Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Bands with computer synthesising programmes, which can make just about any sound known to humankind, labour to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.
Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the time via a technological conduit that, even at the time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.
Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.
The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.
The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.
Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting and indeed blurring in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.
Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.
Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.
For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.
Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.
Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).
Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.
The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline tries to prod Peter with appeals to expand his mind and experiences from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his grimly hilarious chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.
Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”
Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for money to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.
Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.
Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.
One of the things I love most about much of Czech cinema is its joyously subversive attitude toward life. When my Czech dentist told me that when efforts to remove a Soviet tank from a square in Prague were going nowhere—the Czechs took it down, the Soviets put it back, and so forth—some Czechs finally laid the matter to rest by painting it pink, too big an embarrassment to the Soviets to let stand. How very Czech! Thus, when I heard a grand master of the Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel, would have a film at this year’s CIFF, I couldn’t wait to see it.
The last time Menzel showed at the CIFF, it was with his film I Served the King of England (2006), a surprisingly buoyant sex farce set before, during, and a bit after the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was apparent then that Menzel has a prodigious appreciation of the female of the species, his love and joy of women apparent even in the darker sequences portraying the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In I Served, the main protagonist is a small, horny man, almost a pet to the prostitutes he beds and whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers. In The Don Juans, Menzel lightly tarnishes the innocence of sex he previously celebrated. His central character and occasional first-person narrator, Vítec (Jan Hartl), is a small-town opera director who claims (falsely) to hate opera and who beds as many sopranos as he can get his hands on.
His company is filled with regional singers of varying levels of skill, most of whom have businesses or jobs on the side. For his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he brings in Jakub (Martin Huba), an aged lyric bass of some renown, to play Don Pedro, the man who condemns Don Giovanni to burn in hell. Jakub was also a Don Juan in his day, and his return to the Czech Republic after a successful career in the United States brings him face to face with a former lover from some 40 years in the past, the eccentric Markétka (Libuse Safránková), whom he impregnated and abandoned. Through Markétka and an ego-deflating soprano (Marie Málková) who tells him that his good luck with women is directly related to what he can do for their careers, Vítec becomes a wiser, if not entirely repentant man.
The Don Juans is a broad comedy with a wealth of sight gags. For example, as Vítec tells us about his lust for sopranos, we get a series of quick-cut images of women’s faces as they hit a high note while laying on his bed, the affirmation of his sexual prowess, at least in his mind. Markétka finds herself in police custody twice, first following a swat team raid on a 250-year-old opera house where she has trespassed with a group of children to stage a children’s opera, and second, after she has driven off with a car being used in a robbery to prevent the theft and crashed it into a butcher shop. Both scenes are played for antic humor, as the heavily armed police watch a long stream of children pour out of the theatre door, and as the hapless woman who doesn’t know how to drive barrels through the streets, all four doors wide open and slamming into objects along the way. Markétka is a delightful character whose reminiscences of Jakub, her greatest love, are dewy and bright, but who is rueful about how such Don Juans leave a trail of tearful women in their wake.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Vítec has inspired such heartbreak in his women. They all pass through his bed and into his shower, where he presents them with a basketful of unopened toothbrushes, unabashed about how many one-night stands he has. None of them seem jealous, confirming that he is a means to an end and nothing more. Vítec’s character takes on the lightest of shades when he comes into Markétka’s orbit; it was his car that was stolen to use in the robbery, and he comes to the police station to meet the woman who wrecked it and sort out the property damages. He learns her story, meets the 40-year-old daughter, 20-year-old granddaughter, and 6-year-old great-granddaughter who emanated from her affair with Jakub, and works to bring them together, a brief encounter that will end for the sick, feeble Jakub as it did for Don Giovanni, in death.
I found the performers enchanting right down to their toes. Safránková plays her part with a combination of ditzy abandon and calculation. Her reverence for the old opera house, learning to work its ancient scenery-changer and introducing Vítec to the glory of the past, seems fitting for a film about an anachronistic art form that in the newly capitalist Czech Republic will be defunded to pursue more lucrative enterprises, like a casino or hockey rink. Yet, the opera company members are moving into the future in much the same way as the rest of the country. Málková is a hard-looking punk rocker, but with her glorious voice, she bumps the less-gifted Alenka (Anna Klamo) from the part as Donna Anna, even though Alenka slept with Vítec to get her diminutive husband (Jiří Hájek) the starring role. Another singer runs a travel agency, taking calls on her cellphone during rehearsals and performances. Still another sleeps her way to wealth, providing the wedding in the final scene that Vítec says is essential to a successful story.
The Don Juans is a lovely film to look at and a generally joyful romp overflowing with gags. Its examination of the cruelty of womanizers is light as air, but still makes its point to some degree. The film is a bit disjointed, favoring comedy over coherence, particularly in delineating the separate stories of Vítec and Markétka until they merge. As Don Giovanni is my favorite Mozart opera, I reveled in the music that liberally scores the film, but the obvious dubbing was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, I found myself grinning through much of the picture, levitating on the luscious images, generally spot-on humor, and always engaging Czech sensibility. This is a fluffy effort, to be sure, but one that is a pleasure from start to finish.
The Don Juans screens Saturday, October 19, 1:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)
Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
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)
One of the reasons a middle class was allowed to grow in capitalist societies like the United States and Britain during the 20th century was to combat burgeoning socialist movements to prevent the spread of communism. If the financial burgers could have seen how big a failure communism was as an economic and social system, they might have saved themselves the 30 years they’ve spent dismantling an equitable society. Melaza, a Cuban film that got past the censors because they were blind to the irony of the scenes “celebrating” the triumphs of the revolution, is a fascinating look inside a society dedicated to leveling the playing field for all, but managing instead simply to flatten most of its people. Beyond economics, however, is one of the most heartfelt love stories I’ve ever seen, one that seems to want to believe that love conquers all, even as it shows that we often have no control over the little lives most of us would like to go about in peace.
The film opens with sunshine and a light breeze blowing through a field of sugar cane. The camera slowly shifts to a rusting, empty factory where a couple are making love on a mattress laid out on the factory floor. The scene shifts to the pair carrying the mattress out of the way and walking through the cane fields to a small metal shack. Mónica (Yuliet Cruz) and Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) live together in the shack with Mónica’s mother (Ana Gloria Buduén) and 13-year-old daughter (Carolina Márquez) by a man who ran out on them. We don’t know if they’re married, but it is obvious throughout the film that they are very much in love. They are also very hard pressed to make a living.
Mónica worked at the sugar processing factory, empty for more than a year due to government restructuring, and Aldo was a swimming instructor. She still dresses smartly for work every day, punches her time card, inspects the equipment, and phones in her report of how many machines are still working to a central office. Aldo has his charges lay on chairs in the emptied swimming pool and teaches them various strokes; afterward, he gives them language lessons in front of the locked school. Neither of them get paid, but they hope that when the factory opens again—a promise the government makes nearly daily through radio broadcasts—the jobs will return and they will be the first in line to be rehired.
Economic privation is on the minds of people throughout the world, and filmmakers are reflecting their times. What makes Melaza so vital is not the seriousness and timeliness of its subject, but rather its extraordinary look at how a particular set of people react to the ruin of their way of life. Mónica and Aldo are determined to stay together, and they find some ingenious ways to keep food on the table. For example, the family periodically vacates the house for Mónica’s friend, Yamilé, a prostitute (Yaité Ruiz) who pays them to use it when she has a client. But, the government is swift to undermine this mutually beneficial arrangement—the police raid the house and fine the family for renting without a permit. Later, Aldo starts selling black-market meat, a crime that could garner him 10 years in prison. The collectivism of communist Cuba doesn’t care about entrepreneurial prostitution or other service-industry work, but try to get into their rackets—housing and the food supply—and watch out.
The hapless routines of government functions—grocery stores that are bare of stock, air-dropped propaganda that most of the villagers don’t even bother to pick up and distribute (Mónica drags a bundle to the factory from time to time to keep up appearances), a loudspeaker-equipped car traveling the village to encourage workers to come to a rally against capitalism—act like mosquitoes that buzz in the background. Some people, those with businesses and the money to pay off officials, live quite luxuriously, and the contrast is quite jarring.
What is real is the love that binds Aldo and Mónica. She tries to prevent him from selling meat in Havana because she doesn’t want him to go away or get arrested, but he does the even more risky thing of selling it in the village. Mónica prostitutes herself exactly once, and when she tells Aldo, we see them standing across from each other, the front door of the house between them like a giant wedge. Yet the next scene is of the two of them in the bathtub, with Aldo gently washing her. Cruz and Gómez have amazing chemistry and form the beating heart at the center of this beautifully shot, languorous film.
Melaza has many amusing, very particular moments. Mónica’s daughter, who has become an obese, sulky child since her father left, is shown pushing her grandmother in her wheelchair as the old lady tries to sell homemade donuts in the street. Aldo is shown trudging a chalkboard from the school, through the cane fields, to the house where his five-peso English class garners not a single student. Yamilé and Mónica have a very warm friendship, and I loved the way both women conspired and dressed, exactly communicating their personalities with their choices.
The surprising humor and joie de vivre of the film speaks volumes about human resilience and the pleasures of just being alive, no matter what hardships there may be. The film ends with the called-for rally, which attracts about 20 people with nothing better to do. Musicians play, the ralliers jump up and down to the music, and Aldo, Mónica, and her daughter gradually join in. The sun and breeze bless the cane fields, and another propaganda bundle drops from the sky. Like the film’s title, which means “molasses,” movement is slow, but the bittersweet life of the village goes on.
Melaza screens Friday, October 18, 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, October 20, 6:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Director Carlos Lechuga and Producer Claudia Calviño are scheduled to attend both screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
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)
The ’00s are already starting to feel like a long time ago. The first decade of the new millennium, an age of gorging excess for a select number which ended up in a giant socioeconomic car crash from which we’re still recovering, is going to look ever stranger for people as they look back on the time—its naked money worship, the War on Terror hysteria, the gaping voids of thought and substance all too ably recorded for posterity by reality TV, and the new internet-fuelled super-pop culture. Just lately, I’ve started to get the feeling that filmmakers, particularly those from the independent scenes, have become canaries in the cultural mines the way poets used to be, registering changes in the zeitgeist with a peculiar speed that is perhaps indicative of how much quicker cinema production can be today and how much more engaged filmmakers are with the evolving social discourse. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring throws its mind and mood back to around 2008-9, when the bogus rhetoric of “aspiration” as justification for incredible greed and new forms of social exclusion was both at its height and about to meet the cold reality of boom-bust cycles, which here comes in the form an even more immediate, pitiless wake-up call.
The Bling Ring adapts a real incident, via a Vanity Fair article that was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a jaunty title that identifies the brand-name-emblazoned mindset of the criminal gang whose activities comprise a weird mixture of delinquency and absurdity. A group of teenage friends, all children of affluence and times of plenty, engaged in a string of comically easy robberies of the houses of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, filching money, jewellery, and clothes. This allowed them to hit the L.A. highlife, where everybody’s a wannabe, with impudent élan. Fox famously has a freely quoted line from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies,” a jab in the original context at the kinds of well-dressed empty vessels who flock around the flames of power. The Bling Ring could be the butterflies, or they could be the laughers.
This crime wave is sparked by Asian-American high schooler Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), who sees nothing wrong with stealing cash from parked cars and random houses in prosperous suburbs, even jacking a Porsche with blithe confidence. The ring begins to take shape when she ventures into Hilton’s manse when her pal Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) finds out online that she’s out of town. Marc, gay, dowdy, and awkward, is socially adopted by Rebecca when, like her, he’s forced to attend a public school after being kicked out of a private one. Rebecca offers Marc the chance to make glamorous associations and become a cool kid, as she’s friends with would-be model and fashionista Nicki Moore (Emma Watson). Nicky is enthused about the idea of stealing, and she brings her pal Chloe (Claire Julien), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) into the ring.
After returning to Hilton’s house multiple times, the ring begins to branch out and target other celebrities’ houses, after Marc does his quick research on the net to make sure when they’re away. Sam’s boyfriend Rob (Carlos Miranda) joins them on some raids, whilst Chloe and Marc sell some of Orlando Bloom’s Rolex watches to Chloe’s boyfriend, sleazy nightclub manager Ricky (Gavin Rossdale). Emily joins the gang when they need someone small to slide through Fox’s dog door. Their raids on Hilton’s house go undetected for a long time, because the owner leaves the keys under the welcome mat and they resist stealing any major items. Later, when robbing the house of TV host Audrina Patridge, they’re caught on camera as shadowy invaders. Their crimes become an open secret amongst the people they know and the scenes where they hang out, and they even display their exploits on social media. Finally, they’re rounded up and prosecuted after Rebecca, fleeing from tension at home to live with her father in Las Vegas, unwittingly makes Marc her accomplice in taking stolen goods over state lines.
Fragments of interviews taking place in the future with the ring, particularly Marc, give some context and perspective. Marc’s shift from teenage dirtbag to budding fabulousness is glimpsed in casually employed shots of him hovering before his webcam wearing lipstick and lounging about in a pair of stolen pumps, offering the only real signs of traditional character growth and identification, and a mischievous understanding of the protean forces at work for such a person. But Coppola really only gives us these bones because Marc is the gateway. Otherwise, the Bling Ring members are shallow, deliberately so. There’s little point in listening to them talk, because they talk crap; they’re well versed in brand names and designers but empty of other concerns. They’re pretty average young people, actually, save for the circumstances of their youth as citizens of L.A. and therefore faced with constant proximity to the promise of the high life in an imperial capital. Watching The Bling Ring, I had an insight into the way “we” morally respond to movies, via an element that has haunted Coppola with particular doggedness since her directing career began—that she’s a spoilt rich girl making films about same. Her perspective on the rapacious abyss that certain aspects of capitalist triumphalism conceal has become plainer and less generous since the playfully sardonic Marie Antoinette (2006) was infamously jeered at Cannes for making the link between modern consumerism and imperial downfall not just bitingly plain, but genuinely funny. The Bling Ring, whilst dealing with immediate, almost ripped-from-the-headlines fare, is certainly a thematic follow-up.
Coppola’s emotionally immediate, but conceptually slightly laboured Somewhere (2010) indicated that she had listened to her critics on one level, and adopted a more distanced and elusive take on the “white people problems” she was portraying, but in a manner that felt hackneyed on some levels. The Bling Ring benefits from both intimate knowledge of what she speaks and also definite, ironic amusement, delivering her least conventional narrative yet, shorn of many external complications and dramatic niceties. The film received a largely admiring but cool reception, and part of me began to wonder as I watched it if this wasn’t due to how successfully ambiguous is Coppola’s stance towards her teenage anti-Robin Hoods. The Bling Ringers engage in criminal acts according to sketchy, but carefully hinted personal needs and desires that are channelled into an official, overarching project of socioeconomic parasitism. If they were doing what they were doing for, say, the reasons that the rich-kid anarchists of this year’s The East do what they do, or rebelling or bringing down their idols with any purpose, or even acting out lodes of emotional disquiet that can’t be repressed by affluent suburban conformity a la Rebel Without a Cause (1955), they would immediately become heroes for the audience—naughty, nonviolent Dadaists making a mockery of wealth and fame and the pretences to possessors of such to exceptionalism, finding keys under the doormat to multimillion-dollar mansions and paltry security defending the castles of the new elite.
But the Bling Ringers remain well beyond the easy empathy of the audience because they seem, at least superficially, to be moving like baleen whales, sucking in both their sustenance and other people’s property thoughtlessly on a kind of emotional-moral autopilot. Not that they’re amoral or even particularly mean-spirited, though there are flashes of such qualities, especially when the temptation to posture according to the pop culture stricture toward ironclad egocentrism, arises. In just about the film’s only scene of traditional tension, Sam takes hold of a pistol Nicki finds in a house and waves it in Marc’s face, shifting into a movie-derived attitude of untouchable self-righteousness and threatening cool, and there’s momentary uncertainty of just how far Sam wants to take the act, if it is an act. She then sneaks into Rob’s bedroom to do the same thing with him, only for the gun to go off, luckily only putting a hole in his mattress.
Rebecca’s early larcenous behaviour seems the more familiar behaviour of a troubled teen, but it swiftly transforms into a much less common project. The ring tend to believe, not without some justification, that the world of the rich and famous is a smorgasbord from which they can partake without consequence, because everyone has plenty, and they’re entitled to a piece of it. Rebecca, for example, hopes to be a successful fashion designer—nay, intends and expects it—but in the meantime, finds that many of the privileges and perks of the level to which she wants to be elevated can be more easily obtained simply by stealing them. When the ring raid Patridge’s house, Coppola’s camera notes it all in a slow, inward-zooming longshot, framing the glowing house against the L.A. skyline like some temple of money, touching this and other midnight odysseys with a near-religious awe. There is an added layer here in that the camera also mimics the vantage of a CCTV camera, and the film segues into eerily green-tinged surveillance shots that turn what from a distance seemed to be a cubist delight of space and light into a trap.
For Marc, in particular, these ventures offers the chance to invent himself free of social judgment. The ring engage in acts that look and feel quite anarchic, illicit, and subversive, but only accidentally: their actual desire and intent is to enjoy the lifestyle without any concept of critiquing it or subverting it as class rebels. From a distance, and even pretty close up, they’re vacuous rich kids getting off on being naughty. Coppola’s already made withering mirth from a particular species of Hollywood dipstick—Anna Faris’ starlet Kelly—in Lost in Translation (2003), but here the likeable, witty audience avatars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson provided are missing; even a figure like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, who was suffocating in an empty existence, has been excised. The closest thing to a substantive adult presence in The Bling Ring is Nicki’s mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), who home-schools Nicki and her sisters in deliciously, deliriously Californian New Age fashion, complete with prayer circles in which vaguely religious bromides-cum-pep talks are delivered. Laurie, far from a countervailing presence, is the film’s purest vehicle of satirical humour: when one of her home-schooling sessions is glimpsed, she holds up a handmade chart festooned with pictures of Angelina Jolie as an example of an inspiring role model, except that when she prods the girls why they might admire her, Sam suggests, “Her husband.” Other parents do appear, but they’re mostly onlookers, dissociated from their children’s lives. Marc has a father who’s “in the biz” as a film marketer. Jessica’s broken home seems to have played a part in her blithely larcenous behaviour. But Coppola avoids as much as possible making a cautionary tale of wild amoral teens with ignorant parents, like every teen crime flick going back to the Ed Wood-scribed The Violent Years (1956) and including another of this year’s films, the lauded but laboured Spring Breakers, which stands at a fascinatingly fantastical remove from The Bling Ring. Spring Breakers offers a (middle-aged, male, “edgy”) filmmaker’s take on a similar motif of teen girls becoming criminals for profit and fun, except that everything in it is made to circle back to the filmmaker’s sexual fetishism of their actions—just like The Violent Years.
In The Bling Ring, Coppola tries to avoid as many clichéd stances as possible. Rather than give us a malefic sense of things spinning out of control as the Ringers indulge in cocaine-charged nightclub partying, she makes them dreamily beautiful. There’s an implicit link to her The Virgin Suicides (1999) even as it seems to be making a directly opposite point. Whereas in the earlier film, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ pseudo-mythopoeic novel, the young women were innocent nymphs wilting from being caged by outdated moralism, here the girls are unscrupulous sexpots free both to mimic and exemplify immediate cultural maxims of louche self-indulgence. What unites them, however, is Coppola’s manner of shooting them, daubed in rich light and colour and vibrating to furiously onanistic club beats, in a style that makes clear that the fresh bloom of youth is a fleeting moment of protean wonder. Of course the Bling Ringers want to get high, dance, and be rich, such are pretty normal impulses, and when they’re gyrating, however they’ve bought it, they are, like everyone else, rejoicing in the moment of their youth. Laurie does, accidentally almost, introduce one important idea to The Bling Ring when she advises her children, “We have to be really careful who we surround ourselves with, because we wind up being the average of those people.” Nicki later tries to use this as her out when justice comes knocking, trying to blame the company she’s kept for getting involved with crime, but finally being convicted for just that reason, indicted by her own propensities.
The Bling Ring, as a title, has ironic inferences: “bling,” of course, is probably the most popular phrase to emerge from hip-hop slang (and it comes, in turn, from comic book representation, a kind of visual onomatopoeia that could easily be projected onto Coppola’s colourful, epic surveys of jewels and designer shoes without making them anymore cartoonish). The ring, especially when Jo finds that gun, almost manage to live up to a peculiar schism that underlies a lot of contemporary pop culture: the rejoicing of flashy wealth coexisting with trashier values of physical strength and fitness, pistol-packing invulnerability, and posse-trailing imperiousness that also comes from hip-hop and represents a driving force behind the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean are a couple of pop musicians who had made notable inquiries into this spirit lately. Del Ray’s upper-class jeune filles delighting in becoming concubines to blaxploitation villains could represent the fantasy lives of the ring, whilst Ocean’s druggy “Super Rich Kids” turns up, almost inevitably, over the end credits. The ring don’t physically hurt anyone, because they’re actually all wusses, and their criminal success occurs only because the people they’re targeting don’t believe criminals would dare rob them. Indeed, the culturally ingrained barriers, the aura of awe and distance that surrounds the modern media celebrity as the new aristocracy, is more effective than CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, a barrier that only a gang of kids from the same world would dare violate. Of course, many of the pleasures the ring derive from their actions are eminently, classically criminal: they can live beyond their means after brief spells of risky work, feel important and illicitly clever, and enjoy the notoriety their transgressions earn them.
It’s entirely apt that the ring’s first and repeated target is Paris Hilton, an ideal celebrity of a new brand of aristocracy famous for absolutely nothing other than being rich and telegenic enough to profitably show it off, whose house is revealed as a distressing trap of narcissism and tawdriness, complete with at-home pole dancing parlour (a common motif of Coppola’s fascination/repulsion for the modern highlife). Hilton, unlike the Bling Ring themselves, seems to know that she’s an interloper without talent whose only trick is the willingness to turn her entire existence into an act of pop art—or she’s completely blind to her own existence. The cleverest aspect of Coppola’s narrative patterning, though it’s one that contributes to the film’s slightly imbalanced quality, is that she largely reduces the middle hour to a flow of instant gratification: little small talk, minimal character development, just a series of criminal forays that offer the illicit thrills of exploration, like a sort of pirate edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the payoff of hard partying and private delight in shiny things. Coppola makes the audience complicit in their adventures, offering racks of designer goods for the eye-dazzling pleasure of plenty, and the repetitive acts of incursion, theft, and escape.
When the cops do come knocking, there’s an obvious affinity again with Coppola’s earlier work, this time with the climax of Marie Antoinette when the revolution calls: paradise lost, lives ruined, and the plenty that came so easily suddenly, cruelly severed. Rebecca tries to fake her way through a police interview, confident she’s disposed of all the booty after Marc called to warn her of their impending arrival, but her smug smile disappears when they turn up items she’d forgotten. Nicki screams with panicky despair as she’s handcuffed and hauled away. Marc is branded as a rat by the media, because after being arrested, he carelessly told the cops about his accomplices. But once arrested and indicted, Nicki treats it all like an audition as she tries to decide on the perfect outfit for a court date, and the infamy their arrest brings them is registered by Nicki only as the fame she’s always planned for. She’s interviewed for the Vanity Fair profile, fending off her mother’s goofily agreeable attempts to interject and add details, irritated that Leslie keeps trying to get in on her media moment. The law, historically arranged to powerfully favour property owners and now carefully tailored to the needs of modern consumerist society, falls upon the kids with such heaviness that they become exactly what they would never seem to be: martyrs for the sake of offended people of wealth. Concluding shots of Marc being hustled away with other orange-jumpsuited convicts, strike a surprising note of melancholy, the awareness that the fun and games have ruined lives, and the slightly bitter volte face that notes that a bunch of dumb kids have been hit with the full force of law.
Given the quality of The Bling Ring, it’s hard to admit, but also certain that the film doesn’t always sustain its best ideas: the observational sharpness that defines Nicki, Marc and Laurie doesn’t touch the other characters. Coppola’s last two films bear signs that she’s trying annex aspects of the more aloof, pseudo-objective filmmaking that art house figures have leavened in the past decade or so. But this affectation works against her own best qualities as the Molière of San Fernando, capable of both smiling as a ruthless satirist but also offering expansive empathy and cinematic expressivity. Nonetheless, to a great extent, Coppola’s decision to pare back standard dramatic development helps emphasize the film’s sociological qualities, the precise sense of how aspects of modern youth culture are branded; thus character is expressed through the accumulation of affectations rather than actual personality.
Broussard, Chang, and Farmiga are excellently naturalistic, whilst Watson leaves behind Hermione Granger here in playing the most polar opposite temperament her age bracket could offer, giving a convincing performance as a merrily vain moon unit. If the last sight of Marc suggests surprising tragedy, Nicki, bound to emerge from every situation as the winner because she’s been programmed to, rounds off the film with unsurprising gall. She’s last seen being interviewed about her arduous 30 days in prison, relieved by the fact that the girls’ idol and robbery target, Lindsay Lohan, was in the same boat, and leaves off with a plug for her website, NickiMooreForever.com.
Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.
Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).
Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.
Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.
The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.
Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.
For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.
The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.
MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.
An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.
The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.
Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).
De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.
De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.
De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.
De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.
The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.
One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.
Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.
Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.
The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.
De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.
But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.
So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.
Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.
The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.
For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.
Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.
The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.
In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.
It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.
Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.
One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend. At the same time, he played both the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.
The riotous cornucopia of perversion that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.
A certain loopy poetry runs throughout Beyond the Valley, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces for a mildly amusing sequence in which he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).
The peculiar quality of Beyond the Valley lies in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.
Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:
At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.
The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.
The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”
From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.
City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.
The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.
One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.
And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.
City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans(1927), the real city lights.
The night after Election Day 2012, the Northwest Chicago Film Society came up with a topical screening that was the perfect way to end a brutal election season—the campaign-centered musical confection Thanks a Million. Written with exceeding wit by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dick Powell at his most adorable, Thanks a Million was exactly the balm this classic movie fan needed to shake off the anxiety of recent weeks.
The plot for Thanks a Million is simplicity itself. A traveling troupe of unemployed performers alights from a bus in “New Town,” where they are faced with a two-hour layover before they can catch their connecting bus to New York. Some of the troupe head into the town hall to get out of a torrential rain and witness the “Commonwealth” candidate for governor, Judge A. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn), lull the audience to sleep with his uninspired rhetoric. Troupe leader Ned Lyman (Fred Allen) meets with the party chiefs and offers his performers as the paid entertainment at Culliman’s election rallies to encourage voters to attend. The scheme is successful, but when Eric Land (Powell) wows the first audience with his singing, he is fired for pulling focus from Candidate Culliman. But when he saves the day by speaking in place of the drunk candidate at what was to be Land’s last rally, the election committee persuades Land to run for governor instead. The rest of the film chronicles his candidacy.
Like many a musical comedy whose first purpose is to entertain, Thanks a Million offers huge helpings of gags, songs, and dance. Powell, of course, made his mark in the fairly plotless extravaganzas produced by Warner Bros. earlier in the decade. As Eric Land, he outgrows his male ingénue type and takes on a more mature and far more sexy persona as he carries on a romance with dancer Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak) and simultaneously plays along with the amorous Mrs. Kruger (Margaret Irving), the wife of the party chairman (Alan Dinehart). The suggestion that he and Sally share a bed at the end of the evening and that Mrs. Kruger has arranged an adulterous liaison with him don’t seem to have bothered the post-Code Hays Office. Powell doesn’t forget to romance the movie audience either, as his sparkling close-ups are dotted with suggestive winks that must have thrilled his adoring fans, and boy, does he look good in a double-breasted suit!
Musical interludes include the singing/dancing sister act of Sally and Phoebe (Patsy Kelly), who don’t get much time to show either their terpsichore or acting skills. But they are a lot of fun to watch, and their blousy 30s clothing is a hoot. The Yacht Club Boys (James V. Kern, Charles Adler, George Kelly, and Billy Mann) get a couple of chances to harmonize, again with director Del Ruth favoring inviting close-ups. A gag involving Paul Whiteman and his band in which the “New Town” bus driver (Herbert Ashley) tries to drown out Lyman reading aloud (“I can’t hear myself read!”) using the radio broadcast of their music is broadened to a live concert of Whiteman, his orchestra, and featured singer Ramona playing for the opposition party. In this case, fighting musical fire with fire does the incumbent governor (Charles Richman) no good, but it’s fun to listen to Ramona’s 30s jazz phrasing of “New O’leans.” Violinist Rubinoff must have had a very good agent, because he gets a lot of screen time, including a gag performance where he pokes the bus driver with his bow repeatedly as he plays; far from amusing me, he had me frantic about the bus crashing in the driving rain.
The revelation of the film is radio star Fred Allen in his first movie role. I have heard his various shows many times on a local nostalgia radio show, but this was the first time I got a chance to see him in action. An early gag about his initial skepticism about the future of radio, which would have had a 1935 audience splitting their sides in laughter, was lost on our audience, but nothing else about his genius comic timing or acting abilities could escape notice. He delivers a fully realized character, making the most of the clever dialogue Johnson provided. For example, he signals his character’s relative poverty by referring to his cheap suit: “The last time I got this suit wet, the vest disappeared.” His confidence in the deal he struck—tearing up the bus tickets to New York—seems somehow justified by his bearing and rock-steady relationship with wisecracking Phoebe. I was more than thrilled to see him hold this loose cavalcade together and but for Powell and a very funny supporting turn by Walburn, Allen would have walked off with the picture.
In the only overt political statement in the film, Land eventually reveals the patronage appointments he was directed to make after the election and asks voters to choose Gov. Wildman. After a crazy car chase that sees Land try to outrun more than 100 motorcycle cops in a dizzying process shot, the now governor-elect is delivered to a rousing victory celebration for him and his party, which has morphed into the Square Deal Party (an allusion to the Democrats) despite the original candidate looking all the world like the wealthy banker in the game “Monopoly.” It would be churlish to complain about the confused politics, however, as no real-life political horse race would ever be as painlessly entertaining as Thanks a Million. If you’ve not been as lucky as we were to see what appeared to be a virgin print from the Twentieth Century-Fox vault, talk to your local art house about booking it. This film is just too enjoyable to stay locked in the dark.
There’s one thing that people rarely talk about and yet is vital in our lives: dreaming. I don’t mean night dreams, but daydreams. They are man’s best companion, wonders of existence.
French director Leos Carax said the above in an interview about his 1999 film Pola X, the film he made eight years after completing his self-described “variation on the least original theme possible: boy meets girl”—The Lovers on the Bridge. In truth, it’s hard to imagine a more original version of that formula, with its gritty, hallucinatory visions and hard-luck, abusively passionate lovers living on Paris’ famous Pont Neuf. Now here we are again, wondering where Leos Carax has been for the 13 years since Pola X premiered. Frankly, I don’t care. In fact, I wish more directors would go away and come back only when they have something they feel compelled to express, particularly if the results are as explosive and stunning as Carax’s new film Holy Motors.
The opening quote is very pertinent to the “plot” of Holy Motors. The film plays like a series of short stories tied together by one character, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob) to various parts of Paris in a white limousine to act out a wide variety of roles. These roles are the active daydreams of their orchestrator, Carax, crafting found objects from his experiences into both ordinary and extraordinary moments. Indeed, the most extreme of his daydreams, one involving the abduction of a high-fashion model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise Cemetery by Lavant as a demented leprechaun strongly reminded me of the daydreams Sally Potter had as she tried to write a murder mystery involving a dwarf and some Paris fashion models in her film The Tango Lesson (1997). If Carax did, in fact, crib the idea—and I have no way of knowing whether he did—it is only fair and proper for any dreamer to recycle material for his own purposes.
Despite the plethora of hit films with convoluted plots that sometimes go nowhere—for example, the inane summer blockbuster Inception (2010)—I imagine a lot of moviegoers will feel frustrated by Holy Motors. You see, it doesn’t exist to be a brain teaser you can use to smartly assert your own powers of reason and deduction. From the very beginning, Carax signals he is presenting his own dream material—he has a man go into an airport hotel room, pull the drapes, and then enter a grand movie theater through a chink in the wall where an audience is watching a film projected on a screen. Now that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? But who is the man? Why is he in the airport hotel? Where is he going when he checks out? Who gives a damn! His “real” life couldn’t possibly be more interesting or exciting than the dream life Carax has given him and us.
Of course, Carax immediately plays with our initial plot expectations by showing us Monsieur Oscar exiting an enormous, gated mansion with the farewell shouts of his children seeing him down the winding driveway. His bodyguards follow him in a black sedan as he walks to the white stretch limo and greets Céline, who tells him the information for his nine appointments that day are in place for him to peruse. He makes all kinds of captain of industry noises into his cellphone as he looks at the first folder. Then we see him shift to the side of the limo we haven’t been allowed to see. A theatrical make-up mirror and racks of costumes and props stand at the ready as Monsieur Oscar begins his transformation into an old beggar woman. The limo stops below a bridge, and the disguised Oscar stands on the bridge, his bodyguards near at hand, and begs for money. When he returns to the limo, his bodyguards largely disappear from the scene as he makes his rounds, with stops that include working in a motion-capture studio, assassinating a prominent businessman, scolding “his” teenage daughter, and saying good-bye to “his” beloved niece while lying on his deathbed.
Oscar even has an interlude where he meets Jean (Kylie Minogue), someone he seems to have a past with who also travels Paris in a white limo acting out roles. So is there a real Monsieur Oscar? A real Jean? When they finish their appointments, all of the play actors end up not necessarily where they started the day, and the drivers return to the Holy Motors garage. Céline dons a mask that suggests the role the actress who plays her had in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, and leaves. When all the lights are out, the two dozen or so white limos parked in the garage blink their lights and carry on a conversation about their eventual obsolescence as the size of machines keeps shrinking.
So what can we glean from the various parts of this rollercoaster adventure? Carax reveals some of his own thoughts about his world. He speaks with someone who might be his employer (Michel Piccoli) who wonders about Oscar’s waning interest in the job because he fears there is no longer a “beholder” to view his creations, Oscar says he keeps on “for the beauty of the act.” This is the essence of the pure artist—art for art’s sake. He deplores the shift from the large cameras of filmmaking days gone by, wondering how anyone can even see the tiny digital cameras used today, a sentiment about the miniature, yet all-powerful machines we have all come to rely upon. Not a Luddite, rather a connoisseur of the industrial design of the past, he also finds extraordinary beauty in motion-capture technology, as Lavant in a black body suit and the incredibly flexible Reda Oumouzoune in a red body suit simulate the elegant contortions of oral sex and coitus as their movements are transformed into writhing, animated dragons on a screen above them.
By contrast, the sexiness of the fashion model kidnapped by Lavant in his Monsieur Merde persona (from Carax’s contribution to the 2008 trilogy film Tokyo!) is subverted by the feral midget. After he has escaped to his underground lair through the Paris sewers, he rips cloth from her diaphanous gown and turns it into a burqua, stripping naked himself to curl up in her lap. Perhaps the wild man who seems a huge danger—hilariously, he bites off the fingers of the photographer’s assistant who seems to think she can make him part of the shoot—really only wants a mother’s nonthreatening love. Have we been all wrong about male aggressiveness and female objectification?
Many moments in this film are hilarious. Besides the shockingly funny finger-biting moment, the deathbed scene ends with uncle lifting “his” niece’s (Elise Lhomeau) head as he gets out of bed to go to his next appointment. Their polite, perfunctory pleasantries and farewells make the artifice of an already melodramatic scene irresistibly funny. I found the interlude between a loving working-class father and his teenage daughter to be quite touching, particularly since the girl is played by Carax’s own daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax. When Lavant discovers the girl has lied about her experience of a party and the whereabouts of her friend, he orders her out of the car. It’s not as frightful as all that, as they are in front of their own apartment building. The anticipated punishment is not what she expects—he merely tells her that she will have to live with herself the rest of her life. While this sounds like a lily-livered parent getting out of being a disciplinarian, the effect is a lasting indictment of her character, of all of us who lie and misrepresent ourselves.
We can take these little postcard messages from the film, but the main pleasure is simply in the watching. Holy Motors is mirthful, rueful, beautiful, ugly, miraculously original while still feeling quite familiar, particularly to cinephiles, and already has the earmarks of a modern film classic. It and its star, Denis Lavant, were the richly deserving winners of the top prizes at the Chicago International Film Festival. Bravo, Monsieur Carax, bravo!
Night Across the Street: Raul Rúiz’s last completed film is a surreal and frequently comic float through the memories of a man who is ending his work life with the feeling that death is stalking him. (Chile)
The Scapegoat: New adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel in which a schoolteacher impersonates an arrogant aristocrat and has a warming effect on his dysfunctional family. (UK)
Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
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)
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 his face 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. The inherent absurdism of 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, inhabits 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.
It takes all kinds to make a movie. From actors great and small to sound and lighting technicians, set decorators, make-up artists, and writers—all held together by the producer and director—movie-making is one of the most interdependent endeavors around. Yet, it is not the only one, and 1953’s Duck Amuck is one of the most universal and subversive films ever made. Despite its reflexive look at the world of animated filmmaking and its use of catchphrases of its time (“What a way to run a railroad!” and “Oh brother, I’m a buzz boy!”), there isn’t a soul alive who can’t relate in some way to the sometimes cruel and unrepentant ways Big Brother takes over our lives and makes a holy hash of our plans and assumptions.
Daffy Duck is the star of the Warner Bros. cartoon Duck Amuck, which starts slyly as a tale of the Three Musketeers—you know, all for one and one for all? Ready to work on a thrilling adventure film, Daffy finds that he has entered the Twilight Zone instead. He finds himself parrying and thrusting onto a blank background. Like a performer awakening a sleeping stagehand, he calls for some scenery to be painted behind him. Alas, instead of 17th century France, he gets a farm.
Daffy is what I’d call the solid citizen persona of his creator, Chuck Jones. He knows and has internalized all the rules of his universe. If the scene suddenly changes to a barnyard, he runs off and reappears wearing overalls and carrying a hoe. If he suddenly notices an igloo on the back 40, he exchanges his hoe for some ski poles. If he is confronted with palm trees and ocean, he grabs a lava lava from wardrobe and plays the ukelele with outsized enthusiasm. When he’s tortured by this tyrannical and capricious behavior, he looks for fault in himself, muttering aloud that he’s sure he has complied with his employment contract and hasn’t he kept his figure in tip-top shape? In other words, he’s an actor, though unlike what that label implies, he really reacts to changing circumstances with little complaint, the better to keep his precarious existence assured.
Indeed there can be no more precarious existence than being a cartoon character, relying on an artist to provide his body and environment and, in this case, Mel Blanc, to produce his voice—or a sound engineer when the fellow in charge decides to substitute some strange sounds for Daffy’s vocal protests. The humiliations continue when Daffy gets redrawn as a daisy-headed platypus, but what can he do? He can’t even quit if his creator decides to cast him in a movie he doesn’t enjoy, like Duck Amuck.
Jones may not have had it top of mind, but his godlike manipulations of poor little Daffy bear a striking resemblance to the petty torments of the office environment hilariously chronicled in such films as Office Space (1999) and Office Killer (1997). The 1950s were the heyday of the Organization Man, with Daffy perfectly channeling the conformist worker in companies that often operated on the whims of their founders or charismatic leaders. Jones may have been glancing in the direction of the Disney empire and its straitjacket of innocence, imagining what his uncontrolled id could do to the likes of Alice in Wonderland or Wendy Darling. He rebelled against the use of a dynamic filmmaking technique for doing what parents could any night of the week—read their kids a story. Jones sought to free their imaginations with the gleeful anarchy of his many superb animated shorts.
In the end, Chuck owns up to being a very naughty boy. “Ain’t I a stinker?” his cartoon surrogate says. Without a doubt, thank goodness!
Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong has been quietly creating a name for himself for the past two decades amongst a fairly rarefied film audience, with his meticulously made, small-scale studies in contemporary cinema that are as much about their own creative vicissitudes as they are about their nominal stories and subjects. Hong’s Cannes competitor from last year (this year, it’s Another Country) and one of this year’s best-reviewed releases, The Day He Arrives is a beguiling entry in a style that is relatively easy to describe in terms of likenesses, for it has the conversational immediacy of Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, or Jim Jarmusch at their most relaxed. But it is less easy to describe when considering the way Hong leans less on overtones of the literary actor’s exercises such etudes of chat often possess, instead creating subtle, adventurous works of filmic legerdemain. Hong’s formal structures and deceptively rigorous technique motivate an apparently idle, offhand mise-en-scène, and the results stand out with individual vibrancy. Hong made The Day He Arrives with a miniscule crew working in digital black and white, evoking the old shooting methods of the early French New Wave whilst also suggesting the heights to which intelligent filmmakers with good actors and basic tools at their disposal can aspire.
Many of Hong’s films feature an artist-protagonist beset by the absurdities and petty distractions of everyday life that seem, all too often, to accumulate into the very texture of that life. Such an approach and subject matter risk descent into solipsistic autobiography, and yet Hong’s material has a fundamental and instinctual sense of experience and perspective, with hints of self-analysis that do not spurn universal applications. Hong’s work also reflects an implicit irony similar to some far more showy variations on similar ideas, like Fellini’s 8½ (1963) or Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) (Hong’s film could aptly be called “One Week In Another Town”) in that it takes as its theme the loss of artistic passion and inspiration, whilst revealing how fluidic and confident his artistry is in rejecting familiar motives and objects in creative endeavour. The Day He Arrives is not so much told as accumulated like pebbles washed up by the tide, portraying the most seemingly simple and undramatic of circumstances and subjecting them to a limpid, yet ever so slightly disorienting methodology. It’s also a classical “winter’s tale” in folk-poetic and Shakespearean parlance, a comedy of manners set in a frigid season, with characters who are feeling the pinch more deeply than they once did, where a jollity found in contemplating human foibles is tempered by the uncovering of emotions that are gently melancholic, in harmony with the bleakness of chilly days, withered trees, and aching souls.
Sungjoon Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu) is a former film director who has given up his trade and moved to the sticks, where he teaches at a regional university. He returns to Seoul for a few days on a kind of holiday and tries to think up ways to fill the sojourn. Sungjoon’s ambling air of disquiet become increasingly fraught, as his wanderings see him move only in circles as his gossamer tale unspools with a perverse symmetry. Indeed, tale is the wrong word, as nothing really happens to Sungjoon: he moves without travelling, and exists without experiencing. What does occur seems to be only variations or echoes of past events, inferior retreads, and Sungjoon seems to reject or feel impotent to act on the chances for new beginnings that come in the fragmentary whirl of events and people his odyssey present to him.
He sets out to catch up with his best friend Youngho (Sang Jung Kim), but when Youngho isn’t available, Sungjoon strolls around the city’s inner suburban tracts. In the first motif of the film’s thematic pattern, Sungjoon repeatedly encounters a gauchely eager young actress and teacher, who is increasingly less gauche with each new meeting. Then, Sungjoon enters a small, seamy tavern to smoke and write, where he’s invited to join a trio of young men for lunch. These lads prove to be film students, and one of them has seen the director’s four films, which, Sungjoon jests, makes him one of a select few. The mentor and the neophytes get drunk together and head out on the town, with Sungjoon promising to take them to an interesting place. But when he sees the trio unconsciously fall under the spell of the successful artist’s cult of personality by imitating his mannerisms, Sungjoon loses his temper and bawls them out before running off. He finds his way to the apartment of a former girlfriend, Kyungjin (Bo-kyung Kim), whom he hasn’t seen in two years. She greets him with apt frostiness and then eruptive pathos, but Sungjoon folds up in a bawling mess, begging her forgiveness, and finally climbing into bed with her.
Sungjoon’s displays of inchoate, reactive feeling and desperate need in these scenes signal what lies under his awkwardly smiling, nervous humour. Hong’s conceit is to offer the scene with Kyungjin early in the film as the start of a pattern, rather than a more traditional fashion towards the end, as a climactic explanation for his haunted air, as with a film like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). The next morning, Sungjoon takes his leave of Kyungjin, where he encourages her to forget him. She agrees it’s best, and asks for his phone number, only so that she can text him on certain occasions; she will break this promise constantly, her messages stabbing out of the void at random junctures, like the needling presence of some spirit of forlorn feeling.
Kyungjin’s apartment is a seamy, barely furnished hovel with a metal door, and she seems to have become, whatever the roots of their relationship and his affair with her, one of those people who exist like barnacles affixed to the great ship of a city, clinging on without actual purpose. Sungjoon seems to bear the hidden mark of some real damage: it’s suggested that he’s recovered from a bad illness, as he mentions his loss of strength and earlier health worries, and Kyungin seems to have also had such problems. But Sungjoon’s ailments, if they really are ailments, seem more mental, perhaps even environmental, as he expresses his dislike for the city Seoul has become.
On the second day, Sungjoon reencounters the actress before meeting up at last with Youngho. His former colleague is a good-natured, but more tentative, guarded, and shy man. Youngho invites Sungjoon to stay with him, and later the pair go to drink at a hole-in-the-wall bar called the “Novel” run by Yejeon (Kim again), who’s oddly absent when they first arrive. The two men get their own drinks and settle down to wait for Yejeon to come. Later, their duo is expanded by Youngho’s fellow teacher and secret crush, Boram (Seon-mi Song), who becomes rather taken with Sungjoon, whose display of a modestly charming intelligence in his better moments is unwittingly seductive. Like many directors before him who engaged in a touch of self-analysis, Hong portrays the status of the film director as pseudo-artist with a wry frustration, noting that sometimes solitude and silence are a prerogative that any other art form can allow the artist, but one the film director can only obtain with major, perhaps career-killing, concessions: cinema is also always a business, with many pretenders waiting to step in. Sungjoon becomes suggestively more awkward and threadbare in his responses to situations as, in the film’s course, he’s recognised less easily or enthusiastically, or by people he doesn’t recognise himself.
But Hong’s focus is not on the vicissitudes of his profession, but on his avatar-hero as a case study in modern life lived in a state of flux—emotionally, intellectually, creatively, and sexually. The long passages of uncertainty and noncommittal and vague distraction that are fundamental in life—usually the first things cut from any dramatic work—are here the whole show. Key to the film’s oddball progression is the hint that, rather than seeing directly sequential days in the life of Yoo Sungjoon, we are seeing days from repeating versions of the same experience: Sungjoon arriving for a few days’ visit in Seoul, meeting up with the same people, going to places and meeting people who are hazy in his recollections, doing the things he did before, and obeying the same impulses he surrendered to before—or is it just because they keep getting so pie-eyed that Sungjoon is always unsure about what happened and where previously? Thus, with each visit to Yejeon’s bar, gestures and actions repeat. Sungjoon mentions in voiceover the name of the bar as if discovering it for the first time. The group of friends, varying in numbers from two to four, perform the same ritual of getting their own drinks when they find Yejeon hasn’t come back from one of her mysterious absences. A shot of Yejeon walking back to the bar along the narrow alley outside, like some obscure figure of fateful import, is interpolated. Sungjoon rises in most sequences to tinkle away at the bar’s piano at one point. He ducks out the back of the bar to smoke a cigarette, where he converses with either Boram or Yejeon, and receives a melancholy text message from Kyungjin.
Hong’s conceptions reflect wry truths: when faced with the cornucopia of cities, we zero in on the familiar. In looking for new mates post break-up, many fall for facsimiles of their previous loves, the new version encapsulating all that was superficially attractive about the last lover but free of the specific history, and the alarming similarity of Yejeon and Kyungjin is rooted in this jokey truism. At the same time, a systematic exploration of doubling, repetition, reexperiencing, is in play here. The lapping, self-replicating episodes at the Novel could well be odes to their own nature as exercises in semi-improvisatory acting and directing, taking the same basic form and yet revising, adding, or detracting elements, to map how differently they play out. Hong elucidates his ideas on literal and figurative levels, and Sungjoon keeps stepping into situations where there is a charge of ill-remembered meaning, an uncertain solicitude offered for vaguely familiar faces, gestures, and places. The frustrations and comforts of familiarity are depicted with exacting accuracy.
Throughout most of the film, the charge of uncertainty is kept deliberately vague, even negligible, but it becomes more explicable as Sungjoon’s attraction to Yejeon gives way to passion with the pair snogging furiously in a back alley one night when he accompanies her on one of her expeditions to get food for the guests. This same act repeats the next day/subsequent occasion, and a blend of politeness and self-defensive denial almost conspires to erase an important moment for the couple. When Sungjoon tries to apologise, Yejeon denies anything occurred. Hong twists this scene into a comedic pay-off, for Sungjoon promptly embraces her again, and the event that never happened takes up where it left off.
The idea that an innate tendency for pattern recognition drives human cognisance of the world, even in the midst of a seeming multitude of choices and alternatives, is what we tend to ascribe as fate or luck, and perhaps this becomes as much of a cage as a tool. This underlying idea is introduced in a diegetic way, when Sungjoon states this theory in contemplating the nature of the recurring encounters that have defined his sojourn in the city and Boram’s account of a similar series of encounters of people involved in the Seoul film scene. Hong is indeed pursuing just this line of reasoning, but he’s also fascinated by the limitations of that recognition and our grasp on such patterns in that cornucopia: the fallibility of the human mind, the ambiguity of memory, the uncertainty over whether things have really happened before, if certain faces really have been seen before, or if they’re simply mental onomatopoeia. Of course, The Day He Arrives is essentially a character-driven, conversational comedy, if tinged with headiness and discontent, and the theoretical element is kept mostly to a low hum of amusing irony. But the abstract and the incidental constantly dovetail. In different scenes, Han and Sungjoon explain their theory of the perfect chat-up line for women, which is to describe their exterior selves and then suggest their internal lives are opposite. That line, in Hong’s drollest comic touch, works on both Boram and Yejeon, even though they’ve both been alerted to the game in play, as it seems to capture instantly their fastidious maintenance of externalities, armour plate against the chill of romantic failure and abuse, and workaday dissociation, whilst their interior lives long for more.
When the drunken Sungjoon gets mad at the young film students, who, in a moment redolent of silent film comedy, fall into line behind him, lighting cigarettes and mimicking his pose, without any deliberate intent, it’s a beautifully funny encapsulation of a peculiar terror of imitation and artistic personality, the sense of one’s innermost thoughts, creations, and ideas being public property. This theme is conflated with a certain wry satire on the Korean intelligentsia (but it could also be that of almost any modern nation): these filmmakers and teachers sure suck down a lot of booze in cliques as a panacea against their general frustrations and fatigue for a petty world. There’s also a more specific reflection on a traditionally Asian variety of hierarchical respect: Sungjoon is constantly referred to by others as “Director Yoo,” as one might say “Doctor” or “Professor” as titles of repute, as if director is now his fundamental identity, one that he can never truly leave behind, even if he wants to. Sungjoon seems to be running from this external identification for much of the film, as if it terrorises him. Later, Sungjoon runs into the actress again, and he advises her to marvel in the chains of chance that keep bringing them together, only to then turn and hurry off as fast as he can when he realises that the students she’s shepherding around are the trio he harangued.
He contends with an actor friend, Han Jungwon, who grills him first about his habit of only calling him by his first name, and then about how much money he earns as a regional film teacher (not much), and it finally emerges that Han nurses a grudge against him for not casting him in his second movie after promising another role, an act that smacks of some long-ago concession to commercialism or star-fucking that’s now so hazy in Sungjoon’s mind he can barely remember it. Han nonetheless provides a fourth member for the drinking party at the Novel that evolves into a lengthy, boozy good time. This party concludes in the film’s most striking scene, a long, unblinking shot of the four guests and Yejeon standing on the side of the road, waving down taxis in the snow that is gathering slushy at their feet, their collective good cheer dissipating in the illness of drunkenness, tiredness, and the cold, each member heading off to their separate solitudes.
As we learn, Sungjoon essentially goes through similar rituals with every woman he meets and sleeps with. Not that he’s an incorrigible rake; rather, Hong seems to suggest, this is the texture of modern life and modern erotic existence for many people: attraction, flirtation, coitus, and then a fumbling indecision when the postscript seems insufficient, a fearfulness before intense feelings that dictates constant tactical withdrawal.
Sungjoon’s retreat from the hurly-burly of his former urban, creative life is a retreat from all but the most fleeting of serious human contact. His flirtation with Yejeon finally resolves in a beguilingly sexy bedroom scene where the couple seem to loll together in bliss, but even there they’re engaged in constructing other people out of the person they’re with (“You’re a real man,” Yejeon coos. “No I’m not,” Sungjoon laughs.), according to a need that disperses by morning. Character observation is, in spite of the trickier, headier elements, the essence and pleasure of The Day He Arrives, as the people are fiendishly well-described types. Song’s Boram is a particular stand-out, a brilliantly described and articulated type who can be found in many a modern culture, with her hunger for connection and romance that’s subtly frantic in clasping at straws for a fate that doesn’t involve hunkering down with a vintage film and her dog—and even that’s gone missing, since it escaped when she was walking it. Youngho is besotted with her, and yet won’t make his feelings apparent for fear of losing a grip on his friendship with her, a reticence that involves watching her flurry in moments of boozy angst and flirt shamelessly with the unresponsive Sungjoon.
Hong’s work here evidently fits into a definite strand of interest with other modern, serious-minded Asian filmmakers, including Wong Kar-Wai, who’s been making films in a similar key of forlorn romanticism coupled with overt probing of the nature of narrative for years now, if essayed in a very different cinematic spirit. Hong’s coolly evoked urban landscapes and motifs of alienated communication through technological mediums has a certain likeness to Jia Zhangke. Yet Hong’s style is definitely singular, keen to the rhythms of intimacy and isolation but in a fashion that never feels arch, but is rather crisp and purposeful even when seemingly most casual. Kim’s photography helps Hong sustain an effervescent mixture of artless naturalism and subtle, painterly zest, so often framing two or three conversers in a shot and making a quick zoom in like parentheses closing in on a stray sentence fragment, and lending abstract beauty and piquancy to seamy and bland corners of Seoul. His camera work offers stray moments of poetic fancy, from the numinous light glowing within the plastic roofing of a roadside fruit stall to the graffiti-riddled walls of the seamy bar Sungjoon encounters the students in, and the noirish shadows and snow around Sungjoon and whichever woman he’s talking to on the back steps of the Novel. The nights are places of inky depths, prettily illumined faces, ranks of glistening black empty beer bottles and polished glasses, and fairytale snowflakes, whilst the days are flatly lit, baldly unflattering traps.
In the final phase of Sungjoon’s odyssey, he takes his leave of Yejeon, another of his edgy, friendly yet uncertain farewells, where he makes Yejeon take three pledges, including to keep a diary as a way of organising time and her internal self, an organising principle Sungjoon seems to have lost himself, and again asks her to forget him: she agrees, saying, “At least this way I’ll have a happy memory,” which is both a pretty idea and yet one that the film has made seem like the most uncertain idea in the world. Sungjoon’s subsequent wanderings confirm his increasing irrelevance to the filmmaking world, as he encounters other, patronising filmmakers and a former glad-handing producer, a space cadet student he doesn’t remember, and finally, another woman who resembles Yejeon and Kyungjin, who carries a camera she sports to make a visual diary with (is she another former lover, or perhaps Yejeon, or Kyungjin, later down the line?) and convinces Sungjoon to let her shoot him. The former director tries to smile with increasing agitation that his world has finally been turned inside out, as he becomes the photographed subject rather than the image-maker, pinioned like a butterfly in the midst of ghostly doppelgangers, abandoned labours, and faded dreams.
Dark Shadows, a cultishly remembered, increasingly perverse take on the daytime soap opera, presented through a prism of increasingly outlandish gothic tropes, debuted in 1966, but did not gain its true notoriety until it introduced vampiric antihero Barnabas Collins a year into its run. Decades before Anne Rice and Twilight began to make such figures seem commonplace, the show helped make the link between the Byronic romantic and the undead prince, already lurking in some of Dracula’s on-screen incarnations, suddenly solid. I’ve seen little of Dan Curtis’ original TV series, sadly, though I’m a lifelong devotee of Curtis’ subsequent series The Night Stalker (1973-1974). A spin-off movie, House of Dark Shadows (1970), made in the wake of the show’s cancellation, had an air of bare-boned sufficiency. So I’m no real judge of Dark Shadowsa la Tim Burton as a tribute to, or send-up of, this original entity. What I can speak of is Burton himself.
Burton’s career since 2000 has been held in increasing disdain by many critics and fans, even as his box office touch has been growing surer thanks to his editions of popular properties carefully made over with a veneer of Burton touches. That disdain is partly deserved: there is no hell hot enough for his hacky remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), I could not fake an interest in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and whilst I found the near-universal negativity turned on his Alice in Wonderland (2010) more than a little hyperbolic—if nothing else, it had muse Helena Bonham Carter’s gleeful Red Queen to offer—it was still clearly a long way from the man’s most inspired work, and redolent of a once-unruly wit tailored into a franchise. On the other hand, Big Fish (2003) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), near-great films, and Corpse Bride (2005), a fine-wrought bon-bon, deserved no such censure, and merely confirms something obvious from Burton’s whole career—that he was always an uneven talent.
Burton’s general refusal to entirely abandon his sense of cinema as a mere fancy version of a children’s dress-up party, mixed with a Goth rock-and-roll bash and usually realised through leading man Johnny Depp’s variations on a theme of pasty weirdos, is both a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in opposition to the times, where the false verisimilitude of CGI, the rise of self-serious blockbuster auteurs like Christopher Nolan, and an attendant cut-to-the-chase cynicism amongst lesser luminaries, defines big-budget cinema: Burton has embraced CGI, but in a fashion that uses it as merely another prop in his magic lantern shows. Its weakness is that it could be said to be holding him back from growing artistically, although lingering anger for the failure of Big Fish, his most overtly personal and felt film since Ed Wood (1994), might also be involved.
Dark Shadows, on the back of a trailer whose emphasis on its comic elements made many nervous, also seems to have met with a lot of lingering resentment for how much money Alice made in spite of the opprobrium. But whilst it’s not a flawless film and shows distinct signs of having been awkwardly trimmed in the editing room, it’s also Burton’s most playful work since 1996’s Mars Attacks, his antic streak slipping the leash and making the most of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay as a delicious survey of retro camp, and his own undying desire to both laugh at and indulge the frisson welling from a morbidly sensual sensibility. It’s nigh-on impossible to construct a cult artefact in the context of modern Hollywood’s highest spheres, and yet that’s what Dark Shadows actually feels like. Had it been made, production techniques and budgetary differences notwithstanding, in the time it was set, it would have stood a good chance of standing up with other oddball by-products of the era’s wayward impulses, like Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! (1966), Corman’s The Raven (1963), Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), or Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966). Dark Shadows overflows with ideas and images that reveal Burton as anything but creatively exhausted: rather, it’s such a freaky surplus that it threatens at points to fly apart.
Burton’s film, like House of Dark Shadows, places Barnabas front and centre. Unlike most of Depp’s other Burton-directed characterisations of socially maladjusted misfits, Barnabas is superficially a commanding figure, albeit one rendered a misfit by dint not only of being a vampire, but also by dislocation in time. Barnabas was the respected scion of the successful émigré Collins clan, who set up a fishing business in New England in the 1700s in a town that came to be known as Collinsport, but who had, alas, a witch in their midst. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) worked as a servant in the Collins’ mansion and became Barnabas’ lover. When he spurned her and fell in love with local lass Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique began a campaign of terror and revenge on the family, killing Barnabas’ parents, driving Josette to suicide, and cursing Barnabas to his undead state. She then raised the locals to bury him alive as a monster, chained in a coffin and forgotten, until accidentally disinterred in 1972 by construction workers, all of whom Barnabas apologetically slaughters in his frantic hunger.
Barnabas makes his way to the mansion, takes control of servant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and discovers what’s left of the clan living in waned, penurious isolation. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to hold things together whilst ignoring the preternatural strangeness of her surrounding kin, including insouciant teen Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her ghost-seeing younger brother David (Gulliver McGrath), both damaged by the premature death of their mother in a boating accident, and their emasculated, petty thief of a father, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). The clan also houses David’s alcoholic, live-in psychiatrist, Dr Julia Hoffman (Carter), and new nanny Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), on the run from something and residing under an alias. She soon proves, like David, to be able to see roaming ghosts in the castle, warning of Barnabas’ return and the lurking evil that threatens the clan.
Dark Shadows, like scattered forebears, running from The Cat and the Canary (1927) through to The Fearless Vampire Killers and Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), doesn’t divide neatly between its gothic tributes and its satiric impulses. If it fails to match the nearly perfect balance of Sleepy Hollow (1999), it’s because unlike that film, Dark Shadows, as a TV adaptation, is forced to divide its attention between many competing elements, resulting in an occasionally diffuse narrative. The aforementioned signs of editing don’t help, though to a certain extent, they aid the evocations of the arbitrary twists prevalent in even the most upright soaps after a couple of decades have gone by, for example, when Carolyn leaps into a fray, suddenly sprouts hairs and claws, and snarls, “I’m a werewolf, okay, let’s not make a big deal of it!”
Burton can’t entirely deliver the film’s ripe eccentricity from mere plot, but whilst the rushed quality of the last third does somewhat lessen the impact of the film, the earlier parts dance nimbly between tones. Some touches delve into outright skit, like Barnabas trying to brush his teeth in a mirror or opening a secret chamber with impressively rumbly mechanisms, only to find Elizabeth uses it to store her macramé. But others retain a genuine impudence, as when Barnabas, a former student of the occult, recognises the 20th century equivalent to the emblem of Mephistopheles in the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign: the sign’s smaller wording, “9 Billion Served”, takes on a whole new meaning. One sublime gag sees Barnabas expounding his tale of woe to Elizabeth, with strains of eerie, melodramatic music rising—music that sounds like the score of, yes, a very early ’70s TV creepfest—only for these to prove to be programmed tracks rising from the electric organ he’s leaning on. It’s the sort of gag that’s impossible to properly describe, and can only be rendered by a clever filmmaker, managing to riff on several ideas at once: the pained hero making his confession in soap-opera style with appropriate accompaniment, provided by the modern equivalent of the compulsory organ that is the feature of any good vampire’s home.
The McDonald’s gag puts Dark Shadows back in touch, albeit blithely, with Burton’s once-strong satirical streak, as displayed in his early films like Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), where a comedic but still potent anti-consumerist, anti-conformist spirit was nascent; Dark Shadows portrays a battle of ruthless capitalistic endeavour involving sabotage and mind control, espoused between a witch and vampire. There’s a pretty obvious, but thematically apt gag in how a baying mob is repeatedly led in a witch hunt by an actual witch, casting meaningful aspersions on those who whip up panics and their reasons. More unexpectedly, signs of Burton’s duskily elegiac romanticism, so powerful in EdwardScissorhands, Big Fish, and Batman Returns (1992), blend with hints of psychedelia throughout Dark Shadows. This quality rises in the opening with it swooping shots of stormy cliffs, thundering seas, and tragic lovers: Barnabas, who had tried to die with Josette as she hurled herself over a cliff under Angelique’s spells, instead picks himself out of the surf, contorting into a perverted being.
The romanticism quietens to a somnolent refrain, as the opening credits see Victoria making her way to her fateful rendezvous with the Collins household on a train with the sonorous fetishism of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” overscoring the train’s passage through forested hills. Victoria is seen in the act of adopting a fake name from a ski lodge poster in the train. Rehearsing her introduction, she almost gives her name as Maggie Evans, an in-joke that gives away how she’s actually a compendium of two characters from the show. Victoria is the doll-eyed, seemingly demure yet quietly adamantine heroine Burton is often so fond of portraying, her self-containment overtly contrasting the flagrant strangeness that whirls about her. She has her own bleak background to contend with, one which comes across like a missing scene from last year’s Sucker Punch: clearly linked to Collinsport and Barnabas as the contemporary incarnation of Josette, she was, we learn, a psychic child whose speaking to ghosts was mistaken for madness, and she was hauled off, screaming and pleading, to an asylum where she grew up as a near-catatonic waif until the will to escape came to her.
Burton’s essential empathy is always with the weirdoes, as they become his heroes in the way they tend to keep an essential humanity burning inside of them even when circumstances seem most challenging—indeed, precisely because they must. Barnabas, upon being told by Victoria how her parents had her locked up and forgot her, speaks with stern judgement, “It is unforgivable. Your parents deserve to boil in Hell’s everlasting sulphur!” Burton’s villains are, by contrast, those who want to control others, or other weirdoes who surrender their humanity, like Danny DeVito’s twisted Penguin in Batman Returns, who screamed with epochal rage, “I am not a human being—I am an animal!” Similarly, whilst the prodigious force of nature that is Angelique, driven by class rage and sexual jealousy, attempts to bend all and sundry to her will, and most specifically Barnabas, he struggles to hold onto his humanity even as he has to kill people to survive. Whilst Angelique is the old figure of the woman like whom hell hath no fury, the fact that this is the time of women’s lib is repeatedly evoked. The film’s lone figure of traditional masculinity, Roger, is so pathetic and perfidious that Barnabas gives him a choice of absenting himself immediately with plentiful cash and leaving the children to his care, or staying and shaping up: Roger chooses the former, fleeing house and family, leaving all in the care of leonine Elizabeth and screwball Barnabas.
In spite of Depp’s foreground performance, the film fills up with archly iconic female characters. Burton’s usual fondness for unusual families and bizarrely lovable figures, and rejection of conservative norms, therefore finds a new accord with a distinctive sociopolitical shift. Dark Shadows becomes a film about the period in which it is set as well as a cut-up refashioning of its aesthetics. Nor is this the first time Burton has exercised such a notion—he managed to invoke it purely through the gradation in Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance in Ed Wood. In this context, as well as offering his alternative lifestyle energy, Barnabas becomes, in true soap opera style, something like the accidental fox in the henhouse, a love object more at the mercy of the women around him than not, sought by Victoria and Angelique. When he gives Hoffman a compliment, the love-starved psychiatrist promptly goes down on him. The psychiatrist tries to turn back the clock and restore her own youth by utilising Barnabas’ blood under the pretext of curing him, only to so anger him at the thought of her cheating him and placing another unruly monster in the household that he kills her and dumps her body in the harbour.
Barnabas’ family loyalty and identity give him purpose when his existence might otherwise have become a nihilistic nightmare. Burton allows a mood of queasy black humour/horror to punctuate the moments in which Barnabas’ monstrous side is let off its leash, slaughtering the construction workers and a clan of guileless hippies whom he fascinates with his trippy-seeming reminiscences and proclamations of the nature of mortality. “You tripped for 200 years?” one girl asks in spacy credulity in a scene that proceeds with broad comic kookiness until it reaches it nasty punchline when Barnabas regretfully sighs that now he has to kill all of them. Burton doesn’t go for an all-out juxtaposition of raw gore and humour, a laAmerican Werewolf, but, more like Polanski, allows a genuinely morbid and malicious sensibility squirm just beneath the surface.
Barnabas, for the most part, remains a weirdly lovable creature chiefly in his mix of confidence and bewilderment, strutting into what’s left of his family fiefdom with a plan to save the clan from being swallowed up by its demons, and attempting to negotiate the modern wonders he encounters with bemused fascination. Confused by television enough to rip out the back of one at the sight of Karen Carpenter singing on it, trying to find her (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”), he’s utterly taken with modern pop music, to the point where he recites the lyrics of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” with the arch solemnity of a Shakespeare soliloquy (“If only Shakespeare had been as eloquent!”), even if he doesn’t quite get the joke of Alice Cooper: “Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” he murmurs on close inspection. The correlation of specific, supernatural afflictions with character is constantly apt: David’s ghost-communicating evokes the distracted state of a melancholy preadolescent, whilst Carolyn’s secret lycanthropy fits perfectly with her grouchy, protean, onanistic eruption into puberty, and Angelique’s witchery simply inflates the mesmeric grip of her sensual powers and ruthless obsession.
Dark Shadows, in fact, plays with its musical cues with a sense of intricacy that moves well beyond mere sarcastic incongruity, suggesting instead a nongenre follow-up to Sweeney Todd, whilst trying to weave the pop motifs of the era into the film’s structure to give a slippery substance to the film’s understanding of the changing social landscape already mentioned. The invasive spirit of rock and pop, and the indulgent perversity of the heroes, are correlated, possessing dangerous and frightening, yet also empowering, forces. A major montage of Barnabas’ efforts to rebuild the family fortunes is scored to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” its effervescent ebullience both at odds with the strangeness of Barnabas and his enterprise but also according with his ingenuous determination, even optimism, and recalling the “By The Sea” number in Sweeney Todd. Earlier, Moretz’s lupine Carolyn gyrates in a trancelike, sensually protean fashion to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” whilst the family sit down to an edgy, uncomfortable meal with their new nanny: Roger so uptight under his thinning blonde quaff like a starched shirt holding to a man’s shape without a real body to hold it up, Hoffman lurching in with tipsy grande dame demonstrations, and David attempting to deliver Victoria a welcoming fright swathed in a sheet. The sense of intimate family tension at a nexus and the use of the Donovan song put me in mind of George Romero’s Season of the Witch (1971), which likewise invoked the onset of feminism in the context of a spiralling fascination for the stygian underworld.
The film’s best, most intricately woven sequence comes when Barnabas decides to throw a ball: “They’re called Happenings these days,” Carolyn informs him, and, in listing the things he’ll need, she adds, mockingly, “Alice Cooper.” Barnabas, whilst not realising the essence of the gender-bending joke, nonetheless actually does manage to hire Cooper for the party, through which Barnabas and Cooper strut in competition for the biggest, most entertaining freak. The vignettes here swing from the drolly comic—Hoffman experimentally bobbing her head to Cooper’s wailing strains, the ancient housekeeper reading a book oblivious to the thunderous rock—to the dreamy and the tragic. Burton uses the lava lamp that strikes Barnabas as a mystic totem as a visual motif, sliding past the camera in bobbing psychedelic brilliance as his camera shifts from stage to stage. He cuts from Carolyn providing the introduction for Cooper performing “Ballad of Dwight Fry” wrapped in a straitjacket, with Barnabas listening to Victoria’s recounting of her own history, glimpsed in flashback getting electroshock treatment and glaring out like a J-horror wraith under bedraggled hair, cocooned likewise in a straitjacket. The agile game played here with demarcations between different layers of performance and the invocation of genuine, transfiguring pain through its “fun” simulacrums is genuinely clever and invests the film with a real, off-kilter emotional resonance. Of course, Burton doesn’t push too hard towards perversity and explorations of adolescent trauma as the underpinning of eruptions of primal rage—more’s the pity, perhaps—in a film that maintains a largely frothy tone.
Still, one reason Dark Shadows works where his earlier franchise reinventions failed is because the material is obviously far, far closer to Burton’s heart. Where Sleepy Hollow gained spiritual cohesion from modelling itself on Hammer horror, Dark Shadows similarly adopts Roger Corman’s ’60s gothic works as the major point of reference, copying Corman’s tactic of splicing shots of waves crashing on rocks at every interval, allowing Depp to sport dark glasses borrowed from Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and having Depp and Pfeiffer roam the mysterious hidden passages of the Collins house in search of secreted treasure in a manner familiar from Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Other horror icons make the cut: Halloween’s (1978) vision of a real ghoul under a prankster’s sheet ghost costume is invoked, whilst Nosferatu—both Murnau’s and Herzog’s—comes to the fore as Depp buckles and twists unnaturally with his long, jagged fingernails, peers in on telephone conversers and rutting couples like a great bat, and rises stiff as a board from a coffin. Heathcote in vampiric form resembles Isabelle Adjani’s wasting heroine in Herzog’s film, whilst the finale’s twist strongly evokes Jean Rollin’s Lips of Blood(1975). Christopher Lee turns up for his compulsory cameo, playing an aged sea dog Barnabas hypnotises. Nor do the film’s stylistic reflexes and references stick to mere horror film pastiche: in a sequence in which Angelique harangues her board of well-trained males, she struts past a row of portraits, all of herself in different guises and styles over the passing last two centuries, like some undying edition of a Joan Crawford antiheroine.
Green, with her Barbara Steele smile and anime eyes, usually ennobles whatever she graces with her presence, but whilst she’s not always well-served by the story structure here, she nonetheless comes close to walking off with the whole film, moving through the proceedings with an arch sensuality and imperial prerogative blended with detectable lunacy, tearing about in a little red sports car and crashing the ball in a blood-hued glitter dress: never mind scarlet letters, she goes the whole nine yards. Her frustrated love-hate obsession with Barnabas pays off in a sequence with a mix of seduction, threat, and insult: tearing open her dress to show off her cosmos-shaking bosom to seduce Barnabas (“Oh!” he bleats in defeat, “I must admit, they have not aged a day…”), she finally cajoles him into a bout of spectacular hate-sex that sees them careening about the room in ecstatic destruction, reminiscent of the epic bedroom-trashing sex scene in The Tall Guy (1989), except in three dimensions, all scored to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” A moment in Batman Returns where Pfeiffer’s Catwoman licked Batman’s latex-framed face recurs here as this time, Angelique caresses Barnabas’ snowy brow with her long, snaky tongue. Angelique is reminiscent of other New Age stygian temptresses, like Barbara Carrera in Love at Stake (1987) and Amanda Donohoe’s incarnation of sexy evil in Lair of the White Worm (1987), but by the end, there’s a distinct resemblance between Green’s increasingly unhinged, insanely grinning visage and that of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the final stages of Batman.
It would be very wrong not to mention the brilliance of Bruno Delbonnel’s photography throughout Dark Shadows, rendering the milky hues and splashes of scarlet provided by the blood that daubs Barnabas’ face, the lipstick of Angelique, and coif of Hoffman, contrasting lushly with the blues and greys that fill most frames. The film’s finale gives in to fragmentation in tone and action, reaching its climax abruptly as if someone called time, and I can’t help but wonder how much material involving Carter, Haley, and Moretz hit the cutting room floor. The jerky pacing both helps and hinders the film’s spiralling into ecstatic nuttiness. Burton still pulls off a last coup as Angelique is defeated not by physical action but by the lingering spirit of maternal care that still lives in Collinwood. She lies prostrate, not mangled like a living person, but with her immaculately maintained two-century-old form now stove in and cracked as if she were actually a mannequin, a broken doll still transfixed by an obsessive need: she rips out her own heart and hands it Barnabas, and it crumbles into papery flakes in his palm. It’s the sort of weirdly poetic fairytale image Burton is almost alone in still providing in mainstream American cinema. The very finish is similarly loopy, with Victoria repeating her march to the cliffs from the opening, but this time not from mind-control, but a determination to destroy herself if she can’t live in Barnabas’ world. Barnabas tries to save her by vampirising her in mid-air, a ploy that works. Victoria, now entirely conflating with Josette, awakens as an ashen, morbidly transformed, perfect mate for Barnabas. It might be the romantic in me, but this liebestod finish left me grinning for hours.
The last time I mentioned John Gilbert in a review, it led to a lively discussion about why I was cracked not to give The Artist my full endorsement. The argument was good-natured, but I was dead serious about my objection to the propagation of myths surrounding John Gilbert, who seemed to me to be the model for George Valentin. John Gilbert was a very good actor with an enormously likeable screen presence, and the tragedy of his ouster by the studio bosses during the beginning years of the sound era, his rampant alcoholism replacing his screen career, and his fatal heart attack in 1936 at the age of 36 is one many latter-day fans like me still mourn.
I recently had the opportunity to view Gilbert’s last film on the big screen, the little-seen, almost-forgotten The Captain Hates the Sea. In it, Gilbert plays Steve Bramley, a character uncomfortably close to himself: an alcoholic reporter/would-be writer who can’t seem to get down to working on his first novel. His Greek chorus of a role lends a haunted quality to the assemblage of comic and tragic characters who come together in a Grand Hotel on the high seas to live out their personal dramas on the decks of a cruise ship bound from Los Angeles to New York City.
We are introduced immediately to the godhead of the story, Captain Helquist (Walter Connolly), who talks with two reporters about why he hates his job. He can’t stand being in charge of a cruise ship filled with the hoi polloi carrying on their sordid, uninteresting affairs. When asked why he went to sea to begin with, he tells a story of his long-bearded father who used to slurp his soup while resting his head on his bent arm; one day, the temptation to knock his father’s arm out from under him proved too great, and as soon as the old man had picked his beard out of his meal, he flung his son out to make his fortune. Naturally, this wonderful tale with echoes to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World must be played out for us—a passenger (Donald Meek) with a similarly long beard and identical table habits is seated on his right at the captain’s table by Helquist’s buffoonish first mate Layton (Leon Errol). The film is loaded with character actors who are adept at playing small parts indelibly, and this triumvirate of great character actors provides a great number of comic bits that liven the proceedings.
So, too, does the rich widow Yolanda Magruder (Alison Skipworth), another of the captain’s tablemates. The imperious matron blows into the dining room like a nor’easter and clamps her amorous attentions onto young sharp Danny Checkett (Fred Keating), whom private dick Junius Schulte (Victor McLaglen) pays Layton to seat with the captain so that he can make time with a beautiful woman of interest to them both, librarian Janet Grayson (Helen Vinson). This trio brings criminal intrigue on board. Schulte, a former cop, tangled with robber Checkett often during his career. Now, Schulte is working for a client to find $250,000 in missing bonds he feels sure Checkett stole. Janet, Checkett’s accomplice and would-be wife, has them hidden from both men. Games of hide and seek, crosses and double-crosses abound, as the essential humanity of Schulte and Janet plays against Danny’s light-hearted avarice. Schulte’s rescue of a woman overboard thrills Janet and turns her false romance with Schulte into the real thing.
One of the dark edges of the film comes from Steve’s onboard friend General Salazaro (Akim Tamiroff). Steve watches Salazaro, a revolutionary well known to the newspaperman, bid a tearful farewell to his wife and young son as he makes his way to yet another revolutionary hot spot. The men talk about the numerous uprisings in which the general has played a part, and the general tells him the most dangerous ones are the ones that succeed. He proves it later in the film when he is escorted by a member of revolutionary forces he planned to join and is executed, the revolution having ended before the general’s arrival. The story alludes to the continuous upheavals in a revolutionary Mexico that were in the news even when this film came out, and parallels the shifting loyalties of the much lighter love triangle at the core of the film.
Another dark spot involves the Jeddocks (Wynne Gibson and John Wray), a mismatched couple if ever there was one. Goldie was a hooker whom her husband decided to rescue from the gutter. A social climber, Jeddock is always criticizing his wife for her downscale style—a simple stumble on the gangway to the ship earns Goldie a severe tongue-lashing, and when she orders a sloe gin fizz and Schulte remarks that only hookers drink them, Jeddock hits the roof. We can assume sexual desire caused the union, and fear keeps Goldie in it, but it has made her desperate enough to think of suicide. When Jeddock goes on another tear, the captain has him clapped in irons—this is no Royal Caribbean cruise! A well-deserved, if somewhat implausible, reversal sets this marriage to right, at least as far as the audience is concerned.
In 1934, Victor McLaglen was the biggest name in the cast, ranking top billing and earning it with his comic performance that keeps the crime story fast-paced and entertaining. His mismatched clothes, notably anchored by a tartan wool golfer’s cap, make him a walking sight gag, but he seems comfortable in a dumb-like-a fox façade. Helen Vinson slips between her high-class librarian and lowdown chisler without a seam showing, and Fred Keating is a mesmerizing bon vivant who rolls with the punches and doesn’t seem half as interested in the money as in the adventure. New Columbia contract players Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine stumble around as the ship’s band, with Larry being the only Stooge with lines. The stereotypically dotty Englishman played by Arthur Treacher is delightful in his short time on screen, and he and Curly pull off a wordless gag that had me in stitches.
Underscoring it all is John Gilbert’s rueful performance. In his first scene, he steps out of a car that has carried him and his lover Gert (Tala Birell) to the ship. Gert is loathe to let him go, and even has a steamer trunk complete with turntable sent onboard for him with a recording she made professing her undying love. Steve is determined to quit drinking and start writing, but Gilbert looks like he’s actually been on a three-day bender when he says good-bye to Gert. Reports are that Gilbert and other cast members were drunk during most of the location shooting at sea, bored by delays caused by bad weather. The many, many drinking scenes in the film may have been an attempt to compensate for their frequent incapacity. On the other hand, filming on a real ship allowed for some intriguing and thrilling scenes, including the rescue. Milestone’s camera made the most of the depths and angles the location afforded and his fluidity overcame some of the meandering moments this juiced-up slice of life fell into.
Regardless of the circumstances during filming, the what-the-hell disillusionment of an alcoholic soaks Gilbert’s performance, as he watches from the sidelines with his jovial pusher, bartender Joe Silvers (Walter Catlett), ready with a bottle and a sarcastic crack. Just like Gilbert, Steve never gets his ambitions in gear, never puts away his shot glass, and never stops making us care.
Male menopause, I’m OK, you’re OK, if it feels good, do it—these are the cogent catchphrases of 1970s American pop culture that practically begged to be lampooned, even in their own time. Enter Blake Edwards. One of the most successful creators of mainstream comedies ever to work in Hollywood, Edwards’ sixth sense for spoofing the zeitgeist and his experience in genre and comedy writing for such 50s TV series as Peter Gunn and The Mickey Rooney Show helped him uncork the Pink Panther films, one the most beloved franchises in moviedom. Edwards also had an unofficial series comprising the numerous films he made starring his wife Julie Andrews, whose phenomenal voice and fresh-faced beauty had made her an easy star in such 60s movie musicals as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Her collaborations with Edwards were meant to broaden her range and increase her opportunities to land other types of movies. Their smash hit 10 scored a cultural bulls-eye with the “do your own thing” generation that catapulted British comic actor/musician Dudley Moore and ravishingly beautiful newcomer Bo Derek to instant celebrity in the United States, while charting the fading world Andrews would prove largely unsuccessful in trying to escape.
George Webber (Moore) is a highly successful composer who, with his writing partner, gay lyricist Hugh (Robert Webber), is navigating the treacherous waters of being in his 40s. Hugh’s grasping at fading youth is manifest by keeping a young lover (Walter George Alton) whose only line of work is to make Hugh happy. Moore has been seeing Samantha Taylor (Andrews), a musical theatre star and recording artist, for several years, but can’t seem to keep his eyes off the bikini-clad women who walk the streets of his Malibu neighborhood. He especially can’t keep away from his telescope, which is forever trained on his neighbor (Don Calfa), a Hugh Hefner type whose mansion is always filled with naked women who are ready to fuck at the drop of a swizzle stick. George’s discontent overflows when he arrives at Hugh’s home for an evening work session and finds that Sam has arranged a surprise 42nd birthday party for him.
With the memory of blowing out the candles on a cake engulfed in flames fresh in his mind, he is primed for his fateful encounter with Jenny (Derek), the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. One glance from his Rolls Royce into the back seat of the limousine that is taking her to her wedding ceremony, and George is off to the races. He follows her to the church, crashes into a police car when he can’t take his eyes off her, and after receiving tickets for several violations, bangs into the church and hides in some floral arrangements behind the altar so that he can gaze upon her face. He is promptly stung on the nose by a bee. That night, caught in the heady elixir of his own obsession, he quarrels with Sam. When he fails to connect with her the following day to apologize, he runs helplessly toward the object of his desire, going so far as to allow her dentist father (James Noble) to fill six cavities just so that he can find out her honeymoon destination—Mexico—and follow her there.
The advertising tagline for 10 reads, “A temptingly tasteful comedy for adults who can count,” a clever reference to the title that would push an attractiveness rating scale to the cultural forefront. But its double-meaning is for men like George who realize the time of youthful vigor is passing. In real life, we’ve all seen men like George, for example, middle-aged Michael Douglas, who saw Catherine Zeta-Jones in full, youthful bloom in The Mask of Zorro, determined to make her his, and then did. Just like Douglas, George eventually succeeds in getting Jenny into bed, but unlike Douglas, Jenny’s reasons for being with George highlight the unbridgeable generation gap that George is wise enough not to ignore. Jenny is comfortable with her “old man” David (Sam Jones)—they’ve been living together for two years and got married to please their parents. When George saves a sleeping David from drifting out to sea on a surfboard, Jenny is happy and grateful. While David is in the hospital recovering from a sunburn, why not sleep with the cute man who saved him? As we’d say today, it’s all good.
George, though he is tempted by the example of free love set by his neighbor, doesn’t think of Jenny that way. She’s his ideal, the embodiment of the perfect 10, that is, her face and form are. Sadly for George, the world belongs to her generation now. When George sits in the hotel bar bending the ear of sympathetic bartender Don (Brian Dennehy), he makes a sarcastic joke inspired by hearing the pianist play the theme from Laura: “Each of us is the product of an era. That music is my era. . . . If you were 19, and 20 years from now, you were dancing with your wife or girlfriend you knew in high school, and you said to her, ‘Darling, they’re playing our song,’ do you know what they would be playing? ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” For George’s generation, desire was love, and great desire led to marriage. When Jenny makes it clear that making love with him would make her happy, nothing more, it opens a chasm. He tells her he thought she was something special, to which she quickly retorts, “I am special.” Damn right, but as she defines herself. George would call her a women’s libber, but that would not offend her the way his criticism of Sam always wanting to “win like a man” offends her. The world of beautiful love songs with beautiful lyrics cannot be transferred to a beautiful face and body the way men did in his era. It is only after learning this lesson that he can let go of trying to recapture his youth by loving an actual youth, and find the life-giving romantic feelings of his own youth with Sam.
In Blake Edwards’ inimitable style, comedy and romance are mixed effortlessly, and the laughs and sighs he evokes are full-bodied. Moore’s diminutive size and elfin face put us solidly on his side as he experiences a series of mishaps that exploit the full range of his considerable physical comedy skills. For example, while watching his neighbor, he flings his telescope away in sexual frustration, only to conk himself in the head and stumble down a steep embankment. Naturally, Sam chooses that moment to try to phone him. He tries to climb the hill quickly, slipping and sliding backward and pulling at the brush while his neighbor and naked lady friend watch in amused puzzlement. Naturally, he finally reaches the phone just as Sam hangs up, much to his comic exasperation. Following his dental work, George finally manages to be around to answer one of Sam’s phone calls. Unfortunately, his mouth is so swollen and novocained up that he sounds like an incomprehensible predator from another planet. She calls the police, who find him under the influence of pain killers and brandy, riotously rubber-legged and ready to party with the naked ladies across the way. In another incident, when a mariachi band awakens him at the hotel in Mexico, the look on his dark-circled, hungover face as he bursts through the balcony curtains is gut-splittingly funny.
Moore’s dramatic chops, however, provide moments of the most aching longing. The set-piece in which Moore pours out his yearning occurs when he sits at the hotel piano and records a new composition for Hugh on a tape recorder. The Henry Mancini song that exquisitely reflects Jenny as George’s inspiration, “It’s Easy to Say” (better without the crummy lyrics), is full of George’s kind of music—beautifully melodic, painful, surging with life, triumph, and defeat—interpreted with Moore’s superb musical technique and artistry. Edwards inserts reaction shots to the music from Dennehy and Dee Wallace, who plays a lonely divorcée whose would-be tryst with George is both embarrassing to watch and as unnecessary as the reaction shots themselves. The scene provides a supreme example of a character’s inner life completely realized by his artistic expression; Edwards was very smart to write a part for Moore that would take advantage of his perfection as a musician.
Many kudos to Bo Derek as well for embodying Jenny as a self-confident member of her generation. More than just being, in reality, a perfect 10, Derek’s refreshing honesty and unapologetic attitude when faced with George’s disillusionment make their bedroom scene together both sad and wise. Of course, that scene will be remembered only for her assertion that Ravel’s Boléro is the best music in the world to fuck to, and I lament that her performance in this pivotal scene got lost in the sniggering and rush to the record store.
The weakest link in 10 is Julie Andrews. She and Edwards thought her innocent image was to blame for the failure of many of her films and performances, resulting in the ill-considered image buster S.O.B. (1981). In fact, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that Julie Andrews just isn’t a very good actress. She doesn’t get below the surface of Sam, merely spouts the lines that signal she’s an older woman who won’t put up with George’s infantile exploits. Sam seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents of George’s terror of growing old, and therefore, their connection never seemed real to me. At one point, she takes a frustrating call from George and ends it with “Damn you, George.” She might as well have said “I need a quart of milk” for all the emotion she puts into it. Thankfully, she is not the center of the film’s action and provides little more than some quick-edit blackouts to hype the comedy. Singing the insipid lyrics written for the Mancini songs by Carol Bayer Sager and Robert Wells does not help her cause either.
A raft of decent supporting performances, led by Dennehy and Max Showalter as the preacher/songwriting hobbyist who married Jenny and David, make 10 a well-fleshed rom com. Dudley Moore’s understanding portrayal of a midlife male makes 10 a treasure.
In today’s 10-minute news cycle, it’s waaaay old news that Davy Jones, the British performer who gained everlasting fame as one of the members of TV’s pop music group The Monkees, died last week. Like many other people, I felt sad at the passing of a likeable member of a band who represented the era of my youth. I was the right age to watch The Monkees on NBC—and I did—and their truly great pop music was all over the radio. But try as I might, I can’t remember much of anything about the show, and my interest in it and The Monkees faded, whereas a TV contemporary, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, is very easy for me to see in my mind’s eye. The Monkees was essentially a harmless kids show populated with cuddly pop icons parents felt comfortable letting their children idolize, and even back then, I already felt too old to really appreciate their charms.
Nonetheless, The Monkees were very popular, and a movie was sure to follow. Head proclaimed itself the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that’s putting it mildly).” This boast, with the parenthetical phrase underlining it like a smear of cheap lipstick, kind of sums up what’s wrong with Head. The writing, a collaboration of all four Monkees (Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz), Rafelson, and coproducer Jack Nicholson, is confused and so far outside the image The Monkees created that the film’s quick failure was practically a foregone conclusion.
The film wants to be taken seriously as a statement from stars who do not wish to be confined to the G-rated TV group fans had come to know. It opens with the Monkees running from an angry horde during a bridge dedication and Micky escaping by jumping to his death off the bridge. This is followed by a spoken ditty in which the Monkees admit to being nothing more than a manufactured pop group as the frame fills up with TV screens and culminates with the infamous execution of a Viet Cong operative. Equally unexpected is a sequence in which famed San Francisco stripper Carol Doda plays a groupie who kisses each Monkee with ardor and then laughingly dismisses them all. So hit ’em with suicide, war, murder, and sex right at the start—and then it’s back to a film jam-packed with lovable hijinks that we have now been clued may have an underlying meaning.
As was typical of youth counterculture movies of the time, and The Monkees TV show specifically, a loose anarchy explodes on the screen full of non sequiturs and visual gags. The film pretends to break the fourth wall frequently, for example, when Micky is in a Western and a pioneer woman (Teri Garr) who has been bitten by a snake tells him to suck the venom from her finger. He ignores her and she “dies,” only to revive as the actress she is when he kicks her, quits the scene, and breaks through the cheap scenery. Later, a lavish birthday party sequence is cut short when Mike announces that he hates surprises and doesn’t want his birthday celebrated. His anger isn’t convincing, a reminder that only two of the Monkees had any acting experience before their show debuted and an Achilles heel in selling an artifice vs. reality premise for this movie.
Dolenz, the strongest actor and singer of the group, has perhaps the best scene in the film. After he has jumped off the bridge, he believably plays dead as he moves through the water, now solarized into many psychedelic colors. Mermaids come to his rescue, and the dreamy, trippy “The Porpoise Song” ushers in a visually intense and beautiful scene. I was reminded a bit of the profoundly moving De Profundis, which, for me, pays this part of the film a very high compliment indeed.
Peter’s hippy-dippy persona, a reflection of his early career as a folk singer, is pounded home as he visits with a guru in a steam bath who gives him the answer to the question of free will versus scripted reality the film plays with constantly. The guru has some interesting things to say about it not mattering if actions are predetermined if the actors can authentically live their lives within these actions, but this philosophy is undercut by the ridiculous setting and a final statement, “I know nothing,” that sounds like the kind of nonsensical conundrum people use to scoff at eastern philosophies. This scene takes aim at the Beatles in their quest for enlightenment, as well as their status as earthly gods to their more rabid fans. However, it’s also a bit confused, since Head seems to show The Monkees on a similar quest.
In a scene of great poignancy, Davy sings a sanitized, but still sad version of “Daddy’s Song,” written by Harry Nilsson, the man who turned down a chance to be a Beatle. Wearing an Edwardian-style suit, he performs the song on a dark, empty soundstage, a demonstration of his own personal history as a musical theatre star. When he emerges, Frank Zappa leading a steer stops to chat with him. He warns Davy not to be distracted from making his music, and then says he likes how Davy has been working on his dancing. This absurdist scene was probably included just to give Mike Nesmith’s buddy Zappa a cameo, but it does trivialize a rather moving scene.
Which leads me to wonder what exactly is going on here. Is Head a subversion of The Monkees’ personae and careers, or is it business as usual as a comedy-variety show? The hubby has explained that The Monkees wanted to be taken seriously as musicians and a legitimate band, to be allowed to grow past their prepubescent fan base. At the same time, it was that fan base who was going to go out to see Head. This film could have been a deliberate bomb designed to destroy their image and leave them free to have an adult career. The pointed moment when the boys all jump off the bridge and swim away to some kind of freedom is mitigated when the camera pulls back and shows them trapped in a tank of water being returned to its place in a warehouse. If The Monkees thought their fans would sympathize with their plight, they were not only mistaken, but cruel.
I’ve got a real problem with artists who blow a raspberry in children’s faces. There are many ways to move into independence and a mature career without disrespecting the children who have enjoyed and bolstered one’s early work. The fact that Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork endure as The Monkees in people’s memories shows that they did their jobs very well and they chose the worst possible way to signal they were ready to evolve. Head can be as disrespectful as it likes to the Hollywood dream factory, which can take it and often deserves it. But by being truly angry with their fans, The Monkees guaranteed they would never find their way out of their self-made box, for how could we ever trust them again.
Brian De Palma’s volatile career, whatever you might think of it, is one of the most individualistic of American commercial directors. His oeuvre breaks up neatly, at least from a distance, into three movements, encompassing his raucous apprentice work, his chicly gaudy, richly eccentric major phase, and his often patchy, yet still restlessly creative and critical late career. These phases are each demarcated nicely by some of the many major financial flops De Palma has suffered in the ironic life of a director who so often seemed willing to offer up to his audience everything it wanted, but in such immoderate, immersive, gleefully perverse terms that he instead seemed to be making a joke of such pandering.
At the same time, De Palma seemed to take the idea of being an auteur more seriously than any other young American director, not only offering up personal themes and stories and expressive cinematic techniques that clashed with the settled textures of mainstream moviemaking, but in making his own creativity part of the show. He set about ostentatiously repeating devices, scenes, and sometimes whole movies, composing his epic signature scenes, then pulling them apart and staging them all over again in new contexts and with new resolutions. Such were the building blocks of his most famous string of films from the late ’70s through to the mid ’90s. But De Palma’s eventual pigeonholing as a postmodern remix artiste for genre fare with a thing for Hitchcock to a large extent concealed a major strand of his artistic personality, that of the sly, subversive gamester with a remorseless satiric streak.
De Palma was perhaps the closest of the major Movie Brats to the counterculture, with one foot planted squarely in the guerrilla theatre and film worlds of ’60s New York, and the influence of that zesty freeform sphere remained hard-wired in his aesthetic sensibility, constant dialectic partner to the media-mad young nerd with a yen for the lush, eroticised space of the cinematic frame. De Palma’s early films are therefore mostly comedies of manners, including the hipster gagfest Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969), and in such company, his first “thriller,” Sisters (1973), seems to wear the apparel of a Hitchcockian tale in large part to satirise the mores of early ’70s New Yorkers, and offer up a deliberately absurd, anticlimactic variation that makes fun of the whole idea of witnessing and investigation, as doomed and self-defeating as that of Gerrit Graham’s JFK conspiracy theorist’s pursuit in Greetings. His next film was his first work to gain major studio hype behind it, Phantom of the Paradise, destined to be a financial failure before cult revival and therefore something of a false start before he stepped back and reintroduced himself with Carrie (1976), a film that expands on many elements of Phantom whilst offering them within a new, deceptive, high-cinema composure.
What distinguishes Phantom from the films that would follow it, and keeps it tied to the less polished works before it, is its sense of anarchic energy and blackly comic rapture. The greatest insult in the ’60s had been to be labelled a sell-out, and written over Phantom in neon letters is the film’s simultaneous embrace and ridicule of selling out, tackled with a pulverising, panicky bravado. Early scenes make use of the same mock-silent film passages of sped-up slapstick that had often punctuated De Palma’s apprentice work, essayed now in the context of a film that transforms the morbid romanticism of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and its many subsequent film versions into an outright Faustian parable, mixed with a freebasing critique of pop music and celebrity worship. It’s as radical, and much more visceral a take on those ideas, as Peter Watkins’ unnervingly predicative Privilege (1967), but real life would soon catch up with and surpass its prototypical visions of glam rock, punk, and death metal excess.
The film’s impresario supervillain Swan (Paul Williams) is depicted as the force behind all of the movements in recent music, a man who sold his soul to the devil for eternal youth and therefore always has his pulse on the current youth spirit. Phantom kicks off with an expository voiceover by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling positioned somewhere between rock-doc awe and sinister prelude, before the opening credits unfurl over a performance by Swan’s current hit band The Juicy Fruits, a satire on the nostalgic shtick of Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and other self-consciously retro theatre pieces and acts of the early ’70s. This opening is more gruesome than any of the physical violence that follows, as sleazy mock-greasers fondle each other and audience members, and nearly break into fights, whilst singing an absurd song about a heroic musical artist who killed himself get a hit record and save his sister’s life with the profits. The jokey image of the mock self-annihilation by stabbing repeats later in the film in a “real,” yet also even more flagrantly artificial, context.
De Palma’s version of Leroux’s tragic Phantom is Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, a gangly, adaptable character actor who appears in much of De Palma’s early work, and here takes the lead for the first and last time. His Leach bears a distinct resemblance to Warren Zevon. Hapless, dowdy, and painfully naïve in his life, Leach’s superlative talents as a musician serve only to destroy him. Hired to play piano during breaks in Swan’s shows, Leach is overheard by the impresario, who, impressed, orders his cruder flunky Philbin (George Memmoli) to get hold of Leach’s music. Winslow is reluctant to part with his songs, which are only portions of a magnum opus based on the Faust legend, but agrees on the promise that Swan wants to produce the record. Winslow tries to see Swan at his Death Records office and then his home. There he meets a young singer, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), practising for an audition using one of the Faust songs, and Winslow is dazzled. Winslow is quickly ejected when discovered, and so is Phoenix, when finds out the audition is just the nightly intake for Swan’s harem of groupies and refuses. Winslow, on the other hand, dresses up and joins the concubines and manages to meet Swan, but he promptly has him plucked out, beaten up, and then set up by flunky cops on a drugs charge. In jail, Winslow has his teeth removed and replaced by metal ones as a part of a perverse experiment in sanitation he’s forced into, and when he hears one of Swan’s stars singing his songs on the radio, he goes berserk, escapes, and breaks into Death Records. While attempting to sabotage the production machinery, Winslow is caught in a record press and burns his face. He stumbles outside and falls into the harbour, and is presumed to have drowned.
De Palma’s wild, dark, vicious sense of humour and technique are not only constantly apparent in this fast and furious first act, but at a height of unhinged energy he never tried to match again. De Palma and set designer Jack Fisk’s entrap the actors, including Harper, within rooms just as engulfing and overpowering in decorative mise-en-scene as those she would face in Suspiria (1977). The story, and De Palma’s approach to it, tread a precarious line between skit-like Theatre of Cruelty conceit and frenzied emotional biography. He employs strange, space-moulding sets, obtuse, often handheld camerawork, oddball scene grammar, and a barrage of student film tricks in the course of telling Winslow’s story. De Palma’s basic point comes out the better for such magnified distortion, that for much of the world’s self-appointed founts of power able to beatify with fame and fortune, gatekeeping against pretenders and the potentially unruly and the excessively talented is as vital an aspect of their power as any other. Thus, the age of celebrity turns devastating failure into mirth for consumers. The storytelling is as charged with the same frantic, drug-enhanced, one-step-ahead sensibility as the legendary ’70s recording industry itself. As Swan himself puts it later, referring to why he doesn’t want to make a star of Phoenix, “She’s perfect, and you know how I abhor perfection in anyone other than myself.” Those who meet this head-on without caution and self-awareness are inevitable victims, comical foils for the cynical.
Winslow’s attempts to penetrate the Olympian monster’s lair likewise anticipate the structural motifs of The Fury (1978) and The Untouchables (1987), whilst Swan is a version of such malefic, would-be masters of fate as John Cassavettes’ Childress and De Niro’s Al Capone. The notion of the Phantom being a scarred and furious victim of artistic plagiarism and the evils of commercialised culture—an idea that comes not from the novel but from the 1943 Claude Rains version—is played up here as a tragicomic exercise where, as is often the case in De Palma’s work, naivete, aspiration, and innocence are hardly guarded from harm, but are instead brutally assaulted and cruelly broken (e.g., in the grim fates of Carrie White, Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, and the victimised females of The Black Dahlia  and Redacted ).
The flipside is often a furious, amoral retribution that reproduces and exceeds the violence of the wicked. Winslow returns as the Phantom, a work of performance art, encased in black leather and an art-deco bird mask, to haunt The Paradise, Swan’s gaudy new theatrical setting for his roster of acts. Winslow is agonised by his disfigured face and broken voice, but his artistic dedication and passion are to a certain extent released by becoming the Phantom, a point underlined with the ease with which Swan, after Winslow has announced his vengeful presence by exploding a bomb during a rehearsal in the Paradise, seduces him back into rewriting Faust. Winslow points out Phoenix to Swan at an audition and insists on her as his onstage avatar, and Phoenix rises to the challenge with an impromptu performance.
Swan’s genius as a creator and manipulator of talent is drawn out with impudent concision as he fine-tunes an electronic gadget for Winslow to speak and sing through, turning his hoarse, electrified wailing into a smooth croon with studio gadgets: he can turn the worst freak into a pop god, and vice versa. It’s worth noting that De Palma’s Phantom (being as De Palma was a friend of George Lucas, and who would write Star Wars’ opening scroll) seems to have influenced the look and concept of Darth Vader, who would similarly be revealed as another resurrected Phantom. Swan, of course, plans to double-cross Winslow even in the act of pretending to give him a second life.
Phantom of the Paradise references horror film imagery and mystique, naturally, but it’s also strongly under a comic filmmaker influence: as the first part uses Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin as templates, the second is under the spell of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera (1935), as Swan gets Winslow to sign an impossibly long and obtuse contract (“All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included”), Winslow hovers above the stage a la Harpo to commit sabotage, and the distance between audience and performance is erased. Swan’s ludicrous acts meanwhile all use the same singers (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling) shifting between musical guises and eras: The Juicy Fruits with their ’50s style, their successors, the hideously faux-groovy The Beach Bums, and finally, The Undeads, whose grotesque onstage shenanigans, including pretending to tear audience members to shreds to build their lead singer, “Beef” (Graham) whilst caked in sepulchral make-up, charts a logical evolution of pop tastes towards calculated outrage and excess. The film’s jibes at manufactured stars, schlocky gimmicks, industry sexism, and coercion were intended to be Paddy Chayefsky-like satire, but life caught up with it all quickly and not only assimilated the criticisms, but made them part of the mystique.
Nonetheless, the humour and revulsion the film invokes toward the pop industry retain a charge far beyond the relative innocence of the equally farcical This Is Spinal Tap (1984) because De Palma backs it up with his twisted fantasia. Images of punctured and roasted flesh and operatic emotion alternate with this satiric panoply, imbuing it with a similar feel of sodden, sensual overload and consumerist satiety found through corporeal violence, such as in the later scenes of Scarface (1983). De Palma spares no one because it’s a world that spares no one: even the talented and intelligent Phoenix is easily suckered in by Swan and turned literally overnight from willowy starlet to drugged-up fame whore whom Swan can seduce and marry (but actually planning to assassinate to outdo Winslow for onstage killing as entertainment coup). Swan’s first choice for a Winslow stand-in is not Phoenix, whom he relegates to back-up singer, but Beef, a flagrantly gay showbiz pro whom Swan reinvents as a Frankensteinian id-beast compelling all potential audiences with his ambiguous hunkiness, one of the many moments of arch gender-bending that inflect both the film and De Palma’s oeuvre. Beef stands in for Carlotta, the prima donna in The Phantom of the Opera who is threatened into standing aside for the Phantom’s preferred singer. Here, in the first of De Palma’s many send-ups/variations on Psycho’s shower murder, Winslow slices his way through Beef’s shower curtain with a knife, but instead of stabbing him, jams a toilet plunger against his mouth and delivers his warning. Swan has Winslow bricked up in his studio after he’s finished writing Faust, but Winslow, realising he’s been betrayed again and that a hack is singing his music, smashes his way out and kills Beef onstage by dropping a lightning-shaped neon sign on him.
Swan, it proves, really has made a pact with the devil to retain his youth, turning his own habit of videotaping everything around him into a vessel for a Dorian Gray-like preservation. De Palma’s career fascination with recording mediums within recording mediums, and the act and experience of voyeurism blending together into a self-reflexive arc, is ever-present here, but surges to the foreground particularly during the film’s most dazzling scene. Winslow spies on Swan making love to Phoenix through the skylight of his house, and Swan spies on Winslow spying on him, Winslow’s contorted outrage and now godlike self-pity being provoked and enjoyed by his nemesis. Winslow immediately tries to kill himself, but finds he’s locked into eternal life with Swan by signing his contract and can die from his self-inflicted wound only when Swan also dies, a fact Swan explains as the most elegant capstone to his malevolence. Casting Williams as Swan is an uncomfortable fit, not exactly because of his diminutive size, for there’s a good and thematically apt joke in this, but because he lacks the dark, overwhelming charisma the part really needs; indeed, De Palma’s films often live and die on who plays the Mephistopheles figure. Finley, on the other hand, invests his character with a heightened blend of the comedic and the pathetic: his full-bore embrace of the expressive Grand Guignol heart of the film looks forward as far as Fiona Shaw’s perverse monster in The Black Dahlia, a film as preoccupied with Faustian bargains, conspiracies, and transfiguring bodily damage as this one.
Phantom of the Paradise is undoubtedly a bratty film, and an immature one in many ways, though this does not mean it’s inauthentic or merely flashy. It does, perhaps inevitably, collide with potential dead spots of narrative and invention, which De Palma’s style wasn’t yet attuned to overcoming. An expository sequence of Winslow penetrating Swan’s secret video library, where he finds the key to destroying his nemesis, is overlong, too flagrantly skit-like, and lacks a quality later De Palma would grasp firmly, that of the reality-changing impact of penetrating the final layer to a mystery. De Palma is still inclined to overindulge his comic actors like Graham and Memmoli. But De Palma’s energy is all-conquering, rendering the film as an ecstatic flux that manages to combine two stances often thought to be exclusive: the implacably hip and the flagrantly emotional. Shows of dazzling technique are spotted throughout, if not linked with the same careful sense of orchestration that distinguishes the likes of The Fury, Dressed to Kill (1980), or Femme Fatale (2002). As well as the film’s constant refrains to silent comedy and melodrama, there’s a strangely elegiac montage of Winslow composing in his Phantom lair, swooning on the same tone of deathless romanticism as Winslow’s music. A lengthy split-screen sequence in which Winslow plants a bomb during a rehearsal by the Beach Bums, unfolds in two simultaneous shots that absorb secret machinations and the abuse and coercion that lie behind the contrived appearance of sunny shenanigans, before resolving in the explosion that announces a legitimised terrorist riposte to Swan’s regime.
Winslow, whilst becoming a killer and a terrorist, remains the film’s moral centre in his perverse fashion: his destructiveness cuts through the overwhelming artifice and cynicism of Swan’s, and when he realises Swan’s last, devastating betrayal, he charges to the rescue, cueing a breathtaking sequence, furiously switching between perspectives, from that of Swan’s assassin fixing crosshairs on Phoenix, to a racing hand-held camera chasing Winslow as he charges to the rescue. He swings into the auditorium and snatches away Swan’s mask, which now conceals not his unnatural youth but a shrivelled and hideous visage. Winslow delivers his coup de grace, stabbing Swan to death with the beak of a bird mask from a dancer, turning the emblem of Death Records into the literal instrument of death. De Palma’s staging of the genuinely crazed finale refuses any sense of tragic closure, however, zooming up and away from Winslow’s body in the midst of the orgiastic eruption that aims instead for catharsis, revelling in all spectacle. Here violent death, Winslow’s revealed, hideous face, and Swan’s extermination only register as sideshows of the convulsive carnival. A remorseful, mourning Phoenix clutches Winslow in the midst of a party, prefiguring Blow Out (1981), and a woman stands watching, wearing Winslow’s mask, hinting at the fusion of the two figures in a world where all opposites come crashing together in one great apocalyptic shindig.
Today is Christmas, an increasingly secular holiday that has come to mean gift giving, decorations, big meals with family and friends, favorite movies and music, and leisure for most of the workforce. Those who keep the religious traditions of the holiday go to church to celebrate the birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ, and think about peace and good will among all people. In my capacity as professional killjoy (as evidenced by my reviews of Midnight in Paris and The Artist), I am now going to remind you about the end of the story that began on this date 2,011 years ago—the king of the Jews was crucified, and his message of peace and love repeatedly ignored by generations of warring, racist people the world over.
Which brings me to The Front, which tells the true story of how the American entertainment industry collaborated with the federal government to deprive film and television creatives—many of them Jews—of their livelihood through the use of a blacklist. The blacklist was unacknowledged by studio and television executives; directors, writers, and actors simply were told their work had somehow gone downhill or that they were not a good fit for the material going into production. Why? Because they were Communists or had become “controversialities” by coming to the attention of Commie hunters at the studios or being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Everything from being a full-fledged member of the Communist Party to signing one petition could be grounds for blacklisting, investigation, and imprisonment.
The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists—director Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley—and including the slightly fictionalized story of blacklisted television star Philip Loeb.
The film focuses right from the start on Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a cashier and bookie in New York City who owes money all over town and has tried the patience and pocketbook of his brother Myer (Marvin Lichterman) for the last time. He has lunch one day with his boyhood friend, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), who tells him that the television studios have stopped buying his scripts. Miller has been blacklisted, and desperate to keep working to support his wife and three children, he asks Howard if he will act as Miller’s front—the person who will put his name on Miller’s scripts and be a physical presence with the network executives and producers. Offering him 10 percent of whatever he gets for the scripts cements the deal with the willing Howard. Howard brings a script to the show Miller used to write for and becomes the new darling of producer Phil Sussman (Bernardi), as well as the idol and boyfriend of WASP script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci).
Naturally, this overnight sensation must be checked out by the network’s anti-Communist investigator (Remak Ramsay). Soon, his ties not only to Miller, but also to two other blacklisted writers (Gough and David Margulies) for whom he fronts, are discovered, and Howard must agree to a token appearance before HUAC. As the network is desperate to keep using him, Howard is assured that if he gives up just one name to the committee, he can keep riding the gravy train.
The Front largely eschews an overtly political angle by focusing on the real-life consequences of the blacklist and the various kinds of people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Howard does what he does initially out of friendship and then to make some real money. He moves into a nice apartment and buys tailor-made suits, but he does the right thing by squaring his debts with his brother and the gamblers whose bets he took. He’s thrilled to be dating a beautiful shiksa and horrified when she quits her lucrative job rather than fire a blacklisted actor, but he calls her out for romanticizing the struggle against the blacklist and loving his talent instead of him when he confesses that he can barely write a grocery list. Woody Allen indulges a lot of his own relationship shtik in the film, and this aspect of The Front is the weakest.
By contrast, the plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.
Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.
Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.”
Allen handles the comedy in the film well, particularly the daily travails he has to negotiate when the studio asks for last-minute rewrites and he has to find a way to get them from Miller. Ritt directs these panicked scenes with verve, and film editor Sidney Levin maintains a rhythm for this scene—indeed, for the entire film—that shows the precarious roller coaster all of the characters are riding, exhilarating for Howard at first, then getting increasingly burdensome. The slow stammering Allen engages in when stonewalling the committee is one of his best scenes on camera in any film and builds a tense exasperation in the committee members that is a wickedly pleasurable experience.
The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.