15th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Scaffolding (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Matan Yair

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The most telling moment of Matan Yair’s feature film debut comes about a third of the way through the movie, when the central protagonist, 18-year-old Asher Lax (Asher Lax), overhears his literature teacher, Rami (Ami Smolartchik), read from Karl Haendel’s Questions for My Father and ask his class to write their own questions as a homework assignment. Lax is in Rami’s remedial literature class, where the students joke that they can barely read, but this assignment for one of Rami’s other classes fires his imagination. He writes his questions and presents them to Rami with the impulsive urgency that typifies his outward personality. Lax is headed for a life as a blue-collar worker taking over the construction company his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) founded, but there is something in him that connects with Rami and the softer concern he shows for his students.

Scaffolding extends Yair’s interest in what makes a man. The history and literature teacher, author, and documentarian whose It Is Written in Your I.D. that I Am Your Father (2008) explored Yair’s relationship with his father, wrote Scaffolding with one of his students, Asher Lax, in mind. Although Yair has described Lax as a violent individual, he was drawn to the boy’s special energy when he moved and talked. First-time actor Lax, who is in nearly every frame of the film, mesmerizes with his kinetic performance that hints at layers beneath his rough-and-ready surface.

Asher is feted on his 18th birthday on the construction site where he works by his father and his coworkers. His father gives him an Izod shirt as a gift, which he dons immediately and shows off to his friends later on. Nearby, an overweight classmate of theirs is also wearing an Izod shirt. Asher nearly rips it off his body when the boy says a shop in town was having a sale on knockoff designer shirts. Asher confronts his father about the real cost of the shirt, and earns a hard slap for his trouble.

Rami has troubles of his own getting through to Asher and his apathetic classmates as they study Euripides’ Antigone. Rami often has to read the material to them to get them to participate. Nonetheless, his patient attitude touches Asher, and the boy initiates something of a personal relationship with him. His question to the married Rami about his childlessness (“Don’t you want to meet the people you’ll love the most?”) sets off an unintended earthquake in his teacher.

High school graduation is coming up, but Milo is due to have surgery on the day of one of Asher’s matriculation exams. He insists Asher work in his place, but having found an encouraging voice in Rami, Asher continues to study. An unexpected turn of events, however, throws Asher into a monomaniacal search for answers.

Yair has crafted a very literate film that goes beyond the personal. In an increasingly authoritarian, superstitious world, he seems to be making a plea for humanity and the importance of knowledge as the scaffolding on which fully human beings and society are built. His choice to have Rami and his class study Antigone has us thinking about the power of the state as well—one that refuses to bury what is dead, but gladly walls its subjects into a living death. His unusual choice to include the language from Questions for My Father, an experimental film by a visual artist, broadens our idea of what literature might be and feeds into the Jewish tradition of questioning to arrive at greater truths. In Yair’s scenario, Asher went through a very religious phase, and Rami’s assignment awakens some of his spiritual yearning. Once inspired, Asher uses the questions he wrote to try to understand his father.

The film is fairly hard on its women, showing them as rule-bound, naïve, or entirely absent. Nonetheless, it is important that men change their macho culture from within. Yair’s intimately shot film is a thoughtful, surprisingly touching look at boys and men that all can appreciate.

Scaffolding screens Saturday, October 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, October 22 at 8 p.m., and Tuesday, October 24 at 1 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


22nd 09 - 2017 | 5 comments »

The Florida Project (2017)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Sean Baker

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The name “Florida” conjures images of a paradise of lush greenery, coral birds, blue skies, and white-sand beaches. Its inviting motto, “The Sunshine State,” bathes the mind in a golden, cheerful glow. Who wouldn’t be happy to find themselves in such a place? Understandably then, Walt Disney Productions found Florida to be the ideal location to build Disney World, a newer, more expansive version of Disney Land, the self-dubbed “Happiest Place on Earth.” Known within Disney during its planning stages as The Florida Project, Disney World now costs hundreds of dollars for admission alone, but that doesn’t stop more than 20 million people a year from visiting. Ironically, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the children who play along U.S. Route 192, the main tourist strip leading to Disney World, may never pass through its magical gates. For them and their impoverished families, finding the money to pay their week-to-week rent in the resort-town version of an SRO can be an all-consuming task.

Veteran filmmaker Sean Baker, whose 2015 iPhone-lensed feature Tangerine was his breakthrough success, says that he is inspired by location. It shows. Route 192 clearly telegraphs the specifics of his main interest—the children of poverty in a playground of plenty lined with day-glo, kitschy buildings and Disney-inspired names.

Nelson Algren, the great literary chronicler of the down and out, said that junkies, hustlers, and bums have everyday lives—they just don’t look quite the same as those of the squares. Baker vividly expresses this notion in this slice-of-life film that has a story and something of an arc, but no real plot. The film is filled with moments that are “the thing itself”—a rainbow, some sandhill cranes leisurely walking in a parking lot, a birthday celebration held by the side of the road in sight of Disney’s nightly fireworks display. Baker’s characters encounter harshness, though he tends to suggest more than he shows, but particularly for the children, life is normal and full of wonder.

Our central protagonist, 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), lives in a purple motel called the Magic Castle Inn with her unemployed, heavily tattooed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). When she is not helping her mother illegally solicit customers to buy cut-rate perfume in the parking lots of Orlando’s fancier hotels, Moonee is running around with her playmate, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and teaching a timid new friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), how to beg for money to buy ice cream and generally raise hell.

Route 192 is full of places to explore. The kids weave through overgrown lots, which Moonee insists harbor alligators, and play hide and seek among the adjacent motels. Moonee shows Jancey and Scooty a door at the Magic Castle they’re not supposed to enter and says excitedly, “Let’s go anyway!” Shortly thereafter, the entire motel loses power. Their most spectacular stunt comes when they casually vandalize an abandoned house in a failed real estate development, and eventually burn it down by lighting a pillow in the fireplace. The blaze becomes the attraction of the entire motel community, as Halley tries to convince Moonee that it’s more fun than watching the TV show to which she seems unnaturally glued.

Among the adults is a certain esprit de corps fostered by interdependence. Halley and Ashley (Meda Murder), Scooty’s mom, are besties who hang on each other like lovers; Ashley supplies Halley and Moonee with free breakfasts through the back door of the diner where she works and spots them rent money from time to time. Parenting duties are shared and occasionally taught, as when Jancey’s grandmother (Josie Olivo) insists to a disrespectful Halley that Moonee and Scooty clean off the car they have been spitting on. No one, however, seems to mind when Halley, Moonee, and Scooty happily flip off helicopter-touring visitors as they fly overhead.

Trying to hold everything together is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s manager. He collects the rent, handles maintenance for the aging property, and watches out for the residents. For example, Bobby sees an older man (Carl Bradfield) approach the kids playing near the motel’s roadside picnic tables and sizing him up as a pedophile, leads him away from the children, grabs his wallet, gets his name, and throws him off the property. But he also has a job to do. Although he feels compassion for his tenants, he threatens to toss them out for various infractions and nonpayment of rent. Occasionally, reluctantly, he does just that.

Baker grew up loving The Little Rascals—he dedicates the film in part to Hal Roach and Spanky McFarland—and only realized as an adult that the Rascals were poor. He hoped to capture the energy and comedy of those earlier films while underlining the precariousness of his characters’ existence. For example, one line of dialogue tells us enough to know that Halley was a stripper who was fired for not having sex with the customers; later, however, after being run off from her perfume trade, we see her taking bikini photos of herself. The implication is tragically clear and that she turns the photo session into a game by having Moonee pose, too, is as sad as it gets.

Baker said The Florida Project was five years in the making due to its need for a fairly substantial budget. He considers it kismet that Brooklynn Prince was just the right age to play his modern-day Spanky by the time he was ready to cast the film, and indeed, she has the intelligence and insouciance to hit all the right notes. Her improvisatory skills add a great deal to the film, such as when she comes up with all the ways she loves food while stuffing herself from a resort buffet. Vinaite, a first-time actor, was recruited off Instagram. Baker seems to have great instincts because she knocks it out of the park as a troubled, immature woman with an undercurrent of violence who loves her daughter but can’t make a better life for them. The pair jokes when Bobby comes to bawl out Moonee. Halley, in exaggerated sorrow, says, “I’ve failed as a mother,” and a smiling Moonee responds, “Yeah Mom, you’re a real disgrace.” This you-and-me-against-the world attitude will get a much more serious challenge later in the film. Thankfully, Baker mainly keeps drugs and alcohol off the screen, thus confounding the cliches of the world he is exploring and keeping us focused on seeing these characters as people, not problems.

Baker built up the role of Bobby after meeting a motel manager in Florida and listening to his story. Willem Dafoe is wonderful in the part, bringing enormous, understated empathy to this man while balancing the orders of his employer with the sometimes chaotic lives of his tenants. For example, his matter-of-fact confrontation with an elderly, topless sunbather (Sandy Kane) at the motel pool suggests this isn’t the first time he’s had to warn her about her appearance, though he gets around her by saying he can’t have her drinking her froo-froo cocktails at poolside.

The film was shot on 35mm by Alexis Zabe, who was responsible for the remarkable look of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) and Post Tenebras Lux (2012). Here Zabe finds a balance between haunting beauty and bright pop, and his night shooting is particularly lush. In the end, however, Baker returns to his iPhone to shoot his final scene—a mad, magical dash through The Florida Project. It’s the perfect ending to a deeply humane film.


9th 08 - 2017 | no comment »

The Immortal Story (Histoire Immortelle; TV, 1968)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.


11th 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: James Gray

By Roderick Heath

James Gray has failed to wield commercial success equal to his critical standing, which is significant, particularly in Europe, but also tellingly divisive. Perhaps a greater part of the reason for this lies in the key underpinning of his aesthetic, from his steely debut Little Odessa (1994), through his curiously elegiac crime films The Yards (2001) and We Own The Night (2007), and the mature, mutable drama of Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2014), is they resist familiar rules of screen drama in refusing to emphasise urgency or agency for its characters, but instead constantly nudge them along with the ineluctable quality of fate. They are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living. Gray’s oeuvre consists of tales of outcasts and troubled inheritors as much stricken and burdened with their ambitions as compelled by them, shot in sombre, moody, yet inescapably authoritative panoramas. Gray is often described as an old-fashioned talent almost without peer in the contemporary cinema landscape, but the truth is his kind of filmmaker was never particularly common or popular, crafting rigorous, lushly shot but essentially told tales of the emotionally thwarted and the life-beset.

Gray’s influences seem to include the stately gravitas of Luchino Visconti, the streetwise tragedies of Martin Scorsese, the sombrely artful side of Francis Coppola, the hymns of repression and freedom of David Lean, and the subtler side of John Ford, the one obsessed with social rituals and the problems of maturation. The Lost City of Z, Gray’s latest, is a venture into new territory for the director, as a film recounting the life of a British adventurer in exotic climes, and yet it pushes the ghost story aspect to Gray’s tales to an extreme. Every action of the central characters in The Lost City of Z is tethered to inevitable dates with obsession and doom. The story he takes up here itself immediately evokes such an mood of eerie transience and doomed embarkation, in recounting the life of Percy Fawcett, a controversial and much-mythologised figure who met a mysterious end in his attempts to penetrate the innermost heart of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city he had become convinced once flourished there. Fawcett’s adventures were the stuff beloved of Boy’s Own magazines and early mass media hoopla, as Fawcett’s willingness to feed those beasts with tales of giant spiders and snakes as well as lost civilisations fed the lurid dreams of generations. Recently history has caught up with Fawcett in seeming to vindicate his wildest flights, as the remains of just such a civilisation around where he thought it might be have emerged, discoveries that cast a new light on the theories of a man who had been, at different times, dismissed as a charlatan, a eugenicist, and an Ahab-liked madman who lured his son and others to ignominious death in the jungle.

Gray presents him rather as a smouldering social rebel, driven along by the disgrace of his father, who, straining against the tight leash of high Imperial Britain’s social prescriptions, finds a way to give them the slip and strive to touch something grand. In this regard, The Lost City of Z takes up the little-considered but powerful spiritual side of Lean’s later epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and strips away the more sensational elements to makes this pining desire for a transcendence tinged with pantheistic sublimation the focus of the journey. Fawcett, when first introduced, is seen gaining victory in a deer hunt held by British officers stationed in rural Ireland. Much as D.H. Lawrence identified Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as the embodiment of the western death-dream, Fawcett has the same gift for the chase and touch with death, but he is doomed to hunt something much more rarefied, nominated by chance and temperament as a knight embarking on a grail quest. His swashbuckling prowess is in the meantime undoubted, but he’s still held at arm’s length by superiors who disdain meeting with him at the soiree following the hunt. Fawcett’s attempts to be a model soldier and citizen are contradicted by his broader mind and deeper emotional reflexes than most of the people around him. He’s married to Nina (Sienna Miller), a Victorian New Woman and free-thinker. Fawcett, pushing into his mid-thirties without any significant distinction to his name, finally gains a chance for advancement when his map-making skills, honed in doing surveying work for the army, are requested for use by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), chieftains of the Royal Geographical Society.

Goldie selects Fawcett to head to South America and plot the precise parameters of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, to head off a brewing war between the two nations in the hunger for the riches produced by rubber. On his passage there, Fawcett meets the man who has volunteered to join his mission, the hirsute Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who’s joining him purely for adventure, but who soon proves a stalwart out in the wilds. He picks up a third comrade in Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), a ranking British soldier sent to meet him in the jungle rubber planters’ town of Fazenda Jacobina, ruled over as a kingdom by petty potentate Baron De Gondoriz (Franco Nero). The Baron gives Fawcett an enslaved native as a guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who tantalises the Englishman with tales of mysterious people who live in the jungle in their large and sophisticated cities.

The Lost City of Z represents a sharp digression for Gray in some ways as the first time he’s ever ventured out of New York, let alone a North American setting, and his intricate grasp on the lost souls of the urban landscape, even as it slots into his oeuvre stylistically speaking with ease, and Gray methodically disassembles several of the potential genres the film belongs to. Gray orientates himself in the jungle by referencing a pair of his favourite films, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both tales of self-appointed supermen with egos unchecked in the jungle, as Fawcett and his pick-up expedition venture into the wilderness only to find themselves beset by a nightmarish sensation of being unmoored from all familiar yardsticks of life and society. They become targets for native tribes who pepper their barge with arrows, and beset by maladies, like one that causes a team member to vomit up black blood. The forest proves near-desolate as a source of food, until Fawcett finally manages to shoot a wild pig. A brief attempt at revolt by a subordinate sees Costin shoot the mutineer’s ear off. But Gray also contends with such evocations and similarities and moves quickly past them, particularly as although as obsessive as the antiheroes of those canonical works, Gray’s Fawcett latches on to a dream of the landscape that beckons to the higher part of his mind rather than the black part of the id, and his journey becomes more one of diffusion into the landscape than resistance to it. He makes contact with tribes who have known only the thinnest connections to the outside world but soon learns of their capability in existence and the subtle harmonies of their lifestyles, which range from cannibalising dead tribe members to cultivating food and catching fish with special drugs.

Fawcett begins to glimpse haunting signs of long-ago habitation in the jungle, remains of pottery and other fragments of civilisation, and faces carved into trees and rocks, gazing out like the spiritual eyes of the land, a lost part of the collective memory, an idea that gives rise to his decision to name the city out in the jungle ‘Z’ as the last piece of the human puzzle. Fawcett’s return to civilisation sees him mocked at a Royal Geographical Society meeting when he presents his findings and he angrily defends his theories against a reaction he interprets as contempt for the Amazonian peoples. One of the Society’s senior figures, Sir James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), proposes they venture back into the Amazon together to look deeper, and Fawcett eagerly agrees. But Fawcett soon finds he’s made a poor bargain, as Murray proves not only too old and unfit for the arduous exploration, but bilious and recalcitrant too, proving a terrible drag on the expedition. Murray presents a different order of nuisance to the men from Fawcett’s previous expedition, so rather than continue to suffer his insolence and unable to blow a hole in his ear in deference to his standing, Fawcett gives him their only horse and some provisions to head back to the nearest outpost.

Shortly after, Fawcett catches glimpse of another carved face in the rock, and realises he’s finally made his way back to the realm of Z. But a flash flood nearly kills him, and then he’s called back to Costin to camp, and the sickening discovery that Murray sabotaged their supplies before leaving, a petty revenge that might also be intended to forestall any achievement of glory that sidelines him. The bedraggled party make their way back to civilisation and then to Britain, only to find Murray has beaten them there. After mutual recriminations and accusations between the two men, a charged meeting of the RGS sees Goldie and the other society bigwigs pressuring Fawcett to paper over the cracks in their unity and apologise to Murray, but Fawcett refuses and quits the society. Fawcett seems to have crashed headlong into a barrier of class and credibility even on the path of his elevated mission. The outbreak of World War One soon erases all other concerns. In the trenches Fawcett, Costin, and Manley, who fight together, soon learn that Murray has pulled the same tricks on another expedition, leaving no debate as to his treachery.

Fawcett’s tale of real-life daring and fixation has all the hallmarks of a type of adventure tale that feels all but by-gone, but Gray’s approach pointedly disassembles the Boy’s Own side of Fawcett’s ventures, bending them to his own purpose and placing emphasis not on derring-do so much as on personal states of seeing and understanding. The Lost City of Z finishes up as much a portrait of a time and place as of Fawcett himself, an old world teetering on the edge of collapse, with Fawcett far out in front of its spiritual plane, hunting for signs in the wastes that once there were not just dragons here. Although an intrepid soul who seems far removed from the drab victims of life in Gray’s earlier films, Gray nonetheless sees shared traits with them, including We Own The Night’s Bobby Green, Two Lovers’ Leonard Kraditor and The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski, because like them he is both well aware of how much his place in society and his identity, imbued by genetics, reputation, nationality, and all the rest of it, define him, and drive his simultaneous need to find a place in the world and desire to escape it altogether. Upon return from his second expedition Fawcett finds his son Jack (Tom Holland), born when he was away on his first expedition, has grown into adolescence with a smouldering resentment for him by the time he comes back from the second. But that resentment soon enough evolves into eager desire to join in his adventures, whilst Percy himself obeys the urge to pursue a habit, one that imbues a feverish high whilst risking extermination all too similar to the one his gambling addict father chased by other means. Both men feel an urge towards honouring identity that nonetheless will destroy them, recalling the brothers in Little Odessa and We Own The Night who similarly find bonds of love and emulation become crushing chains.

What Gray signals is important about people like Fawcett is less the specifics of their own manias but the way they inhabit the shape of our dreams at large, as Percy becomes a popular hero and celebrity for much the same reasons the establishment figures are obliged to constantly close ranks against him, for letting his imagination get away from him, and encouraging others to do the same. The limitations of will against identity are also crucially illustrated when Nina, beset by anxiety and resentment at being left at home when her energies and capacities cry out for better use, suggests that she accompany Percy on an expedition. But the idea horrifies her husband and reveals the limitations of his radical principles, as he declares allegiance to the idea of gender equality of mind but not body, particularly not hers in the gruelling reaches of the jungle, a place where, in fairness to him, he’s seen hardened trekkers and warriors crumble. This is a vital scene, not just for Hunnam and Miller’s all too volubly human incarnation of an essential modern problem, but also in offering a scene all too left out of this breed of film, encompassing two entirely understandable but diametrically opposed points of view between people who love each-other whose life circumstances and internal battles keep pulling them in different directions. Each time Percy returns to his wife she’s older and has more children rooting her securely to a world she’s in even more conflict with than he is.

Percy’s encounters in the jungle with the fringes of his own society and what he finds beyond them come as a series of pierced veils that reveal new truths but also new mysteries and tantalising prospects. The pretences to grafting European culture onto a primal shore first glimpsed when Percy finds opera in the jungle gives way swiftly to the backwoods warlord stances of De Gondoriz and the network of scars on Tadjui’s back, whilst the apparently blank malevolence of the tribes who try to wipe out the intruders soon reveal faces and rich gifts for cultivation and nuances of lifestyle. They yield to Percy’s determination to communicate: at one point he gets his men to sing “Soldiers of the King” and waves a Bible and handkerchief before him as signs of his friendliness, signs and song the keys to human interaction, and doesn’t let an arrow that pierces part-way through the Bible break his gesture, even as the sickening proximity of death sends his mind scurrying back through memories of baptising his son. The act of unveiling and discovery gains a new context when Percy is left temporarily blinded by poison gas and rediscovers his family whilst lying bandaged and sightless in a hospital bed, prompting reconciliation between father and son. Survival and reconciliation are themselves a false ending before the quest calls again, and when news comes to Percy a new expedition might be chasing Z, this time Jack convinces his father to let him come with him to the Amazon, and a reluctant Nina acquiesces, and joins her other two children in farewelling them when they set off, in a sequence of unforced rapture, with daughter Joan (Bethan Coomber) chasing after the van carrying them away.

Gray’s repute for crafting films with great visual beauty and concision on tight budgets reaches an apogee here, as every frame The Lost City of Z, thanks to Darius Khondji’s photography, comes on a muted yet cumulatively delirious beauty. And yet there’s a fragmentary quality to them as well, like pictures trapped in amber, managing to evoke the sensation Gray constantly reaches for as more remembered than witnessed. The sequence when Fawcett first enters Fazenda Jacobina is staged as a rapturous string of discoveries, as the bush parts to suddenly reveal an opera stage in the wilderness with singers mid-performance, and they tread the streets of the outpost, a warren of flickering firelight, an emanation from the physical and mental outskirts of the human world. This scene is rhymed later on when Fawcett returns to it with Jack only to find the place deserted, the jungle swiftly clenching it and drawing back into its heart. The town has become an instant and frightening example of just how fast nature can erase the imprint of human achievement once it ceases to be cared for, and thus providing in miniature a thesis statement for Fawcett’s concept for Z itself. Gray carefully violates the texture of his steadily paced, classical outlay of images with flashbacks, as when Percy, exposed before the arrows of a potentially hostile tribe, recalls baptising his son with Nina in a country church, a moment more dream-like than anything he finds in the jungle, which seems to be a trap for time but is actually a rigorously straightforward place.

The cyclical construction and collapse of civilisations is a historical phenomenon Fawcett becomes privy to as he and his mates are shoved into the eye of the Great War’s furore, the battlefield studded with splayed corpses and a lonely statue of Jesus jutting from the wasteland, just as the remnant artworks and wares of Z dot the jungle. Z is Fawcett’s own world, hammered into mud and splinters, whilst he clings on to his Edenic dream, sketched upon a paper scrap he carries with him; Gray locates the science fiction film lurking within the rough-hewn veracity of Fawcett’s adventure, diagnosing Fawcett as a proto-modern with eyes fixed uneasily on a new state of being that is also unknowably ancient, appropriate for an age when history will undergo a violent and wrenching reboot. Fawcett’s command is visited by a fortune teller who grasps the essence of his ambitions and the attractive power of the world he dreams of, “A vast land bejewelled with peoples,” whilst Gray’s pivoting camera matches the stark and filthy mugs of Percy’s battered soldiers with the visages of the Amazonians amidst the primal green. The devolution is completed as Percy leads his men into battle, envisioned in a war scene reminiscent of the one Stanley Kubrick conjured in Paths of Glory (1957) as the Germans become a mere blank force of extermination randomly picking off men around Fawcett. The hawkeyed hunter of the opening deer chase is reduced to ineffectually firing off his pistol at unseen enemies, the cavalier tradition Percy both exemplifies and nettles at finding its ultimate cul-de-sac. Z, a place he senses is real even as it seems to exist beyond any liminal reality, has become not simply a preferable place to be but the only place.

There’s incidental pleasure to be had in the way Gray utilises and disrupts the movie star wavelength of Hunnam and Pattinson, both of whom had been dismissed as pretty boys in their past roles and whose paths to proving themselves lend subtext to their characters here. This is particularly true of Pattinson with face smothered by great wispy beard, playing the oddball Costin who gains his introduction to Fawcett when the officer assaults him, believing him to be some ruffian dogging his footsteps, only to find he’s a tippling Edwardian bohemian looking for a life less ordinary. Costin eventually finds his own limit for Quixotic adventures after the war, when Fawcett tracks him down to a club where he doesn’t want to abandon his soft leather chair and whiskey. Hunnam’s own quality is one several directors have tried and failed to quite harness – Anthony Minghella came closest casting him as a vicious albino gunfighter in Cold Mountain (2003), an ironically villainous role for an actor sent down from matinee star casting, one that understood the tension between his standard, Nordic good looks and his slightly alien intensity as an actor. But it’s this tension that allows him to inhabit both Fawcett’s ready embodiment of the magazine hero type and the contradictions roiling around under the surface, the suppurating anger and spice of special lunacy that sends him again and again into the valley of death. Indeed, there are witty and intelligent casting choices throughout, particularly as Gray employs the likes of Nero, McDiarmid, and Macfadyen, actors with strong and specific associations in the modern movie canon. Murray Melvin, best known as the effete minister and gatekeeper in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), appears briefly in a similar role here as one who warns a grandee that Percy had an unfortunate choice of parentage. And yet the movie fan aspect to incorporating such actors has been carefully smudged into the landscape. Miller’s part critiques the many loyal wife roles Miller has played lately by inflicting that lot on Nina even as she does her best to escape it.

Gray’s patience as a filmmaker often pays off in climactic moments that strike hard as they resolve the themes of the films in ways words cannot, like the contact between the brothers in We Own The Night, and the schismatic last image of The Immigrant that sent its protagonists on their differing ways to paradise and purgatory respectively. Here Gray goes himself one better as he tracks Percy and Jack into the bush on their date with destiny, being caught between two warring tribes and being caught by one, who, deciding to help them on the last leg of their quest, feed them what might by medicine or poison, and carry them through a jungle alight with fire, an image hinted throughout the film and now abloom with atavistic glory for a crossing of the river on the way to oblivion. Nina keeps a faith at home, handing over a totem – Percy’s compass – as a sign they might still be alive in the jungle, living now with the natives as the ultimate mutineers against civilisation. Gray revises the last shot of The Immigrant here as Nina leaves the Royal Society building, filmed in a mirror, vanishing into crepuscular light through greenhouse fronds as the sounds of Amazonia arise on the soundtrack. Gray here signals Nina’s fate to be held arrested by the mystery of her husband and son’s fates, subject to the same vexation in being spiritually if not physically reclaimed by the same cruel and beckoning promise of subsistence within the wilderness, Pandora left nursing hope as the last and most mocking evil, and as ever the most desperately needed, in the box that is the modern world.


9th 07 - 2017 | no comment »

The Beguiled (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read a few reviews of Sofia Coppola’s revision of the 1971 The Beguiled, made by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel with Dirty Harry star Clint Eastwood at its center. Some of the reviews have been sincere engagements with the newly released film; others are desperate attempts to wrest this Civil War drama of a Union soldier mixed up with a small group of females in an exclusive Virginia girls school from its feminine focus and return it to its lurid, macho, misogynistic roots. To the latter I say, ‘I’ll give you this movie when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Coppola’s The Beguiled has no clichés to spin about repressed schoolteachers, deviant headmistresses, Lolitas in cotton bloomers, and slaves who stand by their masters. It isn’t particularly interested in the Civil War either. The director’s films are not intended to be history lessons—they are explorations of timeless, therefore contemporary, human nature, fleshed out but not overwhelmed by their period detail. Coppola made that point perfectly clear in her sometimes reviled, but truly brilliant biopic Marie Antoinette (2006) by, among other things, scoring it with contemporary music. It is ironic (and partially proves my point) that the Cannes crowd booed her for her sympathetic, updated look at their executed queen, but gave her the Palme d’Or for a similar treatment of women and girls from slave-holding families.

Coppola’s film reaches beyond the usual narratives of the war and Southern gothic genres to present a psychologically plausible story about real people in real circumstances. The handful of women and girls who are holed up at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), are relatively isolated from the war not only because of their location in the middle of a dense forest, but also because leaving would not be safe. Nonetheless, the war gnaws at the fringes of their world, with the occasional boom of cannon fire, small groups of Confederate soldiers and captured “blue bellies” passing by their front gates, and smoke rising above the treetops. Finally, it enters their sanctuary.

Mr. Stranger Danger is the injured Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who tween Amy (Oona Lawrence) finds while she is gathering wild mushrooms in the forest and brings back to the school. Christian charity motivates the ladies to tend to his wounds and shield him from discovery. An object of curiosity not so different from Steve Trevor in the Amazon colony of Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017), he rouses in each of them a desire to attract his attention. All of the ladies (always addressed as “Miss”) dress beautifully for dinner, with young Marie (Addison Riecke) borrowing pearl earrings for the night, and the oldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), stealing away from evening prayers to plant a kiss on the sleeping soldier.

It is important to emphasize that while most of the residents of the school take Cpl. McBurney into their confidence at one point or another, it is at his urging, and he remains largely a stranger and potential enemy. Indeed, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), an unhappy woman who teaches at the school, greets his professed ardor for her with, “but you don’t even know me.” The tables are turned here, with McBurney as a male Blanche du Bois depending on the kindness of strangers to see him through. At the same time, it makes him a perfect screen to project back to the ladies their fondest wishes—Amy, his greatest friend; Edwina, the woman with whom he will escape to a new life; Miss Martha, a paragon of virtue and strength; and Alicia, a woman men find irresistible. These projections are really the only insight we are allowed into these characters, as Coppola is more interested in their self-defining fables and prejudices than their personal histories.

Of course, even flattery has its limits. Miss Martha, the ultimate authority of the house and a Southern aristocrat and astute judge of character, questions McBurney’s honor and, though wavering, maintains her resolve to return him to his outfit once his wounds are healed. A recent immigrant from Ireland who took money to take another man’s place in the Union Army, he deserted after landing in the thick of battle. While he is unconscious, Miss Martha carefully sews his gaping wounds and washes him with mounting sexual excitement, but reprimands him later for his dirty fingernails, evidence of his attempt to hide from battle in a hastily dug ditch. We know what he’s up to as well as she does, but until his essentially selfish and greedy nature asserts itself, we enjoy the game the entire household is playing and don’t blame McBurney for wanting out of a fight that’s really not his own. However, one seeming throwaway line, “There is nothing more frightening than a Southern woman with a gun,” sets us up for the violence to come.

In some ways, The Beguiled is reminiscent of Coppola’s first feature The Virgin Suicides (1999). In that film, boyhood friends recall their teenage years and the mysterious Lisbon sisters who haunt their memories as beautiful, desirable creatures who, one by one, killed themselves. I’ve long been convinced by the clichéd details of some of the deaths—the sister hanging herself while in schoolgirl attire is particularly relevant here—that there was only one death and that the men created the mythology of mass suicide as an expression of their own sexual frustration. In The Beguiled, Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create a look that has heavy psychological overtones. The colors are muted, almost desaturated in many scenes, like a period black-and-white photograph, with candles and sunlight seemingly the only lighting sources. The images of lush forest and overgrown garden offer a primal splendor and interiority to the formerly grand Farnsworth estate, while the women almost always wear light-colored clothing, without even a trace of dirt at the hem despite the manual labor they must perform to keep home and hearth together. We can also surmise that perhaps with the exception of Edwina, who may have been farmed out to spinsterhood by her rich family, all of the ladies are virgins.

Coppola is greatly aided by the performances of her skilled cast, particularly Nicole Kidman. Miss Martha never loses her cool save for the need to splash cold water on her face after she bathes the corporal. The girls follow her lead without question and trust in her judgment implicitly. When she tells Edwina to fetch a saw and the anatomy book so that she can amputate the corporal’s leg after Edwina, in anger, has pushed him down a long flight of stairs, we are inclined to believe that the leg is irreparably torn and broken. Yet, her protestations that she doesn’t know how to set a broken leg, but can saw it off with the aid of an anatomy book, leads our thoughts in another direction. Why the leg must come off is anyone’s guess at this point, but his serial seductions of members of the household certainly pose a threat to her authority.

Reportedly, Don Siegel said the underlying ethos of his The Beguiled was women’s desire to castrate men. Coppola picks up that thought, but twists it. Women have a great capacity for love and kindness, she suggests, but will defend their power and honor when men seek to undercut it. In the protracted war between men and women, circumstances may force us all to become warriors.


3rd 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Song To Song (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s unexpectedly prolific burst of work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2013), and Knight of Cups (2016), forms a loosely autobiographical, delicately interwoven trilogy exploring the sum and meaning of Malick’s life experience. His latest feature film, Song To Song, quietly reframes that series as well as extending it, resituating the three most recent works as a triptych describing the present day, but can also be seen as coda, revision, or even a return to point of departure. Here we are back in the heat-glare and sultry airs of Texas, the houses on sun-dappled streets charged with quiet yearning that have predicated Malick’s reminiscences since Badlands (1974), and returning to the theme of the eternal triangle that compelled Days of Heaven (1978), if in a radically different style. That film’s painterly poise in contemplating the tension between human unruliness and natural composure has given way to Malick’s recent, vertiginously mobile camerawork and his newly restless, hungry efforts to both experience and contemplate all at the same time, an option open to the filmmaker as it is no artist in any other art form. With his recent output, Malick has steadily abandoned the unique status he once had as American cinema’s most elusive and rarefied creator, a teller of grand tales of national genesis and mythical parable, at least to the extent that now he’s been releasing films regularly and engaging with the state of today rather than the epic pivots of epochs past. And yet Malick’s concerns here are generally exactly the same ones that have always dogged him: love, creation, destruction.

Song To Song is a movie centring, of all times and places, on the contemporary music scene of Austin, Texas, a nexus for messy conception and peculiar faith. The story involves a daisy chain of romances and seductions, some of them sexual, others artistic and fiscal. Malick’s mixture of pride and bemusement that a corner of his home state has become a crossroads for modern pop culture is written into this work’s texture, as he repeatedly and amusedly returns to the juxtaposition of modern Austin’s new high-rise architecture looming cheek-by-jowl with neighbourhoods still composed of fibre cement and wood-frame houses, an outpost of super-modernity grafted onto a parochial patch of earth. Hell, this could well even be Malick’s metaphor for his own imagination. The choice of the music scene as a frame for this tale essentially transposes Malick’s meditation on his early Hollywood days, already explored in Knight of Cups, onto another social landscape, albeit one with a transient vitality that contradicts the ponderous machinery and alienation of the movie industry’s outer precincts. The previous film’s portraits of the hilarious vulgarity of wealth and the corrupting effects of obtaining success at someone else’s whim and in betrayal of one’s muse are here re-engaged more directly, and so are questions about what drives an artist to create or not create depending on the moment, questions Malick, who spent twenty years out of the directing game, has obviously asked himself often. Michael Fassbender incarnates Cook, a music producer and recording magnate around whom the other characters are locked in orbit, as the person who can make or break dreams but who is himself beset by contradictory forces he seems unwilling or unable to identify. Rooney Mara is Faye, a would-be performing star who is, at the outset, Cook’s aide and also his sometime lover. Ryan Gosling is BV, another musical talent who impresses Cook sufficiently to be anointed as his next big thing.

In its initial story proposition, Song To Song calls to mind Kris Kristofferson’s “The Taker,” one of the many visceral yet sarcastic post-mortems that musician wrote about what it’s like to be a failure in a culture-industry town – in that case, the Nashville Kristofferson haunted in the 1960s, musing on watching a girl you like being romanced by a successful man. Malick’s narrative runs contrary to this in deed if not spirit as the artist wins over the mogul in chasing the heart of the lady fair, but then finds things are never quite so simple. The boiling masses of tattooed fans who surge around the Austin City Limits Festival stages and other venues might seem like expressions of riotous pagan impulse at odds with Malick’s Augustinian sensibility, but he readily subsumes them into his world-view, rejoicing in the bristling energy and explosions of primal life-force on hand. Cook uses their performances in part as a prop in his own life, an end to his labours and also a means for charming both lovers and artists. The bruising yet rapturous spectacles of communal joy and conjuring are counterpointed with the intimate and protean world of bohemian becoming that is the rest of the movie, and the camera (wielded by Malick’s invaluable recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) locates the lead actors here with a general aura of solitude even when in the midst of vast crowds: to be the artist is to suffer an eternal frustration of severance from the freedom the crowd has to simply experience the artwork, and indeed life itself. Faye inhabits a limbo as a talent who, through connections rather than actual, proper committed work, lives in comfort and prosperity, in a sky-riding apartment in one of the downtown buildings, which Cook probably bought for her.

Faye’s wont to turn the world into a smorgasbord of experiential possibility and Cook’s ability to offer it up that way is visualised with genius economy when, at one of Cook’s parties, Faye finds herself looking over a woman used as human food platter, her naked body bedecked with hors d’oeuvres (and the woman herself looks unnervingly like Faye), whilst Cook tries to interest BV in the bevy of beauties flocking around his swimming pool. But BV quickly zeroes in on Faye because of her self-declaration as someone detached from the scene, as she strides amongst the partiers listening to her iPod: when BV catches her eye, instead of stepping out of her bubble, she invites him into it by handing him one of her ear-buds, and they gently bop to the sounds she’s listening to. Cook’s methods of seduction ironically echo the great business of romance as it blooms between Faye and BV, and other Malick couples. The film’s first quarter is replete with images of the mogul and his two pals having a good time in distinct couplets, getting drunk in the streets of old Mexico or spinning weightlessly in a plunging jet, matching the way the first flush of the thrill in being freed from the rules of gravity through the alchemy of creation and the lubrication of money. But this loose, semi-clandestine menage comes to an end as Cook takes both Faye and BV south of the border, and recognises quickly Faye has fallen properly for the performer, diagrammed in terms of proximity with excruciating clarity amidst the geometrics of the Mexican architecture.

Cook quickly expiates this humiliation by flirting with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a former teacher who’s now making ends meet working as a waitress. Cook breezes into her life and storms her barricades with all the swagger of his success and his practiced charm, and in short order marries her. Her mother (Holly Hunter) cautions her to be careful, as her finances aren’t in the best shape and she’ll have no power to fight her husband if she needs to break from him: “The law’s no help for those who are ruined,” her mother states. Cook even buys her mother a house. But true to mama’s rueful warnings, Cook uses his grip on Rhonda to draw her into his lifestyle, including at one point getting her into a threesome with Faye, who maintains an occasional sexual relationship with her boss even as she and BV move in together and share a seemingly bucolic existence. A rupture comes in this state of affairs when BV confronts Cook during a fraught drinking session over his copyrighting BV’s songs under his own name. BV spits at Cook’s feet and severs their business ties as well as their friendship. Soon Cook makes an offer of a recording contract to Faye, perhaps as a device to cleave the couple apart. BV advises her to take the chance even though he despises Cook, but soon BV also learns the real nature of Faye’s past with Cook, which soon learns to their breaking up. Both quickly drift into new amours. BV, trying to re-establish himself with declining enthusiasm for the music scene in general, encounters divorced millionaire Amanda (Cate Blanchett) and they have a good time together in spite of the discomfort some take in their age difference. Meanwhile Faye has a bring fling with a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), a steamy little affair that nonetheless quickly cools down as it has no emotional content.

Song To Song is tantalising, infuriating, utterly distinctive but also sometimes wearyingly repetitious, at once richly composed and yet often curiously lackadaisical. It feels more loosely assembled than any of Malick’s other recent films, but also flaunts this quality. Part of this seems dictated by setting and production and other parts by the matter at hand. Most of Malick’s movies have all been love stories to some extent, they’ve also been stories about the difficulties of humans evolving into their proper selves, even if it means leaving behind states of contentment. To The Wonder concluded with its errant exiled heroine giving herself up to a type of pantheistic world-love rather than merely human; Knight of Cups concluded with a vision of its hero finding happiness but leaving it vague as to just how. Song To Song commits itself to speaking of the damage lovers can do to each-other but also patiently traces the paths that can lead them back together. It tells of young emotions with a youthful zest of technique but with a notably aged note of languorous yearning and fumbling to articulate wisdom hard-won. Malick’s trademark use of voiceover is less prevalent here, the musings less abstract and more like attempts to boil specific understandings down to worldly sutras. It’s also the first of his labours to be told mostly from the perspective of an adult woman, Faye. The urgency that has propelled his recent output, the frantic, daring attempts to paint entire life cycles into two hours of cinema evinced in The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, gives way here to a more modest study of desire in both its momentary and perpetual manifestations. Malick lets us see his performers footloose in the moment, adjusting themselves to his directions or provoking each-other in actor-exercise improvisations. The method suggests Malick’s attempt to reproduce the rough-hewn aesthetics and improvisatory lifestyles of the denizens of the music world, offering the technique he’s steadily mastered on his previous handful of films with the work showing this time.

Of course, one might be justified in regarding this as a sign Malick’s rigour and craft are abandoning him in his old age and following a string of such stylistically similar films where he’s worked them good and proper, especially as some of his obsessive motifs come on with almost self-satirising regularity – flocking birds, waving grass, infinity pools, dance-like choreography of everyday human activity, and sexuality that seems to do everything but the nasty – and Song To Song starts to feel like a by-product. Certainly some of his themes here also threaten to edge into a zone of triteness he’s generally been able to avoid before, particularly in portraying Cook as serpent in the Edenic zone, the sponging corporate type who uses and abuses the folk about him. And yet Malick’s empathy is strong enough even to wrestle this cliché to a draw, hinting constantly at Cook’s sources of torment. He’s glimpsed pouring booze into an urn containing what seems to be a family member’s ashes towards the start, and he seems dogged by the absence of actual creative capacity itself. He can only frame it or augment it, and his habits of reducing the artists he encounters to prostitutes in relationship to him in part mimics his own actual reliance on other people to provide meaning to his actions. “I can’t take this world straight,” he confesses to Rhonda as he eddies in the flop-sweat-sodden, dull-eyed exhaustion after one of his orgiastic good times. “I was once like you – didn’t know what I know now,” he is heard uttering at one point. This voice of frantic, nihilistic need is projected over a fragment of an experimental film replete with images of lonely planets and axe murders, in an aside that curiously resembles Malick both engaging and satirising a generational fellow and temperamental opposite: David Lynch’s similarly stark and evocative tendencies towards surreal yet visceral pessimism.

Whilst it’s not a star turn in the traditional sense, Fassbender gives nonetheless a performance close to career-best as he exposes Cook’s flashes of smarmy brutality and supernal charm, but also the desperation in his glass-under-rain eyes. His habit of reducing his relationships to adjuncts of his appetites is ultimately enormously destructive but also rhymes with Faye’s own seeker status, as she has dedicated herself to obtaining experience at any cost. Sexuality, a matter Malick notably avoided depicting in his early work, is very much a topic Song To Song tackles with curiosity as well as a certain censorial instinct, in a way that constantly evokes erotic fervour but also grazes the edges of moralism. Certainly Malick examines the problems of people reducing each-other to bodies whilst neglecting other forms of connection, a problem that foils Faye’s efforts to grow: “I took sex – a gift – I played with it – I played with the flame of life,” her narration sums it up at one point. Yet Malick doesn’t disdain the vitality seen even in Cook’s carnal escapades, his boyish delight commingling with screaming need for escape in being squeezed between two prostitutes, flesh boiling in protoplasmic forms, manifestation of a desire to slip the bonds of being, that most inarguable and desolately inescapable of states. Romance for Malick is as ever a state close to returning to childhood, driving the poised and cynical beings he portrays into paroxysmic motion, making them run, dance, skip, leap, screw, and cling to each-other in tactile need, always teasing the surfaces of their lovers, even penetrating, but never quite gaining proper union with until a strange state Malick feels is close to divine intervenes.

The solitary, wanderer-in-the-world lot of Malick’s protagonists is bound in with their sexual identities here, their search for completing piece of their being. But it’s also tethered to their own status as familial creatures, the products themselves of people coming together. Cook’s possibly grieving rootlessness is contrasted with BV and Rhonda’s connections to family. The fact that both these characters live in a place at once cosmopolitan and parochial allows Malick to study them in the context of family allegiances and alternative value systems, whereas the protagonists of many of Malick’s earlier films were constantly cut off from native soil and their own pasts either by fate or design. BV is drawn back in by his family as his father has fallen into vegetative senescence, a reminder of imminent mortality and the bonds of identity that lend a subtle drag to his efforts to recover from the damage Cook did him. Faye has a solicitous father (Brady Cameron) who readily operates as her sounding board and confessor, as Rhonda’s mother serves for her. If some of Malick’s ways of masticating his material here feels a bit shop-worn in terms of his signature approach, one more original aspect of Song To Song lies in how it furthers the documentary element to his filmmaking that The Tree of Life mooted and Knight of Cups embraced. Lubezki’s camera floats freely through landscapes noting life in its asides and grand stages, evinced during the many vignettes set during musical performances, where the actors are knitted in with music stars. Crowds of young moshers and rockers are glimpsed at the outset engaged in gymnastic cavorting. Music stars careen by the camera, some fleetingly glimpsed like Florence Welch, Alan “Neon Indian” Palomo, and Tegan and Sara, whilst elder gods like John Leydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are lassoed in to fulfil a more intriguing function: they offer snatches of personal wisdom, Greek Chorus-like commentaries on the problems besetting Malick’s characters gleaned from their own struggles and triumphs.

Nor is this just glorified star-fucking, for Malick has time for less spectacular confessionals, as he wrings from two of the prostitutes Cook hires, recounting their self-perceptions and experiences in hauntingly exposed terms, one young and fresh, the other older and feeling the stir of life’s colder winds. Malick’s familiar approach to utilising his actors, mining their most ephemeral, essential, and transient gestures and knitting them into the greater pattern of his editing, catches his actors both extremely wary, as Mara’s wide, alien glare absorbs her surrounds in suspicion and stoic remove, and also at their most unguarded, as when she launches into a dance in a bedroom, suddenly alight with the remembered pleasure of romantic moments. Gosling’s comedic gifts are allowed some leeway, as when he tosses away a terrible meal at some social shindig he’s been invited to. Val Kilmer appears in a bizarre cameo, part recreation of and lampoon on his famous role as Jim Morrison, as an aging rock star Faye is drafted into backing, who fires up the crowds with calculated barbarisms like using a chainsaw to cut a speaker in half, and scissoring off his own hair – pure incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll’s Loki-like, trickster god glee in all things antithetical and cathartically ruinous. Lykke Li has a substantial part as BV’s former girlfriend who’s become a jet-setting superstar, who visits him after he’s broken up with Faye and gives the siren call of joining her and drifting off into wild blue yonders. But BV, feeling the nagging tug of identity and responsibility as well as dissatisfaction with his life, instead retreats into his affair with Amanda, one that demands nothing but persistence in the moment. Faye seeks the same easeful time with Zoey, but her demanding, sensual, yearning face with its vulpine brows and teeth anxious for the red meat of love proves too potent for such a casual arrangement and an interloping straight lover, and the relationship quickly sunders. Meanwhile Cook’s indulgence of his many habits drives Rhonda to despair, and finally death, probably by suicide.

The Pre-Raphaelite image of Rhonda’s dead body splayed in water identifies her as a sacrificial victim for the cult of art, but the images of her mother wailing in banshee-like despair in a carpark identifies banal consumption of the soul as another trade of modernity. As Rhonda’s body is scooped up by a shocked and terrified Cook, Malick confronts an image of cold, cheerless death he has avoided in its last few films – even the crucial death at the heart of The Tree of Life, of the hero’s brother, was suggested rather than seen. It’s a logical end for an undercurrent of interpersonal violence witnessed continually but never evinced in blows or wounds. BV’s split from Cook is in itself as a fleeting yet gruelling vignette that precisely measures the meaning behind such acts as stealing someone else’s credit and smashing a bottle for cataclysmic underlining, whilst Rhonda’s squirming through the sessions of sexual adventuring her husband draws her into constantly prods with the spectacle of her reduction to concubine. Malick is also merciless in his understanding of a Buddhist philosophical truism, that what appear to be actions are in fact only ever consequences. BV’s understandable rejection of Cook nonetheless creates the circumstances that lead to Rhonda’s death because Cook is left untethered to any amity. BV and Faye’s journey by contrast eventually sees them reconnect and finally settle down, albeit it in quite different terms. BV abandons his music career for a simpler existence as an oil driller, swapping a frustratingly ethereal accomplishment for engagement with the physical world in a manner tied to his reclamation of his family identity, whilst Faye finally regains her musical fire even whilst settling into a more lucid and composed existence as a mother.

Song To Song is a striking and enriching collage on so many levels, and littered with gorgeous fragments that still bespeak of Malick’s capacity to find an arresting image in any setting and scatter intricate rhymes and patterns throughout. Like in a moment, close to the film’s start, when BV caresses Faye with Christmas lights, the accord of their nervous systems given a beautiful visual simile, rhymed to a shot much later of Faye lying sprawled alone on a coiled length of fluorescent lights, drifting in the ether of her own melancholic dreaminess, BV’s touch a memory. Or the sequence of BV and Cook’s first Mexico venture, a rollicking interlude of boozed-up good cheer that sees the two men following the old Beat trail, in the Indian summer of their mutual reliance and excitement at finding a second musketeer, giving way to the sorry sight of Cook trailing after BV and Faye as they spin off into their ecstatic union. And yet the film as a whole fails ultimately to cohere on several levels in a manner none of his other works quite fail, except perhaps his hippy-dippy war movie The Thin Red Line (1998). The reason why seems bound up with the absence of that aesthetic and expressive urgency that drove along Malick’s other recent works, the need to get at some vital fact of existence that had to be articulated no matter what damage was done or discomforting memory was parsed. Part of this failure is linked to the careless approach Malick takes to his characters’ actual business as artists. That facet could be neglected in Knight of Cups because its screenwriter was patently detached from his hack line of work, whereas here the business of making music is supposed preoccupy and define everyone. Malick’s polyphonic cinema on the other hand can’t sit still long enough to engage with creation and performance in any kind of meditative feeling.

Another problem is that none of these characters quite dominate the screen, and so they remain relatively remote as identification figures. The urges of Malick’s dramatis personae towards their destinations in the other films of this unique quartet gain momentum through and because of the pressure-cooker intensity of the filmmaking, mimicking their own impossible urges to move in every direction at once, to feel and know and be and conquer themselves and become unbound. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her desperate urge to chase ultimate liberty in To The Wonder had this persuasive, tidal intensity; in Knight of Cups, although the dramatic landscape was even busier than the one here, Christian Bale’s Rick remained key to all we saw, and understood his perpetually Sisyphean existence, so his flight into the wilds at the end also retained cathartic impact. Rhonda’s plight has the stuff of high tragedy but she’s only a minor character in the film when all is said and done, whilst BV and Faye remain comparatively muted figures, avatars for what Malick is trying to say but not quite gaining the stature of archetypes Malick pushes them to attain. But it also must be said that Song To Song also wears its imperfection on its sleeve, its (relatively) ragged, offhand feel as a war banner. Malick’s late oeuvre has stood as a general rebuke to the small-mindedness and watery technique of too much serious contemporary cinema, particularly that coming out of an independent film scene taken as natural heir to the American New Wave, an era Malick stands as one of the last standing warriors from. Song To Song is less rebuke than an act of leadership, signalled through the synergy Malick is chasing between his medium of film and the subculture he studies; just as the elders of the music scene like Smith offer their own counsel to the young artists on hand, this is Malick’s. Song To Song is about its own making and its message is that making, as Malick presents to independent filmmakers a template for creativity that makes virtues out of seeming limitations.


29th 03 - 2017 | 10 comments »

Shoes (1916)

Director/Screenwriter: Lois Weber

The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.

Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:

When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’

Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.

Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing is far out of reach, even though it costs only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”

Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.

Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.

The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.

Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.

Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.

Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.

The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.

Shoes will screen Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, April 3 at 6 p.m. as part of the “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


15th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Eva Nová (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas [1995] and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow [1955], and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur [1981] and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses [1963]). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.

Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.

The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.

This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.

Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.

Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.

Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.

Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.

Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


3rd 03 - 2017 | no comment »

My Name Is Emily (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Simon Fitzmaurice

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Although Ireland is a modern country and vibrant part of the European Union, the cliché of the quirky, twee micks who let their freak flags fly in the soft Irish mist dies hard in film. My Name Is Emily is no exception, but its protagonists’ eccentricities arise from very real causes—traumatic loss and mental illness. And while these characters skirt the edges of those touched by the faeries, their grounding in something to which we can relate puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this well-constructed mash-up of grief processing, teen romance, and road picture.

We are introduced to our protagonist and guide, Emily (Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films), as she floats, bounces, and bubbles underwater. She has a very lengthy voiceover at the start of the film by which she introduces us to her parents (Deidre Mullins and Michael Smiley) and their odd and loving marriage. Apparently, Robert is a withdrawn person who has retreated to his study to read as many books as possible. The family is held together by the very pleasant, always smiling mother, who doesn’t get a name in this film. One day, Robert decides to emerge and regurgitate everything he’s read, becoming a teacher and then a wildly popular publishing sensation and lecturer who thinks the problems of the world could be solved if everyone had sex all the time.

Everything goes off the rails when Mom is killed in a car accident while lovingly lighting Robert’s cigarette as the two listen to the car stereo really loud because it “makes them feel young.” Robert’s behavior becomes more and more erratic until he is committed to a psychiatric hospital in the north of Ireland after yelling while naked on a Dublin street. Emily is placed in a foster home, where her foster mom, June (Ally Ni Chiarain), embarks on annoyingly cheerful attempts to make the sullen Emily happy. Emily is labeled a weirdo in her new high school; classmate Arden (George Webster), a young man with family troubles of his own, becomes smitten with her; and the pair takes off in his gran’s ancient Renault to spring Robert from his asylum.

My Name Is Emily is something of a sensation in the Irish film world because of the plight of its writer and director. Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with ALS nine years ago and given four years at most to live. His determination to continue his film career, which got off to a good start with the warm reception of his 2007 short film The Sound of People at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, helped him beat the odds not only to make and release My Name Is Emily, but also to live well beyond expectations and start work on another screenplay. It is perhaps Fitzmaurice’s underlying sadness and struggle channeled through his actors that keeps this film from triviality.

Robert, though obviously always a bit of a strange bird, can’t help but suggest Fitzmaurice’s incapacity, but also his vital love for his wife and daughter. Smiley is on top of his game, aided and abetted by Mullins in a sadly underwritten part that she infuses with warmth from her brilliantly beaming face, making her presence—and absence—felt through Emily’s affecting memories of her. Their connection broken, young Emily, played skillfully by Sarah Minto (a terrific physical match with Evanna Lynch), signifies her father’s ultimate failure of her by commenting on the failings of adults who underestimate her emotional intelligence. In the guise of sparing her feelings, they have told her her mother just went away; it wasn’t true, she says, because she couldn’t feel her mother watching over her anymore.

Minto sets an important tone with her unguarded love for her mother and Robert, providing a contrast to Evanna Lynch’s guarded, clenched teen Emily. Stubborn, reticent to the point of near-muteness, she refuses to dissect the aptly chosen Wordsworth poem Splendour in the Grass as instructed, instead interpreting its sexual longing and wistful memory for her uncomprehending yahoo of a teacher (Cathy Belton). Already noticed by Arden, played with touching unsureness by the extremely handsome Webster, Emily rebuffs him with an “I can take care of myself” when he tentatively tries to ingratiate himself by defending her in class. Her prickly remoteness, however, is underscored with slightly lingering looks that preface their eventual romance.

I liked the dynamic Fitzmaurice sets up between Emily and Arden, the former a wildly intelligent, emotional matchstick, the latter an exasperated realist drawn to her spirit and breaking free from his abusive father (Declan Conlon) in a crackerjack scene. He stands with her in a downpour trying to thumb a ride north, then just walks away; seeing the wisdom of his surrender, she follows him. She’s not the surest of leaders, but she always moves first; he defers to her when it’s safe and looks out for her when it’s not. The balance in their relationship is something one doesn’t often find in movies, and it is a definite strength.

On the downside, the film is so artfully photographed, it’s really quite distracting and threatens to take over the human story. I knew I might have trouble from the start when the newly born Emily with a doubtful set of dark-brown eyes dissolves to the blue-eyed, teenage Emily. Fortunately, the film does not repeat this kind of gaffe, and the script only rarely punts to plot conveniences and jumps of logic. I bristled mightily at a philosophy Robert and Emily adopt: “A fact is just a point of view,” painfully close to the newly minted abomination “alternative facts.” Fortunately, Arden objects as well, and Emily begins to experience a world in which the truth can, but doesn’t always hurt. And while Emily slowly reveals herself, she still retains her delicious, singular mystery. My Name Is Emily rewards patience with its generosity of spirit.

My Name Is Emily screens Saturday, March 4 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 7 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


4th 12 - 2016 | no comment »

Christine (2016)

Director: Antonio Campos

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a reporter at a small TV station in Sarasota, Fla., became a national news story when she shot herself on camera. I was in college at the time and must have heard about her suicide, yet I have no memory of it, and despite its purported influence on Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Chubbuck’s story has all but faded away. Strange then, that in 2016, we have not one, but two movies about her. Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about Kate Lyn Shiel preparing to play Chubbuck in an unspecified production, continues its writer/director Robert Greene’s fascination with people who play roles (e.g., Actress [2014], about a housewife planning to return to acting, and Fake It So Real [2011], about pro wrestling). Christine, the film under consideration here, is a fictionalized version of the last couple of weeks of her life.

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Christine was an attractive, intelligent, ambitious woman with a seriousness of purpose about her profession and a history of chronic, sometimes acute, depression. She died just before her 30th birthday, still a virgin whose chances of having much-wanted children of her own were dimmed by the loss of a cystic ovary and her seeming inability to get a date, let alone form a lasting relationship with a man. Thwarted in love, dismayed by the trend toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism, her live-broadcasted suicide was, as she said when she “signed off,” “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.”

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Christine, like its subject, seems oddly subdued and awkward, a slice of a life that has no real drama to it until Christine’s final act. Straight-laced Christine argues with her live-in mother, Peg (J. Smith Cameron), whom she scornfully calls a hippie for smoking dope, mooching off her, and bringing home men. Christine argues with her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her public affairs pieces and favoring sensationalism and her pretty coworker, Andrea (Kim Shaw), for on-camera assignments. Christine turns down offers to hang out from her best friend at the station, Jean (Maria Dizzia), and Steve (Timothy Simons), the weatherman. Christine interviews a strawberry grower and hosts a chicken breeder on her show, “Suncoast Digest.”

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True to Christine’s dedication to serious news, the film eschews sensationalism in favor of helping us get under the skin of a troubled woman through the accumulation of detail in a way that doesn’t condescend to her or turn her into a caricature. The immersive performance of Rebecca Hall, whose Christine is physically gawky and emotionally guileless, withdrawn, and argumentative all at once, is, of course, key to the success of the film. Her Christine monitors her movements on camera for ways to improve. She buys a police scanner so she can get the sensational stories Michael wants, but when she gets a hot lead, films the owner of a home destroyed by fire instead of capturing the blaze itself. She just doesn’t seem to understand her visual medium, nor the cues she gets from others that could help her achieve her personal and professional goals. In sweet, but sad scenes, Christine writes and presents puppet shows at a children’s hospital that teach children life lessons that she herself seems to be discovering along with them. If not magnetic and compelling, at least she is painfully real.

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Hall gets extraordinary support from the rest of the cast. Tracy Letts does nothing to hide Michael’s contempt for Christine, making her repeated confrontations and attempts to sell him on her ideas wince-inducing acts of courage. Her crush on George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman, seems to be rewarded one night when he suggests they go out for dinner, that is, until he maneuvers her into a group transactional analysis (TA) meeting. Even small parts that would be throwaways in other films, like Peg’s boyfriend, Mitch (Jayson Warner Smith), add substance to how Christine is perceived.

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The period costuming by Emma Potter and set design by Jess Royal couldn’t be better, recreating a context for the action without seeming to gawk at its otherness; if these women don’t each garner an Oscar nomination for their work on this film, they will have been seriously robbed. The script, contrary to director Campos’ assertion in an interview that it is very accurate, gets everything about TA wrong—screenwriter Craig Shilowich seems to have confused it with EST or deliberately misrepresented games theory to create some deadpan comedy as Christine is encouraged to, rather than discouraged from, playing “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” I also think it would have helped if the real Christine’s interviews with the police about suicide were dramatized rather than have her investigate a somewhat seedy dealer of guns, a slightly political angle that I felt was misleading.

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What motivated director Antonio Campos (Afterschool [2008], Simon Killer [2012]) to make the film, he says, is that he liked the script Shilowich wrote and thought Christine as a character was interesting. Campos has been quoted as saying, “I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.” Now I can’t say for sure that Campos thought of Christine as a monster, but I certainly don’t. Her sad life is not really a byproduct of existential angst, but rather the result of an illness that left her overwhelmingly vulnerable to the hard knocks life metes out to us all.

I’ve grappled with why Chubbuck’s story is resonating at the moment, and I really don’t have an answer. Christine was a woman who, like many of us, couldn’t have it all, but was told by commercials and media that she could, and should. The film ends with Jean sitting at home doing what she told Christine she always does when she’s down—eating ice cream and singing along to whatever song is on the TV or radio. The song?


7th 11 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Moonlight (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.

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Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” when he was an undergraduate theatre student. He was trying to work through some issues in his life, most particularly, coming to terms with his relationship with his late mother, a drug addict. The elliptical, unproduced play was semiautobiographical, set in his home neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with its main character, Chiron, existing simultaneously on stage at ages 10, 16, and 25. McCraney created this structure to comment on how all versions of ourselves reside within us throughout our lives. He considered the play unproducible and more a personal exercise than anything else.

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The miracle that birthed the movie began when Barry Jenkins got his hands on the play. Providentially, he had grown up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mother at almost the same time as McCraney, though the two didn’t know each other; McCraney’s house stood across the street from Jenkins’ high school. Jenkins wrote the script, preserving some of the language and all of the spirit of the play, and fusing his own experiences with McCraney’s to create a piece that sings with emotional truth.

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Jenkins jettisoned the play’s structure and created a linear screenplay in three acts: Little, Chiron, and Black. He cast Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron (“Little”), Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”). These actors don’t physically resemble each other, but they and Jenkins somehow find the immutable essence of Chiron; the many close-ups Jenkins employs allow us to capture all of the nuances of performance that connect each of these Chirons to each other, convincing us that we are looking at the same person over time.

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Chiron’s world sounds like a ghetto cliché—absent father, beaten-down mother dragged under by a crack addiction, surrounded by bullies and burglar bars, destined for prison. Yet like a dandelion that somehow lifts itself up through the concrete sidewalk, Chiron finds grace and connection in singular, almost blindingly beautiful moments. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood drug dealer, a do-ragged brother from Cuba who wears a gold front over his bottom teeth and sucks his tongue reflexively. Jenkins spins this unpromising character into an almost mythic figure when we first meet him by directing his camera in a swirling, background-obscuring, 360-degree turn around him as though conjuring a genie from a bottle.

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Juan may be all things bad to the outside world, but he and his kindly girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provide what little is good for Chiron. Cinematographer James Laxton puts us right in the water when Juan introduces Chiron to the wonders of the ocean, teaching him to swim and applauding with pride when the boy dog-paddles through the gentle swells. Jenkins offers moments of dark psychological violence when Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, dressed and lit in shades of red, screams something at him that we are not allowed to hear. Only later do we understand what everyone but Chiron himself seems to know: “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan and Teresa. “Am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer is a model of decency and love. Sadly, the fragile relationship between them is lost when Juan again answers truthfully when Chiron asks, “Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?”

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The second important male in Chiron’s life is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stands by him even when the other boys are bullying and excluding him. In a poignant scene, the boys in Chiron’s grade school are playing ball, with Chiron hanging on the fringes trying to get into the game. It’s heartbreaking, but then comes one of those breath-catching grace notes: Kevin comes over to him and the two walk off talking as friends do. In act two, a lanky, reticent Chiron is wound like a top, dodging the bullying that has taken a more savage turn and negotiating homelife with a ghostly Paula who only comes to life to demand money from him. Once again, Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, validates Chiron with an act of sexual love, this time on a moonlit beach they learn one aimless, restless night that they both like to visit. And as with Juan, Chiron’s connection with Kevin is shattered when Terrel (Patrick Decile), the toughest of the bullies, forces him to give Chiron a beatdown. In a sad overhead shot, we see Chiron bury his face in a sink full of ice and emerge with a bloodied, emotionally frozen face.

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Act three shows that Chiron is still in thrall to these two men. Buffed out and living in Atlanta, where his mother lives and works in a rehab facility, Chiron has become a drug dealer just like Juan, emulating his style, driving his car, and bringing young men along in the business, but with a bit more teasing cruelty than Juan ever displayed. He calls himself Black, a nickname Kevin gave him when they were boys, a name he still does not understand. Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland) calls him—a song on the jukebox in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook reminded him of his long-ago friend. Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see him. Their nighttime reunion recalls their night on the beach, and though Kevin surprises Chiron with the picture of his child by a woman he no longer sees, this final act is filled with romantic possibility.

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In act one, Juan says to Chiron, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Moonlight actually gives us the time, space, and scope to watch someone decide what it will take to become his authentic self. As a boy, Chiron is buffeted by forces he’s too young and uneducated to comprehend, but he understands the connections between his pain and the people around him. His mother, whom he says he hates, is still his “only,” as Paula puts it; Paula puts a lot of stock in being “blood,” so it’s hard to imagine Chiron hasn’t internalized that lesson, too. He still visits her, if infrequently, as a grown man. His anger at being bullied, but moreso at having his connection to Kevin ruined by Terrel, brings him to violence and a stretch in prison, so he is sufficiently self-aware to know what is in his heart of hearts. But his persona, mimicking Juan, reveals a stuckness that all too many people never defeat. Kevin’s phone call is as providential as our first meeting with Juan, a message from the universe that Chiron’s time has come. The final image of the film has a somewhat mystical quality to it, not so much love’s fulfillment as life’s promise for Chiron now that he knows what Kevin asked: “Where’s you, Chiron?”

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Jenkins and Laxton have created a visual tone poem awash in the dreamy colors and the natural beauty of Miami. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a poor, black neighborhood not punt to the regulation burned-out wasteland that many filmmakers, particularly slumming white ones, imagine. The cast is beyond good, making themselves vulnerable in ways that I find absolutely stunning. Ali has a strong, etched face that nonetheless is soft; when Paula moves Chiron away from him as though he had the plague, the surprised hurt on his face is heartbreaking. Young Alex Hibbert, in his first screen role, lays the strong foundation on which Sanders and Rhodes build an indelible portrait of a confused, painfully shy manchild, and Jerome and Holland are especially good at depicting an endearing, astute observer whose love for his friend breaks down all of Chiron’s near-implacable barriers. Harris plays a woman almost completely unlike herself and somehow manages to show incredible need—for crack, for her son—without making Paula a monster.

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The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion. Moonlight is a prayer for humanity; let’s hope we can all find it in our hearts to listen.


8th 08 - 2016 | 5 comments »

Indignation (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: James Schamus

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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.

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Veteran film producer and cofounder and former Focus Films CEO James Schamus may have been attracted to Indignation for his directorial debut because of his own background. Schamus 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, Schamus 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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This film has every cliché in the book about Jews, but once Marcus hits Ohio, Schamus 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.

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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 Schamus at a particularly stupid time in history.

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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. Schamus 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.

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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.

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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 Schamus 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.


25th 07 - 2016 | 9 comments »

West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


11th 07 - 2016 | 4 comments »

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

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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.

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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 [1927]), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. [1952]) 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 dogged 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.


28th 06 - 2016 | no comment »

High-Rise (2015)

Director: Ben Wheatley

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


16th 06 - 2016 | 5 comments »

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951/1984)

Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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 [1948], My Fair Lady [1964]) to high drama (Suspicion [1941], A Face in the Crowd [1957]), 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.

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Both films take liberties with the play. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


17th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Knight of Cups (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 commences this sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water, and then models dressed in haute couture similarly immersed, complete with giant heels digging at the water. He sees something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in 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.

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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.

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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 adds 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 snipped to pieces and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups finds a way to deal with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life, as well as with Rick’s immediate personal concerns. Tto 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.

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And yet Rick is hardly a nonentity, or 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 lodged deep within Rick, perhaps all the more powerful when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of worldly plenty. 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 in the film world is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness. The essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me 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.

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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.

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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 wayfarer, 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 with his magic failing on his lonely isle.

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Malick’s methods 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.

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Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention was 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, likewise reconstituted in 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 (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.

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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.


11th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Free Entry (aka One Day of Betty, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó

2016 European Union Film Festival

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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 [1988], Ginger Snaps [2000]), mystery (The Virgin Suicides [1999]), and biopic (The Runaways [2010]). 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Previous coverage

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)


7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

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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 remain 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Previous coverage

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)


28th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Anton Chekhov 1890 (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: René Féret

2016 European Union Film Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Previous coverage

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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