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Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students, having studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA, and their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, probably shares more with the churning imagery of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.
I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had lain his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors within a few months, a one-two punch of formidable achievement that made him the one filmmaker everyone was talking about in those few months before Quentin Tarantino arrived. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.
Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generational and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2011). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.
Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.
Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).
Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.
Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management (represented, amusingly, by Eric Burdon) isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.
Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather obvious and tendentious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.
Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).
Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.
One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1970 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.
The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.
The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.
What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.
Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.
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Director: Jean-Marc Valée
By Roderick Heath
As a child of the ’80s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to generally traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the general nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.
Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different paradigm, of course. The film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., when many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.
Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).
Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.
Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and through a display of forces, compells T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character who turn up when required by the plot.
Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.
Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled, and indeed, dictated dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and wit in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.
Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Valée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Valée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Valée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show “Breaking Bad” where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Valée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Valée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Valée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.
The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.
Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.
Meanwhile, Valée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as saviour of the queers whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic. I do like that the news broadcasts used to give some background information in the film seem to be real, as fake ones used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves in films. Not there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.
If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Valée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.
The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Valée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Valée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Valée closes the loop of Ron’s life.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Margarethe von Trotta
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In this age of extreme practicality, the pursuit of a philosophy education may seem a useless self-indulgence. Yet, there is nothing more useful to an individual than being trained to really think. It is encouraging to know that as our public discourse seems to be increasingly prone to magic thinking and opinion as fact, the actual number of students getting formal training in philosophy is growing.
It was my great luck that my post-secondary education at a Jesuit university required me to immerse myself in philosophy to graduate. It was also my misfortune that I never encountered the writings of German political theorist Hannah Arendt. Even though I was a political science major, her seminal works on power and totalitarianism were not discussed in the classes I took. Perhaps I took the wrong classes. Perhaps sexism was at work. Perhaps her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil made her just too hot to handle. Whatever the reason, I came to Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt as ignorant of this woman and thinker as the average person seeking to know more.
Arendt, a secular German Jew, had a momentous early life. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg, and carried on an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger, one of the great names in philosophy whose Being and Time is a standard text. She hit up against German anti-Semitism when she was disqualified from securing a university teaching post, and soon fled to France in 1933. There she married Heinrich Blücher, a German poet and Marxist philosopher, but did not escape detention at Gurs, a camp the Vichy government used to hold non-French Jews. She escaped after only a few week and managed to obtain forged visas to get to the United States in 1941 with Blücher and her mother. She wrote for Jewish newspapers during the war and helped Zionist organizations to relocate young Jewish survivors of the war to Palestine. The remainder of her life was dedicated to teaching and writing, beginning with The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.
Hannah Arendt concentrates on the years 1961-1963. In 1961, William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of The New Yorker, hired Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. It took her two years to complete work on what became a five-part series in the magazine, commencing in February 1963, and her book, also published in 1963. While the trial and the violently negative reaction to Arendt’s report certainly are dramatic, the challenge for von Trotta and her coscreenwriter Pam Katz was to sustain a dramatic through line for someone who, in essence, simply observed, thought, and wrote. To do this, they focused on Arendt’s personal life—her happy marriage to Blücher (Alex Milberg), and her friendships, which included American author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), who attended Marburg with her and taught with her at New York’s New School for Social Research. While there are several scenes of Arendt arguing politics with friends in German, we end up feeling like non-German-speaking McCarthy at these gatherings—lost.
First, we aren’t introduced to any of the characters surrounding Arendt, so if you don’t know Arendt’s history and circle of friends, you’re just out of luck until the script happens to cough up some information. I had never heard of Gurs before this film, so when Heinrich tells Hannah that she was right to leave Gurs when she did to assuage her feelings of guilt about abandoning Europe’s Jews and freedom fighters, I thought he was talking about a lover or husband! It wasn’t until much later in the film that I got the information that corrected my mistake. We learn almost nothing about Heinrich himself, though Katz and von Trotta keep hinting that he may be having affairs with Hannah’s assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch) and a woman named Charlotte (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) about whom I still have no information because I haven’t looked her up. It seems that through its assumptions of knowledge on the part of the audience, this movie was intended for an elite or German crowd, though its deep adherence to the stodgy conventions of the biopic would argue otherwise. It may be Katz’s inexperience as a screenwriter that led to so many creaky choices, such as the allusions to Heinrich’s possible adultery that are never resolved or the hissworthy villainy of Commentary writer and editor Norman Podhoretz in condemning Arendt as a woman without feelings. As though to counter that frequent slam on Arendt, it seems the script bends over backwards to show that she had a lot of feeling.
What works best in this film and what makes it worth seeking out is the very thing that may have made it seem undramatic in the eyes of its creators—the ideas Arendt formulated about the banality of evil. It is, perhaps, human nature to want to separate ourselves from people who commit great crimes and deny that we have the capacity to commit such evil ourselves. Arendt challenged the notion that only inhuman demons commit genocide by characterizing Eichmann as an efficient bureaucrat dedicated to helping Hitler accomplish the Final Solution without thinking about the moral implications of his actions. He was an ideologue whose one-track mind allowed him to carry out the deportations to the concentration camps, denying that he killed anyone—that part of the Final Solution just wasn’t his job. Arendt saw him as a mediocrity who had lost the ability to think, though his efficiency in transporting Jews to their doom was anything but mediocre.
Further, she had the temerity, the “self-hating” gall to suggest that the Jewish Councils that assisted in this efficiency should come in for condemnation, too. It is the assertion, accurate reporting with which we are assisted in sympathizing by having a Jewish member of the trial gallery curse the councils, that most riled people as an example of blaming the victim. Arendt lost friends, including Hans Jonas, over this cold-hearted assessment. Questions of appeasement are always hard to resolve—for example, if Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler, would he have been able to avert so much destruction—but given the deep-seeded animosity that still lives in France over the actions of Vichy officials, including sending French citizens of Jewish heritage to their deaths, I don’t think this line of reasoning on Arendt’s part is ill-conceived. It is when passions are running most hot that cool thinkers like Arendt are needed to help us make sense of what we are experiencing. Indeed, her notion of the banality of evil has entered our cultural lexicon, leading to much soul-searching in Germany and elsewhere about the average citizen’s complicity in crimes against humanity.
This film is aided enormously by the performance of Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Von Trotta and Katz should have trusted her to humanize this courageous thinker and jettisoned all the feints of her intimates to defend her. Sukowa is as intelligent an actress as her character was a theorist, and you can actually see the wheels of thought turning as she watches a closed-circuit feed of Eichmann’s trial from the pressroom where she spent most of her time. She cows those less gifted than she merely with her presence, and argues with dispassionate passion the ideas she supports. Her final defense of her views on Eichmann and the Jewish Councils given in a class lecture near the end of the film is brilliantly delivered. Jonas, who attends the lecture, is not convinced and cuts Arendt out of his life, an action that seems completely irrational from this distance in time, when her ideas are now orthodoxy. I wish von Trotta and Katz had done more to develop the counter-arguments so that we could understand the reaction to her assertions; despite a jab at German Jews, whose secularization and assimilation brought their feelings of superiority over other Jews out in spades, not enough of this internecine battle is made clear.
Another stroke of brilliance was using the actual footage of Eichmann from the trial. It puts us in the position of trying to judge whether Arendt saw him correctly as a mediocrity who was only following orders, or as a brilliant actor who fooled her into believing he was merely a mindless bureaucrat. Presenting us with the evidence itself, and not an actor’s interpretation, offers us a chance to think for ourselves, a very appropriate exercise for a film about thought. It’s hard to read into the hearts of others, particularly those who have everything to lose by exposing their true thoughts and feelings, but one remark Eichmann made convinces me that Arendt was right:
Q. In your police interrogation you said that if the Reichsfuehrer had told you that your father was a traitor, you would have shot him with your own hands. Is that true?
A. If he was a traitor, probably.
Q. No, if the Reichsfuehrer had told you, would you have shot him – your own father?
A. I would then assume that he would have had to prove it to me. If he had proved it, I would have been duty bound, according to my oath of loyalty.
Q. Was it proved to you that the Jews had to be exterminated?
A. I didn’t exterminate them.
Q. Did you never feel a conflict between your duty and your conscience?
A. One could call it a state of being split. A conscious split state where one could flee from one side to the other.
Q. One’s personal conscience was to be abandoned?
A. You could say that.
Q. If there had been more civil courage, things could have been different?
A. If civil courage had been hierarchically organized, then yes, absolutely.
According to this excerpt, the idea of acting on one’s personal conscience independent of the prevailing social structures does not exist in Eichmann’s universe. This reverence for hierarchy isn’t some trick on Eichmann’s part, but an integral part of societies around the world. Therefore, Eichmann’s guilt, his obedience to the chain of command, is a common and very dangerous flaw.
Hannah Arendt is a flawed film that tries to obey the laws of box office that demand familiarity of story structure and a sympathetic central character. Yet, it was the characteristics that made Arendt not dissimilar to her fellow Germans that made her the perfect witness to the implications of Eichmann’s trial. The final words of Eichmann in Jerusalem sum up her passionate dispassion:
Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
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Director: Paul Quinn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The film community has been debating the appropriateness and relative merits of well-known filmmakers asking the public for financing through Kickstarter, most specifically, Spike Lee. It’s hard for film buffs to believe that directors as celebrated as Lee need a handout, but it is a fact that films out of the mainstream, no matter who wants to make them, often can’t get made. As confirmation that Kickstarter is a blessing to the individual voices Hollywood doesn’t want us to hear, H4 is a stunning example of our money being put to very good use.
This production starring its coexecutive producer, Harry Lennix, in the title role is an adapted version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts I and II featuring an African-American cast and set both in modern-day Los Angeles and on a stage. The stated purpose of the filmmakers is to use the plays, combined into one script, “to explore various aspects of African-American politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. . . . We believe that the themes and ideas contained in the first and second parts of King Henry IV are today as urgent as they were when Shakespeare was writing them.”
The credits for the film begin with the screenwriter Ayanna Thompson and dramaturg Jeff Steele, pointedly listing their PhD degrees as a marker that what will follow is a faithful adaptation. Indeed it is. The merging of the two plays, the first of which is the more historically comprehensive and successful, is a welcome compression that balances the gravitas of King Henry IV with the far more numerous scenes of his wayward son Hal (Amad Jackson)—the future Henry V—and the flamboyant Sir John Falstaff (Angus Macfayden). The compression creates a coming-of-age story that has universal applications, but that in the final scene, points specifically to Barack Obama becoming president of the United States.
The film opens with the sin of the father, a young man (Owiso Odera) when he murdered Richard II to take the crown. The ambush plays out like a gang hit, with Richard being lured into a gangway and ambushed by Henry and his men. With a parting shot, Richard’s head butt sends a point of his crown into Henry’s eye, an interesting metaphor for the blind ambition of the usurper. This scene will repeat throughout the film, a haunting memory for Henry as his own crown comes under threat from Richard’s kin and followers, especially Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Geno Monteiro). His feelings of vulnerability are amplified by the wastrel life Prince Hal is leading.
Hal spends most of his time in a graffiti-laden bar with the thieving glutton Falstaff, one of only a couple of white characters in the film. A perfect exemplar of cowardice and sloth, Falstaff is a comic figure who tends to steal the show every time these plays are produced. MacFayden carries on in that grand tradition with a performance that is delightful and even somewhat innocent, like the more harmless version of Fagin in the musical Oliver!. As a figure of corruption in this context, however, he can be seen as American consumerist culture, and stretching the metaphor even further, a mindlessly malevolent force that keeps black men down with the hefty weight of centuries of white oppression. I would add, however, that there is nothing terribly polemical about the film; in fact, it took me a long time to tease any kind of modern political agenda out of it, and I wouldn’t go to the mat to defend this observation. Above all, the film simply glories in the language and intrigues of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved histories with actors who not only understand the demands of the plays, but also deliver a compellingly watchable drama.
I enjoyed some of the wonderful details layered into this film. Prince Hal wears a t-shirt stenciled with “Rex” on the back, and the stage combat between a newly mature Hal and Percy is authentic in terms of weaponry and also highly theatrical. I enjoyed that the Chief Justice was played by a black woman, the marvelous Victoria Gabrielle Platt, thus laying to rest the prejudice that strong black women are a threat to black masculinity. When Henry V raises her up instead of banishing her for daring to arrest him in the past, it is a proud moment for both.
The film is a bit disjointed, and with the large cast of characters hardly delineated in this shorthanded version of the plays, I was rather confused about who was doing what to whom. For example, the rebel Edmund Mortimer (Kevin Yarbrough) is much spoken about, but only appears late in the film in an abbreviated scene in which he and his coconspirators meet with Hal to discuss terms. This may be true to the plays, but feels abrupt, with a predictable conclusion that requires no knowledge of history or the plays to suss out.
Without question, Harry Lennix is the strong backbone of this production, an actor in complete command of his craft with the regal bearing of a king. When he bellows at Hal to make something of himself, to distinguish himself in combat against a comer Henry would rather have had as a son, the sting has force. When he upbraids Hal for taking his crown off the pillow of Henry’s deathbed in advance of Henry’s death, the fearful wails of a dejected father are brittle and haunting. Lennix, whose impressive performance in Mr. Sophistication was a standout at last year’s CIFF, provides a presence that is felt in every scene, though his appearances are more supporting than central. His strong guiding hand is what makes H4 such a triumph. This movie should be a must-see on your festival schedule, and is an achievement for which everyone who contributed to its making, including the Kickstarter donors, should be proud.
H4 screens Saturday, October 19, 8:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 20, 2:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Producers Albena Dodeva and Danny Green and Executive Producers Harry Lennix and Giovanni Zelko are scheduled to attend both screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)
Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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Directors/Coscreenwriters: Joanna Kos, Krzystof Krauze
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This seems to be the year for biopics among the Polish entries to the Chicago International Film Festival. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a stimulating look at the life of the working-class electrician who went on to make huge changes in Polish society and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Papusza is a much different film about a much different person, a published poet of Romy-Polish descent named Bronisława Wajs. Papusza, which means “doll” in Romy, was born in 1908 and died in 1987, thus making her a witness to both world wars, the occupation of Poland by the Soviets, and the forced settlement of the nomadic Romy in permanent homes. That she learned to read and write is remarkable in itself. That her poetry found a wide audience and acclaim in Poland and other countries is a near miracle. Yet, unlike Lech Wałesa, her life did not change for the better, and the hardships she suffered as a Romy woman dogged her to the end of her life.
The film begins in 1971, when the assistant to the Polish cultural minister goes to a prison where Papusza (Jowita Budnick) is incarcerated. A performance of her poetry set to music is about to take place, and the assistant tells the warden that she will not tell the minister that the guest of honor can’t attend because she stole a chicken. After securing Papusza’s release, the women get in a car that will take them to the venue. We flash back to 1909, to a young, pregnant Romy who walks through a muddy street and out to a meadow. She lays down and yells for her mother, followed by a baby’s cries. The scene cuts to the new mother cradling her child and giving her the name Papusza. A fortune teller says the child will live a momentous life, but she cannot say whether it will be one of greatness or despair. In fact, it will be both.
The film jumps to 1949. Papusza’s much older husband, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), watches as his friend and harp tuner Czernecki (Artur Steranko) rows across a lake, harp upright in the boat, to the Romy camp. He asks Wajs to hide a young man who is on the run from the police. Wajs is reluctant to take in a gadjo (outsider), but he owes Czernecki the favor. The man, Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), is a writer who travels with the Romy for two years, until he learns the warrant for his arrest has been vacated. He becomes a natural companion for Papusza, who, we learn in another flashback, got a Jewish woman to teach her to read and write when she was of school age. “Little Brother” encourages Papusza to write down the poetry she composes orally. Once he gets established in Warsaw, he collects the poems for publication. By this time, the Wajses and others in their camp have been forced to abandon traveling and have settled in a slum in a small Polish town.
The film’s scrambled chronology keeps us waiting to see what is only mentioned in the 1949 section—the extermination of the Jews and Romy by the Nazis. We see little graphic violence, but the Romy are clearly being hunted. The Wajses and some of their camp hide in the woods in dugouts covered by leaf mats; Papusza ventures out of her hole and into a barn where a group of Romy have been herded and killed. She finds a baby crying, almost an echo of her own birth, and brings the boy back to Wajs as the son they haven’t been able to conceive. Later, when Papusza is shunned by the Romy for helping Jerzy share their secrets with other gadjo in his book The Gypsies in Poland, written in Polish and Romy, her son disavows her as his mother because he is a foundling.
There is a great deal more to the film, filled with details of Romy life, that make it seem more interested in Ficowski’s work than in telling the story of a remarkable woman. In many ways, the approach is intriguing. The beauty of the lush black-and-white cinematography brings both a harshness to Romy life, particularly when they are cooped up in their tenement, and the romance and beauty of the open road and living in nature. We see a Romy orchestra play at a posh event in the 1920s, reminiscent of how African Americans were allowed to entertain white Americans, but were persecuted outside the performance arena.
The superstitions of the Romy come out in everything from fortune telling to pouring wine on the ground before drinking. The subjugation of Romy women to their men is shown in the segregation of the sexes, the commonplace of child brides, and a king making rulings for the entire community. Wajs threatens Papusza with a beating when she says she is not a poet and will not attend the state performance in her honor, and it’s clear this is a default position for him.
As much as I enjoyed looking at this film and learning about how the Romy lived during most of the 20th century, I kept looking for Papusza and her poetry to take center stage. Her art was barely quoted, and her life was massed in with the rest of the Romy, to the point where, despite a great performance by Budnik, it seemed like her husband was the main character. We do see her grieving over her marriage to a man 25 years older than she and falling for Jerzy. She is put in a mental hospital at one point, something that seems to go with the territory when a woman tries to do something her society finds offensive, like speak for herself through her art (see Séraphine  for more on this type of narrative). But this film doesn’t really get at the heart of the woman who made such a deep impression on Ficowski and the outside world. She just becomes more abject and poor, doomed and demented, setting her poems on fire on her kitchen table and begging for a few złotys in her old age in exchange for a tarot reading. She becomes a figure of pity when she should have been someone women could look to for inspiration. While I can encourage people to see this film for the richness of its imagery and scope of its story, both of which might have been meant to evoke Papusza’s writing, if you want to know who Papusza is, read her poetry.
Papusza screens Wednesday, October 16, 6:25 p.m, Thursday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., and Friday, October 18, 2:455 p.m., and at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actress Jowita Budnik is scheduled to attend all three screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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Director: Andrzej Wajda
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The biopic genre is one that most film fans approach with a certain amount of caution. Rarely are they historically accurate, and oftentimes, they fall into a template that seems to predestine their subjects with a greatness that separates them from the pack almost by birthright. Poland’s greatest living filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, most recently made a 2010 documentary tribute to his own cinematographer Edward Kłosińsk, thus setting him up nicely to approach the momentous life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. While largely complimentary to the still-living, elder statesman of the working class, Wajda’s biopic moves meticulously through the major events of Wałęsa’s life with a bracing veracity and the perfect pacing of a master craftsman.
Wajda chooses an interesting framing device for his survey of Wałęsa’s history—an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio). The screenplay makes clear that it is not the interview she conducted for her 1977 book Interview with History, but rather one following the success of the Solidarity movement. Fallaci, a probing, sometimes confrontational interviewer, challenges Wałęsa (Robert Wieckiewicz) about the appropriateness of accepting comfortable housing from the government, testing whether fame and power will corrupt the people’s leader with this and other questions that check his level of hubris. Wałęsa waves off the concern, and when we see throughout the film how many months he spent in prison from the time he witnessed the 1970 massacre of dock workers in Gdansk to the 1980 lockdown strike he led at the shipyard and beyond, it’s clear that government housing of one kind or another has long been a part of Wałęsa’s life.
His story begins on the eve of his first arrest in 1970. Working as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard and expecting the birth of his first child (the film chronicles the arrival of six of the eight children the Wałęsas have), he learns a labor action is about to commence. He feels his place is at the dock, where he ends up trying to stop the workers to prevent the killings that follow, gets arrested, and is released only after promising to spy for the government, a pledge he soon fails to keep. Before he leaves, he removes his wedding ring and watch with instructions to his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) to sell them if he doesn’t come home; this wholly inadequate substitute for a wage-earning husband becomes a running routine throughout the film, as Wałęsa’s growing involvement in the emerging Polish labor movement leads to more and more absences and the loss of one job after another because of his activism.
Wałęsa seems to know how to talk to people to get them to listen—he tells Fallaci that the right words just come. He also is a practical man who knows how to negotiate and win. When he falls in with a group of intellectuals who are talking about staging a hunger strike, he asks them forthrightly what good their starvation will do. It’s not practical, it won’t get results, he says, and he’s right. The movement was far from unified at that point, and few would have cared about their sacrifice. At the same time, however, Wałęsa feels the intellectuals can help him craft language and strategies; he’s not anti-intellectual, only pro-results. His agreement with the police teaches him never to sign anything, advice he passes on to other activists.
The major set-piece of the film is the 1980 lockdown strike. The action begins before Wałęsa is in the shipyard, and the police are hellbent on keeping him from getting in. He manages to slip away, but is only a few meters ahead of his pursuers when he manages to climb over the fence to join the workers. He quickly organizes them, and word of the strike reaches throughout Poland, where transportation workers, miners, and others join them in a general strike. Wałęsa has secured several modest demands for the dock workers, but when a trolley car driver begs him not to abandon them by ending their strike, the gates to the shipyard are closed again as the Solidarity movement wins major concessions from the government, including having their union legalized. This section is nail-bitingly brilliant, as Wałęsa appears to be improvising his way to a revolution of sorts.
Things look bad for Solidarity, however, when the Soviets decide to flex their muscles by declaring martial law in 1981 and outlawing the union. Wałęsa is imprisoned for nearly a year, but the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 brings an end to martial law. In 1983, Wałęsa wins the Nobel Prize, but fearing exile, he sends Danuta to accept it. Wadja uses stock footage of Brezhnev’s funeral, but dramatizes part of Danuta’s delivery of Lech’s acceptance speech and shows the humiliation she suffers when she is stripped for a full body-cavity search by Polish customs officials at the airport.
Wadja is a crowd-pleaser with this film, bringing an energetic mise-en-scène to the Gdansk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists. He shorthands relationships, particularly that between Danuta and Lech, with homey touches like the ring and watch and a handmade “typhus” sign he proposes to hang on their door to keep the world away. Wieckiewicz seems to channel Wałęsa’s natural leadership and charisma, portraying a perfect man of action who seemed driven to make the changes he did despite the hardships to himself and his family, particularly as communicated by Grochowska. Important events that helped strengthen the movement, not the least of which was having the Polish Pope John Paul II come home to preach to the faithful, show how one man does not a movement make, though Wieckiewicz makes it clear that Wałęsa was not a terribly humble man. His homophobia is not included in this film, which ends before his pronouncements on homosexuality were made publicly, but Wadja avoids—just barely—straight hagiography simply by letting the events speak for themselves.
As a Chicagoan whose city has the largest population of Poles of any city other than Warsaw, I remember well seeing the Solidarity flags and banners waving up and down Milwaukee Avenue, the main drag of Polish Chicago, during the 1980s. Wałęsa, thus, is a part of my personal history and a figure of great interest to me. But in these times of union-busting and worker exploitation, it would be a great salvo against corporate elites if this film opened widely and played to sold-out audiences. I highly recommend that CIFF attendees fire the first shot by selling out every showing of this highly entertaining and instructive film from one of cinema’s grand masters.
Wałęsa: Man of Hope shows Friday, October 11, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, October 13, 2:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 16, 3:20 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
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Director: Kevin Macdonald
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
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Director/Screenwriter: Rania Stephan
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For the record: I don’t expect there to be a more exciting film at the Chicago International Film Festival this year than Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.
After viewing a number of ho-hum and near-miss films during my prefestival screenings, I literally bolted forward in my seat as I watched this fascinating experimental film—a rarity itself for this festival—that in the simplest terms could be called an interpretive biopic of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. However, Stephan’s assemblage of nothing but film clips from among the 82 feature films Hosni made from the 1960s through the 1990s offers more than a portrait of the artist. Hosni’s roles are arranged by Stephan to progress from the freshness of youth and ambition to stardom, through to adult pains and a dramatic death, thereby illustrating how the flickering images of our most cherished stars reflect back to us the archetypal dramas of our own lives. You’d have to watch Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart for anything close to a similar experience.
The popularity of Golden Age Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world made Soad Hosni a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East. With the decline of the Egyptian film industry, the loss of many films through decay and fire, and the 2001 death of Hosni herself from a suspicious fall from a balcony that was ruled a suicide, Stephan felt three distinct losses, or disappearances, that she wished to note in her film. She used images from available copies of Hosni’s films, without trying to restore, color-correct, or remove any of the faded subtitles (she simply superimposes new ones) from the VHS tapes that bear witness to these disappearances.
Soad Hosni, in looks, figure, career, and influence, reminds me very much of Elizabeth Taylor, the last great Hollywood goddess. Like a goddess who represents something immutable in all women, Hosni is shown being greeted by the many different names of the characters she assumed in quick cuts that enliven and add humor to the early part of the film, exemplifying the energy of youth. Stephan does not shy away from Hosni’s sensuality. She emphasizes through scenes of Hosni emerging from the sea in a wet bathing suit and provocatively dressed to sit for an artist the importance of the actress’ “attributes” in launching her career. It is through her own determination to become a star, signaled in a number of scenes in which her characters voice that ambition, that we learn it takes more than a gorgeous face and body to get to the top.
Romance and marriage soon follow, with steamy kisses (some complete with censor cuts) and highly suggestive bedroom scenes that offer the kinds of fantasies both men and women long for at the movies. In a sly commentary on Hosni, some of her characters are shown getting married to the pictures’ leading men, suggesting the four marriages Hosni entered into herself. In a cliché of the serially married movie star, Hosni’s characters descend into unhappiness, with one ending her marriage by saying she no longer respects her husband. At the end, to show the complete degradation of the memory of a fabled movie goddess, Stephan cuts together several brutal rape sequences, all the more harrowing for their rapidity and the struggle Hosni puts up in each of them to maintain her honor.
Throughout the film, a character Hosni played is shown laying on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to remember events of her life. This clever device amounts to something like the voiceover narration given by Natalie Wood, Hosni’s contemporary in time, career, and mysterious death, as she chronicles her life in the rise-and-fall show biz picture Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Thus, whether or not one is familiar with Hosni and her body of work, moviegoers will have no trouble recognizing her story.
The shocking ending of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni packs an emotional punch that I would not dream of spoiling here. I will consider my reportage on this film festival successful if I induce any of my readers to seek out this original, finely crafted example of experimental film at its best.
An excellent article about the film and an interview with Rania Stephan can be found here.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni screens Sunday, October 21, at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 4 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jan Troell
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.
Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.
At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.
The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the face of overwhelming misery and threat from without.
One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.
The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August lent a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.
I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.
Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.
The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.
The Last Sentence screens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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Director: Tim Burton
By Roderick Heath
The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of talent in art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele), provided a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by a leading critic’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces which can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it is about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes an initial pitch to Weiss, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”), draws the beefy, volcanic Weiss in to listen eagerly to tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness. Dolores moves through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabit the realm of farce.
Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi, a façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was. But considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone, for better or worse, into the image they create for themselves, such diminution is understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.
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Director: Phil Karlson
By Roderick Heath
Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he managed to produce a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.
Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.
This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.
The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.
Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns. Karlson doesn’t merely present racial harmony as the only sane option, but fills the film with violently neurotic energy, as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been particularly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.
Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons too. Long before The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.
Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.
Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion, lending the film an edge of B-movie sexploitation and superfluity. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.
Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.
Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.
Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.
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Director: David Cronenberg
By Roderick Heath
I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.
The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).
Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.
Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.
We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.
Many directors become long-winded, not always unfruitfully, but often indulgently, in their late-period films, but Cronenberg here has honed his style to a succinct, discretely impressive economy. He wastes no more frames and words than necessary in a series of interpersonal exchanges, like the way he shoots Jung’s sessions with Sabina constantly from in front her, her alarming visage dominating the foreground whilst the calmly listening doctor hovers behind. The stage origin of Hampton’s work is detectable in the essentially limited range of characters—only five of the actors really matter—and the largely conversational drive of the tale. Cronenberg’s approach to such material is cunning, breaking his film up in a fashion that makes us aware of leaps of time whilst maintaining unity in the flow of vignettes and talk reminiscent of epistolary novels, accumulating over a nine-year period and coalescing into a narrative. Cronenberg does this through a purposeful use of cuts between episodes that lack the usual passage-of-time film grammar, watching relationships evolve and devolve. Simultaneously, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, adapted from his own play and a book by John Kerr, accumulates detail in an unforced but clear-minded and literate fashion: for Hampton, the story has clear affinities with his script for Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which similarly delved into the sordid affairs of fin de siècle antiheroes.
If A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (2007) saw Cronenberg leveraging flashes of personal inspiration out of essentially impersonal material, A Dangerous Method sees him thoroughly submerged in his chosen story, which has echoes as far back in his oeuvre as The Brood (1979). Rather than placing into a dramatic context the imagery of the id, here he peers with quiet wit at the forceful, often violent meeting of minds and bodies that gave life to modern psychological theory. Cronenberg, at any rate, steadfastly refuses to go in to standard biopic histrionics and structures the film backwards, with Sabina’s neurotic explosions all at the start; the finale sees the protagonists all diverging on solitary adventures. The mesh of cultural, political, and personal values that bind and define the characters is laid out in concise terms, especially when Freud draws Jung’s attention to the difficulties of their profession and that fact his theories are gaining credibility as being bound up in the overwhelming Jewish membership of the Viennese psychiatric circle. When Jung asks, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Freud replies, “That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark.” Freud is well aware that such irrational, yet potent prejudices as anti-Semitism can only give fuel to the aggression of his detractors, who will not stomach the implicit condemnation of all Victorian ideals of child-raising, and aspects of the social structure itself, that will inevitably flow out of psychotherapy’s new wisdom.
This is, after all, early 20th century Europe, with its uneasy blend of the liberal and untold lodes of hypocrisy and buried frustration that will soon be released in its orgiastic moment. Sabina seems a by-product of the peculiarly bestial undercurrents and power-favouring assumptions of the era, which the starched collars and trim skirts cocoon. Jung and Freud present less frenetic yet identifiable versions of the same thing, particularly well invested in Fassbender’s expert acting, as he squirms both within the assurances of his professional and actual garb and the tools of his mind to control his impulses, and yet he requires only slight encouragement to give into them. Nonetheless, in the first half of A Dangerous Method, Jung’s use of Freud’s talking cure pulls Sabina back from the brink of self-destruction and helps form a partnership between the two doctors, and the scene fulminates with creative and intellectual potential, as their first meeting goes on for hours before Freud first notices. Taking lunch in Freud’s apartment, Jung yammers away on sexual theory until Freud casually encourages him to not observe any conversational niceties, causing Jung to remember that Freud’s family are listening with beguiled fascination.
Cassell’s Gross is the serpent in this particular Eden, in which Freud is initially high priest and lawgiver who puts Jung and Gross together like the experimenter he is, hoping for another catalytic reaction, and then getting chagrined at some of the results. Gross proffers a blend of entitled addict’s reasoning and unapologetically rebellious attitude, which persuasively preaches a total freedom whilst seeming at the same time to be deeply disturbed. He penetrates Jung’s head with temptation exactly when he’s vulnerable to it, attracted to Sabina on several levels and alienated from his wife and her bourgeois rituals of family-rearing—rituals Gross mocks mercilessly. Perhaps the most revealing, biting, and propulsive aspect of A Dangerous Method is the way it identifies the porous boundaries of the psychoanalytical field, with characters stepping over borderlines between doctor and patient according to the necessity of the moment, and the implicit theory that it takes a neurotic to know a neurotic. “You’re exactly the sort of person we need,” Jung tells Sabina when she asks him if he thinks she can ever be a psychiatrist: “Insane, you mean?” she deadpans.
Jung’s actual affair with Sabina is undoubtedly sexual—Cronenberg casually zeroes in on the stain of blood left when he takes her virginity—but is punctuated by his indulging her masochistic desires. He’s glimpsed methodically smacking her backside as she writhes in erotic frenzy with the air of man simply extending therapy into the bedroom. Sabina sets out to seduce Jung out of romantic interest, but also to satisfy her growing awareness that a good psychoanalyst with an interest in sex like her ought to know something of what she’s talking about. Gross is glimpsed fornicating in the garden with a clinic nurse whose bored expression suggests it’s an equivalent to emptying bedpans and giving out medication, and Gross with an expression redolent of the junkie getting his daily fix. Gross commences as at least a tacitly functioning intellectual but soon enough flees like a man chased by ghosts, asking Jung to tell his father he’s dead. Sabina, on the other hand, travels from barely functioning wretch to a professional. Jung, after deciding early on to steer Sabina toward the medical ambitions she’s already harboured, makes her an assistant in experiments, including one in which he has his wife perform a word association test where the quiet discord in the Jungs’ marriage is made apparent to Sabina.
Jung’s privileged position is underlined when his wife buys him a huge house and a yacht whilst acquiescing coolly to the possibility of his having an affair, and just as coolly reclaiming him with the certainty that for all his percolating temptations to break with his fastidiously bourgeois upbringing and outlook, he’s effectively held within those limits by his own conscientious thinking. These factors do lead him to break with Sabina and even to try to obfuscate the nature of their relationship in his dealings with Freud, obfuscation Freud later claims as one reason for his severing his ties with Jung. But that split already began when Freud tried to block Jung’s desire to move beyond strict adherence to Freud’s purely sexual model, itself challenging enough that Freud predicts that people will still be resisting aspects of it for a century, and starts adopting theories the older man dismisses as unscientific nonsense. In one scene, Jung, having absorbed a criticism from the older man, suddenly begins interpreting a clicking sound emerging from a heating system that coincides with a twinging in his stomach as proof of the possibility of psychic anticipation. Of course, all what’s really manifesting is his anguish at Freud’s determination to remain the guardian at the bridge of legitimacy.
As with the word association scene, close to the film’s end, there’s a clever use of theory to introduce a new idea: in 1913, Jung recounts a dream we know contains a dread portent for the world he lives in, filled with images of waves of blood and piled corpses. Freud’s own spurts of unease when confronted by Jung’s wealth is drolly handled and gives a telling weight to Freud’s discomfort and determination to retain his intellectual leadership. Freud’s understanding of the perilous position he’s in, reminding Sabina of their shared Jewish responsibility, gains a chilling clarity in the coda where we’re reminded that Freud died as a refugee from the Nazis and that Sabina perished at the hands of an SS murder squad in 1942.
One quality of A Dangerous Method that distinguishes it from Cronenberg’s earlier films in a similar key—my favourite of his works, Dead Ringers (1988), and my least favourite, Crash (1996)—is that where he might have adopted an air of chilly archness when dealing with such characters and situations, the tone of this film also has a strong grasp on the hothouse feeling underneath. As with his uneven yet occasionally remarkable Eastern Promises, there’s a deep ocean of feeling and a quiet beauty to the film, as if Cronenberg has grasped at last a way to articulate passion as well as pathology without stooping to bathos. Fassbender’s characterisation of Jung is very much the centrepiece of the film, though he doesn’t dominate. Of the startling amount of work he’s ploughed through in the past 18 months, Fassbender gives one of his very best and most subtle performances here, capturing the finite play of guilt, frustration, attraction, and professional zeal in Jung, a man who doesn’t quite seem to find his sense of mission until after his break with Freud and his last goodbye to Sabina.
Undoubtedly when the time comes to estimate awards, the early scenes of the deeply disturbed Sabina will count most both for and against Knightley’s performance; but the quality of her acting is best noted by how she modulates the characterisation in the later stages, her overt symptoms dissipating, yet maintaining something freakishly odd about Sabina, who operates on a level of feverish strength beyond anything Jung and Freud can contemplate releasing in themselves. That strange intensity is most apparent in such moments as when she’s taking notes on a roomful of Jung’s patients listening to Wagner, hovering with a blend of geeky enthusiasm and hawkish intent. Mortensen is however perhaps the film’s quietest coup, incarnating his Freud as an icon of pipe-smoking sang froid and cagey authority. It’s as restrained a piece of star acting as you’ll ever see, and one of the most effective. Like the film itself, he’s so measured, smart, and effective, you almost don’t realise it.
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Director/Screenwriter: Raúl Ruiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova
By Roderick Heath
The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.
The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.
The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.
Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.
Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.
Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.
Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”
Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.
Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.
Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.
Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.
In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.
The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.
With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.
DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).
DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.
Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.
Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.
Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.
Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.
Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.
Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.
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Producer/Director/Coscreenwriter: Ken Russell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
We’ve been having an impromptu BBC-TV week here at Ferdy on Films, beginning with my assessment of Dennis Potter’s Cream in My Coffee and continuing with Rod’s dual review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Rod and I have both noted how these works were influences—in the former case, on Potter’s later works, in the latter, on later feature films dealing with the Cold War. With The Debussy Film, one of several commissioned works Russell did during the 1960s on famous artists, composers, and dancers for the BBC series Monitor and Omnibus, Russell experimented with images that would show up in his films Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). The films also laid the groundwork for a extended examination of famous creators in feature-length biopics, such as The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah (1972), Mahler (1974), Lizstomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).
Rod commented to me that watching Russell’s BBC work made glaringly obvious how unambitious those now working in television and film are when it comes to biography. Indeed, most such films are either documentaries, hagiographies, or focused only on the most sensational parts—or indeed, only one particular slice—of a famous person’s life. Additionally, experimentation of the type Russell indulged in his biographies is so audacious—and largely successful—it puts other such works to shame. For example, the Oscar-nominated Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) mixes reality with fantasy in offering a biography of its central protagonist, but its experiments are so hamfisted and immature—not to mention that the film’s story may be largely a made-up joke—that it seems like the 43rd clone of a Russell original: pallid, weak, and played out.
The Debussy Film is no such beast. Russell sets out to tell the life story of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), borrowing in structure from Citizen Kane by offering the end of Debussy’s life first and recounting the whys and wherefores of how such a great composer could have been buried with so little fanfare and such a small mourning party attending his funeral. He also adopts a narrator similar to Jedediah Leland in Kane. This narrator is the “director” of the film (Vladek Sheybal), who also plays the role of Pierre Louis, a rich photographer and one of Debussy’s benefactors. With this casting, and with an opening showing the cast and crew assembling at a location in Eastbourne, Russell signals that he intends to move freely between the period film and the present, letting the bones of shooting the film show through the skin.
Russell uses a newspaper reporter on the set to interview the director about the film as the device that first allows his narrator to state the facts of Debussy’s life. The director introduces the dramatis personae, for example, an offhand “There’s Debussy, over there” as the camera pans to Oliver Reed talking to an actress playing Madame Vasnier, a singer for whom he wrote the first songs of his to be performed in public and someone who was “looking after him at the time. He always needed someone to look after him.” We are informed they were also lovers, as the camera pans to Monsieur Vasnier, sitting apart from the pair, the shadows of the camera crew clearly visible in the foreground. Then the camera switches back to Debussy and Madame Vasnier, and the figure of a young woman moves between them and embraces Debussy. “And then I met Gaby,” intrudes Reed’s voice as he looks into his script. It is in this daisy-chain manner that Russell moves characters in and out of Debussy’s life.
Gaby Dupont, played by the Piaf-like Annette Robertson, lived with and supported Debussy for nine years as they both explored the bohemian artists’ world of Paris. They are shown in the throes of a young, carefree love—walking in the rain, chasing through a garden, with “Gardens in the Rain” playing under the scene. We learn during this scene that Debussy took up music because of French poet Paul Verlaine’s mother-in-law, who claimed to have studied with Chopin and who taught Debussy how to play piano. Again, we learn these facts from Reed in voiceover, speaking as Debussy. And then Russell moves us into the present, as we watch Robertson and Reed act out the love of Debussy and Gaby while swimming.
I particularly loved the stroll Reed and Sheybal take through the Tate Museum gallery containing the paintings of Rossetti and other visual artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (sadly, not seen to their best advantage in the black-and-white photography of the film), who inspired Debussy’s impressionistic and dreamy music. “He wanted his music to be paintings in sound,” says Sheybal, and noting Debussy’s love of Whistler’s nocturne paintings, introduces one of the composer’s three nocturnes, “Les Fêtes.” The arresting images of a Catholic procession, full of stern nuns and masked priests carrying an idol of the Madonna and child, presage the themes and images Russell would use in The Devils.
Another image, one that would show up in a slightly different form of drown lovers in Women in Love, occurs after Debussy’s story moves past his rejections of Gaby and Lily Texier (Penny Service), his first wife. Both women shot themselves in despair, and both survived, but Russell gives us an image of their prone, still forms in bikinis lying across rocks on shore as he walks with his new patron and future wife, the rich and artistic Madame Bardac (Isa Teller). The pair moved into the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where he composed “La Mer,” my personal favorite among Debussy’s works. Another arresting image shows Debussy standing on a balcony, and the crane shot goes from a relatively close shot of Debussy and pulls back gradually to reveal him near the top of the enormous hotel edifice, literally on top of the world with his money problems behind him, a bonafide masterpiece under his belt, and his star on the international scene about to rise precipitously. Still, below him in the ornate hotel pool, swims Gaby, suggesting that she was his one true love and muse.
In 1914, when World War I began, Debussy received a commission to write a piece of war music. “It was to be for Albert, King of the Belgians. It had to include the Belgian national anthem,” Reed says in voiceover. Says the director, “‘Berceuse héroïque’ is possibly the most unheroic, unbloodthirsty war music ever written.” Russell juxtaposes the solemn, beautiful music Debussy wrote with what to the composer would have been completely alien images of war. That he accepted the commission at all is part of a section recounting his feverish activities writing film scores, operas, anything at all to support his daughter Chouchou after his wife’s income was cut off.
The film then trails into Debussy’s final years, when illness and ennui sent him into seclusion, and he continued his work on a piece based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Twelve years of tortuous work imagining a man, Roderick Usher, with whom he completely identified, yielded only “two or three sheets of music.” Russell creates a wonderfully evocative, short horror film in which Reed moves through an enormous, empty castle. He is met in a geometric hall not by the risen ghost of Usher’s sister, but rather by images of Gaby and Lily, the women he wronged, as the final strains of “La Mer” yield to the funeral procession set up in the first scene of the film.
Russell indulges his sexual provocations in what I thought were mainly juvenile ways—taking an out-of-context scene of a woman in modern dress being shot through with arrows in reference to Debussy’s composition “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” and having the director tell the reporter they had intended to do it with the actress nude. The reporter, looking at the actress seated next to the director primping for an extraordinarily long time in a hand mirror, leers and gets flustered. Additionally, he has Service meet Reed and other cast members by emerging topless from the pool of the Grand Hotel, which made me feel nothing but embarrassment. Yet one scene, in which the rejected Lily, remembering her love with Debussy in his passionate embrace, runs off in despair, was heartfelt and affecting.
It was a privilege to see Russell developing his ideas in this and the other programs contained in the invaluable Ken Russell at the BBC box set. I hope would-be film biographers can one day work with the courage, spirit of experimentation, and fun Russell displays here.
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Director: David Fincher
By Roderick Heath
One night in 2003, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) goes back to his dorm room and, between swilling liquor and firing off angry blog rants about Erica, slaps together a rudimentary website called “Facemash” so that his fellow students can compare and vote on photos of female undergrads. This stunt proves so popular that he crashes Harvard’s network at 4:00 AM. Mark is momentarily in trouble with the college establishment, and in deep, permanent hot water with Erica, but he’s made a name for himself, and now discerns an uncharted corner of the online world’s possibilities. He soon receives an offer by twin rich kids Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) to build a website they have in mind, to be called “Harvard Connection,” in which the selling point is the exclusivity of the harvard.edu address. Mark signs on, but busies himself instead with developing his own version of the idea using cash and some code provided by his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and fellow computer wizards Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel). Within a few months. it’s clear Mark has put together the basics of a project that has the potential to turn his crew into billionaires—The Facebook, named after the institutional catalogues of Harvard alumni.
We remember Balzac’s maxim: all great fortunes come from a great crime. The great driving fantasy of the dotcom generations is the possibility of expunging that maxim by accumulating wealth based in digits and know-how rather than polluting the planet and exploiting labour, and yet such innocent wealth is as elusive now as ever. The Social Network tells a story electrifying to anyone who’s young and dreams big. There are certainly moments in it that made me wish I’d dedicated the early years of the millennium to learning how to write computer code rather than coherent sentences. And yet the story confirms enough impressions of licentious misogyny, business bastardry, indulgence in controlled substances, and nerdish social dysfunction to satisfy the antimillennial prejudices of the most jaded fogey.
The Winklevoss twins, or the “Winklevii” as Mark contemptuously refers to them, believe Mark has stolen their idea, and, after delaying because of Cameron’s gentlemanly scruples, hit Mark with a lawsuit. But the root of all evil and creative ambition in The Social Network is not plagiarism but sex. It’s the fief of the sanctified “Final Clubs” of Harvard where golden boys party all night with good-time girls brought in by the busload, and the promised land for the successful businessman who otherwise lacks natural advantages. After being dumped by Erica, who describes Mark’s conversational mix of brilliance, jealousy, suspicion, and ambition as like “dating a Stairmaster,” Mark sees the market value in creating a site that avoids the tedious work of developing relationships and instead offers you the equivalent of a sign that reads, “I am single, please fuck me.” Later, Mark and Eduardo, their new website having made them instant celebrities on campus and in other colleges that have adopted it, begin accumulating groupies, including Christy (Brenda Song) and Alice (Malese Jow), hot-to-trot Asian students in hooker heels who fulfil all their boyish fantasies in blowing them in the union bar bathroom.
The serpent arrives in this Eden in the form of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a randy, drug-and-chick-lovin’ entrepreneur whose website Napster (before being killed by lawsuits) set in motion the degradation of the music business. Intrigued by a glimpse at The Facebook from the bed of a college demoiselle (Dakota Johnson) he’s just laid, Parker meets with Mark and Eduardo, suggests dropping “The” from the title, and inspires Mark to hire more code writers and move out to California, about which Sean is able to bewitch Mark with visions of endless sexual escapades with underwear models on giant piles of money, or something close. When Eduardo finally follows them out west, he’s dismayed to see Parker attaching himself to their baby and tries to make Mark pay attention to him by freezing the operation’s finances just before Mark and Parker arrange a colossal hedge fund loan. Eduardo soon finds himself manoeuvered into signing a contract that sees his share in the company plummet, inspiring a final blow-up, which, along with Parker’s being disgraced in a romp involving cocaine and underage college girls, leaves Mark alone and beset by vendetta lawsuits.
The Social Network tells a story worth telling, a key modern “creation myth” (as it’s described in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay) for a modern movie audience that is often badly served by Hollywood, in particular. The likes of Sorkin and Peter Morgan have cornered a market in offering imaginative takes on events we’re too used to seeing through the surface-only lenses of popular media and the bare-boned language of reportage. Sorkin’s writing and Fincher’s direction lay out the complexities of that story with coherence and cinematic fluidity. It’s as slickly made a drama as any Hollywood’s put out in years, equipped with some witty dialogue. It’s well-paced and the time taken to watch the film passes swiftly.
So why did it all finally ring so hollow for me?
The trailer for The Social Network, which utilised the Scala Choir’s a capella rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” actually delivered images, dialogue, and visual chic of the film with far more spirit, darkness, emotion, and implied thoughtfulness than the complete film comes close to offering. “Creep” was an uncanny choice not only because using Gen X songs seems to instantly thrill a lot of Gen X critics, but also because its lyrics quite clearly lay out the repressed self-loathing and hunger for community that’s a darker aspect of the contemporary youth zeitgeist, and that particular recording imbues it with a spiritual reach and faintly menacing kind of beauty that makes Parker’s pronouncements about “This is our time!” sound vaguely übermensch-like. Instead, in the context of the full film, it’s a rather vaingloriously tacky statement by a piddling debauch.
I’ve made no secret in the past of my lack of love for Fincher as a director, and The Social Network is a neat portrait of both his strengths and perennial lackings. He’s a formidable technician, and The Social Network represents, at least, a welcome return to the kind of procedural immediacy he brought to 2007’s Zodiac after the spectacular, yet oddly ineffectual fantasy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But it’s also peppered with a lot of the shallow social commentary of the vein that littered his earlier work, like Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), is poorly shaped, falling away from a racing start, and filmed, as ever, with his familiar interiors shot through greeny-amber filters, like somebody’s urinated on the lens.
Even when Fincher toys with open-ended narratives, like that of Zodiac, he holds to such a streamlined, conventional structuring of scenes that the very real strengths of his work—particularly a firm sense of mise-en-scène—are diffused by his determination to be a Hollywood player of the most mainstream kind. Fincher has no idea how to end a movie without an explosion: like Zodiac and Benjamin Button, The Social Network stumbles to a halt, rather than ends, in a way that evokes less the chill of unanswerable questions than running out of time. He domesticates even anarchic and disturbing narratives to an infuriating degree. His approach to wringing drama and sex appeal out of a possibly dry, geeky tale is to play the old DeMille game of employing sexploitation and then moralism, as Fincher offers hot chicks making out with each other and stripping on tabletops, whilst pretending to shake his head over this decadence, or to have people leap out of their chairs and rush across campus when something dramatic happens, like they’ve just discovered the killer’s identity and that the phone calls are coming from inside the house.
Sorkin, too, shares similar traits: his snap-crackle-pop dialogue and self-assertively smartypants sensibility are all rigorously glib, and the overt, high-pressure cleverness of it all, rather than seeming literate and challenging, smothers the story’s resonances in the cradle. His fine TV series The West Wing and its cinematic ancestor The American President (1995) earned a pass partly because they wore their stagy, fairytale stylisation on their sleeve and partly because Sorkin’s writing wasn’t as consciously arch then as it has become. Every character in The Social Network, except for the odd stoned young wenches who flit by in the background, talks in rapid-fire TV-ese. The emotional and social theses are constantly stated, never felt or deeply communicated by the filmmaking; in fact, they’re typed up like memos. It was a nice reminder of how much I disliked Sorkin’s previous outing as a screenwriter in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a despicable film that bespoke the complete exhaustion of the Hollywood liberal film tradition in reducing the Afghan-Russian War to a video game whilst celebrating Tom Hanks’ right to screw Julia Roberts and Emily Blunt. The only flare of real feeling in The Social Network, and the easiest to convey, is Eduardo’s squall of rage when he realises what’s been done to him and stomps out to tear Mark from his IT bubble. And that’s The Social Network in a nutshell: it constantly takes the easier path.
The depictions of bright teenagers and early twenty-somethings are so stylised as to defy credulity. I’m not saying The Social Network should have been a mumblecore movie, but just a few keen dashes of the sort of well-observed Bright Young Thing angst that make star Eisenberg’s previous film, Adventureland (2009), so engaging would have made The Social Network feel more personal and personable, and given depth to its admirable grasp on the business chicanery at its heart. Certainly getting in touch with its inner teen flick would have been preferable to Sorkin’s patented Walking Insta-Quote Machines. The Social Network is a drama centering around social insecurity and genius IQs, and repeatedly posits Mark’s break-up with Erica as a kind of lost Eden, an original sin, culminating in the final image of Mark patiently refreshing his Facebook page waiting for Erica to accept his friend request. It’s a touch that hammers home the notion that Mark’s life irony in constructing a forum based in friendship has left him denuded of friends, and one that completely fails to achieve any resonance beyond the obvious, because Mark’s relationship with Erica is so quickly hurled out of the way of the plot. Erica is so obviously conceived as an emblem of things Mark doesn’t get. Why was Erica going out with Mark? Why was he going out with her? Did she mean a lot to him? Or does he merely miss the idea of her, the untrammelled spirit of feminine good sense he heedlessly turned his back on? I had less of an idea about any of this after the film was over than when it began. Mara is eye-catching in her brief contribution to the film, but there’s nothing about her character that begs fixation or even great interest: I even found myself siding with Mark in his feeling of aggravation, if not in his obnoxious, but pretty run of the mill dissing of Erica on his blog, for her dumping of him is as clumsy and insensitive as anything he does.
Eisenberg plays a brainier and smarter-of-mouth variation on the kind of part he’s become known for, but denuded of charm and insight. He’s very competent, but his portrayal of Zuckerberg, or at least his embodiment of the Zuckerberg handed to him by Fincher and Sorkin, is so closed-off and one-note as to render him a practical nonentity. His sharpest moment in the film comes when he impatiently informs the Winklevii’s patronising lawyer that he doesn’t deserve all of Mark’s attention because he’s also busy thinking of grander schemes at the Facebook offices “where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s an interesting moment that both lays on the line Mark’s arrogance and also his honourable dedication to a vision he thinks everyone else would like an undeserving piece of, and judging by the lawyer’s bemused reaction as a defeated foil, Sorkin and Fincher at least in part agree with Mark, both obviously regarding themselves as belonging to that assailed niche of the Smartest Guys in the Room. The film proposes Zuckerberg then as hero and antihero, an identification figure in his outsider anxiety, his assaults on settled bastions, and his carelessness about money, whilst also expediting what is basically an old-fashioned morality play about the perils of success, where Mark’s drive is less financial than one of desiring preeminence as a ticket to inclusion, to be THE guy.
The film presents the Winklevii with a certain wry empathy, especially for Cameron’s gentlemanly pretences, but still offers them up as foils whose sense of entitlement Mark feels no compunction in puncturing. Being jocks as well as rich-kid entrepreneurs, thus combining two of Mark’s pet hates, they compete as Olympic-level rowers, and their loss in a regatta to a Dutch team is portrayed in a pointless scene scored to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” a sequence Fincher might have mined for symbolic value in mirroring the beauties of genuine competition rather than oligarchy, but instead gains only the cheap schadenfreude of watching the rich boys lose.
And there’s a large aspect of The Social Network that never came alive for me, and this sucked most of the strength right out it: the social conflicts. The class resentment and socio-sexual unease that’s supposed to drive the drama only ever feels rhetorical and convenient, especially considering that we learn so little about Mark’s life and worldview—we can only presume he’s middle-class as well as Jewish. The supposed gap between the WASPs and the Jews at Harvard seems to have been transcribed virtually undiluted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, even if the golden boys are now wearing baseball caps backwards.
The Social Network is bookended by two lines of dialogue spoken by bright ladies. At the opening, in which Erica breaks up with Mark, she delivers this would-be devastating put-down: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” In the closing scene, Marylin Delpy, a lawyer assisting Mark’s chief counsel, modifies this comment: ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark, you’re just trying to be one.” Very neat, very circular. It’s also clearly a message from a screenwriter commenting on the character of Mark Zuckerberg using these facile female characters as mouthpieces.
Such do-you-get-the-point-isms like Mark’s line, “Eduardo, it’s like a Final Club except we’re the president,” are unnecessary, especially considering that incidents like how Mark turns a search for interns to do their code writing into exactly the same kind of competition, involving racing against time whilst downing shots, illustrate better the way Mark tries to turn his version of IT capitalism into a mere rival to, rather than dissension from, the kinds of hierarchy, competitiveness, and tribalism he’s supposed to be at war with. As the film progresses, and Parker enters the film, his sexed-up, eternally adolescent ideal of what an IT magnate should look and act like becomes Mark’s model. Parker’s California is supposed to be a land of decadence and conniving, though the decadence on display is dismayingly low-rent: Parker can’t even get down to sniffing cocaine out of a college girl’s navel in peace without getting busted. His pernicious influence on Facebook’s genesis makes itself clear in the underage floozies hanging about the house Mark and the rest of the team share, getting high and playing video games whilst the boy’s club gets on with it. One of the more subtle yet telling moments comes when Mark’s handing out jobs in his I-just-invented-it company to his buddies, and when Christy and Alice ask what they can do, Mark offhandedly says, “Nothing.” Which is fair enough, considering he doesn’t know what they can do, but he doesn’t even think to ask. But I would have appreciated Fincher’s and Sorkin’s efforts to elucidate the misogyny that infects these characters and their world more if their own work didn’t reek of it, particularly in the startlingly cheap comedy they wring from the scene in which Christy gets destructively, pathologically possessive of Eduardo and sets fire to his bed like every caricature of a crazy Asian chick you’ve ever seen in a movie.
As the film grinds into its last quarter, the dramatic strands, scenes, and time frame all become increasingly fragmented. The flash-forward structure, constantly drawing us from the immediate travails of building Facebook to the grisly lawsuit roundtables, proves finally to be a rather half-hearted expositional device: the results of the lawsuits are tossed off in a final explanatory scrawl, and the probable desired effect, one of bewildering, tragic distance between “then” and “now” is lost because there’s no variation in the dialogue or editing styles, or in Mark’s pithily dismissive attitude. I could go on dissecting what displeased me in The Social Network, but not perhaps without boring both you and myself, so I’ll settle for saying that The Social Network finally left me with a curious impression of great loquaciousness concealing a lack of anything to say.
I can at least praise the cast easily. That Hammer does a great job playing the Winklevii is not worth denying, even though I wondered if pulling such a stunt really contributed anything to the film other than allowing Fincher to advertise that he’s still a technical master. I kept spotting the matte lines and focus gradations that bear out the special effects, and then, in turn, kept unnecessarily alerting me to the unnecessary trickery—was it really that hard to dig up a couple of good-looking twins? Timberlake manages to do an amazing amount with very little: Timberlake’s musical persona of a privileged puppy with a glint of the genuine satyr that gives him some grit helps enliven his characterisation, swinging from swinger-smooth highs to humiliated, almost boyish desperation when he’s trying to assuage Mark’s alarm when he finally crashes and burns. But otherwise, if good is the enemy of great, The Social Network is Exhibit A. l
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Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
By Roderick Heath
Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?
Lennon’s and others’ lives like it present heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.
Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.
In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.
Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.
That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.
Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.
The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much. l
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Director: Steven Soderbergh
By Roderick Heath
With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding a niche with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but finally featherweight film noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.
His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.
Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.
The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.
The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.
The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.
Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.
Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.
In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).
Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.
Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, is the trait of a craftsman, not a radical. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end. l
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