14th 09 - 2017 | no comment »

The Ladies Man (1961)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jerry Lewis

By Roderick Heath

Jerry Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin had terminated in 1956 as Lewis increasingly dominated their movie collaborations. For every filmgoer who found Lewis a testing presence, there seemed to be another who adored him, and his slapstick talents were so spectacular, so percussive in their cinematic impact that Martin, for all his suave, romantic stature, was increasingly out of place beside Lewis’ one-man-band vibrancy. Herein lay an irony, a strange victory for a man seemingly cast by life as ridiculous second-fiddle, as the Jewish impersonator of male America’s neurotic, semi-infantile Atom-age id outpaced the slick Italianate mouthpiece of its ego. Lewis gave the classic figure of the farceur an added, potent dose of modernist mania, but was nonetheless obviously in the screen tradition of film comedy heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, so it might have seemed logical that soon enough Lewis would follow them and begin making his own movies. Lewis the director made his first foray with The Bellboy (1960), a modestly crafted debut shot in black and white, that allowed him nonetheless to articulate his abilities both behind and before the camera through a basic premise, casting himself as a bellboy romping through the halls of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the manifold rooms and jobs presenting him with a gallery of types to monkey with, from sexpots to celebrities. For his second project, Lewis exploited a higher budget and his own swiftly developing skills to attempt a similar concept in a radically different fashion. A script initially penned by Mel Brooks was mostly thrown out and rewritten by Lewis himself. Rather than utilise a real location, Lewis built a vast set to exploit, and The Ladies Man arrived as a monumental act of vaudevillian chutzpah mating with authentic cinematic vision in weird and intricate ways.

Lewis’ comedy style of course was never for everyone. Rather than the unflappable everymen Chaplin and Keaton played or the bewildered outsider trying to be sociable Tati affected, Lewis’ characters were usually closer in mould to the persona of Harpo Marx, if representing a slightly later stage of development, having achieved verbal facility. The opening scenes of The Ladies Man work as both a challenge and a sensitising process to the meaning of Lewis’ sense of comedy, as he portrays his hero Herbert Heebert, a young man just graduating from college, who is broken-hearted by the spectacle of seeing his girlfriend in the arms of another man, and so vows to his parents that from now on he’s going to entirely give up on women and love. The expenditure of jokes and precepts here comes on with such speed and dexterity it’s hard to process. The short, gangly, excitable nerd finds himself outpaced by a towering, anonymous jock – Lewis cuts off the man’s head in his framing, reducing him to a body that says all – in a basic riff on Lewis’ familiar persona as a man all too aware he hasn’t been cast by nature or society as the star. Lewis mediates this through the acting and film styles he quotes, as Herbert’s distraught reaction mocks the hammy affectations of Yiddish melodrama and silent film, whilst also converting them into a strange kind of android body language. This collides with a third level of referencing as Herbert runs to his mother, who is played by Lewis himself in drag: the stock figure of the Yiddisher mamma is given a Freudian makeover and a dose of drag chic as Herbert’s instantly born neurosis sees him turning inwards in a hall of psychological mirrors.

The very first shot of the film depicts the sign outside Herbert’s home burg of Milltown, with a hand reaching into frame to shakily revise the population count, and a statement underneath that describes the town as “a very nervous little community.” Lewis segues into a tracking shot moving through the quiet streets of Milltown, following a little old lady as she makes a morning promenade, only to stumble and set off a chain of accidents amongst her townsfolk, all laid out in their tight little boxes, the shops and stalls and vehicles on the main street. Lewis here offers both a kind of explanatory history not only for Herbert but his persona in general, the product of a cordoned little society defined by nerve-induced clumsiness – there really are more like him at home – whilst also hinting this is now an existential state of being. The slightest nervous tic and misplaced motion can disturb a delicately poised equilibrium and set this entire little universe in chaos. Although The Ladies Man eschews overt social satire, it’s not so hard to see why many commentators since have seen him as a true poet laureates of the Cold War’s first phase. The Ladies Man somehow manages to point the way forward to the way Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) would take up the idea of marrying the banana peel gag to unstoppable exigencies of nuclear war to illustrate the psychic landscape of the age. Lewis deals with the symptoms as well as the cause, and mixes in other aspects of cool mockery played as harum-scarum farce too, especially the constantly arousing and frustrating tease of mass media evolving in the era of television.

Lewis also finds a way here of giving his perversity as a performer, the total stylisation of his comedy method, a quality of depth gained precisely by rejecting depth, like a Japanese painter – an aspect of Lewis’ art echoed by the way he utilises the massive set that will soon be the playground for Herbert’s gradual recovery, which opens before Lewis’s camera in a manner reminiscent at various points of the theatrical stage and ukiyo-e-like illustrative sprawl. Herbert is presented for the early part of the film as a series of totally contrived and excessive gestures, screaming and running off from women, curling up in a foetal ball when someone advises him there’s “always hope,” and generally reacting like a man-sized mass of hysterical tension. The basic concept of The Ladies Man offers up a ripe male fantasy – a hapless nebbish finds himself in the centre of a veritable harem of lovelies – that’s the basic stuff of sex farce, whilst also making sarcastic sport of it. Lewis takes on another stock character, that of the spiky, lovelorn woman who’s sworn off men, and inverts the gender expectations. Herbert’s anxiety and mistrust of women leads him to constantly attempt to leave what’s supposed to be the average Joe’s idea of dream gig.

After answering a number of job advertisements that see prospective female employers seeing him instantly as a potential love object, Herbert is attracted by a sign in a window of a boarding house calling for a “young bachelor” to apply within. Venturing inside, he’s put at ease to see this time the woman interviewing him, Katie (Kathleen Freeman) is middle-aged and matronly, and when he makes Katie teary with his tale of woe, she presents him as an ideal candidate to be the new houseboy to the owner of the house, retired operatic star Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel). Both Helen and Katie suppress the truth about their establishment out of a peculiar brand of therapeutic intent, for the boarding house is filled to the brim with comely young ladies. Herbert’s arrival in the boarding house sees him installed in a bedroom where appearances are deceiving. A bunk bed proves to be a magnet for the boyish savant, but the top tier proves to be false, and then the lower one also gives out on him, resulting in Herbert slowly sinking into the bed frame in a manner at once utterly hilarious and curiously heartbreaking. By morning he’s glimpsed simply as a blunt posterior jutting out of the frame. Around his obliviously sleeping self, the boarding house comes to life to the tune of a swinging jazz trombone, played by one of the resident girls, who provides musical accompaniment to the morning rituals of her housemates.

Although Lewis’ famous vanity as a performer-director is often evinced throughout The Ladies Man, this sequence is the core set-piece of the film and doesn’t involve him at all except in negative inference, as Herbert sleeps in blissful ignorance that his greatest nightmare is looming all about him. The awakening household is choreographed in sinuous and slippery fashion, the women riding from bed and doing their morning routines of exercise and make-up before slipping out into the halls in jive-hipped ranks, a sultry radio voice rapping out cool missives to get the day started. This sequence is reminiscent of the musical accumulation of street sounds at the outset of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), whilst also playing out in manner that can only be likened to a hip be-bop artist’s deconstruction of a big band tune in relation to the flashy, filled-out musical sequences of rival directors of the time like Vincente Minnelli. Indeed, the comedy of The Ladies Man always feels like bebop, skipping when you expect it to stride and ambling when you expect it to gallop, hitting a sour note and then pivoting into a passage of delirium on a dime.

Lewis extends the musical motif as Helen leads the girls in choral greeting of Herbert when he first claps eyes on the dining room crammed with breakfasting tenants. Helen’s background as a singer helps explain the boarding house’s rich trove, as it’s plainly a natural way-station for girls chasing performing careers. Herbert is put through a training process that sees his natural bafflement by the physical world given free and calamitous reign as he shatters priceless décor and accidentally unleashes a prize collection of butterflies – a priceless joke of pure surrealism (one of Brooks’ few touches left in the film, apparently) as the pinioned and seemingly very dead insects spring out of their frame when Herbert opens the glass over them, only to then return and snap back into place at a whistle. But the ladies are still eager to have Herbert around because they’re desperate to keep someone in the houseboy job, and at Helen’s encouragement in the belief Herbert only wants to be wanted and will be cured of his misogyny this way, the tenants weigh him down with requests to perform odd tasks and chores, which Herbert works up all his pluck and nerve to fulfil. Such tasks include play-acting opposite one perpetually rehearsing actress who pivots from seductive to friendly to face-slapping abusiveness within seconds, and trying to feed the house’s unseen but apparently monstrous pet Baby. Herbert’s attempts to feed Baby, which releases the roars of a lion from its private room, see him try and feed it first with a tub full of milk that gets spat back in his face in a torrent of white, and then with a huge leg of beef that gets swiftly gnawed to the bone. Baby not so subtly represents Herbert’s terror of, well, the pussy, a ravening monster hidden behind a door that he can only satisfy with spectacular and abasing effort.

Throughout his life, over and above his sometimes prickly nature and gauche public statements, Lewis was dogged by accusations of egocentrism and self-indulgence, qualities that seemed to stand in stark contrast to his officially boyish, even self-demeaning comedy act. And yet it’s hard to deny The Ladies Man gives its auteur scope to show off in highly impressive fashion, particularly when you consider some of the people who call themselves comic actors today. To watch The Ladies Man is chiefly to watch Lewis working hard throughout, trying to show off every facet of himself and his talent, whether it be hanging upside-down from a door-frame or balancing on a mantelpiece whilst trying to clean or managing to totally destroy a collection of precious glassware, and to watch this is to see a great comic actor at the top of his game. The motif of work is a telling obsession of Lewis, his interest in what his characters work at and his love of building his comedy around it. This topic became the central motif one his later films, Hardly Working (1981), where life takes him through a series of brief spells of employment constantly stymied by clumsiness and happenstance – a film that was also a sour charting of his own waning career and obligation to find new ways to make things happen, looking forward to a last decade of his directing career mostly expended on random TV episodes. His interest in the job of work as locus of comedy was also once again clearly following Chaplin and Keaton, whose heroes were also similarly defined by their travails in trying to hold down employment and stumbling from life phase to life phase in such a manner. Ironically for an artist who so often enjoyed burning natural orders to the ground, Lewis celebrates the work ethic in many dimensions, whilst also exploiting it for the ore of his comedy, noting like Chaplin and Keaton how such shifting scenes provoke new and ingenious problems and solutions from a nimble protagonist.

Lewis’ approach combines elements of both comics, but also defines itself against them. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Herbert is a stranger in a strange land. Lewis’ approach couldn’t be more different to Keaton’s even as both were sublime physical performers who knew how to direct themselves. Keaton’s stoicism in the face of a universe constantly attempting to destroy him cast him as the perfect American, whilst Lewis is his perverse and impish twin, constantly close to tearing apart a settled order by dint of his discomfort within it. Lewis’s sarcastic disavowal of both men’s variations on the sad clown persona is also constantly evinced throughout, as is his contempt for a certain brand of gooey, platitudinous sentiment, one that contextualises his approach to comedy, for he constantly pushes his sarcasm into the realm of physically enacted hyperbole. Lewis pushes his cheek and joker’s license to the point of ending the film with a title card reading, “We wish to thank the United States Armed Forces…(But only if they came to see the picture.)” And yet Lewis zeroes in on the quality that defines his understanding his characterisation when Herbert converses with one character on the subject of loneliness, a state that can subsist even in the midst of many others, to be “alone with noise.” The interludes of outright earnestness that usually punctuate his works, like an underlining of the moral of the story delivered towards the end of The Ladies Man, seem jarring in their contrast to this cynical streak, but really work in adjunct to the hyperbolic quality, a winnowing down of the point to a basic epigram even as the true energies of life explode every which way. Lewis’ work with Frank Tashlin had also left a powerful imprint on his method. Like Tashlin, Lewis’ engagement with the artifice of cinema in the context of comedy, where any disrespect of otherwise rigid rules of popular narrative cinema was permissible, found ebullient release in its sense of freedom and delight in ignoring traditional narrative flow. The lack of a developed story structure in The Ladies Man is an aspect that might strike some as a flaw and others as one of its most mischievous and subversive qualities. Although it stumbles through a kind of story to a form of conclusion, The Ladies Man is more a series of blackout comedy sketches strung together by a central conceit.

In the same mode as its grand central set, the dramatic architecture is more psychological and emblematic than traditionally narrative, and aspects of the boarding house’s random access portals that make a new form of sense in the age of computing and the internet. Many saw Lewis’ most famous work as director, The Nutty Professor (1963), as a travesty of Lewis’ relationship with Martin. Whilst that was probably an aspect of Lewis’ intentions, it misses the degree to which the two performers’ act had always been a purposefully dichotomous creation, two halves of a functioning human being split into two bodies, an idea The Nutty Professor simply made more literal. The Ladies Man uses the same essential idea whilst commenting less on the shape of the male ego than the bewildering threat of woman to it, fragmenting many possible images of femininity, all given designations like Vitality, Hypochondriac, Intellect, and Sexy Pot. Herbert is repeatedly warned not to venture into the innermost sanctum of the kind, the room of Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis), and just like the bride of Bluebeard Herbert is afflicted with the kind of curiosity that must eventually take him across the fateful threshold.

Pierrot finds his perfect Pierrette in the form of Fay (Pat Stanley), a wannabe actress who’s a comparatively shy and unschooled figure amongst all these other flashy and accomplished ladies, one who unveils an empathic look when Helen explains Herbert’s hang-up, and connects with him as another lonely and outmatched outsider in the big city who daily has to face the rejection Herbert conscientiously avoids. Not only does Fay bring out Herbert’s calmer side but also offers him a human project, and the otherwise frantically clumsy man suddenly finds his mojo helping Fay master various arts like playing the trombone and jive dancing. Fay eventually gives her fellow tenants a chewing out over their rather too ready willingness to exploit Helen’s advice and make Herbert a flunky. Meanwhile the household around Herbert offers not merely a bounty he’s incapable of taking advantage of but a psychological landscape of compartmentalised hang-ups mediated through pop cultural images, as Lewis’ deconstruction of his own hysterical sexism as matched to an exploration of his own ways of looking. Lewis’ greatest coup in depicting this aspect of himself comes when Herbert is confronted the by the massed ladies in the boarding house dining room. Where Martin would’ve grinned like all his Christmases had come at once, Herbert runs screaming from the room, and Lewis cuts to a long shot that sees Herbert seeming to split apart into multiple, madcap incarnations running up and down the stairs and corridors of the house, his character split into pieces, his being literally disintegrating in the face of all that taunts him and tantalises.

The elaborate set that Lewis spent a great deal of time, effort, and money on fashioning – at a reputed $1 million cost – is as much a player in the film as any of the actors, a multi-tiered, multi-dimensional stage for Lewis and his cast romp around in. Lewis constantly reminds the viewer this is a creation of theatrical artifice, even contriving, as a television crew invades it, to let the viewer see the elaborate, messy, cacophonous business that goes into creating the façade of well-oiled entertainment. In his next film, The Errand Boy, peeking behind the scenes of Hollywood infrastructure became the overt theme. Here, much as the windows in Rear Window (1954) project the hero’s hopes and anxieties for a looming life of marriage and commitment, the boarding house becomes an open gallery, bedrooms without walls and mirrors without glass. All of Lewis’s actress crushes are actualised, and a panoply of Hollywood stars processed into a certain set of codified behaviours, in various impersonations, as performers offer jokey impressions of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Carol Channing. Traubel’s Helen maintains an obvious sense of connection with type of dowager dames Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers, only Lewis offers her the foil not of Groucho’s patented demimonde shysters but a gawky man-boy thrilled by rather than disaffected towards the apparatus of pop culture. Other women in the house offer various types and traits, from rowdy rock-‘n’-rollers to glamour pusses to bespectacled intellectuals. Lewis’s worst nightmare of being infantalised before such a bevy is swiftly fulfilled as, after protesting he never eats breakfast, is stuck in a high chair and spoon-fed by Katie.

Lewis extends the game of emasculation as Herbert in the course of his job encounters the boyfriends of some of the women in the house, including a scarred and fearsome heavy, Willard C. Gainsborough (Buddy Lester), and a man famous for playing the same types, George Raft. Herbert is intimidated by Gainsborough, who bosses him about and warns him off paying any attentions to his girl. But when Herbert sits on his hat and he awkwardly attempts to restore it to shape, he steadily ruins Gainsborough’s sharp façade and his hyper-macho persona dissolves into delirious pathos, tough guy utterly defeated by a few swift and efficient revisions to his appearance. This casually brilliant piece of physical business also serves as a master class in comedy costuming, as Lewis shows the audience here a key part of his art even in the course of making hilarious comic capital from it. Raft meanwhile finds himself frustrated when he can’t convince Herbert he’s really himself, failing the crucial test of reproducing his own coin-spinning trick from Scarface (1932). Instead obliged to prove his identity by demonstrating his dancing skills, takes several turns around the parlour with Herbert in his arms, their turns lit with a spotlight. Lewis’ nods to movie history and the complications of a movie star’s projected persona here pivot on Raft’s willing conspiracy to mock his own aura of bulletproof machismo and readiness to show off his gift for dance, a gift he shared with James Cagney and was perhaps long frustrated not to utilise more on screen, now pressed into service in Lewis’ games with gender, offered not with overt mockery but instead as interlude of witty, oddly romantic grace.

As if to let the viewer know that he’s well aware of his own absurd streak even if he can’t quite conquer it, Lewis makes his tendency towards attention-hogging becomes a major component of the film’s last third, worked out with peerless comedic invention. The boarding house is invaded by a TV crew for an episode of a show called Up Your Street – a spoof of Ed Murrow’s roving interview show Person to Person, complete with a gaunt and intensely serious host constantly hidden behind a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. Herbert turns into an instant camera hog who desperately tries to stay in the camera frame whilst Helen is interviewed, at first hovering by her side and then scampering into the rear of the shot. Lewis makes fun of his own reputation for loudness as he blows a TV sound man out of his seat whilst helping him test his microphone setting, inspiring the sound technician to avenge himself only to soon be subjected to the same aural pummelling from one of his colleagues. Herbert also appears in a selection of pre-recorded performances he and the tenants have thrown together to show off their talents and celebrate the ethic of show business, the common cause of most of the people in the boarding house. Herbert’s antic enthusiasm and sparked desire to get in the spotlight also has the positive effect of giving some exposure to the women as well, even as they find they’ve bitten off just a little more than they can chew, like a frantic tap-dance and a prissy ballet routine.

The film’s apotheosis of strangeness, and of Lewis’ unique blend of the farcical, metaphorical, and aesthetic, comes when Herbert finally ventures into Miss Cartilage’s room, a surreal space with melting white walls and a veiled bed. Here Miss Cartilage dangles from the ceiling in a black cocoon sack, and greets Herbert with a lusty, “Hi, honey!” as he tugs down the covering on her face, revealing a deathly white pancake of make-up and a pair of yawing, red-lined lips. Suddenly The Ladies Man is skirting the edges of a horror film with Miss Cartilage as man-eating spider-woman whilst Lewis also somehow weaves this into a setting more like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers art deco musical fantasy. Lewis tips a nod to Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) in the sight of Cartilage withdrawing behind the veiling curtains of her bed and reclining stiffly in mimicry of Boris Karloff’s mate-mesmerising villain in that film. Cartilage pursues Herbert around in a chase that is also a dance, to the blaring strains of Harry James’ big-band orchestra which magically manifests on her balcony. Here Lewis and the film make ultimate entry into a rhapsody of sickly erotic delirium under cover of spry absurdist effrontery. The film’s twinned punch-lines must inevitably involve Baby, as the monstrous beast is released only to prove a small dog with a mighty roar. But just as he’s convinced to stay at the boarding house and give up his attempts to leave, Herbert is confronted by a real lion strutting through the dining room, one that sets all the women scurrying in panic and which drives Herbert to scream for his mother again. Though he may finally be regaining his ease around women and even have love in his future, Herbert will still have to learn to tame the beast one day.


29th 08 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Shout (1978)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Skolimowski

By Roderick Heath

Jerzy Skolimowski was born in Łódź, Poland just before the outbreak of World War II, and like many film talents of his time and nation, his life was doomed to be a strange tale of exile and wandering. After enduring a terrifying childhood in the midst of war, Skolimowski found repute early in his early twenties as a writer with a sideline passion for boxing. Skolimowski encountered Andrzej Wajda, then at the forefront of his generation’s film talents in Poland, and Wajda challenged him to rewrite the script of Innocent Sorcerers (1960), in which Skolimowski also acted, playing a pugilist. A spark of passion for a new art form lit in Skolimowski, who started attending film school and studied under Andrzej Munk, and graduated with a near-complete feature film to be assembled from all the fragments he had shot in that time. Skolimowski wrote the dialogue for Roman Polanski’s debut film, Knife in the Water (1962), before he began to make a name for himself with his autobiographical tales of growing up in post-war Poland, particularly Walkover (1966), about a boxer who defeats an opponent in the ring but is felled by him in a street fight. The political commentary of Hands Up! (1967) got him in trouble with authorities, and he found himself unable to return home. He drifted around western Europe for a time, and washed up in London, where his experiences would eventually be transmuted much later into his acclaimed 1982 film Moonlighting. Skolimowski debuted in English-language cinema with Deep End (1970), a story about a teenager’s sexual obsession with a slightly older woman that unfolds in tragicomic fashion. Sinking instantly from sight at the box office upon release, Deep End soon gained a dogged cult following.

Skolimowski’s follow-ups, adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle — The Adventures of Gerard (1970) — and Vladimir Nabokov — King, Queen, Knave (1972) — were also flops and critically derided to boot, so Skolimowski did not get to make another film until 1978’s The Shout, an adaptation of a short story written by Robert Graves. Graves, best-known for his poetry and his diptych of erudite and blackly witty historical fiction I, Claudius and Claudius the God, is not a name usually associated with fantastical literature, but The Shout was an eerie and bizarre tale about magic and madness, one that was to prove a perfect springboard for Skolimowski’s talents. The resulting film captured him the Grand Prix at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival (shared with Marco Ferreri’s Bye Bye Monkey). The Shout stands today as a lonely island in cinema, one of a handful of entries in the history of the cinefantastique that evokes vast possibilities with a spare, even abstract, method. Then again, to call The Shout a fantasy film might be to misclassify it. Actually, most any description of it runs the same risk. It also isn’t quite a horror film, not quite a domestic drama, not quite a sex farce, not quite a shaggy dog story that both describes and enacts abuse of credulity as to how convincing a well-told story can be even when it seems utterly lunatic.

Skolimowski starts the film with images of a woman, Rachel Fielding (Susannah York), driving quickly through the countryside, springing out of the vehicle in a nurse’s uniform, and dashing inside an institutional building to behold three corpses laid out on tables under sheets. Checking the faces of each body, she comes to the last, and just as she draws the sheet back, Skolimowski teasingly dissolves into an eerie and tantalising shot of a man advancing slowly over a region of sandy dunes that could be deep desert, a sandy beach, or the cold and lonely stretch of the mind Dali constantly tried to paint. The figure advances on the camera until it can be seen properly as a black man wearing an old military jacket and clutching a pointed bone, a being of strange shamanic power and menace. From there Skolimowski leaps again in time to focus to a man riding a motorcycle, Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), passing the same Citroen mini Rachel drove earlier. This time Rachel is in the company of her husband, Anthony (John Hurt). Rachel drops a glum-looking Anthony at the same institution his wife was speeding to at the start. Both Anthony and another young man – Tim Curry, playing the role nominally that of Graves himself as ears to the story – advance into the institutional grounds wearing cricket gear. All this splintered time has more than mere arty intent, as it sets up a zone where identity, time, cause, and effect are all in flux. Graves has been asked to keep score of a cricket match between a team from a nearby town and a team partly comprised of people from the institution, which is a hospital for the mentally ill.

Graves speaks to the chief psychiatrist (Robert Stephens), who seems to be encouraging the match for therapeutic reasons, and anticipates Graves’ encounter with the other man who’ll be scoring with him. When Graves asks if this man is mad, the psychiatrist illustrates the lack of a clear dichotomy by pointing to a tree that has a sane appearance and another one with less leaves and twisting limbs that is not quite so commonplace. Graves soon finds his companion is Crossley. The game of wits that persists between Crossley and the psychiatrist is suggested as each describes the other as the most intelligent person in the place and Crossley guesses that the doctor has used the line about the trees on Graves: “Very repetitive fellow.” Crossley spies Anthony walking out to the cricket pitch and becomes excited, and proposes to Graves to tell him the story of how Anthony lost his wife. Crossley’s story quickly proves to be his own as well, and the reason behind his agitated eagerness in seeing Anthony again proves to be contained within it. The earlier shot of the shaman marching across the dunes is deployed again, joined with Crossley on a subliminal level, a spirit-shape sneaking up upon Anthony and Rachel where they lay sunbathing on sand dunes near their Dorset home. They both snap into wakefulness in quivering alarm, as they think they’ve shared a dream of the same advancing figure. Rachel soon finds she’s missing a buckle from her sandal.

On one level, under its atavistic hints and air of inscrutable numinous threat, The Shout is a portrait of a very English nightmare: the guest who invites himself in and won’t take the hint to leave, and swiftly proves so much more charismatic and interesting that he claims everything about him by right of psychic conquest as domestic courtesy is extended and abused. This facet is reminiscent of the sorts of stories of middle-class infidelity and marital tension often sarcastically referred to as the “infidelity in Hampstead” genre, as Anthony squirms regardless of his double standards at the spectacle of his wife being seduced by another man. But there’s also a crucial likeness with Knife in the Water as a tale of a troubled marriage given new and competitive zest by the inclusion of a third party, as well as sharing with Polanski a fascination for the fringes of the settled, civilised world, a place where all sorts of transformations, both lovely and repugnant, can occur. As a transplanted artist in a foreign culture, Skolimowski foregrounds the very Englishness of the story he tells here even as carefully portrays the feeling of being alienated from the landscape, and conveys that sense of hazy horizons through Crossley as a man who smudges the barriers between places and people. The rituals and uniforms of cricket are given totemic importance for a reason, for the psychiatrist tries to use them as a way of securing his patients in the game’s bucolic unfolding. But as anyone who knows the game well, it is actually defined by tension and the constant provocation of frustration by its jittery, trying rhythms. So Skolimowski drolly observes an underlying edginess under the equable surfaces of the match, and The Shout constantly rubs raw nerves in the same way. The asylum’s star player is a former test cricket bowler who loses his temper easily, and has it quickly stoked to boiling point by bad umpiring. One patient-turned-player (Jim Broadbent) has to retrieve a ball from a cowpat, getting shit all over his hands, and he becomes increasingly jittery and hysterical as the match proceeds. As Crossley recounts his narrative, the atmosphere constantly darkens and becomes more pregnant, as a thunder storm approaches, its dull rumbling thunder echoing through the leafy hospital grounds.

Anthony is an experimental musician who spends his days creating new and unusual sounds in a makeshift studio in his house, whilst occasionally filling in playing organ in the church in the nearby town. Skolimowski depicts Anthony at work with a mesmeric fascination for the techniques he uses to make his effects, each creation an act transmuting a commonplace object into something extraordinary, like a haggard sardine tine scraped with a violin bow, or a fly trapped in a bulb taped to his microphone. When Anthony dashes to town on his bicycle after getting so wrapped up in his work he nearly forgets he’s due at the church, he pounds on the keys whilst making eyes at his lover in the town (Carol Drinkwater). When he returns to his bike, he finds the tyre flattened, an act performed by Crossley to contrive their meeting. Anthony tries to dodge Crossley’s angular, unwelcome conversation, but after gallivanting around the countryside with his lover finds him waiting for him again outside his house. Crossley claims to be on a walking holiday, and having only recently returned to England after spending eighteen years in the Australian outback. He invites himself to tea and entertains the bewildered Fieldings with his accounts of life with a remote Aboriginal tribe, and gives his testimony to having taken advantage of the tribe’s law and killed the four babies he had with his tribal wife, so that he would leave nothing of himself with them when he departed their society. This report drives a distraught Rachel from the room, in part, she admits later, because the Fieldings’ own marital unease is sourced in part in their own failure to have a child.

Crossley also speaks about various magical feats he has witnessed or mastered himself when he submitted to the schooling of the indigenous sorcerers, referring to his soul as split in four pieces, and describing the shaman of the Fieldings’ nightmare, who was his principal teacher and a man even Crossley describes as “a genuinely terrifying figure.” Crossley recounts that man’s greatest feat of magic, in which he sliced the skin of his torso right around his navel and pulled the skin up like a shirt, an act that brought on torrential rain to end a long drought. Anthony sees that Crossley himself has a scar just like this around his belly. Crossley turns himself into a house guest with a fainting spell. He later offends Anthony by telling him he’s listened to his music and found it empty, but Anthony, though he throws a private tantrum, can’t quite work up the proper pith to toss his guest out. Distracted as he keeps dashing off to see his mistress, Anthony returns home to find Crossley developing a connection with Rachel that soon shades into outright erotic domination, a grip that might be facilitated by his possession of her sandal buckle, a personal trinket that he claims allows him to bend another to his desire. Another of Crossley’s claimed skills is his mastery of the Shout, which allows him to kill by releasing an ear-splitting cry. Anthony declares his disbelief, so Crossley agrees to demonstrate it for him. After leading him out on a long march to the centre of the coastal dunes and advising him to plug his ears with wax, Crossley draws a deep breath, and performs the Shout.

The very 1970s quality of The Shout is a part of its appeal, the sense of eccentricity and experimental attitude inherent in both the storyline and Skolimowski’s expostulation of it, and its exemplary status as perhaps the greatest entry in a peculiarly British brand of fantastic filmmaking that’s mostly been buried in the intervening decades. As near-forgotten a quantity as The Shout has become, some filmmakers clearly remember it however. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) referenced it several times, whilst The Duke of Burgundy (2014) took on a similar proposition of melting realities amidst a self-sequestered couple. Recent works of arthouse note like Carol Morley’s The Falling (2015) and Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling betray its remnant spirit in trying to evoke the primal, hostile, protean aspect of the countryside and the spaces between people. David Yates nodded to it in a very unexpected context, in the sequence of alienated wanderings of a British landscape turned alien and desolate in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2011). Skolimowski uses seemingly very casual scenes to begin knitting the unique mood that defines The Shout, as one game gives way to the equally calm yet increasingly overwrought process of Crossley entering and influencing the lives of the Fieldings. Graves’ story was written in the late 1920s, but updating it to the present day of the 1970s allowed Skolimowski, whose contexts are usually sharply observed even when his dramas are usually more interior, like the swinging London backdrop to the portrait of painful adolescent neediness in Deep End, to encompass a host of pertinent likenesses. Although apart from the cars and Anthony’s technical gear there’s little to nail down the period, nonetheless The Shout incidentally records the shaggy, shambling, depleted spirit of the post-counterculture era: the refugees from city life permeating the countryside, their former lustre of revolutionary adventures transmuting into fiddly obsession and petty rather than exploratory sexual dalliances, confronted by a figure who both threatens and appeals in wielding mystic power, a guru figure teasing constantly with the suggestion of wisdom hard-won and rigorously applied.

Crossley’s air of command and acumen burn beneath his veneer of shambling, unkempt, almost tramp-like look. The Shout came out in the same year as the infamous Jonestown cult’s mass suicides and murders, and Crossley has the stature of a cult leader who needs only to find apt soil to plant himself in, wielding dangerous magnetism and the ability to fixate and unnerve others until they put faith in his strength, needing to be cut down quite before he can work up the right wild verve to enthral more than just the Fieldings. In making The Shout, Skolimowski took advantage of the relatively new Dolby sound recording technology, which had been before that only been a tool for large-budget blockbusters. This allowed him to toy with his film’s sonic dimensions in a rich and layered way. The audio is pitched throughout with a restrained hush occasionally punctuated by a violent or peculiar sound in the same way that a random shout of “Out!” during the cricket match breaks the spell of Crossley’s narration, and the cry is taken up like a chain bark, the illusion of sense and placidity turned into an echo chamber of lunatics. Part of the challenge of making The Shout clearly lay in conveying the awful power of the eponymous concept, the idea of a Shout that can set the world’s spirit in chaos. And Skolimowski pulls it off. The quelled soundtrack persists until the fateful moment when Crossley shouts, a noise that explodes with shattering force, as if raw sound might punch its way out of the screen, Bates’ yawing mouth filmed like a great cavern as he releases the mighty cry. Sheep fall dead at the impact, and even with his ears blocked Anthony contorts and faints. When he awakens, he clutches a totemic stone in his hand, and is momentarily convinced he’s a cobbler — which happens to be the profession of his lover’s husband. Skolimowski casually reveals a shepherd lying dead near the sheep, his death unnoticed by the two men, incidental victim of the conspiracy between heedless will and equally heedless curiosity.

Skolimowski’s touch of making Anthony a musician compelled by process and fascinated with what wonders simple tools can produce is preffectly apt on the thematic level, but also allows Skolimowski to make a spectacle of his own intents and effects evinced throughout. Much as Anthony labours to create his noises, Skolimowski here stretches cinematic sinews, conjuring a sense of potent mystery and the advancing pressure of the irrational, and terrifying eruptions of preternatural power, purely through means naturally available to his camera and his editing desk, with scarcely any special effects. The Shout anticipates the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker from the following year in attempting to create credulity of a destabilised reality on screen purely through carefully parsed use of basic film craft. Aiding Skolimowski immeasurably in creating his mood is the droning, otherworldly electronic music soundtrack provided by Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks, aka the other guys from the band Genesis. The scoring suggests Anthony’s head-space in the course of his labours, whilst touching the landscape the Fieldings inhabit in the same way Crossley does, turning it from homey pastoral stretch into a zone where the coding of nature seems to be pixelating – rocky shores reaching fingers into the ocean, the grass-thatched sand dunes, the old house tucked into the folds of the land, at once a perfect English landscape and an outpost on the moon, a land hovering on the edge of nothingness.

Anthony’s studio sports clipped-out art work like Munch’s painting “The Vampyre,” and an artwork depicting a perverse imp on all fours, suggesting the zones of surreal and sublime perversity Anthony retreats into in his mind, whilst his exterior life remains timid and largely conventional, even in his tawdry affair. Crossley turns up like a demon to torment him precisely for his transgressions, whilst in the course of turning into a rampant, even mindless sensual being under Crossley’s influence, Rachel mimics the crawling imp figure. Although Crossley is nominally telling the story here, Anthony’s own psychic mindscape seems to be blurring into the drama we see, perhaps harvested by Crossley as he ventures into Anthony’s studio. The framing sequences are true to Graves’ story whilst also situating the film in a cinematic tradition kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), as a tale whose inferences cannot entirely be trusted because of who is telling the story, even as evidence accumulates that Crossley is not merely entertaining his fascinated companion with sick and stirring fancies. Storytelling itself is an act of conjuring in The Shout, and an untrustworthy weapon.

The question as to whether or not Crossley is merely a madman and manipulator or actually possesses the sorts of power he claims is a narrative mystery to be solved by the end, but it’s also connected with Skolimowski’s deeper objective, as the way The Shout is pieced together makes the way reality is represented on screen, as a usually seamless flow of images linked by codified grammar, becomes a nebulous zone through straightforward touches – a simple cut from one action to another can completely unmoor a viewer from a sense of cause and effect. The synergy Skolimowski finds between the various layers of his story and his method of telling it means that even at only a very trim 82 minutes, The Shout is near-endlessly rich. Crossley’s preamble to telling his story could be Skolimowski’s own: “It’s always the same story but — I change the sequence of events and — I vary the climaxes a little because I like to keep it alive.” In the same way, although films are static things, Skolimowski’s games with the unfolding his story, his flash cuts forward and back in timeframe, sometimes for good reason and other times just to stir bewilderment.

Casting Bates as Crossley was a particularly inspired move on Skolimowski’s part, for he had the right kind of verbal dexterity for the role of a man who must compel the viewer as well as the characters about him with his conviction and ability to intrigue, in addition to the necessary cobra-and-rabbit mystique of sexual threat. Bates’ pale-hued eyes, so strikingly expressive and romantic in films like Zorba the Greek (1964) and Women in Love (1969) still glow out from behind his grizzled four-day-growth, whilst his tongue is able to twist the metre of his speech from intimate confidant, as he plays for Rachel, to maniacal prophet out of the wilderness, as he otherwise readily postures. The Shout plays upon a quality in Bates Ken Russell had exploited well in Women in Love whilst also incidentally depicting the decay of the messianic figure from that film’s prophet of a new age to a shifty bum whose great ambition for his tremendous gifts consists of cuckolding a hapless musician. Hurt, with his pale, rubbery physique and York with her stark blue eyes and tensile, honed body, round out a major cast notable for their physically palpable qualities, counterpointing the hovering mood of mystic peril with one of immediate corporeal anxiety.

That anxiety is sometimes played for laughs, as when Graves is met upon arrival at the asylum by a woman who’s paranoid he’s going to peek up her dress. Anthony tries to negotiate a conversation with a naked Crossley, and later he is plucked out of the bath where was getting amorous with Rachel, obliged to converse with the village priest (Julian Hough) about performing at the shepherd’s funeral whilst struggling to hide his erection. But the undertones of sensual strangeness build to electric and unnerving moments too, as when Anthony catches a glimpse of a tell-tale scar ringing Crossley’s belly, and when Crossley appears to Rachel in his room as she tries to pull on a shirt, staring down through the folds of linen at her blankly adoring face, and her moments of ecstatic undressing and seeming transformation into an animal, York offering visions of carnal identity suddenly freed and given reign. Skolimowski also makes memorable use of animals as barometers of human activity. The staring, disinterested cattle who watch the cricket players mimic the ideal of bovine calm that game is supposed to engender. The sheep who pitch limp and very dead after being pulverised by the Shout. A bird that slips into the Fieldings’ kitchen and flits about madly over the head of Rachel, who weeps as she senses her marriage and sense of self dissolving in the face of infidelity and Crossley’s compulsion of her affections, her distress embodied by the animal overhead.

Crossley’s very arrogance, his desire to prove his power as well as possess it, proves to be his undoing, however. When his lover’s husband reveals to him that he experienced a similar dissociation as Anthony knew when Crossley performed the Shout, Anthony intuits the stone he awoke with in his hand after the event might have become invested with some of Crossley’s power, so he goes back to the dunes to dig it up. When Crossley makes it clear he intends to stay on in his house and subjugate Rachel to his will, Anthony calls the police, who try to arrest and charge him with murdering his children, and when Crossley tries to kill his harassers with his Shout, he only manages to fell one before Anthony shatters the stone, robbing Crossley of his power and allowing him to be captured. By now the import of what we’ve seen at the outset has become clearer: Rachel works at the hospital to be close to Crossley, who still holds some power over her, and Crossley is excited to see Anthony because he hopes to get a chance to enact revenge upon him. But the arrival of the thunderstorm sets the cricket match in chaos, whipping up Broadbent’s hysteric until he strips naked and begins pushing the score box back and forth around the pitch, whilst the psychiatrist and Crossley struggle, and Gaves wisely darts off. Crossley tries to peform the Shout, and a bolt of lightning strikes the box, killing both him and his medical nemesis as well as the hapless patient. Has Crossley’s Shout called down the lightning and felled them all, or was it just a coincidence? Either way, Rachel’s dash to the scene as glimpsed at the opening gains proper ending, as she removes her shoe buckle from Crossley’s neck, his influence finally ended. It’s typical of Skolimowski’s ingenious touch that he’s able to retain a note of ambiguity underneath what we’ve seen even as it seems all has played out to its literal end, and equally indicative of his refusal to indulge any familiar triteness that he fades out upon the sight of Rachel restored, yet still lingering over Crossley’s body – did he really control her, or did he simply claim her affections in all his mad stature? The Shout can still tantalise, madden and perplex. It’s certainly a film of great craft and art that badly needs rediscovery.


24th 08 - 2017 | 5 comments »

Le Samouraï (1967)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Melville

By Roderick Heath

The initial and defining image of Le Samouraï is held for a long time, about two and a half minutes, as the credits unspool across its face, with a fixity that becomes in turns nearly unbearable and then mesmeric. A man lies on a bed, smoking a cigarette, in an apartment that seems forgotten to the memory of humankind. A title gives the time with the exactitude of an official record. Tones are muted and crepuscular. Rain gushes against the window. The only noise we hear is one that recurs through the film with needling insistence: a bird’s chirping. The animal is kept in a cage of surprising refinement but tarnished by time and neglect, something once fine retrieved from a flea market, used to house an animal that’s not so much a pet or companion as a proof of life, an alarm system, and the embodiment of its owner’s inner self. The camera makes an ever-so-slight move in, subtly reframing the same scene from an illustrative space reminiscent of ukiyo-e art into a performing zone. The man on the bed is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a man who exists in a zone of pure transience, the abode he dwells in a shell he’s occupied like a crab, ready to vacate again at a moment’s notice. There is no future, no past, no state of being that is not purely of the moment, the existential being laid bare in all his futile determination. So begins Jean-Pierre Melville’s great etude in genre aesthetics – not in action but in repose. The film’s opening quotation, supposedly from the Bushido code of the samurai, nudges us to understand what follows as a tale of a man dedicated in silent, stoic manner to a certain creed, a way of life that precludes other considerations: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps.” A bogus quote, of course: Melville made it up purely to illustrate his theme.

The romantic lustre of such a legendary historical likeness in discipline seems to stand in heightened contrast to Jef’s actual job, as an underworld hit man, an imp of society’s abysses. Certainly, Jef was not the first assassin to be the focus of a thriller film, but he has become the archetype of the version of the character we’re now quite familiar with as the example of Le Samouraï, and its maker, Jean-Pierre Melville, have permeated popular cinema. Like Sergio Leone in Italy, Melville was a filmmaker who developed a powerful and specific imprimatur based in dichotomous creative references, mating a very European sense of style to an unabashed love of American genre stories, lending them such stature in texture and spectacle they rise far above grubby roots to seem akin to neo-mythology. There similarities between the directors end there, of course. Where Leone was a high if ironic romantic at play in the primal arena and the theatre of death, Melville was cool and pitilessly rational, and his ardour for the stern, implacable dramas found in pulp crime tales and Hollywood gangster dramas accorded with Melville’s personal experience on a vital level. Melville made his filmmaking debut with the grim and eye-catching submarine drama Le silence de la mer (1949), emerging a little later than the clutch of major talents who arose in French cinema during the Nazi occupation including Rene Clement, Robert Bresson, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Yet he shared with them a rigorous sense of how to purvey his vision and an edge of technical mastery that earned him admiration from the next generation of French filmmakers, the Nouvelle Vague directors. They followed Melville in subjecting their love of Hollywood cinema to an exacting nativist eye and mind and their exhibiting the results.

Melville surely remained the most colourful directorial personage of his place and era, however, fond as he was of cruising about Paris in a massive Cadillac and sporting a Stetson hat. Melville, whose real last name was Grumbach, had served in the Resistance during the war before he fled to Britain, joined the Free French forces there, and returned with them to liberate Paris in 1944. In the Resistance he had chosen as his codename the name of his favourite author, the writer of Moby-Dick, and found it stuck even when he didn’t want it to any longer: Jean-Pierre Melville thereafter became a kind of fictional character at large in the real world. It’s also not hard to detect a note of rebellion in Melville’s practiced appropriation of American aesthetics. His affectations and his cinema both speak of a man who no longer felt he had much in common with the society he had helped to liberate. The condition of his characters is one of being jammed between a cosmic rock and a social hard place. Le Samouraï is perhaps his most distilled and iconographic vision of such a condition. Melville offers up Jef not simply as a man in a despicable profession but a man who invites being seen as a philosophical paradigm, the life instinct whittled down to an essence: Jef can only be brought to life by missions that send him out to kill. Jef’s habits are those of a man at once aimless and eternally waiting, for a job or for the law, either a motive or the coming of death, that is, freedom from motive. Whereas Army of Shadows pinned that state down to a specific moment in history and experience, Le Samouraï has the advantage of articulating it free of such associations, boiling the legend of a lone wolf down to a perfect ideogram.

Jef’s slow rousing from his initially prostrate state sees him fondle a bundle of cash, the notes sliced in half, a promise and also a compulsion to perform the job before him. The job, the motives for which are barely elucidated in the course of Le Samouraï, is to kill a nightclub owner. Jef accomplishes this task swiftly and without difficulty, even giving his mark a fair chance to defend himself before shooting him behind his desk. The real art of Jef’s trade is depicted in exacting, near-fetishist detail before and after the moment of truth, is one of setting up alibis, obtaining a gun and car that cannot be traced to him, and weathering the inevitable ordeal of being netted by the cops as they round up the usual suspects. So, Jef’s work day commences with leaving his apartment and looking for a car to steal. He gets into a Citroen and pulls out a ring loaded with car keys, and tries them one by one until one starts the car. He meets with a woman, Jane (Delon’s wife of the time, Nathalie Delon), a prostitute who will form part of his alibi, and then with some poker players who will provide the rest of his cover. He takes his stolen car to a man (André Salgues) who lurks in a shed in a dreary and crumbling sector of town, waiting for people like Jef to come for his services. He provides Jef with clean number plates for the car, and a gun.

The alertness to detail and the patience with which Melville documents forms both the film’s backbone of cinematic exposition and gives context to the story it is telling on more than a literal level. The process of criminal enterprise is viewed with a precise and lucid eye for the minutiae a man in Jef’s profession must orchestrate with utmost care, whilst also accumulating cinematic images based around these details that can only work in the way they do as film. Such details can be listed in prose, but they can’t be tracked and studied in all their laborious glory, consuming time and energy, demanding an exact and inescapable attentiveness to the ticking clock and the itinerary of necessary acts. Jef’s pet bird isn’t just there for companionship, but as a natural alarm system, for intruders into his apartment send the bird into of fits of panic, shedding feathers as it flits about its cage – exactly the sort of overt display of distress Jef keeps himself from offering, and yet which Melville forces us to intuit and comprehend. Melville’s feel for life as a series of labours and swerves in the face of a hostile universe has a certain intriguing generational sympathy with Clouzot’s similar outlay of agonising problems for his characters to solve with the tools at hand in movies like The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), and Bresson’s crucially similar interest in characters trapped within their world and themselves. It’s tempting to conclude that the exigencies of surviving the war had instilled in such filmmakers a rigid sense of practical consequence. Unlike his fellows, however, Melville is pointedly non-psychological. We are never told who Jef is, where he has come from or what his experiences have been, except for clues that dropped, like the fact that some cops who break into his apartment to bug it wield just like Jef a ring of many keys – might Jef once have been a cop himself?

Such questions don’t really matter, though. All that matters in Jef’s life are the cold equations of what’s in front of him, and to keep swimming like a shark. Jef’s carefully wrought plan unfolds near-flawlessly. Many people see him in the club, including jazz pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier), an entertainer in the club, spies him emerging from the assassinated owner’s office. Jef simply walks past her and out of the club, and once he’s paraded before the employee witnesses in the police line-up a mysterious affliction seems to descend upon them all, so that only one definitely identifies him, whilst Valérie emphatically denies he is the killer. This tips Jef off to an interesting and eventually consequential detail, that the club employees have all been ordered not to identify him, and that forces are working he is not aware of. Otherwise Jef’s plan works like the clockwork, but this is in itself a fault, one that sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually destroy him: the very perfection of Jef’s cover story, which included contriving to be seen by Jane’s fancy man, Wiener (Michel Boisrond) as he left her apartment building, tips off the investigating Commissaire (François Périer) that he must be the assassin, because no-one else netted in the police dragnet has such a beautiful alibi. The Commissaire does his best to shake Jef and find some hook to hang an excuse to keep him in jail on. At one point he obliges Jef to swap hat and coat and stand in a room with a dozen cops, and asks Wiener pick him out. Wiener’s precision as a witness in this feat, after telling the Commissaire that he’s not particularly perceptive, leads the cop to quip ruefully, “Just imagine if you were observant.” The Commissaire releases Jef after obliging Valérie to double down on her denial that he is the killer, but continues to have him followed, and has a bug concealed in his apartment. Melville offers an ice-cold joke when the men who secret the bug turn on their listening gear, only to hear the bird’s endless chirping.

Melville’s time in the Resistance would be chronicled more directly and exactingly in Army of Shadows (1969), but it feels self-evident that Le Samouraï is his first draft for capturing the sense-memory of that time, the feeling of being an exile within one’s own society, duelling with authority and inexorable fate. It’s so very tempting to read Jef and his lifestyle as a mere transcription of Melville’s time as an insurgent. Like a spy or a provocateur or member of a terrorist cell, Jef awaits orders, asks nothing about the whys of his business that he might divulge if he’s caught and tortured. He looks for only the immediate matters before him, and then proceeds out into a world that he necessarily supposes is a place of hostile occupation. Another of the film’s few fillips of humour is also a visual statement along these lines, as Jef walks across a street, a poster behind him showing a man on the telephone seeming to track his movements, with the camera panning over to find a man who actually is phoning in his report on his movements. A lengthy sequence late in the film, one that seems inspired by a similar vignette in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), depicts the cops’ efforts to track Jef around Paris with surveillance equipment, the reports of each agent registering as a glowing bulb on a map on the police station wall. One crucial aspect missing from Jef’s life that might otherwise sustain the spirit of an agent or radical is that sense of purpose, a larger cause. Jef seems to hold himself together with a resolute code of personal honour, detached from motives beyond doing what he does perfectly. But that ethic can only carry him so far.

Jef’s almost surgical excision from the regular world of people is illustrated in a haunting episode early in the film, as he steals the car for the job. He sits bolt upright, trying not to make any move to attract attention as he tries each key on his ring, the rain water smeared on the windscreen, as if he’s losing form and solidity. When he gets the car started he drives off only to pull up at an intersection, and an attractive woman tries to catch his eye from a neighbouring car, only for Jef to turn his gaze away in declared disinterest. In scenes like this, Melville’s work with cinematographer Henri Decaë creates a specific ambience of romantically picturesque, even elegant alienation. Jef’s solitary melancholy registers constantly in Delon’s stringent blue stare, and indeed the very frames of Le Samouraï. Paris becomes a bleak and seamy labyrinth under Melville and Decaë’s eyes, variously rain-drenched or oppressed by grey skies. François de Roubaix’s scoring winds itself into such images like smoke, like the throbbing organ theme that chases Jef around, neurotically describing his crawling-ant nerves when he’s staying calm committing crimes. Melville delves into forgotten corners of the cityscape, like the ironwork railway bridge where Jef meets a contact, and other places of decaying infrastructure and run-down, workaday blandness. Fittingly for Jef’s algorithmic method, Melville repeats several scene in variations, including one incidental shot he offers twice, as Jef drives the then super-modern Citroens DSs he steals up a back alley to a garage. The environment Melville maps here is so magnificently cheerless, drab, shattered, and crudely anonymous, the car so sleek and chitinous, it’s as if a flying saucer is winging its way through the ruins of a lost civilisation.

There’s an echo in this motif, moreover, with the way Melville shoots scenes of Jef’s encounters with Valérie in the club, and her apartment, both of which are spaces of haute-moderne blandness, like sets for a science fiction film. Melville gives hints not only about individual identity and unspoken loyalties through such touches but also hints at tensions between the worlds he sees cohabiting. Jef belongs to an older age, a vanishing world, being busily colonised by newness and novelty, playthings of a new breed, cynical and deracinated. Perhaps Jef hopes to make enough money to one day be one of them. But he seems more often like the remnant spirit of that age, subsisting as a reminder that behind every flashy, polished surface is something turned tarnished and weathered. Delon’s face embodies the dichotomy perfectly, his sleek, almost alien handsomeness and his limpid, bleakly inferring eyes. Such visual patterns, matched to a narrative that emphasises the hero’s disconnection from the world, betray Le Samouraï as indebted to the recent examples in art cinema like Michelangelo Antonioni’s films as it is to classic Hollywood crime dramas, similarly transfixed as they were by modernity grafted onto tatty cityscapes. Melville’s specific genius was in purposefully setting out to fuse the two.

Some other filmmakers had predicted the same movement, including some of Melville’s influences and rivals, like Don Siegel, whose own doomed hitman drama, The Lineup (1958), staged a similar drama amidst the jagged geometries of California, Robert Alrdich’s radiation-noir epic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and White Heat, which walked its antihero from the age of medieval titans to finally be snuffed out amidst explosions declaring the atomic age. John Huston, on The Asphalt Jungle (1949), and Jules Dassin, with Rififi (1954), had similarly predicted Melville’s fascination with method and hyper-professional attentiveness to the little bits of business, but not his attempts to render the drama on a near-abstract plain. It’s that aspect of Le Samouraï that has surely made it an obsessive object for cinephiles ever since, particularly for other filmmakers who have taken inspiration from Melville’s cool blend of stylisation and authenticity and methodical paring away of regulation dramatic functions. Melville’s love of American noir doesn’t entirely conceal the fact that Jef also readily evokes the traditions of the ‘30s poetic realist strain in French film, as an upright and impassive underworld hero who attempts to stave off fate only to finally embrace it. Melville’s careful use of colour and décor, worked in confluence with art director François de Lamothe, reinforces his visual language. Almost the entire film is painted in hues of blue, grey, and green. Michael Mann, one filmmaker whose oeuvre has obviously been deeply inflected by Melville’s work here, drew upon a similar scheme for dictating the sunnier but no less controlled palette of the TV show he provided the design blueprint for, Miami Vice.

One of the few elements that defies the colour scheme is the presence of Rosier, whose brown skin and flashy wardrobe, like the fur coat she wears in the police station scenes, appear like islands of exotic promise, a voice from yet another world, one that’s creative, zesty, sexy, and fecund. Jane tries to claim Jef’s romantic attention, but he remains indifferent to her, whilst Valérie is an unwitting femme fatale. She is lover to Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier), a business partner of the club owner who’s arranged his killing and who’s been pulling the strings jerking Jef around. She seems to pull Jef through some indescribable magnetism that first manifests when they nearly collide just after his killing, a magnetism that is has an erotic edge but which soon reveals a different, altogether graver aspect: Valérie is the embodiment of Jef’s fate, beckoning him on to his end. Jef’s near-subconscious interactions with women are contrasted by a dry scene in which the Commissaire attempts a form of seduction on Jane that might also be the more traditional kind, turning a mixture of vague threat and cajoling appeal on her as he tries to pressure her into removing Jef’s alibi with the promise that if he can prove he killed the club owner she’ll go down for perjury. The Commissaire’s air of savvy knowing and dogged, instinctive method are similar to Jef’s ways of working, even as his person could not be more different, emissary of official French life in his three-piece suit. Like that most eminent of fictional French detectives, Maigret, it’s very easy to imagine him going home at night to a wife and three kids. But his job is too onerous, the police station his natural habitat as much as seedy apartments and alleys are Jef’s: “That takes care of our Sunday,” he says as he’s faced with nine more protracted interrogations after releasing Jef. Police work is a painstaking shuffle towards a desired goal.

Whilst Jef successfully, even easily defies the forces of official justice, he finds his job turns complex and threatening in his interactions with the cabal employing him. Not understanding that being arrested was part of Jef’s plan, Rey sends a blonde hood (Jacques Leroy) to meet him for the pay-off, who instead tries to shoot Jef when they meet. Melville stages this rupture in the film’s sleek and nerveless rhythm as a sudden and spectacular pivot from charged stillness, conveyed in close shots of the actors, whose similarity of appearance suggests they’re all but doppelgangers, to lunging motion and violent disorientation, as he suddenly cuts to a shot from the perspective of a passing train, as if this is just another moment of life in the raw to be glimpsed from the Metro. Jef is wounded by a bullet but he manages to drive the goon away, and returns to his apartment where he cleans up the wound. Jef is left to improvise as a vice tightens about him, left broke and betrayed and unable to get the cops off his back. He attempts to use Valérie to contact the boss behind the operation. The blonde man returns to ambush Jef in his apartment, not to kill him but to explain the misunderstanding and offer him more money to complete another hit. Jef takes exception, stating he never speaks to a man holding a gun (“Is that a rule?” “A habit”). The goon puts his gun away, only for Jef to then spring on him and beat him until he gives up his employer. “That’s how you end up unemployed,” Jef tells him after he breaks easily. Jef is the pure practitioner of his faith. Jef however saves his real wrath for Rey when he finds him, clarifying Jef’s subsequent actions as being, on some level, a serve of necessary retribution for violating the rules of his trade, rules that, however tenuous, construct something like a tenable existence for those who live by them.

The theme is, of course, honour amongst thieves and the necessary punishment of any who violate such an arcane creed. The ultimate crime fiction cliché has been carefully alchemised here into an essential proposition, a runic scrawl denoting the obvious and pointing the way forward for filmmakers dabbling in this kind of movie forever more. Le Samouraï’s imprint has been tremendous on genre cinema in the intervening fifty years, beyond overt homages like Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) and stated fans like Mann, Walter Hill, and Johnnie To, who have remixed themes and images and essential qualities throughout their careers. Something of its sway was already observable in Hollywood a few years after its release amongst younger directors attentive to European cinema – it’s there in the procedural finesse and gritty urban adventures of The French Connection (1971) and the earliest entries in the icy criminal professional subgenre, like The Last Run (1971). But a deeper influence can be discerned on The Godfather (1972) and its legion of imitators, an influence built more around its stated thematic presumption that the crime world is worthy of comparison to bygone cultural phenomena, the code-driven professions of warriors, left adrift in an impersonal modern world inimical to basic values amongst certain sectors of society. Where Melville offered this concept as a piece of cool jazz, Francis Coppola and others would inflate it on a epic stage, proposing its heroes as inheritors of the state-of-siege mentality of Roman equites and medieval warlords.

In that regard Le Samouraï’s influence might be considered pernicious in introducing this dubious if attractive romanticisation of criminals into the pop cultural lexicon. That said, the fact that Melville made up the quote at the start of his film suggests a level of puckish sarcasm to the likeness. Yet Melville also takes the comparison a step further than most followers. He certainly takes Jef seriously as a man who sustains a code, his downfall and his ultimate march to self-destruction, which echoes that in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) two years later but which pays off in a radically different manner: where Peckinpah’s criminal knights choose to go out in an orgiastic act of self-immolation, Jef chooses to erase only himself, with an aspect of self-abnegation that does actually finally render him worthy of a Zen consideration. Aware that the second contract the blonde man offered him was to kill Valérie, and equally aware that she’s protected by hidden police, he approaches her with a look of bottomless of sorrow and exhaustion, and takes out his gun, only to die in a hail of bullets.

The Commissaire soon learns his gun was empty, his death something like seppuku, an honourable way to go out when the suppositions that made his existence tenable if not fun have one by one been kicked out. Jef turns the spectacle of his own futility into a kind of rite, given strange final solemnity and import by the exchange he has with Valérie – “Why Jef?” “I was paid to.” Jef cannot complete the contract, and so he must pay his own price Melville’s camera retreats to a deadpan long shot of Valérie seated in the midst of the club whilst the mess is cleaned up, as if to take bewildered stock of a drama that has been both radically simple and impossible to fully grasp. This shot closes a rhyme with the opening, but with telling contrasts – past has yielded to future, male to female, killer to artist, one life lived as running improvisation giving way to another. Le Samouraï wields a cumulative impact that defies dissection, the undercurrent of piercing sadness all the more powerful for Melville’s refusal to weep for a killer. It is precisely the sense that Jef knew he didn’t deserve anyone’s tears, the portrayal of a life nullified, that provokes sorrow, for the sense that anyone should exist in such perfect solitude and pain is almost too awful to face.


9th 08 - 2017 | no comment »

The Immortal Story (Histoire Immortelle; TV, 1968)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

One overriding characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works had been his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a made etched in tones of black and white. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dream-scapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality. Or as another voice put it, he not busy being born is busy dying.


3rd 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Song To Song (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s unexpectedly prolific burst of work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2013), and Knight of Cups (2016), forms a loosely autobiographical, delicately interwoven trilogy exploring the sum and meaning of Malick’s life experience. His latest feature film, Song To Song, quietly reframes that series as well as extending it, resituating the three most recent works as a triptych describing the present day, but can also be seen as coda, revision, or even a return to point of departure. Here we are back in the heat-glare and sultry airs of Texas, the houses on sun-dappled streets charged with quiet yearning that have predicated Malick’s reminiscences since Badlands (1974), and returning to the theme of the eternal triangle that compelled Days of Heaven (1978), if in a radically different style. That film’s painterly poise in contemplating the tension between human unruliness and natural composure has given way to Malick’s recent, vertiginously mobile camerawork and his newly restless, hungry efforts to both experience and contemplate all at the same time, an option open to the filmmaker as it is no artist in any other art form. With his recent output, Malick has steadily abandoned the unique status he once had as American cinema’s most elusive and rarefied creator, a teller of grand tales of national genesis and mythical parable, at least to the extent that now he’s been releasing films regularly and engaging with the state of today rather than the epic pivots of epochs past. And yet Malick’s concerns here are generally exactly the same ones that have always dogged him: love, creation, destruction.

Song To Song is a movie centring, of all times and places, on the contemporary music scene of Austin, Texas, a nexus for messy conception and peculiar faith. The story involves a daisy chain of romances and seductions, some of them sexual, others artistic and fiscal. Malick’s mixture of pride and bemusement that a corner of his home state has become a crossroads for modern pop culture is written into this work’s texture, as he repeatedly and amusedly returns to the juxtaposition of modern Austin’s new high-rise architecture looming cheek-by-jowl with neighbourhoods still composed of fibre cement and wood-frame houses, an outpost of super-modernity grafted onto a parochial patch of earth. Hell, this could well even be Malick’s metaphor for his own imagination. The choice of the music scene as a frame for this tale essentially transposes Malick’s meditation on his early Hollywood days, already explored in Knight of Cups, onto another social landscape, albeit one with a transient vitality that contradicts the ponderous machinery and alienation of the movie industry’s outer precincts. The previous film’s portraits of the hilarious vulgarity of wealth and the corrupting effects of obtaining success at someone else’s whim and in betrayal of one’s muse are here re-engaged more directly, and so are questions about what drives an artist to create or not create depending on the moment, questions Malick, who spent twenty years out of the directing game, has obviously asked himself often. Michael Fassbender incarnates Cook, a music producer and recording magnate around whom the other characters are locked in orbit, as the person who can make or break dreams but who is himself beset by contradictory forces he seems unwilling or unable to identify. Rooney Mara is Faye, a would-be performing star who is, at the outset, Cook’s aide and also his sometime lover. Ryan Gosling is BV, another musical talent who impresses Cook sufficiently to be anointed as his next big thing.

In its initial story proposition, Song To Song calls to mind Kris Kristofferson’s “The Taker,” one of the many visceral yet sarcastic post-mortems that musician wrote about what it’s like to be a failure in a culture-industry town – in that case, the Nashville Kristofferson haunted in the 1960s, musing on watching a girl you like being romanced by a successful man. Malick’s narrative runs contrary to this in deed if not spirit as the artist wins over the mogul in chasing the heart of the lady fair, but then finds things are never quite so simple. The boiling masses of tattooed fans who surge around the Austin City Limits Festival stages and other venues might seem like expressions of riotous pagan impulse at odds with Malick’s Augustinian sensibility, but he readily subsumes them into his world-view, rejoicing in the bristling energy and explosions of primal life-force on hand. Cook uses their performances in part as a prop in his own life, an end to his labours and also a means for charming both lovers and artists. The bruising yet rapturous spectacles of communal joy and conjuring are counterpointed with the intimate and protean world of bohemian becoming that is the rest of the movie, and the camera (wielded by Malick’s invaluable recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) locates the lead actors here with a general aura of solitude even when in the midst of vast crowds: to be the artist is to suffer an eternal frustration of severance from the freedom the crowd has to simply experience the artwork, and indeed life itself. Faye inhabits a limbo as a talent who, through connections rather than actual, proper committed work, lives in comfort and prosperity, in a sky-riding apartment in one of the downtown buildings, which Cook probably bought for her.

Faye’s wont to turn the world into a smorgasbord of experiential possibility and Cook’s ability to offer it up that way is visualised with genius economy when, at one of Cook’s parties, Faye finds herself looking over a woman used as human food platter, her naked body bedecked with hors d’oeuvres (and the woman herself looks unnervingly like Faye), whilst Cook tries to interest BV in the bevy of beauties flocking around his swimming pool. But BV quickly zeroes in on Faye because of her self-declaration as someone detached from the scene, as she strides amongst the partiers listening to her iPod: when BV catches her eye, instead of stepping out of her bubble, she invites him into it by handing him one of her ear-buds, and they gently bop to the sounds she’s listening to. Cook’s methods of seduction ironically echo the great business of romance as it blooms between Faye and BV, and other Malick couples. The film’s first quarter is replete with images of the mogul and his two pals having a good time in distinct couplets, getting drunk in the streets of old Mexico or spinning weightlessly in a plunging jet, matching the way the first flush of the thrill in being freed from the rules of gravity through the alchemy of creation and the lubrication of money. But this loose, semi-clandestine menage comes to an end as Cook takes both Faye and BV south of the border, and recognises quickly Faye has fallen properly for the performer, diagrammed in terms of proximity with excruciating clarity amidst the geometrics of the Mexican architecture.

Cook quickly expiates this humiliation by flirting with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a former teacher who’s now making ends meet working as a waitress. Cook breezes into her life and storms her barricades with all the swagger of his success and his practiced charm, and in short order marries her. Her mother (Holly Hunter) cautions her to be careful, as her finances aren’t in the best shape and she’ll have no power to fight her husband if she needs to break from him: “The law’s no help for those who are ruined,” her mother states. Cook even buys her mother a house. But true to mama’s rueful warnings, Cook uses his grip on Rhonda to draw her into his lifestyle, including at one point getting her into a threesome with Faye, who maintains an occasional sexual relationship with her boss even as she and BV move in together and share a seemingly bucolic existence. A rupture comes in this state of affairs when BV confronts Cook during a fraught drinking session over his copyrighting BV’s songs under his own name. BV spits at Cook’s feet and severs their business ties as well as their friendship. Soon Cook makes an offer of a recording contract to Faye, perhaps as a device to cleave the couple apart. BV advises her to take the chance even though he despises Cook, but soon BV also learns the real nature of Faye’s past with Cook, which soon learns to their breaking up. Both quickly drift into new amours. BV, trying to re-establish himself with declining enthusiasm for the music scene in general, encounters divorced millionaire Amanda (Cate Blanchett) and they have a good time together in spite of the discomfort some take in their age difference. Meanwhile Faye has a bring fling with a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), a steamy little affair that nonetheless quickly cools down as it has no emotional content.

Song To Song is tantalising, infuriating, utterly distinctive but also sometimes wearyingly repetitious, at once richly composed and yet often curiously lackadaisical. It feels more loosely assembled than any of Malick’s other recent films, but also flaunts this quality. Part of this seems dictated by setting and production and other parts by the matter at hand. Most of Malick’s movies have all been love stories to some extent, they’ve also been stories about the difficulties of humans evolving into their proper selves, even if it means leaving behind states of contentment. To The Wonder concluded with its errant exiled heroine giving herself up to a type of pantheistic world-love rather than merely human; Knight of Cups concluded with a vision of its hero finding happiness but leaving it vague as to just how. Song To Song commits itself to speaking of the damage lovers can do to each-other but also patiently traces the paths that can lead them back together. It tells of young emotions with a youthful zest of technique but with a notably aged note of languorous yearning and fumbling to articulate wisdom hard-won. Malick’s trademark use of voiceover is less prevalent here, the musings less abstract and more like attempts to boil specific understandings down to worldly sutras. It’s also the first of his labours to be told mostly from the perspective of an adult woman, Faye. The urgency that has propelled his recent output, the frantic, daring attempts to paint entire life cycles into two hours of cinema evinced in The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, gives way here to a more modest study of desire in both its momentary and perpetual manifestations. Malick lets us see his performers footloose in the moment, adjusting themselves to his directions or provoking each-other in actor-exercise improvisations. The method suggests Malick’s attempt to reproduce the rough-hewn aesthetics and improvisatory lifestyles of the denizens of the music world, offering the technique he’s steadily mastered on his previous handful of films with the work showing this time.

Of course, one might be justified in regarding this as a sign Malick’s rigour and craft are abandoning him in his old age and following a string of such stylistically similar films where he’s worked them good and proper, especially as some of his obsessive motifs come on with almost self-satirising regularity – flocking birds, waving grass, infinity pools, dance-like choreography of everyday human activity, and sexuality that seems to do everything but the nasty – and Song To Song starts to feel like a by-product. Certainly some of his themes here also threaten to edge into a zone of triteness he’s generally been able to avoid before, particularly in portraying Cook as serpent in the Edenic zone, the sponging corporate type who uses and abuses the folk about him. And yet Malick’s empathy is strong enough even to wrestle this cliché to a draw, hinting constantly at Cook’s sources of torment. He’s glimpsed pouring booze into an urn containing what seems to be a family member’s ashes towards the start, and he seems dogged by the absence of actual creative capacity itself. He can only frame it or augment it, and his habits of reducing the artists he encounters to prostitutes in relationship to him in part mimics his own actual reliance on other people to provide meaning to his actions. “I can’t take this world straight,” he confesses to Rhonda as he eddies in the flop-sweat-sodden, dull-eyed exhaustion after one of his orgiastic good times. “I was once like you – didn’t know what I know now,” he is heard uttering at one point. This voice of frantic, nihilistic need is projected over a fragment of an experimental film replete with images of lonely planets and axe murders, in an aside that curiously resembles Malick both engaging and satirising a generational fellow and temperamental opposite: David Lynch’s similarly stark and evocative tendencies towards surreal yet visceral pessimism.

Whilst it’s not a star turn in the traditional sense, Fassbender gives nonetheless a performance close to career-best as he exposes Cook’s flashes of smarmy brutality and supernal charm, but also the desperation in his glass-under-rain eyes. His habit of reducing his relationships to adjuncts of his appetites is ultimately enormously destructive but also rhymes with Faye’s own seeker status, as she has dedicated herself to obtaining experience at any cost. Sexuality, a matter Malick notably avoided depicting in his early work, is very much a topic Song To Song tackles with curiosity as well as a certain censorial instinct, in a way that constantly evokes erotic fervour but also grazes the edges of moralism. Certainly Malick examines the problems of people reducing each-other to bodies whilst neglecting other forms of connection, a problem that foils Faye’s efforts to grow: “I took sex – a gift – I played with it – I played with the flame of life,” her narration sums it up at one point. Yet Malick doesn’t disdain the vitality seen even in Cook’s carnal escapades, his boyish delight commingling with screaming need for escape in being squeezed between two prostitutes, flesh boiling in protoplasmic forms, manifestation of a desire to slip the bonds of being, that most inarguable and desolately inescapable of states. Romance for Malick is as ever a state close to returning to childhood, driving the poised and cynical beings he portrays into paroxysmic motion, making them run, dance, skip, leap, screw, and cling to each-other in tactile need, always teasing the surfaces of their lovers, even penetrating, but never quite gaining proper union with until a strange state Malick feels is close to divine intervenes.

The solitary, wanderer-in-the-world lot of Malick’s protagonists is bound in with their sexual identities here, their search for completing piece of their being. But it’s also tethered to their own status as familial creatures, the products themselves of people coming together. Cook’s possibly grieving rootlessness is contrasted with BV and Rhonda’s connections to family. The fact that both these characters live in a place at once cosmopolitan and parochial allows Malick to study them in the context of family allegiances and alternative value systems, whereas the protagonists of many of Malick’s earlier films were constantly cut off from native soil and their own pasts either by fate or design. BV is drawn back in by his family as his father has fallen into vegetative senescence, a reminder of imminent mortality and the bonds of identity that lend a subtle drag to his efforts to recover from the damage Cook did him. Faye has a solicitous father (Brady Cameron) who readily operates as her sounding board and confessor, as Rhonda’s mother serves for her. If some of Malick’s ways of masticating his material here feels a bit shop-worn in terms of his signature approach, one more original aspect of Song To Song lies in how it furthers the documentary element to his filmmaking that The Tree of Life mooted and Knight of Cups embraced. Lubezki’s camera floats freely through landscapes noting life in its asides and grand stages, evinced during the many vignettes set during musical performances, where the actors are knitted in with music stars. Crowds of young moshers and rockers are glimpsed at the outset engaged in gymnastic cavorting. Music stars careen by the camera, some fleetingly glimpsed like Florence Welch, Alan “Neon Indian” Palomo, and Tegan and Sara, whilst elder gods like John Leydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are lassoed in to fulfil a more intriguing function: they offer snatches of personal wisdom, Greek Chorus-like commentaries on the problems besetting Malick’s characters gleaned from their own struggles and triumphs.

Nor is this just glorified star-fucking, for Malick has time for less spectacular confessionals, as he wrings from two of the prostitutes Cook hires, recounting their self-perceptions and experiences in hauntingly exposed terms, one young and fresh, the other older and feeling the stir of life’s colder winds. Malick’s familiar approach to utilising his actors, mining their most ephemeral, essential, and transient gestures and knitting them into the greater pattern of his editing, catches his actors both extremely wary, as Mara’s wide, alien glare absorbs her surrounds in suspicion and stoic remove, and also at their most unguarded, as when she launches into a dance in a bedroom, suddenly alight with the remembered pleasure of romantic moments. Gosling’s comedic gifts are allowed some leeway, as when he tosses away a terrible meal at some social shindig he’s been invited to. Val Kilmer appears in a bizarre cameo, part recreation of and lampoon on his famous role as Jim Morrison, as an aging rock star Faye is drafted into backing, who fires up the crowds with calculated barbarisms like using a chainsaw to cut a speaker in half, and scissoring off his own hair – pure incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll’s Loki-like, trickster god glee in all things antithetical and cathartically ruinous. Lykke Li has a substantial part as BV’s former girlfriend who’s become a jet-setting superstar, who visits him after he’s broken up with Faye and gives the siren call of joining her and drifting off into wild blue yonders. But BV, feeling the nagging tug of identity and responsibility as well as dissatisfaction with his life, instead retreats into his affair with Amanda, one that demands nothing but persistence in the moment. Faye seeks the same easeful time with Zoey, but her demanding, sensual, yearning face with its vulpine brows and teeth anxious for the red meat of love proves too potent for such a casual arrangement and an interloping straight lover, and the relationship quickly sunders. Meanwhile Cook’s indulgence of his many habits drives Rhonda to despair, and finally death, probably by suicide.

The Pre-Raphaelite image of Rhonda’s dead body splayed in water identifies her as a sacrificial victim for the cult of art, but the images of her mother wailing in banshee-like despair in a carpark identifies banal consumption of the soul as another trade of modernity. As Rhonda’s body is scooped up by a shocked and terrified Cook, Malick confronts an image of cold, cheerless death he has avoided in its last few films – even the crucial death at the heart of The Tree of Life, of the hero’s brother, was suggested rather than seen. It’s a logical end for an undercurrent of interpersonal violence witnessed continually but never evinced in blows or wounds. BV’s split from Cook is in itself as a fleeting yet gruelling vignette that precisely measures the meaning behind such acts as stealing someone else’s credit and smashing a bottle for cataclysmic underlining, whilst Rhonda’s squirming through the sessions of sexual adventuring her husband draws her into constantly prods with the spectacle of her reduction to concubine. Malick is also merciless in his understanding of a Buddhist philosophical truism, that what appear to be actions are in fact only ever consequences. BV’s understandable rejection of Cook nonetheless creates the circumstances that lead to Rhonda’s death because Cook is left untethered to any amity. BV and Faye’s journey by contrast eventually sees them reconnect and finally settle down, albeit it in quite different terms. BV abandons his music career for a simpler existence as an oil driller, swapping a frustratingly ethereal accomplishment for engagement with the physical world in a manner tied to his reclamation of his family identity, whilst Faye finally regains her musical fire even whilst settling into a more lucid and composed existence as a mother.

Song To Song is a striking and enriching collage on so many levels, and littered with gorgeous fragments that still bespeak of Malick’s capacity to find an arresting image in any setting and scatter intricate rhymes and patterns throughout. Like in a moment, close to the film’s start, when BV caresses Faye with Christmas lights, the accord of their nervous systems given a beautiful visual simile, rhymed to a shot much later of Faye lying sprawled alone on a coiled length of fluorescent lights, drifting in the ether of her own melancholic dreaminess, BV’s touch a memory. Or the sequence of BV and Cook’s first Mexico venture, a rollicking interlude of boozed-up good cheer that sees the two men following the old Beat trail, in the Indian summer of their mutual reliance and excitement at finding a second musketeer, giving way to the sorry sight of Cook trailing after BV and Faye as they spin off into their ecstatic union. And yet the film as a whole fails ultimately to cohere on several levels in a manner none of his other works quite fail, except perhaps his hippy-dippy war movie The Thin Red Line (1998). The reason why seems bound up with the absence of that aesthetic and expressive urgency that drove along Malick’s other recent works, the need to get at some vital fact of existence that had to be articulated no matter what damage was done or discomforting memory was parsed. Part of this failure is linked to the careless approach Malick takes to his characters’ actual business as artists. That facet could be neglected in Knight of Cups because its screenwriter was patently detached from his hack line of work, whereas here the business of making music is supposed preoccupy and define everyone. Malick’s polyphonic cinema on the other hand can’t sit still long enough to engage with creation and performance in any kind of meditative feeling.

Another problem is that none of these characters quite dominate the screen, and so they remain relatively remote as identification figures. The urges of Malick’s dramatis personae towards their destinations in the other films of this unique quartet gain momentum through and because of the pressure-cooker intensity of the filmmaking, mimicking their own impossible urges to move in every direction at once, to feel and know and be and conquer themselves and become unbound. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her desperate urge to chase ultimate liberty in To The Wonder had this persuasive, tidal intensity; in Knight of Cups, although the dramatic landscape was even busier than the one here, Christian Bale’s Rick remained key to all we saw, and understood his perpetually Sisyphean existence, so his flight into the wilds at the end also retained cathartic impact. Rhonda’s plight has the stuff of high tragedy but she’s only a minor character in the film when all is said and done, whilst BV and Faye remain comparatively muted figures, avatars for what Malick is trying to say but not quite gaining the stature of archetypes Malick pushes them to attain. But it also must be said that Song To Song also wears its imperfection on its sleeve, its (relatively) ragged, offhand feel as a war banner. Malick’s late oeuvre has stood as a general rebuke to the small-mindedness and watery technique of too much serious contemporary cinema, particularly that coming out of an independent film scene taken as natural heir to the American New Wave, an era Malick stands as one of the last standing warriors from. Song To Song is less rebuke than an act of leadership, signalled through the synergy Malick is chasing between his medium of film and the subculture he studies; just as the elders of the music scene like Smith offer their own counsel to the young artists on hand, this is Malick’s. Song To Song is about its own making and its message is that making, as Malick presents to independent filmmakers a template for creativity that makes virtues out of seeming limitations.


31st 03 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (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 ’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 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 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 ’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.


3rd 04 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.

Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.

Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.

The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.

Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.

Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.

Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.

Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.

Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.

Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.

Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”

In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.


7th 12 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Women in Love (1969)

Director: Ken Russell

By Roderick Heath

Ken Russell’s death last week at age 84 felt like the last in an endless series of cheats the director had suffered in his lifetime. The eternally puckish Russell had been until quite recently continuing to amuse and instruct in newspaper columns, belying his advanced years with a still-guttering mental fire, and thus his death cheated him, and us, of hope of a last good film. Also, it comes at a time when something like Russell’s due was finally coming to him. Lately, Russell has begun to be celebrated as the great British rebel he was, and like many great British rebels, ended up exemplifying something about the society he fell into struggle with. In that regard he resembled D. H. Lawrence, the writer Russell adapted for his third, and first truly, personally definitive feature film, Women in Love. Purely by living long enough, Russell became an elder statesman of British film, an unlikely end as there was a time not so long ago when Russell’s audacious, rampantly energetic, entirely wilful cinema was a byword for something nasty and crazy and degraded. Indeed, some of Russell’s essential aesthetic beliefs – that creative passion was superior to refined style, that interpretative vibrancy was more important than fidelity, that the erotic and the vulgar had a deeper and more vital place in art than they had been allowed – were red rags to the bulls of cultural guardianship, especially as one of Russell’s favourite creative guerrilla tactics was to remind us of the compost out of which much great art grows. During the 1970s, when most of his generational fellows tried to carve out places for themselves in Hollywood and British cinema almost died from a lack of passion and confidence, Russell didn’t always stay home, but he did try to stay true to his creed, and continued to shake things up until his career began to stall in the late 1980s.

Women in Love came after Russell had reentered cinema with Billion Dollar Brain (1968), the third of Michael Caine’s delicious series of Harry Palmer spy flicks, but also after he had excited audiences and attentive minds with a series of electrifying TV movies and shorts in the previous few years. Women in Love came amidst a steady flow of highbrow literary classics tackled by the young heathens of British cinema in the ’60s, some flagrantly modernist and playful, like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), some elegiac and expansive, like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Russell’s take on Lawrence’s novel was something else again. Russell doesn’t seem to be filming Lawrence’s book so much as trying to live it out page by page. The superficially uncouth yet poetic, symbolic writer who tried to find the comprehensibility in things normally thought of as primal and vice versa, has been digested and defecated, reshaped into the literality of images and of feeling by Russell, who also poured his own emotional reflexes into it, and extracted in turn the potential in Lawrence’s material, true as he saw it when he wrote the book in the 1910s, to capture things nascent in the late ‘60s zeitgeist. Feminism in the form of Glenda Jackson’s ground-breaking performance and her character’s arc from frustrated parochial nonconformist to self-actualising femme du monde; frank homoeroticism in the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates; and sundry other fragments replete with satire, social observation, and philosophical yammering, which capture and distil that sense of import in the moment which distinguished the era. Would certain great cultural institutions survive as their foundations seemed now rotten? What was the future of human relations, between classes, between genders, when so much had gone wrong with them? Lawrence had tried to make the questions palpable, and Russell tried to capture with authenticity the way the questions had found new momentum.

In terms of actual story, of course, there’s an element of soap opera to Women in Love, depicting as it does two concurrent love affairs, one of which involves shattering social classes and ends in near-murder and then suicide. The soapy element is however what gives the intellectualism flesh. Some criticism was levelled at Women in Love for, however, keeping intact Lawrence’s loopy anti-realistic dialogue, but to adapt such a novel without trying to capture its depth of thought would have reduced it to a sex farce. Russell for the most part keeps them ably counterpointed with his animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters. One of Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer’s more contentious touches was to relocate the novel to after the First World War, whereas Lawrence had been writing about the fin-de-siecle mood of bohemian boundary-stretching of the Edwardian era, and which the war had been used as a justification for repressing, a cultural war which Lawrence and his novel had been caught up in. But Russell makes this work for him, using the official pieties of dedicating war memorials and visions of mangled, poverty-stricken and begging veterans, to give immediacy and mordant pep to Rupert Birkin’s (Bates) oft-satirical, always frantic attempts to synthesise a modern kind of living, and the inevitable translation of this into terms of the film’s Vietnam-era anti-war mood. Russell also depicts flapper styles and jazz-age rags beginning to infest the hidebound British landscape, as its heroines in their wilfully colourful garb strut through grey and grimy streets and filth-clad working-class men, like Birds of Paradise nesting in Mordor.

These exotic birds are Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), daughters of a schoolteacher who are themselves now teachers. Except that as members of their mining town’s small intelligentsia, they become intimate with some of its flashier figures, including Gerald Crich (Reed), son of the mine’s owner (Alan Webb), his friend Rupert, who works as a school inspector, through which capacity he first meets Ursula, and his pretentious aristocratic lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). Rupert and Hermione’s relationship is foundering as he becomes increasingly cold and sarcastic about her affectations and greed for attention, coming to a head when he breaks up a self-indulgent dance she performs whilst trying to overshadow Gudrun and Ursula, by getting the accompanist to start bashing out a Charleston rag. Hermione, enraged by his scorn and her offended pretence to cultural imperium, tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, but he survives and runs away. Gerald, intrigued by the sisters, invites them to an annual party the Criches throw for their workers and other townsfolk, but during the party his younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her newlywed husband Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable) drown whilst swimming naked in the estate lake. This tragedy catalyses both Ursula and Rupert’s and Gudrun and Gerald’s affairs, and also deepens Rupert and Gerald’s bond. But these relationships are fated to run very different courses, as Ursula’s conventional concept of love slowly reins in Rupert’s yearnings for multifarious relationships, whilst Gerald pours grief and anger into his partnering with Gudrun, who in turn drifts into an intellectual bond with a gay German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), when the quartet head off for a holiday in the Alps. In a nihilistic rage, Gerald strangles Gudrun almost to death, but then wanders off to freeze to death in the mountains.

Like Lawrence’s novel, most of the captivating, invigorating illustrative vignettes in Russell’s film are loaded into the first half: Tibby and Laura racing each other to the church on their wedding day; Gudrun dancing before bulls like a Cretan priestess, oblivious to danger and given up to art as life in the moment; Hermione’s assault on Rupert and his ritual-like stripping and self-cleansing afterwards in the forest; the fatal drowning of the couple and Rupert and Ursula’s frantic copulation in the bushes, transmuting death-angst into life-spark as the lake is drained to reveal the drowned bodies, the living and dead couples wrapped around each other identically; Gerald wielding the same controlling instinct he pushes on his workers on his horse, in forcing it to remain close to a speeding train; his crazed mother releasing guard dogs on workmen coming to the family mansion. It helps that Lawrence provided such episodes that stick like burrs in the imagination and gave a filmmaker such naturally intense images. Women in Love presents a panoply of thematic tropes and visual motifs Russell would play about with in increasingly effusive and unique terms, and it stands as a definite prototypical work for Russell, who would achieve his most personal and intense extremes in the likes of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Mahler (1974).

Russell did his best work when he was fighting against limitations of not only censorship and cultural expectations but also assumptions of technical competence and traditions of quality – the tension between the formal beauty his traditionally trained cinematographers, editors, and studio hands could give his films and his own anarchic impulses was in fine balance in his ‘70s works. Here Russell’s filmmaking, with the incomparable aid of the great cinematographer Billy Williams, attacks with physical force. They often employ hand-held camerawork, not affected like so much modern wobble-cam stuff, but charged with sweeping energy, to give the film a hungry, compulsive feel. Russell did some of the hand-held work himself in trying to upset the classic delicacies of movie photography. The sense of production detail is impeccable in recreating the ‘20s, with much of the costuming authentic stuff picked up in op shops and thrift stores. Despite this, or maybe because of this, there’s a resistance to the sort of precious, muted air that afflicts most such historical movies, an effect deepened by the material, which in part subverts our stereotypes of the era’s behaviour and personal world-views, whilst also offering up shots like the Crichs’ golden car knifing its way through knots of filthy mine workers, a concise visual nugget that reminds us what all the bohemian cavorting is being supported by. There’s Russell’s own satirical jab back at Lawrence, who, trying to wrestle his way out of the usual class presumptions and rhetoric of his time, seemed to yearn to belong to the upper class bohemians of the Bloomsbury group he nonetheless satirised mercilessly in the novel.

One irony of Women in Love is of course that it could as easily have been called Men in Love, for Rupert and Gerald dominate as much as the two sisters, and Rupert’s channelling of Lawrence’s philosophical articulateness especially, in the first half. Rupert hopes overtly for a kind of deep platonic partnership to counterbalance the familiar man-woman marriage, wanting to establish a kind of blutbrüderschaft with Gerald, expressed after the pair beat hell out of each other in a bout of Japanese-style wrestling as Rupert encourages Gerald to release his emotions following his sister’s death. The nude wrestling scene is famous for some obvious reasons – it was the first time a mainstream English-language feature allowed frontal male nudity, and two big-name actors to boot. But what makes it still a riveting scene is how unabashedly the men carry it out, and how Russell shoots it, even given that he’d worked closely with the censor chief to carefully tweak light levels and framings, nonetheless the scene doesn’t feel especially self-conscious when British cinema had been notoriously clumsy with erotic themes and nudity. Instead Russell here does some of his most vivid editing, ending with the two men entwined like lovers even in inflicting violence on each-other, and indeed the violence takes the place of sexual and emotional release. Russell ratchets up the flicker of homosexual bonding between the pair, apparent in Rupert’s glitter-eyed attempts to get the stiff-necked Gerald to understand his offer of a kind of love. The male romance counterpoints the two more traditional romances, and also the crack-up of Rupert and Hermione’s affair, which mirrors what later happens with Gerald and Gudrun, but with the gender roles reversed.

Although it’s certainly a film with a director’s powerful imprint on it, much of the force and beauty of Women in Love comes from the cast, an almost perfect confluence of talent. Jackson won the Oscar, but the film offers ensemble work of a high character, although I feel Linden’s Ursula is more distinctly whiny and petty than she should be. Amongst the supporting cast, comprising many of Russell’s stock company of actors, Bron is a stand-out. She inhabits Hermione with a mixture of gruesome egotism and defined pathos, particularly excellent in the lengthy dance scene where she both displays physical deftness, but also puts across the peculiar form of violence she’s inflicting on her so-called friends and lover, before her own exclamation of aggrieved disbelief when Rupert tells her he didn’t mean to spoil her dance, “My arse!” Bates, whom Russell reported identified deeply with Lawrence, is fantastic as Rupert, a difficult part to play at the best of times, bringing out the emotional charge, hints of drunkenness, desperation, and bisexual longing throbbing beneath his airy pronouncements: whereas Jackson’s Gudrun communicates the thrill of wilful self-liberation, Rupert suffers from a darker knowledge, of knowing new human paradigms have to be invented to survive. Bates might be at his keenest in the moment when he expounds a lengthy comparison of the fig with femininity, a scene charged with multiple levels of character revelation and tension, as the metaphor means different things to each of the people listening to it. This moment encapsulates indirectly the shift of Rupert’s affections from Hermione to Ursula, as Rupert is being honest, witty, and caddish all at the same time.

Similarly riveting are Russell’s two signal muses, Jackson and Reed, whom he would later often try to replace but usually unsuccessfully. A more different pair in terms of personal outlook is hard to imagine, but both had gusto, fearlessness, and a confrontational style, that well matched Russell’s own. Reed, whom Russell had cast before in several of his telemovies including The Debussy Film (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1965), and would use again in The Devils (1971) and other films, became an ideal vessel for his self-projection, for, as well as bearing a certain resemblance to Russell, he could exude a quality of poeticism filtered through a primitive bluntness. This is exactly correct for portraying Gerald, who in spite of his upper class background and machine-age ambitions, retains a kind of savage volatility in him which first seeks relief in Gudrun’s arms and then begins to metaphorically and then literally throttle her. One of the film’s most riveting scenes comes when, after his father dies and his mad mother has humiliated him, he stalks through the night, dressed as a working man, squeezing the mud from his father’s grave between his fingers and then sneaking into the Brangwen house, where he finds his oblivion in her bed. The next morning, in a marvellous volte face of point of view, she awakens with his bulk upon her, trapping her in bed.

Gudrun takes on Gerald as the only man fearsome enough to take her on, and she the only woman filled with enough energy for both creation and destruction to engage his innermost impulses. Early in the film as he parades about with hookers in one of town’s working class pubs, he encounters her slumming, taunting and despising the working men, one of whom she easily rattles by answering his come-ons with a stated desire to “drown in flesh.” Jackson, who would give another galvanising performance for Russell in The Music Lovers, seems to condense all of the other characters within herself, as well as a total intelligence that refuses to be pinned down, even as she chafes and occasionally shrinks before a world largely hostile to her, which she answers with prickly arrogance. Gudrun’s dance before the cattle, and her gestures throughout, channels the style of Isadora Duncan, about whom Russell had made a telemovie in in 1966. Russell almost always included a dance or mime sequence in his films. This recurring, crucial actualisation of the kinetic-creative force in his characters reflects Russell’s own adolescent training as a ballet dancer, and it’s often through such sequences that his truest, more elegiac impulses, and sometimes also his most humorous and surreal ideas, are communicated. A certain amount of homosexual panic, which underlies Gerald’s simultaneous closeness with and rejection of Rupert, erupts in him as Gudrun, who already tempts something destructive in him, drifts closer to Loerke. But Gerald’s world-view and private madness also can only finally find a sense of conclusion in a totally nihilistic gesture, leaving the film poised in an aspect of depletion and incompleteness, true to the novel, even as the characters all, in a way, find what they’ve been looking for. Of course, in Gerald’s case it’s a tragic end, but one that satisfies and takes to a limit his own impulses, and for the others there is a sense of cost and longing still inflecting their happily ever afters. Women in Love doesn’t so much end as stop, questions still in the air, the unease of the times still heavy upon characters, artists, and audience.


24th 12 - 2008 | 13 comments »

20 Meme Redux: Actors

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Whether this is an official meme or not, I thought it only fair to give the masculine disciples of Thespis their day in the sun. I found out something interesting that piggybacks on something I read last night in Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies: “It is only recently that men have come to monopolize the popularity polls, the credits, and the romantic spotlight allocating to themselves not just the traditional male warrior and adventurer roles, but those of the sex object and glamor queen as well. Back in the twenties and thirties, and to a lesser extent the forties, women were at the center.” When I look over my choices for favorite actors, I see fewer from the Golden Age than I had among the actresses I chose.

If I’m honest, a number of the actors were included for the “hottie” factor, though I also think they’re good at what they do. You’ll also see that I have an inordinate fondness for chubby guys, no doubt an Oedipal connection to my rotund father. I’m somewhat surprised by some of my choices as well—where are Bogey, Grant, Tracy, Newman? Sorry, boys, you lack that je ne sais quoi for me. Choosing photos, I discovered that posing men with cigarettes was quite the thing, so if you’re a man who smokes, you may have been inordinately influenced by the movie image of masculinity.

Once again, here are my favorites in alphabetical order.

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Daniel Auteuil is a prolific French actor who just seems to get better and better. He’s in a lot of the films I see, lending a certain unspoken sadness to each of them. I’m particularly fond of his work in the very touching The Eighth Day and the film from which the above picture was taken Girl on the Bridge. As long as he keeps making pictures, I’ll keep watching them.

Antonio Banderas is absolutely gorgeous, but so are a lot of actors. He makes the list for that and for having a brilliant sense of humor to go along with his swoonworthy qualities. He makes every film he’s in a little better.

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James Cagney is a fave rave of mine from way back. When I was young, I’d set my alarm clock to wake me when one of his movies was on TV in the middle of the night. Time has only shown me that he was more than a schoolgirl crush. He was one of the best actors we’ve ever seen.

Lon Chaney created dozens of amazing characters, undertaking physical distress to play the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the armless carney in The Unknown, and covering his face completely in The Phantom of the Opera. How he managed to make monsters sympathetic under all the make-up is beyond me, but he changed cinema forever by doing so.

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Gary Cooper is the stand-up guy of cinema. Whether he’s playing a humble war hero, a dying ballplayer, or a friendless sheriff, he shows inner strength and courage better than anyone I can think of. I adore him.

Russell Crowe is my swashbuckler for the new millennium. His turn in Master and Commander cemented his stature in my eyes, becoming mythic in a realistic performance. I look forward to basking in his aura for years to come.

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Johnny Depp first became a presence for me on 21 Jump Street. He wore his hair long in front so you couldn’t see his eyes. The network probably made him do that because his gaze is definitely too sexy for prime time. He’s become a fine actor with a particular talent for fantasy and imagination.

Keir Dullea has a quiet intelligence in his best roles. Watching him match wits with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is truly suspenseful, but I really fell for him in The Lathe of Heaven, where he could literally dream a different world.

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Charles Durning is the first of my chubby guys. He’s a wonderful character actor who makes his presence felt wherever he appears, stealing his scenes with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I particularly like him as Charley in Death of a Salesman, truly being the only friend Willie Loman (Hoffman again, can’t that guy catch a break?) says he is. What a gentleman.

Bruno Ganz is a fantastic actor and will cause me to watch a film just because he’s in it. His most memorable role was the angel in Wings of Desire, but I can name so many films that are elevated because he’s in them. Truly a great actor of our time.

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Gregory Hines is another of my hotties. I could watch him dance all day and night. Even just standing around in a cashmere sweater, he seems in magnificent motion. Tap has a place of honor in my film collection.

Boris Karloff has become a favorite of mine ever since I got a chance to see his work in such films as Bedlam and Targets. The latter film especially shows what an elegant, generous actor he was.

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Klaus Kinski was the modern Lon Chaney, as out there as they get. One of the best things about our times is that a guy like Kinski could have a career playing something other than gunsels, though he did that, too.

Marcello Mastrioanni has attained legendary status based on his work with Fellini, but he’s so much more than that. His brilliant comic performance in Divorce, Italian Style showed me a new side of him. I love him. I really do.

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Joel McCrea is an actor who has displaced others I used to admire. His performance in Sullivan’s Travels is fabulous, but it was Ride the High Country that really put him on my radar screen. I’m finding out more about him all the time, and I like what I’m finding.

Eduardo Noriega is the handsomest man alive, and yet, he played against that fact in Open Your Eyes. He was chilling in The Devil’s Backbone. He’s one of Spain’s finest.

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Eugene Pallette is a wonderful character actor who created some indelible characters—Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Papa Bullock in My Man Godfrey, a political boss in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He made a ton of films in the studio system, so I’m constantly pointing delightedly while watching some obscure silent or 30s film and saying, “Eugene Pallette!”

James Stewart is one of the most versatile actors in motion pictures. His inherent likeability and a certain ardent romanticism made his performance in Vertigo both shocking and believable. If we have an everyman in films, he’s it.

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Rudolph Valentino has a small shrine in my office so I can gaze on his magnetic eyes whenever I want to. He jumps off the silent screen with the presence of Garbo, yet he also has a wonderful sense of humor that comes through in such films as The Eagle and Son of the Sheik. I worship him.

Anton Walbrook makes the list on the basis of two performances: Svengali-like Lermontov in The Red Shoes and German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. His range and his intensity are amazing, particularly in the latter film in which he ages 40 years and moves from open youth to sad disillusionment. He’s a wonder.


7th 06 - 2008 | no comment »

Persons of Interest: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Persons of Interest
A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

Frank Cottrell Boyce

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By Roderick Heath

A genre-bending, radically original, yet deftly humane writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce has become one of the major creative forces of modern British cinema. Like one of the loopier heroes he has invoked—Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People (2003)—Boyce inhabits many worlds at once without effort, if not without the odd disaster. Particularly through his partnership with Michael Winterbottom, Boyce has helped weld together previously disparate strands of Cinematic Britannia— the knowing, pop spirit born sometime around A Hard Day’s Night (1964); the mocking allusiveness of the quick-witted Oxfordian best exemplified by Monty Python; the madcap, yet purposeful anachronisms of Ken Russell; the musty highbrow historical and literary classic genre; the gritty, down-and-dirty Loach-and-Leigh realist stream; and a fractured but vivacious post-modernism.
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Boyce found a true collaborator in Winterbottom, a director of enormous inventiveness and unique restlessness of style and theme. Yet Boyce maintains his individuality. A film as anarchic and yet intelligent as Pandaemonium (2000) could only come from the hand also responsible for Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005). Boyce, born in 1961, was an Oxford graduate in English and palaeontology, a detail not unimportant to his writing’s sense of history and humanity entwining in chaotic ways. After working for many years as the TV critic for the magazine Living Marxism, he attempted to break into writing for television proper. After some scattered work, he finished up on a dreary assignment (penning a script for an anti-smoking programme) for a company that also employed frustrated trainee editor Winterbottom. The two met and decided to help each other along.

Both men made their feature film debut with Forget About Me (1990), which made exactly nil impact at the time and yet is now much beloved by a small band of fans. Boyce’s spell as a staff writer on the seminal Brit soap Coronation Street began soon after, the reason, some suggested, that Living Marxism was often seen on sale in the news agency on the show. In 1995, he and Winter- bottom returned for their second butterfly_kiss.jpgshot with the loopy road movie Butterfly Kiss, featuring Amanda Plummer as a mad punkette who accidentally becomes a serial killer whilst falling in love with bewildered Jane Lynch. The film was an earthy mixture of indie grit, new queer cinema, and ’90s-breed film noir, and was a breakthrough.

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Boyce followed up by penning two biopics for director Anand Tucker—the characteristically eccentric Saint-Ex (1996) and the more standard, and acclaimed, Hilary and Jackie (1997). A signature sequence in the latter film, in which Emily Watson’s Jacqueline du Pré and other young classical music students blithely bash out The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” is, in a way, a key to Boyce’s oeuvre. Often in his films, high culture, pop culture, low culture, new and old, collide and transform each-other, making new and witty connections. In his most distinctive scripts, the heroes are fools of fortune caught in webs of past and present, fiction and reality, all mashed together and made inseparable by that tyrannous agent, time. (more…)


14th 02 - 2008 | 8 comments »

Persons of Interest: Roy Scheider

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Roderick Heath

One of the first films I ever saw was Jaws. My first viewing of Jaws was an auspicious event—a double bill with Raiders of the Lost Ark at a university movie theatre when I was five years old. I caught lice from some unkempt member of the collegiate crowd, and my dreams were haunted for weeks afterwards by melting faces and people being masticated by massive teeth. But a love affair with a medium had begun. Once we obtained the movie on videocassette, I memorised it. It’s also the film that made me appreciate acting. With Jaws, Spielberg perfected his Everyman hero, in the shape of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic but resolute Police Chief Martin Brody. Brody reminded me of a skinnier edition of my father, with whom he shared a propensity for singing shanties after sinking a few beers.

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Spielberg chose Scheider, passing on the studio’s pick, Charlton Heston, who, at that stage of his career, was guaranteed to have reduced Brody to a pillar of smarm. Scheider was a bony, self-contained screen presence, pushing 40 when he lurched into the public eye in 1971 with the one-two punch of Klute and The French Connection. Playing Buddy Russo to fellow late bloomer Gene Hackman’s explosive Popeye Doyle, Scheider’s cool provided a perfect counterpoint and the kind of distinctly real presence beloved of the American New Wave. He’d been around the block a few times by that stage. Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1932, he had been a young sportsman, playing baseball and boxing, where he gained his jagged nose, thus joining the long list of male actors who had their features interestingly rearranged in the ring (Yves Montand, Bob Hope, Gabriel Byrne, Mickey Rourke, Liam Neeson, etc). In college, he became interested in theatre, a passion that survived his conscription service.

Scheider’s stage career began professionally when he played Mercutio in a 1961 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, and reached its height when he won an Obie award for the play Stephen D in 1968. His film debut at the age of 32 was in a trash horror epic, The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). His work in TV and film was sporadic until his 1971 breakthrough. His lean physique and toughened, fairly proletarian demeanour first made him appeal as a modern heir to a tradition of screen male presences like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, but with a tougher, savvier, utterly contemporary edge.

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Klute and The French Connection established Scheider as a star of the new urban-noir genre. He followed them up with a memorable turn as Lenny, a creepy hired killer, in Jacques Deray’s uniquely cool Franco-American thriller, Un homme est mort (The Outside Man, 1972). Tracking down Jean-Louis Trintignant’s on-the-lam patsy, Scheider anticipates future merciless forces of underworld thuggishness, like Karl Urban’s super-assassin in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007), taking out hippies and housewives without a blink. At one point, Trintignant attempts to convince him that they’ve both been used, and Scheider promises they will now join forces, but tries to shoot him anyway at the first opportunity.

Scheider was a self-effacing actor, not given to exercises in cunning ham and award grabs that made notable careers for costars like Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, the latter his costar in John Schlesinger’s gritty 1976 opus Marathon Man. Scheider played Hoffman’s older brother, a shady CIA operative who survives one brutally memorable scene: when an assassin tries to garrote Scheider, Scheider gets his hand between the wire and his throat, the wire digging into the flesh of his palm. Scheider played the Yves Montand role in William Friedkin’s big-budget, big-flop remake of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer (1977), and appeared in two Hitchcockian dramas, making for a soulful stand-in for Jimmy Stewart in Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace (1979) and Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982), opposite Meryl Streep’s mysteriously comatose impression of a Hitchcock blonde.

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Hoffman later beat out Scheider in vying for the 1979 Best Actor Oscar, Hoffman for the egregiously bland Kramer Vs Kramer, Scheider for his emotional and physical high-wire act in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Playing Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, Scheider is dynamite in one of the few parts that stretched his capacities to the limit, requiring him to sing and dance as well as put across with compulsive force the drama of a man whose lust for life and creation rapidly destroys him. All That Jazz was and is a litmus test, unbearable to some, hypnotic to me, but I don’t think anyone can doubt Scheider’s commitment to and impact in the role, whether in scenes as grimly memorable as when Gideon tries to ignore his heart palpitations during a cast reading or when he escapes his hospital bed to yak it with a cleaner, or when he sings, in Gideon’s imagined farewell extravaganza, “Bye Bye Love,” with its suddenly meaningful lyric, “I think I’m gonna die!”

Scheider%20Blue_Thunder1%5B1%5D.JPGAt this point, Scheider decided to go back to the stage, winning a Drama League award for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, before returning to the screen for Still of the Night. In 1983, he played another policeman in John Badham’s cheesy techno-crime thriller, Blue Thunder, a film stuffed with almost every fashionable “Screw The Man” cliché of its period. The hero is a haunted Vietnam veteran who tries to expose government corruption and the fascist threat represented by the titular chunk of super-expensive steel, an Apache helicopter, ready to deal with any potential civil disturbances (read “race riots”) during the L.A. Olympics. Scheider’s boss (Malcom McDowell, another terrific actor in B-movie purgatory) was also his ‘Nam commander, lending an edge of national, psychological struggle to their final confrontation as Scheider’s sturdy hero repurposes Blue Thunder to kick authoritarian ass.

Peter Hyams’ 2010 (1984) the sequel to Kubrick’s mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a good film that has been deliberately forgotten mostly because it substituted Kubrick’s poetic mysticism for a more spelt-out, standard, scifi drama. Scheider played Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester in the original), the man who conceived the disastrous Discovery mission to the Black Monolith at Jupiter, and hitches a ride with a Russian salvage expedition to find that HAL 9000 was reprogrammed by evil government types, and that the aliens behind the Monolith are now protecting a new experiment in life-creation, apparently disappointed by the still-festering tribalism of their human progeny. Amidst an excellent cast (including Helen Mirren, Elya Baskin, and John Lithgow), Scheider is laid-back and so unutterably down-to-earth, he slices through the bunk with barely a raised eyebrow and provides an easy emotional centre, like when he holds onto a frightened Russian girl as their spaceship makes a dangerous entry into Jupiter’s gravity. It’s easy to imagine him circumventing the original by demanding in his Jersey honk, “Hal, just open the goddamn pod bay doors, for chrissakes!”

Scheider%204th.jpgHe also contributed to Peter Medak’s sadly trashed but intriguing The Men’s Club (1986), an adaptation of Leonard Michael’s novel, about a group of professional men, aging golden boys all, who attempt to start an encounter group and end up fleeing to the boyish dream world of a high-class brothel. With a few flops behind him and now over 50, Scheider ceased to be a star around this time. He did feature in two substandard John Frankenheimer films, 52 Pick-Up (1986) and The Fourth War (1989). A solid TV movie, Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture (1990), saw him play a photographer documenting an execution who tries to save the condemned man’s life. Steven Spielberg had found a younger, better-looking actor in the Cooperesque mould, Harrison Ford, for the Indiana Jones films, but handed Scheider a good role as the stoic captain of a huge futuristic submarine in the expensive TV series SeaQuest DSV (1993-1995), an ambitious enterprise that unfortunately proved a dull update of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, something Scheider publicly bitched about.

After this, Scheider was officially an aging character actor with more roles than good films to his credit, and a smattering of genuine cult films: David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) and, working for Peter Medak again, the utterly perverse Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). But the last 10 years of Scheider’s career are not much to look at. He had made some missteps from which he never recovered, like not taking the role offered to him in The Deer Hunter that eventually went to Robert De Niro; instead, he made Jaws 2 (1978). He never achieved that sort of late-career recharge that Michael Caine gained with The Cider House Rules or Peter O’Toole had with Troy. Scheider died on February 10, 2008, of bone cancer.

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For most people, he will always be Chief Brody—and that’s fair enough. Jaws still rocks, and remains a rich, tart study of male behaviour. Brody is one of a trio of men engaged in a primal rite of hunting a rampaging beast, the utterly ordinary man between Robert Shaw’s Quint, the ancient mariner and bullying blowhard full of patriarchal arrogance and a Conradian sense of horror, and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, the rich kid with a billion-dollar brain, convinced of his own brilliance. Hooper’s willing to go toe to toe with Quint in a game of one-upmanship, whilst Brody, whom we’ve seen barely able to hold his own against his chaotic family life and politicking small towners, is reduced to watching as they compare scars—he can only glance furtively at his appendix scar. And yet, both Hooper and Quint’s attempts to be technological in taking on the Jungian nightmare gets one of them killed and the other very nearly. Brody is the only one to confront the beast directly with no protection other than his guts and wits, building to one of the great climaxes in cinema, where Scheider’s joyous, triumphant whoop rings in the ears. He’s just as good in the inevitably contrived sequel, Jaws 2, where Brody’s warnings about history repeating get him sacked, even more impotent than before in confronting the indifference of civil authority. He gets drunk and mopes, and the next day, embarrassedly kicks aside a stack of beer cans from the front lawn. You just gotta love the guy. And you know he’s gonna be proved right.


19th 07 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Carol Reed, Robert Wise, and George Cukor are some great directors who gained Oscar triumph for films that were, by their standards, second-rate or impersonal works. So, Martin Scorsese finally gaining his statuette for a patchy remake of a slick Hong Kong crime drama seems almost appropriate. The Departed, an American remake of Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao, 2002), directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, was greeted by many as a return to form, as if the last 15 years of Scorsese’s career hadn’t been a series of virtuoso, chameleonlike experiments.

The appeal of Hong Kong genre cinema—Infernal Affairs included—is due to its dedication to the Old Hollywood formula: simplicity of technique, broadness of appeal, rigour of story craft, and adherence to archetypal. Infernal Affairs plays like a James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart vehicle shot with the style of a Sony commercial, and was made watchable largely by excellent, yet resolutely unshowy, acting by Tony Leung as Chan Wing Yan, a policeman undercover in a mob, Andy Lau as Lau Kin Ming, his opposite, a gangland mole in the police department, and Eric Tsang’s Hon Sam, a perpetually smiling, calmly malevolent godfather.

These three characters become William “Billy” Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), all hailing from the blue-collar, ethnic Irish suburbs of South Boston. What Scorsese and his Bostonian screenwriter William Monahan brought to the material was a sense of local, ethnic, macho culture missing from the original and, for the first hour, a steely sense of social folklore and personal drama, with many unsentimental, amusing observations on class and race in Boston. Scorsese introduces us to the fractured sensibility of the city via news footage of 1960s race riots and the commanding voice of Costello proclaiming “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me!” Costello, kingpin of the Irish mobsters, struts with untouchable confidence. In the late 1980s, he enters a grocery store, makes obscene advances on the owner’s teenage daughter, and recognises the young Colin Sullivan (Conor Donovan) as a boy of potential. (“You do well in school?” “Yeah.” “Good. So did I. They call that a paradox.”) Soon Costello lectures Colin and other talented tykes in the lore of tough-guy necessities: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

Skip forward 15 years or so. Sullivan is in training to join the Massachusetts State Police; so is Costigan, a hot-headed young man whose mother is dying of cancer. Costigan’s uncle was a crime boss, but his father, despite being superlatively tough, rejected the mob and worked his whole life as an airport baggage handler. His mother was from the more genteel end of town. Costigan thus loathes his blue-blood relatives and his criminal kin equally. Departed%207.BMPHe is soon picked as a perfect candidate by two senior officers—the fatherly Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the provocative, profane Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)—to become a mole. Dignam digs at Costigan’s psyche and generally takes the endemic Yankee-Irish verbal abuse to new heights of hilarious insult. Underneath this is a rock-solid commitment to the job at hand, and Costigan is offered some “real police work.” He is to appear to be kicked off the force and jailed for assault, then seek a way to infiltrate the mob. Simultaneously, Sullivan, smooth and confident, is earmarked for rapid promotion. He joins a squad headed by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) that is looking to take Costello down.

Each man soon is engaged in a paranoid duel with a mystery doppelganger burrowed into their home organisation and threatening the other’s safety. Each has a quasipaternal relationship with the monstrous Costello. In this way, with its highly Irish flavour, The Departed becomes a modern-dress remake of Gangs of New York; as a father figure like Bill the Butcher, resplendent in his masculine prowess, Costello lolls with multiple women in bed (under a shower of cocaine no less) dealing with an inadequate son who is not what he pretends to be—except here the son is split into good and bad twins. All three figures are characterized with a depth Infernal Affairs avoided—which in the case of Costello doesn’t achieve much. Initially presented as a cool, intelligent, but utterly savage enforcer, rising in the opening as the cynical voice of a tough and fractured city, Costello enjoys deft verbal tussles with Queenan and Dignam and provokes the local clergy with amusingly vicious admonitions about pederasty and breaking one’s vows with pretty nuns. Yet he dissolves into a dull-witted, cartoonish monster—much, but not all, of which is the fault of Nicholson and his latter-day propensity for showboating. Unlike other corrupt surrogate father figures in Scorsese’s films—Bill the Butcher or Paulie or Jimmy the Gent or even Eddie Felson—Costello is required chiefly to be a monstrous foil in a melodrama.
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Sullivan, like a classic Scorsese antihero, is motivated by desire to get ahead; for him, being both an exceptionally good policeman and Costello’s agent are complementary ideas. He eyes the gold dome of the city hall with hope and ambition, and buys a swanky flat in sight of it. But inner tension manifests itself in a crippled sexuality. With wit and skill, he romances Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a state-employed psychiatrist who deals with police trauma and violent offenders. He coaxes her into a relationship that is troubled by his lack of emotional clarity and bouts of impotence. Costello doesn’t help by making sexual threats towards Madolyn if Sullivan fails him. Costigan has to visit Madolyn both to maintain his cover—she is his court-appointed shrink—and as a relief valve for his assailed psyche. Costigan, whilst in her office, is a ball of scarcely compressed rage and desperation, demanding drugs to numb him from his sleepless agitation. Soon he’s yanking off her underwear when she succumbs to a moment of relationship jitters. The idea of two men sharing a life so tightly interwoven that they sleep with the same woman and still don’t know each other’s identity, seems fit for a truly mind-warping psychodrama, but this doesn’t eventuate. Madolyn, despite her spunk and intelligence, doesn’t get to be much more than sideshow in this orgy of Men’s Business.

Costigan deals drugs with his dimwitted cousin Sean (Kevin Corrigan) and gets a reputation for impressive violence. When he beats up two foot soldiers from Mafia-controlled Providence who are trying to enforce protection in Boston, Costello informs him that unless he intercedes, Costigan will undoubtedly end up whacked. In return for leaving the two hoods in a park with bullets in their heads, Costigan is inducted into Costello’s entourage of thick thugs, which includes his intimidating, but soft-spoken lieutenant, Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Costello’s big score for the year is a stolen shipment of microprocessors that he proceeds to sell to some heavies paid by the Chinese government. Ellerby, Queenan, Dignam, and their men uneasily join to arrest them in the act, but Sullivan has given Costello a chance to make his deal (which is a scam anyway) and escape. With both sides realising they have rats in the ranks, an increasingly loopy Costello sniffs out his own men, most specifically new boy Costigan, whilst Sullivan finds himself handed the alienating but highly convenient task of seeking out the mole in the force. Sullivan promptly uses his new powers to have Queenan followed, hoping he’ll be seen meeting with his man in Costello’s mob. This nearly works; when Queenan meets Costigan in an empty building, Sullivan has Costello’s boys descend on the locale. Costigan slips away, and the frustrated thugs throw a tight-lipped Queenan to his death from the window, prompting a gunfight with the cops watching for him.

Most of the entertainment value of The Departed comes from its souped-up cast, all kept on their toes by Scorsese and armed with fierce dialogue by Monahan. For DiCaprio, it’s possibly the best performance of his career; his efforts to be tough in Gangs of New York and mercurial in The Aviator look pallid compared to the lean, mean, half-mad characterization he presents here of a guy with adrenalin so constantly drugging his synapses he can barely tell black from white anymore. Damon, though fine, has an easier time, largely because he’s played variations on this part before—a benign-seeming young man who is actually emotionally closed-off and inherently dangerous, with deep, underlying social and paternal resentments. It’s more impressive for him to play Jason Bourne, who has many of the same characteristics and is still our hero. Many of the interchanges, particularly those involving Wahlberg’s salty mouth provide classic Scorsese macho confrontations, as cops and hoods gouge each other with insults and epithets, jockeying for supremacy of both competence and attitude. For example, Dignam upbraids an incompetent surveillance with “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Much of this pleasure drains away in the plot-heavy second half, leaving behind the interesting social and character elements. After Queenan’s death, for which Sullivan is blamed, Dignam assaults him and resigns rather than hand over to Sullivan the password for Queenan’s encrypted computer files that contain Costigan’s details. Sullivan sets up Costello in a drug deal; most of the gang perish in the ensuing battle. Sullivan kills Costello himself. This is not so much because, as with Lau Kin Ming in Infernal Affairs, he realises he longs to be a cop and a good guy, but for the less weirdly positive reason that Sullivan feels betrayed on discovering, thanks to Costigan’s digging, that Costello is a federal informant and also is resentful of his brutal father figure. When Costello, coughing up blood, says Sullivan’s been like a son to him, the young man provokes him by suggesting Costello needed a surrogate son because, despite his self-trumpeting sexual capacity, he’s been shooting blanks all these years. The shot Costello takes at him gives Sullivan final cause to fill his abusive patriarch with lead.

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Costigan can finally come in from the cold. Waiting in Sullivan’s office, he recognises an envelope he himself had written on containing all the Costello’s crew personal details on Sullivan’s desk. Costigan realises Sullivan is the mole and flees. Sullivan panics and deletes Costigan’s records from Queenan’s computer. Costigan tries to shake Sullivan’s life to pieces by mailing to Madolyn a recording he dug up of Costello and Sullivan talking. Madolyn is, of course, less than ecstatic. Sullivan goes to a meeting arranged with Costigan, but he has no intention of making a deal, intending instead to take him by surprise and arrest him. “Just fucking kill me!” Sullivan begs. “I am killing you.” Costigan assures him. But Costigan gets his brains splattered all over the wall of an elevator by another cop, Barrigan (James Budge Dale), who reveals himself as a second Costello plant; he also kills Brown (Anthony Anderson), one of the few other officers who remembered Costigan from training. Sullivan shoots Barrigan in the head, eliminating the last known link of him to Costello. Costigan is given a hero’s funeral after Sullivan reports he and Brown died trying to take in the mole Barrigan.

This almost parodic proliferation of brainless bodies is more or less where Infernal Affairs concludes. Instead of giving us two sequels, however, as followed that film, The Departed delivers a sharp coda in which Sullivan, thinking he has triumphed, continues his everyday life, but returns home from grocery shopping to find Dignam waiting in his apartment, armed with a silenced pistol. Dignam has worked out everything and determined to remedy it in the most direct fashion by shooting a resigned Sullivan in the head. The final shot shows a rat crawling across the rail of Sullivan’s apartment, backgrounded by the gold dome towards which Sullivan had looked with hope.

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It’s a symbolic joke that sums up the film itself—gritty, cynical, and funny, but also facile and broad. The self-parodying trend is extended in Nicholson’s performance as Costello literally sniffs out a rat and in one scene, appears bathed in blood with no explanation, like a Monty Python gag. Scorsese’s stylistic imagination is almost entirely quelled, except for some self-referencing snatches, as when his camera makes a lateral dolly past DiCaprio doing push-ups in his cell, a Cape Fear quote. Apparently all a Scorsese film is, according to some people, is swearing, shootings in the head, and Rolling Stones songs played loud. Scorsese felt empowered to make a good genre film by the legacies of directors like Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and Don Siegel, and his hand on the helm ensures the film is constructed with some fearsomely good editing and structuring. The experimentation in story-through-montage in Goodfellas, Casino, and Kundun proves useful for commercial purposes in the fleet-footed skill with which The Departed sets up and puts in motion its story. But with its overly long, overly tricky story, and relatively bland style, The Departed is very much a well-done genre film of today, not one of the superbly done genre films of yesterday. In Scorsese’s best works, social context is everything, but in The Departed, it is thoroughly subordinated to constructing a cops-and-robbers drama. Yet, The Departed feels unusually true to the zeitgeist in that it depicts an age where officialdom is infiltrated by the self-serving and disloyal, and the true warriors are isolated, frustrated, and doomed.

The Departed is Scorsese’s most financially successful film to date, and seems set for the foreseeable future to remain his most mainstream-appreciated work. If nothing else, it stands as the most honourably foul-mouthed Best Picture winner ever. And yet it’s a minor film in his career, one of his least fully realised, garbled in theme and story. It surely won’t be the end of Scorsese the creative force; his next two projects on the books The Silence, about Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan, and The Rise of Teddy Roosevelt, to star DiCaprio as energetic patrician populist, promise meaty material and chances to extend Scorsese’s life-long fascination with religion, cultural struggle, and history.


13th 07 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

The myth of Howard Hughes in his later years, a gnarled weirdo cocooned in a hotel room, casts such a powerful spell that The Aviator’s presentation of the magnate in his youth as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, airman, and lover, was almost bewildering. Inevitable accusations of soft-pedaling dogged it. Indeed, whilst the film is grazing in contemplating genius dissolved by madness, it avoids Hughes the obnoxious control freak, the rabid anti-Communist, anti-unionist, and anti-Semite. The younger Martin Scorsese would have loved tearing apart such a figure and his place in society. But The Aviator was a pet project of star Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off Gangs of New York. The appeal for him was a different Hughes legend, that of the upstart Texan who marched into Hollywood, spent a fortune to make a fortune, and set about doing all the sorts of things we’d like to do if we were young and rich—fly fast planes, make love to gorgeous movie stars, fearlessly boss around money men and politicians, and look good doing it. Michael Mann was originally going to direct, but with Mann tired of doing biopics, DiCaprio offered the reins to Scorsese. The director and DiCaprio’s visions matched in that The Aviator offered Scorsese an opportunity to evoke an era of glamour, electric with cultural action.

Inspired by his dark side and incipient madness, many filmmakers had built stories around that older, troubled Hughes, including Max Ophuls with his 1947 noir Caught, Jonathan Demme and his Melvin and Howard (1980), and even the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971). DiCaprio, screenwriter John Logan, and Scorsese succeeded by realizing that the best way to sell Hughes’ story was primarily as a giddy adventure, keeping one step ahead of Hughes’ assault from within and without. Hughes and the people who jostle in his world, like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Errol Flynn (Jude Law), Hughes’ pet what-the-hell plane designer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), are infinitely much more vivid and interesting than the dullards who populate today’s celebrity and business worlds—including the actors who play them.

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The Aviator follows Hughes’ career beginning in the late 1920s, when he set up the self-financed production of the WWI aviation epic Hell’s Angels, a production that dragged on for years, shifted from a silent to sound production, introduced Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), and ended up costing so much it didn’t make its money back on its first release. Hughes is swiftly introduced as a high-powered young man glad to have finally shoved off the mantle of “junior” with his parents’ deaths (perhaps also signaling DiCaprio’s determination to escape his post-Titanic boy heart-throb status). He’s going to spend his fortune from a company that manufactures drill bits as he wants. Hughes’ independent production is anathema to the Hollywood of the time; Hollywood titan Louis B. Mayer (David DiSantis) mocks his production methods and advises him to go home. At one point, Hughes keeps his fleet of aircraft—the largest private air force in the world—on the ground for months, waiting for clouds, the only way he can communicate to the camera lens, via relative motion, the speed of the aircraft. He hires a UCLA meteorology professor, Fitz (Ian Holm) just to keep an eye out for them. When they finally come, Hughes and his fleet cavort through the clouds to the strains of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” in the first of the film’s brilliant aerial scenes.

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When Hell’s Angels opens, its lavish premiere and rapturous reception make Hughes a star. But cracks are already beginning to show. In a vintage show of Scorsese’s technique, Hughes’ march along the red carpet with Harlow on his arm is a nightmarish experience, as flashbulbs explode (a Scorsese fetish) and shatter under his shoes, the crowd screams deafeningly, a woman hurls herself in front of him, and Hughes, deaf in one ear, can barely hear an interviewer’s questions. His brow, slick with pomade and jazz-baby style, wrinkles with fierce concentration of will just to make it through. It’s the first sign that though he loves courting adulation, it assaults his fragile senses.
aviator_024%20edit.JPGNevertheless Hughes launches a career as a Hollywood producer and playboy. He gets a date with Hepburn using the direct approach—he flies a seaplane to a beachfront set where she’s working with George Cukor and Cary Grant and asks her for a game of golf. In the course of this contest, however, she quickly outpaces him, with her mannish gait and motor-mouthed confidence: “Now we both know the sordid truth: I sweat, and you’re deaf. Aren’t we a fine pair of misfits?” Although their affair is possibly not much more than a fling, The Aviator pitches the Hughes/Hepburn romance as the centerpiece of his romantic life largely for the chance to explore oppositions—Hughes’ Texan industrialist rough edges against Hepburn’s Brahmin poise. Blanchett’s sharp, if initially broad, performance (the fifth in a Scorsese film to get an Oscar) aids her creating a portrait of Hepburn patterned after her signature character, Tracy Lord, from The Philadelphia Story—an apt characterization as Lord was in turn built around Hepburn’s persona. Hughes snares Hepburn by treating her to uncommon pleasures, like flying her by her night over Los Angeles, and keeps her dazzled with his energy. She quickly deduces Hughes’ underlying fragility, and warns him: “Howard, we’re not like everyone else. Too many acute angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in, or they’ll make us into freaks.”

Hepburn comes from an arty old-money Connecticut family (her ex-husband lives with them). When she takes Howard to meet them, his true pride in his work and talents is swamped by familial blather and pseudo-intellectual talk. When Hepburn’s mother (Frances Conroy) casually says, “We don’t care about money here,” Hughes irritably ripostes, “That’s because you’ve always had it!” This places Hughes firmly among Scorsese’s socially resentful heroes. Though rich from birth, Hughes sees himself as combating “high-hat Ivy League assholes” and corporate giants like Pan-Am with earthy grit and old-school American can-do. His mix of neurosis and down-home intransigence spectacularly annoys Hepburn. One fight between the combustible pair results in her heading to a film set in tears, where Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke) asks her what’s wrong. “There’s too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes.” she sniffs, focusing on the actor who will soon fill her life instead. When she officially busts up with Hughes, he is snaky: “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You’re a movie star, nothing more!” Yet later he will intervene when a photographer (Willem Dafoe) plans to publish pictures of her and Tracy, who is still married to someone else.
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Simultaneously, Hughes is conquering aviation. He achieves tremendous fame when he flies around the world. He and Odekirk work on a racing plane, which eventually becomes the fastest aircraft in the world. The H-1, which, when he flies it, breaks a speed record before running out of petrol, forcing Hughes to crash-land in a beet field; Hepburn at first mistakes the juice caking his legs for blood. Soon he’s taking over TWA and competing with Pan Am’s lethally smooth boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) for the future of commercial aviation. Key to his efforts is the new fleet of Lockheed Constellations. He also helps the U.S. Army’s war effort by producing the spy-plane XF-11 (“My Buck Rogers ship”) and his behemoth transport plane, the H-4 Hercules, also called the Spruce Goose. Such efforts anticipated today’s tactical and commercial airships, but were pursued with wild abandon; Hughes orders his frazzled manager Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to hock assets, ignore shareholders, and generally spend fortunes on his latest wild idea. Hughes approaches business like a sport, delighting in defying belief and beating competitors, even as it slowly tears his mental muscle to ribbons.

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Scorsese goes to town in evoking the thrill of Old Hollywood, as when Hughes and Hepburn visit the Cocoanut Grove, playground of Hollywood’s A listers, where dancing girls ride on swings and gloriously corny 1930s-style singers perform. Hughes and Hepburn are pestered by Errol Flynn (Law), who picks a pea off Hughes’ plate, preventing Hughes from being able to touch his meal, before Flynn gets in a fight with a man who calls him a “Limey bastard.” “I’m a Tasmanian bastard, you ignorant prick!” Flynn responds before ironing him out. It’s the most entertaining scene of Law’s career. The film’s visuals reproduce the effect of two-strip Technicolor, which Hughes used to shoot some of Hell’s Angels. He moves to the ripeness of three-strip Technicolor, making for gloriously weird effects, as the peas on Hughes’ plate appear turquoise. DP Robert Richardson won an Oscar for the film, though these effects were done post-production. Oddly enough, considering cinephilia has powered so much of his oeuvre, The Aviator is also the first Scorsese film to portray film-making and the movie world.

Hughes’ mental state begins to deteriorate after Hepburn leaves him. He incinerates all his clothes and searches for a new starlet to mould, interviewing ingénue Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) at night in a hangar. Hughes is seated in forbidding shadow, foreshadowing his ultimate retreat into monstrous isolation. When she tells him she’s 15, he mutters “Holy Mary, mother of God.” This doesn’t stop him romancing her and Ava Gardner simultaneously. Gardner, fiercely independent, resists Hughes’ romantic style of buying a girl, and mocks his personal cheapness. When Hughes takes Gardner out to dinner, a furiously jealous Domergue crashes her car into theirs—if only she’d ever been that spunky in her acting career! Later Gardner physically assaults Hughes and drives him from her house when she finds he’s been bugging her place: “What do you mean, all the microphones?”

Hughes finally cracks in the wake of a terrible crash—a tremendously powerful cinematic sequence in which the XF-11 falls from the sky and crashes into suburban Los Angeles. Hughes is almost pulped, and spends months recovering. His ambition for TWA to compete with Pan Am in post-War transatlantic trade results in Trippe calling in favors from bought-and-paid-for Maine senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who proceeds to hound Hughes through several Senate committees and reinforce Pan Am’s monopoly with legislature. The Civil Aviation Board grounds all Constellations after a crash, threatening TWA’s future. Treating Howard to a luncheon in his New York hotel room, Brewster presses him to sell out to Pan Am, before he spills the dirt he’s collected and brands him a war profiteer for money Hughes made on the XF-11 and the Hercules. Brewster coolly assumes the mantle of government authority: “We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?” The combined effect of all this drives Hughes to lock himself in his office for months, spiraling into a prolonged obsessive-compulsive fit.

Although efficient, Logan’s script is one of the most standard and Hollywoodish of Scorsese’s films. And yet, under the candy-colored gloss of The Aviator is an acute portrait a man in whom genius and mental illness were intricately linked. Hughes’ business in the 1960s reflected his own paranoia, as he made listening devices for the government. The Aviator opens with a warm yet creepy scene from Hughes’ childhood, where his beautiful mother Allene (Amy Sloan) washes him down at a disturbingly advanced age in a tin bath, making him spell the word “Q-u-a-r-a-n-t-i-n-e” and harping on about outbreaks of illness. From this point of textbook Freud onwards, Hughes’ obsessions are delicately entwined, especially his sensual thrills. The erotic satisfaction Hughes gains in flying—he needs to fly in front of clouds that look like “giant breasts full of milk,” and caresses the skin of the H-4 like that of a woman—matches his fixation on large breasts and his desire for cleanliness. He swills milk, both because of its maternal and sexual associations and because it’s reliably disease-free. He alternates design discussions over the Hercules with blueprints, aviator_016%20edit.JPGindiscernibly different, of the cantilever bra he’s designed to show off Jane Russell’s boobs when he directed her in her debut film, The Outlaw. Hughes’ eroticisation of technology predicts a strong tendency today in everything from advertising to pornography. He can swap bodily fluids with all the women in the universe, yet still fear touching a steering wheel because of the association he has between sleek curves and cleanliness. “I want her clean, Odie!” he commands in reducing the wind resistance of rivets on the H-1.

Scorsese reveals Hughes’ brain as working like a supercomputer in one scene when he refocuses his attention to the Hercules’ design; Scorsese inserts quick-scrolling blueprint images. Shortly thereafter, Hughes fixates on a sweeper, his simple acts imbued with alien quality, establishing a direct link in film-making between Hughes’ mind working precisely and Hughes’ mind working faultily. His commitment to detail underpins both his success and his ultimate collapse into obsessive-compulsive disorder. Increasingly, Hughes deals with moments of romantic or business trial by retreating to the bathroom and furiously scrubbing his hands with a cake of soap he keeps in a tin. In a grimly funny scene, after such a cleansing session following a run-in with Trippe, he realizes he can’t touch the doorknob to leave the washroom.
Once Howard locks himself in his office, his disease runs riot as he endlessly repeats phrases, strips naked, and fills up precisely placed milk bottles with his own urine. He watches his films in endless loops, Jane Russell’s lips constantly zooming up like an offering of sexual annihilation, or violence from Hell’s Angels projected on his body evokes his mental and physical agony. Hepburn’s entreaties at his door are ineffectual. He receives a provocative visit by Trippe, promising his destruction in public hearings Brewster is holding. Trippe even blows smoke through the keyhole to irritate him. Hughes soon gathers himself together enough to leave his office, and lets Ava clean him up. Hughes proceeds to reduce Brewster’s interrogation to comedy, turning all of his questions back and effectively answering all charges. He proceeds to give the Hercules its first and only flight, managing to coax the mammoth plane whose size and shape predicts the airbus, into the air. It’s a rousing moment, but Scorsese delivers a mean sucker punch of an anticlimax, as Howard, raving to Gardner, Dietrich, and Odekirk about the coming jet age, spies white-gloved handlers who his brain processes once again as alien, and begins repeating the line, “The way of the future,” over and over. And over and over. Escorted into a toilet to get a grip, Howard gives up trying to control it, staring at himself in the mirror, still repeating “The way of the future”—a phrase that winds together his vision of progress and an acceptance, even an embrace, of his fate, retreating into solitary, self-obsessed dissolution.

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The portrait of a man who wins everything but loses to himself is heartland Scorsese territory, but The Aviator lacks the lacerating weirdness of Raging Bull or his other portraits of humans who stake their souls on victory in the rat race. That’s not to condemn the film, which, though Scorsese’s brilliance comes in short bursts rather than rapid fire, moves sleekly and with huge entertainment value for nearly three hours. The film is much like DiCaprio’s performance at the center; dynamic, sustained, delightful, but lacking the manly muscle and loopy, personal force of its precursors. l


5th 07 - 2007 | 1 comment »

Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

“The blood stays on the blade,” Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) tells his young son Amsterdam (Cian McCormack) as he slices his cheek with a razor blade, inducting the boy into a creed of macho lore. Priest shows him a medal of St. Michael: “He cast Satan out of paradise!” GONY%20cross.BMPFather, holding an iron Celtic cross, leads Son and a gathering army of jostling tribes—Celts, Africans, sheer barbarians—out of an underground labyrinth. These warriors inclue Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), who’s filed her teeth into fangs, McGloin (Gary Lewis), and Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). Their rise to the day passes through eons; from Neolithic depths to the medieval squalor of the Old Bakery building, used as a home by immigrant families. Pounding on the soundtrack is a “shammy,” a military march with a syncopated tin whistle, a Civil War style that eventually mutated into jazz. Like a negotiation between Agamemnon and Achilles, Priest briefly discusses payment to take part in battle with Walter “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), who wields a club riddled with notches for men he’s laid low, before Monk kicks the doors open on the snow-crusted amphitheatre of Paradise Square, the Five Points, New York, 1846.

This great opening sequence lays out the scheme of Gangs of New York, a devolution of American society and a study of the nature of myth—the way cultural memory is transmitted through legendary narrative. Its plot evokes The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Saul and David, and many other legends, tied to a factual work of social history. The germ for the film was planted when, as a boy, Scorsese heard a piece of Catholic New York folklore, of communal resistance to an attempt by Protestant Nativists to burn down a Catholic Church. Scorsese re-encountered the tale in the book The Gangs of New York by demimonde historian Herbert Asbury, published in the 1920s. For 31 years, Scorsese tried to turn that work into a movie. He finally got the money from Miramax, shooting the film on detailed sets at Cinecitta, home of the Italian film industry and of so many epic film productions. The film was supposed to do for Scorsese what Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan did for Steven Spielberg—garner him an Oscar, which, of course, it did not. Scorsese wanted The Clash to act in the film when he tried to make it in the 1970s, and heavy doses of such punk spirit, period cynicism, and black comedy drive the film, rather than an easily laudable “quality” aesthetic.

The germ for the core subject of Gangs of New York was found in the true tale of Bill Poole, a Nativist-affiliated enforcer, probably assassinated by the son of an Irish immigrant he had murdered. Scorsese had screenwriter Jay Cocks pen a script, refined later by Kenneth Lonnergan and Steven Zaillian, telling the story of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), who leads the Federation of American Natives to challenge Priest’s Dead Rabbits and allied Irish gangs in a fateful rumble. Bill claims the mantle of his father, killed in the War of 1812, as a defender of his nation from “the foreign hordes.” The gang members, outcasts and victims of Empires, drag power out of the earth and wield it fearlessly in this recklessly created New World. Their titanic street battle is a whirl of cracked skulls, torn mouths, gouged eyes, bitten-off ears. Bill kills Priest, whom he declares an honourable enemy. He outlaws the Dead Rabbits and orders Amsterdam committed to Hellgate Asylum.

When Amsterdam has grown into the glowering adult form of Leonardo DiCaprio, he is released from Hellgate, given a bible by the warden, and told “God has forgiven you. Now you must learn to forgive.” Amsterdam throws the bible off a bridge as he walks back to Manhattan, and retrieves from the now-emptied caves below the Old Bakery his St. Michael medal and a knife of his father’s. He is assaulted by, but easily beats, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) and Negro pal Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard Jr.); Johnny had, as a boy, aided Amsterdam in his attempt to escape the Butcher’s men, and Amsterdam falls in with their gang of petty thieves. Monk now runs a barber shop. Amsterdam learns that Bill, in an annual act of political theatre, commemorates his killing of Priest by drinking a flaming glass of alcohol before his assembled court. Amsterdam determines to kill him in the act.

New York is kaleidoscopic with nationalities, brisk patricians and vigorous plebeians, a seething society trying to cut out its two cancers—slavery and poverty—before they become terminal. The Civil War is hurting. Irish immigrants streaming off the boats are shoved into uniforms and shipped off to fight the Confederates. The first draft in U.S. history is about to begin, spreading discontent amongst the poor who can’t cough up the $300 to be exempted. Bill likes to throw knives at Lincoln’s posters as his bully boys, who now include McGloin, assault Negro freemen. McGloin typifies the racism of Irish immigrants, displacing the loathing directed at them onto blacks.
gony12%5B1%5D.BMPPresiding over the city is the Tammany Hall boss William Tweed (Jim Broadbent). He governs through bribes, vote-cramming, dirt-dealing, and back-stabbing. Tweed makes overtures to Bill, wanting him to aid the Tammany machine with muscle work, clobbering political opponents and mustering the voting power of the slums. “The appearance of the law must be upheld,” Tweed asserts, “especially when it’s being broken.” Bill perceives himself the emperor of the underclass, his strength, the streets that converge on Paradise Square: “Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.” Public utilities are a tool of such politics; volunteer fire services in the town war with each other and rob burning houses. A brawl between a team sponsored by Tweed and another gives Amsterdam and Johnny an opportunity to brave the flames and get the loot. From the window, Amsterdam catches sight of Bill riding on a fire engine to Tweed’s aid, bathed in demonic red with Melvillian portent. Amsterdam and his gang must share spoils with Happy Jack, now an extremely corrupt policeman, and with Bill, whom Amsterdam and Johnny pay off at Satan’s Circus, the saloon he holds court in. They’re treated to the sight of Bill stabbing a man he plays cards with in the hand for making small bets, then assuring the boys, “Come closer, I won’t bite.”

Bill gives the lads a lucrative score, a Portuguese ship in the harbour. They find the crew’s been massacred by another gang. Amsterdam steals away the captain’s body and sells it to science. Bill congratulates them: “They made the Police Gazette, a periodical of note.” He soon finds himself drawn close by Bill, a trusted lieutenant for his well-proven smarts and toughness; Bill clearly fancies Amsterdam as a surrogate son. Bill, who really is a butcher by trade, educates him in the finer points of knife fighting on a pig carcass. The Natives attend a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which an actor playing Lincoln preaches harmony. They pelt the actors with missiles. In the ruckus, an assassin tries to shoot Bill. Amsterdam reflexively tackles and kills him, and Bill’s wound is slight. Amsterdam is stricken over his confused impulses, and Monk, having recognised him, questions him pointedly about his intentions.

The link between the Democratic Party and the Irish that eventually produced JFK begins here, when Bill, having rejected entirely the idea of courting the immigrant vote (“If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I’d shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil!”) forces Tweed to reject the Nativists and embrace the Irish. “You’re turning your back on the future,” Tweed warns. “Not our future,” Bill replies.

The soundtrack jostles with folk music, Irish shanties, African laments, field-hand chorals, and Chinese melodies, all of which one day will be compressed into American pop music. Scorsese’s camera laps up the antique, pimped-up styling the gangs affect, eyeing the roots not just for his own films’ social studies, but for the popularity of gangster and Western films, punk music and gangsta rap, in the power-defying showiness of these criminal-warriors. The film mixes physical realism and grand theatricality. Scorsese references Visconti again—he frames advancing soldiers after the Battle of Palermo sequence of The Leopard (1963). His staging of fights and baroque sense of period style evokes Sergio Leone, John Ford, even Samuel Fuller, as he has singers walking through shots, for example, when Finbar Furey, as a publican, plays to the camera like a congenial host to a patron, sings the period ditty “New York Girls” as we explore Satan’s Circus. Pitch-black comedy gives the film idiosyncratic punch, like in a public execution where the bailiff disgustedly announces crimes that includes “sodomy!” or when Bill pretends to cry over the corpse of a “poor, defenceless little rabbit” gony6%5B1%5D.BMPJenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket, comes into Amsterdam’s life. Rescued off the street as a child by Bill, she became his lover before having an abortion that left her scarred, something Bill can’t abide. Amsterdam and Jenny’s encounters are fraught with mutual loathing and sexual attraction, which comes to a head when she steals his St. Michael medal, prompting him to trail her across town to get it back. When churchmen who are rebuilding the Old Bakery as a Church hold a dance, everyone flocks there, including transvestite prostitutes who solicit incredulity from the ecumenical Minister (Alec McCowen). Johnny, severely smitten by Jenny, is heartbroken when she chooses to dance with Amsterdam. Their later attempt to rut on the docks ceases abruptly when Amsterdam realises she is “the Butcher’s leavings.”

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After the assassination attempt, Bill and Amsterdam retreat to a brothel; Jenny tends Bill’s wound as the men lounge with bare-breasted prostitutes and smoke opium. Bill watches Jimmy Spoils dancing to a jig, and comments, “An Irish ditty mixed with the rhythms of a dark continent, stirred to a fine American mess.” Despite himself, Bill is aware of what is happening to his country. He beds three women, each a different colour, whilst Jenny and flag_bill%5B1%5D.BMPAmsterdam have a noisy quarrel (“Is there anyone in the Five Points you haven’t fucked?” “Yes, you!”) that turns into vigorous sex. Amsterdamawakens in the morning to Bill, seated by his bed with Old Glory wrapped around his shoulders, recalling how Priest had given him a severe beating in their first fight. Bill punished himself for flinching from Priest by plucking out his left eye (he now sports a glass one with an bald eagle painted in place of the pupil) before returning strong enough to kill Priest. At 47, Bill says he has kept power by “the spectacle of fearsome acts.”

Jealous, Johnny spills Amsterdam’s ancestry to Bill. When, finally, Amsterdam throws a knife at Bill as he’s drinking his fiery liquor, Bill parries the blade with dazzling skill and plants his own in Amsterdam’s belly. He offers a spectacle of murder for the baying crowd, but, respecting the chance Priest gave him, restrains his abuse of Amsterdam to beating him terribly and scarring him. Jenny spirits Amsterdam away to the caverns, where he spends months recuperating. He is visited by Monk, who gives him what he secretly preserved, Priest’s straight-razor, his symbol of blood responsibility. Monk expects to answer to God for his killings, as opposed to Bill, who considers himself a divine wind. “Your father tried to carve out a corner of this land for his tribe,” he recalls. “That was him, that was his Dead Rabbits.”

Amsterdam re-emerges from underground and hangs slaughtered rabbits in the square to announce his return and the return of his father’s ideals. Soon Amsterdam draws all his friends back, hiding in and defending the Catholic Church’s construction. They embrace their religion as well as a mission to build a safe Irish enclave. When McGloin visits to pray, he’s outraged that Jimmy Spoils is present; when he squeals about it to the church’s long-haired, one-armed, radical priest (Peter-Hugo Daly), the priest wallops him over the head. In retaliation, Bill and the Natives come to incinerate the building, but find it protected by massed ranks including families. Even Bill won’t go that far. Johnny and Happy Jack soon die in tit-for-tat killings. Tweed proposes to Amsterdam that he swing Irish support behind Tammany. Amsterdam proposes Monk for the office of Sheriff. With the aid of Tweed’s electoral shenanigans, Monk gains “a Roman triumph.” But Bill, before shocked onlookers, viciously assassinates Monk.

Bills and Amsterdam’s relationship, like several in Scorsese’s oeuvre, is as a surrogate paternal relationship, man and boy drawn to each other through mutual appreciation of the others’ strengths, and ultimately drawn to destroy each other, loaded with jealousies and sexual strife. DiCaprio inhabits Amsterdam with a fair intensity, though he lacks indelible grit as a young hard case or ease with his deliberately weird Irish-American accent. Bill and Amsterdam act out several forms of division, with Amsterdam a man straddling Bill’s dinosaur bellicosity and thoughts of a new, more hopeful world. Jenny, daughter/lover to Bill, mother/sister/lover to Amsterdam, loves each in different ways. Her attraction is Amsterdam is at first that between two rodents—tough, cunning, ruthless, but morally innocent. Violence in this embryonic world flavors all things, including sexuality. Jenny kisses Amsterdam’s scars, marks of survival from Hellgate, after showing him her Caesarian scar, a sacrament of flesh for their physical and mental pains. Written on their bodies is the violent growth of their selves and the world about them.

Bill dominates the film, and not just because of Day-Lewis’s epic, perversely witty performance. He is one of the last Titans, a creature of great physical prowess with a warrior-poet’s soul belonging to a premechanical age. He is obsessed with purity, physical, racial, and cultural. In this regard, he resembles Travis Bickle. Bill’s sense of the physical is intensely spiritual, and enacts totemic punishment on flesh—cutting out his own eye, searing Amsterdam’s face for failing to act like a man. He cannot touch Jenny’s torn body lest it speak to him of the violence, decay, and waste that otherwise surrounds him. He respects the code of honorable warriors and detests the cult of commonality, which is why he feels justified in assassinating Monk dishonorably. It’s also one of his “spectacles of fearsome acts,” a declaration that he will not yield to Amsterdam’s efforts at egalitarianism without a fight. The death of the warlords will come by the sword.

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Incensed by Monk’s death, Amsterdam challenges Bill to a gang fight. Simultaneously, the beginning of the draft causes New York’s working classes rise up with virulent fury. In all of Scorsese’s films, class and ethnic tensions simmer; here is a nightmare vision of when America’s mostly closeted skeletons of race and caste resentment emerge. Scorsese observes the root of American distrust of high culture; pop culture emerges from the chaotic swirl of the lower classes. The rich propagate high culture in their mansions; as rioters torch their shiny elegance, troves of classical-style paintings burn up. So, too, do political fliers showing the linked faces of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Jimmy Spoils is lynched by the mob along with many other blacks. Jenny only avoids being murdered by shooting a woman. Warships pummel the city, soldiers shoot rioters, and the streets run with blood. McGloin is gunned down, and Amsterdam and Bill fight in a dust cloud before another shell plants a shard of shrapnel in Bill’s side. “Thank god, I die a true American,” he says before allowing Amsterdam the coup de grace; he dies clutching the young man’s hand. The city is a burning, shattered mess, corpses laid out in long lines. Amsterdam attests, “All that we knew was mightily swept away.”

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The final shot is as great as the opening, as Amsterdam and Jenny pay tribute at Priest’s and Bill’s graves, side-by-side in a graveyard overlooking lower Manhattan. As they leave the frame, the burning skyline of a haunted city fades through phases in the Manhattan skyline, finally resting at the end of the 20th century, the Twin Towers still in place.


27th 06 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

1999 was one of the most important years for modern American film, as a rash of works by new auteurs and entries from older ones sparked controversy and conversation right across the new audience of cinephiles. In contrast with end-of-millennium positivism and alt-capitalist dreams of the dot-com boom, political and social cynicism reigned in films after the wasted opportunities of the Clinton administration; the year of the Seattle anti-globalization riots found much rhyme between street and screen. Several of the year’s most striking films, as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix, and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, presented noir-influenced portraits of social disintegration, wars of anarchy and nihilism played out within psyches, societies, and individuals, in hallucinations and digital realms and fantasy worlds, often within a compressed time period—a dark night of the soul indeed.

Scorsese’s impact on other filmmakers was finally becoming indelible, though audiences seemed to prefer him present in spirit rather than in new works themselves. Taxi Driver’s sociopathic spirit possesses Fight Club; Magnolia marries the disparate influence of Scorsese’s with that of his most serious rival for greatest modern American director, Robert Altman. After Casino, Scorsese made two aggressively noncommercial films that expanded his high-montage aesthetic to examine in the conscientious souls of the world. Kundun (1997), a portrait of the young Dalai Lama, is Scorsese’s most abstract film, conjuring a visual tapestry in observing his hero attain a state of grace in the face of suffering and massive loss.

Bringing Out the Dead is intricately linked with Kundun, and also with Taxi Driver, to which it stands as a kind of response or repudiation whilst diving back into its nocturne-New York landscape. Scorsese had Paul Schrader pen the script, their first collaboration in 11 years, adapting a novel by former ambulance medic Joe Connelly detailing the pressures of that job in early 1990s New York. Where Travis Bickle surveyed his surroundings from his taxi with utmost misanthropy, Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) feels soul-crushing sympathy for the city that pulsates around him with crime, social disasters, and countless ghosts. Frank’s worked as an ambulance medic for five years, on graveyard shift. It’s been months since he saved anyone, since his ill-fated encounter with 18-year-old streetwalker Rose (Cynthia Roman), where attempts to get her breathing again resulted in her oxygen tube constantly going into her stomach instead of her lungs.

Now Frank is assailed by troubled sleep and nights at work alternating between near-hysteria and catatonic observation, jolting back shots of bourbon to get him through, seeing Rose’s face projected onto every potential patient on the streets. The film unfolds on three nights, on each of which Frank has a different partner; on Thursday, chubby, cheery, ambitious Larry (John Goodman); on Friday, evangelizing sex-obsessive Marcus (Ving Rhames), and on Saturday, sleazy nutball Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore), Frank’s ex-permanent partner, with whom he was once “legends in their own lunch hour,” as their sarcastic dispatcher (Scorsese) recalls. On the Thursday night, hot and greasy, with a full moon to boot, Frank and Larry are called to a family residence to treat a mannamed Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson) who’s suffered a heart attack. As the medics labour to restart the man’s heart, Frank advises his family to play music the man likes—Sinatra—mainly to give them something to do. Lo and behold, the man starts to respond. Amongst the family, it’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) who seems both the most anguished and alert; she wants to ride in the ambulance, but Frank instead advises her to drive her family, who need her composure.

BOTD3.jpgFrank and Larry truck Burke to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, called Our Lady of Misery by the mordant medicos, a Hades whose Cerberus is fierce security guard Griss (Afemo Omilami). He constantly faces down a jabbering army of relatives and hangabouts with his signature threat: “Don’t make me take off my sunglasses!” Inside, charge nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt) sarcastically interrogates myriad alcoholics and junkies; the hallways are crowded with casualties; the patient’s arrival is greeted with groans from the doctor on duty, Hazmat (Nestor Serrano); “You told me he was dead, flat-line!” “He got better.” Mary recognizes one patient, Noel (Marc Anthony), pest to everyone else but someone her father had let stay in the family flat in his troubled youth. Noel’s strapped to his stretcher, crying for water, which no one will provide as Hazmat has diagnosed him with a liver condition. Mary unties him, and Noel runs to a fountain to guzzle. Mary explains with glassy tears that she can’t stand to see anyone, let alone Noel, tied down.

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Partly out of pity and partly because he’s attracted to her bruised and melancholy beauty, over the next two days, Frank buys Mary pizza in between jobsand gives her rides to the hospital. In one gorgeous moment, the pair sits in the rear of the ambulance, rocking against each other, and Mary can barely restrain laughter. Mary offloads her anxieties to the routinely receptive Frank, explaining her and her father’s troubled relationship with her father—she had wished he would die, but now only longs for a chance to talk to him once more. Mary’s a recovering drug addict. “You probably picked me up once or twice,” she muses to Frank.

The medics like to ride to the rescue in life-and-death situations, and feel insulted when, too often the case, they merely cart around a regular clientele of substance abusers, mentally ill, and homeless. Also troubling them is a deadly new street drug, Red Death, that is causing a procession of ODs. With Scorsese’s customary propelling soundtrack, most importantly Van Morrison’s scorching blues “T.B. Sheets”, the film moves within tones of blood red and bright white light against molasses black; Frank feels like he lives in an underworld, and Robert Richardson’s camera aids Scorsese in conjuring an urban tale told by Poe.

Frank and Larry soon deal with Noel again; he’s suicidal and lays in the middle of a street to be run over. Frank gets him to come back to the hospital on the promise of giving him his choice of suicide methods (“Pills. Definitely pills!”). They’re diverted to a multiple shooting in which two young men have been wounded, Red Death vials scattered around them. Frank drafts Noel’s help as he tries to save one in the race back to the hospital; they arrive just as the man, who tearfully vows that he does not want to die and will join the army, expires. Noel promptly runs off at the sight of raw death.

Bringing Out the Dead shows impeccable tonal command. The film could have been a grueling or boring exercise, but Scorsese handles beautifully the alternation of adrenalin-provoking jobs and nocturnal chaos—the sheer visceral thrill and black humor of which keeps the medics, and us, interested—with moments of calm and melancholy, bleary daylight exhaustion and peace-seeking. Frank hopes he’ll be fired by his frazzled, motherly, male boss Captain Barney (Arthur Nascarella). But no one gets fired from this job, they’re too hard-up for staff, and wear and tear on individuals is inevitable; “I promise, I’ll fire you tomorrow!” Barney assures.Frank meditates on the pleasure of saving a life: “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see…God has passed through you…why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”

botd5.jpgFrank’s three partners all contrast Frank in their ways of coping, or not coping. Larry plans his meals assiduously and anticipates a day when “it’ll be Boss Larry calling the shots.” Marcus radiates religious passion, and the film’s black comedy highlight has Marcus making a bunch of Goths hold hands and pray whilst Frank resuscitates one of their friends from a Red Death overdose. He also taunts prostitutes with handfuls of cash and flirts relentlessly over the CB with Love (Queen Latifah), the alternate dispatcher whom he once took out on a date that ended with her hitting him over the head. When Marcus decides, against Frank’s pleas, to make an extra trip for the night and guns the motor, he crashes, flipping the vehicle on its side, a wreck from which Frank crawls in giddy laughter. Tom Wolls is completely split at the seams, on the far side of the chasm Frank’s trying to avoid falling into; Tom plans to beat Noel to death for being a nuisance.

The film is littered with wry observations of modern American racial and sexual politics; Griss can be seen reading a book called “Black Robes, White Justice”; Marcus claims “I never mixes my seed;” Mary, in her druggy daze, questions if Frank his Galahad attentiveness means he wants to fuck her (“Everybody else has…”). But despite the social-realist concerns of the film, Scorsese gives the film a surreal, voodoo-noir edge. Religious imagery and references are implied constantly—from the Plague cites (its title, the Red Death) inward—not with a proselytizing purpose, but with a conscientious irony. The names of the hospitals, even the schools Frank and Mary attended, present ingrained religious ideas that underlie these strenuous efforts to survive and heal. The pair are both from this neighborhood, but where Mary’s family stuck around, Frank’s took the path of white flight and may account in part for his guilty zeal. Frank encounters a “virgin birth” when he and Marcus help two Hispanic kids in a crack house, the male of whom assures them his girl can’t be pregnant because, as he proudly announces, “We’re virgins!” Frank also attends resurrections—of Burke and the Goth boy—and equivalents of crucifixions.

There’s also a seductive devil. Mary spends a second grinding night at the hospital, with her father constantly going into cardiac arrest, fighting for his life. In the morning, she goes to see Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis), a local drug kingpin, in desperate need of some emotional numbing. Frank promises to watch out for her and eventually follows her up to Coates’ apartment, a tranquil harbor where Cy holds court with his afro-haired girlfriend and various henchmen. Cy is a silk-tongued, effetely friendly magician of intoxicants who decries the Red Death as “poison”; he has his boys looking to deal with its dealers, and proposes himself as a community-minded man, which Mary later ridicules, knowing that Cy or one of his goons put the bullet in Noel’s head that has made him crazy. With Mary unconscious, Frank lets Cy slip him a downer. Frank plummets into a hallucinogenic dream where he struggles to aid an army of ghosts in escaping the earth, and then relives Rose’s death, where snow rises back into the sky. Frank awakens in screaming rage and drags the stoned Mary from Cy’s place, before collapsing in her apartment. When he awakes, he muses beatifically on the joys of washing his hands with her scented bars of soap.
BOTD2.jpgCage was in one of his periodic disgraces for appearing in too many action films (around this time, I heard Cage described by one critic as a ham and by another as wooden) after his Oscar win for the tawdry, faux-realist Leaving Las Vegas (1996). But Cage fulfills his role as Frank with a haunted grace and hard emotional commitment. Like another underrecognized, late-career classic, Kurosawa’s Red Beard, Bringing Out the Dead is a statement of the necessity of human relationships and altruistic responsibility. Frank seeks fulfillment from helping people, a dedication little rewarded and brutally self-abnegating. As in Casino, Scorsese uses the fate of the villain as a catalyst, except that where Nicky’s grim end underlined a disgust in violence, here Cy presents Frank an opportunity to save a life when the Red Death dealers shoot up Cy’s flat, driving Cy to try leaping from his balcony. Cy ends up skewered on the railing, dangling floors above a crowd crying for a spectacle. The police rescuers who don’t care if he falls or not; Frank risks his life to prevent him plummeting to earth as Cy crows joyfully as the sparks of their cutting torches light the sky like fireworks.

But saving a life doesn’t relieve Frank. He decides what he wants is violence, and, by now terribly strung out, lets Tom talk him into helping him assault Noel, everyone’s victim. This involves following Noel into a red-soaked labyrinth where the homeless sleep. It’s like walking into hell; the image of sin that confronts him is Tom cracking Noel’s bones with a baseball bat. Frank drives Tom away and takes Noel to be patched up. Frank realises he needs to learn to let go, which he enacts by plugging Mr. Burke’s monitors to his own body and letting the man, whom he has imagined is begging for death, die. He then goes to tell Mary of his death, in the course of which he imagines he’s apologizing to Rose as well. “It’s not your fault,” Mary/Rose replies.

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The final shot is of Mary cradling Frank on her bed, white light flooding the frame. It’s the most hopeful final image of any Scorsese film to that point, especially for Scorsese’s most likable, if troubled, male-female partnering since Charlie and Theresa in Mean Streets. Frank, like Jesus and the Dalai Lama before him in the Scorsese canon, is a selfless figure who is rewarded for his sheer courage in the face of intimidating odds; but Frank is an ordinary guy, rather than a religious icon. He is great simply in his willingness to recognize and still fight his limitations to serve the people around him. Bringing Out the Dead effortlessly outclasses the shallow social commentary of Fight Club or that year’s Best Picture winner, American Beauty, not just in technique, but for its feel for the gnarled, aching landscape of modern urban life. It has a breadth of heart and mind to grant its heroes a true sense of the world beyond their own tawdry frustrations.


21st 06 - 2007 | no comment »

Casino (1995)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Casino presents the rare, inspiring sight of a director pushing his capacities, obsessions, and stylistic experimentation to the limit. Scorsese’s attempts to shunt narrative and explore worlds through montage and voiceover, to fuse high and low culture, to gain panoramic insight into America, to show violence as harsh and ugly as possible—all pushed to the far edge in Casino. If The Age of Innocence is Scorsese at his most poised, Casino is Marty gone wild. It’s a film where a shot from within a cocaine snorter’s straw, white flakes hoovered up towards the camera like a sandstorm, seems subtle. The film that erupts in its opening scene—literally, as Robert De Niro seems to be blown sky high by a car bomb to strains of Bach’s “Matthaus Passion”—becomes an opera of the sordid (the credits also represent the last work of the great film editor and title designer Saul Bass). Scorsese’s first film in 12 years without Michael Ballhaus is instead filmed in the bolder colors and light-diffusing style of Robert Richardson. Richardson’s camera drinks in a landscape of bad wigs and make-up caked faces, cocaine and blood, phony glamour and phonier humanity.

For all this, Casino is a film about marriage—bad marriage on a Shakespearean scale undone by what kills most marriages: money, distrust, and infidelity. Casino is another logical step up from the street-level quasi-hoods of Mean Streets. It pointedly lacks the comforting blue-collar attitude of the Goodfellas crew; Jimmy the Gent, Tommy, and Paulie are lovable when contrasted with the at-all-costs obscenity of Las Vegas and its resident hoods. In its cut-up aesthetics and spurning of the subtle, Casino was Scorsese’s angriest, most punkish film since Taxi Driver and joined two other exciting films from the mid 90s—Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls —in offering a purposefully excessive take on the city of excess; like those films, though not as severely, Casino was greeted without adulation.

But Casino is Scorsese’s great burn-it-down statement, the furthest end of his disgust and delight in everything seamy in American culture. He films Las Vegas in all its Technicolor glory and grotesquery, a symphonic swirl of lights, sex, currency, and gore. The film follows the true story of alleged mob tool Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Chicago mobsters Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, and Frank Cullotta, rendered here as Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and Frank Marino (Frank Vincent). Sam and Nicky are boyhood friends, the closest the film gets to the “years ago back home” vibe of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Sam is a great gambler, a scientist of chance, who has, up to the early 70s, made his living as a bookie at the behest of the mob. He leaps at the shot at managing the new Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, theoretically controlled by developer Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak) who’s borrowed financing from the infamous Teamsters Pension Fund. This, of course, means it’s a mob-controlled development. The Mafia dons, headed by Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano), won’t venture any closer to Vegas than Kansas City, the future of their cash cow requiring a squeaky-clean image whilst their finely calibrated skims bring in titanic revenue.

Sam does his job with micromanagerial finesse and ice-cold authority. His awareness of systems— systems of control, systems of surveillance, and the systems of luck—is brilliantly spelled out by Scorsese’s ever-mobile camera. He knows that, for all the illusions the town presents, the house almost always wins, and even when it doesn’t, it can be dealt with. He can sabotage big winners, as he does with a Japanese high roller, keeping him stranded in town until he gambles away all he has won, and ruthlessly punishes cheats. One gets his hand smashed with a hammer by his partner, who is offered a choice between “the money and the hammer” or walking away. In a fashion, Sam and the rest in Casino also have chosen the money and the hammer.

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Sam enjoys his apparent acceptance into elite circles, his status, wealth, and power, which he’s never been allowed before. “Vegas was like Lourdes. All our sins were washed away.” Yet Sam isn’t a happy pawn. He wants to be legitimized, gain a Nevada gaming license—requiring years of bureaucracy and bribery—and a wife. He sets his eyes on Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the most beautiful, sexy, clever, greedy hustler in town. Sam uses the omnipresent surveillance system of the Tangiers to watch her bilking a gambler and steps in to save her when he gets uppity. Ginger is a virtual personification of the city, a mesmerizing surface over a heart of steel, greedy, dishonest, and perversely attached to sleazy beginnings. Sam proves his ardor with a nest egg of a million dollars’ worth of jewelry, which Ginger fawns over with childish glee before it’s locked in a safe deposit box at the bank. For Sam, it’s a pledge of trust and fidelity; for her it’s the golden egg from a goose ripe for the dinner table. He doesn’t marry her until they have a daughter together, Amy (Erika von Tagen), a sure way, he thinks, of binding her close.

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When Nicky arrives with his crew of heavies, including brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) and Marino, he’s been sent by Remo to protect Sam and the operation. But Nicky has a very different idea of his Vegas mission. He establishes kingpin status, robbing and intimidating left, right, and center. Nicky soon gets himself banned from every casino in town, and attracts an army of police and FBI agents, forlornly trying to catch him on something. Sam knows what the pint-sized psychopath is capable of: he has seen Nicky stab a man in the neck with a fountain pen for a flash of brusque attitude. Nicky thinks nothing of threatening bankers, working over bookies, or shooting Phillip Green’s litigious ex-business partner—a middle-aged, middle-class woman—in the head. When a gang shoots up a local diner, Nicky is ordered to punish them. He tortures their leader, eventually putting his head in a vice and popping an eyeball from its socket, before cutting his throat. He also gets up every morning to make his son breakfast and eagerly chats with cops watching their sons at Little League games.
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Sam is unable to restrain Nicky, and is even resented for his attempts to play Mr. Legit: “We’re supposed to be robbin’ this place, you dumb fuckin’ hebe!” Nor can Sam maintain authority over Ginger, who keeps a flame for her first lover and pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods, defining “sleazeball”), who cajoles her for money whilst keeping her psyche on a short leash. He can hypnotize her over the phone by recalling the “young colt with braces on her teeth” he sold. Sam detests the man as much as Ginger pities and adores him. When Lester taps Ginger for $5,000, Sam gives it to him, but then has Nicky’s goons work him over, to Ginger’s hysterical protest. Ginger descends into drugs and drink. In her unstable, paranoid state, she convinces herself that Sam will have her killed, and begins coming on to Nicky as a potential protector, an act that can only have evil consequences.

Cue what was voted the worst sex scene in screen history by one newspaper’s readers: Joe Pesci screwing Sharon Stone. It’s logical in this film exploring a world of sensual excess. Here, indulgence has long outstripped desire, a substitution which, consistently in Scorsese, is the worst possible sin, and one too readily tempting in rich America. Not for the first time, Scorsese dragged a career-best performance from a star, here Stone, who inhabits her half-mad minx with bodily force. In comparison, Pesci is close to parodic and De Niro’s Sam is a much cooler performance than he usually delivered for Scorsese, fittingly as Rothstein’s relative sympathy contrasts his surrounds, but with some tired lurches into familiar refrains (“Can I trust you?…Can I trust you? Answer me, can I trust you?”). It’s also Scorsese’s last collaboration with De Niro to date.

The poisonous threesome of Sam-Nicky-Ginger sends this tale careening into insanity, but other events help, like when FBI agents, bugging the grocery store of put-upon don Artie Piscano (Vinnie Vella), overhear him bitching about his responsibilities to his curse-shy mother (Catherine Scorsese, in her last part for her son before dying in 1997). Nicky can still run rings around them. Agents watching Nicky in a light plane run out of petrol and have to land on a golf course where he and his goons are playing; they happily pelt the plane with golf balls. But Nicky has unbalanced Vegas’ stability. The casino cash-counters who perform the skimming soon begin pilfering for themselves. Marino soon finds himself piggy in the middle, having to answer questions from Remo over the dwindling revenue and whether Nicky is screwing Ginger. Worse, Sam gains far too much attention when his refusal to humor local redneck nepotism results in failure to get his license. He explodes at a Gaming Commission, rants to reporters, and gives himself a high-profile television host to justify hanging around the Tangiers.

Sam is the only person in the film who maintains relative dignity and sympathy, for his professionalism and especially his fatherly concern for Amy, who, at one point, is tied to her bed by her mother who wishes to go out for the evening. In the screenplay, Sam was to have had Lester killed by Nicky, but this was left out of the film, perhaps because Sam is the story’s only link to common humanity. Like so many Scorsese heroes, Sam is defined by his yearning, his desire to transcend his lot and live his version of the American dream through Vegas, the institutionalized loophole in American post-puritan morality. Yet his ferocious poise in gambling and management is matched by a lack of emotional smarts, and his willingness to employ thuggery in settling a romantic rival’s hash, his unleashed loathing for an establishment of country club blazers and cowboy hats who won’t let a Jewish bookie join their ranks, all doom him.

The recreated cocaine-stained polyester and sleazestache chic of 70s style is noxiously intense (largely responsible for the glut of 70s retro films of the late 90s), Scorsese’s culture riffing alternately playful—like the painfully exact recreation of Sam’s TV show or caricature of Siegfried and Roy—and carefully planned. Like the soundtrack’s use of three different versions of “Satisfaction”—from the Stones’ driving, declaratory original to Devo’s disintegrating, masturbatory edition—Nicky and Sam’s control dissolves in a welter of blow-induced shootings and soul-grinding jealousies. c1%5B1%5D.BMPScorsese honors his locale with typical idiosyncrasy, by casting Vegas headline comedians like Alan King, Don Rickles (as two of Sam’s casino lieutenants, Andy Stone and Billy Sherbert), and Tom Smothers.

Casino fulfills Scorsese’s interest in the mechanics of violence, power, and criminality, and opens up territory suggested in The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull in studying not just social outsiders, but its winners, to study how often in American society that old adage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s about there being no second acts in American lives, proves true, and why. Sam, Ginger, and Nicky triumph by being the most exacting, enthusiastic, and ruthless in their fields. They are pure entrepreneurs, but their utter confusion of success with plunder destroys all three of them to varying degrees. Ginger and Nicky are seriously screwed-up people, and Sam’s offering all he has to a woman he knows is venal and untrustworthy reeks of masochism. Casino moves from Goodfellas’ true-crime black comedy to a new realm, one of classical tragedy. As in Euripides and Shakespeare, it uses the extreme lives of its colossal characters to reflect on ordinary human faults, allowed to reach an extreme through the scale of their lives. Most people only feel like the world collapses when their marriage busts up, but in Casino it literally does.

Ginger runs off with Lester, taking Amy with her, then crawls back when Lester blows all their money. Sam, fuming, accepts her but bitterly harps on Lester’s waste and finally spits death threats. Ginger only wants to get her hands on her safe deposit box, but Sam won’t hand it over, knowing it’s the only way he can keep her around. His and Ginger’s concussive brawls and mutual abuse result in Sam dragging Ginger by her hair down a hallway and throwing her out, only to have her return in the middle of the night, their rage temporarily spent. Ginger tries to push Sam by declaring Nicky is her new sponsor, but Nicky contemptuously has her thrown out of his restaurant in her hysterical state. Sam, justifiably paranoid that Nicky’s goons will arrive, has Sherbert come with a shotgun. All they get is Ginger instead, repeatedly ramming Sam’s car in their driveway. She uses the police intervention to snatch the key to the safe deposit box, and beats Sam to the bank to make off with her treasure chest, only to be stopped by detectives.

But they’re not after her—they’re drawing the net on the whole operation. They even try to get Sam to rat on Nicky by showing him photos of Nicky and Ginger together; he shuts the door on them. Still, Remo and the bosses, Nicky, Frank, dozens of made men,and parasites are arrested. In reply, the bosses order a bloodbath. Witnesses, weak links, traitors, and the problematic litter the landscape from Kansas to Costa Casino.jpgRica. Nicky and his brother, released on bail, are met in a cornfield by Frank and their crew. The boys, happy at the chance to remove the scary little creep from their lives, hold Nicky down and force him to watch them beat Dominic to a bloody pulp, and then do the same to him, before burying them both alive in a dusty grave.

It’s perhaps the rawest scene of violence ever in a mainstream American film, and Scorsese finally confronts a limit here, both of what he can get away with and of the lifestyle of these people. This is what’s at the center of the onion he’s peeled, and fittingly for an angry repudiation of violence, it’s Nicky the psycho who’s the suddenly sympathetic victim. The only amusing aspect is that Frank Vincent finally has revenge for the beatings he received from Pesci in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

What’s left of Casino’s narrative runs out on burning sand, scored with perhaps Scorsese’s most perfect sound-vision fusion by The Animal’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.” That most iconic of blues songs—like the film—mixes cautionary tale, deterministic social argument, and ironic sensual celebration. Alan Price’s organ burns away as Ginger, as a groaning husk, drops dead in an anonymous hotel hallway, murdered with a hot dose of heroin, her fortune squandered. Sam, we find, is saved from a bomb planted in his car only by incredible fortune. Our last image of an aging, thick-spectacled Ace Rothstein, is another Scorsese Odysseus washed up on the shore, emptied of torturous passions and laden with experience, happy to be simply alive. As old Vegas collapses flames, he muses with due sarcasm about the laundering of the town; gone is, at least, the sense that the town was run by human beings, guys like himself who had risen from nothing, replaced by corporations. America’s playground becomes another place for the bedazzled and hopeful to give their money away to the giants. l


11th 06 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Martin Scorsese finally arrived as a Hollywood force with the multiple Oscar nominations of Goodfellas and the big box office of Cape Fear (1991). The latter film, a remake of a 1963 J. Lee Thompson thriller (from a novel by John D. MacDonald), stands as probably Scorsese’s worst movie; the original film’s poised, subversive evil was lost in an exercise in flashy style. Sold as being “more adult,” the remake actually diluted the charge by turning Robert Mitchum’s chilly, reptilian Max Cady into Robert De Niro’s ranting, hammy psycho; airbrushing the threatened pedophilic rape of the family’s daughter by making her a goofily rebellious teen; and throwing out believability around the time De Niro straps himself to the underside of an SUV.

Scorsese made the commercial Cape Fear for Universal as thanks for funding The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas. After discharging this obligation, he set out to adapt a novel his friend, the writer and critic Jay Cocks, had given him to read in 1980, claiming it was bound to become his “romantic” piece. The novel was the 1920 Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. In the tradition of tightly wrought symbolist studies shared by Henry James, the book is a tale of late 19th century social mores and their corrosive effects on personal happiness.

Scorsese and Cocks cowrote the screenplay, turning down an offer from Gore Vidal, who begged Scorsese to be allowed to write it to keep the adaptation from being screwed up. The early ’90s saw a glut of spit-shine literary adaptations, typified by Ismail Merchant/James Ivory films such as Howards End, as a kind of boutique genre of fin de siècle nostalgia for upscale cinemagoers. The Age of Innocence was lumped amongst them, suspect Oscar bait for Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, and possibly for Scorsese himself. I hadn’t even watched it in more than a decade. Returning to the film, it rises resplendent out of its period with a lucid, lustrous beauty.

At first glance, it seems as much of a departure for Scorsese as any possible—from wise guys and psycho taxi drivers to the genteel requirements of the period drama. But Scorsese the anthropologist, responsible for the deftly articulated social studies of his great films, was simply taking his fascination with the building blocks of American life about a half-century further back than he had gone before. Scorsese also may have been trying to channel some of the enthusiasm he had for the long-planned project Gangs of New York, announced after New York, New York but perpetually backburnered. The Age of Innocence is about what goes on at the end of Manhattan Island furthest from Five Points. One can spy in its genes the spirit of films beloved by Scorsese, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Senso, particularly in the opening sequence (Scorsese’s analysis of Senso in Mio Viaggio in Italia reveals just how much). All provide elegant examples of how to stage the intricate, restrained, fetishistic character of period passions.
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Joanne Woodward narrates Wharton’s prose. The tough, ruggedly democratic, idealistic, rebellious mood of the Civil War era has been comfortably anesthetized; the Gilded Era is in full swing. Upscale New York comfortably replicates European social forms with a strict, uptight insistence that betrays its provincialism. It’s a more refined, studious, curiously more intense world than the one we live in; small changes and challenges generate enormous ripples.

AgeNewland%20edit.JPGNewland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), as his name implies, is a man of the New World—vigorous, talented, yearning, inquisitive, morally and intellectually progressive in private, largely conformist in public. We meet him, a young lawyer with impeccable status, at the opera in the company of Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen) and Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), two men who fancy themselves weather vanes for the minutiae of form and content in New York society. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland (Ryder), who is present at the performance in another box with her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and her cousin Ellen, the Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer).

Ellen has just returned to New York, a city she barely knows because her parents had been itinerant bohemians in Europe, where she eventually fell into a nightmarish marriage to a libertine Polish aristocrat. Her return, sans husband, sparks rumors that she had been scandalously shacked up in Switzerland for a time with his secretary. Immediately taken with her, Newland takes up her cause. After the performance comes one of the major social events of the year, the Opera Ball. Its hostess is another relative of the Wellands, Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt), who married the intransigent, rakish broker Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson) in a precarious balance of old name and new money. Ellen’s presence is bound to create a stir; Newland counteracts this by announcing his and May’s engagement.

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Ellen is welcomed happily by her family’s matriarch, the bedridden Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), but her attempts to present Ellen fail miserably. Newland successfully argues to the last court of appeal for cases like this—the Van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), mandarins of this scene. They invite Ellen to a dinner they give for a cousin of theirs who is a duke. “When the Van der Luydens chose, they knew how to give a lesson,” the narrator wryly notes. Newland argues with Jackson over the rights of a woman to be extended the same privileges as men. If Julius Beaufort can have his scattered mistresses without being bothered, why should Ellen be ostracized if the story of her and the secretary is true?

Newland soon finds himself entrusted with the sticky chore of advising Ellen on the risks of trying to obtain a divorce from her husband—virtual social suicide. Ellen is a fine, strong, but threatened woman, made nervously fluttery by her lack of sureness of the world around her; it’s to her absolute surprise that democratic America is more repressive than Old Europe. “Why did Columbus bother discovering a new world if he intended it should just be a version of the old?” she jokingly, but pertinently questions. This mixture of forthright character and wounded charm entirely intoxicates Newland. He finds himself doubly frustrated by the year-long engagement he’s faced with by May. On observing that Julius Beaufort is aggressively courting Ellen to be his mistress, Newland urgently urges Ellen to confide the truth of her life to him, fondly imaging her embracing him from behind, and becomes angered when Julius, like he has done, follows her to a country retreat on a Van der Luyden country property. When Newland finally confesses his torturous ardor, he finishes up kissing her feet as Ellen strokes his hair. But the narrow window where they might have done something about it closes when May tells him that she’s argued successfully for their marriage to be brought forward.

“The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth,” the narrator explains as Newland struggles against the chafing harness his lot puts him in and the burning promise of Ellen’s passion. His business and his private life demand attention to propriety. When Beaufort gets into trouble with his business, he and his wife are brutally dismissed by the society that noted and kept a ledger on his transgressions even as it trusted him with their money. Newland’s continued healthy existence in his rarefied sphere demands adherence to forms he despises. Day-Lewis was, at the time, the most electric actor in Hollywood, and he’s at the height of his art here in a performance that is marvelously contoured with fires of feeling that flare and smolder, particularly in a moment when he spitefully remarks to Jackson, “If everyone had rather she be Beaufort’s mistress rather than some decent man’s wife, you’ve all gone about it perfectly!”

Age%20of%20Innocence%202.jpgMay hardly seems his equal; Newland feels everything seems to conspire to match men and women of intelligence and energy with dullards and cowards to provide a kind of natural friction. Yet May is not dumb, or wrong, or anything less than a charming young woman; it’s just that there’s no doubt in her about the appropriate shape of the world. Unlike himself and Ellen, she is no misfit or rebel; on the contrary, her psyche fits exactly with her prescribed function. Half-consciously, she resists, corrects, manipulates, and controls. May possesses a covert, cunning nature that manifests itself in minute insinuations with an obeisant, girlish anguish, such as when she discourages Newland from inviting an interesting but “common” French acquaintance, Rivière (Jonathan Pryce) to dinner on their tour of the continent on their honeymoon. Newland recognizes that, far from being someone he can enable to become an expansive-minded soul like himself, May will slowly, dully process him to a fretful scion.

Newland is so intoxicated and sensitive in this straitened epoch that the smallest moments become laced with sensual possibilities, as when he thinks he’s found Ellen’s parasol, sniffing the handle for a trace of perfume (it proves to be another girl’s). Kissing her gloved hand is the most physical and powerful moment he has with her. The first time he sees her after returning from Europe, Ellen stands at the end of a dock, staring out to sea in a gold-bathed afternoon. Sent to fetch her, he instead vows only to go to her if she turns around by the time a sailboat passes a neighboring lighthouse; she doesn’t, and he leaves her, but later goes to her anyway, and discovers she was purposely avoiding him that day. The pair edge closer to a proper affair. Ellen admits cryptically that she knows what the far side of the invisible barrier they dance on looks like, that land of freedom and rebellion, a harsh, scary realm that is “no place for us.” Rivière turns up, casually recognizing Newland as he visits Ellen at a hotel, and later informs Newland he’s acting as an agent of the Count, her husband, who’s trying to arrange her return to Europe. But Rivière surprisingly implores Newland: “Don’t let her go back!”

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Cocks understood Scorsese well in giving him the book. The Age of Innocence crystallizes one of the most consistent of Scorsese’s themes—doomed and impossible passions, and torturous male-female relationships afflict the protagonists of almost all of his films. Newland is a sensitive, romantic aesthete; he reads voraciously (having all the latest books shipped from London), and absorbs paintings, poetry, and books on Japan with a longing fervor for traces of life outside the commonplace—all of which Scorsese’s camera drinks in with the same enraptured poise. Scorsese’s films are always careful to counterpoint individual drama with social environment and cultural evocation, and Newland does this consciously as a character. He studies techniques in the first wave of Impressionist paintings and considers his own place in the ludicrous niceties of the New York upper crust with the same intelligence. Newland seeks something of the same passion, fulfillment, and sensual release he gets from art in his life, and he absorbs the pleasures of his love for Ellen in the same way—standing back and watching, meditating, critiquing, savoring, constantly driven beyond his good sense by the force of his yearning. Newland becomes one the most personal and aware of Scorsese’s heroes. His own ironic relation to his world resembles Scorsese’s reactions to his own background.

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Newland and Ellen are finally driven apart irrevocably, as Newland tries to confess all to May, who slyly prevents him from doing so. When Mrs. Mingott suffers a stroke, she concludes her affairs by arranging for Ellen’s permanent independence from her husband, whereupon Ellen abruptly sets about returning to Europe. Newland and Ellen have been seen by Luffets and Jackson on the street, a fleeting glance. May arranges a farewell dinner for Ellen, attended by the scintillating members of society, up to and including the Van der Luydens, and, Newland realizes it’s a purposeful show of support for May in triumphing over her rival, his presumed mistress. Newland announces to May he intends to give up the law and travel—code for his intention to follow Ellen to Paris. But May gains her final victory; kneeling in the passive, entreating manner of a classic Victorian maid, she informs Newland she’s pregnant, and that it was her hinting this to Ellen that caused her to leave.

Some 30 years later, Newland is a widower with two grown children—his daughter married to one of Luffets’ sons, and his son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) to a daughter of the Beauforts. He is a good-natured, well-seasoned gentleman who has successfully shepherded the family fortune into the budding 20th century. He lets his son coax him on a voyage to see Paris. There, Ted reveals that on her deathbed, his mother told him that Newland “nearly threw everything over” for Ellen, who still resides in Paris. Ted now insists they visit her. But Newland won’t go into her flat, sitting outside, a sundog from her window making him recall watching her on the pier. “I’m only 57,” Newland murmurs, but strolls idly away, content with his memories and the new, comforting assurance that May had been “one person who felt his anguish and took pity on him.”

The Age of Innocence moves as insistently as any Scorsese film. Michael Ballhaus’s camera swirls and soars with the precise grace of a waltz, and reproduces physical effects (as when Luffets surveys a crowd through binoculars, the editing reproduces the quick refocusing the human eye does at such a moment, rather than just panning) and enjoys the human spectacle. The Beauforts’ ball is a tour-de-force sequence, beginning with a wondrous layering of time-progressing shots, as the room is prepared; then the camera strolls through the halls and rooms of the house, discovering meeting groups, and finally soars high overhead to observe the geometric patterns made by the dancing couples. Color is used carefully, painted with a flat, slightly pressed texture, delicately recreating the texturing of the paintings Newland loves, but without walloping the eye with sheer prettiness (except in the necessarily dazzling dock scene). Such is Scorsese’s control that the film fills with some supreme moments of emotion (and a word of special praise to Elmer Bernstein for his lush, symphonic score).

Newland belongs to the people who owned and ran the world that Scorsese’s and so many others’ ancestors had to fight tooth and nail to penetrate, to win a share of respect and equality. The delicate pinpricks deployed at the top of the social heap manifest as sabers at the bottom; there are things at stake in this social organization Newland never begins to contemplate. But The Age of Innocence is not Ragtime; it’s closer to a dream-memory of an era beauteously decaying, just past the edge of recollection. In the end, Newland drifts away from confronting a past that never worked out, content to keep the pleasant, glorious impressions in mind. He might not have gained everything he wanted, but as all things become with passing time, even the things he wanted were just milestones on a journey.


31st 05 - 2007 | no comment »

Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

My clothes may still be torn and tattered/
But in my heart I’d be a king/
Your love is all that ever mattered/
It’s everything.
– “Rags to Riches” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, performed by Tony Bennett

Knocked out in bed last night/
I´ve had my fill, my share of looting/
And now, the tears subside/
I find it all so amusing/
To think, I killed a cat/
And may I say, oh no, not their way/
But no, no, not me/
I did it my way.
– “My Way” by Claude François, Jacques Revau, Paul Anka, and Sid Vicious, performed by Sid Vicious

1990 was a vintage year for gangster films. Francis Coppola revisited old turf with the underrated, operatic The Godfather Part III; the Coen Brothers made a typically skewed visitation to the Hammett/Chandler subgenre with Miller’s Crossing; Stephen Frears tried Jim Thompson’s hardboiled milieu with The Grifters. But it was Martin Scorsese who laid down the template for a glut of gangland portraits with Goodfellas, creating surely the most stylistically influential film of the following decade. Goodfellas’ punchy aesthetic is reflected in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), through to TV’s The Sopranos. Countless pseudo-indie confections made its tone-setting, narrative-driving voiceovers irritatingly popular.

After the cacophony that met The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas must have felt like safe ground, and Scorsese was handsomely repaid with his most generally admired work. For most of its running time, Goodfellas is an experiment in sheer cinematic motion – a deeply expressive virtuosity, structured like a cocaine binge, all electric pulse and giddy thrills to begin with, concluding in sweaty paranoia and collapsed perspectives. It’s impossible to forget the impact of first watching the film and being instantly hauled along by its compulsive force, the giddy, dirty life story Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates. We meet Henry during a moment of staggering brutality: his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) shooting and stabbing a groaning, bloodied man in the trunk of their car. Henry slams the trunk shut, and Scorsese freezes frame on his pale, sweat-flecked face, to the immortal voiceover announcement, “All my life all I ever wanted was to be a gangster.” In five minutes we know all there is to know about Henry and why he ended up confronting this, and why his expression looked like he was thinking, “Well, I knew there’d be days like this.” As it happens to Henry, so the film happens to us; the logic is there, but shit happens so quickly you hardly know it.

Henry’s a half-Italian, half-Irish, blue-collar boy (played young by Christopher Serrone) whose working-class life of straitened circumstances and furious belt beatings looks like excellent training for the brutality, avarice, and lordly authority gangland life offers. Henry starts his underworld career as a gofer for local Mafia heavy Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and the vibrating network of hoods, stick-up artists, skimmers, and scammers he patronises.

In the arc of Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas was important not just for being a return to the criminal milieu underpinning Mean Streets and Raging Bull – although, unlike those films, Goodfellas is about the men on the far side of the invisible line that Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Jake La Motta danced on – but also as a return to his neo-realist inspirations. Goodfellas achieves its great impact by fusing the slickest of modern movie technical, editing, and storytelling techniques, with a carefully expostulated charting of a specific milieu utilising a flavorful verisimilitude straight from the neo-realist playbook by using real ex-mobsters in the cast and the casting Scorsese’s parents in key roles. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi adapted Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Hill’s life, Wiseguys, which was dedicated to analysing and describing just how the mob works in all its sleazy, entrancing details.

The film warps our perspective, not just with Henry’s incessantly nasal, quick-fire patter reproducing a high-pressure salesman’s enthralling seduction of the senses whilst numbing critical faculties, with his constant phrasings (“it’s just good business,” “makes sense,” etc.) ad nauseum. Scorsese furthers the effect with tunnel-vision framing, edits, and dizzying camera movements – most famously, the single-take tracking shot in which Henry, trying to wow girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), treats her to the alternative entrance to the Copacabana, passing through kitchens and hallways, greeting chefs, waiters, necking couples, and celebrities with easy flair, to a table summoned from nowhere especially for this VIP. She (and we) is knocked flat by the effect. Much later, as Henry descends into coked-up, paranoid hysteria, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (this is the film credit he’ll probably want carved on his tombstone) go all out – whip-pans, flash edits, zoom shots, dollies, tracking shots, distorted sound, jaggedly intercut musical cues – in a sequence as impressive to film makers, who have hailed it as an experimental film construction in itself, as it is to ex-junkies for whom the sequence is queasily accurate.

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Goodfellas shows how crime families are just that – families consisting of people who spend all their time together, living, dying, raising families in each other’s laps. Henry’s vicious upbringing makes him drawn to the earned respect and familial trust of the mob. He and Tommy are virtual favourite nephews to Jimmy’s corrupting uncle when he’s the local dapper gent, god to all the two-bit punks. When Henry is busted for the first time, he is greeted by a celebration (“You lost your cherry!”) as affirmation he has now passed the final rite of passage for a wiseguy. As Henry sells it, the Mafia life is the ultimate refusal to kowtow to moneyed authority and the deadening demands made on working-class men – befitting the Mafia’s roots in Sicilian quarrymen’s attempts at union-building (the Italian phrase “syndicate” that has come to refer to the Mafia, also means “union”) – who earn with sweat and (literal) blood a life of luxury and authority that ordinarily would be denied them.

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That Tommy is an explosive psychopath is only of concern to Henry and Jimmy when he turns it on them – otherwise he’s the kind of scary force you’re glad to have in your corner. Tommy casually shoots a lippy waiter (Michael Imperioli) and is willing to risk assassination by their Mafia overlords to get revenge on obnoxious Bill Batts (Pesci’s old stand-up buddy Frank Vincent, getting his second beating off Pesci in a Scorsese film), a made man who teases Tommy about his childhood job shining shoes. Pesci’s signature moment – which, according to legend, Scorsese let him write and direct himself, and which did most of the work in capturing him his 1990 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is when, in joking over drinks, he suddenly seems to take offence to Henry calling him “a funny guy.” Although he eventually realises it’s a put-on, Henry is momentarily a deer caught in Tommy’s headlights. It’s entirely possible, and he knows it, Tommy might shoot him for the perceived insult. But most of the time, Tommy’s their trouble-prone, motor-mouthed kid brother whose mother (Catherine Scorsese in her most indelible performance for her son) pesters him to get married, and who cheerfully takes the boys to her place and has them sit down for dinner with her whilst Batts is locked in the trunk.

Batts’ death echoes right through the film, both as the first true reality check and a narrative refrain at various points: when the dons look for their missing paisano, when the trio have to dig up the rotting corpse from its forest grave, right through to when Tommy gets a bullet in the brain when he’s expecting to be made a member of the Mafia fellowship he has insulted by killing Batts. It’s a thoroughly deserved death, but Jimmy and Henry weep for their comrade.

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The film’s second narrative voice is Karen’s. Bracco arguably gives the film’s best performance, sublimely communicating in body language her arc from fiery young suburbanite to a middle-aged woman addled by cocaine and cynicism. Karen is no innocent victim or clueless neighbourhood wife. She readily admits, when Henry sticks a gun in her hand, that it turns her on. Initially volatile, having been thrown together on a double date neither wanted, Henry eventually cements their relationship by beating a neighbour who molested her. It’s instantly apparent to Karen that Henry achieves the things – hard revenge, wads of cash, universal respect – most guys promise, and she swiftly lets herself be seduced by it.

Her own ironic perspective on events – she’s middle class, Jewish, independent-minded – sees her aghast at the classless, foul-mouthed, violent mob wives like Rosie (Illeana Douglas) she’s supposed to hang with, the industrial-grade brutality, tackiness, and socially incestuous people she’s now surrounded by. But she’s fine with that as long as Henry’s handing her inch-thick bundles of bills (and not that Karen and Henry’s tastes are especially superior – when they give a tour of their newly furnished house, it’s an empire of kitsch). She loses her cool steadily in dealing with Henry’s institutionalised infidelity with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), a lengthy imprisonment (she puts up with years of raising kids and struggling on her own without help – the moment he gets out, taking in their crummy house, he declares “We’re moving.”), until one morning he awakens with her jamming a revolver in his face, interrogating him about his girlfriend. It’s catching, this violence thing. The pair reconciles on the orders of Paulie – the Mafia’s family values are more about the potential security breaches of busted marriages than actual emotional concern.

Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy make most of their money through robberies, especially hijackings and skims done from the freight terminals at Idlewild/JFK Airport which is on their turf; Henry also, whilst in prison, branches out into drug dealing, which Paulie has strictly forbidden him to do. The cosiness of their lives finally shatters when they pull off one of the biggest heists in history, ripping off Lufthansa of several million dollars. It renders them the most triumphant group of criminals in the country and the most paranoid. Soon Jimmy’s got Tommy and other thugs assassinating all the noncertifiably trustworthy partners in the heist, like Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) and wig salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low), whom Henry tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save from Tommy’s ice pick. Morrie’s the kind of guy who’s just born to be murdered, a clinging, cajoling, money-hungry schmuck; we, and Henry, cringe in defensive longing. The film’s almost unique in showing how truly dumb and loosely organised most of these people are – Henry’s drug posse includes his wheelchair-bound brother, his sexpot girlfriend (who leaves cocaine-glutted cookware around her flat), and his superstitious stoner babysitter. Only violence and codes of ethics keep this world in motion, and finally Henry realises even these don’t necessarily count for much.

Morrie’s TV spot is a superb recreation of cheap advertising style, cementing another of the film’s strong aspects. Scorsese, always sharp with cultural reference and satire, also provided a blueprint for the increased pop cultural awareness of ’90s filmmaking, with his vividly utilised retro soundtrack and constant refrains to ephemera, like Henny Youngman entertaining at the Copa and polka king Bobby Vinton (played by his son Robbie), continually providing cultural context for the events portrayed. Early in the film, Tony Bennett’s gorgeous “Rags to Riches” blares, a height of Italian-American jazz-pop both declaring a cultural ascendency and providing an ironic counterpoint of emotional riches with the gangsters’ greed.

After the ugly fallout from the heist, Tommy is brutally whacked; confronted with an empty room that should be filled with Cosa Nostra elders, he ejects “Oh no!” before having his brains sprayed over the tiled floor. Jimmy begins to make overtures to Henry that sound alarmingly like invitations to get whacked after he’s busted by DEA officers after his day-long crack-up. Karen calls him paranoid until she herself feels mysteriously threatened when Jimmy seems to be trying to set her up for a gang assault on the pretext of selecting some second-hand furniture. This convinces them both to flee for the cover of the witness protection program. Henry shops Paulie and Jimmy out for stiff stretches, whilst he lives out the rest of his life in squaresville suburbia, haunted by the image of a vengeful Tommy shooting at him, to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk brutalisation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a logical end for a steady decline from glam to sham.

Made hugely famous by the film, Hill, now long divorced from Karen, got himself kicked out of the WPP for eagerly announcing his identity to anyone who’d seen the movie, went back to prison for a stretch, and now stars in every other cable TV documentary on the mob. (It’s an interesting job to compare the film with the TV-made film The Million Dollar Getaway (1991), about the Lufthansa heist, featuring John Mahoney as Jimmy the Gent. In the latter film, Jimmy is portrayed as a folk hero contending with the determination of his Mafia partners to kill all the good blue-collar boys who actually committed the crime and keep the dough for themselves.)

The final shot of Tommy blasting at the camera is a direct quote of The Great Train Robbery (1902), the first American narrative film, and western, and crime flick. As well as summarizing Henry’s final mood, it makes a statement about the history of filmmaking and American society, the long drift from Wild West banditry to suburban conformity, which Henry lives out in a particularly surreal, compressed version. Scorsese also puts in a shot of Karen watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film, which is both appropriate to her character – a Jewish kid alienated from her parents like Jolson’s titular hero – and another turning point in cinematic history, continuing Scorsese’s self-conscious motif. In the course of the film, he uses just about every narrative and cinematic trick extant, and these references seem to complement his awareness that in the 146 minutes of Goodfellas, he had found the perfect material to realise his own ideal of cinema’s potential. l


17th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Whilst making Boxcar Bertha in 1972, Barbara Hershey gave Martin Scorsese a book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author whose novel Alexis Zorba became the famous film with Anthony Quinn. The novel of the Christ led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication, and the work was often banned. Last Temptation remained lodged in Scorsese’s imagination until he began developing the project in the early 1980s. Nervousness pervaded all stages of bringing the film to realization. Paramount, which had agreed to bankroll the film, pulled out before shooting began. The production went ahead in Morocco on a $7 million budget provided by Universal and Cineplex/Odeon. The early hand-wringing proved justified by the film’s reception. Christian organizations lobbied for its banning. Some offered to buy the negative for the production cost and destroy it. Picket lines attended screenings. French zealots threw Molotov cocktails at a Parisian showing. Wildfire controversy accompanied the work wherever it went. If it was a grindhouse film, its video cover might still boast “Banned by Bulgaria and Blockbuster!”

All this from a guy who came close to enrolling in the seminary? You’d think Marty had portrayed Jesus as joining in a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary and Judas and voicing support for Michael Dukakis. Rather, The Last Temptation of Christ is merely a vivid, strident, intellectually curious work. It is also possibly Scorsese’s greatest film—not that it’s ever likely to win that consensus from a popular culture that has made a fetish of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas—and one of the most vigorous and original religious films ever made.

Kazantzakis’ written prologue establishes the spiritual territory; the disturbing, incomprehensible struggle of a man who is also divine to reconcile the struggles between the flesh and godliness. The Jesus thus conjured is not a beatifically smiling savior assured of his own rectitude and sublime purpose, but (as embodied by Willem Dafoe, dedicated to the role with hypnotic effort), instead chased by restless dread and unseen torments, filled with self-loathing and hate for the God he knows wants something great and terrible from him. He struggles through deadly stigmatic fits and phases of doubt, fear, anger, despair, and human longing.

Spurning the lamentable history of Jesus flicks, Last Temptation dedicates itself to a portrait of the beginnings of Christianity as it sprang from the brute soil of Roman-occupied Judea—this raw, dirty, poverty-stricken landscape on the edge of both the Empire and the realms of the human psyche; beyond here is only the bone-cracking desert, playground of Yahweh and Satan. Judea’s native culture has been reduced to ineffective theatre. It’s a multicultural crossroads, infused with Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, tough and vital. The land has turned its attention to wandering preachers and soothsayers like John the Baptist. Guerrilla resistance simmers; the Zealots, including Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), act as paramilitary enforcers, searching out traitors both religious and secular. Jesus has made himself a pariah by being the only carpenter willing to manufacture crosses for the Romans. He even participates in crucifying a seditious prophet, anticipating his own hideous fate. “God loves me…I want him to stop! … I make crosses so he’ll hate me. I want him to find somebody else!”

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Jesus determines to pursue his fate, and leaves his home and mother (Verna Bloom). Walking the shores of Galilee, he senses himself being followed by an invisible thing that strikes him with pain before directing him to the house of Mary Magdalene (Hershey – Scorsese made her audition so she wouldn’t think he was just returning the favor of the loan of the book in casting her). He watches the degrading sensual spectacle of Mary with her clients for the day. At the crucifixion he helped perform, Mary, amongst the jeerers, had spat in his face. Jesus begs her forgiveness; they were childhood sweethearts, but Mary lost Jesus to his crisis, which caused him to reject the possibility of marrying her. Broken-hearted and out of suitors, taking up a whore’s life was her only option, and she taunts him sexually and emotionally with forlorn rage. And yet a powerful friendship still holds them together.

Jesus reaches a remote, rugged, desert monastery. He is greeted by the spirit of the recently deceased Abbot, who states that he knows who Jesus is. Jesus confesses his purposes and weaknesses to young monk Jerobeam (Barry Miller), who tries to advise him on the tasks that confront him. When two black cobras emerge from a hole in his cell and speak with Mary’s voice, Jerobeam recognizes it as a sign Jesus’ impurities have been cast out, and he can return to the world.

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The film’s greatest twist on the traditional story is Judas, embodied with great force and emotional complexity by Harvey Keitel. Taking a cue from the Gnostic texts, Judas is Jesus’ angry doppelganger, another childhood friend who has become an agent of the Zealots. Jesus takes Judas’ knock for whatever it is that dogs him, and indeed, he is the incarnation of Jesus’ merciless responsibility. Judas kicks at Jesus’ tools and wood for the cross he’s building, and when Jesus plaintively explains, “I’m struggling,” Judas ripostes, “I struggle. You collaborate!” When Jesus returns from the desert, Judas holds a knife to his throat—the Zealots have ordered his assassination. Jesus accepts the knife if it’s what God wants for him, but, stirred by Judas’ hesitance, suggests, “Perhaps He didn’t send you here to kill me. Maybe He sent you to follow me.”

Judas walks with Jesus back to civilization, stating “If you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you.” A righteous opportunity quickly presents itself; the pair comes upon Mary being stoned by a mob, scapegoat for festering frustration. Jesus intervenes, facing down the righteous hypocrites, accosting wealthy Zebadee (Irvin Kershner—yes, the one who directed The Empire Strikes Back) with a telling count of his sins: “He’s seen you cheat your workers! And what about that widow you visit, what’s her name?” Jesus leads them instead to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, except that both the crowd and the impact of his words aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Jesus is too crippled by the conflict of his ideas and impulses to trust himself as a preacher: “God is so many miracles. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say right thing?”

Jesus gives a parable of a farmer sewing wheat, some of which withers, some of which finds no soil, and some of which grows and feeds a nation, and then explains, when he’s met with stony looks, he’s the farmer. His parable proves immediately true; some declare him an idiot, some take him for a provocateur and bay for blood, ltocapostle.bmpand some, the most intellectually and spiritually curious, are intrigued. Jesus’ band of adherents swells. Taking a leaf from Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis, Scorsese uses the Apostles for gently, highly human, comic relief as they fight for sleeping space by the fire. Judas finds them silly and useless, whilst Jesus ponders the purpose-sapping contradictions of his efforts. His return to Nazareth is met by mockery and stones.

Judas suggests they go to see John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who condenses the spirit of the Old Testament in his scrawny, wild-haired body. He rants prophesies of judgment, brimstone, godly wrath. “Now he sounds like the Messiah!” Judas croaks. They have come upon The Baptist at a ceremony, surrounding by religious ecstatics; women dance naked, drums bang, chants sound. As Jesus comes toward John from behind, John turns abruptly, just as Jesus had with his own unseen pursuer, and demands, “Who are you?” The noise of the ceremony dies, leaving only the sound of rippling river water, and does not return until John anoints Jesus’ head.

This is a scene that captures Scorsese’s jarring approach at its finest. Scorsese achieves a vivid sense of the past by spurning pure historical detail; he emphasizes the raw remoteness of time and place by mixing Judaic scenery with multicultural tropes. Roman soldiers are dressed in stylized garb that might have come from a punk staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Isaiah visits Jesus in a bleached Darth Vader costume. With dashes of ’80s New Wave and punk aesthetic, right down to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeously weird score and casting alterna-music figures like David Bowie and John Lurie, Scorsese reinvents history with a melding of modernist dance, art, and film styles. Partly enforced by the low budget, there is a complete rejection of epic plush; this is a desert world.

“The God of Israel is a God of the desert,” John the Baptist tells Jesus, and that is where he must now go for his first confrontation with Satan, a pillar of flame with an elegantly mocking English accent (voiced by Leo Marks, writer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). The miracles, visions, and apparitions are starkly simple, in contrast with Mel Gibson’s setting in the The Passion of the Christ, where the only angels one could sense Gibson’s God trying to hold back were ten-thousand CGI artists (one could write another essay comparing these two films).

Facing down Satan’s taunts finally gives Jesus the warlike purpose he lacked; he returns with an axe he finds in the sand, ready for revolution, and pulls his heart from his body to display his newly granted capacity for miracles and to awe his followers. He passes through the landscape determined to heal and cast out demons; madmen and cripples slither out of crevices like he’s dragging the disease out of the flesh of the earth. Lobbied to raise Lazarus (Tomas Arana), brother of Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley), who sheltered Jesus when he returned from fasting, Jesus bids the stone on his tomb rolled away, at which point everyone covers their face from the stench. Yet Lazarus still claws his way out of his tomb, numbed and covered in green rot.

Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws out the moneylenders from the Temple in fiery indignation in a scene met with the shock and anger of a rabbi (veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff), who perceives himself as stalwart defender of Judaic tradition in a time of assault by foreign mores and Gods. Saul and the Zealots, seeing Jesus’ influence and that Judas has joined him, visit Lazarus and murder him, eliminating the proof of Jesus’ greatest miracle. When Jesus leads a mob to assault the Temple again, he is stricken by stigmata; God telling him he will not die a quick, heroic death, but with the ignominious cruelty of crucifixion, and there’s no way out of it. Jesus collapses and is helped away by Judas as Roman soldiers slaughter the mob.

ltoc10%5B1%5D.BMPJesus already expects his end, told to him by a visitation of Isaiah. He tells a grief-stricken, conflicted Judas that he needs him to give him up. When Judas asks if he could give up a man he loves to such an end, Jesus replies, “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.” In short time, Jesus writhes in doubt at Gethsemane before being dragged off to see Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), a calmly intellectual appraiser (“You’re just another Jewish politician.”) who swiftly diagnoses Jesus as being more dangerous to the Zealots. “It’s one thing to change the way people live, but you want to change the way they think, the way they feel,” Pilate explicates, as embodiment of Pax Romana logic. “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.” Jesus is beaten, crowned with thorns, and led to his bloody consummation on Golgotha. Jesus screams forlornly as a grimly apocalyptic dust-wind rises.

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As it had with The Baptist, the clamor of the scene dies, and a golden-haired girl (Juliet Caton) approaches through the crowd. Tugging the nails from his feet and hands, she tells Jesus she is his Guardian Angel, and that God has granted a reprieve—he’s not the Messiah, and he can lead the rest of his life in simple ease. Led into a newly verdant Israel, Jesus is married to Mary and living in sublime peace with her before God appears to her and kills her. Jesus is enraged, but the Angel assures him, with her honey-toned, oddly psychopathic rhetoric, it was simply her time, that all women are the same. She encourages him to take a new wife, Lazarus’ sister Mary, and eventually also to bed her sister Martha. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age, where he’s ashamed to think of his self-abnegating, egotistical, religious mission. He encounters Saul, now calling himself Paul, preaching in a public forum, of his conversion to Christ’s teachings and of the legend of his sacrifice. Jesus angrily declaims his death and mocks his own legend. Paul ripostes, “I’m glad I met you…my Jesus is far more powerful.” Paul is popularizing Jesus’ legend, arguing that humanity needs Jesus’ message of universal love and redemption.

Jesus is dying as Jerusalem is laid waste in the wake of rebellion, and his Apostles emerge from hiding to gather at his side. “Be careful, he’s still angry!” they warn of Judas, who enters, blood staining his hands from fighting the Romans. Judas erupts, accusing Jesus for not following his path, then lifting the veil on the Angel as Satan; this has been his most powerful, bewitching assault on God’s plan. Jesus, horrified and appropriately penitent, crawls out into the fire-stained, scream-riddled night and cries to return to the cross, which he promptly is, muttering “It is accomplished!” before dying. The movie literally dissolves, sprocket holes, scratches, and strips of film showing like the reel has broken.

The Last Temptation of Christ affirms Christ’s sacrifice; although Jesus wants earthly fulfillments—and those earthly fulfillments are twisted as Satan slyly draws away from the singular purity of his ardor for Mary Magdalene into a more ego-fulfilling threesome—he recognizes its insignificance before his great task, which is to reinvent the religion of his forefathers and humankind along with it. The film, scripted by Paul Schrader with contributions from Jay Cocks, is built around symbols, with sensitivity—as perhaps only a filmmaker can be sensitive to them—to the meaning that can charge images.

The film charts one of the Jesus myth’s strongest contributions to modern religious thought—the substitution of the physical for the symbolic. In the Last Supper sequence, Scorsese cuts betweens the rivers of blood spilt in Temple sacrifices—wasteful and grotesque in a starving country—and Jesus reinventing the idea in drinking “his blood.” “God is not an Israelite!” Jesus shouts on the Temple steps to an outraged crowd, losing their sympathy. His specific condemnation of nationalist self-love continues the film’s study of Jesus recreating the hard concepts of old Judaism into the symbolist thrust of Christianity—from real blood to transubstantiation, from Promised Land as a physical state to Promised Land as a spiritual promise. Stanton embodies Paul, the greatest convert to Jesus’ worldview, with whacko, shifty fervor; the symbolism is crucial. He doesn’t care whether Jesus really died on the cross or not for he recognizes the force of the idea and its appeal. The symbol is more powerful than the deed.

This leads to one of the film’s most forceful subtexts: the strong suggestion, dimly perceived by, and thus perhaps explaining, the rage of the film’s attackers, of a pointed rejection of the ’80s ethos of monumental greed (Scorsese stages the ejection of the moneylenders forcibly and repeatedly, making the film seem like an historical prequel to Wall Street) and the fatuous posturing of Moral Majority-era figures like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ronald Reagan. “God is not an American!” Jesus might as well be shouting. Simultaneously, by portraying the Zealots as religious terrorists as theoretically rebellious, but really tools for power, the film engages with the troubles that engulf present-day Israel and drive many of the contradictions of current terrorist movements. The film’s Jesus, pained, morally questioning, tempted, and dedicated to multitudinous truth, stands at a vast distance from absolutist hypocrites of all stripes. Scorsese and Schrader, essentially unbelieving men but obsessed with the religious grounding of their perspectives, attempt with the film to recreate Jesus for themselves.

Scorsese’s most stylistically rigorous film, Last Temptation evokes the spiritual terrors that chase Jesus with a hungrily mobile camera (Michael Ballhaus behind it again). Having a blonde little girl as the harbinger of Satan was a touch directly inspired by Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, and cunningly, during the alternate reality of the last temptation, it’s the only time Scorsese recreates the sun-kissed, twee atmosphere of standard Jesus portrayals. Finally, Scorsese had confronted the root source of many of his fixations head-on. For his next feature, Scorsese headed home again. l


9th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

The Color of Money (1986)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

As Scorsese himself put in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his kind of pre-indie film artist seemed to have no place once the era of the blockbuster began. Through the early ’80s Scorsese’s oeuvre was still interesting and provocative. The sweat-inducing pop-culture satire of The King of Comedy (1983), along with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, could be said to have closed the curtain on an unofficial trilogy studying the intersection of the celebrity media and the sociopath. After Hours (1980), a picaresque, absurdist comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as an office drone whose momentary lapse into frightened anger at loopy date Rosanna Arquette is punished to the point where he seems to have an entire city out to get him. The film gained Scorsese a Best Director award at Cannes. Yet The King of Comedy, though sickly brilliant (and brilliantly sick), is borderline unwatchable in its sourness, and After Hours is formless and cartoonish, inferior to the Elizabeth Shue vehicle Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the Disney rendition of the same idea. Satire was not Scorsese’s thing, and his eruptive visual sensibilities had been tamed almost to flatness.

The Color of Money was both a ticket for Scorsese back to the mainstream and a return to his cinematic roots in the pungent milieu of bars, pool halls, and wiseguys (and girls). It also presented a daunting challenge in that it was a star vehicle for Paul Newman returning to his greatest role in one of the great American movies – one that had paved the way for filmmakers like Scorsese – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). In Rossen’s film, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, eponymous hero “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) challenged the world’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) twice. He lost the first contest because of his emotional volatility. He won the second when all that had been scoured from his body, in the intermediate process of romancing and losing to suicide the self-destructive, bottle-abusing bohemian girl Sarah (Piper Laurie). Both the suicide and the rematch were thanks to Eddie’s sharklike backer Burt (George C. Scott). Finally, Eddie, unlike, it is suggested, Fats, refuses to sell himself out to this nocturnal life, walking out on Burt and the life with a bag full of cash, to Burt’s jocular threat, “Don’t play anymore big-time pool halls!”

Walter Tevis’ follow-up novel The Color of Money touched the expected bases, such as reuniting Eddie with Fats. For their adaptation, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price (a fine author whose The Wanderers had been lovingly filmed by Phillip Kaufman) reduced references to the first film to a cryptic line from Eddie, when he recalls that “somebody retired me,” in explaining why his titanic skills on the green felt have gone to seed. We rediscover Eddie smooth-talking his girlfriend, bar owner Janelle (Helen Shaver), but being distracted by the sounds of the pool tables in her joint, most specifically the “sledgehammer break” of Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), who is kicking the ass of Julian (John Turturro), Eddie’s own stakehorse. Eddie is now a wealthy liquor salesman, but he longs for the adrenalin-factory that is high-stakes pool playing, betting, and hustling.

tcr_color02.jpgTimes, of course, have changed. Nine-ball is now the game of choice, and the young players are all cokehead punks rather than boozy sharpies. Vincent is an horrendously talented player who prefers his abilities at computer games and doesn’t give a fig – yet – for money. His femme fatale girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), met Vincent at the police station, when she drove getaway for her previous boyfriend who robbed Vincent’s parents’ house. She shows her necklace to Eddie; it belonged to Eddie’s mother’s, and Vincent remarks that his mother “has one just like it…Vincent’s sweet – Vincent’s real sweet.” Therese mutters, adoringly awed by this royal schmuck. Vincent works as a quick-talking toy salesman in a hideous suburban retail barn. Eddie, carefully soaking in these details, begins with equal care to manipulate them. His master plan is to take Vincent on a full tour of East Coast pool halls to teach him the arts of hustling in a carefully plotted campaign to win a major nine-ball championship in Atlantic City.

Eddie must extricate Vincent from his work-a-day life. He establishes his grandee abilities in a memorable dinner table scene in which he explains that Vincent has, in his gauche, the overeager style a “natural character…you’re an incredible flake,” that is, a perfect persona for entrapping the greedy, self-impressed types who engage in the almost mystically charged macho challenge of the pool hall. Eddie appeals to Vincent’s enormous ego and pride by giving him a Balabushka cue, the most perfect instrument of pool. “John Wayne carries ’em like this!” Vincent gushes. Eddie also works on Vincent’s insecurity over keeping Carmen with his low wage (“She don’t dig the allure of this place,” Eddie assures Vincent, regarding the toy store), a game Carmen eagerly buys into in. “We got a racehorse here! You keep him happy, I teach him how to run,” Eddie urges, and the pair tie Vincent’s ego in knots until he signs on.

Eddie is leaving behind frayed relationships with an aggrieved Julian, and with Janelle, fuming at his almost adolescent inability to commit. Vincent and Eddie’s relationship evolves, part father-son, part jealous admiration on Eddie’s part (“Like watching movies of myself thirty years ago”). Vincent is driven by a young egotist’s need to establish dominance, which leads him to brazen shows of skill and spectacles, all of which cuts against the grain of Eddie’s efforts to teach how to be an actual hustling champion, the guy who makes the big scores by sucking in money players. Returning to Chalkie’s, a pool hall run by its one-time sweeper Orvis (Bill Cobb), Vincent’s insistence on caning Eddie in a warm-up match and then the local quickdraw Moselle (Bruce A. Young) costs him the chance to play the desired opponent, a numbers chieftain who always plays with $5,000 in pocket. Eddie walks away cringing and berates Vincent later. Asking how much he won, Vincent announces “One-fifty!” Eddie retorts; “You walk into a shoe store with a hundred and fifty bucks, you come out with one shoe!”

Carmen, trying to manipulate Eddie, teasingly flashes him. Eddie irritably puts paid to this when he drags her in the bathroom: “I like it in the shower!” “Child care!” is how he describes handling this pair. Eddie teaches Vincent a vivid lesson of the harsher aspects of the game. When Vincent won’t bring himself to beat a man whose esophagus has been removed, Eddie bloody_lip.bmptells him to lose on purpose and then leaves him without any money to pay up just long enough for Vincent to be roughed up. When Eddie returns to rescue him, pretending to be his angry father, he’s made his point: nice guys finish last. Slowly, Vincent learns to temper his showiness with Eddie and Carmen’s carrot-and-stick approach, and in a marathon match with the fatuous reigning champ Grady Seasons (Keith McCready), after a sexual threat from Carmen, dumps the game, setting up the perfect scenario for Atlantic City.

Eddie, on a high, takes the Balabushka out for a spin, and gets caught in a match with a weird young player, Amos (Forest Whitaker, positively screaming “star potential”), who eventually proves to be a sublime hustler. It’s a humiliation Eddie finds crippling. He tells Vincent and Carmen to do the rest by themselves, giving them the stake money, a rejection to which Vincent reacts with howling filial rage, tearing a rail off the wall and throwing the cue after Eddie. Eddie determinedly sets about rehabilitating himself as a player, first acknowledging his weakened eyes by getting a pair of bifocals and then retracing steps, refining his style, and taking down all of Vincent’s opponents and a few more (including a noxious punk, played by Iggy Pop, the epitome of everything Eddie’s at war with), before arriving at the championship. Scorsese’s merciless eye for kultur evokes the town’s faux-classy aura with such touches as presenting the pool hall using a soaring crane shot and a blast of organ music, suggesting it’s a cathedral for spivs, and highlighting a lacquer-haired singer killing the exoticism of “The Girl From Ipanema.”

When Eddie encounters Vincent and Carmen again, she is goggle-eyed in stating “Vincent’s changed!” Vincent is now hard, critical, and voracious. Instead of being tempered by Eddie’s lessons, he’s absorbed them into his narcissism. In the championship, Eddie destroys Julian, and Vincent breaks Seasons, bringing them to a quarter-final face-off. But Vincent has devised an intricate revenge on Eddie; he deliberately loses to him. Eddie is, of course, overjoyed, and reunites happily with Janelle in his hotel room, until Vincent and Carmen knock on the door, presenting him with a cut of the money they won betting on him. Janelle dismisses Vincent: “Little prick!” But Eddie stews until he uses Carmen to bait Vincent into a private rematch. “All I want is your best game,” Eddie requests. “You can’t handle my best!” Vincent spits. But he relents. “If I don’t beat you this time I’ll beat you next month,” Eddie says assuredly, and declares, before the film’s concluding freeze frame; “Hey, I’m back!”

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AMPAS agreed, and awarded Newman his belated Oscar for the role; in ’61, Newman had bewilderingly lost to Maximillian Schell’s excellent, but more limited supporting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg. Advised by Scorsese to play the film’s comic scenes as if they weren’t comic, Newman delivers an often sublimely sketched performance as a man who seems light years removed from his youthful, volatile, suffering self, but still has him lurking inside, along with a large dash of Burt’s master manipulator. Eddie is still fighting his worst side, trying to age gracefully without losing his zeal – he’s still shy of commitment and complacency. But Newman occasionally hits beats too heavily, like his berating of Mastrantonio in the bathroom scene, which degenerates to pure Oscar-clip gravitas.

The film contains perhaps Tom Cruise’s best performance. Scorsese uses Cruise’s trademark persona – blithe embodiment of a yuppie-masculine ideal of unleashed hubris, athletic grace, and emotional vacuity – and drags it down quite a few social levels. Vincent is as antiseptically charming a wunderkind as his Top Gun character. Vincent partly hankers to go to West Point (he believes his video games will, in a few years, make him a qualified push-button warrior), but soon heartily embraces the vicious, venal qualities of a great pool shark. Mastrantonio keeps pace with both men in her flinty, charged performance, and she masterfully manages the bitterly amusing shift of her character from dominant witch to terminally confused backseat driver.

Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, rather than a tragedy like em>The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.

Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, like the weapon that is the focus of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.

The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage. l


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