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. For me, it’s a film inseparable from its era, released as it was during the burn-out of Gen X alt-culture of grunge and yapping Tarantino obsessives. 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 Victor Crowley’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 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 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 in moving 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 then considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone for better or worse into the image they create for themselves, it’s 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. When 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 his 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.
They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.
The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.
Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.
In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.
The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimicks Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.
Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane or the verbatim score for Vertigo in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.
The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.
The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.
I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.
Like many other “pennyheads” from “The Land of Lincoln,” when I want to get away from the urban bustle of Chicago, I look to the north. Wisconsin holds many delights for urbanites looking for an uncluttered landscape that still offers high-quality creature comforts—the North Woods for outdoor activities like fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling; artisan cheeses and beers, including one beer so desirable that a New York City bar owner lost his license and was fined $250,000 for selling it; and charming towns that cater to the tourist trade by peddling their heritage for fun and profit.
One such hamlet is Mount Horeb, home to about 7,000 people of mostly German and Norwegian ancestry. Until it moved to the Madison suburb of Middleton in 2009, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum—in reality a shop where I used to stop to buy some of the hundreds of unusual mustards they stock—was the town’s big claim to fame. However, even before it lost the museum, in fear that the US 18/151 bypass would kill the downtown retail district, the town decided to market itself in a new way. Playing up the Norwegian part of its ancestry, Mount Horeb became the self-professed Troll Capital of the World. A number of businesses have put “troll” in their names, and Schubert’s Diner and Bakery, the most popular breakfast place in town and a must for visitors, is liberally decorated with trolls of every size and type.
The trolls are amusing and a bit nostalgic for anyone who received, as I did, a troll doll to play with when they were young. But following a viewing of Trollhunter, some might think twice about visiting Mount Horeb. Despite the mordant, self-deprecating humor on display, director André Øvredal manages to find a Cloverfield kind of horror movie inside this Norwegian mockumentary that offers audiences some real moments of dread.
Farmers near the Norwegian town of Volda have been plagued with livestock killings, and Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen) from the Nature Management ministry has been sent to investigate. Amateur documentarians from the local university in Volda, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), are on the case, too. After pursuing Haugen, the trio notices a craggy man who seems to be everywhere Haugen is. After the discovery of the corpse of a bear blamed for the attacks—not killed on the spot, as Haugen tells the media, but obviously dumped there—the filmmakers smell a rat and begin following the man as he drives his beat-up Range Rover hauling an even more beat-up trailer to his encampment.
Despite his repeated brush-offs, they follow him into a wooded area, see some bright flashes of light among the trees, and then find themselves running for their lives after Hans screams “TROLL!!!” Their quarry, Hans (Otto Jespersen), finally decides to open up about his activities by introducing them to his quarry—trolls. Warning them that following him is dangerous, he agrees to talk about his work in order to expose the scorched-earth policy the Norwegian government, and specifically the TSS (Troll Security Service), has towards trolls. The rest of the film follows Hans and the film crew as they scour the countryside in search of trolls that have broken out of their territories and pose a threat to human populations.
Trollhunter is a dead-on mockumentary that creates its own relatively believable universe within the confines of troll and hero mythology. The film crew is initially skeptical about the existence of trolls, even after Thomas is bitten by one, and, incidentally, patched up with the universally useful duct tape. They greet the sight of a huge three-headed troll that is felling trees with a mere push of its hand with jubilant amazement, while Hans tells them that two of the heads are actually growths the troll uses to attract females and scare other trolls fighting for territory; the trolls, the film tells us, are animals, not oddly shaped people, and that they have territories just like wolves or bears. They can be killed by exposure to sunlight, which turns the older ones to stone and causes younger trolls to explode. Amusingly, a forensic scientist (Urmila Berg-Domaas) explains this reaction by asserting how intolerance to Vitamin D causes the two different molecular reactions in the troll’s body. Unlike the often-preposterous science in many horror/scifi films, this explanation sounds plausible, which shows the care with which Øvredal constructed his universe, and forms one of the links in a carefully forged chain that sucks us into believing the story.
Another part of troll mythology that gets a humorous workout is their supposed connection with dark paganism. Hans asks the students if they are Christian or believe in God—if so, the trolls will be able to smell them, even if they are cloaked in the putrid “troll scent” Hans gives them to rub all over themselves. When we see one of the crew members rubbing himself furiously with scent while hiding in a cave from some mountain trolls, his terrible secret (“I’m Christian!”) is revealed. He doesn’t fare well among the mountain trolls; his replacement is a Muslim, about which the mythology makes no mention. Hans says cavalierly, “I don’t know. Let’s give it a try!” It’s a funny send-up of belief systems, but also makes us nervous about what will happen to the replacement, thus ratcheting up the suspense.
The film also makes clever use of the physical landscape to advance its story. For example, the filmmakers make note of the power grid, which Hans explains is electrified fencing for the trolls—a hilarious assertion that could feed the mind of a conspiracy theorist for weeks. Trees that have been blown down by storms become convenient props to show that a troll was in the area. After Hans turns a troll to stone with one last blast of light from his “light saber,” he blasts it to bits with some land mines; thereafter, scattered rocks take on the aura of being troll remains.
Jespersen is excellent as Norway’s only trollhunter, a solitary ex-serviceman with no real life outside of his work (perhaps because he and his trailer stink of troll from the skins he has hung inside for camouflage?). In one scene in which he tries to extract blood from a rabid troll, he wears a jerry-rigged suit of armor, looking like low-rent version of a medieval knight of myth and legend. He goes after errant trolls in workmanlike fashion, deploring one government-ordered massacre within troll territory like a worn-out, disillusioned Indian fighter in an American Western. In a brief glimpse, the crew members see Hans without his shirt, his back cross-hatched with scar tissue. Again, the story is ridiculous, but Øvredal knows how to build suspense for the horror half of his film that keeps us with him all the way.
The film crew members seem like believable college kids, excited by their adventure at the same time as they are taking their role as reporters oh so seriously. Thomas doggedly pursues Hans after he has told them to get lost, and Kalle says from behind the camera that maybe they should give up. Thomas retorts, “Would Michael Moore give up if he didn’t get the story on the first try?” Almost simultaneously, the hubby and I had the same thought: No, he’d just make up something and call it a movie. It was a funny joke for us, but I’m not sure Øvredal was going for that punchline.
The camerawork of Hallvard Bræin is absolutely brilliant. Norway’s breathtaking scenery, cascading waterfalls, atmospheric snow fields are pure eye candy in front of his steady, albeit handheld, lens. He switches to the green haze of a night-vision camera for many of the great troll effects. Every scene that contains a troll is exciting, a little funny, and seemingly real. I genuinely bought into the reality of these creatures and the danger they represented to our stalwart crew.
Still, the real villain of the piece is (of course) Finn Haugen. The more the students wonder why the public is being kept in the dark about the TSS, the more threatening he becomes. Clownishly trying to explain why a Russian bear, its tongue sticking out like a cartoon creature, was found in Norway (a hilarious bit with a Polish delivery crew that supplied the bear “under the table” has to be seen to be appreciated), he turns into a bigger danger for the camera crew than the 200-foot-tall troll they just saw Hans dispatch. The obligatory title cards at the beginning and end of the film about the circumstances under which the footage that makes up Trollhunter was found, and pleas to help authorities locate the students shown in the film, give this horror film the mock/ironic edge that makes it so biting and fun.
Nonetheless, on the off chance that trolls do roam the earth, I’m going to write to the Norwegian authorities and suggest they search in Mount Horeb.
Well, I’m back in the saddle here at Ferdy on Films after a vacation to Paris, which included a visit to that temple of cinema, the Cinémathèque Française; I got a load of their fascinating Metropolis exhibit and viewed Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921), with its German intertitles and French subtitles (!). Rod did an admirable job of paying homage to Halloween with his extraordinary run of horror film essays while I was away; I’m sure you’ll agree that no one writes about horror like Rod!
My return here today coincides with Veterans Day, a name change from Armistice Day that reflects the fact that World War I did not turn out to be the war to end war. It seems sadly naïve that the British believed they had reached such a pinnacle of civilization that they could fight one last war, triumph, and see the world attain the utopian harmony they believed the British Empire to be. In the spirit of both that naïveté and an event that would shatter it definitively, I have chosen to commemorate this holiday with a peacetime military film, Here Comes the Navy, the first of the nine pairings of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and one set on the ill-fated USS Arizona. The last time I saw the Arizona, it was under the memorial in Pearl Harbor, still spewing oil 50 years after being sunk. Seeing its impressive profile on the water, its decks alive with swabbies and officers, hit me the same way viewing the Twin Towers in older films does—with a deep pain at the purposes and costs of war.
The need for discipline and unity is one thing that Biff Martin (O’Brien), an officer on the Arizona, tries to get through to Chesty O’Connor (Cagney), a seaman second class who only joined the Navy so he could square a beef with Martin that developed on shore. Chesty is sore that Martin cut in on his dance with his girl Gladys (Dorothy Tree) at a San Pedro nightclub and punched his lights out when Chesty was distracted by Gladys yelling from a window. Gladys takes up with Biff, whom she visits on the Arizona after Chesty loses the fight, sending Chesty to the nearest recruiting station. Rather than be sent directly to the Arizona, he’s surprised to learn he must go through 90 days of basic training, where he meets his comic sidekick Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh). Both eventually are posted to the Arizona and the ongoing battle between Chesty and Biff moves into high gear as Chesty offers turnabout by “stealing” the girl Biff brings on board, actually Biff’s sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart).
It is interesting to see the development of the personae Cagney and O’Brien will slip into in picture after picture. Unlike a film like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the men aren’t boyhood friends who tragically took opposite paths in life—Cagney plays an unforgiving, unrepentant sharp who hates not only Biff, but also naval discipline and the sheeplike obedience of his shipmates. Cagney assumes the hard, sarcastic look and attitude of Tom Powers, his ice-cold character in The Public Enemy (1931), mitigating it only when interacting with the buffoonish Droopy and the classy Dorothy. Still, he gets a chance to offer some comic lines from this film’s fine screwball script, and his flirtation with Dorothy as he walks her home is classic cocksure Cagney dripping with innuendo (slapped down rather seriously when Dorothy resists his seduction after he has misunderstood the intent of her invitation to dinner at her home). His vulnerability comes out ever so slightly when his shipmates shun him for mocking the Navy, and he even gets a chance to show off his eccentric dance technique in the opening nightclub scene.
O’Brien’s halo hadn’t been gilded yet, and he plays a naval officer who brawls when off-duty and ungentlemanly steals someone else’s girl and clocks an opponent when his back is turned. His insane attempt to hold down a dirigible by hanging onto one of its guide ropes sets up a thrilling finale for the film, as Chesty slides down the rope and parachutes the two of them to a hard landing. When Chesty is given rank above O’Brien for the rescue, it doesn’t come as a big surprise; O’Brien really comes off as inept and hard to respect, signaling perhaps the differences in the real O’Brien, the party animal, and Cagney, the withdrawn, teetotaling homebody.
For me, the fascinating aspects of life on board the Arizona trumped the predictable, if nicely executed story. I enjoyed seeing the men stringing up and sleeping in hammocks, and the naval costumes had a certain retro dapperness to them. During practice maneuvers, Chesty and other seamen practice loading the big guns that move in unison to fire on enemy ships and planes. We see real explosions and learn that Chesty and his shipmates are loading burlap bags of gunpowder into the cannons, setting up a fire scene in which Chesty is injured putting the fire out. If this practice actually was standard in the Navy, it certainly was mind-bogglingly reckless!
What also intrigues are preparations for the annual Navy Day show that caps the film, a type of event that still takes place in many places as air and water shows. The film shows biplanes taking off and a dirigible being moved out of its hangar and flying to the site of the event, a reminder that military air power in 1934 was hardly well developed. I was confused by the presence of African-American sailors on the Arizona, knowing that the period between the world wars marked one of the lowest for African-American participation in the armed forces. These characters were needed to forward a plan Chesty has to get off the ship to see Dorothy by buying a liberty pass from Cookie (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), an offensively stereotypical character, prompting the only occasion I can think of in which Cagney appeared in blackface. (UPDATE: Cagney also appeared in blackface in a Four Cohans act in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) It seems unlikely that the presence of black sailors reflected reality aboard the Arizona, but something about this fantasy integration pleased me quite a bit.
Gloria Stuart, known these days only for her appearance as an ancient survivor of the Titanic in Titanic (1997), was a first-rate love interest for Cagney, holding her own with his banter and bravado and generating some interesting chemistry. I particularly liked a scene where the pair argues about Biff reporting Chesty for going AWOL. Chesty resumes his tough-as-nails veneer as he breaks it off with Dorothy, but she stands firmly, if regretfully, by her belief in doing one’s duty.
Unlike a lot of films, I thought Here Comes the Navy wrapped up its story beautifully. A running gag about Droopy needing to buy his mother some false teeth so that she can keep her job in the church choir resolves as Mother Mullins (Maude Eburne) sings “Oh Promise Me” at Chesty and Dorothy’s wedding. Mother’s offkey sincerity provides the perfect counterpoint to the scrappy partnership that was first forged between James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in this muscular comedy.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster irony, referential dot-joining, and a genuine geek’s affection for the lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the commentaries at their laziest replicated the standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often foundered on the difficulties of sustaining its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some nightmarish, yet alarming possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically.
It is more Warren’s lack of technique that drives the ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.
According to Lana Wilson in her excellent précis of the cinema of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki in Senses of Cinema, “The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job.” While Kaurismäki is still interested in such characters, with Le Havre, the first in a projected three-film series on port cities and Finland’s entry in this year’s Oscar’s race, he is definitely moving his concerns in a different direction.
Although much of its subject matter—smuggling illegal immigrants, late-stage cancer, police surveillance—is pretty serious, Le Havre, named for the French city in which it is set, is actually one seriously feel-good film. Kaurismäki has decided to give his sad-sack protagonist, an unambitious shoeshine named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a break. Although he thieves food from Claire the baker (Elina Salo) and the greengrocer (François Monnié) because he can’t pay for it, the storekeepers are fairly laissez-faire about it, and Marcel has a wonderful wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), who cares for his every need and knows how to save the money that runs like quicksilver through Marcel’s fingers. As a result, Marcel has a nice roof over his head, as does his dog Laïka, and always a few Euros generously proferred by Arletty to spend at the local tavern before dinner is served.
Dark clouds are coming Marcel’s way, however. Arletty has a sudden pain in her stomach; the doctor (Pierre Étaix) at the hospital tells her she’s a goner. Characteristically, Arletty is more worried about what will become of Marcel. She asks the doctor whether there is any hope, to which he replies that miracles do happen. “Not in my neighborhood,” is Arletty’s rueful reply. Marcel is told nothing about the seriousness of her condition, only that she will be in the hospital for a while for treatments and to stay away. The neighborhood people, knowing more about Arletty’s condition than Marcel does, sympathize with him. Claire comes by with home-cooked meals, and the barkeep Yvette (Evelyne Didi) gives him drinks on the house.
Soon, Marcel sees an African boy (Blondin Miguel) hiding in the water under a pier. The boy, Idrissa, is the only one of a group of refugees hiding in a container bound for England to escape police capture, and his case has been headline news in Le Havre ever since. Marcel buys a sandwich and bottled water and leaves them on the wooden steps of the pier for the fugitive. Soon he finds the boy hiding in Laïka’s doghouse. Marcel tries to find Idrissa’s parents and finds he can again rely on the kindness of his neighbors to help him hide the boy. He locates and visits Idrissa’s grandfather, locked up in deportation center, and learns that Idrissa’s father has been killed and his mother is established in London. Marcel determines to get Idrissa to his mother, but he will have to pay a hefty fee to the smuggler and evade the police, led by Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who has been tipped by a nosy neighbor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) where Idrissa is hiding.
I am going to quote from a fine review of an Indian film, Aadaminte Makan Abu, because it says beautifully much of what I want to say about Le Havre:
The protagonist of Aadaminte Makan Abu (Abu, the son of Adam) is, likewise, not a great soul – he does not go around committing noble deeds or inspiring people – but he’s a good soul, and that is quite enough: doors open welcomingly to him, and he never runs into a wall. Even his enemy admires him. What sort of a script is this, one may ask, that has no real conflict or resolution? It is one that demonstrates that the good are blessed with goodness.
Marcel is like this protagonist. In these “kill the poor and infirm” times, Marcel would be the butt of hostility, and the illegal immigrant he helps would be tossed to the wolves. Indeed, when Idrissa runs from the container, one of the policemen raises his rifle; he is quickly warned off this unnecessary act by a fellow officer. But Inspector Monet doesn’t care about Marcel or Idrissa facing “justice”; he wants to pursue real criminals, not people who are just trying to get by, and only intensifies his search for Idrissa under orders from the chief of police. Even then, he listens to his conscience and tells a life-giving lie.
The businesspeople in Marcel’s neighborhood don’t want a pound of Marcel’s flesh for every loaf of bread he’s stolen or cans of beans he didn’t pay for. When it comes down to it, they care more about Marcel and his cause than money—they haven’t forgotten how to be human. In contrast, Jean-Pierre Léaud looks and acts like a caricature, the real embodiment of a being who has lost his humanity and has started to look like something other than human.
In a terrific set piece, Marcel decides to hold a fundraising concert to raise the money he needs to pay the English smuggler (the Le Havre boatman only wants the price of gas). He persuades real-life singing star Little Bob (a cross between Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Billy Barty) to perform by getting Mimie (Myriam ‘Mimie’ Piazza), Little Bob’s girlfriend and muse, to make up a quarrel they had. The concert footage is very entertaining, and sent me and the hubby off to look up Little Bob’s work.
While the actors mainly maintain the sort of deadpan look and clipped line delivery characteristic of Kaurismäki’s work, the French setting seems to have warmed everyone up. The French love of love is apparent throughout the film, Blondin Miguel offers a sly performance of careless youth and a pathetic deadpan that softens all hearts toward him. He visits Arletty in the hospital and tells her she must get well because Marcel can’t manage without her. He has come to care about Marcel’s fate every bit as much as Marcel cares about his.
I don’t know if films like Le Havre are wishful thinking or a plea from filmmakers like Kaurismäki for all of us to remember our soft and generous side. Whatever the reason, a humorous but unsentimental look at goodness is something we all need more of.
Le Havre will screen Saturday, October 8, 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 9, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)
Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)
Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)
George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
Hollywood has been making comic book movies for a long time, and the pace has reached frenzied proportions in the last few years. Much of this product is watered down, mindless, and badly executed, a disappointment to fans of the comics and of films alike. Well, here’s one film made from a comic book I can unreservedly recommend, and it’s the very first animated feature of a comic book to come out of Poland. As a film, George the Hedgehog carries on in the raunchy, irreverent, edgy tradition of such classics as Fritz the Cat and television’s The PJs. Yet, the script is pure Hollywood comedy-action cinema at its best.
In a grungy underground lab, a mad scientist (Grzegorz Pawlak) is feeding American pop culture images and sounds into a computer. The scientist hopes to develop a clone that will be a surefire superstar, win him the respect of the scientific community that has scorned him, oh, and garner him fame and fortune, too. The computer runs like a slot machine through hundreds of possible models and stops on the image of a hedgehog. A hedgehog? Well, the computer can’t be wrong. The scientist sends his assistant (Jaroslaw Boberek) to find the animal and get some DNA.
As it happens, there is a hedgehog in town, a beer-guzzling, skateboarding, womanizing slacker named George (Borys Szyc). He is having an affair with the beautiful blonde Yola (Maria Peszek), who is bored with her nerdy husband but can’t divorce him because she’s Catholic. He is also set upon regularly by Stefan (Marcin Sosnowski) and Zenek (Michal Koterski), unemployed neo-Nazis who pick on him because they can’t get all the women he can.
The assistant notices Stefan and Zenek and offers them a substantial amount of money to grab some blood, saliva, and quills from the hedgehog. He also instructs them to kill George, something they are reluctant to do because he is the only target in the neighborhood they can stomp for being different. In a comic fight, George defends himself with his skateboard, but Zenek bites his ass to draw blood, and Stefan collects his drool and quills. Leaving George to lick his wounds, the pair takes their “harvest” to the scientist who drops it into a machine that whirls him out a clone of George—a vulgar moron who vomits and farts profusely and humps anything in sight. The scientist sets his scheme in motion by shooting a music video of clone George and turning his hedgehog into an Internet sensation and Polish pop hero. But the real George will have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Hypersexed animals and gross-out jokes aren’t my usual cup of tea, but when they are mixed with pointed satire and killer animation, I’m all about it. George the Hedgehog, stripped of the local and timely topical humor of the comic book, takes on bigger fish and fries them black in a way that a worldwide audience can understand. For instance, the idea that a hedgehog could be an international internet star makes perfect sense in the era of YouTube sensations Surprised Kitty (54.2 million views and counting) and Maru (11 million views for just one of his videos). In another example, a sleazy politician (Leszek Teleszynski), who on first glance reminded me very much of Mayor Richard J. Daley (with Chicago being the city with the second-largest Polish population in the world, I have to wonder if this was more than a coincidence), hitches his wagon to the hedgehog to court the youth vote and affects rapper gestures. Anyone who has watched the steady parade of politicians on Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and similar shows will recognize the tactic and, if they haven’t given it much thought, become aware that they are being marketed to, not served.
The intelligentsia get a thorough drubbing as they pontificate on a talking-heads program about the bravery of clone George’s performance art—actually surveillance camera footage of him breaking into a sex shop, puncturing with his quills the blow-up doll he starts to screw, and burning the whole place down, thus releasing anatomically correct blow-up dolls to float like fantasy helium balloons over the city. While clone George’s performance had nothing to do with art, the flying dolls are really quite beautiful.
In an interview on Badass Digest, director Wawszczyk said the animators used a cut-out style of animation, or what was pioneered by UPA in the States as limited animation. Unlike the relatively simple cartoons I’ve seen using limited animation, the complexity of the background layering and detail work on the moving figures is very intricate in George the Hedgehog, both grotesque and beautiful.
The send-ups of Hollywood films are many. For example, the showdown between George and clone George at a stadium-style rock concert plays like a cross between the climaxes of Black Sunday and Valley Girl. George’s battles with Stefan and Zenek use the same type of slo-mo found in the Matrix movies. The filmmakers are also inordinately fond of car crashes, starting with a doozy when two policewomen who recur throughout the film see George drinking a beer on a public median strip and run across a busy street to ticket him, causing a major pile-up as drivers try to avoid hitting the women.
The focus on the inconsequential, on celebrity, that had Americans in a lotus eaters’ haze through the past two or three decades has infected Poland as well, only 20 years after throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression. A truly free and anarchic soul like George exemplifies the genuine pleasures and possibilities of that new sense of freedom, but the creators of George the Hedgehog suggest that Poles are more interested in off-the-truck knock-offs.
George the Hedgehog will screen Friday, October 14, 10:45 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 10:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up after taking in some of the somber fare at this year’s festival, or if you want to add a genuinely funny satire to your DVD collection, Madame X is the movie for you. This Indonesian comedy based on a character created by its star, comedian Amink, pits a would-be transsexual hairdresser against the forces of puritanical morality, taking every cliché of the spy/superhero genre and tailoring them to the clichés of drag life. Unlike the title character of the 1966 American women’s film of the same name, this Madame X doesn’t suffer in silence—she kicks ass!
The film opens with a disheveled drag queen named Adam (Amink), her falsies popping out of her mini-dress, getting screamed at by a truck driver who found her sprawled in the bed of his truck. He calls her names and then reluctantly decides to give her a ride back to the capital city. Once inside the truck, he demands that she give him a blow job, but tosses her out when she puts a little too much tooth into it. The film flashes back to show us how she ended up in the back of the truck and sets up what will happen for the rest of the film.
Adam is working in a hair salon, celebrating her birthday, and dishing about the news blaring from the TV. Aline (Joko Anwar), a large and sassy drag queen, worships a Paris Hilton knock-off, Kinky Amalia (Shanty), who has been married 11 times in her alleged 22 years on earth; Adam, on the other hand, thinks she’s a skank and uses magic to maintain her youthful looks. She doesn’t know how right she is. Kinky and Bunda Lilas (Sarah Sechan), two wives of Dr. Storm (Marcell), the mysterious leader of a morality party, are driving around looking for a homosexual hairdresser who is celebrating a birthday; Bunda Lilas, a second-rate psychic, thinks this person is a danger to their diabolical plans. When she finds Adam, Bunda Lilas blows some animated red dust from her magic ring on Adam and her birthday cake, which looks cool and vaguely evil, but doesn’t seem to do much of anything.
When Adam, Aline, and the rest of the gang go out to celebrate her birthday at a gay disco, they are raided by the paramilitary gay-bashing organization BOGEM, and herded into the back of a truck. Aline escapes, does a victory dance in the street, and is promptly run over by a truck. Adam, infuriated, attacks her attackers and is thrown over a viaduct, which is how she landed in the bed of her rapist’s pick-up and eventually ends up in hiding at a dance studio run by former special ops fighter Uncle Rudi (Robby Tumewu) and his transsexual wife Auntie Yanje (Ria Irawan). (Note that despite the subtitles, Auntie Yanje is the only transsexual character in the film.) They teach Tari Lenggok, a martial arts dance form they invented, and Adam, learning of their secret spy operations, becomes their chosen crusader for the forces of freedom and equality when Mr. Storm and his wives kidnap the female dancers to be used as sex slaves in Thailand. Adam dons their black-leather, cone bra superhero suit, takes up their modified curling iron, blow dryer, hat pin weaponry, and becomes Madame X.
The trajectory of the plot is standard action hero stuff, circa 1965, mixed with special effects that are minimal and played for laughs, vaguely tracking with those that can be found in Big Trouble in Little China. The film is also liberally sprinkled with entertaining musical numbers that add to the enjoyment of this buoyant film. Two things make this film stand out as more than a cheap parody—the troubles it addresses are real, and its drag queens have none of the hyperflamboyant hostility found in so many American films. Gay bashing and the gay community’s fear and rebellion as depicted in the film are real; Madame X offers a positive, if lighthearted attitude to fighting the powers of conservatism. These strengths are a tribute to the writing, which provides character touches without exaggerating them, and the acting, which dignifies each character with a well-realized interpretation, no matter how cartoonish some of their behaviors may be.
The set pieces in the film are brilliantly executed without resort to 3D, CGI, casts of thousands, or any of the other extravagances of modern action films. It was a kick to watch Madame X wail on the baddies with cartoon starbursts saying POW and BAM in Indonesian. Adam’s showdown with the three wives—one played by pop singer Titi DJ is an opera star with, of course, a concussive high C—allows each of these characters to be broadly comic women, not robots who are pure evil because the script doesn’t want to deal with their humanity, arguing for dominance and jumping to their deaths in pursuit of a real crocodile designer handbag Madame X has thrown over the railing. In a hilarious scene, Adam is running on a beach when a vision of Aline rises over the horizon, illuminated with an angelic halo. The pair chitchats a bit before Aline gives the obligatory “avenge my death” order and then sinks with a quick slurp back into the sea. I can’t commend Joko Anwar enough for his comic panache in this role.
Adam is an incredibly appealing character—sweet with just a bit of sass, sincere, and for a drag queen, amazingly free of affectation. She is who she is, moving from a part-time whore for her worthless boyfriend to someone who finds the heroine within and a cause worth fighting for. Flashbacks to her childhood show her wearing a dress in the bedroom of her boyhood friend Hamar, who received a beating and an “x” marked with a machete on his chest by his homophobic father. Hamar breaks with Adam, blaming him for the abuse that will go on to warp and wreck his life. Sweetly, however, the film ends with a memory of the two youngsters sitting on a roof and enjoying each other’s company, a good feeling the film generates about the homosexual community that makes Madame X’s crusade one we hope will succeed.
Madame X will screen Wednesday, October 12, 1:45 p.m., Friday, October 14, 10:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 16, 4:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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