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Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students, having studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA, and their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, probably shares more with the churning imagery of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.
I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had lain his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors within a few months, a one-two punch of formidable achievement that made him the one filmmaker everyone was talking about in those few months before Quentin Tarantino arrived. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.
Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generational and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “Jim: I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2011). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.
Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.
Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).
Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.
Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management (represented, amusingly, by Eric Burdon) isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.
Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather obvious and tendentious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.
Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).
Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.
One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1970 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.
The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.
The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.
What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.
Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus the town had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She point a gun at Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye, and only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.
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Director: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
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Director: John Ford
The John Ford Blogathon
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories.
By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.
Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.
When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.
The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.
Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.
The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.
Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.
Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.
Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.
The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”
Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.
Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.
The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.
Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.
Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.
The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”
By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.
Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”
7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Robert Woodburn
Coscreenwriter: Robert Altman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When artists disavow and try to bury their juvenilia, there’s usually a good reason. Often, such works are half-baked and embarrassing, or may be a work product far from the output the artist considers representative of her or his work. Robert Altman’s early career in film largely took place in his home town of Kansas City, where he wrote and occasionally directed a wide variety of educational and industrial films for the Calvin Company, the leading producer of such fare in the United States at the time. Shortly before he left Kansas City for good to start making films in Hollywood, he wrote the screenplay for a country-western musical produced by Crest Productions. The film was intended to be more affordable for Midwestern exhibitors to screen than the high-priced Technicolor epics Hollywood was bankrolling at the time to compete with television. Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is a part of Altman’s oeuvre that represents the spirit of independence he so exemplified and that is so appropriate to discuss on this Fourth of July.
Altman never cared to acknowledge this cornpone musical, and that’s a shame. It has been many a day since I have been as entertained as I was at the recent screening of the restored Corn’s-A-Poppin’. The briskly paced, 58-minute Corn’s-A-Poppin’ was funded by the Popcorn Institute, and as it has been for funders through the years, product placement was all important. Altman, never shy about sliding a little social commentary on the evils of capitalism into every commercial venture, centers his story around the efforts of a corporate spy, Waldo Crummit (James Lantz), to drive Thaddeus Pinwhistle’s (Keith Painton) popcorn company to the brink of bankruptcy so that the competitor Crummit works for can buy it for a song and corner the popcorn market.
As was popular at the time, Pinwhistle sponsors a musical television show, the half-hour long “Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour,” as a means of promoting his product. Crummit sees to it that he hires a tone-deaf soprano named Lillian Gravelguard (Noralee Benedict), plucked from calling her hogs to answer the call of fame and fortune. To further his nefarious cause, Crummit arranges for Pinwhistle to buy kernels that won’t pop. During the commercial portion of the show, smooth announcer Johnny Wilson (Jerry Wallace) tries to convince a bored audience that Pinwhistle puts the pop in popcorn as a stagehand tips the popper filled with unpopped kernels into the scooping tray.
As with many musicals, the story of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is just a background on which to stage the musical numbers, but I have to say that the regional actors they found to play the various parts are pretty good. My hat is off to Keith Painton especially for creating a likeable company president—think Arthur Carlson in “WKRP in Cincinnati” or another Altman creation, Col. Henry Blake in MASH (1970)—who realizes that he has trusted the wrong person but is always willing to give people a second chance. The musician/actors cast to play the singers who save Pinwhistle also show some major chops.
First among them is Wallace, who sings well and plays some engaging, if predictable, love scenes with Pinwhistle’s savvy secretary Sheila Burns, performed unevenly by Pat McReynolds. Of course, the couple must be kept apart until the final clinch, and this job is more than in capable hands. Little Cora Rice plays Johnny’s sister Susie, both the woman of the house—though she only knows how to cook spaghetti—and the moral arbiter of Johnny’s love life. The camera loves Rice, and she knows how to sing, act, and steal a scene; she could have had a real career in Hollywood.
Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers, a group that has left no easily traceable mark, back up Wallace and Rice in some nicely done musical numbers. I particularly liked the up-tempo “Running After Love,” which featured a couple of times in the film. Other tunes included “Patches on My Heart” (Jimmy Carlyle); “Achin’ Heart” (Hobie Shepp); “Mamma, Wanna Balloon” (Eve Monroy and Jean Andes), a sweet showcase for Rice; and “On Our Way to Mars” (Leon and Rafael René), a cute duet between Wallace and Rice.
The production values are beyond cheap, so provisional that I wondered whether Pinwhistle’s executive suite was doubling for the Wilsons’ apartment. The flimsy walls looked like they might collapse at any second, and the artwork and props seem to have been fugitives from a Salvation Army store. When a high-performing strain of popcorn comes to Pinwhistle, saving the day by showing audiences that the popping is beyond first-rate, stagehands must have been throwing buckets of the stuff at the performers. The only lavish prop, the popcorn machine, was probably on loan from Charles T. Manley, a Kansas City native and owner of Manley, Inc., the “biggest name in popcorn.” According to Kyle Westphal, late of Eastman House and current vice president of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which spearheaded the restoration, “A photograph featuring the junior Manley hobnobbing with Wallace, Woodburn, and Rhoden on the set strongly suggests the Pinwhistle character was meant as an affectionate tribute to a local legend.”
It is with great thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which funded the restoration of this orphan film—a great example of regional filmmaking and, in my opinion, a worthy addition to the Altman filmography—and Kyle Westphal, who recognized the value of the film when he first saw an imperfect print of it a few years ago, that I present this trailer for the unique Corn’s-A-Poppin’:
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s a conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with broad a midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, which when glimpsed from the outside doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian power, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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Director: Frank Capra
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If I had to make a list of the most subversive love stories ever committed to film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, would certainly be near the top. The interracial romance at the heart of the film was taboo in 1933, and remained so for many decades. But more subversive was the look at the love of money and destabilizing love of a Christian God missionaries spread throughout the world. This type of story is something of a surprise from Hollywood’s most successful idealizer of American values, Sicilian immigrant Frank Capra, and his female star, Barbara Stanwyck. Only two years earlier, the two had teamed to film The Miracle Woman, in which Stanwyck played a bitter and cynical evangelist whose faith in God is restored. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Capra and Stanwyck reversed this outcome, as a Chinese warlord “converts a missionary,” forcing her to see the charade of her blind loyalty to her missionary fiancé and her Christian mission, and acknowledge the attraction that has grown between them.
The film opens with the Chinese populace in Shanghai running in chaos to signal the civil war embroiling the country. In a well-appointed home, Western missionaries and expatriates are preparing for the wedding of Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) and Megan Davis (Stanwyck), the latter of whom is coming from her upper-crust New England home to work side by side with her soon-to-be husband as a missionary.
In the muddy streets, Bob and Megan are making their way to the house in separate rickshaws. Megan’s rickshaw gets stuck in the mud, and before her driver can get it unstuck, he is mowed down by a large car driven by General Yen (Nils Ashter). Megan pleads with Yen to help the driver, but he is wondering why she would care about a stranger. She sees his head is bleeding and offers him her handkerchief. He demurs, pulling one of his own from his sleeve. They both cast a long gaze at each other as they go their separate ways.
When Bob and Megan reach the site of their wedding, Megan readies herself for the ceremony. Unfortunately, Bob has received word that a mission orphanage is in danger, and he must appeal to Yen to write him a safe-conduct pass. The assembled well-wishers are abuzz with the evils of General Yen, a crook who has amassed a fortune for his renegade army, and believe Bob will get nowhere with Yen. Nonetheless, with Megan insisting on accompanying him, Bob gets a note from Yen, which actually says that “This fool prefers orphans to the arms of his bride,” a joke only the Chinese who can read it can appreciate. Finding most of the orphanage already evacuated, Bob and Megan attempt to move the final group of six orphans and their nurse to safety. They duck machine gun fire that mows down an entire group of Chinese, but are nonetheless confronted by soldiers. Megan is hit on the head and loses consciousness, only to awaken in a beautifully appointed bedroom in what turns out to be General Yen’s summer palace where Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s concubine, tends to her wounds. Yen has saved her, but what he intends to do with her is anyone’s guess.
Capra sets up situations in this film that he would plumb again in Lost Horizon (1937), in many ways, the reverse image of Bitter Tea. The opening scene of chaos is repeated at the beginning of Lost Horizon, and a kidnapping of the main character occurs. He also sets the second act of each picture in an exotic and isolated Asian locale, the better to remove his protagonists from the overweaning influence of their own Western enclaves. In both films, he critiques the base Western concerns that place a narrow morality and profit above all else. In the later film, George Conway (John Howard), the brother of idealist Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), considers himself a prisoner in the idyllic Shangri-La and spends most of his time planning to escape. In Bitter Tea, Megan is a prisoner who keeps demanding to be returned to Shanghai; her only contact with Western culture is American war profiteer Jones (Walter Connolly), whose sole interest in Yen and China is to enrich himself.
Where The Bitter Tea of General Yen parts company with Lost Horizon is in its smoldering, complex love story of mutual dislike and attraction. Megan strikes the first blow when she calls Yen a “yellow swine,” which visibly shakes him and shames Megan into realizing that she is full of prejudice against the people she came to China to help. Yen’s courtesy and refinement impress her, but she finds his barbarism incongruous. When she awakens one morning to the horror of prisoners being executed by a firing squad, she complains to Yen. His response is to send the firing squad down the road out of earshot, and excuses the executions as a kindness in comparison with the slow starvation they would suffer in his jail cells because he cannot afford to feed them all. “We are in the middle of a civil war,” he says, emphasizing in the most understated way the naivété of the missionaries who bring to the Chinese struggling for freedom “words, nothing but words.”
Ashter, made up with barely passable Asian features, towers over the diminutive Stanwyck, yet he never offers the menace she expects. He is highly insulted by her accusation that he meant to rape her, saying he only wants what is freely offered to him. Again, Megan’s prejudices are undercut—she is dealing with a man, not an ignorant heathen, from a civilization much more ancient than her Christian America and extending much earlier than the Christ era. Stanwyck is great at conveying a character who is far out of her depth, ignorant of her new surroundings and all they encompass, and weak even when asserting her strongest convictions. Her rebellion against Yen’s dinner invitations are paltry and her impassioned assurance that acts of mercy will bring Yen the greatest feeling in the world sounds desperate and hollow. Death is something she shrinks from, and Yen accurately chides her with “You are as afraid of death as you are of life.”
Capra builds a dreamy, romantic setting full of sparkling jewels, cherry-blossom moons, caressing costumes, and candle-kissed lighting. Stanwyck glows, her unusual beauty enhanced by Capra’s flattering, soft-focus close-ups, her tears like diamonds on her cheeks. Yen’s palace is enchanted, with simple acts like stirring a teacup handled with a painstaking decorum and touch. It is this atmosphere that seduces Megan and wraps the audience in a love-struck spell.
Megan observes young lovers courting on the picturesque grounds of the palace in scenes that are handled with a delicacy that reminded me of Lotte Reiniger’s fragile paper cutouts in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). Their laughter and embraces form a mirror to the experiences Megan hoped to have with Bob and that now seem to be transmuting. The eroticism of Yen and his environment, a veritable hothouse of the entwined vines of sex and death so similar to the overwhelming sexual swoon that is India in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), shakes Megan from her moral moorings. She dreams of Yen, first as the stereotypical Yellow Devil menacing her with his long, phallic fingernails, and then as her masked savior. In her dream, she welcomes him into her arms and most probably to her bed, though the camera discreetly demurs to her awakening. She doesn’t seem appalled at what her mind has concocted, truly marking this film as a product of Pre-Code Hollywood.
Megan’s misguided trust in a duplicitous Mah-Li, whom she saves from execution, ends up ruining Yen. He confronts her with his anger, but unexpectedly says that he intended to kill her, as he was entitled to do by her pledge to vouch for Mah-Li, and then join her forever in the land of their ancestors, a tormented confession of love that both confuses and thrills Megan. Ashter’s ardor is a sudden burst from a fairly controlled man, though Megan says at one point that “The subtlety of you Orientals is very much overestimated.” I found it so touching that when she finally acquiesces to her feelings, coming to Yen’s side in an Asian dress she refused to wear before, crying over her guilt in helpless surrender, he wipes her tears with his silk handkerchief: “The Chinese gave the world silk.” With these words that show the soft tenderness of his love, Yen drinks the poisoned tea he brewed so meticulously for his suicide and quietly dies, the fulfillment of his love for Megan his gift for the afterlife.
Capra includes an interesting postscript in which a drunken Jones plays amateur fortune teller for a quiet Megan as they sail for Shanghai. He can’t seem to decide whether Megan will go through with the life she planned before falling under Yen’s influence or give it up. Megan, with a self-knowledge incited by her brief romance—some might call it tragic, but to me it formed a perfect whole, a love transcending race, culture, and time—simply gazes with limpid eyes and a rueful smile as the film draws to a close
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Director/Screenwriter: Tadeusz Konwicki
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Winner of 1958 Grand Prix at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Films in Venice, The Last Day of Summer, author Tadeusz Konwicki’s first foray into filmmaking, radically altered how the world saw him. While still a noted writer with more than 20 titles to his name, he is now perhaps more famous as Poland’s first experimental film auteur. At a little over an hour long, The Last Day of Summer has the brevity of most experimental films, and it creates a dreamlike ambiguity that makes an almost too-subtle comment on World War II, particularly as compared with his anarchic Salto (Jump, 1965). At heart, I don’t think film was really his metier because these film are so derivative of experimental masters Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, but especially with Last Day, Konwicki shows a touching regard for his characters that is something all his own.
Voiceover narration by the unnamed female protagonist (Irena Laskowski) suggests the hardships of war, talking about trains packed with what might be refugees or condemned Jews, with no traces left except dogs’ paws. Three planes flying in close formation buzz overhead, as the woman emerges from the ocean naked and covering her breasts. As she tries to zip herself into her bathing suit, she becomes aware of a young man (Jan Machulski) observing her. He is playful and boyish, but she angrily demands to know how long he has been watching her. He answers “two weeks,” ever since she first showed up on the beach. He is smitten with her, but she is wary of him. Besides, it is her last day by the seaside before returning to her everyday life.
She pins her wet hair and lays down to nap in the sun. After a fade, she awakens as the young man watches her nearby. With an overabundance of energy, he runs into the sea and starts to flounder. The woman goes in and rescues him from the rushing surf. When they are safely on land, he tells her that when he ran into the water, he forgot he couldn’t swim. She briefly softens to him, but then is unhappy that she is all wet again. She tells him to avert his eyes, which he mostly does, as she changes into a skirt and blouse. They build a fire together to dry off their wet things and cook a fish she has packed to eat, and he sets up a sundial in the sand using small pieces of driftwood to measure off her last day of summer.
The film consists of a dance of approach and withdrawal, as the woman alternately enjoys the young man’s attentions and fights to be practical. She was abandoned by her sweetheart during wartime—he went to England, apparently—and broken-hearted, she has remained alone, which the young man has surmised by her solitary visits to the beach each day. Every time she tries to break away, she ends up following him, their circling intimacy getting tighter and tighter. But when push comes to shove, the woman refuses to abandon her plans to live on the beach, idle and free, with the man. His subsequent disappearance has her wading into the ocean searching for him as the movie fades out.
Konwicki doesn’t set any impenetrable traps with this conventional look at the psyche of a lonely, aging woman. Her emergence from the sea at the beginning of the film is like a birth—imagine swimming nude to keep one’s bathing suit dry!—and her successive returns to the water are plunges into the unconscious, a chance at rescuing her youthful, buoyant animus unfortunately thwarted by her caution and doubt. It seemed fairly certain to me that the young man did not exist at all, but was sent by her unconscious to keep her from taking the final plunge into the darkness to which she eventually succumbs—the flattering admiration of a handsome, younger man a balm for her ego, a proposed escape from her drab existence a proffer of liberation and fulfillment. The shot of her after she has donned her clothes showcases the soft beauty elicited by his attentions.
Cinematographer Jan Laskowski composed many beautiful landscape and overhead shots, and his close-ups capture every nuance of emotion. Nonetheless, between him and Konwicki, the visuals are a pretty close rip-off of Maya Deren’s At Land (1944). Take a look:
The intrusion of the airplanes may have been intended as a grounding device similar to the dinner party in At Land, but it was much less coherent. Without some tie to the woman, these scenes did not have the perhaps desired effect of offering a tangible foreboding. Much more effective was the man’s use of a pocket knife, repeatedly throwing it idly to stick in a log near the sleeping form of the woman. Interestingly, when she gathers up their belongings in preparation for going back to her hotel to pack, she removes the knife and returns it to the man. Unlike the old saw that a gun produced in the first scene will be fired by the last, the knife is never used directly. Instead, it implies that the woman’s life may be in danger, but as the film progresses, the danger is really only from herself.
This film, part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Sunday, June 29, 3 p.m., and Wednesday, July 2, 6:15 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Perhaps the last thing one would have expected from the director of Pharaoh (1966), a drama set among the elite of ancient Egypt in the expansive setting of the Sahara Desert, is an examination of the desperate lives of the professional and working classes of then-contemporary Poland set on the claustrophic confines of a train. Yet, despite leaps across time and space, Jerzy Kawalerowicz proved himself to be a master of the interior landscape of the human heart, a constant no matter what the setting. Night Train, an early, black-and-white effort from the director, offers Kawalerowicz’s and cinematographer Jan Laskowski’s exquisite eye for beautiful visual composition and interesting camera angles that set the physical and emotional spaces for a range of characters trapped by regret and need.
Much like the opening of Pharaoh, Night Train starts with an overhead shot of a Polish train yard bustling with people looking not unlike the dung beetles tumbling across the barren desert floor in Egypt. A middle-aged man (Leon Niemczyk) with sunglasses and a shock of gray hair at the temple hurries to board the train; he has no ticket, but buys both berths in a sleeper cabin because he wants to be alone. To his surprise, when he reaches his cabin, a beautiful blonde, who we much later learn is named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), has moved in. She tells the overwhelmed train conductor (Helen Dabrowska) that she bought the ticket from a man, and though the conductor tells her it is a men’s only cabin, she refuses to leave. Wishing to avoid further unpleasantness, the man decides to let her stay. Nobody seems too bothered by strangers of the opposite sex sharing a cabin, except for a neighboring passenger (Teresa Szmigielówna) who is bored with her lawyer husband (Aleksander Sewruck) and hoping to have a fling with the man as she struts around him with her comely breasts pitched forward by a permanent arch in her back.
We learn very early in the film that a woman has been murdered and that her husband is being sought by the police. We are encouraged to believe that the curiously morose man who wants to be alone might be the murderer, and this planted idea seems designed to jack up the suspense of the film—particularly after Marta is alone with him in the cabin—if you judge by the advertising for the film that compares it to The Narrow Margin (1952). There is indeed a murderer on the train and a tense chase to apprehend him occurs, but the film is more interested in the secret pain and yearning of its characters than in being a thriller.
Marta is a woman haunted by a love affair gone wrong and a persistent admirer (Zbigniew Cybulski) who stalks her onto the train and rather violently insists that she not dispose of him after their two-week fling. The man is gentle and gentlemanly with Marta, surmising her unhappiness in love after seeing scars on her wrists. Her overall sadness, however, permeates her like a strong perfume, her mournful countenance visually caressed by her then-husband, director Kawalerowicz, as he peers at her reflection in a mirror, though a sliver from the top berth to the bottom berth where she lays, in her distant gaze out the open window suddenly exploded by the wind and noise of a train passing in the opposite direction.
The man, too, seems distracted and violently haunted when he shouts at Marta to kick the sheet covering her legs away. His explanation for his outburst is to ask her if she has ever seen a body in a morgue. I guessed that he was a doctor based on this detail, his reaction to her wrist scars, his comment about how much Marta smokes, and his ease spending money, but was kept in doubt about his profession until the end of the movie. Indeed, the movie does not seem anxious to give up its secrets—like any group of strangers sharing a space by necessity, no one is presented as an open book. All we get are impressions, bits of information. Kawalerowicz stamps this point on the film silently, as a young sailor in third class gazes fondly on a young girl, who shyly returns his regard—who they are and what will become of the flirtation is pure speculation, though the terminus of the train is a seaside resort where it appears the lawyer’s wife intends to tryst with whichever lover she lines up from the journey. Amusingly, her cuckold of a husband remains a disembodied voice for a good deal of the film until Kawalerowicz decides to let us sympathize with them both a bit by putting their mismatched temperaments together in their cabin as they bed down for the night.
Despite what Freud said about trains and sex, I was not expecting all the amorous goings-on on the train, but I have been informed that pociag means “train,” but it also means “attraction” or “desire,” a clear double entendre. The train appears to be a microcosm of the world, with cabins filled with religious pilgrims and holiday makers from every walk of life. Seeing people standing in the narrow passages in third class because there is no place to sit down reminded me of my work commute, people jostled and tired and bored, fitfully sleeping in the company of strangers and their cargo. So, too, does Kawalerowicz take on the issue of mob mentality. When the murderer pulls the emergency brake and jumps from the train ahead of the police, a number of passengers pursue him across a field in a scene that beautifully opens the film up to offer the great expanses Kawalerowicz handles expertly. Again we get an overhead shot after he is cornered and brought down, like a swarm of ants taking down a grasshopper. An earlier reveal of a man who can’t sleep in his cabin because the berths remind him of his four years in Buchenwald takes a poke at the rush to judgment and mob action that Kawalerowicz softly critiques in the murderer subplot.
In the end, the man and Marta have found some solace in each other’s company, though the painfully adrift Marta is disappointed that their association cannot last beyond the end of the line. Marta, still caught in her melancholy, alights on the seaside of the train and climbs awkwardly along the sandy shore, trapped at land’s end in the bright light of day.
This film, part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow under the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.
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The White Elephant Blogathon
Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel
By Roderick Heath
I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. Of the little list of films I received, one, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), is a film I’m already familiar with, and besides Marilyn had already written it up in her inimitable fashion. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.
There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, which can sometimes make them fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. Whereas bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.
And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.
For about 15 minutes.
Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).
The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Americathon sets out to a bouncy soundtrack by the Beach Boys and quickly lays out a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979. It opens with scenes that are played for jaunty humour but that are clearly, in context, supposed to represent a mordant dystopian future: without petrol, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.
George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.
The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”
Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.
Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s reflexion of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).
Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying theme of the drama is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.
Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.
Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. This could have resulted in a black comedy of greatness. But this notion is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.
Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.
This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon, which is that is sets up some semblance of traditional plot and character arcs but fails to follow through. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.
Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.
I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.
So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.
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Director: Andrjez Munk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.
Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.
The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.
Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.
The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.
A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.
Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.
A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.
The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.
Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.
Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.
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Director: Gareth Edwards
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Like many young boys, I was once a Godzilla freak. Worse, I was a perpetually frustrated Godzilla freak. For a long time, the only entry in Toho Studios’ banner series I had available to me was Godzilla 1985, the somewhat altered New World Studio recut of The Return of Godzilla (1984), at the time, Big G’s first film in 10 years. Godzilla 1985 was, however, a great place to start with the most famous of atomic monsters, because it stripped its iconic monster back to the force of nature and terror it had begun as in Ishiro Honda’s great 1954 original. That stature had been diluted and then erased through the ’60s and ’70s as Godzilla had been turned increasingly into a giant tag-team wrestler taking on motley foes in increasingly weak instalments. By the time of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the lizard was delivering flying karate kicks and swapping high-fives with his robot buddy.
Toho’s revived series soon brought back the antagonists and continued until 2004, whilst in between came a film remembered by every scifi fan in fear and loathing, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich’s film wasn’t actually a Godzilla film, tossing out just about everything that separated him from his forebears (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1951) and progeny (The Giant Behemoth, 1956; Gorgo, 1960; every other kaiju eiga) to make him King of Monsters. Another Hollywood Godzilla movie had to make up for this betrayal. The man to try this proved to be Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with a lone, low-budget work behind him: Monsters (2009), an inventive, intelligent if pedantic movie, turning the invasive mutant beasts that littered its North American hinterlands into broad metaphors for many a contemporary ill, including illegal immigration. Edwards’ evident skill was ripe for a richer canvas, and his Godzilla is his play for directorial megatonnage, whilst giving the vintage Toho franchise new life. The carefully hyped product has been generating excitement in everyone with the slightest glimmer of fondness for Godzilla, but it had its work cut out for it to stand out in the field of modern special-effects movie, like Cloverfield (2006) and Pacific Rim (2013), where cities are regularly levelled and colossal beasts are terrorising humankind.
Edwards, to his credit, makes all the right moves early on, kicking off with a clever opening credits sequence that moves from pages of Darwinian evolution to photos of mysterious happenings and monstrous phenomena around A-bomb test sites, real and fake grainy photos, with cast and crew names flashing on screen in swiftly redacted excerpts. Edwards gives signs early on that his playbook is inflected by Steven Spielberg as much as by Toho. What the rising crane shot to reveal a vista is to Spielberg, a peak into a vertiginous depth is Edwards, commencing with an impressive helicopter shot of a massive sinkhole in the midst of an open-cut mine teeming with antlike humans, a visually impressive and thematically keen vision of what’s to come. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are brought to the mine in the Philippines to behold an amazing discovery in the sinkhole—the bones of a colossal saurian skeleton with two strange pods in its chest cavity, one of which seems to have hatched recently and disgorged something large.
Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear safety watchdog Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) are alarmed by strange seismic and electrical disturbances at the nuclear power plant where they work. Just as Joe begins shutting the plant down, something bursts into the sub-basement where Sandra and an inspection team are working, and releases a flood of radioactive smoke. Edwards wrings the climax of this sequence for high emotion, as Joe is forced to seal off a corridor, leaving Sandra and the other workers trapped, with Joe saying farewell to his wife through a pane of Perspex before she is sealed away forever.
The film jumps 15 years to find Joe, now a damaged, hysterical seeker of the truth, venturing into the quarantined zone around the destroyed reactor in search of old data. His and Sandra’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal expert just returned from active duty and reunited with his doctor wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and has long since written his old man off as a crackpot. Nonetheless, he ventures to Japan to bail him out, only to be promptly dragged back into the quarantine zone with him as Joe urgently tries to convince him of strange phenomena that portend another cataclysmic event, an event presaged by the mysterious absence of any radiation in the hot zone. Joe and Ford are captured by guarding soldiers and brought to Serizawa and Graham, who are keeping watch on a mysterious something buried in the ruins, the weird, crusty subterranean beast that caused the initial disaster and has now been growing fat and strong from absorbing all of the fallout. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival coincides just about exactly with the creature waking up and bursting out of its cocoon to wreak havoc. If you’re expecting this to be Godzilla, though, you’d be wrong, because this is rather a colossal, insectoid monster dubbed Muto—“Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism”—that pulverises everything in sight and spreads its wings to fly into the night.
I was bemused by some early reviews that criticising the film for taking too long to get to the monster stuff, because most of the time, critics (justifiably) bawl out modern genre films for being too quick at cutting to the chase. Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein spend a lot of time setting up a rigorously old-fashioned approach to their storytelling. There’s some nice humour and character moulding early on, like a great little scene in a Japanese police station where Ford waits for his father to be released, entertained by watching as a Goth girl is collected by chastising parents before catching sight of his old man, who looks out with a detectable mix of shame and gratitude to his son. Whereas even the ardent Pacific Rim skipped most of that stuff to revel in the fantastic world it created, this Godzilla goes for an old-school tempo of ominous suggestion, startling glimpse, and finally, grand reveal, in the same fashion as such great monster movies as Them! (1954) and Jaws (1975), as well as the original Honda film. The opening offers wrenching, mythic loss to invest Joe with pathos well suited to a hero in this kind of film, whilst providing a father-son redemption as its key human story pivot, pitching Joe as kin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) Roy Neary as a man driven to frayed extremes by tragedy and intimations of the new and terrifying, with a touch of Unabomber nuttiness to him, counterbalanced by his son’s tepid all-American rectitude (notwithstanding his being played by a British actor). Cranston, still riding the crest of a huge following from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” knows how to do edgy and irrational without losing gravitas and empathy, and his presence in the film feels at first like the film’s most inspired, galvanising choice. Unfortunately, Godzilla then does something rather stupid from which it never truly recovers: it kills Joe in a skywalk collapse during Muto’s hatching, leaving Ford to fill in as hero.
Losing its most (only, in fact) detailed and engaged protagonist, the rest of Godzilla feels unmoored in a subtle, but dogged fashion. Taylor-Johnson, a good actor who can play oddball heroes effectively (Nowhere Boy, 2010; Kick-Ass, 2011; Savages, 2012), is reduced to a veritable GI Joe figurine. The limits of Edwards’ Spielbergian mimicry, which extends to naming its main hero after one Spielberg hero and the actor who played another, becomes obvious if one were to compare the scenes of Roy Neary’s home life with those of Ford Brody’s, which are far less detailed, realistic, and vibrant. Ford and Elle never cease looking and acting like placeholders where finished characters might later be inserted, and Edwards cross-cuts in ungainly fashion between the pair in their disparate places as the action heats up, with Elle trying to stick out her healing job in the midst of calamity, but this and the final reunion of the family played for uplift remain weightless.
One motif, amongst many, the monster film shares in common with the disaster film is the need to find convincing ways to have core protagonists somehow manage to be in different places so as to witness the main points of action, but Bornstein’s script manages some awfully contrived methods to keep Ford in play. These include shoving him into the midst of havoc on Hawaii and then having him talk his way onto a squad wiring up and then dismantling a thermonuclear device in northern California. Moreover, the rest of Edwards’ excellent cast is generally left holding the bag. Watanabe is on hand to maintain the film’s Japanese connection, but spends most of the film looking vaguely stupefied, as if someone just slapped him with a fish. Hawkins has quite literally nothing to do except look gawky and worried. Notably, although the filmmakers have named Watanabe’s character after Akihiko Hirata’s troubled genius in Honda’s film, who embodied the position of the nuclear inventor dogged by guilt in creating a terrible weapon, Watanabe’s character has no real function other than to act as sagacious pronouncer (e.g. “Let them fight!” and “Nature will find a balance!”).
Rather than the firm antimilitarism of the early Godzilla films and their preference for scientists, journalists, and everymen as protagonists, this one makes sure to give us a resolute soldier hero straight from a recruiting poster, even if he is one who specialises in dismantling bombs rather than launching them. The film’s awkward subplot about crusty Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) trying to lure Godzilla and foes to an H-bomb to kill them provokes perhaps the film’s most affecting genuflection to the original, emblematic meaning of all this, as Serizawa questions his decision by handing him his grandfather’s watch, which stopped forever at the time of Little Boy’s drop on Hiroshima. It’s a nicely understated moment that lets both characters and film understand the totem as sufficient unto itself. But the film is really nice to Stenz and his reasoning and cops out of any serious contemplation of the place for nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. Nor even are Godzilla and Muto actually designated as creations of the Atomic Age; rather, they are explained as prehistoric life forms that evolved when the Earth was much more radioactive to live off that energy, and merely revived by a new energy source. This fuzzy take on the key motif behind the series could have been mitigated by a clear new take on the monsters as symbolic phenomena, but nothing really sticks—certainly nothing likely to stick in the mind of any eight-year-old with as much meaning as the chillingly apocalyptic moment in Godzilla 1985 when an atmospheric nuclear blast creates a miniature nuclear winter that revives a felled Godzilla.
Of course, asking for highly reasoned parables and good human drama from a colossal-budget Hollywood creature feature has its churlish side. Edwards has clearly put a lot of thought and effort to one essential aspect of his film—to return to his monsters the awe and mystique engendered by truly titanic scale and impact. Muto’s hatching is grand spectacle, whilst Godzilla’s first real appearance is left until halfway through the film, savouring every hint, sign, tremor and partial glimpse. His coming is marked by cataclysm that sublimates imagery from the 2004 tsunamis as he comes ashore on Hawaii, until suddenly the whole grand beast is revealed in classic fashion in an upward camera pan that tracks the monster’s body from toenail to brow, before Big G releases his trademark concussive roar. Even better is a later sequence in which soldiers speed to Yucca Mountain, where the second, still-filled Muto egg Serizawa and Graham recovered is now stored, with Serizawa having realised the first Muto is heading to reunite with its female sibling. Soldiers begin inspecting the installation, only to find the entire backside of the mountain has been ripped out by the newly hatched and even more colossal mate, now casually ambling toward Las Vegas like a grumpy, loping teen after its first morning coffee. DP Seamus McGarvey’s images are all smoky, foggy, artfully ragged: Godzilla’s landfall at the Golden Gate Bridge—that perpetually unlucky structure!—creates at least one truly beautiful image, of the monstrous antihero striding away from the shattered bridge in a rainy morning mist. Another visually striking, if logically dumb scene has Ford and other soldiers inspect a rail bridge to see if their transport can cross it, only to realise a Muto is lurking in the shadows of the gorge it crosses, at once impersonal and blank in its scale and terribly immediate and minutely watchful in its predatory awareness.
Edwards maintains a rigour toward his monsters, perhaps trying to not oversate the audience as he builds a series of crescendos and diminuendos, bringing his visions of the monsters to the edge of declarative view, but then often dodging or averting his gaze. Sustaining this quality, too, seems to have been paramount in the minds of Edwards and his FX team, as they play with how the audience sees the beasts, from the distant, abstracting authenticity of cable news broadcasts to the swooping, fearsome perspective of parachutists falling in between the squirming bodies and snapping jaws of the monsters. Edwards is so determined to lend intangible, almost religious wonder to Godzilla that he explicitly likens it to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by playing György Ligeti’s “Requiem” during the parachuting sequence, a sequence that is the film’s most strikingly staged but also about half an hour later than it should in the scheme of the film. Frankly, this evasive approach is impressive the first half-dozen times or so, but after a while, it starts to get irritating, reminiscent of the frustrating distance the first Transformers (2007) had from its nominal protagonists, as if the filmmakers had failed to really think through how to use their special effects in a dramatic way, a failing never committed by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. This leads me to the singular thought I had in contemplating this Godzilla: it’s a monster movie for people who don’t like monster movies.
That might seem a strange comment for a film as devoted to the spectacle of giant lizards and bugs scrapping in downtown San Francisco as this one, but it stuck with me because the overall film is so pensive, so evasive in its approach to its raison d’etre. Pacific Rim, a film that stands heads and shoulders over this one for me in most respects, succeeded in providing thunderous effects and cleverly meshing them with its human drama, though admittedly it was easier there because the fate and will of the human characters was tied to their robot simulacrums directly engaged in action with their foes. And it was also beautiful to look at, resplendent in its hallucinatory colours, in a mobile manner sharply different to this film’s oblique aestheticism, which threatens at many points to become ponderous, especially with Edwards’ stop-start approach to action. Edwards has a great eye for big compositions and for depicting mass drama, like an awesome high shot of a highway clogged with cars and a downed airliner lying smouldering amidst the vehicles, suggesting the meeting place of Godard’s Week-End (1967) and the monster movie. Yet, like a lot of contemporary filmmakers who turn their hand to this sort of thing, the type of simple, shot-for-shot visual exposition required to gain more intimate entry into chaos and stage dynamic interpersonal action is lacking, like a late, awkwardly rushed scene in which Ford tries to incinerate the Mutos’ eggs. When the Mutos first converge on San Francisco, Edwards offers stunning shots of the duo clambering over the tops of skyscrapers, culminating in a charmingly odd moment where the two seem to kiss and one gives the other a meal—a nuclear weapon. But several minutes later, it shows dimwit office workers still caught by surprise as the monsters careen into their building.
On the other hand, Edwards knows how to sharpen his effects to a point for some powerful, climactic moments, as in the finale’s cunningly delayed introduction for his most salient gift, his ability to spit plumes of blue radioactive flame, in a manner carefully contrived to reduce every fan to tears of joy. Edwards and company visualise this as a literal build-up, the spines on Big G’s tail starting to glow, and then the glow rushing forward in a long arc on its back, disappearing into murk and then back again, before it opens its mouth and lets loose. It’s a great fillip of fan service not just because the effects are good, but because it’s staged with relish and visual acuity. And whilst Edwards seems weirdly shy of letting the Godzilla-Muto death match take centre stage, when it does, it’s satisfying, as Big G lets loose with every limb, including its tail, to wallop its enemies, whilst the two Mutos come close to taking him down when they double-team it. One shot of a wounded Godzilla, collapsed in pain and exhaustion, with Ford barely metres away from its colossal snout, captures the disparity between two life forms and also their weird accord as dusty, battered, battle-hardened warriors. There’s a flash here of peculiar poetry, the kind that gives this Godzilla some of the stature it craves. Of course, by the end of the film, Godzilla itself arises with perverse heroic stature, a living embodiment of a channelled, but not tamed power fantasy, even as it stomps out of shattered ruins and disappears back into the ocean, still primal and strange in its individual might, as a TV news title declares it “The King of Monsters.” Yes it is, even when its films are only princelings. It’s still a good night at the movies.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Roderick Heath
One of the storied events of film history, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) swiftly gained a reputation as a revolutionary moment in how movies were watched and made. Released in close company with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (both 1959), Breathless surpassed them in establishing the New Wave as a radical aesthetic, a hip posture, an anti-cliché about to become a new norm. The New Wave directors became media darlings for a time, a perverse position for a bunch of young artists, mostly male, who had defined themselves through opposition to the status quo in art, politics, and commerce. Godard’s marriage to Anna Karina, a young actress, model, and singer he had elevated to movie stardom in his follow-up work, The Little Soldier (1960), even made the covers of celebrity magazines in France. Breathless was a deeply sarcastic take on the gangster film as ransacked by Godard’s peculiar aesthetic and intellectual sensibility, colliding genre motifs with pop art’s method of self-conscious quotation and ironically realistic contrasts. The Little Soldier essentially rewrote his debut in more immediate political terms, only to be banned and released well out of sequence in Godard’s development, and for critics at the time, it helped to muddy that development.
Une Femme est une Femme, Godard’s third work, was then released well before The Little Soldier. The film struck many as a comparatively messy and minor by-product of the director’s fearsomely intelligent, but contradictory impulses, with his habits of genre remixing and existential inquiry in full flower, as well as a sour auto-critique of the sudden, new-found stardom and opening doors for the movement. Certainly, as Breathless wrestles with the uneasy relationship between Godard’s love of film’s gaudy lies and his sense of life and honesty, Une Femme est une Femme explores the same territory, but more intimately: part send-up of Hollywood musicals, part valentine to them, with the flashy but distanced regard of pop art, it’s also a deeply personal and abrasive take on young love and a celebration of Godard’s fresh adoration of his leading lady, Anna Karina. Indeed, Une Femme est une Femme feels, even more than Breathless, like a film other directors tried to make dozens of times over in the following 10 years without quite getting the point. Godard litters the film with sight gags and bits of comic business that suggest he’s randomly spliced in scenes from silent slapstick films and random spritzers of Frank Tashlin, inventing an attitude of free-form zaniness which would define much Swinging ’60s cinema.
But Une Femme est une Femme is far more sardonic than its progeny, made clear enough from the opening minutes, as Karina’s character, Angela Récamier, stalks Parisian streets with Michel Legrand providing a floridly jaunty pseudo-Hollywood score, only for the music to cut out constantly, as if coming from a record player with a loose cable somewhere, leaving only casual street noise audible. This proves a boldly Brechtian touch, and Godard continues to work variations on this notion, having scenes unfold in everyday fashion and then suddenly rupturing the texture by having his characters break into bits of comic business—self-conscious absurdity alternating violently with kitchen-sink realism. The Paris on screen isn’t the pretty wonderland of An American in Paris (1951) or Can-Can (1958), even in this, Godard’s first colour film; shot in the Strasbourg–Saint Denis area, it is cramped, dirty, almost lugubrious, but also entirely alive, vibrantly organic, a place where people, not advertising placards live.
But Angela states her wish to act in a musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and she and her fellows constantly pose and playact as if about to turn their lives into one. Angela first appears strolling past shop windows in a blazing-red umbrella hat that looks just like a prop for a Technicolor musical. She walks into a café, plays Charles Aznavour on the jukebox as if to provide the scene with a ready-made score, then hurries off, delivering a quick wink to the camera, putting in play Godard’s subsequent, constant blows at the fourth wall.
Angela quickly runs into her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), in a news agency, where Émile amuses himself by recommending books to a couple of young boys, who scoff at his selection: “Have you got anything more . . . sexy?” they ask, summarising Godard’s wry understanding of popular audiences in one quip. Angela thumbs through a book on childbearing, and it becomes apparent that the couple are seeing each other for the first time after a row, and indeed, the film depicts one long period of turmoil in their lives, albeit turmoil they keep trying to turn into antics.
Angela next meets her and Émile’s mutual pal Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who has a crush on her and engages in constant, glib flirtation. Angela finally makes it to her job, which involves singing and dancing, but in a strip club: Raoul Coutard’s cinematography abruptly drops handheld camerawork for swooping, room-scanning tracking shots, gliding through this fleapit wonderland with romantic zest, noting sexy performers and grimy old cleaners equitably, with careful use of coloured costumes that shout out to Vincent Minnelli. A pianist seated in the corner sees Angela come in and strikes up an appropriate musical theme. Angela’s joie de vivre and a little tacky showbiz craft—she dons a sailor costume and bathes under three-colour light—turn the club into a cheery place of transformative energy. This, Godard’s cleanest and cleverest joke, is a mere set of cuts between Karina advancing on the camera as she commences her song just like a musical heroine, and then switching to her viewpoint, which reveals the grimy dive and its bemused and seedy patrons perceived in all their depressing smallness. “Works of art are the 40 days of Nature’s glorious existence,” one of Angela’s fellows quotes to her from the book she’s reading, and Angela shrugs, getting on with her own version of art as glorious existence, no matter how stymied.
New Wave icon Jacques Demy made his famous musicals in a key of earnest largesse with a subtle overtone of worldly realism, rather than the sarcasm Godard constantly wields here. He described his efforts as trying to create a “neorealist musical,” but Une Femme est une Femme never actually becomes the musical it threatens. Much of the film is actually devoted to a series of skittish, emotional engagements between Émile and Angela, something at which Godard, from the long bedroom chat in Breathless through to the epic freeze-out session in Le Mepris (1963), was proving himself a master, with Brialy’s sharply handsome, slightly hawkish face betraying Émile’s boding aggravation with his lover.
At their apartment, Émile finally learns what seems to be bugging his flighty mate: she wants a baby, “in the next 24 hours,” but he’s saving himself for a big bike race on the weekend. This comic explanation partly obscures Émile’s sexual detachment from Angela exactly when she’s feeling what seems, to the male viewpoint, an arbitrary yet overwhelming desire for a child, a desire from which Émile instinctively shrinks. The couple’s bickering becomes so critical that at one point they cease talking, and so begin conversing rather through the covers of books they pluck from their shelves. Finally, the couple only half-joke when they ask Alfred if he’ll do the work of impregnating her, whereupon he quips, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy.” This is Godard’s second mission statement, as he seeks to muddy the waters of genre and reception: a variation on it is spoken later, this time amended to, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it is a masterpiece.”
Another of Godard’s overtly Brechtian stunts sees him pan his camera back in forth in a slow arc, surveying the apartment whilst Angela and Émile sit in an embrace during a lull in their storm, with words explaining the inner purpose of their actions and the nature of their predicament (“It’s because they love each other that things will go wrong for Émile and Angela.”) flashing on screen. This gives their motivations rather more depth than their picayune actions would indicate, absolving them of being mere stereotypes and rather suggesting their game is more dangerous emotionally than we think: each message confirms they love each other, whilst also warning that they’re excessively cocky in regards to each other because of that love. Godard’s strong romanticism is the secret lode of Une Femme est une Femme, coexisting with and battling his ruthless analysis and overpowering male gaze turned on Karina. “Men are such cowards,” one of Émile and Alfred’s female friends comments with jocular incision. “It makes up for the nastiness of women,” Alfred ripostes.
The film’s title is both leitmotif and punchline, harkening to a brand of gendered mod comedy popular around the time, reducing Karina’s “femaleness” to a series of pop art identifiers and then wringing them dry. Just as Alfred presents a potential third corner to the relationship of Angela and Émile, so his name suggests another intersecting cinema tradition—the light and deceptively frothy sex comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. In Lubitsch as well as in many musicals, the hope of the Shakespearean pastoral is raised, where relationships can begin, end, or transform according to natural whims in zones where social laws don’t much matter; Godard dangles this hope before his heroine even while suggesting the danger in the world she actually lives in.
Nonetheless, exasperated by Émile, she does finally turn to Alfred. Angela and Alfred’s hook-up is, nonetheless, a glum and cross-purposed meeting in a café, where Alfred tells a joke that comments on Angela’s imminent infidelity. They both descend into reverie whilst listening to another Charles Aznavour song, the usual kinetic rush of a musical sequence here turned into a static, eddying emotional impasse. “What must I do to prove I love you?” Alfred asks, and suggests banging his head against a wall; when Angela hesitates, he leaves the café, crosses the street, and does just that. Angela rushes off to make Émile’s lunch, but tells Alfred that she’ll signal to him by lowering their apartment’s external awnings whether she’ll be coming back to him or stick with Émile. Alfred waits outside, but sees the awnings slide up and down in confusion.
Godard sends Angela into her seemingly inevitable transgression with Alfred, whilst Émile angrily searches for her without success. When he finally gives up, he picks up a hooker to expiate his anger. Looking at the prostitute lolling in a shot patterned after Henri Matisse’s work (Matisse earlier is glimpsed in TV documentary Angela watches) of sensual beauty with enfolding reds and blues and converging, clashing patterns surround beautiful flesh, Émile has an epiphany, as he decides, “We’re intolerant, and we’re evil.” Thus, Godard sets up his narrative to end on a joke, as Émile can’t really get angry at Angela for sleeping with Alfred, and indeed her purposeful action finally forces him to cover up his lack and sleep with her, too, just to spiritually, if not literally, impregnate her. The film ends on a French, almost Serge Gainsbourg-esque pun as Émile mutters that Angela is “infâme” (vile), and she responds, whilst grinning at the camera, “no, I’m une femme.” It’s a calculated travesty of the leave-’em-laughing final note of many a buoyant comedy even as it mimics them and the film’s contrapuntal mood behind the official grins and hipster loucheness reveals it to be a contemplation of the sorts of stupid things young lovers do to each other. Godard also conducts an invasive enquiry into what exactly defines women, or rather, his woman: when Émile confronts Angela after her return from Alfred, Godard’s handheld camera becomes Émile, darting and looming as she’s interrogated, the camera gaze becoming the inescapable, probing perception of a man who can grasp everything but the essence of what he loves.
In spite of the serious underpinnings and the acerbity of the aesthetic, Une Femme est une Femme is perhaps Godard’s funniest film, with a wit and a sense of rubbery good humour throughout that’s light years away from the director’s subsequent shift into oft-didactic art. Sight gags and meta-humour abound throughout, most of it feeding into Godard’s overall approach, as Belmondo mentions his pal Burt Lancaster and chats with Jeanne Moreau in a bar, asking her how shooting on Jules et Jim is going. Karina chats with a friend played by Marie Dubois, star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), who mentions she’s reading, yes, Shoot the Piano Player, but gives the title in charades rather than words, whilst Godard accompanies her gestures with sound effects.
Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s immediate follow-up, by contrast, couldn’t seem more different at first glance. Even shorter than Une Femme and shot in black and white, it is a spare, bleak, tough-minded portrait of a heroine making choices that will destroy her, almost entirely lacking humour. And yet, Vivre sa Vie has a similar metre and meaning to its title, stating its heroine’s wilful agency, even as it begins to interrogate it. The film also displays Godard’s continuing, transfixed interest in Karina, casting her again as a frustrated actress falling into seamy circumstance, this time as a prostitute. If there’s a sophomoric quality to Godard’s anarchism in Une Femme redeemed by his great skill, a similar pretence is detectable in Vivre sa Vie’s determinedly sober artistry, but again transfigured by Godard’s rapidly evolving cinematic sensibility.
Where the overt politics of The Little Soldier got Godard in trouble, in these two films he introduces such perspective almost randomly: Angela and Émile’s flat is suddenly searched by cops who object to their reading a leftist newspaper, and in Vivre sa Vie the heroine flees the scene of a gun battle between Algerian terrorists and authorities. Thus, violence and suspicion are backdrop to both dramas. Vivre sa Vie is divided into 12 episodes, each one preceded by a chapter title that announces the upcoming events in a manner reminiscent again of Brecht, but also harking back to the 18th-century novel. Such harkening formalism declares Godard’s shift into a new, more analytical form of drama, whilst the visual language shifts again, sometimes fragmenting into sharply edited, photo-essay-like compositions, or distanced cinema verite study.
The opening sequence, depicting the break-up of Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) and Paul (André S. Labarthe), finds them seated at a bistro counter with their backs to the camera, faces only partly visible as they converse. The archness of the conceit is mitigated by the precision with which it depicts the alienation and anonymity of the two, and sharpening awareness of gestures, as when Nana touches Paul’s head in consolation. Nana (named for Emile Zola’s courtesan heroine) resents Paul’s indifference to her ambitions and inability to make her feel special, a need that simmers beneath Nana’s desire to become an actress. The two reach an impasse in conversation and so play the most forlorn game of pinball in cinema history, as Paul recounts the content of an essay written by a young student of his teacher father: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul.” The peculiar, childish metaphysics of this tale echoes through the rest of the film as it strives to comprehend Nana’s soul via exteriors.
Nana leaves Paul and their young child and gets a job working in a record store, but finds supporting herself difficult—she’s locked out of her apartment and bundled away by pals of the landlady when she can’t pay her rent. The precision of baseline economics is portrayed as Nana’s rent problems are caused by the absence of a friend she loaned 2,000 francs to, and that she tries to borrow off another friend in a kind of perpetual displacement of debt. Godard signals his connection to, and perspective on, Nana when he shows her in a darkened movie theatre, wrapped up to the point of tears in watching Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This scene works on several simultaneous levels. It’s Godard showing off his immediate inspiration and cinematic memory. It’s a depiction of Nana’s soul, inverted by becoming lost in an artwork, and a portrait of her desire to achieve the same transfixing power as Falconetti on the screen. It’s an auguring of Nana’s fate, confirmed as, late in the film, silent film titles like those in the Dreyer film begin to flash on screen in place of dialogue.
Nana hooks up with a publicist and a photographer who takes portfolio shots of her, both of whom essentially offer a cost-free bed for the night. Finally, she’s arrested after an altercation with a woman over some dropped money. This brush with criminality presages her slide into prostitution, communicated with brilliant concision as Godard moves from regarding prostitutes from the viewpoint of a “normal” person riding in a car, to Nana herself treading the footpath, hunched in pensive expectancy, designated by her dress as a low-rent streetwalker. Godard repeats the scanning shots of waiting hookers, but now from Nana’s closer perspective, every face a study in thwarted and damaged interiors via bored, lacquered, anticipating exteriors.
The telling contradiction of Vivre sa Vie is that it was Godard’s most coolly stylised and intensely composed film to that point, and also his most deeply felt, perhaps the most immediately emotional of his career. No accident, either, it was borne of the direct and painful tensions in Godard and Karina’s marriage, as she had almost left Godard after an affair with an actor and then purportedly attempted suicide after his stormy reaction. Godard’s vow to create a true tragic vehicle for her talents produced Vivre sa Vie, but it didn’t satisfy Karina’s desires. Indeed, it could be called an anti-tragedy, consciously cutting away catharsis and questioning the usual linkages that define the actions in tragedies. Transforming Karina from the iconic, wilful coquette of Une Femme into a tragedienne with a Louise Brooks bob, Godard is fetishizing his wife, but also trying, in that neurotic manner of men throughout history, to know his woman by looking to some primeval essence, and falling short. Thus, Une Femme and Vivre sa Vie are two sides of the same coin. Godard suggests Nana has a crisis of her interior life, and is attracted to the idea of being an actress to experience a multiplicity of identities and make up for the mundaneness of her actual being, whilst several characters remark on her propensity for parroting the statements of others. But she’s also convinced that action entails nature and self-direction, hence the title: “I turn my head, I am responsible…I forget I am responsible, but I am.” Godard casts sublime doubt on the notion, noting the random and externally imposed demands that force Nana’s hand, especially once she surrenders autonomy to inhabit the role of prostitute.
The film’s most discomforting scene comes when Nana picks up her first john: Godard nervelessly follows the pair as they get a room in a seamy hotel, negotiate price, and go through all the niceties, whereupon the client clasps Nana in an embrace and tries to kiss her, but she resists, her anguish plain amdist the man’s frenzied invasion of her being. Nana soon encounters Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger), an old friend who also has become a prostitute after her husband’s impoverishment and imprisonment. Nana meets Yvette’s pimp, Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), and though Yvette gives Nana a contact to work in a decent brothel, Raoul convinces her to join his stable. Godard zeroes in on Raoul’s capacity to play proxy boyfriend as he depicts Nana watching Yvette and Raoul playing at the same pinball machine she and Paul were at earlier. Indeed, Nana half-consciously gives herself over to this idea, even after she’s seen Raoul’s ledger with each of his girls’ earnings laid out, in part because Raoul readily coddles her desire to be seen as special, even in this profession. Nana’s initiation into true professionalism, and Raoul’s confidence, is suggested obliquely during a montage showing Nana’s work, whilst Raoul answers her questions about the business with the dry data-recounting style of a documentary voiceover. Soon, Nana is confident in her role, even released, as she easily directs the men who come to her and adapts her act to the needs of the moment.
Godard opens the film rather differently to his usual pop-art, billboard-like flashes, photographing Karina’s face from shifting angles like a studious profiler. Throughout the rest of the film, however, her face is often obscured, sometimes in shadow, or with her head turned three-quarters away from the camera, reduced at times to a mere walking hairdo. Framings are often oblique, bodies and faces arranged at their edge—other actors are repeatedly subsumed in the same way. Only Karina is allowed to dominate any shot, to be the single face, except for the young man who is the object of her desire. People become abstractions or exiles in their own little spaces very easily in this cinematic lexicon. The early scene in the record store where Nana works is done in one long shot that continues well past when the nominal actions it describes ends, scanning the nondescript world beyond the shop whilst Nana listens to another shopgirl read a vivid piece of romantic schlock in a pop magazine full of dramatic epiphanies.
One long scene describes the limit of Nana’s new “success” as she wanders the halls of a hotel to find another hooker to join a threesome with a john in a bleak, miniature odyssey through vertiginous-walled corridors where anonymous faces disappear behind anonymous doors for carnal pleasures glimpsed as studied postures. In the end, she finds herself left out when she brings in the other girl, so settles down to smoke a cigarette and await the client’s pleasure. That Nana is still, in essence, a frustrated performer is made doubly clear as Raoul meets to talk with some business acquaintances in a pool room: bored and itching to be centre of attention, she prods the men, and one good-naturedly gets up to perform a piece of vaudevillian mimicry that gives her a laugh. She then starts dancing around the room, ostensibly trying to prompt a reaction from Raoul, but actually for the benefit of a good-looking young man (Peter Kassovitz) playing by himself at the pool tables. Nana is at once peculiarly transcendent here, painting the seedy place and circumstance with her joie de vivre, and also pathetic, using up her essence to be left floundering.
Nana encounters an aged philosopher in a café (played by Godard’s own intellectual mentor Brice Parain), who happily engages Nana in discussion about various existential quandaries. “Love is a solution—but only if it’s true,” he tells Nana, obliquely warning her to beware of convenient substitutes and untruths, after recounting Porthos’ demise from Dumas’ Twenty Years After, crushed by a weight after being paralysed by the sudden onset of self-awareness that severs his hitherto instinctual survival capacity. The implication of Parain’s quote for the drama as a whole is fascinating, as it suggests that mere survival, the business of getting through the day, is still what keeps most folks functioning. As long as Nana obeys that logic, she prospers. When she resists it, she comes to grief. Somewhere between Godard’s vignettes, the handsome young man becomes Nana’s lover and is rediscovered sitting about her apartment reading Poe to her, an excerpt from The Oval Portrait in which a man gazes longingly at a portrait with the fiendish need to get beyond the image’s taunting beauty. This is one of those classic moments of relevant irrelevance Godard was so fond of, where another variety of artwork is suddenly privileged in cinema’s usually remorseless love of itself, and provides self-commentary on Godard the portraitist, creating his artwork and destroying his love object.
Godard takes this likeness literally as he sets up Nana’s death. Raoul suddenly sells her to some gangsters in exchange for a sum of cash, his justification being that she’s been turning down too many clients. But the handover goes awry, as Raoul realises he’s been underpaid, whilst the gangsters seem fairly eager for a reason to gun him down. Nana is quite literally caught in the middle as Raoul uses her as a human shield: one of the gangsters’ bullets hits her, and then Raoul shoots her himself, seemingly deliberately, and flees, leaving her sprawled on the road. Coutard’s camera tilts down a bit, as if to register shock and desolation, and then cut to black: that’s a wrap. This end is both deeply distressing and blindingly fast, a terrible demise for a woman so full of “life to live,” brought low by her own supposed choices, but finally used up as a pawn. But there’s also Godard’s dispassionate disassembly of genre here, too. Having rejected the original ending he came up with as middling, he went for full-bore tragedy, but then subjected that idea to a radical shift: Nana’s death is almost offhand, the fate of a peasant and plaything, a victim of human commodification and her own sublimation of it. Godard creates his Joan of Arc, but rather than give her the glorious martyrdom of auto-da-fe, leaves her like rubbish in the street.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Roderick Heath
Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.
DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a fine patina of supercilious morality. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.
The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.
DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.
DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.
Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.
Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.
Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.
Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.
Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.
Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.
DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, as well as quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?
For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have a broad, apolitical, humanist punch. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizzazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.
The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).
DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.
The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.
Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.
The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.
DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
What do you get when you cross a pre-Code women’s film with a gangster film and a screwball comedy? The deeply convoluted, but entertaining The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, of course, and the comic/tragic tones of the movie fit the occasion of the showing I attended. After the owner of the Patio Theater announced that he was throwing in the towel on making a go of the 1927 movie palace his family has run for three generations, the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s booking of Molly Louvain proved to be the one that brought down the curtain for the last time. A packed crowd came to say farewell, as well as to see this energetic pre-Coder and hear Christine Rice, author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, discuss the film star and sign copies of her book.
In the cartoon before the feature, the NFCS seemed to make a comment on the loss of yet another vintage theater. Scary Crows (1937) shows a flock of crows completely decimate a farmer’s field while his girlfriend laughs at him. This utterly unfunny Columbia Pictures cartoon lent a depressing air to the evening that was slow to dissipate. But dissipate it did under the blinding hyperactivity of Lee Tracy and the equally blinding blonde wig of his costar Ann Dvorak wrestling with an adaptation of the play Tinsel Girl by Maurine Watkins, the author of the play that formed the basis for the film Chicago (1927).
Some of the elements Watkins brought to Chicago are present here, too—a Chicago setting, a rapacious press corps headed by Scotty Cornell (Tracy), a woman at the center of a crime, a man who’s a chump for the woman. It’s hard to know if Tinsel Girl had a straightforward story, but first-time adapter Edwin Gelsey, who would go on to pen some classic films of the 1930s (Gold Diggers of 1933, Flying Down to Rio ), created a gumbo whose flavors are a bit off.
When we meet Molly Louvain (Dvorak), she’s out with her rich beau Ralph (Don Dillaway) celebrating his birthday with a walk in the woods and, as we learn much later, a tumble in the hay. Ralph tells Molly he intends to keep her a secret from his family no longer by inviting her to his birthday party that evening. Molly, a cashier at a cigar counter whose mother abandoned her when she was seven, runs home and gussies up for her “big break.” There we are introduced to two of her suitors, wet-behind-the ears bellboy Jimmy (Richard Cromwell) and traveling salesman/crook Nick (Leslie Fenton), as well as Molly’s legs and lingerie in peek-a-boo shots common to most pre-Code films. When Molly arrives for the party, spending her last 95 cents on the cab ride, Ralph has been whisked away to New York by his mother, never to appear in the movie again. A dejected Molly, a seduced and abandoned woman now, descends the front stairs. Although we aren’t shown it, she takes up with Nick, a man who’s as rotten as she feels herself to be.
The film jumps three years in one minute. Director Curtiz shoots a series of license plates from different states to shorthand the itinerant life Molly leads with Nick, ending with one from Illinois—natch, the couple ends up in Chicago. Molly puts her adorable, two-year-old daughter Ann Marie (Jackie Lyn Dufton) in the care of a mother of nine (Claire McDowell), because she and Nick have fallen on hard times. Molly is working as a taxi dancer at the Roseland (apparently, a popular name for dance halls of the time), and Nick makes ends meet as a stick-up man.
Miraculously, Molly runs into Jimmy, now a college student, at the Roseland. When they exit to get a nightcap, Nick accosts them and forces them into a stolen car while he holds up a store. With the cops in pursuit, Nick gets plugged and mortally wounds one of his pursuers, while a panicked Molly drives away, fearing arrest. Although he survives, we never see Nick again. His influence is felt, however, through second-hand dialogue that reveals he has implicated Molly as the head of a robbery ring. Molly dyes her hair blonde and hides out with Jimmy in a boarding house where Scotty lives. The intrigue of the hunted woman and a headline-hungry reporter who is looking for her living under the same roof and, indeed, falling in love, pilots this film to its rapid conclusion.
At a mere 73 minutes, Molly Louvain leaves so much out that it’s hard to make sense of the characters, let alone the plot. It was not obvious to me that Molly had sex with Ralph, though perhaps a ’30s audience would see the clingy kissing and declarations of love as suggestive enough. I wasn’t even sure Ann Marie was Ralph’s daughter—she could just as easily have been Nick’s. As played by Dvorak, Molly doesn’t have a hard bone in her body. She slouches, smokes, and drinks like a hard case, but our sympathies never stray for a moment, particularly as she tries to do the right thing for her child and constantly pushes Jimmy away to keep him out of trouble. Similarly, although Jimmy keeps saying that Nick’s no good, we can’t see his assessment as anything but jealousy. Nick seems a little slick, but that’s kind of expected from a salesman, and he’s utterly charming with Molly. Possibly the fact that Dvorak and Fenton met and fell in love on this picture—they were married for 13 years—sabotaged Fenton’s tough-guy routine. His disappearance less than halfway through the picture took some of the air out of the drama he and Molly could have generated in a confrontation; it also cleared the decks for Tracy’s character to run roughshod over the picture.
Not that I’m complaining. Tracy, an actor I run hot and cold on, is at his best in Molly Louvain. A dynamo of almost acrobatic moves (watch him answer a candlestick phone by flipping the earpiece into his hand with one deft shake), his rapid-fire repartee is fairly mesmerizing. He and Dvorak spar with the best of the screwball couples destined to be together, though Scotty plays their romance as take it or leave it—he’s got an offer to go to Hollywood to write for pictures in his back pocket and a string of broken romances he’d be happy to continue with Molly. “When something takes a hold of you and goes right through you, you don’t care what anyone thinks—you go,” Molly says helplessly as Jimmy tries to keep her from running off with Scotty. Tracy has a similar effect on the audience.
The film features some great set pieces. A small moment has Molly sneak past a sleeping bathroom attendant to pour some peroxide of hydrogen into a sink to dunk her hair in. Even when pretending to be asleep, Louise Beavers manages to get a gentle laugh that is capped when the newly blonde Molly wakes her and gives the bewildered Beavers a tip. I enjoyed the riot of newspaper reporters, led by Frank McHugh, moving between the press room and the chief of police’s office, with a blustering beat cop played by Guy Kibbee trying to keep them in line—“Hogan’s Heroes” obviously took a cue from pictures like this. Perhaps my favorite moment was the Roseland scene. The city street, teeming and raucous, is joined by Jimmy and his college chums out on the town. The fresh-faced lads contrast beautifully with the glamor girls in the Roseland, the one time when Dvorak’s good-time gal routine plays true. Cromwell is awfully good as a straight arrow, and his boyish good looks add to the effect.
When the film plays the mother love card, it descends straight into weepy territory, the power of which overcomes even Scotty’s detachment. Will Molly, set to face prison for a crime she never knew was happening, find freedom and happiness with Scotty and Ann Marie? My greatest hope was that she’d lose that awful dye job!
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Director/Screenwriter: Ivan Sen
By Roderick Heath
In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys , Lantana , Animal Kingdom ), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a “The Simpsons” gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.
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