Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses, but Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre, and it’s as if his nerveless beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it; and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. Iñárritu’s camera aims to bind everything into a multileveled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, around rooms, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu captures the teeming, electric sense of the location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic films whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream, angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and left with a raw and mordant understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike some stalwarts of artist-meltdown portraiture like 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; the project is subordinated by force to the desire to see him win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as extra-relevant: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between serious art and adolescent fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such adolescent, but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on cliché is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better) perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965, which is indeed when the movie’s presumptions as a whole would’ve been more believable.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become a hero, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. On one level, none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness, and Riggan’s climactic gesture is meant also partly as a real solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful—except that it would actually be taken as a sign of deep mental illness, which is indeed a possible interpretation, but the very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. Of the little list of films I received, one, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), is a film I’m already familiar with, and besides Marilyn had already written it up in her inimitable fashion. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.
There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, which can sometimes make them fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. Whereas bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.
And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.
For about 15 minutes.
Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).
The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Americathon sets out to a bouncy soundtrack by the Beach Boys and quickly lays out a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979. It opens with scenes that are played for jaunty humour but that are clearly, in context, supposed to represent a mordant dystopian future: without petrol, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.
George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.
The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”
Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.
Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s reflexion of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).
Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying theme of the drama is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.
Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.
Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. This could have resulted in a black comedy of greatness. But this notion is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.
Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.
This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon, which is that is sets up some semblance of traditional plot and character arcs but fails to follow through. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.
Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.
I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.
So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.
Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.
Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.
The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.
Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.
The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.
A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.
Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.
A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.
The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.
Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.
Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.
Ghostbusters is one of those quintessential films beloved by anyone who grew up in the ’80s, and now that it’s 30 years old, sure to make all of us feel old. It’s also one of those films whose cultural familiarity partly masks what a peculiar beast it is. Dozens of films since its release have mimicked and taken cues from its atypical mix of apparently disparate genres and impulses, as it practically gave birth to the “high concept,” self-aware blockbuster. What is Ghostbusters? A horror film? A screwball farce? A send-up? A blockbuster action flick? A self-reflexive, postmodern disassembly of popular moviemaking? A wild and self-mocking jaunt from a team of semi-outsider comics who found themselves armed with all the resources of powerful insiders? All of the above?
Just whose success it is likewise remains confusing. Director Ivan Reitman handled the film well, easily standing as his best work, and the screenplay concocted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is smart and original. But the film is more distinguished by the rare and elusive chemistry of its many constituents. Perhaps the most notable follow-up success by its participants is the Ramis-directed Groundhog Day (1992), which starred fellow Ghostbusters alumnus Bill Murray and represented a clear development on Ghostbusters’ heady side. Aykroyd’s efforts to delve into the same zone of satirical black comedy with his own debut directing effort, Nothing but Trouble (1990), is a delirious mess, whilst Reitman’s follow-ups were generally so commercially crass as to beggar belief.
Ghostbusters is also its own success story, and in that regard, it’s still an eccentric, subversive experience, encouraging the audience to cheer the heroes whilst also mocking Ghostbusters‘ own marketing iconography, incorporated within a hall of mirrors in which art reflects life and commerce. The basic theme, a ragtag pack of shonky savants eagerly practising alternative capitalism surprise everyone not only by becoming successes but also by saving the world, is inseparable from the film’s background. It was made by veterans from corners of show business leagues removed from the halls of Hollywood power who nonetheless gave popular cinema an urgently needed shot in the arm. Reitman had started as a no-budget filmmaker in Canada making the comedy horror film Cannibal Girls in 1972 with Eugene Levy, an alumnus of the Toronto branch of Second City, now an improv dynasty that was born in Chicago. Murray, Akyroyd, and Ramis were likewise Second City veterans, with Murray and Aykroyd initially finding bigger fame on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Murray was vaulted to minor movie stardom when he ventured north of the border to work with Reitman on the raunchy farce Meatballs (1979), one of those cheap, inglorious little movies that made people very rich. Ramis joined Reitman and Murray for the hugely successful Stripes (1981). Meanwhile, many of the artists from “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV,” a television spinoff of Second City Toronto, gained cinematic attention in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980) made Aykroyd and costar John Belushi major comedy stars. The joining of these two streams was perhaps inevitable, but it happened only after Belushi’s tragic death forced Aykroyd and Ramis to retool the script they had written for Murray to star.
Ghostbusters harked back to traditions older than the fringe comedy scene its creators came from, however. Comedy-horror had been a hugely popular genre in the 1920s and ’30s on Broadway and in the movies, as American entertainers made light of darker European-derived fantasies. Examples include the much-filmed play The Cat and the Canary, the 1939 version of which starred comedy titan Bob Hope, who followed it up with The Ghost Breakers (1940). The suggestive similarity of that title and Ghostbusters accords with their approach to the material: taking a genre gothic chiller that unfolds in a straightforward manner with all the usual paraphernalia, but sticking a comic bumbler in the foreground to strike sparks against the material. Likewise, Akyroyd and Ramis were witty enough to take a surprisingly rich and dramatic, H.P. Lovecraftish tale and populate it with characters who are variably functional even in the real world. Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, has elements of Hope and Groucho Marx to him, whilst also belonging to a comedy type just starting to wane but that had been the backbone of American film comedy since Robert Altman’s MASH (1970): the slightly boorish, horny, bratty goofball who’s only heroic in that he hates authority and pretension, a figuration that reached its reductio ad absurdum in Belushi’s Bluto in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The Ghostbusters are, indeed, very much like the Animal House or Meatballs characters a few years older and scarcely wiser, now growing off the body of academic culture like warts, but faced finally with sink-or-swim survival in the world of ’80s yuppiedom.
Venkman is introduced engaging in an experiment that spoofs the fuzzier end of ’60s and ’70s research, including the infamous Milgram experiment, as he nominally tests two volunteers for ESP abilities, delivering electric shocks when they get an answer wrong, except, natch, that he’s only shocking the nebbish guy (Steven Tash) and pretending that all of the gorgeous blonde’s (Jennifer Runyon, who is married to Roger Corman’s nephew Todd Corman) answers are right. Venkman works in the Dept. of Paranormal Research at Columbia University, along with the more efficacious lab rats Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis). They interrupt his flirtation to drag him to the New York Public Library, where, as the pretitle sequence has shown, a mysterious entity has terrified a librarian (Alice Drummond). The trio encounter the entity, seemingly the shade of a dead librarian, but when they decide to tackle it, it morphs into a demonic grotesque that sends them running for their lives. The unexpected quality of this scene infuses the film as a whole although it never tries to top it. Venkman quips his way past supernatural manifestations (“No human being would stack books like this,” he mutters after Ray points out a pile of volumes that resemble an historically documented poltergeist incident) and then running into and then away from the spectre as something genuinely fierce and frightening, making a ploy of scaring the audience as well as the heroes, and then turning the fright into a joke.
And yet, although it quickly nullifies the power of the uncanny as a source of fright, Ghostbusters never entirely quells it as a source of lawless power. Tim Burton may well have felt encouraged to make his even odder mixture, Beetlejuice (1988), during the brief window when real weirdness was welcome in the realms of high box-office cinema. Although met back at the university by a snotty dean (Jordan Charney) who terminates their grant and evicts them from campus, the boys find their true path, as Peter encourages Ray and Egon, who have learnt from their encounter how to trap and contain a ghost, to start a ghost-catching business. By the end of the second reel, thanks to a crushing mortgage on Ray’s ancestral home, the trio have set themselves up in an old fire station in lower Manhattan (outfitted to tackle “all your paranormal investigation and elimination needs,” as their tacky TV ad puts it) and hired a wiseacre secretary, Janine (Annie Potts). The business of commercialism as the new inescapable paradigm in the go-go ’80s is a key conceit in Ghostbusters, echoing outwards into life, as the boys’ company logo is also the film’s advertising image and the idea of paranormal battle as just another home service industry gave the film’s inimitably bouncy theme tune, by Ray Parker Jr, its refrain. It feels like Aykroyd and Ramis’ cheeky way of admitting they’ve sold out the modest, DIY spirit that fuelled the old comedy scene, but doing so in the most cunning manner possible—getting busy with the ’80s special-effects blockbuster.
Murray’s act was tweaked to best effect in Ghostbusters as the closest of the trio to a romantic lead. Peter starts off as a cynical prick—the dean is right when he remarks that Peter regards science as “some sort of dodge or hustle”—but he grows up in the course of Ghostbusters without letting himself admit it nor disappointing the audience with corny reversals: rather, he contends with actual adult emotion and potential heartbreak with the same humour he offers to ghostly slobs and incidental aggravations. Venkman’s smart-ass smirk communicates his inability to care about the things everyone else cares about, and where Bob Hope’s heroes were hilariously craven, Venkman alternates between egocentric, on-the-make douchebaggery and an underlying attitude of careless disdain for reality, which makes him the ideal man to wade into battles with otherworldly entities, extradimensional deities, and possessed girlfriends, because they only strike him as being as weird as the petty authoritarians and “normal” people strewn in his path.
Ray and Egon, by contrast, are more traditionally nerdy, Ray rather boyishly earnest whilst Egon, with a jutting crown of Eraserhead hair, brings a quality of haughty, Euro-tinted cyberpunk cool to the team, seemingly the most serious of the trio, but also, as Peter’s anecdote about him trying to drill a hole in his head indicates, the most bizarre. Ramis is the film’s richest alternative to Murray for throwaway humour, given to grimly hilarious exhortations (“I think that could be unbelievably dangerous.”) to too-late warnings (“Don’t cross the streams.”) to esoteric interests (“I collect spores, moulds, and fungus.”). One reason, I think, why kids liked the characters so much, even as a lot of the humour and the concepts of the film went over our heads, lay in the essential boyishness of the Ghostbusters, especially their disdain for both “parent” figures like priggish EPA snoop Walter Peck (William Atherton) and for property. Their efforts to extricate a poltergeist from a ritzy hotel causes more damage than the spirit ever could, evoking the Marx Brothers destroying a place to save it; Venkman takes his chance on the old whip-the-tablecloth-off-the-set-table stunt just for the hell of it. There’s a flavour of Aykroyd’s writing on The Blues Brothers, as he sent his asocial heroes crashing through shopping malls and annihilating great swathes of consumerist folderol.
The hotel manager sniffs at paying the ridiculous bill Venkman hands him for their services, but, of course, the threat of releasing the monster again is all it takes to gain submission. The boys’ victory here is their first, though the hotel only represents their second client, after concert cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who reports the startling appearance of demons uttering the name of an ancient Sumerian god in her refrigerator. Dana’s intrusion into the lives of the Ghostbusters prods Venkman to mature, albeit it unwillingly and with customary insouciance, as he tries to impress a woman not at all impressed by his smug shtick (“You seem more like a game show host,” she says in comparing him to other scientists) but who enjoys his energy and ironic charm. Unbeknownst to all, Dana and her neighbour in the building, accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), have, because of their addresses, been chosen by mysterious forces to become the “Gatekeeper” and “Keymaster.” The sexual innuendo isn’t subtle and yet the layering of the humour is, as the film signals understanding of the erotic underpinnings of much symbolism in the horror genre, but doesn’t overplay this epiphany. Instead, it’s married to a style of comedy practiced by most of the cast in other venues, one based on well-observed social types. The garrulous, dorky, socially malformed Louis, who is Dana’s excessively attentive neighbour (and also constantly locks himself out of his own apartment) finds his ticket to getting it on with Dana as the Keymaster, albeit after being possessed by a dog-monster.
Louis’ party, to which he invites Dana, is one of the film’s quieter comic coups, as he raves to the gathered about throwing the bash “for clients instead of friends” so he can claim it as a business expense, shouts out the details of his guest’s financial problems, hurls coats carelessly out onto the balcony, and dances to disco (in that grey zone between when it was cool and when it became retro hip) with a buxom blonde, before the demon sent to claim him crashes in through the window. The film’s half-cynical, half-affectionate feel for New York emerges properly in the following scenes, as Louis flees the monster, only to be caught by it before a restaurant full of snooty diners, who momentarily pay attention to his desperate cries for help before turning back to their meals. Then the now-possessed Louis screams incoherently about obscure apocalypses before being picked up by the cops and taken to be interviewed by a cautiously fascinated Egon, where he unleashes an enthusiastic monologue about the grim fates that befell previous worlds that became victims of his overlord Gozer. Whereas Louis’ possession is played for comedy, Dana’s returns to a note of genuine weirdness, as, preparing for a date with Peter, she sees something terrible straining at the door to her kitchen. Monstrous arms sprout out of her chair to grip her and drag her to the beast.
One element of Ghostbusters I particularly admire today is the way it creates its own functional, peculiarly straight-faced mythology and tropes (e.g., the eternally intriguing “Tobin’s Spirit Guide”), and plays the character-based comedy out with against that background, only combining the two occasionally for judicious effect, particularly in the finale in the eventual form Gozer takes. There’s youthful indulgence and cleverness to the details of their Ghostbusting business, from the fire pole they slide down to leap into action, to their jazzed-up station wagon dubbed Ecto 1, like a down-market, second-hand Batmobile. The script profitably avoids mere supernaturalism as it takes the boys’ pseudo-science interests literally, presenting the ghostly outbreak as the result of an “interdimensional cross-rip.” The fantastic dimensions then breaks into the “real” world via a portal created for it by the mythical, insane architect and surgeon Ivor Sandor, a wonderfully Lovecraftian detail. It also reconfigures the basic plot of the stultifyingly bad The Sentinel (1976) and capitalises much more successfully than that film did on the notion of uptown glamour colliding with infernal underworlds; as with Cristina Raines’ heroine there, Dana is the quintessential classy lady confronted with eruptions of the uncontrollable and terrifying. The possessed Dana is transformed into a randy, transgender minx swathed in gossamer red, like the girl in a dance club you most regret going home with, levitating and finally driving Venkman to the most unusually disturbed and unguarded request to “please come down.” Weaver, hitherto best known for Alien (1979), got to revise her image and her career here.
Reitman’s sense of style is also unusually sleek, especially during the richly composed sequence in which the Ghostbusters’ ghostly horde, released by Peck in his determination to establish the pecking order, escapes their building in a thunderous light show and terrorise the city. The streams of ectoplasmic energy all converge on Dana’s building to the strains of Mick Smiley’s marvellously odd synth-pop epic “Magic,” as if the whole affair is some extraordinary new-wave art installation gone horribly right. Similarly good is an earlier montage sequence that portrays the Ghostbusters riding to fame and success whilst plying their trade, extending the film’s jokey, but incisive incorporation of modern celebrity as a reality unto itself. The boys’ adventures are reported by Larry King and Casey Kasem, and their images are plastered all over magazines, Egon’s ingenious, but dangerous proton-accelerating, ghost-busting packs shown off in the same fashion as the latest model iPhone.
Much of the film’s visual strength might be laid at the door of the high-class contributions of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and special-effects maestro Richard Edlund. Kovacs’ look for the film, sleek yet richly grained and filled with earthy hues, manages to combine a sense of urban grit with groves of romance and bizarreness, seeking out signs of an antique, even fantastic world coexisting with the decay and bustle. Emblematic of this approach are the stone lions outside the public library that prefigure the gargoyles in which Gozer’s demons slumber and the atmosphere of an older New York, represented by old quipsters lurking in hotel lobbies, encoded in the old panelling of the hotel and the art deco interior of Dana’s building.
The grounded feel in a time and place, as well as humour and characterisation, holds the movie together as it charges into zones of special-effects spectacle and informs its final, celebratory air as a hymn to rowdy all-American energy. The Ghostbusters have since gained an extra recruit, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), a blue-collar black dude who is no PhD, but gives the team their link to the ordinary world around them with his adaptable good-humour (in response to a series of woolly-minded questions on the application questionnaire, like “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”, he replies, “As long as there’s a steady pay cheque in it, I believe anything you say.”) and workaday attitude to utter insanity. Winston’s addition exacerbates the Ghostbusters as a gallery of types and increases their Dumas-esque cache as the three musketeers become four. He also provides the film with one of its most textured moments, the kind of moment that lifts the film to a much higher level than it might have, as he prods Ray about religious beliefs; he is the first to make the link between the exploding demand for their services with an oncoming event of “biblical proportions.” Although Atherton’s performance is effective (to an extent that made him a go-to guy for playing slick creeps), the conflict with Peck is easily the film’s most canned element. It bespeaks an irritatingly regulation ’80s contempt for bureaucrats in general and the EPA in specific, and exists chiefly to justify a plot point—the release of the captive ghosts, and a little pay-off for the guys when the Mayor (David Margulies), forced to rely on the Ghostbusters to save his city, has him bundled off, a pivot from their early humiliations.
The finale of Ghostbusters is almost unique in managing to proffer big, special-effects-enabled showmanship whilst maintaining its style of humour, refusing to devolve or divert tonally even as Zuul and Gozer finally arrive, whilst sustaining a self-mocking approach to its own blockbuster pretensions. The crowds hail the team’s arrival at the site of battle just like the viewing audience, and then Reitman cuts to the boys laboriously climbing up the stairs within Sandor’s building. Aptly, Zuul manifests as the most alien and threatening thing a team of ’80s working stiffs could imagine—an imperiously cocaine-chic, Eurotrash fashion model. Seeming to have stepped out of some particularly wacky Vanity Fair cover shoot, she asks the team if they’re gods, which, of course, they patently are not, not even by mere New York standards. She then tries to kill them with bolts of lightning, sparking Winston’s most inimitable advice, “If somebody asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!” Zuul’s otherworldly palace is a glorious Bauhaus hallucination of the swank nightspot you’re not cool enough or rich enough to get into. Gozer, smartly, is a total reversal, as the boys are bidden to choose the form their destroyer will take, and Ray, unable to make his mind a blank to avoid making a choice, chooses the most harmless, childish emblem he can, resulting in a 200-foot-tall advertising mascot, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, stomping his way in Godzilla-like glory down Broadway. This touch could have tilted the film towards silliness, and yet it works perfectly, as it both combines and crowns the twinned streams of plot and comedy.
Of course, even faced with imminent apocalypse, the boys’ ingenuity isn’t exhausted, and they step up to the challenge of shutting Gozer’s portal at the near-inevitable cost of their lives with a last show of stoic grace that’s quite moving in an almost throwaway fashion without losing the qualities that define them: “I love this plan, and I’m excited to be a part of it!” Peter cries with both genuine bravado and purest sarcasm. And that’s the deepest, most admirable quality of Ghostbusters, that it keeps its wit and humanity in focus even in the most absurd and extreme of circumstances.
If anyone is interested in seeing films that successfully take on the male Jewish persona the Coens have been pursuing humorlessly in their recent films, A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), check out the works of Paul Mazursky. A Brooklyn Jew who changed his first name (Irwin), went to Hollywood, and has spent his career toggling between directing and acting, Mazursky has reflected the times he has lived through in his eight decades of life while maintaining a surprisingly consistent worldview. For Mazursky the screenwriter and director, the world is a disorienting place; his films are filled with people trying to find themselves both physically, following displacement (Harry and Tonto ), and spiritually (Tempest ). His debut feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) starts in group therapy, moves inexorably to a fumbled foursome, and ends in a parking lot with the title characters staring at each other, still searching for answers.
Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story, made exactly 20 years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, isn’t concerned with parodying the free love/therapy of the ’60s that Mazursky clearly saw through, but it could be considered something of a prequel. Set exactly 20 years before Bob & Carol, Enemies also involves a foursome of sorts, with Polish Jew Herman Broder (Ron Silver) running frantically on the outer edge of his wheel of fortune between three women—his first wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston), returned to him miraculously after eyewitness accounts of her execution at the hands of the Nazis; his second wife Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), the Broders’ Catholic servant who hid Herman during the war; and Masha (Lena Olin), the concentration camp survivor whose edgy passion and longing for death have Herman helplessly entwined in a torrid affair.
Like Bob & Carol, this film opens with a therapeutic echo—a dream in which Herman is peering down from a hayloft as German soldiers drag Yadwiga into the barn where he is holed up and beat her to get his hiding place out of her. After Herman awakens from this nightmare in a cold sweat in his Brooklyn apartment, the endless fleeing from his past and himself begins. After rejecting the breakfast simple, trusting Yadwiga has made for him (“your favorite!”), he tells her he will be making a sales trip to Philadelphia to visit some booksellers. Instead, he goes to his real job with Rabbi Lembeck (Alan King), for whom he ghostwrites and does translations of religious texts, avoiding questions about where the rabbi can contact him, and then dashes off to Masha, who lives with her mother (Judith Malina). The three visit for a bit, and then Masha and Herman retreat to her bedroom for the intense sex they both crave as a salve for their battered souls.
Herman is a man who owes his survival in part to his ability to lie and evade. The truth of his life becomes unavoidable, however, when he comes face to face with Tamara, a woman who knew him well before the war and therefore represents someone to whom he cannot lie successfully. Tamara said she came to see Herman out of curiosity and has no interest in resuming their life together. To her question he confesses that of course he has a mistress—he’s married after all. When Tamara learns he married Yadwiga out of gratitude, she replies drolly, “Couldn’t you have found some other way to thank her?”
The truth is that Herman needs someone to look after him, and the literally servile Yadwiga fits the bill. When Yadwiga decides to become a Jew so that she can bear his children, she increases the demands on a man whose existential position is described in the game “Wooden Leg.” A woman with the presence of mind to crawl out of a trench of dead bodies after being shot and survive could certainly teach him something about perseverence, but Tamara becomes something like a Greek chorus to Herman’s fracturing life, watching him make the mistakes to which his character is prone and finally offering to become his life manager when she sees him falling down the rabbit hole.
We expect to feel sympathy for Holocaust survivors, but the genius of novelist Singer, as faithfully translated by Mazursky, is that he created no typical Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust is an important aspect of each life, but it is not the whole of that life. Herman lived in mortal fear during the war years and lost his beloved children, whose picture Mazursky movingly shows Silver kiss tenderly, yet he is the man he was born to be—a weak-willed shlemiel. His “enemy,” as Tamara calls her, is Masha, a strong-willed woman who wants Herman to marry her but who actually lives for her mother. Had she never had a number tattooed on her arm, she would still have the sexual charisma that makes all men fall under her spell, from Rabbi Lembeck to her estranged husband, played by Mazursky himself. Her death wish only amplifies her innate animal magnetism, a characteristic the actress who plays her has in abundance, but she only gets Herman to marry her in a Jewish ceremony when she says she is pregnant. I never once believed she was actually pregnant; her frequent references to already being dead suggested to me that she would never be able to harbor life.
Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. The curses Herman’s women throw at him as he turns tail and runs have a bit of the Menahem-Mendl/Sheineh-Sheindl bickering to them, and Yadwiga’s burlesque of terror at seeing a ghost when Tamara comes to the apartment suggests Golde’s superstitious nature when Tevye the Milkman relates his manufactured nightmare to her. Mazursky even brings a bit of modern amusement to Herman and Masha’s trip to a Catskills resort, with loud-speaker announcements and fitness classes and other activities happening simultaneously on the grounds that have a whiff of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) about them. There is something cartoonish about Herman; when we see him in the subway looking at the signs that direct travelers to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each of which contains one of Herman’s women, it’s hard not to imagine Elmer Fudd at a crossroads with contradictory signs directing him to Bugs Bunny’s burrow. The period setting rendered in a soft sepia tone also conjures a certain distance and unreality, the neon lights of Coney Island just a bit too bright and cartoonish.
Ultimately, Herman is overwhelmed by those he sought out in his neediness and his longing for oblivion, if not annihilation. Having impregnated Yadwiga, he flees from both her and Masha, a woman he said he could not live without, when she suggests a double-suicide in the wake of her mother’s death. Herman, clueless about himself and caught like a fly in a web of pain, never understands any of it. He’s as hopelessly bourgeois as any Mazursky character, sending money to Yadwiga in an unsigned card every week as he evades reality once again. And while Herman isn’t innocent, he is far from guilty of anything but being himself.
My thanks to Amy Brown for asking for a review of this film and for being an enthusiastic Ferdy on Films reader.
Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Music recording artists wielding computer software that can make just about any sound known and unknown to humankind, labour now to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.
Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the era in which the movie is set via a technological conduit that, even at that time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.
Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.
The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.
The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.
Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.
Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.
Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.
For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.
Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.
Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).
Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude that sometimes seems aimed at ghettoising filmmakers who try to do as much as they can with limited production resources. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.
The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline prods Peter with appeals to expand his mind and range of experience from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his hilariously self-congratulatory chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.
Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”
Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for cash to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.
Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.
Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.
One of the things I love most about much of Czech cinema is its joyously subversive attitude toward life. When my Czech dentist told me that when efforts to remove a Soviet tank from a square in Prague were going nowhere—the Czechs took it down, the Soviets put it back, and so forth—some Czechs finally laid the matter to rest by painting it pink, too big an embarrassment to the Soviets to let stand. How very Czech! Thus, when I heard a grand master of the Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel, would have a film at this year’s CIFF, I couldn’t wait to see it.
The last time Menzel showed at the CIFF, it was with his film I Served the King of England (2006), a surprisingly buoyant sex farce set before, during, and a bit after the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was apparent then that Menzel has a prodigious appreciation of the female of the species, his love and joy of women apparent even in the darker sequences portraying the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In I Served, the main protagonist is a small, horny man, almost a pet to the prostitutes he beds and whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers. In The Don Juans, Menzel lightly tarnishes the innocence of sex he previously celebrated. His central character and occasional first-person narrator, Vítec (Jan Hartl), is a small-town opera director who claims (falsely) to hate opera and who beds as many sopranos as he can get his hands on.
His company is filled with regional singers of varying levels of skill, most of whom have businesses or jobs on the side. For his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he brings in Jakub (Martin Huba), an aged lyric bass of some renown, to play Don Pedro, the man who condemns Don Giovanni to burn in hell. Jakub was also a Don Juan in his day, and his return to the Czech Republic after a successful career in the United States brings him face to face with a former lover from some 40 years in the past, the eccentric Markétka (Libuse Safránková), whom he impregnated and abandoned. Through Markétka and an ego-deflating soprano (Marie Málková) who tells him that his good luck with women is directly related to what he can do for their careers, Vítec becomes a wiser, if not entirely repentant man.
The Don Juans is a broad comedy with a wealth of sight gags. For example, as Vítec tells us about his lust for sopranos, we get a series of quick-cut images of women’s faces as they hit a high note while laying on his bed, the affirmation of his sexual prowess, at least in his mind. Markétka finds herself in police custody twice, first following a swat team raid on a 250-year-old opera house where she has trespassed with a group of children to stage a children’s opera, and second, after she has driven off with a car being used in a robbery to prevent the theft and crashed it into a butcher shop. Both scenes are played for antic humor, as the heavily armed police watch a long stream of children pour out of the theatre door, and as the hapless woman who doesn’t know how to drive barrels through the streets, all four doors wide open and slamming into objects along the way. Markétka is a delightful character whose reminiscences of Jakub, her greatest love, are dewy and bright, but who is rueful about how such Don Juans leave a trail of tearful women in their wake.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Vítec has inspired such heartbreak in his women. They all pass through his bed and into his shower, where he presents them with a basketful of unopened toothbrushes, unabashed about how many one-night stands he has. None of them seem jealous, confirming that he is a means to an end and nothing more. Vítec’s character takes on the lightest of shades when he comes into Markétka’s orbit; it was his car that was stolen to use in the robbery, and he comes to the police station to meet the woman who wrecked it and sort out the property damages. He learns her story, meets the 40-year-old daughter, 20-year-old granddaughter, and 6-year-old great-granddaughter who emanated from her affair with Jakub, and works to bring them together, a brief encounter that will end for the sick, feeble Jakub as it did for Don Giovanni, in death.
I found the performers enchanting right down to their toes. Safránková plays her part with a combination of ditzy abandon and calculation. Her reverence for the old opera house, learning to work its ancient scenery-changer and introducing Vítec to the glory of the past, seems fitting for a film about an anachronistic art form that in the newly capitalist Czech Republic will be defunded to pursue more lucrative enterprises, like a casino or hockey rink. Yet, the opera company members are moving into the future in much the same way as the rest of the country. Málková is a hard-looking punk rocker, but with her glorious voice, she bumps the less-gifted Alenka (Anna Klamo) from the part as Donna Anna, even though Alenka slept with Vítec to get her diminutive husband (Jiří Hájek) the starring role. Another singer runs a travel agency, taking calls on her cellphone during rehearsals and performances. Still another sleeps her way to wealth, providing the wedding in the final scene that Vítec says is essential to a successful story.
The Don Juans is a lovely film to look at and a generally joyful romp overflowing with gags. Its examination of the cruelty of womanizers is light as air, but still makes its point to some degree. The film is a bit disjointed, favoring comedy over coherence, particularly in delineating the separate stories of Vítec and Markétka until they merge. As Don Giovanni is my favorite Mozart opera, I reveled in the music that liberally scores the film, but the obvious dubbing was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, I found myself grinning through much of the picture, levitating on the luscious images, generally spot-on humor, and always engaging Czech sensibility. This is a fluffy effort, to be sure, but one that is a pleasure from start to finish.
The Don Juans screens Saturday, October 19, 1:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)
Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)
Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
One of the reasons a middle class was allowed to grow in capitalist societies like the United States and Britain during the 20th century was to combat burgeoning socialist movements to prevent the spread of communism. If the financial burgers could have seen how big a failure communism was as an economic and social system, they might have saved themselves the 30 years they’ve spent dismantling an equitable society. Melaza, a Cuban film that got past the censors because they were blind to the irony of the scenes “celebrating” the triumphs of the revolution, is a fascinating look inside a society dedicated to leveling the playing field for all, but managing instead simply to flatten most of its people. Beyond economics, however, is one of the most heartfelt love stories I’ve ever seen, one that seems to want to believe that love conquers all, even as it shows that we often have no control over the little lives most of us would like to go about in peace.
The film opens with sunshine and a light breeze blowing through a field of sugar cane. The camera slowly shifts to a rusting, empty factory where a couple are making love on a mattress laid out on the factory floor. The scene shifts to the pair carrying the mattress out of the way and walking through the cane fields to a small metal shack. Mónica (Yuliet Cruz) and Aldo (Armando Miguel Gómez) live together in the shack with Mónica’s mother (Ana Gloria Buduén) and 13-year-old daughter (Carolina Márquez) by a man who ran out on them. We don’t know if they’re married, but it is obvious throughout the film that they are very much in love. They are also very hard pressed to make a living.
Mónica worked at the sugar processing factory, empty for more than a year due to government restructuring, and Aldo was a swimming instructor. She still dresses smartly for work every day, punches her time card, inspects the equipment, and phones in her report of how many machines are still working to a central office. Aldo has his charges lay on chairs in the emptied swimming pool and teaches them various strokes; afterward, he gives them language lessons in front of the locked school. Neither of them get paid, but they hope that when the factory opens again—a promise the government makes nearly daily through radio broadcasts—the jobs will return and they will be the first in line to be rehired.
Economic privation is on the minds of people throughout the world, and filmmakers are reflecting their times. What makes Melaza so vital is not the seriousness and timeliness of its subject, but rather its extraordinary look at how a particular set of people react to the ruin of their way of life. Mónica and Aldo are determined to stay together, and they find some ingenious ways to keep food on the table. For example, the family periodically vacates the house for Mónica’s friend, Yamilé, a prostitute (Yaité Ruiz) who pays them to use it when she has a client. But, the government is swift to undermine this mutually beneficial arrangement—the police raid the house and fine the family for renting without a permit. Later, Aldo starts selling black-market meat, a crime that could garner him 10 years in prison. The collectivism of communist Cuba doesn’t care about entrepreneurial prostitution or other service-industry work, but try to get into their rackets—housing and the food supply—and watch out.
The hapless routines of government functions—grocery stores that are bare of stock, air-dropped propaganda that most of the villagers don’t even bother to pick up and distribute (Mónica drags a bundle to the factory from time to time to keep up appearances), a loudspeaker-equipped car traveling the village to encourage workers to come to a rally against capitalism—act like mosquitoes that buzz in the background. Some people, those with businesses and the money to pay off officials, live quite luxuriously, and the contrast is quite jarring.
What is real is the love that binds Aldo and Mónica. She tries to prevent him from selling meat in Havana because she doesn’t want him to go away or get arrested, but he does the even more risky thing of selling it in the village. Mónica prostitutes herself exactly once, and when she tells Aldo, we see them standing across from each other, the front door of the house between them like a giant wedge. Yet the next scene is of the two of them in the bathtub, with Aldo gently washing her. Cruz and Gómez have amazing chemistry and form the beating heart at the center of this beautifully shot, languorous film.
Melaza has many amusing, very particular moments. Mónica’s daughter, who has become an obese, sulky child since her father left, is shown pushing her grandmother in her wheelchair as the old lady tries to sell homemade donuts in the street. Aldo is shown trudging a chalkboard from the school, through the cane fields, to the house where his five-peso English class garners not a single student. Yamilé and Mónica have a very warm friendship, and I loved the way both women conspired and dressed, exactly communicating their personalities with their choices.
The surprising humor and joie de vivre of the film speaks volumes about human resilience and the pleasures of just being alive, no matter what hardships there may be. The film ends with the called-for rally, which attracts about 20 people with nothing better to do. Musicians play, the ralliers jump up and down to the music, and Aldo, Mónica, and her daughter gradually join in. The sun and breeze bless the cane fields, and another propaganda bundle drops from the sky. Like the film’s title, which means “molasses,” movement is slow, but the bittersweet life of the village goes on.
Melaza screens Friday, October 18, 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, October 20, 6:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Director Carlos Lechuga and Producer Claudia Calviño are scheduled to attend both screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)
Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
The ’00s are already starting to feel like a long time ago. The first decade of the new millennium, an age of gorging excess for a select number which ended up in a giant socioeconomic car crash from which we’re still recovering, is going to look ever stranger for people as they look back on the time—its naked money worship, the War on Terror hysteria, the gaping voids of thought and substance all too ably recorded for posterity by reality TV, and the new internet-fuelled super-pop culture. Just lately, I’ve started to get the feeling that filmmakers, particularly those from the independent scenes, have become canaries in the cultural mines the way poets used to be, registering changes in the zeitgeist with a peculiar speed that is perhaps indicative of how much quicker cinema production can be today and how much more engaged filmmakers are with the evolving social discourse. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring throws its mind and mood back to around 2008-9, when the bogus rhetoric of “aspiration” as justification for incredible greed and new forms of social exclusion was both at its height and about to meet the cold reality of boom-bust cycles, which here comes in the form an even more immediate, pitiless wake-up call.
The Bling Ring adapts a real incident, via a Vanity Fair article that was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a jaunty title that identifies the brand-name-emblazoned mindset of the criminal gang whose activities comprise a weird mixture of delinquency and absurdity. A group of teenage friends, all children of affluence and times of plenty, engaged in a string of comically easy robberies of the houses of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, filching money, jewellery, and clothes. This allowed them to hit the L.A. highlife, where everybody’s a wannabe, with impudent élan. Fox famously has a freely quoted line from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies,” a jab in the original context at the kinds of well-dressed empty vessels who flock around the flames of power. The Bling Ring could be the butterflies, or they could be the laughers.
This crime wave is sparked by Asian-American high schooler Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), who sees nothing wrong with stealing cash from parked cars and random houses in prosperous suburbs, even jacking a Porsche with blithe confidence. The ring begins to take shape when she ventures into Hilton’s manse when her pal Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) finds out online that she’s out of town. Marc, gay, dowdy, and awkward, is socially adopted by Rebecca when, like her, he’s forced to attend a public school after being kicked out of a private one. Rebecca offers Marc the chance to make glamorous associations and become a cool kid, as she’s friends with would-be model and fashionista Nicki Moore (Emma Watson). Nicky is enthused about the idea of stealing, and she brings her pal Chloe (Claire Julien), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) into the ring.
After returning to Hilton’s house multiple times, the ring begins to branch out and target other celebrities’ houses, after Marc does his quick research on the net to make sure when they’re away. Sam’s boyfriend Rob (Carlos Miranda) joins them on some raids, whilst Chloe and Marc sell some of Orlando Bloom’s Rolex watches to Chloe’s boyfriend, sleazy nightclub manager Ricky (Gavin Rossdale). Emily joins the gang when they need someone small to slide through Fox’s dog door. Their raids on Hilton’s house go undetected for a long time, because the owner leaves the keys under the welcome mat and they resist stealing any major items. Later, when robbing the house of TV host Audrina Patridge, they’re caught on camera as shadowy invaders. Their crimes become an open secret amongst the people they know and the scenes where they hang out, and they even display their exploits on social media. Finally, they’re rounded up and prosecuted after Rebecca, fleeing from tension at home to live with her father in Las Vegas, unwittingly makes Marc her accomplice in taking stolen goods over state lines.
Fragments of interviews taking place in the future with the ring, particularly Marc, give some context and perspective. Marc’s shift from teenage dirtbag to budding fabulousness is glimpsed in casually employed shots of him hovering before his webcam wearing lipstick and lounging about in a pair of stolen pumps, offering the only real signs of traditional character growth and identification, and a mischievous understanding of the protean forces at work for such a person. But Coppola really only gives us these bones because Marc is the gateway. Otherwise, the Bling Ring members are shallow, deliberately so. There’s little point in listening to them talk, because they talk crap; they’re well versed in brand names and designers but empty of other concerns. They’re pretty average young people, actually, save for the circumstances of their youth as citizens of L.A. and therefore faced with constant proximity to the promise of the high life in an imperial capital. Watching The Bling Ring, I had an insight into the way “we” morally respond to movies, via an element that has haunted Coppola with particular doggedness since her directing career began—that she’s a spoilt rich girl making films about same. Her perspective on the rapacious abyss that certain aspects of capitalist triumphalism conceal has become plainer and less generous since the playfully sardonic Marie Antoinette (2006) was infamously jeered at Cannes for making the link between modern consumerism and imperial downfall not just bitingly plain, but genuinely funny. The Bling Ring, whilst dealing with immediate, almost ripped-from-the-headlines fare, is certainly a thematic follow-up.
Coppola’s emotionally immediate, but conceptually slightly laboured Somewhere (2010) indicated that she had listened to her critics on one level, and adopted a more distanced and elusive take on the “white people problems” she was portraying, but in a manner that felt hackneyed on some levels. The Bling Ring benefits from both intimate knowledge of what she speaks and also definite, ironic amusement, delivering her least conventional narrative yet, shorn of many external complications and dramatic niceties. The film received a largely admiring but cool reception, and part of me began to wonder as I watched it if this wasn’t due to how successfully ambiguous is Coppola’s stance towards her teenage anti-Robin Hoods. The Bling Ringers engage in criminal acts according to sketchy, but carefully hinted personal needs and desires that are channelled into an official, overarching project of socioeconomic parasitism. If they were doing what they were doing for, say, the reasons that the rich-kid anarchists of this year’s The East do what they do, or rebelling or bringing down their idols with any purpose, or even acting out lodes of emotional disquiet that can’t be repressed by affluent suburban conformity a la Rebel Without a Cause (1955), they would immediately become heroes for the audience—naughty, nonviolent Dadaists making a mockery of wealth and fame and the pretences to possessors of such to exceptionalism, finding keys under the doormat to multimillion-dollar mansions and paltry security defending the castles of the new elite.
But the Bling Ringers remain well beyond the easy empathy of the audience because they seem, at least superficially, to be moving like baleen whales, sucking in both their sustenance and other people’s property thoughtlessly on a kind of emotional-moral autopilot. Not that they’re amoral or even particularly mean-spirited, though there are flashes of such qualities, especially when the temptation to posture according to the pop culture stricture toward ironclad egocentrism, arises. In just about the film’s only scene of traditional tension, Sam takes hold of a pistol Nicki finds in a house and waves it in Marc’s face, shifting into a movie-derived attitude of untouchable self-righteousness and threatening cool, and there’s momentary uncertainty of just how far Sam wants to take the act, if it is an act. She then sneaks into Rob’s bedroom to do the same thing with him, only for the gun to go off, luckily only putting a hole in his mattress.
Rebecca’s early larcenous behaviour seems the more familiar behaviour of a troubled teen, but it swiftly transforms into a much less common project. The ring tend to believe, not without some justification, that the world of the rich and famous is a smorgasbord from which they can partake without consequence, because everyone has plenty, and they’re entitled to a piece of it. Rebecca, for example, hopes to be a successful fashion designer—nay, intends and expects it—but in the meantime, finds that many of the privileges and perks of the level to which she wants to be elevated can be more easily obtained simply by stealing them. When the ring raid Patridge’s house, Coppola’s camera notes it all in a slow, inward-zooming longshot, framing the glowing house against the L.A. skyline like some temple of money, touching this and other midnight odysseys with a near-religious awe. There is an added layer here in that the camera also mimics the vantage of a CCTV camera, and the film segues into eerily green-tinged surveillance shots that turn what from a distance seemed to be a cubist delight of space and light into a trap.
For Marc, in particular, these ventures offers the chance to invent himself free of social judgment. The ring engage in acts that look and feel quite anarchic, illicit, and subversive, but only accidentally: their actual desire and intent is to enjoy the lifestyle without any concept of critiquing it or subverting it as class rebels. From a distance, and even pretty close up, they’re vacuous rich kids getting off on being naughty. Coppola’s already made withering mirth from a particular species of Hollywood dipstick—Anna Faris’ starlet Kelly—in Lost in Translation (2003), but here the likeable, witty audience avatars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson provided are missing; even a figure like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, who was suffocating in an empty existence, has been excised. The closest thing to a substantive adult presence in The Bling Ring is Nicki’s mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), who home-schools Nicki and her sisters in deliciously, deliriously Californian New Age fashion, complete with prayer circles in which vaguely religious bromides-cum-pep talks are delivered. Laurie, far from a countervailing presence, is the film’s purest vehicle of satirical humour: when one of her home-schooling sessions is glimpsed, she holds up a handmade chart festooned with pictures of Angelina Jolie as an example of an inspiring role model, except that when she prods the girls why they might admire her, Sam suggests, “Her husband.” Other parents do appear, but they’re mostly onlookers, dissociated from their children’s lives. Marc has a father who’s “in the biz” as a film marketer. Jessica’s broken home seems to have played a part in her blithely larcenous behaviour. But Coppola avoids as much as possible making a cautionary tale of wild amoral teens with ignorant parents, like every teen crime flick going back to the Ed Wood-scribed The Violent Years (1956) and including another of this year’s films, the lauded but laboured Spring Breakers, which stands at a fascinatingly fantastical remove from The Bling Ring. Spring Breakers offers a (middle-aged, male, “edgy”) filmmaker’s take on a similar motif of teen girls becoming criminals for profit and fun, except that everything in it is made to circle back to the filmmaker’s sexual fetishism of their actions—just like The Violent Years.
In The Bling Ring, Coppola tries to avoid as many clichéd stances as possible. Rather than give us a malefic sense of things spinning out of control as the Ringers indulge in cocaine-charged nightclub partying, she makes them dreamily beautiful. There’s an implicit link to her The Virgin Suicides (1999) even as it seems to be making a directly opposite point. Whereas in the earlier film, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ pseudo-mythopoeic novel, the young women were innocent nymphs wilting from being caged by outdated moralism, here the girls are unscrupulous sexpots free both to mimic and exemplify immediate cultural maxims of louche self-indulgence. What unites them, however, is Coppola’s manner of shooting them, daubed in rich light and colour and vibrating to furiously onanistic club beats, in a style that makes clear that the fresh bloom of youth is a fleeting moment of protean wonder. Of course the Bling Ringers want to get high, dance, and be rich, such are pretty normal impulses, and when they’re gyrating, however they’ve bought it, they are, like everyone else, rejoicing in the moment of their youth. Laurie does, accidentally almost, introduce one important idea to The Bling Ring when she advises her children, “We have to be really careful who we surround ourselves with, because we wind up being the average of those people.” Nicki later tries to use this as her out when justice comes knocking, trying to blame the company she’s kept for getting involved with crime, but finally being convicted for just that reason, indicted by her own propensities.
The Bling Ring, as a title, has ironic inferences: “bling,” of course, is probably the most popular phrase to emerge from hip-hop slang (and it comes, in turn, from comic book representation, a kind of visual onomatopoeia that could easily be projected onto Coppola’s colourful, epic surveys of jewels and designer shoes without making them anymore cartoonish). The ring, especially when Jo finds that gun, almost manage to live up to a peculiar schism that underlies a lot of contemporary pop culture: the rejoicing of flashy wealth coexisting with trashier values of physical strength and fitness, pistol-packing invulnerability, and posse-trailing imperiousness that also comes from hip-hop and represents a driving force behind the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean are a couple of pop musicians who had made notable inquiries into this spirit lately. Del Ray’s upper-class jeune filles delighting in becoming concubines to blaxploitation villains could represent the fantasy lives of the ring, whilst Ocean’s druggy “Super Rich Kids” turns up, almost inevitably, over the end credits. The ring don’t physically hurt anyone, because they’re actually all wusses, and their criminal success occurs only because the people they’re targeting don’t believe criminals would dare rob them. Indeed, the culturally ingrained barriers, the aura of awe and distance that surrounds the modern media celebrity as the new aristocracy, is more effective than CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, a barrier that only a gang of kids from the same world would dare violate. Of course, many of the pleasures the ring derive from their actions are eminently, classically criminal: they can live beyond their means after brief spells of risky work, feel important and illicitly clever, and enjoy the notoriety their transgressions earn them.
It’s entirely apt that the ring’s first and repeated target is Paris Hilton, an ideal celebrity of a new brand of aristocracy famous for absolutely nothing other than being rich and telegenic enough to profitably show it off, whose house is revealed as a distressing trap of narcissism and tawdriness, complete with at-home pole dancing parlour (a common motif of Coppola’s fascination/repulsion for the modern highlife). Hilton, unlike the Bling Ring themselves, seems to know that she’s an interloper without talent whose only trick is the willingness to turn her entire existence into an act of pop art—or she’s completely blind to her own existence. The cleverest aspect of Coppola’s narrative patterning, though it’s one that contributes to the film’s slightly imbalanced quality, is that she largely reduces the middle hour to a flow of instant gratification: little small talk, minimal character development, just a series of criminal forays that offer the illicit thrills of exploration, like a sort of pirate edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the payoff of hard partying and private delight in shiny things. Coppola makes the audience complicit in their adventures, offering racks of designer goods for the eye-dazzling pleasure of plenty, and the repetitive acts of incursion, theft, and escape.
When the cops do come knocking, there’s an obvious affinity again with Coppola’s earlier work, this time with the climax of Marie Antoinette when the revolution calls: paradise lost, lives ruined, and the plenty that came so easily suddenly, cruelly severed. Rebecca tries to fake her way through a police interview, confident she’s disposed of all the booty after Marc called to warn her of their impending arrival, but her smug smile disappears when they turn up items she’d forgotten. Nicki screams with panicky despair as she’s handcuffed and hauled away. Marc is branded as a rat by the media, because after being arrested, he carelessly told the cops about his accomplices. But once arrested and indicted, Nicki treats it all like an audition as she tries to decide on the perfect outfit for a court date, and the infamy their arrest brings them is registered by Nicki only as the fame she’s always planned for. She’s interviewed for the Vanity Fair profile, fending off her mother’s goofily agreeable attempts to interject and add details, irritated that Leslie keeps trying to get in on her media moment. The law, historically arranged to powerfully favour property owners and now carefully tailored to the needs of modern consumerist society, falls upon the kids with such heaviness that they become exactly what they would never seem to be: martyrs for the sake of offended people of wealth. Concluding shots of Marc being hustled away with other orange-jumpsuited convicts, strike a surprising note of melancholy, the awareness that the fun and games have ruined lives, and the slightly bitter volte face that notes that a bunch of dumb kids have been hit with the full force of law.
Given the quality of The Bling Ring, it’s hard to admit, but also certain that the film doesn’t always sustain its best ideas: the observational sharpness that defines Nicki, Marc and Laurie doesn’t touch the other characters. Coppola’s last two films bear signs that she’s trying annex aspects of the more aloof, pseudo-objective filmmaking that art house figures have leavened in the past decade or so. But this affectation works against her own best qualities as the Molière of San Fernando, capable of both smiling as a ruthless satirist but also offering expansive empathy and cinematic expressivity. Nonetheless, to a great extent, Coppola’s decision to pare back standard dramatic development helps emphasize the film’s sociological qualities, the precise sense of how aspects of modern youth culture are branded; thus character is expressed through the accumulation of affectations rather than actual personality.
Broussard, Chang, and Farmiga are excellently naturalistic, whilst Watson leaves behind Hermione Granger here in playing the most polar opposite temperament her age bracket could offer, giving a convincing performance as a merrily vain moon unit. If the last sight of Marc suggests surprising tragedy, Nicki, bound to emerge from every situation as the winner because she’s been programmed to, rounds off the film with unsurprising gall. She’s last seen being interviewed about her arduous 30 days in prison, relieved by the fact that the girls’ idol and robbery target, Lindsay Lohan, was in the same boat, and leaves off with a plug for her website, NickiMooreForever.com.
Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.
Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).
Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.
Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.
The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.
Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.
For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.
The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.
MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.
An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.
The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.
Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).
De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.
De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.
De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.
De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.
The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.
One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.
Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.
Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.
The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.
De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.
But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.
So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.
Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.
The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.
For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.
Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.
The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.
In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.
It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.
Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.
One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing 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 pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence 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, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, 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 although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. 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 achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.
Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:
At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.
The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.
The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”
From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.
City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.
The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.
One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.
And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.
City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans(1927), the real city lights.
The night after Election Day 2012, the Northwest Chicago Film Society came up with a topical screening that was the perfect way to end a brutal election season—the campaign-centered musical confection Thanks a Million. Written with exceeding wit by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dick Powell at his most adorable, Thanks a Million was exactly the balm this classic movie fan needed to shake off the anxiety of recent weeks.
The plot for Thanks a Million is simplicity itself. A traveling troupe of unemployed performers alights from a bus in “New Town,” where they are faced with a two-hour layover before they can catch their connecting bus to New York. Some of the troupe head into the town hall to get out of a torrential rain and witness the “Commonwealth” candidate for governor, Judge A. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn), lull the audience to sleep with his uninspired rhetoric. Troupe leader Ned Lyman (Fred Allen) meets with the party chiefs and offers his performers as the paid entertainment at Culliman’s election rallies to encourage voters to attend. The scheme is successful, but when Eric Land (Powell) wows the first audience with his singing, he is fired for pulling focus from Candidate Culliman. But when he saves the day by speaking in place of the drunk candidate at what was to be Land’s last rally, the election committee persuades Land to run for governor instead. The rest of the film chronicles his candidacy.
Like many a musical comedy whose first purpose is to entertain, Thanks a Million offers huge helpings of gags, songs, and dance. Powell, of course, made his mark in the fairly plotless extravaganzas produced by Warner Bros. earlier in the decade. As Eric Land, he outgrows his male ingénue type and takes on a more mature and far more sexy persona as he carries on a romance with dancer Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak) and simultaneously plays along with the amorous Mrs. Kruger (Margaret Irving), the wife of the party chairman (Alan Dinehart). The suggestion that he and Sally share a bed at the end of the evening and that Mrs. Kruger has arranged an adulterous liaison with him don’t seem to have bothered the post-Code Hays Office. Powell doesn’t forget to romance the movie audience either, as his sparkling close-ups are dotted with suggestive winks that must have thrilled his adoring fans, and boy, does he look good in a double-breasted suit!
Musical interludes include the singing/dancing sister act of Sally and Phoebe (Patsy Kelly), who don’t get much time to show either their terpsichore or acting skills. But they are a lot of fun to watch, and their blousy 30s clothing is a hoot. The Yacht Club Boys (James V. Kern, Charles Adler, George Kelly, and Billy Mann) get a couple of chances to harmonize, again with director Del Ruth favoring inviting close-ups. A gag involving Paul Whiteman and his band in which the “New Town” bus driver (Herbert Ashley) tries to drown out Lyman reading aloud (“I can’t hear myself read!”) using the radio broadcast of their music is broadened to a live concert of Whiteman, his orchestra, and featured singer Ramona playing for the opposition party. In this case, fighting musical fire with fire does the incumbent governor (Charles Richman) no good, but it’s fun to listen to Ramona’s 30s jazz phrasing of “New O’leans.” Violinist Rubinoff must have had a very good agent, because he gets a lot of screen time, including a gag performance where he pokes the bus driver with his bow repeatedly as he plays; far from amusing me, he had me frantic about the bus crashing in the driving rain.
The revelation of the film is radio star Fred Allen in his first movie role. I have heard his various shows many times on a local nostalgia radio show, but this was the first time I got a chance to see him in action. An early gag about his initial skepticism about the future of radio, which would have had a 1935 audience splitting their sides in laughter, was lost on our audience, but nothing else about his genius comic timing or acting abilities could escape notice. He delivers a fully realized character, making the most of the clever dialogue Johnson provided. For example, he signals his character’s relative poverty by referring to his cheap suit: “The last time I got this suit wet, the vest disappeared.” His confidence in the deal he struck—tearing up the bus tickets to New York—seems somehow justified by his bearing and rock-steady relationship with wisecracking Phoebe. I was more than thrilled to see him hold this loose cavalcade together and but for Powell and a very funny supporting turn by Walburn, Allen would have walked off with the picture.
In the only overt political statement in the film, Land eventually reveals the patronage appointments he was directed to make after the election and asks voters to choose Gov. Wildman. After a crazy car chase that sees Land try to outrun more than 100 motorcycle cops in a dizzying process shot, the now governor-elect is delivered to a rousing victory celebration for him and his party, which has morphed into the Square Deal Party (an allusion to the Democrats) despite the original candidate looking all the world like the wealthy banker in the game “Monopoly.” It would be churlish to complain about the confused politics, however, as no real-life political horse race would ever be as painlessly entertaining as Thanks a Million. If you’ve not been as lucky as we were to see what appeared to be a virgin print from the Twentieth Century-Fox vault, talk to your local art house about booking it. This film is just too enjoyable to stay locked in the dark.
There’s one thing that people rarely talk about and yet is vital in our lives: dreaming. I don’t mean night dreams, but daydreams. They are man’s best companion, wonders of existence.
French director Leos Carax said the above in an interview about his 1999 film Pola X, the film he made eight years after completing his self-described “variation on the least original theme possible: boy meets girl”—The Lovers on the Bridge. In truth, it’s hard to imagine a more original version of that formula, with its gritty, hallucinatory visions and hard-luck, abusively passionate lovers living on Paris’ famous Pont Neuf. Now here we are again, wondering where Leos Carax has been for the 13 years since Pola X premiered. Frankly, I don’t care. In fact, I wish more directors would go away and come back only when they have something they feel compelled to express, particularly if the results are as explosive and stunning as Carax’s new film Holy Motors.
The opening quote is very pertinent to the “plot” of Holy Motors. The film plays like a series of short stories tied together by one character, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob) to various parts of Paris in a white limousine to act out a wide variety of roles. These roles are the active daydreams of their orchestrator, Carax, crafting found objects from his experiences into both ordinary and extraordinary moments. Indeed, the most extreme of his daydreams, one involving the abduction of a high-fashion model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise Cemetery by Lavant as a demented leprechaun strongly reminded me of the daydreams Sally Potter had as she tried to write a murder mystery involving a dwarf and some Paris fashion models in her film The Tango Lesson (1997). If Carax did, in fact, crib the idea—and I have no way of knowing whether he did—it is only fair and proper for any dreamer to recycle material for his own purposes.
Despite the plethora of hit films with convoluted plots that sometimes go nowhere—for example, the inane summer blockbuster Inception (2010)—I imagine a lot of moviegoers will feel frustrated by Holy Motors. You see, it doesn’t exist to be a brain teaser you can use to smartly assert your own powers of reason and deduction. From the very beginning, Carax signals he is presenting his own dream material—he has a man go into an airport hotel room, pull the drapes, and then enter a grand movie theater through a chink in the wall where an audience is watching a film projected on a screen. Now that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? But who is the man? Why is he in the airport hotel? Where is he going when he checks out? Who gives a damn! His “real” life couldn’t possibly be more interesting or exciting than the dream life Carax has given him and us.
Of course, Carax immediately plays with our initial plot expectations by showing us Monsieur Oscar exiting an enormous, gated mansion with the farewell shouts of his children seeing him down the winding driveway. His bodyguards follow him in a black sedan as he walks to the white stretch limo and greets Céline, who tells him the information for his nine appointments that day are in place for him to peruse. He makes all kinds of captain of industry noises into his cellphone as he looks at the first folder. Then we see him shift to the side of the limo we haven’t been allowed to see. A theatrical make-up mirror and racks of costumes and props stand at the ready as Monsieur Oscar begins his transformation into an old beggar woman. The limo stops below a bridge, and the disguised Oscar stands on the bridge, his bodyguards near at hand, and begs for money. When he returns to the limo, his bodyguards largely disappear from the scene as he makes his rounds, with stops that include working in a motion-capture studio, assassinating a prominent businessman, scolding “his” teenage daughter, and saying good-bye to “his” beloved niece while lying on his deathbed.
Oscar even has an interlude where he meets Jean (Kylie Minogue), someone he seems to have a past with who also travels Paris in a white limo acting out roles. So is there a real Monsieur Oscar? A real Jean? When they finish their appointments, all of the play actors end up not necessarily where they started the day, and the drivers return to the Holy Motors garage. Céline dons a mask that suggests the role the actress who plays her had in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, and leaves. When all the lights are out, the two dozen or so white limos parked in the garage blink their lights and carry on a conversation about their eventual obsolescence as the size of machines keeps shrinking.
So what can we glean from the various parts of this rollercoaster adventure? Carax reveals some of his own thoughts about his world. He speaks with someone who might be his employer (Michel Piccoli) who wonders about Oscar’s waning interest in the job because he fears there is no longer a “beholder” to view his creations, Oscar says he keeps on “for the beauty of the act.” This is the essence of the pure artist—art for art’s sake. He deplores the shift from the large cameras of filmmaking days gone by, wondering how anyone can even see the tiny digital cameras used today, a sentiment about the miniature, yet all-powerful machines we have all come to rely upon. Not a Luddite, rather a connoisseur of the industrial design of the past, he also finds extraordinary beauty in motion-capture technology, as Lavant in a black body suit and the incredibly flexible Reda Oumouzoune in a red body suit simulate the elegant contortions of oral sex and coitus as their movements are transformed into writhing, animated dragons on a screen above them.
By contrast, the sexiness of the fashion model kidnapped by Lavant in his Monsieur Merde persona (from Carax’s contribution to the 2008 trilogy film Tokyo!) is subverted by the feral midget. After he has escaped to his underground lair through the Paris sewers, he rips cloth from her diaphanous gown and turns it into a burqua, stripping naked himself to curl up in her lap. Perhaps the wild man who seems a huge danger—hilariously, he bites off the fingers of the photographer’s assistant who seems to think she can make him part of the shoot—really only wants a mother’s nonthreatening love. Have we been all wrong about male aggressiveness and female objectification?
Many moments in this film are hilarious. Besides the shockingly funny finger-biting moment, the deathbed scene ends with uncle lifting “his” niece’s (Elise Lhomeau) head as he gets out of bed to go to his next appointment. Their polite, perfunctory pleasantries and farewells make the artifice of an already melodramatic scene irresistibly funny. I found the interlude between a loving working-class father and his teenage daughter to be quite touching, particularly since the girl is played by Carax’s own daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax. When Lavant discovers the girl has lied about her experience of a party and the whereabouts of her friend, he orders her out of the car. It’s not as frightful as all that, as they are in front of their own apartment building. The anticipated punishment is not what she expects—he merely tells her that she will have to live with herself the rest of her life. While this sounds like a lily-livered parent getting out of being a disciplinarian, the effect is a lasting indictment of her character, of all of us who lie and misrepresent ourselves.
We can take these little postcard messages from the film, but the main pleasure is simply in the watching. Holy Motors is mirthful, rueful, beautiful, ugly, miraculously original while still feeling quite familiar, particularly to cinephiles, and already has the earmarks of a modern film classic. It and its star, Denis Lavant, were the richly deserving winners of the top prizes at the Chicago International Film Festival. Bravo, Monsieur Carax, bravo!
Night Across the Street: Raul Rúiz’s last completed film is a surreal and frequently comic float through the memories of a man who is ending his work life with the feeling that death is stalking him. (Chile)
The Scapegoat: New adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel in which a schoolteacher impersonates an arrogant aristocrat and has a warming effect on his dysfunctional family. (UK)
Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet:A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of talent in art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele), provided a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by a leading critic’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces which can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it is about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes an initial pitch to Weiss, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”), draws the beefy, volcanic Weiss in to listen eagerly to tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness. Dolores moves through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabit the realm of farce.
Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi, a façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was. But considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone, for better or worse, into the image they create for themselves, such diminution is understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.
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 preserve his precarious existence.
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!