness before his programmed state constantly asserts itself when he’s triggered into his mesmeric state, marching out with calm, detached demeanour to kill. Raymond is pushed to kill both of the positive father figures he gains in the course of the film, his mentor Gaines and then Senator Jordan, whilst his actual father is a ghost supplanted by the grotesque Iselin. His only connections are with Marco, who grudgingly becomes something like a friend with the underlying understanding that Marco’s path to salvation is probably Raymond’s way to hell, and Jocelyn, who, after marrying Raymond when she’s reunited with him thanks to a contrived but backfired attempt by Eleanor to make an ally of her father, convinces Marco she can help repair him, inspiring a moment of sentiment that has utterly hideous results. Eleanor, heading off the new danger such an improvement in Raymond’s life portends as well as his own anger, suddenly takes control of him and sends him back to his new family, shooting down Jordan and then Jocelyn when she tries to intervene, just as he’s been ordered to. There are few scenes as heartbreaking in cinema, particularly in Harvey’s use of body language, his languid heavy limbs and attitude of a sleepwalker as he leaves the scene, reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, another misbegotten son.
Moments like this point to the paradox at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s almost sui generis status. As rich with ideas and as clever in its machinery as it is, it’s the film’s strong grasp on the human level that makes it so powerful, the urgency with which it telegraphs the way its characters experience life and the torturous travails they’re subjected to, with the added irony that the qualities of the inhuman are seen as politically valuable. Only Eleanor seems excepted from the normal roundelay of suffering and confusion everyone else knows, and even she’s trapped to a certain extent, her carefully cultivated plots and ties having been turned around on her by the deliberate use of her son rather than some anonymous patsy as the perfect killer she wanted. Eleanor’s psychic twin in American cinema is Psycho’s Mrs. Bates (never actually seen, but also a monster who manages to infest her son’s body and mind), and her ancestor Livia, the relentless force of imperial tree pruning in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, from which Condon might have taken possibly a little too much licence. Lansbury’s bravura performance communicates the degree to which Eleanor is the nonartificial version of the thing her son has become, a series of guises and gestures, clasping, wheedling, crassly self-promoting, all hiding a will to power that would make Stalin wince.
Although the science fiction element in it is only very slight, nonetheless the film constantly nudges more psychologically into the genre with the feeling that it is depicting the birth of a bastardised race of mutants (interestingly, Frankenheimer would tackle that theme more directly decades later on the debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996). Paul Frees’ voiceover near the film’s beginning signals the latent connection with George Pal’s scifi, posthuman myths like The War of the Worlds (1953). Yet the film’s structural influence is ancient, borrowing motifs from Greek myth and theatre and dressing them in such contemporary drag. “It’s like listening to Orestes gripe about Clytemnestra,” Marco quips to Raymond during a bout of drinking and maudlin reflection, as the latter explains his hatred for Eleanor. It’s a knowing line that underlines the already-percolating atmosphere of something primeval lurking below the surface of all the atom-age angst, as well as nodding towards the narrative’s sarcastic approach to that vital populariser of Greek myth, Freud. Has humanity changed at all in the intervening millennia since Sophocles and Euripides? Are even the new theatre of mass media and the arts of mind control still subject to principles laid out in the infancy of rational contemplation? It is ancient, it is the future, and everything flows to and from the great Oedipal swamp. Frankenheimer’s image-play leads into the epic climactic scene in which Marco tries to tap Raymond’s programming and a false card deck of queens of diamonds, their faces bleeding sweat, glowing-eyed in states of extraordinary awareness, Marco finally emerging as conjure master and Raymond’s buried alternate identity plumbed. The vital aspect lacked by Frankenheimer’s otherwise superlative follow-up, Seven Days in May (1964), was this edge of the fantastic, the super-theatrical, of taking the theme of malfeasance in power and placing it into the nightmare realm where it proves endlessly metamorphic.
The Manchurian Candidate is deeply involved with the new age not just of politics and technology, but also of mass media. Frankenheimer’s background in television both equipped him with technical smarts so that he was able to startle many when he was able to use TV pictures on film and also a deep awareness of the medium’s new role in civic discourse and the creation of shared reality. During a scene in which Iselin makes a ruckus during the Defense Secretary’s press conference, which Marco haplessly tries to orchestrate, Frankenheimer makes a show of the duel of faces as seen through television screens, elucidating the new arena of battle. The mantra programmed into Marco and the rest of the squad attesting that Raymond Shaw is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I ever met in my life,” feels comically reminiscent of both smile-and-be-damned political endorsement and advertising spin, a ready-made catchphrase coined all the better to sell Raymond as the perfect American hero. Again, a joke mediates the deepening of the theme, as Raymond quips after Jocelyn turns on a TV that the world is split into those who turn them on and those who turn them off. The war of iconography glimpsed throughout the film stretches out onto a more classical field of combat as Raymond’s programming is switched on by playing cards, in particular the queen of diamonds, perfect avatar for the brittle and glittering empress Eleanor but also, in a brilliantly visualised twist, leading him back to Jocelyn, who turns up at a fancy dress party dressed as that oh-so-totemic suit. Frankenheimer makes a constant motif of Lincoln’s image throughout as the inverse of meaning but mirror of use in terms of political iconography as the Communist heroes blown up to titanic size. Iselin and people at the climactic political convention dress as him, busts of the president festoon Iselin’s house, and Honest Abe’s noble nose and beard seem to jutting everywhere in solemn, silent mockery of the republic’s stagger into the atomic age, constantly ripe for a slide into anarchy or authoritarianism.
Sinatra, although a producer, took the less showy role of Marco, and it served him well, as although Harvey and Lansbury dominate much of the film, he plays river guide on the trip up to Hades. Sinatra’s persona as the knight of cool purveyed as a singer almost always gave way in his mature screen career to far more thoughtful and ambivalent characters, perhaps as a way of mediating the intense discomfort that made him such an infamously dichotomous character. Either way, Marco as a role plays on his bulletproof aura to lend power to the spectacle of him as sweltering crack-up. Marco’s recovery and return to able and persistent hero cuts across the increasingly neurotic and fraying tone of the story. In an early scene, Marco is visited by an army pal, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), who surveys the great piles of unhealthily intellectual reading matter Marco’s been consuming in his insomniac hours, reading which, ironically, has equipped Marco, in the mould of the perfect Kennedy-Camelot-era hero, for a new frontier of struggle, one for control of the mind (one reason why in spite of its abyssal cynicism, I still often think of this as the exemplary Camelot-era film), and Marco listlessly explains his reading habits, giving himself away as a closet intellectual, not the muscular man of action the military needs. Sinatra’s punch-drunk performance sells the scene and invests the first half of the film in particular, with a sense of aching, fraying anxiety, one that begins to ease once he meets kind-hearted hipster Eugenie Rose ‘Rosie’ Chaney (Janet Leigh), who readily falls into an exchange of brittle punning and queasy humour to ease him out of his panic attack.
Once again there’s a mirroring aspect in the appearance of female saviours for the busted heroes–Jocelyn’s rescue of the snake-bitten Raymond in flashback rhymes with Marco’s freak-out on a train attracting the Rosie’s attention, except the two romances lead in gruellingly diverse directions. Parrish does a particularly good job inhabiting the role of knife through mouldy cheese, a force dispelling miasma (better than Leigh manages, frankly, one reason perhaps why many see ulterior motives in her, however unsupported by script or source); in the moments when she’s on screen and Raymond’s repression vanishes, replaced by a fervent if stunted romanticism, everything seems possible. The film’s purposefully dissonant tone is perhaps most strongly illustrated when Raymond is accidentally triggered into his dissociative state by a yammering barkeeper rattling off an anecdote about his brother-in-law, with the punch line, a suggestion to go jump in Central Park Lake, sending Raymond off to do just that, chased by a bewildered Marco, who deduces important details from the ridiculous incident. This scene is both driven by and resembles a barroom joke, whilst also elucidating an aspect of the film and all its fanciful paraphernalia, a tale of generations of men gone off to war and returning only to find themselves plunged back into again by casual jests and everyday moments. The Manchurian Candidate could be regarded as a study in what would eventually be called PTSD, with Raymond’s periodic shift into another persona and Marco and Melvin’s traumas the manifestation of broken psyches urgently trying to tell them something is wrong, something hidden by the official resumption of peace and the even flow of history.
The narrative’s roots in the Korean War, so often called the Forgotten War, gives this aspect particular piquancy: Raymond anointment as official hero carries with it symbolic power, a desire to find a perfect icon in the midst of a very imperfect situation, and for that reason has been willingly and calculatingly supplied. Also, like Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) (the best combat dramas set during the conflict; Edwards had been in both, embodying the new, smart, forthright black soldier in the desegregated army), the landscape of a new America is in play and in contention, with African-American characters, including Melvin and Marco’s major sounding board, a wry black army psychiatrist (Joe Adams), playing distinctive new roles. Even the Fu Manchu-esque quality to the theme of wicked Chinese brainwashers is purveyed with jabs of burlesque drollery, particularly in Yen Lo’s talkative, pleasant demeanour and his shots of weird humour, like quoting an advertising line (that connection again) when noting he has the captured Yankees smoking yak dung just for kicks, and the protests of a Russian delegate to his presentation over the necessity of sacrificing a whole imaginary company for the sake of Raymond’s heroic cover story. Chunjin turns up posing as a would-be lackey begging Raymond for a job, all the better to actually oversee his control, at least until Marco turns up seeking answers and, on first sight of the supposed minion, launches into a balls-and-all karate fight that sees them lay waste to Raymond’s apartment in a sequence that might well have inspired the tussles between Clouseau and Kato in the Pink Panther films.
Like many an eager young American director before him and after, Frankenheimer’s style was powerfully influenced by Orson Welles. The influence is obvious in Frankenheimer’s forced-perspective shots bristling with Hogarthian energy and looming faces, people turning into aspects of the landscape or relics of ages and objects turning faintly animate. Canted camera angles illustrate moments of nauseous disorientation, as when Marco confronts Rosie with a newspaper revealing the murder of Jocelyn and her father, and desperate action, during Marco’s final rush to try to head off the final act in the long and torturous plot. Hitchcock’s influence is also certainly in the mix, in the punch-at-the-camera shot that commences Marco’s fight with Chunjin, in the brutalist jump cuts conveying the sleep-rupturing power of the awful dreams taken from Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much’s (1934/56) imprint on the carefully orchestrated climax in a bustling forum. But there’s also the incipient influence of new wave and TV news techniques informing the creeping super-modernity of the story, handheld camerawork suddenly and vibrantly creeping into the lexicon of mainstream Hollywood during moments of furor in public places like the press conference and the political rally. Indeed, as prejudicial as it sounds, Frankenheimer’s use of handheld technique probably planted the seeds for the eventual evolution of the pseudo-realist habits that would later grip mainstream cinema. Certainly the most famous flourish Frankenheimer conjures, one he’d revisit in variations in later films, comes when Raymond shoots Senator Jordan, his bullet passing through the milk bottle he’s holding, the white liquid spitting out in sickly simulacrum of blood.
Just as Frankenheimer appropriates Hitchcockian gamesmanship and relocates Vertigo’s swooning sense of dissolving reality where, nonetheless, hidden facts scuttle into the light, in a political realm, he also drags the frames of reference of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) into the post-WWII world, one where the thwarted American aristocracy has sought new ways to control a metastasising body politic. That world’s saturnine scion is pulled into the game of representation called democracy by an apparatus far beyond the relatively straightforward and easy comeuppance Charles Foster Kane received: no singers in love nests can derail this train, and consent will be manufactured with Hollywood bravura. Jordan’s determination to resist Eleanor is easily dealt with by the simple expedience of having him killed, and the pompous, central-casting-delivered presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan), is set up in the crosshairs to be a prop in a piece of political theatre that’s been crafted with all the exacting showmanship of any televised extravaganza. Marco’s attempt to return autonomy to Raymond is a dangerous act of faith that the machine can be smashed and that Raymond’s will is strong enough to withstand the truth.
The riveting finale, endlessly ripped off, is still charged with an ambiguity and a surprise pay-off that most imitations never think to offer, as Marco tries to track down Raymond amidst the clamour and excitement of a national convention where the frenetic excitement of American politics at a zenith rages on but the crosshairs of Raymond’s sniper scope zeroes in on the nominee, blending newsreel and staged footage. Raymond’s final gesture, gunning down not his assigned target but his mother and stepfather, is both a cracking good comeuppance and last-second twist, and also designated importantly not merely as personal revenge but Raymond’s ultimate act of self-liberation, a feat of self-sacrifice and faith in the thing he was supposed to destroy. The superfluous, but affecting epilogue underlines the symbolism of Raymond’s last act of pinning on his Medal of Honor before shooting himself: he had earned it at last. Surely Raymond’s act of faith will be lost, unprovable, in the swirl of conventional understanding, with only Marco left to bear witness. Raymond’s tragedy is everyone’s, every citizen brought up in our world where words of no worth feed us, and all of us do without knowing why. His triumph is that he needs no applause for standing up for himself and everyone else.
“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.” –Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.
Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.
Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.
The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.
To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:
“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.
“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”
This is what it means to be a witness to history.
The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.
From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.
Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.
Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.
A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”
I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.
Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”
Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.
Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.
In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.
Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.
That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.
Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.
The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.
That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.
We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.
River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.
Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.
Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.
Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.
One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.
Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.
Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.
Directors: Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A lot of notable events occurred in 2016, not many of them pleasant. Fortunately, one of them delighted me all year long. Kartemquin Films, the Chicago film collective that makes thought-provoking documentaries that “seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society,” celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Kartemquin offered a free film every week from its online archive and then finished the year with a month of all-access free streaming. The most popular film streamed during the year was Life Itself (2014), star Kartemquin filmmaker Steve James’ compassionate portrait of Roger Ebert during the last months of the critic’s life. I joined others in making Inquiring Nuns (1967) the Number 3 viewing choice. As two nuns asked random Chicagoans in various parts of the city the question “Are you happy?” I was struck by how many people mentioned the Vietnam War as a source—sometimes the only source—of unhappiness in their lives.
I was moved by the concern ordinary people out of the line of fire felt for the horrors facing Americans and Vietnamese at the center of the conflict, an empathy that seems much harder to come by these days. And that is the beauty and value of Kartemquin films: they take circumstances that are largely abstractions to many people and help us empathize by bearing witness to other people’s lives. Vietnam, Long Time Coming is a brilliant example of their particular kind of filmcraft.
The documentary deals with an historic event—the first postwar American-Vietnamese athletics event. A group of 45 able-bodied and disabled Americans, plus support crew, staff, and board members of World T.E.A.M. Sports, joined a group of 20 Vietnamese to complete a 1,200-mile bike trek from the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Veterans from both sides of what narrator Joe Mantegna sensitively refers to as the “Vietnam-American War” took part in the ride and form the core of the documentary. Framing the war this way helps American viewers with received notions about it enter a more nuanced space, one that the war veterans enter on their literal journey through their own past.
The film opens as the plane carrying the Americans begins its descent into Nội Bài International Airport. The veterans are visibly nervous, and older viewers may flash back to the helicopters, battles, and broken bodies they could view most every night on television. This was a shared national trauma as vivid as 9/11, and the directors know how to evoke memories that will help viewers face their own fears as well.
As the team members are introduced to each other and the paralyzed Vietnamese riders get used to their hand-pedaled bicycles, the struggles of the veterans start to reveal themselves. A 2-year-old Vietnamese girl runs over to Duane Wagner, a Marine sergeant from 1965 to 1968. He gives her a hug and then tells us he killed a girl just like her who emerged from her home carrying a couple of grenades. Tears form in his eyes as he rues “the fucked-up things I did.”
There are more tears when, as part of the team’s mission of medical and educational outreach, the group goes to Bạch Mai Hospital, which was bombed during the war. Bob Connors, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S Air Force, muses that he could very well have dropped a bomb on Bạch Mai. “I want to go up to everyone here and apologize,” he says as his brave demeanor crumbles. Still, the mood lightens considerably when the announcement of a $200,000 check from World T.E.A.M. Sports to the hospital for a new, state-of-the-art orthotics unit has the interpreter do a double-take to see if she heard the amount right.
After a few too many shots of professional cyclist and Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the directors drop their celebrity ogling and just get on with it. They turn the somewhat hackneyed device of a road picture into a meaningful metaphor for the rhythms of grieving and the slow return to life for the emotionally maimed, and improve upon many war documentaries and feature films by providing a 360-degree, balanced view from both sides of the complicated and emotionally charged conflict while maintaining a lively pace and narrative. The directors film a solemn rite at the Vietnamese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with burning incense sticks seeming to represent the lives the war torched. They follow it later with a buoyant orgy of shopping in Huế’s colorful markets.
Liberal helpings of the bike ride, including crashes and flat tires, scored to bright music by Ben Sidran continue the forward progress as the participants and viewers return to some famous touchpoints—the demilitarized zone, China Beach, Da Nang, My Lai—that make us and the veterans pause and reflect. The directors get marvelous landscape shots and scenes of everyday life that reflect what one vet says late in the film: “Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country. A beautiful country with beautiful people.” Peacetime and the filmmakers’ discerning choices allow us to appreciate what fear, anger, and war coverage could not.
What I found most touching and valuable were the veterans’ memories and how they related to their surroundings. A Vietnamese rider in his 30s recalls being evacuated from his home in Hanoi and watching from a distance as the city was bombed repeatedly. Another spoke about the My Lai massacre that claimed 504 people, including 153 children, recalling that “Our hatred for the enemy boiled over” and transformed into campaigns of revenge.
To a person, the American vets suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. They talk with the team psychologist and among themselves as their trip south through rice paddies and Agent Orange-scorched fields that were once deadly traps for them unnerved them more and more. A bucolic afternoon at China Beach, where soldiers went for R&R with the war raging only a few kilometers away, gives way to a painful memory for Diane Carlson Evans, an Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., of another nurse who was killed nearby by a piece of shrapnel. The humor of the lifeguard at the beach waving long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad away from the rough surf transitions to a late-night rap session during which Carlson Evans reveals her abiding shame: “We feel we did something very bad.” A rainy day conjures memories of being soaked, trudging through mud, and then drying in the hot sun, only to be soaked again, this time with sweat, and covered with the biting red ants that were everywhere.
Nonetheless, struggle is sometimes its own reward. The climb up the steep Hải Vân Pass marks a turning point for some of the riders, as a policeman who discouraged the attempt comes to understand how much succeeding, particularly for the hand-pedal riders, means to them. Amputees Dan Jensen and Tran Van Son hit it off like gangbusters and give their artificial limbs a workout in an impromptu footrace; in the film’s postscript, Jensen brings Tran to his home in Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a proper artificial leg and run in a rematch.
All of the veterans found that the ride, the contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese in a safe and comradely context helped them calm their demons. This seemingly happy ending, however, poses nagging questions to viewers by simultaneously offering a chilling indictment of the war and America in its aftermath. As the crowds cheer the riders as they enter Ho Chi Minh City, the American veterans contrast it with the brutal cold shoulder they received and continue to receive in the States. Jose Ramos, who developed drug and alcohol problems and made multiple suicide atempts after his return home, says “What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days.” Jerry Stadtmiller, disfigured and half-blinded, thought he would be defending freedom, but found out that “freedom had nothing to do with it.”
Directors Blumenthal, Gilbert, and Quinn made a record of a small, but successful attempt to bring peace to warring minds and hearts, and further understanding and friendship between former enemies. In the United States and in other restless countries, ideology has turned people against each other again in ugly, often violent ways. Vietnam, Long Time Coming has something to teach us in this crucible moment in time, if we choose to listen.
A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, 8½ (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.
Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.
This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.
This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.
Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic opus. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.
Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the troubled love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.
La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.
This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.
Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.
Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.
This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.
Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.
Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.
Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.
Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.
Hell Or High Water
Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.
Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been making the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.
Independence Day: Resurgence
Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, and it finally emerged as a work of real gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.
Star Trek Beyond
Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.
The Neon Demon
Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.
Under The Shadow
Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.
10 Cloverfield Lane
One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.
The Jungle Book
Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.
Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.
J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.
Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.
Don’t Think Twice
Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.
A Bigger Splash
Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.
Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.
As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.
Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.
Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.
Performances of Note:
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul
A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.
Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.
The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)
Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.
A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.
A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.
Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.
Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)
The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.
Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)
Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time: (to be updated)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder) Captain America: Civil War(Anthony & Joe Russo) Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi) In a Valley of Violence (Ti West) Little Sister (Zach Clark) The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos) Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz) Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) Rogue One (Gareth Edwards) Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)
Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee) Deadpool (Tim Miller) Free State of Jones (Gary Ross) The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook) La La Land (Damien Chazelle) Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman) Loving (Jeff Nichols) Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols) The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn) Passengers (Morten Tyldum) Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson) Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor) X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer) Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
20th Century Women ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Fences ∙ Gold ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Live By Night ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Silence ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:
Bird of Paradise (King Vidor) The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento) The Edge of the World (Michael Powell) A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman) Marooned (John Sturges) Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel) Outrage (Ida Lupino) Phantasm (Don Coscarelli) Rapture (John Guillermin) Road Games (Richard Franklin) Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda) They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray) Transylvania (Tony Gatlif) The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman) The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)
Compared to the electric expectation stirred by last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the build-up to the release of Rogue One has felt comparatively muted. Or at least it has to me, because I felt particularly uneasy about what to expect. J.J. Abrams’ reboot for the Star Wars brand was a lovingly-made mediocrity, and seemed to presage a revived Disney-steered series without any boldness or fresh ideas, a bracing new trio of heroes surrounded by efficient but hollow mimicry and Pavlovian responses wrung out through careful employment of beloved fixtures. Rogue One, set between the first two trilogies in George Lucas’s deathless fantasy universe, sports a director and star I felt unsure about and rehashes old territory. Gareth Edwards, a special effects expert turned director, is the helmsman here: Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) were ambitious, impressively mounted attempts to bring anxiety and artistry back to the monster movie genre, but both movies were foiled by Edwards’ unpersuasive dramatic touch. Rogue One had the potential to simply finish up a pile of good-looking spare parts and cheap call-backs for the fan base. Given that I’ve expended a lot of time and effort in the past defining my appreciation for Lucas’ much-derided but substantial and waywardly fascinating, romantically outsized prequel trilogy, I also felt a little threatened by this entry, which seemed poised to be the kind of film those works refused to be. This entry is determined to slavishly recapitulate aspects of Lucas’ 1977 inaugural blockbuster Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, as Rogue One’s narrative quite literally brings us back to the opening seconds of A New Hope. As such it’s an overt work of retro ventriloquism, cloaked in borrowed finery, fan fiction with multimillion dollar heft.
Early signs aren’t greatly encouraging either. Edwards and his duo of very professional, almost overly-competent screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, insist on recreating familiar beats for the series barely a year after Abrams did the same on The Force Awakens: thus at the beginning we have another wounded, vengeful young tyro created as the Empire’s violence costs her family members, and leaves her forced to fend for herself. In this case the aggrieved character is young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), who loses her family as a child, as Imperial commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the remote planet to which her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) have fled to lead quiet lives as farmers. Galen, a former Imperial officer and scientific genius who was working on the construction of the Death Star, had renounced his work, but Krennic is determined to pressgang him back into service and use his family as leverage. But Lyra is gunned down as she tries to shoot Krennic and the Stormtroopers fail to track down Jyn, who, recalling a foreboding plea of her father’s to remember all his actions are intended to protect her, hides out until located by a friend of her father, the dissident warrior Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). Years later, Jyn, having grown into the big-eyed, puffy-lipped form of Felicity Jones, is in an Imperial forced labour camp for incorrigible types. She was raised by Saw but then was suddenly abandoned to drift on the winds of fate, and now she’s an embittered, apolitical survivor and all-round tough cookie. But the Rebel Alliance busts her out of prison and offers her a chance to escape the yoke of law and history.
Thanks to the intelligence gathering of hardened Alliance spymaster Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance knows that Saw has received a message from Galen, delivered by a former Imperial pilot turned defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who is currently being brutally interrogated by Saw to ascertain whether he’s a fake or not. Because the Alliance broke off ties with Saw as he drifted into extremism and obsession, they want Jyn to approach him to find out what’s going on. They team her with Cassian and send them to the city of Jedah on a remote planet where the crystals used to power Jedi lightsabers were once extracted: the place has been strip-mined by the Empire for fuel for the Death Star. A Jedi temple used to be located here, and now its scattered caretakers subsist and stir trouble whilst Saw’s adherents fight a guerrilla war with the Imperial soldiers. Jyn and Cassian gain helpmates in two of the former temple caretakers, Chirrut Ïmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). They’re also aided by a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). After ambushes and skirmishes in the streets of Jedah, this ragged band is captured by Saw’s fighters and brought to him. In Saw’s company, Jyn is privy to a holographic message from her father brought by Bodhi, in which he explains the flaw he’s laboured to install in the Death Star’s seemingly invincible defences. But Krennic, in command of the now complete and utterly deadly space station, annihilates Jedah and surrounding territory with a shot from its mighty energy weapon, forcing our heroes to flee, except for Saw, who, seeing his labours have found a fitting point of handover, remains to be swept away in the blast. With the proof of her father’s plan lost in the chaos, Jyn immediately faces the problem of attesting Galen’s good faith, a problem that becomes urgent as the Alliance orders Cassian to go to the planet of Eadu where Galen works at an Imperial research facility, and kill him.
I find Rogue One a tricky movie to critique because it stirred many, contradictory reactions in me, simultaneously annoying my critical faculties and getting my blood pumping. Although it bends over backwards to recreate familiar sights and sounds from A New Hope, it also uses that template as an excuse to shift ground just a few inches and avoids leaning too much on the regulation touchstones of the series, like John Williams’ inimitable theme, and the familiar structural conceits like the Star Wars title appearing abruptly on screen, only incorporating such touches when dramatically necessary. Rogue One instead suddenly and jaggedly announces its title, and Michael Giacchino’s score disassembles and refashions elements of Williams’ compositions whilst maintaining their spirit. Aspects of Rogue One that fail to live up to the Star Wars legacy also help to make it a slightly more galvanising and vital take on the saga than The Force Awakens. It’s a straightforward war film on most levels, fast-paced, refreshingly hard-edged and ready to go to places on a thematic level the series hasn’t touched on much before, as it emphasises the cumulatively taxing and degrading nature not just of life under tyranny but also of the fight against it. This choice allows Edwards to seek new substance in Lucas’s foundational inspirations, the side of Star Wars that was rooted in action-adventure films set during World War 2, particularly adaptations of Alistair Maclean like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and some older models like The Adventures of Tartu (1942), Secret Mission (1943), and The Dam Busters (1956). Aspects of the plot are so hallowed in the history of spy adventures that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ great 1984 genre lampoon Top Secret! had basically the same storyline. The zesty, fairytale aspect of Lucas’ original creation has been largely suppressed here; so to has its greater conceptual scope and mythopoeic edge.
The stolidness of Gilroy and Weitz’s script isn’t entirely papered over by Edwards’ pacing and graphics, either. Gilroy’s a master of modern Hollywood’s programmatic story beats and a crinkle-browed idea of pop seriousness – witness his overrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), which gave a coat of varnish to a mass of old furniture – whilst Weitz, though better known for comedies, directed the poky but weirdly likeable steampunk fantasy The Golden Compass (2007). That film’s bombing still seems to rankle Weitz, as he’s tellingly named his spunky heroine’s mother after its spunky heroine. Their script is much safer in affect than the archly stylised ye-olde-speak of Lucas’s prequels, so many will probably think it’s good, but it’s actually littered with thudding lines, and major characters remain fuzzily defined and lacking memorable traits. It serves, in a strange way, to highlight just how classically constructed and patient the original was, with its slam-bang opening quickly segueing into a long, almost shambling first act that put together its story and gave a feel for the predicament of its characters in the face of a galactic-sized struggle: archetypes though they be, one knew exactly who Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other characters of A New Hope were by the time they left Tatooine and rooted for them, warts and all. Here by contrast Rogue One’s first third is a stuttering engine that takes a long time to get up to speed even as it tries to drive us along breathlessly.
We set up not one but two father figures for Jyn, good actors Whittaker and Mikkelsen turning up for a few scant minutes where they provide grizzled gravitas, only then to kill them off for teary pathos. Whereas in A New Hope such losses were rites of passage that mimicked familiar life processes in melodramatic terms, here such deaths serve rather another, blunter purpose, as Jyn’s fate inevitably takes a different turn to Anakin and Luke’s. Similarly, there’s a lack of creativity in the storyline that betrays the filmmakers’ lack of any real immersion in the process of inventing science fiction and fantasy concepts for themselves. Instead, they build up to a big, brash edition one of the essential, tiresome clichés of recent blockbuster filmmaking: the big fight around a great tall structure to try and stop or send some kind of all-important signal. Another telling lack, one carried over from The Force Awakens, is a lack of interest in or delight for the alien, the sense of mischievous invention in creating life forms and worlds. Most of what we get here is just slightly transformed familiarities and a couple of hairy moppets and tentacular things given the odd cutaway shot. Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Disney paymasters are still too antsy about the bombardment Jar-Jar Binks received to venture up this trail, and that’s fair enough, but we’re also being cheated of sequences as great and witty as the tavern sequence of A New Hope or characters as vivid as Yoda, Jabba, and Watto. On-screen casting diversity has become a mantra, and that’s something this entry does well, but diversity of personality and species is drying up quicker than the Salton Sea.
And yet, and yet. To a certain extent the problems of Rogue One cheer me more than The Force Awakens’ relentlessly considered, empty, focus-group-parsed idea of swashbuckling fun. It’s a work fashioned with both finicky attention and messy energy, one that finally gains and maintains real force in spite of all its hoary and lumbering elements. If the Star Wars saga has hitherto represented some surviving stem of the Homeric instinct in western art’s pop culture age, Rogue One is an authentically Euripedean discursion from it – touching base with all the familiar aspects of the mythology but also offering a considered takedown of some of its cherished motifs and a weighing up of what you could call the story behind the myth. Thus what becomes the great stage of heroism for Luke, Han, and Leia is seen to be built on the unstinting determination and sacrifice of others, and whose dedication somewhat ironically contrasts the faltering, Johnny-come-lately attitude of our more familiar champions. Our protagonists here are all battered outcasts looking for a way to hurt the forces of terror and iniquity as they in turn have been hurt, with Edwards emphasising the atmosphere of the Imperial control as one of general rundown, depression, deprivation and exploitation – notes repeatedly sounded in early scenes as Edwards darts between settings, particularly the grimy, packed, vertiginous environs of a city where Cassian meets with a jittery spy (Daniel Mays). Krennic’s motives are interesting if only sketched, sourced in his faith that the Death Star will finally bring about peace, echoing Anakin Skywalker’s reasons for turning Sith. Rogue One effectively links the original trilogies in both depicting the fallout of one set of events, the breakdown of a society, and setting the stage for a new pivot. Jimmy Smits makes a welcome if unfortunately brief reappearance as Bail Organa, Leia’s adoptive father, alongside Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, both in parts they inherited in the prequels as leaders of the Rebels, giving the film a sense of continuity that feels genuinely necessary and cheering.
Much less necessary, even rather ghastly in fact, is the digital simulacrum of Peter Cushing used to represent his role in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin, and, towards the end, of young Carrie Fisher’s Leia. These crappy animations, nominally employed to maintain a sense of immediate continuity, look like something out of a second-rate video game. It’s not even necessary, as O’Reilly’s ease demonstrates. Edwards’ exactitude also stretches less offensively to inserting shots of the some of the actors who play ill-fated X-Wing pilots in the original still in their heyday as hotshots in the Rebel fleet, a much better and salutary touch. Even Darth Vader returns for a couple of scenes to great effect, all his unholy stature, sardonic charisma, and psychopathic force undimmed, initially glimpsed in his private castle set amidst the landscape suggestively reminiscent of the place where he came undone at Obi-Wan’s hands at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). Tarkin attempts to lever command of the Death Star out of Krennic’s hands with the justification that Krennic has failed to keep tight security. Krennic visits Vader asking him for assurance his achievement will be credited to him and left in his hands, but the Dark Lord is barely interested in Krennic’s egotisms. Krennic also confronts Galen on Eadu, as he perceives Galen’s betrayal. This confrontation coincides with the urgent moment when Jyn tries to reach her father, whilst Cassian wrestles with the choice of obeying orders or helping Jyn to rescue Galen. A flight of X-Wings sent in by the Alliance to make sure of the question unfortunately decides for them, pulverising the facility.
The gloss and tactile quality of production that distinguished The Force Awakens has been carried over to this film and perhaps even bettered: Rogue One’s production values are always magnificent, and its special effects never less than persuasive. Better still, Edwards shows that he understands the sense of atmosphere, at once concrete and dreamlike, that is the great saga calling card. This is particularly true during the Eadu attack, filmed in a primal landscape of jutting stony mountains, drenching rain, and glowing technological outposts, the visit to Vader’s castle, places of and bleakly beautiful gothic scale and artisanal intricacy, and the sight of the Death Star in the sky like dawning doom. Edwards’ gifts at handling his cinematic canvasses in relation to human-level drama have strengthened, too. On the other hand, so much of the film is dismally underlit and shadowy, just like a few too many recent extravaganzas, affecting moodiness but actually simply trying to cover up any flaws in the effects. It’s telling that the first scene to shock Rogue One to life is one built around a display of physical rather than special effect showmanship, as Yen’s Ïmwe flattens a brace of Stormtroopers armed only with a quarterstaff. Yen’s dashing, lightning-fast moves and good-humoured incarnation of a character obviously inspired by the great Japanese movie hero Zatoichi, and Wiang’s equally fun incarnation of a common type of tough, big-barrel-wielding yeoman common in Chinese action films, gives Rogue One a jolt of authenticity both in the legerdemain on display and the connection to Asian genre film that’s also one of the more notable skeletons in the Star Wars closet. Ïmwe invokes the force throughout and uses it although not with a real Jedi’s competence, but otherwise Rogue One stays true to theme of mystic and spiritual depletion both internal and external that defines the Empire’s reign.
The film’s core dramatic moment comes when Jyn confronts Cassian over his willingness to assassinate her father, and his terse rejection of her harangue, as he’s suffered as much as she has and committed far worse crimes in the name of the Rebellion whilst she’s settled for subsisting on the sidelines. It’s really only here that Jyn and Cassian feel particularly lively as characters, defined by their grazing, mutual sense of righteous anger and defining loss which is of course also complicated by flickers of attraction. Jyn is interchangeable with The Force Awakens’ Rey in too many ways (with dashes of Katniss Everdeen too), to the point where she likewise sets a male counterpart’s eyebrows on high by taking down a few opponents with a stick (c’mon guys, it’s 2016). I don’t much like Jones as an actor and she trades on the same perpetual look of bee-stung hurt that got her through The Theory of Everything (2014) here: Jyn could have been a galvanising heroine but between the non-committal writing and Jones’ lack of effective pith or convincing aggression she remains essentially a placeholder protagonist in spite of the wrenching defining trauma she’s burdened with. Cassian isn’t much more noteworthy, not given any signature moment or quality, although Luna inhabits him with an effective blend of wiry intensity and quiet unease. In this regard Rogue One is something of an inverse of The Force Awakens, which had fun heroes but too often left them without really cool and interesting things to do. It’s more the characters that surround the central duo that keep things lively here: Ïmwe and Malbus, the abused and apprehensive yet determined Bodhi, and the droll comic relief of K-2SO, whose shtick isn’t terribly original – the obliviously inappropriate sidekick business was already covered in a different key by Guardians of the Galaxy’s (2014) Drax – but it’s still pretty good, thanks to one-time Serenity costar Alan Tudyk’s vocal delivery.
The earthy aspect to the action and the insistent edge of reckoning with the cost of great and calamitous warfare also gives the film ballast painfully lacking from The Force Awakens even as it retards the high spirits and breadth of vision Star Wars calls to mind. The film has an idea, that violence even in the service of a good cause isn’t great for the soul and that some causes are nonetheless more important than individual expectations, which means that it has something its predecessor didn’t have. That idea is also rooted in contradictory impulses and views of the same urge, which makes it similar to the conceptual schism that defines Lucas’s prequels: what if the thing you most want to do, nay, must do, is also the thing that destroys you? Rogue One emphasises the Rebel Alliance not as unstinting paladins but as a coalition of not-quite-aligned interests in a state of flux trying to elide outright confrontational warfare for good reason, engaged in a down-and-dirty conflict played out through more personal acts of violence over pieces of information. The reality of the Death Star suddenly and dramatically changes the landscape, forcing decisions and forging new alliances. In turn, Jyn and her new companions, including more Rebels eager for a chance to make a real difference, go, err, rogue and force their leaders’ hands by making a bold incursion at the Imperial archive centre to steal the Death Star’s plans on the planet Scarif.
Another lack apparent here, shared with The Force Awakens, is a failure to understand what made the action sequences in the original series work. As well as opportunities to incorporate the way-cool, they were structured as little stories in themselves – an aspect they had in common with Lucas’ other great pulp series, the Indiana Jones films, as chains of cause and effect pushed along by the characters’ objectives. Before one memorable aspect of the finale, there’s no ingenuity to the staging of action. There are not one but two scenes here that hinge on Jyn’s ability to climb really high ladders. Excitement! Ïmwe’s first display of prowess is both invigorating but also, frustratingly, connects to nothing else – he doesn’t even fight much in such a manner again. Perhaps that’s why the climb-the-tall-thing finale is so beloved of hack screenwriters at the moment: it entwines stake and endangerment in an obvious manner. But – and this is a major but – once Rogue One finally cuts footloose it offers a grand finale that, for all the hesitations, is still tremendous. Here the film finally gains the lucid sense of grand happenings entwined with acts of personal valiantness that make for a good epic. Edwards doesn’t have Lucas’ sense of widescreen sweep and spectacle, his scene grammar and punctuation more standard and jittery in the modern fashion, but he’s a much better director of action and visual artisan than Abrams. The rogue team’s assault on the Imperial archives draws a portion of the Rebel fleet in their wake for aid, led by Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey and Stephen Stanton), a spacefaring fighter of the same species as Admiral Ackbar, wielding bravado as he tries to smash through the shield system around the planet to let Jyn transmit the Death Star plans.
This sequence is replete with contrivances and clichés, from absurdly placed controls for important pieces of infrastructure to weirdly unsophisticated defence systems for same. But, hell, so are most war films, and at least Edwards and company go for broke and admirably keep to the film’s brief of putting the war in Star Wars, a harum-scarum episode of wildly winging space ships and battling soldiers. Characters die one by one in suitably noble fashions, especially K-2SO, whose act of self-sacrifice is more moving than any of the humans’ deaths, and one which indeed highlights the peculiar approach of the saga to its droid characters, so deeply human as they tend to be in spite of their mechanical and digital natures – indeed, almost hyper-human in their sensitivities and loyalties. A late shot in the film of two people kissing before an apocalyptic plume about to sweep them away steals a vital image from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014). There’s great fun in the actual method Raddus and his warriors use to knock out the shield. Best of all, right at the very end, Vader’s return to action, glimpsed a figure of nightmarish evil chasing after the vital copy of pilfered plans and cutting his way through Rebel fighters to get them, the red glow of his lightsaber and his remorseless, unstoppable swathe of violence restoring the unique aura of frightening potency and mystery he wielded when first he advanced into view way back in 1977. Rogue One is definitely a mixed bag and a frustrating experience. But I can at least offer it this much praise: in these scenes, Edwards gets Star Wars thrillingly, uncannily right, and the film’s smash-cut punch-line is perfect.