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Director/Screenwriter: James Schmaus
By Marilyn Ferdinand
By most accounts, Philip Roth’s 29th novel, Indignation (2008), is one of his weaker efforts. Still in the mold of his slightly autobiographical musings starring his fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, this tale gains inspiration from Roth’s move from an all-Jewish section of Newark, N.J., to the small town of Lewisburg, Pa., to get his undergraduate education at Bucknell University in the early 1950s. Indignation shares other Roth obsessions, including fraught family relationships and sex.
Veteran film producer and cofounder and former Focus Films CEO James Schmaus may have been attracted to Indignation for his directorial debut because of his own background. Schmaus has a PhD in English and teaches at Columbia University in New York. Adapting one of the great American novelists of our time and cribbing from his own knowledge of academia, Schmaus has lent a precise and knowing touch to Roth’s world while doing what many a successful producer has done—taken a minor book and turned it into a decent film.
The film opens with several American soldiers hiding in a building as the sounds of war surround them. They run when some Asian soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles enter their hideout to kill or be killed. A voiceover muses about tracing one’s steps through the many decisions, both large and small, that bring one to a critical moment in time. The scene shifts to Newark and centers on the Messners—Marcus (Logan Lerman), his father Max (Danny Burstein), and his mother Esther (Linda Emond).
The film spends a goodly amount of time showing the Jewish enclave where only-child Marcus lives. Marcus works hard at his father’s butcher shop, waiting on customers and patiently holding a pair of chickens by their feet for a middle-age woman to inspect. He relishes the chicken liver and onion dinner his mother serves. He also attends the funeral of a neighborhood boy who was killed in Korea. This event unnerves his father, who lost family during World War II, perhaps in the Holocaust—we’re never told for sure. Mr. Messner starts to hover over Marcus, looking all over town for him when he goes to the movies with his friends. Fortunately, Marcus’ stellar academic record secures him a place at Ohio-based Winesburg College and with it, a deferment from the draft and an escape from the increasingly bizarre behavior of his father.
One of Messner’s customers wonders, horrified, how Marcus will keep kosher in a place like Ohio. The obvious answer is that he won’t. Here Roth seems to air his disaffection with some members of the Jewish community who condemned him as an anti-Semite following the publication of his early short story “Defender of the Faith.” Marcus is an avowed atheist who apparently sees no contradiction in taking scholarship money from his synagogue. He also shuns an invitation to rush the only Jewish fraternity on campus, though the college has bunched him with two Jewish roommates.
His most typical, upwardly mobile, Rothian move is to pursue a prototypical blonde shiksa named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a Mt. Holyoke transfer and daughter of a prominent physician, whose bare leg draped over a chair in the library distracts Marcus so much that he must stay up until 3 a.m. doing the work he ignored while staring at it. As Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “My contempt for what they believe in is more than neutralized by my adoration of the way they look, the way they move and laugh and speak.” His contempt and, ironically, his Jewishness will have severe consequences.
This film has every cliché in the book about Jews, but once Marcus hits Ohio, Schmaus has Lerman underplay Marcus’ ethnicity. He attends the required chapel sessions with his roommates Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron (Philip Ettinger) without alarm and even eats the very treife escargot on his first date with Olivia. Following dinner, Olivia guides Marcus to a secluded location to give him a blow job. For traditional Jewish boys, having premarital sex is the equivalent of getting engaged, so Marcus’ confused amazement about this turn of events is more understandable in that context, not as the strange intellectual exercise he shares with a thoroughly disgusted Ron. That Marcus takes a swing at Ron for calling Olivia a slut and requests a new dorm room does not erase his muzzled reaction to her.
Another cliché that pops its head out, but to greater effect, is Marcus’ intellectual prowess. In a brilliant scene, Marcus takes on Mr. Caudwell (Tracy Letts), dean of men, who has called Marcus to his office to discuss why he is switching dorm rooms. The seeming concern of the dean fools Marcus not in the least, as he accurately assesses the interview as a veiled inquisition to discover if Marcus is a chronic malcontent and subversive. Marcus’ propensity for rabbinic argument extends to minutiae when he burrows into Caudwell’s description of his father as a kosher butcher, saying that he never used the word “kosher” on his college application. He further objects to attending chapel, baiting Caudwell to refer to his Jewish heritage and then trumping him by declaring himself an atheist and adherent of philosopher Bertrand Russell, a socialist he defends to Caudwell as a Nobel laureate. This scene is a master class in sparring with words, of the intellectual discourse of polar opposites that has all but vanished from popular culture—and perhaps a paean to the life of the mind from Schmaus at a particularly stupid time in history.
At the same time, it shows the powerful danger into which Marcus has placed himself. Keeping a low profile and going along to get along simply isn’t his style, and again, I can’t help but think that Roth wanted to show the world that Jews are courageous, even though Marcus has avoided military service like any good Jewish intellectual. In the end, it is not Caudwell who is the ultimate enemy, but rather sex. Of course. Just like Ralphie and his Red Ryder bb gun, Marcus was bound to shoot his eye out by having sex, and this point is made in a too-on-the-nose fashion by having Marcus dream about kissing Olivia while they are both wearing bloody aprons. Schmaus maintains the secret of Marcus’ downfall in a genuinely shocking and sensitive way, however, allowing him to question whether he is a victim of random events or fate as he picks over his choices and actions with a fine-tooth comb.
There are some fine performances in Indignation, with Letts a particular standout and possible Oscar contender as exactly the kind of cagey, cruel martinet who oversees the petty squabbles academia is heir to, absolute conviction in his rightness as his guiding principle. Emond makes the most of her one big scene in which she pours out her frustration with her husband to Marcus and then makes him promise to break off with Olivia, not because she’s a gentile but because she’s emotionally damaged and will drag him down. I also liked Ben Rosenfield as Marcus’ gay roommate, filling his clichéd role as a theatre major with a crush on Marcus with genuine enthusiasm, and sadness when Marcus decides to move out.
Lerman does a nice job of playing an emotionally contained young man. He projects a real intensity at times, while maintaining a mild demeanor and fresh-faced openness during his early days at Winesburg. Gadon, however, remains a bit of a cipher. She doesn’t seem emotionally troubled, though it seems we were meant to think that her sexual aggression was a sign of disturbance; later clues, like a scar on her wrist, seem like throwaways. Reviews of the book suggest that Roth’s characterizations were weak and sketchy, a handicap Schmaus doesn’t entirely overcome. Nonetheless, he directs his cast well and captures an authentic feeling for the time, aided by a richly evocative, occasionally mournful color palette by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and Amy Roth’s costumes, which the actors inhabit with perfect ease. This one’s well worth your time.
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Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.
The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?
The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.
Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.
Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.
The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.
Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.
Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.
Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.
One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:
1) The frequent use of minor chords
2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended
3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements
4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)
5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease
6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines
7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds
8) Latin accents
In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.
Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.
Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.
In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.
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Director: Alan J. Pakula
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I pick through the daily helpings of mainstream-media-bashing, liberal- and conservative-bias-shaming and all the other pleasantries that instantly greet all the news that’s fit to tweet, I find myself longing for some remnant of truth, justice, and the American Way the way I used to know. I find one bright spot in the journalism conducted under the auspices of First Look, a self-described “new-model media company devoted to supporting independent voices” that coproduced the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades-long sexual abuse of children by scores of priests and the Boston Archdiocese’s attempts to cover it up. As you can imagine, movies about heroic journalists are rare as hen’s teeth these days, so whatever the merits of Spotlight—and I can argue that it has many—its appearance and relatively high profile at a time when lies and propaganda are degrading freedoms throughout the world are a blessing and a balm to me.
The newspaper movie, however, has had a long run in motion pictures, chronicling both the cynicism that characterized the early years of yellow journalism (Chicago ), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. ) and harmful (Try and Get Me! [aka The Sound of Fury, 1950]). The inherent drama of headline news provides filmmakers with a constant supply of riveting material that offers audiences more bang for their buck for being at least partially true.
Arguably the most acclaimed and enduring of newspaper movies is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then reporters for the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting on the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. , revealed a vast dirty-tricks conspiracy that eventually ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I remember very fondly volunteering at my local PBS station to answer phones and take pledges during its rebroadcasts of the 319 hours of U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings, shown and aired live on the three major networks and NPR beginning May 17, 1973. An estimated 85 percent of the American public watched or listened to at least part of the hearings, and many people called in to express their thanks to PBS for giving them access to information about which they cared deeply. I don’t remember a single caller who attacked the effort, phoned in a bomb or death threat, or called me or PBS functionaries libtards. A lot of young people may not understand why “–gate” is appended to most public scandals these days, but for my generation, the Watergate scandal left a permanent mark and continues to reverberate, as extremists double-down to secure the power and national prestige lost following Nixon’s disgrace.
Just as Watergate changed the American political landscape, so, too, did Pakula’s film spread its influence far beyond the newspaper or political thriller. On TV, there has been a steady succession of small cells of true believers trying to right wrongs and uncover truths by any means necessary (“The X-Files,” “Person of Interest,” “Leverage,” “Burn Notice”). On the big screen, John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does a pretty good job of recreating the conspiracies and meticulous fact-finding of President’s Men in a western setting, and director Shane Carruth said his knockout scifi film Primer (2004) was directly influenced by the newspaper drama. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) not only continues that director’s themes of outsiders combating power, but also appears to take inspiration from Pakula’s vision of a depopulated maze of streets and buildings that look, precomputer age, ever so much like Blackhat’s opening volley of digital circuitry. I might even go so far as to say that many of the superhero/comic book films would be nowhere without their “origin story”—newspaper funnies—and their focus on the courage of a few against the oppressions of the powerful.
All the President’s Men is, too, a product and exemplar of its time. The 1970s witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of American film culture, with more realistic, director-driven movies that mixed spectacle, elegance, and old-fashioned star power with a raw immediacy and violence for audiences weaned on the televised Vietnam War who wanted their entertainment to draw blood. Pakula avoids histrionics, but amps up the tension of his film, borrowing from Antonioni’s urban alienation and George Romero’s paranoia to paint a portrait of ultimate power as both dangerous and deeply stupid.
The opening sequence, the break-in itself, offers us a voyeuristic thrill reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tableau in Rear Window (1954), but more for stroking our own egos at observing how hopelessly inept the burglars were in planning their crime—drab men in ugly clothes duct-taping a door catch open and rifling through offices awash in light and open windows. Their tracks are detected easily by a lone security guard, who handily dispatches police to catch the burglars in the act. The only thing about this sordid event that catches Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s (Jack Warden) attention is that the bust-in occurred at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Reford) is dispatched to attend the arraignment.
The burglary might have been buried for good inside the pages of the Post had Woodward not chatted up a white-shoe attorney (Nicolas Coster) observing the public defenders assigned to the case. The five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James McCord, Jr., all testify to having ties to the CIA. The trail starts to warm up as former CIA worker and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, work into the chain of events. The National Desk starts angling to take over the story, and Metro reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) worms his way onto the investigation by doctoring Woodward’s copy as soon as he turns it over to the copy desk. This scene—Bernstein’s underhanded, but skillful assistance and Woodward’s forthright approach in calling him on it—sets up the bad cop/good cop routine “Woodstein” will marshall when trying to get information out of reluctant informants.
Pakula offers the dynamics of the competitive news business as the pair watch the New York Times covering similar ground and finding new leads. Bernstein flies to Miami to follow up a NYT-prompted lead that payoffs from the Committee to Reelect the President were made to the Watergate burglars, waiting all day for Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney’s office, to show him a check written to one of the burglars. The scene shows the dodged determination of Bernstein to reach his goal, including making a phony call to Dardis’ honey-tongued watchdog (Polly Holliday) to get her off her guard station in front of Dardis’ office.
Pakula uses a sort of Shakespearean construction of deep drama alternating with comic moments to keep the audience on a rollercoaster of tension and release, an effective strategy for a story whose momentous outcome was known years before. Foremost is the character of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), now known to be W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI at the time of the break-in. He had been an occasional deep background source to Woodward and kept him on track with Watergate, meeting with him in a parking garage to talk. The archetype of the oracle is an ancient one, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ shadowy underlair suggests a plot born from Hell, pulling the film out of the everyday and marking it with mythic dimensions. Holbrook’s Deep Throat gives up his secrets grudgingly, dismissing Woodward with vague aphorisms like “follow the money” to avoid more pointed information that would lead to some deep damnation or other. Eventually, he reveals that lives are at risk, giving Pakula an opportunity to release audience tension by shooting Woodward rather comically whiplashing around to look over his shoulder as he walks away.
Pakula will raise and lower tensions again as Bernstein interviews a frightened bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) who oversaw payments to the network of dirty tricksters taking orders from Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The scene is an understated cat-and-mouse game, beginning with the bookkeeper standing behind a prisonlike banister in a corner of a room and moving to a different corner, this time created by Bernstein and her own desire to tell the truth. Bernstein approaches her as though she were a coiled cobra, moving slowly to “refresh” his memory with his notebook and accepting her offers of coffee. The scene ends in antic merriment when Bernstein goes to Woodward’s apartment with his notes after consuming 20 cups of coffee from his six-hour marathon interview.
Spotlight took a clear inspiration from President’s Men in its depiction of churches as part of the Boston landscape through which the Globe reporters pounded the pavement. Here, there are numerous shots of Woodward and Bernstein driving past the White House, the endpoint of their inquiry, though they didn’t know it from the start. Willis favors high overhead shots to emphasize the informational maze through which the heroes must travel. One famous shot shows the pair in the mandala that is the Library of Congress, rifling through stacks of library slips. Willis also likes long shots of the wide-open city room, often nearly empty, as though to emphasize the egalitarian and transparent nature of news reporting. In retrospect, it also emphasizes how reporters were always out in the community and how news-gathering has shifted today to online research conducted in remote fashion.
Of particular note is the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design, which emphasizes a strong, muscular, determined group of professionals plying their trade with machines whose metal keys punch ink onto paper. It’s a distinctive and percussive sound, and emphasizes why I find so annoying the anemic, plastic clicking of the computer keyboards that have taken over from the typewriters and teletype machines in life—and especially in the movies. Coins ring into pay phones, telephone dials spin and click, stereo knobs click on and off—there are a whole range of sounds that are nearly lost to us today that make a more direct connection between the characters and their actions, and that immediacy also quickens the heart of the moviegoer.
So, too, does the thoroughness of the reporters. Today, lies are reported more routinely that facts in some circles—we live in an age of the gossip rag—but corner-cutting was not Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s style. Jason Robards, as Bradlee, tells his reporters that their verifications (at least two) feel thin, he checks their desire to run with what they’ve got. It’s no good if it isn’t true, can’t be proven to be true. Predictably, one of their stories brings a denial from a high-profile source—even though the facts are right, the circumstances of their discovery were not reported properly—and a dramatic dressing-down from Bradlee. Can you imagine that happening today?
Hoffman and Redford are iconic in these roles, but they really did seem born to play these men. Scrappy, energetic Hoffman channels just a bit of his Ratso Rizzo sleaze from Midnight Cowboy (1969), marrying it to ambition and the good sense to let Woodward take the high ground when needed. Redford has us on his side all the way, his blond good looks and low-pressure style encouraging people to volunteer information they initially refused to divulge. A vast supporting cast keeps the film moving in a dizzying, but never incoherent way. One performance of note is Robert Walden as Donald Segretti, a “ratfucker,” that is, a dirty-tricks purveyor who was, no doubt, the idol of the king of the ratfuckers, Lee Atwater. I found his story of giving up on a law career for something more lucrative and, to him, the equivalent of moral mischief, an interesting and always timely one. Walden would go on to play a wily Bernsteinesque reporter teamed with a sensitive Woodwardlike journalist in the TV series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), another great work that must have owed its very existence to All the President’s Men.
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Director: Ben Wheatley
By Roderick Heath
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.
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Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During an interview about her recent appearance on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson said that for actresses, the character of Blanche DuBois is the equivalent of King Lear for actors—the most demanding of roles. Vivien Leigh, who put an indelible stamp on the role in the 1951 movie version, said Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” Ann-Margret, who played Blanche in a 1984 television movie version, acknowledged it as the hardest role of her career, commenting rather drolly: “I play a character who is a nymphomaniac, an alcoholic, and a psychotic. It’s not a musical.”
A musical it certainly is not. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the bleakest, most primal works ever created, pits the illusory world of a desperate, half-crazed Southern belle against the brutal reality of a modern-day caveman in the heat-drenched squalor of a New Orleans slum. And yet it teems with a kind of music—the lyrical dialog of Williams, the great modern poet of the stage descended from a grand Tennessee family as reduced in circumstances in the 20th century as the fictional DuBois clan that spun Blanche and her sister Stella out as its tired, last remains.
Streetcar is my favorite play, one I’ve seen several times on stage and in two film productions—the famous Oscar-winning prestige picture from Warner Bros. and a made-for-TV production that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. The former earned its lead actress, Vivien Leigh, an Oscar, and the latter garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination. Comparison may be beside the point, as it is, I believe, the text itself that indelibly brands everyone who comes to Streetcar for the first time and colors their view of the best interpretation. Nonetheless, although many people may think I’m crazy to class a TV movie with a film made by the mighty Elia Kazan and starring two bonafide movie stars—as uneven a boxing card, they may think, as that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois—Ann-Margret, Treat Williams and their director, John Erman, more than hold their own.
Little is different in the set design and costuming from one version to the other, though the TV version eliminates the wrought-iron elegance from the Kowalskis’ apartment building, helping to identify it more properly as a tenement. A basic, but not insignificant, difference between the two productions is that the earlier one is shot in black-and-white and the later in color. Harry Stradling, a cinematographer whose career began in the silent era and who could shoot anything from musicals (Easter Parade , My Fair Lady ) to high drama (Suspicion , A Face in the Crowd ), opens Kazan’s film in a bustling train terminal that tees off a gritty, restless style that has more than a hint of Manhattan to it. Bill Butler, whose major claim to fame is lensing Jaws (1975), shot the color Streetcar with a gauzy, nostalgic look that opens with Blanche’s sun-dappled trip through the genteel Garden District and gradually dims as she moves into the heart of darkness that is Elysian Fields, the rough quarter where Stella and Stanley live. There is a languid, moist quality to the look that suggests the damp heat of a New Orleans summer and more closely matches the action and dialog indicated in the script.
Both films take liberties with the script. Both are shortened, but choose different elements to eliminate. Importantly, Williams collaborated on the Kazan screenplay with Oscar Saul, so the choices were largely his; the TV movie credits the adaptation to Oscar Saul alone. I love that the Kazan version retains Stella’s revealing and image-rich speech about Stanley’s first act on their wedding night (“Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it. … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.”), but the Production Code demanded that the reason for Blanche’s disgust with her young husband was his lack of ambition, not the discovery of him having sex with a man. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is represented by her face reflected in a suddenly smashed mirror. In Erman’s version, the homosexual text is restored and the rape made explicit as Stanley straddles Blanche on the bed and tears her clothes.
Of course, the most important differences can be found in the performances of the actors as guided by their directors. It is here that I will part company to a large degree with the consensus opinion that Leigh, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch comprise the ultimate dream team for this work. In many ways, I prefer Ann-Margret, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D’Angelo as Stella, and Randy Quaid as Mitch. Here’s why.
Let’s start with Kazan’s version. Brando originated the role of Stanley on Broadway, under Kazan’s direction, to great acclaim, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the film version employing both men is the definitive version. Brando, of course, was one of the most electrifying actors of any generation, and his beauty and physicality work perfectly to explain why the refined Stella DuBois would throw over her aristocratic, but impractical heritage when offered the reality of the best sex of her life for the duration of her life. It seems, however, that Brando has taken literally Blanche’s description of Stanley’s animalism: “There’s even something sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Maybe he’ll strike or maybe grunt and kiss you!” For much of his performance, he mumbles flatly, crossing other players’ dialog in a jumble of semi-coherence. Brando’s early confrontations with Blanche seem disconnected; he has far more to say to Stella about Blanche’s wardrobe than to Blanche herself, reflecting the strong connection between the pair.
Leigh plays Blanche as a hysteric from the get-go. She talks so fast that no one statement gets more emphasis than any other. Now, I have known mentally unstable people with logorrhea, and so this choice is not out of place. It renders Blanche something of a ghost, drained in many ways of personality, a waif we really can believe has to depend on the kindness of strangers. As the hard knocks continue, especially living with the contemptuous Stanley, Blanche’s desperation and growing lunacy overtake more everyday matters. It is in these latter stages of the film that Leigh really shines. She embodies Blanche’s delusions with the conviction that it’s a blessing to tell “what ought to be real.” The weariness of facing the world and her fading fortunes—“God love you for a liar,” is her ironic retort when Stella tells her how well she looks—slips briefly during her last hurrah as she attacks Stanley with a broken bottle, but crumbles immediately in his grip.
My favorite line reading from Leigh is during her flirtation with the young newspaper boy (Wright King) who comes to the door when Stella and Stanley are out. She has flattered him by guessing he was smart enough to avoid being rained on by ducking into a drugstore for a soda. “Chocolate?” “No, ma’am. Cherry.” “Cherry! You make my mouth water.” The sly double entendre of that last line hits the ear like a bell because of the fleetingly expressive, somewhat offhand delivery of someone who is trying to keep control of herself and assert her power and desire at the same time—very fitting for a schoolteacher turned sexual predator. In this instance, she completely bests Ann-Margret’s nakedly sexual line reading.
Kim Hunter has to play Stella like a cockeyed optimist to give weight to her relationship with Blanche. I was struck by her upbeat offer to put a shot of whiskey in a glass of Coke when Blanche asks, “Is it just Coke?” By this point in the drama, it’s clear that Blanche has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, but Hunter’s Stella seems utterly unconcerned, perhaps lost in the delusions Blanche spins to maintain her tenuous grip on a home, a future, and her sanity. Nonetheless, if this was Hunter’s and Kazan’s intention, it undermines the “happy” ending when Stella chooses to face reality and leaves Stanley (perhaps to return?). Otherwise, Hunter works extremely well with Brando—it can’t have been hard to express desire for a man as charismatic as Brando, but she is also very convincing as a wife who loves her husband and isn’t afraid of him or of expressing her opinions.
Karl Malden is, in my opinion, almost a complete misfire as Mitch, Blanche’s awkward, mama’s boy of a suitor. He seems to have entered the quarter by way of Hell’s Kitchen, adopting neither a proper Southern accent nor bearing. He looks like he’s trying to compete with Leigh when he should be overwhelmed by Blanche’s practiced seduction. Oddly, when it’s time for him to hold his own with her after learning of Blanche’s sordid past, he just seems to fall out of the scene as Leigh reflects back at Mitch with pride and venom his own fantasies of Blanche as a spider luring her victims to the Hotel Tarantula.
This brings us to the John Erman production. Erman directed some of the best older actresses in the business in TV movies, including Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, and Lee Remick. In addition to Streetcar, he directed Ann-Margret in three other TV movies: Who Will Love My Children (1983), the marvelous The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), and Our Sons (1991). Erman helps his leading lady harness her natural sensuousness and use it to give Blanche more grounding and substance than Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Ann-Margret fills her line readings with meanings that reveal Blanche’s state of mind, from a subdued, quizzical “Can this be her home?” upon her first look at Stella’s building to her genteel, slightly coquettish response to Mitch asking to kiss her: “Why do you always ask me if you may? Why should you be so doubtful?” Indeed, she brings out the Southern gentleman in this quiet man who seems a very unlikely comrade of Stanley’s.
Ann-Margret’s physicality works in her favor as well. When she emerges from Blanche’s frequent hot baths, she luxuriates in a sense of refreshment and a reinvigorated body. She puts on a dress like a woman caressing her beloved: “Clothes are my passion,” she says as she flicks and examines a fur on her arm. Ann-Margret said that when she went at Williams with the broken bottle, she told him to be prepared for a real fight. Blanche makes several passes at him, with Williams making an interesting game of pretending to take her threat seriously. She never had a chance, of course, but her determination makes her madness in the final scene all the more heartbreaking.
Quaid is, to my mind, the perfect Mitch, soft-spoken and kind when allowed to be himself, driven to rash and cruel behavior when he’s drunk and disillusioned. He’s like the male version of Blanche with less breeding. Beverly D’Angelo is a terrific Stella. Her performance shows the troubled relationship she has had with Blanche and the DuBois clan, deflecting Blanche’s criticism of the way she left the family and Belle Reve with a firm, “The best I could do was make my own living, Blanche.” Later, her response to Blanche’s “Is it just Coke?” is a resigned and slightly disgusted “You mean you want a shot in it.” I didn’t feel the connection between D’Angelo and Williams as strongly as with Hunter and Brando, but they had some nice, familiar moments, such as the girlish, wheedling way Stella asks Stanley for some money to take Blanche out during Stanley’s poker night and her playful greeting and full-bodied hug after he returns home the morning Blanche implores her sister to leave him.
Will Treat Williams make anyone forget Marlon Brando? Probably not, but he’s a sexy man in his own right who actually gets to bare his well-toned torso during his first encounter with Blanche, allowing viewers to share in her carnal stare. His violence doesn’t explode like an inferno the way Brando’s does, but he keeps an undercurrent of menace through most of his performance. To see him play a seducer and likely murderer of a teenager in 1985’s Smooth Talk is to understand this aspect of his persona at its most extreme, and I enjoyed that he didn’t make Stanley such a simian dolt, but rather invested him with an intelligence Blanche would like to ignore.
Erman maintains a leisurely pace, allowing us to sense the passing of time from Stella’s first revelation that she’s pregnant to her baby’s birth and imagine the building tension in the Kowalski home. He gives his actors room to explore their characters’ moods and actions in this way as well. While both versions of A Streetcar Named Desire are fine works, if you only know Kazan’s, you’re missing out on a real treasure.
The John Erman Streetcar is available here on YouTube.
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Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
By Roderick Heath
Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.
By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.
Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.
The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.
The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.
Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.
At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick starts off the sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water and then segues into models dressed in haute couture, complete with giant heels, seeing something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in these visions, where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.
One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.
Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also uses here snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains shattered and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups is at least as concerned with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life as it is with Rick’s immediate personal concerns, and to a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.
One clever aspect to this is that Rick is hardly a nonentity or even a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still apparent in Rick, perhaps all the more urgent when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of modernity. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness, and the essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me to be that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.
Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.
Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wanderer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero’ magic failing on his lonely isle.
Malick’s methods both chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.
Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature reconstituted as cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s 8½ (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.
Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.
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Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó
2016 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One type of film I’ve charted through my own experience is the coming of age of a teenage girl. Having been a teenage girl myself, I remember the films that attracted me during those exciting years—the quite appalling Where the Boys Are (1960) and the touching The Trouble with Angels (1966). A vestige of personal interest in these films remained when I was in my 20s and made a minor religion out of visiting and revisiting Valley Girl (1983) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Since then, my need for such films has abated as my interest in them as a film critic has grown up along with the subgenre. I’ve been pleased to see such films tackle a more diverse array of stories that cross into other genres—horror (Heathers , Ginger Snaps ), mystery (The Virgin Suicides ), and biopic (The Runaways ). Despite the quality and relative success of these films, Hollywood seems to have abandoned the teenage girl. The best such films I’ve seen lately have come from Europe, including the exuberant “buddy” film We Are the Best! (2013, Sweden), the tough gang drama Girlhood (2014, France), and the film under consideration here, Free Entry, from Hungary.
Free Entry, the feature film debut of Yvonne Kerékgyártó, is something of a breakthrough for Hungarian filmmakers as a whole. The movie’s life began in 2011 with a no-budget shoot that eventually yielded five 5-minute web episodes that formed the series FreeEntry (2012). The series won awards, including a monetary prize that allowed Kerékgyártó to expand the concept into a feature film. In the process, she became the first Hungarian filmmaker to receive federal funds for postproduction and DCP creation. With a high-quality DCP to submit to film festivals, Kerékgyártó’s small movie about two friends who start breaking the bonds of childhood after they sneak off to a music festival has found its way to audiences all over the world.
Doughy-faced 16-year-old Betty (Luca Pusztai) is introduced sulking alongside her single dad (Róbert Kardos) as he drives her to meet her friend V (Ágnes Barta) at a Budapest train station and urges her to comb her punk-style hair. The girls have a cover story about going to the country together to visit a relative of V’s. Instead, they stash their luggage at the station and head to the annual Sziget Festival held on a North Budapest island in the Danube River. They make a stop at the apartment of Wolf, (Péter Sándor), a friend of Betty’s brother, who gives them some marijuana to sell.
V looks more mature and thinks every man is hot for her, though her aggressive advances and Lolita sunglasses pretty much force a response. Betty is more businesslike and responsible, disliking V’s flirtations and the guys she picks up. Eventually, she gets tired of V’s antics and tries to do her job selling Wolf’s weed. Two security guards become suspicious, examine her entry bracelet, find it is a forgery, and evict Betty from the premises. With this separation, V and Betty make their own discoveries that turn their reunion the next day into something of a triumph for them both.
Kerékgyártó shot Free Entry at the real Sziget Festival, and though her cast held to a tight, well-rehearsed script, Kerékgyártó’s roaming camera picks up every nuance of a music festival, from the overflowing trash cans to the spontaneous dancing and singing that add to the authenticity and joy of the presentation. When Betty finds a cellphone in a port-a-let and realizes it belongs to someone she knows—someone who is with one of the girls’ favorite bands (and one friendly to the film’s director)—Kerékgyártó is able to film backstage and capture Betty and V’s excitement at receiving such special treatment. At other moments, the girls join the rest of the crowd jumping up and down, waving and shouting, as such groups as Hungarian alt-rock band Quimby and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord entertain the festival goers.
The easy rapport between Pusztai and Barta makes the friendship of their characters completely believable. It is very true that opposites often become friends, balancing each other’s tendencies and teaching each other lessons in behaving responsibly or running loose. I was quite reminded of the dynamic between Angela (Claire Danes) and Rayanne (A. J. Langer), from the late-lamented TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95)—the former dreamy and intense, the latter flamboyant, reckless, and a budding alcoholic. Indeed, Betty and V do an awful lot of drinking in this film, which scared me just a bit while reminding me how much excessive drinking is a time-honored rite of passage that I, too, indulged.
Another time-honored tradition of youth is acting before thinking. Although they plan to be at the festival all week, neither girl has thought to bring a tent or extra clothing for the cold nights ahead. The only food they have is a melon that Betty has to bash on a rock to open. After the girls get separated, V wanders through the tent city of festival goers looking for a place to sleep. Her anxieties surface in an effectively confusing, nightmarish scene as she comprehends how vulnerable she really is in a sea of strangers and an altered state of mind—the girls took a hallucinogen with two boys they met. Betty, on the other hand, starts for home, but eventually ends up at Wolf’s. Perhaps because of his name, she grabs his guitar and very competently sings Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” in one of the most original scenes of its type I’ve ever seen.
There’s nothing terribly revelatory or ground-breaking about Free Entry, but it gets my full endorsement because it so brilliantly and realistically captures a crucial moment in time that escapes us all too quickly.
Free Entry screens Sunday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)
Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)
How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)
Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)
Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
2016 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remains a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.
Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.
Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”
Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.
It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?
One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.
But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.
Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.
One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)
How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)
Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)
Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
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Director/Screenwriter: René Féret
2016 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On April 28, 2015, actor/director/screenwriter René Féret died, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday. Féret is something of a mystery to moviegoers outside of France; his only directorial effort to have gained widespread distribution is Mozart’s Sister (2011), a fictional imagining of the largely unrecorded life of composer and pianist Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, lost in the shadow of her brother as her sexist father pushed him to the forefront, and without a single extant work to her name. Mozart’s Sister was the first film Féret made about a famous person, but his directorial oeuvre is filled with autobiographical works and stories that revolve around families, and he frequently casts members of his own family in them. Anton Chekhov 1890, his final film as a director, encapsulates many of his interests with his distinctly French point of view.
Unlike Nannerl Mozart, a great deal is known about Anton Chekhov, the towering Russian writer who is credited with helping to found the modernist movement in literature. His short stories were much admired by his countrymen, writer/artist/art critic Dmitri Grigorovich and legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. He was very close to his five siblings and mother, though he generally despised his Bible-thumping father, and brought the family under one roof when he became their sole financial benefactor. He was also a practicing physician all his life and loved a great many women while avoiding marriage until three years before his death from tuberculosis at age 44.
Féret hews close to the facts of Chekhov’s life and chooses judiciously which elements to dramatize, beginning in 1890, when Chekhov is first approached by prominent publisher Alexei Suvorin to begin writing stories for his St. Petersburg newspaper, New Times, and ending with the first production of The Seagull in 1896. His approach to depicting that life gains inspiration from Chekhov’s naturalist approach to drama in his four timeless works, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.
Féret’s fortuitous choice to play Chekhov, Nicolas Giraud, is a handsome, quietly charismatic man much in the mold of the writer himself, the center of attention for the whole family. When Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Grigorovich (Philippe Nahon) come in search of “Antosha Chekhonte,” whose short stories published in a small paper startled them with their originality, the family bands together to keep Anton under wraps until they can determine the pair’s intentions. Féret establishes in this opening scene of high spirits the particularly close bond between Chekhov and his sister, Masha (Lolita Chammah), and his four brothers, who all sleep together, two in bed and the rest on the floor.
It is Anton’s bonds with brother Nikolai (Robinson Stévenin) and Masha that punctuate the turning points in Féret’s drama. Nikolai is a talented artist suffering from tuberculosis whom Anton persuades to abandon his dissolute life in St. Petersburg to come home, where he will illustrate Anton’s works and be cared for properly. Nikolai has the idea that he wants to visit a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to view its living conditions, and makes Anton promise to travel with him. When Anton fails to prevent his brother’s death, he decides temporarily to give up writing—Féret has Giraud melodramatically toss a couple of manuscripts into the fireplace—and undertake the arduous two-month trip to Sakhalin. The result is the sociological treatise The Island of Sakhalin, published in 1893-94.
Masha appears to be the true love of Chekhov’s life. She copies all of her brother’s works to be submitted to his publisher, is his confidante via correspondence about his life in Sakhalin, and is the person through whom Chekhov meets Lika Mizinova (Jenna Thiem), a woman in a loveless marriage with whom he has an affair. Although Lika’s love for Anton is unrequited, her parting words to him after his final rejection become part of Nina’s dialogue in The Seagull.
Féret portrays the Chekhov circle as similar to the doomed families in his famous plays, emphasizing the consumptive Nikolai, the ardent romantic Lika, and Anna (Marie Féret), a teacher at Sakhalin who has shaved her head as an example to her lice-ridden students and, of course, fallen for the kind, flirtatious writer whose works she adores. At the same time, Féret offers a Francophile interpretation of their story. L’amour takes a very prominent place in the film, with Lika and Anton’s affair (and Thiem’s obligatory nude scenes) and Anna and Anton’s repressed affair consuming a fair amount of screen time.
It appears Féret shot largely with natural lighting, and his DP, Virginie Surdej, makes the most of the candlelit interiors and natural landscapes. One scene where Anton interviews Sakhalin’s prisoners in what looks like an empty barn has them emerge from the shadows near the walls into the light coming through the door as Anton enters and sits at a desk recording their experiences, an effective visual metaphor for the revelations Chekhov will soon publish. Féret uses music only when filming action, which, to me, seemed like unnecessary filler to attract our gaze. The production is rather too pretty, a collection of well-appointed drawing rooms, picturesque estates, and spotless, fashionably dressed characters. Even the prisoners seemed to have carefully arranged rags and dirt.
The Seagull was not a success when it premiered and didn’t gain recognition as a masterpiece until it was remounted in 1898. Féret doesn’t give us this information, preferring to allude to the radical transformation in acting styles that must have confused audiences by having Chekhov berate his actors during a rehearsal for their artificial line readings and melodramatic gestures. Of course, melodrama has fallen far out of favor, but I wonder whether Anton Chekhov 1890 might have benefited from a more passionately Russian approach similar to what John Huston achieved in sounding some very Irish notes in filming James Joyce’s, The Dead (1987)—a similar family affair that was the director’s last film. Regardless, Anton Chekhov 1890 is a well-crafted period piece that does justice to its subject.
Anton Chekhov 1890 screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
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Director/Screenwriter: Slávek Horák
2016 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If we live long enough, we will be confronted with the crisis known as middle age. Some middle-aged men live the cliché of ditching their longtime mates for someone younger with whom to start their second adolescence, but the vast majority of them simply choose to berate and abuse their partner to express their fear of aging and feelings of entrapment. Among middle-aged women, routine and manic activity often cover for their terror of being left alone and, more important, the feeling that they’ve wasted their lives conforming to society’s rules. Home Care, the debut feature of Czech director Slávek Horák, examines a self-sacrificing home care nurse who, compelled by personal calamity, looks for more out of life.
Home Care opens with a static camera regarding an open green surrounded by trees. Some distance away, a deer moves into the frame and stops. After some moments, the camera shifts to Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), dressed all in beige and humping two large bags of medical supplies as she makes her way along the edge of the green to call on a patient, the first of several she will visit well into the night by foot and by bus. Her rounds can be difficult. A vicious dog bars her way at one home, and she has to fish a piece of meat out of her sandwich to distract him long enough to get inside. Another patient locks her in his bathroom to avoid getting an injection, forcing her to escape out the window.
At home, Vlasta lives in passionless coexistence with her crusty husband, Láda (Bolek Polívka). Although the couple starts each morning with a comradely shot of slivovitz, Láda treats his wife like “twice the freight and half the fun” and embarrasses her in front of her sullen daughter, Marcela (Sara Venclovská), and Marcela’s boyfriend, Robert (played by director Horák). Láda often refuses to drive her to or from work, even when she’s missed the bus or the weather is foul, because he says they spend more on gas than she makes working for the impoverished Czech healthcare system.
One day, as she’s hoofing it in a downpour, a neighbor offers her a ride on his motorcycle. Although she is reluctant to accept—his nickname is “Speedy”—she climbs aboard. They promptly crash. Speedy breaks several bones, but Vlasta suffers only minor lacerations. In the process of treating her injuries, however, the doctors discover that she is seriously ill. Vlasta does what many desperate people do—she seeks alternatives to the Western medicine she herself practices and starts demanding more from her life.
The double meaning of the title Home Care signals the division in Vlasta’s life, dedicating herself to the care of others while neglecting the care she needs herself. Vlasta’s discontent and fate gained rather poetic expression when I realized that Horák means for us to associate Vlasta with the deer in the opening scene—similar in color, moving on foot, vulnerable. I initially wondered whether the deer would be shot by a hunter, but it is Vlasta who is in peril; when she goes into a deep trance during a session with a spiritual healer, she dreams that Láda has hit a doe on the road that transforms into Vlasta herself.
The film’s view of spiritual healing is fairly standard-issue. Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), Vlasta’ dance teacher, has a wise-beyond-her-years quality and encourages her to brighten up her wardrobe, pamper herself, and believe in the power of touch when she warms a spoon with her hands, bends it, and hands it to Vlasta. Miriam (Zuzana Krónerová), the spiritualist, has Vlasta drink her own urine and bond with a dead tree to heal her soul. Vlasta’s outrage that none of their ministrations are aimed at curing her ironically kicks her back into her own life to take care of business and settle her feelings with her family.
Mihulová and Polívka seem born to play husband and wife. Their alternately comic and callous behavior offers a very believable look at a wilted marriage, and their awkward return to each other is touching and also terribly sad for having come so late. The scenario also offers a realistic look at Czech home care, as Horák based some of the interactions between Vlasta and her patients on stories from his mother, a home care nurse herself. His affection for his characters comes through even when they are behaving at their worst, and shooting the film in his parents’ house, workshop, garden, and vineyard in his hometown of Zlin adds a sweet regard and comfort in the skillful environmental shooting. Some of the homey touches he brings to the film include the tradition of burying a bottle of slivovitz on the birth of a child and then digging it up to toast the child’s wedding, crooning folk songs, and forcing women to sit on towels to keep their ovaries warm. A touch of the much-beloved Czech absurdity can be found as road workers construct an underpass for frogs.
Conventionality is not something I associate with Czech cinema, but Home Care’s story and execution are as safe as can be, which perhaps explains why the Czech Republic chose it as its official 2016 entry for the safely conventional Academy Awards. Nonetheless, Horák and his crack cast infuse this familiar story with humor and heart.
Home Care screens Saturday, March 12 at 8:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
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Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.
Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.
Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.
Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.
According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.
Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.
His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.
Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.
Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”
The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni
By Roderick Heath
Michelangelo Antonioni was a relatively minor figure in the European film scene until 1960. The former economics student and journalist entered the film world in the days of Mussolini’s regime, and started his directing career making documentaries. His early labours offered hues of the oncoming neorealist movement, depicting the lives of poor farmers in Gente del Po (1943), plied under the nose of the dying Fascist state but then lost amidst its collapse. He had the honour of being sacked by Vittorio Mussolini, was drafted, started fighting for the Resistance instead, and barely escaped execution. But when he made his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni began to blaze a trail off the neorealist path, following a contrapuntal instinct, a readiness to look into the voids left by other viewpoints, that would come to define his artistry. Although slower to make his name, he nonetheless formed with Federico Fellini the core of the next wave of Italian filmmakers. Antonioni helped write Fellini’s debut film The White Sheik (1951) before he made his second feature, I Vinti (1952), a three-part study of youths pushed into committing killings, a sketch for Antonioni’s recurring fascination with characters who barely know why they do what they do. Then Antonioni suddenly became a cause celebre, when his L’Avventura (1960) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was met by jeers and anger from some of the audience and greeted as a ground-breaking masterpiece by others. L’Avventura took on a relatively obvious but powerful idea: what if you set up a film as seemingly one kind of story, changed tack, refused to solve the mystery presented, and used the resulting discord and frustration to infer a different, less ordained meaning?
Antonioni sold this idea as something like a Hitchcock film without the suspense sequences and reduced to the studies in emotional tension Hitchcock usually purveyed under the cover of such gimmicks, with rigorous filmmaking and an antiseptic approach to his characters’ private obsessions that left them squirming without recourse before his camera. Antonioni was now hailed as the poet laureate of “alienation” cinema, a filmmaking brand digging into the undercurrent of detachment, dissonance, and unfulfillable yearning lurking underneath the theoretically renewed, stable world after the cleansing fires of war and the ascent of modernity. His was the intellectual, Apollonian side to the same phenomenon observed in youth films in the U.S. and Britain like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955); eventually Antonioni would try to unify the strands with Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni followed his breakthrough with two films to complete a rough trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), and his first colour film, Il Deserto Rosso (1964). For Blowup, he shifted to London and its burgeoning “swinging” scene. Blowup, like L’Avventura, superficially repeats the gimmick of setting up a story that seems to promise regulation storytelling swerves, and then disassembles its own motor. Blowup’s murder mystery seems designed to point up a cocky young photographer’s defeat by ambiguity and lethargy and the dissolution of his own liminal senses. Or does it? Again, there was a Hitchockian side to this, taking the essence of Rear Window (1954) and its obsessive correlation of voyeurism with filmmaking, whilst inverting its ultimate inference. But Antonioni took his motivating concept from a story by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, “Las babas del diablo,” based around a man’s attempt to understand a scene featuring a pair of lovers and a strange man he spots in the background of photos he takes of Notre Dame.
Cortazar’s main character became lost in the unreal space between the photo and his own imaginings, projecting his own anxieties and emotional journey onto the people he inadvertently captured, particular his sexual apprehensions. Antonioni skewed this template to serve his own purposes and to reflect the strange new zeitgeist festering as the 1960s matured. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent ripples of profound disturbance and paranoia through the common experience. Conspiracy theorists began scouring photographic evidence for evidence to support their claims even before the Zapruder film came fully to light. Antonioni tapped into a percolating obsession, which joined also to a growing mistrust of public media at large, by reconstructing the central motif of Cortazar’s story to become one of apparent murder—perhaps an assassination. But Antonioni had been playing with some other ideas in the film since his career’s start. I Vinti contained one story set in London, depicting a shiftless young poet who discovers a dead body and tries to sell the story to the press: there already was the peculiar ambiguity of approaches to crime and the weird mix of venality and empathy that can inflect the artistic persona. Antonioni seems not to have lost the reportorial instinct honed in his documentary work. Like Dostoyevsky, he took on tabloid newsworthy stories about murder, vanishings, delinquency, and the sex lives of a new class jammed just between the real masters of society and its real workers. He followed such lines of enquiry through the social fabric of his native Italy at first, and then out into the larger world.
The aura of abstract elusiveness Antonioni’s works give off tends to disguise how much they are, in fact, highly tactile films, keenly aware of place, space, and décor, and constructing mood and inferring meaning through the accumulation of elements. Where Fellini increasingly celebrated the inner world and the furore of the individual perspective in the face of a strange and disorientating age, Antonioni became more interested in the flux of persona, the breakdown of the modern person’s ability to tell real from false, interior from exterior, even self from other, and had to find ways to explain this phenomenon, one that could only be identified like a black hole by its surroundings. Cortazar’s protagonist, moreover, was a writer who also dabbled in photography. Antonioni made his central character, Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer whom he based on David Bailey, quintessential citizen of Swinging London, an angry Cockney kid who became the image-forger of the new age. Thomas’ sideline in harsh and gritty reportage from the edges of society for a book on the city he’s working on—he’s first glimpsed amongst a group of homeless men he’s spent the night taking clandestine shots of—suggests Antonioni mocking his own early documentaries and efforts at social realism. Thomas has a side genuinely fascinated by the teeming levels of life around him, but in a fashion that subordinates all meaning to his artistic eye and ego. He shifts casually from wayfarer amongst the desperate to swashbuckling haute couture iconographer, engaging with haughty model Veruschka in fully clothed intercourse, and irritably bullying another cadre of models until he gets fed up, projecting his own tiredness and waning interest onto them, and walks out.
Thomas takes time out with his neighbours, painter Bill (John Castle), and his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles): Thomas takes recourse in Patricia’s wifely-maternal care now and then, whilst Bill stares at his old paintings and explains that he has no thoughts whilst making them and only finds hints of meaning later, a statement that recalls Antonioni’s own confession that he approaches his works less as systematic codes than as flows of epiphanies eventually gathering meaning. Thomas is nakedly on the make, a businessman-artisan who longs for wealth to become totally free. He has designs on making a real estate killing, hoping to buy a mangy antique store in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (“Already there are queers and poodles in the area!”) from its young owner, who wants to sell up and hit the seeker’s trail to Nepal. Wasting time before the store’s owner returns, Thomas starts clicking snaps in a neighbouring park, eventually becoming fascinated by an apparently idyllic vignette of two lovers sharing the green space. The woman (unnamed on screen, called Jane in the credits, and played by Vanessa Redgrave), who’s much younger than her apparent lover, spots Thomas and chases after him with a frantic, breathless desire to obtain his pictures. Thomas haughtily alternates between telling her he needs them—he immediately sees how to fit them into his London panoramic, as the perfect quiet diminuendo from all the harsher facts on display—and promising their return, but is surprised later on when she actually turns up at his studio. There have been signs that she and an unknown man might have been trailing him around the city, including watching him during his lunch with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles).
Thomas’ studio, usually a scene where his will reigns, now becomes a kind of battleground, as Thomas, fascinated by Jane’s manner, at once nervous and uncomfortable but also sensual and self-contained, keeps using promises of the photos to get her to stick around; she, desperate to obtain the pictures, tries using sex appeal to prod him into submission. The two end up merely circling in a toey, searching dance (albeit with Thomas briefly schooling Jane on how to move to Herbie Hancock’s jittery grooves), their actual objectives unstated. Jane’s pushy determination arouses Thomas’ suspicions, so he allows her to finally dart off after trading her scribbled, fake telephone number with a roll of film—a blank roll in place of the one she wants. Thomas then begins studying the pictures of her and her lover in the park. Slowly, with a relentless and monstrous intimation, Thomas begins to see signs that far from being a romantic tryst, he was actually witnessing an intended crime, with Jane acting as the honey trap to bring the man to the scene, whilst her unknown partner lurked in the bushes with a gun. At first, Thomas thinks hopefully that his presence foiled the killing, but on looking even more closely, realises the target had been gunned down whilst he was arguing with Jane, or is at least apparently lying motionless on the ground. “Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” Thomas says with glib, but minatory wisdom to Jane, in reply to her cover story about why she wants the pictures. Eruptions of irrational occurrence and suddenly, primal mystery in Antonioni’s films don’t really sort anything out, but they do tend to expose his characters and the very thin ice they tend to walk on.
As if as a punch line to a very strange joke, Blowup became a pop movie hit, mostly because it became prized as a peek into a world about which many outside the scene fantasised, and its snapshot, now precisely a half-century old, still lingers in exotic fascination for many as time capsule and aesthetic experience. Blowup’s strangeness, implicit sourness, and assaults on filmic convention might even have helped its success, the aura of shocking newness it exuded perfectly in accord with the mutability of the moment. The ironies here are manifold, considering Antonioni’s insinuation that there’s no such thing as the sweet life and that cool is a synonym for wilful ignorance. One could suspect there’s a dash of the dichotomy apparent in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics, plying the allure of behaviour the moral framework condemns. But that would come from too glib a reading of the total work, which, in spite of its stringent evocation of a helpless state, is a lush, strange, attractively alien conjuring trick, a tale that takes place in a carefully cultivated version of reality, as much as any scifi or fantasy film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) perhaps owed something to its patient, subliminal method and seeming ambling, but actually highly controlled form. Hitchcock himself was transfixed by it. Its spiritual children are manifold, including not just Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola’s revisions on its themes (The Conversation, 1974; Blow Out, 1982) and attempts by later Euro auteurs like Olivier Assayas (demonlover, 2002) and Michael Haneke (Cache, 2004) to tap into the same mood of omnipresent paranoia and destabilised reality, but more overtly fantastical parables like Logan’s Run (1976) where youth has become a total reality, death spectacle, and nature an alien realm, and The Matrix (1999) where the choice between dream and truth is similarly fraught. There was often a scifi quality to Antonioni’s films, with their sickly sense of the landscape’s colonisation by industry and modernist architecture like landing spaceships, the spread of a miasmic mood like radiation poisoning, the open portals in reality into which people disappear.
Blowup is a work of such airy, heady conceptualism, but it is also ingenious and highly realistic as portraiture, a triumph of describing a type, one that surely lodged a popular archetype of the fashion photographer in most minds. Thomas is a vivid antihero, but not an empathetic one. In fact, he’s a jerk, a high-powered, mercurial talent, a bully and a sexist with hints of class anger lurking behind his on-the-make modernity given to ordering his human chess pieces how he wants them. Hemmings, lean and cool, the fallen Regency poet and the proto-yuppie somehow both contained in his pasty frame, inhabits Thomas completely. When he and Redgrave are photographed shirtless together, there’s a strong erotic note, but also a weird mutual narcissism, as if both are a new species of mutants Antonioni can’t quite understand that will inherit the earth, able to fuck but not reproduce. Thomas seems like a glamorous, go-get-’em holy terror for much of the film, a study in prickish potency and constant motion—perhaps deliberately, he’s reminiscent of Richard Lester’s handling of the Beatles in places, the free-form artists at loose in the city with a slapstick-informed sense of action. But Thomas slows to a dead stop and fades away altogether by the film’s end.
Space is the subject of a silent war in Blowup. Within his bohemian studio Thomas is king, able to construct a world that responds entirely to his needs. Antonioni uses its environs to create a system of frames within frames, subdividing his characters and their interactions. Thomas’ ambition to annex the antique store represents a desire to expand a kingdom, and he roams through London keen to the process of the homey old city putting on a new face, whilst energetic young students engaged in the charity ritual known as the “rag” dress as mimes and roam at loose, claiming everything as their own. The empty public facility of the park becomes, ironically, a cloistered space to commit a murder. Later, when Thomas returns to the spot, he finds the victim’s body still sprawled, pathetic and undiscovered, upon the greenery. “He was someone,” is all Thomas can bleat at one point as he tells Patricia about the business, indicating both his bewildered lack of knowledge about the man to whom he’s been left as the last witness, and also his forlorn realisation that the man’s death is the mere absence of his being.
The giant airplane propeller Thomas buys from the antique store delights him, a relic of technology, the promise of movement now purely a decorative motif for his studio. Thomas craves freedom, but has no sense of adventure: “Nepal is all antiques,” he tells the store owner when she says she wants to escape her wares and their mustiness. Thomas’ talent has made him a magnet for wannabes, a fetish object himself in minor celebrity. His curiosity for Jane, with her intensity pointedly contrasts his insouciance towards two would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who come hoping for a shooting session, but essentially become a pair of temporary houris for the flailing macho artist. The sequence in which Thomas and the two girls, known as only as the Blonde and the Brunette, sees Thomas revealing a scary side as he monsters the Blonde, only for this to quickly transmute into a gleefully childish, orgiastic moment as the three wrestle and fuck on the floor of the studio. Afterwards, the two girls worshipfully put his clothes back on. For them, it’s a graze with success in all its filthy glory and a moment of holy obeisance to the figure of mystical power in the new pop world. For him, it’s a moment of barely noticeable indulgence, a distraction from the far more interesting mystery before him, which in itself stirs a need in him he barely knows exists, like Jane herself. During their long scene together, Thomas pretends a phone call, possibly from Patricia, is from his wife, apparently just to tease Jane. He casually invents a history and a home life that he then completely revises until he’s left in honest limbo. The image of elusive happiness of Jane and the man in the park and the mystery of Jane stirs a wont—and then proves a total illusion, a siren call to annihilation.
The film’s crucial movement, a high point of cinema technique and style, comes as Thomas investigates his pictures. He zeroes in on anomalies and blurry, seemingly meaningless patches, even the inferences of his “actors”’ body language, and marks out points of interest and uncertainty. He then makes new prints blowing up these spots. Each reframing and zoom is a partial solution to the last puzzle and the start of a new one, until his studio is festooned with what seems an entire story, which Antonioni can now move through like a primitive flipbook protomovie. It’s a miniature film theory class, a lesson in constructing to elucidate a reality that would have otherwise been missed in the clumsy simplicity of human perception. It’s also a journey in transformation, turning the idyllic moment Thomas prized so much into a menacing and terrible opposite, and dragging Thomas himself through alternating states of obsession, pleasure, depression, and finally nullification, the film character invested with the same alternations of emotion and perception as the audience watching him.
Blowup fades Thomas out before it fades out itself, and his subjects are revealed as even stranger than they seemed: Jane’s frantic attempt to ward him off, the man’s slightly sheepish, slightly haughty disinterest. In both readings of the situation, something shameful is happening. The lurking killer’s posture and shadowiness are reminiscent of Reggie Nalder in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), but the thunder of Hitchcockian climax has been replaced by the shimmering, Zen-touched hiss of the trees. The aesthetic key comes from Bill, an artist working in a purposefully diametric medium, the man trying to make form out of his own strange chaos, even stating, perhaps superfluously, that it’s like tracking a clue in a detective story. The two art forms collide, mingle, reforge. Aesthetic is no longer décor, but challenge, way of being, even a danger.
What was profoundly disturbing in Antonioni’s moment has become a playful norm. Today, the manipulation and transformation of images, usually for trivial purposes and day-to-day entertainment, is commonplace. YouTube is crammed with ingeniously faked reels of monster sightings. Anyone who’s worked on retouching a picture with Photoshop has been through the experience of Thomas seeing, say, the eye of a beautiful woman turning into a swirling galaxy of colours and then an array of completely abstract cubes. The difficulty of manipulating film, with its complex chemical properties, has given way to the perfectly malleable states of digitisation. The idea that photographic evidence can automatically or even momentarily be granted complete trust is archaic. Cinema verite gave way to reality television. More seriously, huge amounts of time, energy, and bandwidth have been devoted by some to investigating footage of the moon landings and the 9/11 attacks for proof of conspiracy and mendacity, often provoking staggering incredulity over how different people can look at the same thing and interpret it in vastly different ways. Antonioni was looking forward to our time even as he rooted his film in the mood of a particular time and place—the saturation of the image and the charged, near-religious meaning it takes on in spite of being evidently profane. Many in his time saw a Marxism-inflected, Sartre-influenced meaning in his work as diagnoses of the eddying feebleness that descends when political and social motivation are subsumed by a meaninglessly material world. This was almost certainly an aspect of Antonioni’s thinking, though it also feels reductive: like all art, it wouldn’t exist if what it said could be summed up in a pamphlet. The experience itself is vital, the passage its own reality.
Thomas’ ultimate confrontation is not simply with impotence, but also with the vagaries of experience itself, as all proof of his experience vanishes and with it, assurance it ever happened. Antonioni toys with the idea that revealing the truth is only a matter of looking closely and seriously enough for something, but then undercuts it, suggesting that on a certain level, reality breaks down, or perhaps rather like the sense of matter in subatomic particles, is displaced and transmuted. Thomas becomes half-accidentally the witness to a murder, not just because he sees it, but because his merely human memory is the only repository for it after his photos and negatives are stolen. Once the murder’s done there’s no real purpose to action, something his “he was somebody” line again underscores—the only real spur to intervene in a crime is to prevent it, whereas anything afterwards is only fit for an undertaker. Thomas finds the man’s body in the park, but the drama’s over. He can’t do anything except try to enlist Ron to give independent testimony to his witnessing. Perhaps, far from simply accusing contemporary artists and audiences of ditzy political detachment, Antonioni was most urgently trying to portray his experiences as a filmmaker, his attempts to capture raw and unvarnished truths on film and then seeing that truth dissolve because of the vagaries of life and the medium shift under study. At the same time, Antonioni imposed rigorous aesthetic choices on his creation, going so far as to repaint houses in the streets where shooting took place to communicate interior states through exterior sign play: he had become an imperial creator even as he mocked his own ambitions.
The famous performance of the Yardbirds towards the end of the film in which Jeff Beck smashes his own guitar is crucial not as a mere indictment of a slide into neon barbarianism many of Antonioni’s generation saw in the rock ’n’ roll age, though that note does sound, but also a summary of Antonioni’s confession. Here is an artist’s anger with his art and his tools, his sense of form and purpose breaking down in the increasingly nettled sense of what to say and how to say it in the face of a modern world slipping away from any coherent design of understanding. The hip audience watch mostly with faces of stone, happy to let the artists act out their feelings, sublimating temptations towards excess, destruction, anarchy. Although Antonioni’s recreation of the mood of the time was the very opposite of the florid unruliness we associate with the era’s cultural scene, there’s definite sense and accuracy to his portrait, his understanding of the underlying psychic transaction. This scene converts the film’s larger experience into a jagged epigram.
Thomas needs and uses the mystery he uncovers to shock himself out of a stupor, only to find it doesn’t transcend his situation, only exemplifies it. The film’s last few reels turn into a dumbstruck odyssey for Thomas as he seeks Ron to take him to see the dead body, but is distracted by seeing someone he thinks is Jane enter a mod concert venue. He ventures into the concert looking for Jane, whose brief seeming appearance and then disappearance is one of Antonioni’s finest sleights of hand, and comes out instead with the guitar’s neck as a battle trophy, like the two models with him earlier, for the attention of the famous, only to toss the trophy away, its momentary totemic power spent. He then tracks Ron to a posh party where everyone’s doped to the gills and can barely lift a finger in response to Thomas’ news.
Some complained at the time that Antonioni’s tendency to find the same qualities in the countercultural youth and bohemians he studied in Blowup and Zabriskie Point as he did in the tepid bourgeoisie of Rome was wrongheaded and phony. But time eventually proved him right in many ways. There’s a cold, mordant honesty to the sequence in which Thomas sits watching a bunch of bohemian toffs getting high, the new lotus eaters buying out of a reality they’ve barely glimpsed anyway, faintly anticipatory of Kubrick’s historical wigs with people underneath in Barry Lyndon (1975), glimpsed in Restoration artlike friezes, and grindingly familiar to anyone who’s been surrounded by very stoned people at a party. Thomas’ resolve dissolves amongst their uninterest and his own exhaustion. He awakens the next morning, restored but now with the grip on his fever dream lost.
The closing scenes provide a coda much like the one Thomas wanted for his book: perhaps he’s projected himself after all into the zone of his fantasies, a state of hushed and wistful melancholy. Thomas finds the body gone. The drama he happened upon has now dissipated, replaced by the gang of students who have been crisscrossing his path since the start, making up their own realities. Tellingly, these characters are the only ones who have ever made Thomas smile. Thomas finally finds solace, or something, joining in, to the point where the sounds of a real tennis match start to resound on the soundtrack to accompany the fake one the mimes are playing. It’s easy to read this as the final collapse of Thomas’ sense of reality, but it’s also the first time he simply stands and experiences without his camera, his interior reality allowed scope to breathe. Perhaps what we’ve witnessed is not the defeat of the artist but rather a rebirth.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Larisa Shepitko
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“War is hell” is a truism for most people, as it should be, but the fact that large numbers of people continue to wage war and fight shows that a lot of people have a lot more complicated, even positive relationship with it. Such films as The Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014), and even The Third Man (1949) suggest that for some, war offers purpose, thrills, and profits that no other experience in life has or possibly ever will. The excitement and romance of serving one’s country in combat is at the core of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, a film that offers a unique perspective on the familiar subject of the “old soldier,” as well as a telling commentary on Soviet life, by focusing on a female fighter pilot whose glory days are long behind her.
Nadezhda “Nadya” Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a decorated veteran of World War II, is a school superintendent and civic leader in her provincial town. She faces the usual difficulties of Soviet bureaucrats of the time—her shoddily built school is crumbling, her small staff works overtime to make repairs and manage the day-to-day running of the school, and her students are undisciplined and insolent in the face of authority. During a gathering at which she is to accept an award for the school, some teasing between a male and female student gets out of hand, and the boy shoves the girl hard against a post. An outraged Nadya, her moment in the sun ruined, demands that the boy apologize in front of her guests and his peers. When he refuses, she expels him.
This incident is only the first of several in which Nadya must confront the breakdown of the values she holds dear and the respect she once commanded. Nadya, who never married, has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), who has grown distant from her. She learns after the fact that Tanya has married her college professor, Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), an older man Nadya has never met. Hurt that she was not consulted nor invited to the wedding, Nadya invites herself over to the newlyweds’ apartment while the couple is entertaining a gathering of Igor’s male colleagues. She listens to the men talk, pinpoints the philosopher of the group as Igor, and goes over to shake his hand. She has guessed wrong, and fumbles awkwardly as Tanya introduces her to Igor.
Despite her very contained and defined look—a severe haircut, close-fitting suits, and buttoned-up blouses—Nadya is a woman who doesn’t seem to know where she fits anymore. Shepitko emphasizes the irony of her situation in her opening shots: a close-up view of a tape measure moving quickly around a body as a tailor records the dimensions of a person who turns out to be Nadya. She adopted a girl instead of a boy because she thought mothers and daughters become closer, yet this plan hasn’t worked out at all. She commanded respect as a flyer, yet now her students draw unflattering pictures of her on their chalkboard and tell her to her face that they despise her. She is refused entry into a restaurant because it doesn’t seat unescorted women, and is sent next door to a tavern mainly populated by men and treated like one of the boys. She visits a museum that has an exhibit honoring Soviet fighter pilots and finds her picture in the collection—she is quite literally a museum piece, her previous life as dead as the bones her curator and would-be boyfriend collects.
Her longing to break free asserts itself frequently throughout the film. As we all do at moments of stress, disappointment, or boredom, Nadya escapes into daydreams. She imagines an open sky around her, the sun peeking through clouds, as Shepitko’s camera dips and tilts from inside Nadya’s thoughts. During a sojourn to a riverside beach, Nadya watches planes glide through the sky doing barrel rolls and finds herself traveling to the nearby airfield where one of her former comrades is training these pilots. The two reminisce and talk about getting the gang together for dinner and drinks, though they and we know this gathering will never happen. Too much time and life have passed. Nadya has only her memories now, including one of the man (Evgeniy Evstigneev) she would have married had his plane not crashed, and her duty. As she tells Tanya, “I never even knew such words as these: ‘Let someone else do it.’”
Shepitko’s eye and ear for detail are admirable. Nadya asks the curator if anyone has brought him a samovar for his collection, referring to an outmoded teapot she no doubt used in her younger days in sarcastic reference to her own age. Shepitko shoots a close-up of a high heel sinking into the school’s cheap floor, turned to putty by a pervasive dampness. She very effective isolates the charged look between Nadya and the student she expelled at the crowded tavern and catches the paralyzed look of the curator when Nadya abruptly asks him to marry her. Shepitko honors the solidarity of women of a certain age when Nadya and a restaurant owner bond over a cup of coffee and dance joyfully together in a spontaneous burst of energy. That energy extends to the final, inevitable scene where Nadya may or may not have found herself again. The open-ended shot of a patch of sky ends Wings on an ambiguous note.
Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the most important early Russian filmmakers and a pioneer of montage theory. She died in a car crash in 1979 with only a handful of credits to her name, though her final feature film, The Ascent (1977), made her international reputation by winning the top prize at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. However, it’s easy to see from Wings that Shepitko was on an upward trajectory that would have lasted for years had she lived. Her able direction of both the camera of Igor Slabnevich and her actors, especially the many shades she elicits from Bulgakova and the pointed portrayals of her supporting cast, mark her as a particular talent steeped in a film tradition not even Soviet control could contain.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Max Färberböck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At least through February 28—Oscar night—it’s a pretty sure bet that people will be talking about Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and its six nominations, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the best actress and supporting actress categories, respectively. Carol is the latest, but certainly not the only lesbian romance to hit the big screen in a big way; indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As I started thinking about films that deal with this topic, my mind went to a feature directorial debut from Germany, Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar.
Like Carol, Aimée & Jaguar is based on a book. Unlike the former film, which derives from the semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the German film is based on the published correspondence of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, two Berliners whose love affair spanned the final two years of World War II. What makes their story especially compelling is that Wust was a middle-aged wife of a Nazi soldier and mother of four and Schragenheim was a 19-year-old Jew who hid her religion and worked at a Nazi propaganda newspaper from which she secreted information to the underground working to topple Hitler and his regime. Wust and Schragenheim don’t get the happy ending intimated in Carol—instead, the couple is ripped apart by the SS on an especially happy day for them, with Felice presumed dead following her deportation to Thereisenstadt and possible forced death march at the very end of the war.
As though to emphasize the real basis of his story, Färberböck bookends his story, quite unnecessarily, with an elderly Lilly (Inge Keller) moving into a retirement home and discovering that one of its residents is Ilse (Kyra Mladeck), her former housekeeper and a friend and lover of Felice (Maria Schrader) before Lilly came on the scene. A voiceover from Ilse leads us back to the dangerous and, at least for our characters, thrilling days of 1943 Germany. Felice, an orphan, lives with Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) and her parents, plays up to her unsuspecting and adoring boss (Peter Weck), and pals around with a coterie of lesbians who live like it’s the decadent ’20s, not the fascist ’40s. One night, at a concert, Ilse sees her employer, Lilly (Juliane Köhler), out with a German officer while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is fighting on the eastern front. Felice comments to a jealous Ilse about how attractive Lilly is and contrives to make contact with her after the concert, a brief encounter that lets the women get a good look at each other.
Felice insinuates herself into the Wust household, eventually organizing a party there with a group of her lesbian girlfriends. Günther, suddenly returned from the front, jumps into the middle of the lively goings-on. When Lilly catches him making out with Ilse, she brings her discovery rather excitedly to Felice. The younger woman takes the opportunity to kiss her, and earns a slap for her trouble. But the ice has been broken, and eventually Lilly succumbs to Felice’s seduction and sets up housekeeping with her in Lilly’s spacious apartment.
Aimée & Jaguar is an intriguing film that offers much food for thought, particularly in comparison with Carol. Whereas Haynes’ film is tightly produced and directed, with strong attention to period detail, Aimée & Jaguar is episodic and too beholden to the imagery of Weimar Germany and media depictions of the decadence of the time; Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails feature in a “wedding” ceremony between Lilly and Felice, and Felice and her friends pose for naughty pictures to be sent to the soldiers at the front in a scene that could have come from a Pabst film from the 1920s.
In other ways, Aimée & Jaguar captures a life force that the circumscribed Carol never really approaches. Felice and Carol are both predators, the former seeing if she can conquer a Nazi hausfrau of startling conventionality, the latter seeing an easy target in the fascinated and inexperienced store clerk she seduces. Both women are enigmatic, hiding their secrets from all but their intimates, and the extent to which either woman loves the new woman in her life is very much open to debate. But Carol is a fetishized mannequin of ’50s propriety, whereas Felice lives “now, now, now,” as excited as she is concerned about the closeness of death, delighted by the subversion of being welcomed into the anterooms of the Nazi power structure.
The choice to focus equally on both Lilly and Felice (Schrader and Köhler were both named best actress at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the German Film Awards) offers a strength Carol eschews in favor of privileging the female gaze of Carol’s lover, Therese. Lilly is an absorbing creature, welcoming ranking Nazis into her arms with a rather comic flourish after she sends her older children to the zoo with Ilse for the umpteenth time. She gets an inkling of the Nazi sting when her parents (Sarah Camp and Klaus Manchen) interrupt one of her trysts, sending the hapless officer (Jochen Stern) into hiding; when they make disparaging remarks about the country’s leadership, he emerges unashamed and menacing, warning them to watch what they think and say.
Lilly’s excitement at receiving a series of poetic and stirring love letters, signed only “Jaguar,” sends her into a tizzy guessing at their author. Felice certainly knows how to prime the pump of a conventionally romantic woman. When they finally end up in bed, Lilly holds her slip modestly over her breasts, trembling uncontrollably with fear and desire as Felice talks gently to her, asking whether she should stop, describing her feelings as matching Lilly’s. The scene is so tender, so erotic, everything the perfunctory, overly choreographed sex scene in Carol was not. Subsequent sex scenes are bold and frank, as Lilly experiences a love and joy she never thought was possible. Her fits of jealousy and anger at being shut out of complete knowledge of her lover are fierce and real. When Felice finally reveals that she is a Jew, Lilly’s response is breathtakingly knowing: “How could you love me?”
Aimée & Jaguar matches Carol in a certain kind of loveliness, a separation of the world of the lovers from the outside world, as when Lilly and Felice go swimming one bright day in a nearby lake surrounded by lush greenery. Yet, the ugliness of the time intrudes frequently. Rubble from repeated bombings of the city background many scenes, and one of Felice’s friends is gunned down in the street. Glowing red skies are both beautiful and horrible, a succinct reminder of the sickening bloodshed in and around Germany’s capital and throughout Europe. Felice’s friends warn her of the danger she has placed herself in, but some sort of compulsion—perhaps it is true love—keeps her at Lilly’s side. Unbelievably, Lilly visits Felice at Thereisenstadt as though it were just a local jail. Could this breach of the mass denial Germany was laboring under have hastened Felice’s death? No one can say for sure, though I personally don’t think it could have made much of a difference one way or the other.
On the downside, the film’s structure is a bit too loose. Günther pops in and out of his home so easily that it seems the eastern front he’s serving at is East Berlin. Lilly’s fourth child remains resolutely off-camera until near the end of the movie. Finally, the Berlin underground operates in such an obvious way in this film, I’m surprised it could have operated at all. On the upside, there is an equal mix of Germans who hew to the party line and those who maintain a relaxed, even helpful demeanor toward the “subversives” in their midst. The camaraderie of Felice and her friends is warm, youthful, and protective. Lilly’s rash actions—divorcing Günther and visiting Felice at the concentration camp—show her naivete and are met with horror by Felice’s friends. When she says, “Now I’m one of you,” the women and we know she is too far separated by her experiences to ever understand what their lives have been like under Nazism. Aimée & Jaguar describes an intense pas de deux of love, but maintains a strong foothold in the world of its time. Its rich performances and balanced approach to its central couple make it a nourishing experience.
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Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.
Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.
Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.
Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.
Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.
The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.
By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.
Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.
Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.
The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.
DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.
Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.
Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.
Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
By Roderick Heath
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.
The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.
The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.
Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.
Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.
This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.
Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.
The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.
Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.
Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.
At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.
Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.
At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.
Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.
Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.
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Director: Todd Haynes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.
Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.
The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.
Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.
Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.
Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.
Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.
Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.
Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.
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Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.
We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.
Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.
The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.
Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?
Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.
Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.
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Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.
Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.
To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.
The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.
Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.
Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.
Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.
Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.
Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.
All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.
As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.
If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!
Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.
The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.
Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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