2nd 09 - 2014 | no comment »

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Don Siegel

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By Roderick Heath

Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.

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Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.

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He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.

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Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.

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Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.

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When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.

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It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.

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Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.

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Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.

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Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.

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The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.

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There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.

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Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.

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When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.

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Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.

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27th 08 - 2014 | 1 comment »

Veronica Mars (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Rob Thomas

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

From 2004 through 2007, “We Used to Be Friends,” the dreamy, edgy song performed by the Dandy Warhols, opened “Veronica Mars,” a television series that created such a loyal following that it survived low ratings to last three seasons and encouraged more than 91,500 people to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign so successful that we now have a movie based on the series. What was it about this series that had people of all ages and backgrounds—including me—glued to the tube each week?

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The series, which featured Kristen Bell as the title teenage gumshoe, was much more than the updated Nancy Drew or straight-playing “Twin Peaks” it seemed to be. Its essence was noir, with corruption at the heart of its original through-story of Veronica’s investigation into the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), in the fictional town of Neptune, California, a playground for the rich and famous with a soft underbelly reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Chinatown (1974). Veronica, daughter of ex-sheriff and current P.I. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), ran in the rarefied circles of Neptune’s power elite, but remained a resolute outsider by dint of her lowly financial status and exposure to the ruinous power of wealth and influence as exemplified by the campaign of the 1% to run her dad out of office for daring to come after one of their own. Many fans of the series believe, in the words of the Film Noir Foundation, that “it’s a bitter little world,” and despite the futility, it still felt good to see our wry, savvy antiheroine act like Sam Spade: “When a (girl’s best friend) is killed, (s)he’s supposed to do something about it.” We thrilled, too, that like Spade, she fell like a ton of bricks for the wrong person—troubled rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)—possessive, violently protective, and oh-so sexy.

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When the series ended, it seemed like Veronica had put her demons behind her and followed her father’s advice to get out of the cesspool of Neptune and make a normal life for herself. The movie picks up at the point where Veronica, a recent law school graduate, is interviewing for a job at a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), her kind-of boyfriend during her undergraduate days at Hearst College. A high-profile murder in Neptune grabs her attention—pop singer Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop of Neptune, Logan’s girlfriend, is found electrocuted in her bathtub, and Logan stands accused of murdering her. One text from Logan that he needs her has Veronica on the first plane out, assuring understanding Piz that she will be there only a couple of days to help him choose a defense attorney.

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Logan, now an officer in the U.S. Navy, greets Veronica at the airport wearing his dress whites. She is dazzled and says, “You should always wear that,” but as they say, love is blind—the uniform fits him like a laundry bag and makes him look like the prototypical pencil-necked geek. How he managed to maintain a relationship with a junkie pop star while in the Navy is beyond me, but thankfully, he wears civvies for the rest of the film and seems to have been able to make bail—he is filthy rich, after all. This series’ version of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby gang—computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino), gofer/buddy Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Latino tough Weevil (Francis Capra)—have all grown up into responsible adult positions, with Mac making a very nice living in IT, Wallace a school teacher at their former high school, and Weevil a married man and doting father.

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Veronica Mars is a solid, if unremarkable film whose hole-filled scenario is, as Rod pointed out about the plot of another noir, The Big Sleep (1946), rather beside the point. What fans of the series and viewers of the film will most enjoy is a chance to visit with or revisit some beloved characters indelibly created by the prodigious talent of the actors who played them, their acting chops better than ever, and especially the incredible chemistry between Bell and Dohring and the close relationship Veronica has with her father.

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Veronica gets drawn back into her former life and her former love, reflecting in the noirish voiceover narration that peppers the film that she is an addict of sorts of both. But then, the script doesn’t make Veronica’s law career seem very exciting. When she interviews with attorney Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis), she is told that the firm tries to keep its corporate clients out of court as much as possible—so, in fact, if Veronica takes the job, she will be spending her days literally settling. Once she’s caught up in the adrenaline rush of the investigation to exonerate Logan, she knows that all she really wants to do is get people—the bad guys—into court. Working as she did in high school, investigating her classmates who may have graduated from smaller stuff like test rigging and cyberbullying to actual murder while her father investigates even more grown-up stuff like systemic corruption in the police department, is just like old times.

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Yet Veronica’s quest for a safe and normal life seems to have changed her, made her more vulnerable. While still verbally quick, she has slowed down a bit, preferring direct actions like punching a bitchy former classmate to cutting her with her rapier wit—then again, this scene plays like a rip-off of the Indiana Jones and the Arab swordsman scene. A more genuine moment shows Veronica hiding from a killer, panting with terror and thinking as fast as she can for a way to save herself while obviously flailing at the unexpectedness of her plight. The scene is beautifully choreographed and builds tension that the film sustains to the end. The film is also ably aided by its moody look and a soundtrack as edgy and dreamy as its theme song.

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One change from the TV series to the movie is Veronica’s heavy use of her smartphone. I thought this was natural for someone well versed in the use of surveillance equipment and an early adopter of new technology, and yet, Veronica seemed to be the only person glued to the screen in her hand. She happens to appear in Neptune the weekend of her 10th high school reunion and is dragged there by the Scoobys. As if by some time-travel miracle, virtually no one was checking their phone every few minutes or texting someone. A crucial plot twist shows a similar stupidity about the power in everyone’s hands these days, though we could possibly blame drugs and alcohol for this particular lapse. Similarly, the Neptune police seem not to have given much thought to the audio/video capabilities of cellphones and are repeatedly recorded doing things they oughtn’t, including unprovoked violence against some defenseless teens. Viewing this film on the heels of seeing the footage from Ferguson, Mo., was a truly eerie experience.

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Still, the main event is Veronica and Logan. Their mutual attraction burns a hole through every scene they share, though Logan keeps a gentlemanly distance, even when he is blindsided and momentarily made jealous by Piz’s appearance at the reunion. A flash of his old protectiveness goes overboard when the reunion committee decides to humiliate Veronica by projecting an old sex tape of her and Logan. His rage precipitates the equivalent of a barroom brawl from a creaky Western, a truly shoddy piece of comedy that undercuts the Veronica Mars vibe. While this display from Logan would have sent the Veronica of old packing, the more vulnerable version may actually feel the need for a man who can mix it up, and when he saves her father from an attempt on his life, he becomes plainly irresistible. I have read some criticism of this relationship that it supposedly reinforces the idea that women are looking for sexy bad boys when they should be attracted to nice guys. Of course, it’s ridiculous and futile to tell hearts and genitals what they should want, but in fact, Veronica is a bad girl and thus a perfect match for Logan.

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Most fans of the series are crazy about Weevil, and I was disappointed that this complex character had so little to do and ended the film on a note that seemed all wrong. Daggs, also a fan favorite, is just as good in the movie, but again, has little to do. Colantoni is a veteran actor whose presence is felt in any project in which he appears. In Veronica Mars, he is every bit the sympathetic dad and quietly persistent private eye he was in the series, and he and Bell continue as one of the best fictional father/daughter duos anywhere; his joy at being surprised by Veronica’s sudden appearance at his office is a delightful and truthful moment. While Bell has maintained an active career on television, neither she nor the inexplicably lesser-seen Dohring has ever made the impact they did with “Veronica Mars.”

In the end, this pastiche of filmic styles takes it final cue from Casablanca (1942). In their version of “We’ll always have Paris,” Logan and Veronica repeat some words from the series:

I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC.

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As Logan heads back to the Navy, Veronica goes back to being a gumshoe, apparently with the Scoobys back by her side fighting the bad guys, as though listening to the words of Victor Laszlo: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”


17th 08 - 2014 | 13 comments »

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks

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By Roderick Heath

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.

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Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.

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Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.

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Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.

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Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle, with narrative velocity provided by how Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.

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Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”

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Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.

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The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.

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Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.

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The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.

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Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.

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Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.

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One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.

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No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.

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Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.

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Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’ diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.

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Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.

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The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.

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The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (I think more rain falls in the course of the film than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren) capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.

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The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.


14th 08 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Calvary (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

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Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.

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The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.

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Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?

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Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.

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McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.

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Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.

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Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.

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Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.

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Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.

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Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.

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McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.

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The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.


10th 08 - 2014 | 3 comments »

Grand Prix (1966)

Director: John Frankenheimer

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By Roderick Heath

James Garner’s recent death came to a man of ripe, old age (86) with a rich, full life behind him. But it was still a stinging loss to movie and TV fans of multiple generations. Garner’s specific charm, masculine but tongue-in-cheek, breezy but subtly soulful, had invigorated pop culture for more than 50 years, from his quick breakthrough as a young actor in Sayonara (1957) through to his still-magnetic turn as the elderly version of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004). In between came a lot of work which still defines an ideal of entertainment.

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During the 1960s, Garner busted out of his status as a TV star after talking a walk from “Maverick” to become a movie star, and indeed, he probably did more than any other actor of the time to attack the strict status barrier between the two mediums. His work of the period included the clever, kinetic war films The Great Escape (1963) and 36 Hours (1964), the cynical satire The Americanisation of Emily (1964), before he returned to TV for his other great shows, “Nichols” (1971-72) and “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980). In the 1990s, he was still giving poised, flagrantly charismatic turns in the likes of the prototypical HBO telemovie Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and Twilight (1998), Robert Benton’s moody tribute to aging stars like Garner, Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman. Grand Prix, one of MGM’s super-sized productions designed to take advantage of the Cinerama format for narrative film, was one of the few blockbuster-grade productions Garner was called upon to anchor, though as in The Great Escape, he had to share the limelight with big-name international actors—Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune, as well as would-be new stars Brian Bedford and Antonio Sabato.

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Grand Prix was helmed by John Frankenheimer, who had debuted as a feature director nine years earlier after making a name for himself as a TV director. Frankenheimer’s early work was done mostly under the aegis of Burt Lancaster’s production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, formed to make substantive dramas that often touched upon social issues. Frankenheimer’s first four films, The Young Stranger (1957), The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), certainly fit that bill as lightly poetic studies in alienated youth, misfits, and criminals, with only The Young Savages quite suggesting the oncoming potency of Frankenheimer’s vivid, Wellesian visual technique, which would flourish in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), his chief claim to cinematic immortality. Frankenheimer career remained prolific until his death in 2002 as he fought to remain an industry player, defined best by his run of important, vivid films made between The Manchurian Candidate and 1975’s French Connection II. He spent most of the ’80s making ambitious, but shaky B-movies. Ironically, a late-career return to making TV films revived his reputation and helped him round off his oeuvre with some variable high-profile films, the best of which was Ronin (1998). Grand Prix is a quintessential relic of both Frankenheimer’s early career and 1960s big-budget cinema, as the tyro filmmaker took advantage of the era’s stylistic openness and willingness to let cinematic language be stretched. He worked with Saul Bass, the innovative editor and title designer, and his technical team, incorporating ideas from New Wave filmmaking and TV sports coverage, to give the audience a new kind of epic cinema.

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It’s easy to imagine screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay handled in a completely different fashion, as the kind of spare, intimate drama Frankenheimer had done before. The film might be more appreciated if it had been. Grand Prix’s big, flashy surface seems to demand titanic gestures and heroes, but Aurthur’s downbeat script and Frankenheimer’s cool, dramatic style emphasise instead the fallible humanity of its protagonists who try, Achilles-like, to inscribe their names on history at the possible expense of a long life. As with many of Frankenheimer’s best works, the characters are obsessives seeking expression through action and release but shot through with neuroses that border on the maniacal. Grand Prix tries to walk a line, not always successfully, but with a certain honour, between pop-existential study loaded with downbeat gravitas and an Arthur Hailey-esque yarn of competitive alpha people living and loving in glamorous surrounds.

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The film’s biggest drag is the chief concession to the latter quality—the beautiful-people romance of Sicilian motorcyclist-turned-Formula 1 driver Nino Barlini and his girlfriend, race timer Lisa. They’re supposed to be the eye candy and comic relief counterweight to the other protagonists, but the performances of Sabato and Françoise Hardy in the roles are stiff enough to be taken for Ikea furniture. Sabato’s weak grasp on English declamation retards his good-humour as the film’s breeziest figure, the poor kid who’s found success and become the type of randy, proletariat, “I’m so fucking good” character which today would inevitably be passed off onto a black actor: his complete lack of neurosis is expressed best when Lisa asks him if he’s worried about racing, and he answers, “I am immortal.”

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The other three racing drivers Grand Prix depicts, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand), American Pete Aron (Garner), and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), are very different. Sarti, a former champion, is recovering from a string of bad luck and now seems set to sweep all before him racing with Nino for Ferrari. Aron, a former Ferrari driver and a bullish, hard-driving competitor, is teammates with Stoddard for BRM at the outset. Stoddard’s chief competitor is his dead brother Roger, who died three years earlier after a triumphant career. Scott still keeps all his brother’s trophies and memorabilia as “something to shoot for.” Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) knows the cost of his compulsion; she’s introduced sleeping off a night boozing on Ouzo with some Greek guys the night before the Monaco Grand Prix, the kind of escapade she gets up to as she tries to avoid the spectacle of her husband lying in a cold sweat before a race.

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The Monaco race, a set-piece that opens the film, sees Aron well outpaced by Sarti and Stoddard, with his car’s gearbox giving him trouble: the BRM manager Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson) doesn’t believe Aron when he reports the trouble, and Aron continues racing, though at the point of being lapped by Stoddard. Aron insists on racing Scott, to Jordan’s irritation, but when Aron finally gives up and waves Stoddard past, his brakes seize up, causing their vehicles to collide. Stoddard’s car careens into an embankment, badly injuring him, whilst Aron’s car flies into the harbour, from which he emerges uninjured. Aron is sacked by an irate Jordan and blamed by Stoddard, but Sarti, who wins the race, takes it all as part of their rough business and asks Aron if he ever gets tired of racing. Sarti’s tone that makes it clear Sarti himself is rapidly losing interest in the sport, but he’s still driven to push himself to the limit to retain his belief that he is the best.

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During the race season, Sarti gravitates towards Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a high-profile American magazine journalist who’s been assigned to cover the racing season but, in a manner that resembles Howard Hawks’ communal studies, remains puzzled by its subculture, one that parties after men have been seriously injured or even killed. Sarti himself, who confesses that when there’s a serious accident on the track, he speeds up because everybody else is slowing down, and that “there is no terrible way to win.” Although he sounds like a douchebag, Sarti is actually a calm, collected, serious man who’s separated from his wife Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page), the boss’s daughter he married before starting to race. Sarti and Louise’s gently mature romance is countered by the tormented relations Stoddard and Aron share with Pat, who leaves her husband when he’s lying a mangled wreck in his hospital because she’s knows full well that Scott will keep racing. Going to work for Louise as a model, Pat remains close to the race scene and drifts into an affair with momentarily exiled Aron. Such a rebound romance seems unlikely after Aron sourly blasts her for bullshitting about her marriage for a TV interview, but that proves instead overture to a coupling that has more than a hint of mutual masochism and self-castigation. Aron, forced to sit out the next race, the French Grand Prix, briefly takes a job as an interviewer for American sports TV. He leaps at an offer to race again from Japanese tycoon Izo Yamura (Mifune), whose racing team lacks a potential champion.

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Grand Prix is rife with the kind of tarnished angel beloved of ’60s pop culture: none of the protagonists are angels, their veneers of professional commitment hiding turmoil and dilemma. The film sports many similarities to the same year’s fighter-pilot epic The Blue Max, which likewise focuses on an antihero laden with powerful class envy in control of fantastically liberating technology through which he tries to outgun competitors. But there are also strong reasons to empathise with Sarti, Aron, and Stoddard. Sarti is feeling his age but still driving with fixated determination because the speed and stature of driving allows him to forget the unpleasant facts of his failed marriage to Monique, which still persists because she won’t divorce him and his business interests demand its continuation. Sarti’s focus is shaken, perhaps irreparably, during the Belgian Grand Prix, at a rural race course where driving in rain is a constant hazard: during a shower that drenches the field, one of Sarti’s wheels comes lose and he crashes, killing two children. The kids’ father (Jean Michaud) assaults Sarti as he babbles technical details and plans for future races, trying to remain detached, whilst Eve hugs him in desperate anguish. A sense of entrapment begins to form around Sarti, whose subsequent weak racing performances result in the Ferrari boss, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi), a smooth creep who dismissed Aron’s attempts to rejoin the team, now pressuring him for better results with tactics like withholding his replacement car until the last minute. Aron declares himself an “old-fashioned boy at heart,” so Pat takes care to assure him she’s getting a divorce before seducing him. Aron finds himself constantly demonised thanks to a series of events beyond his control, though he also repeatedly miscalculates, like still trying to race Stoddard when his car’s playing up.

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Aron wins the Belgian race after Sarti’s crash, providing an immediate payoff for his pact with Yamura. But the real curveball in the championship is Stoddard’s determined leap back into racing: still bleeding from some of his wounds and keeping pain under control with strong drugs, Scott, running cold and fuelled by losses old and new, competes in the Dutch Grand Prix. He breaks records and quickly becomes a force to reckon with as he captures the New York Grand Prix. The moment he turns back up at the race scene, still on crutches, to confront his wife, leads to a marvellously uncomfortable scene where Aron politely excuses himself whilst Scott states his determination to win Pat back whilst maintaining his cool, self-deprecating sense of humour, and delivering the perhaps inevitable lament that humans can’t be stripped down and easily repaired like a race car can. Aurthur’s script often feels like reportage from the frontlines of mid-’60s gender relations, the uneasy ménage of Pat, Pete, and Scott testing new definitions and zones of tolerance in relationships, whilst Sarti is ironically trapped in an unhappy marriage whilst trying to romance feminist Louise. When Louise finally tells him, “I love you, Jean-Pierre,” he replies, “As I you—we have to discuss the consequences of those terrible words.”

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Such touches indicate the surprisingly adult tenor of much of Grand Prix that is strengthened by the cast, including Montand, who blends of wry, yet sad-sack grace and terse, Gallic focus. The grown-up attitude of the film does, however, curiously work against the project’s nominal appeal, as Sarti’s toey romance with Louise never quite combusts and is certainly never as interesting as the weird triangle of Pete, Scott, and Pat, which is in turn too angst-ridden to be sexy, whilst Nino and Lisa might as well be Ken and Barbie dolls. Bedford is good as Scott, tossing off his barbed, blackly humorous self-deprecation and sarcasm and putting across the character’s odd mixture of dry cool and morbid obsession, but he also lacks charisma and warmth, one reason perhaps his film career didn’t amount to much after this. Walter’s role as Pat, superficially shallow and certainly life-hungry, but actually rather tormented, plays as both antithesis and anticipation of her famous part as the psycho stalker in Play Misty for Me (1970), a psychic grease trap for flawed macho men. She is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Garner is cast against type, playing the kind of cool, seemingly detached, but actually deeply fixated customer patented by Steve McQueen, who indeed had been the first choice for the role; McQueen signed up for a rival production instead.

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Garner’s best scenes come opposite Mifune, who isn’t given that much to do really and whose impact is doubly hampered by a clumsy and wooden dub job by Paul Frees. But Mifune’s poise and thoughtfulness still come across, as the American hotshot and Japanese magnate find accord, even friendship, even as Yamura admits that he shot down 17 American planes during his stint as a WWII fighter pilot. Aron tells Yamura he likes him because he comes to the point, and Yamura confirms that’s why he chose Aron as his champion, because he races in the same fashion. Their accord is strained momentarily as Aron admits he makes more mistakes than the triumphant Scott, as Yamura subjects him to hours studying footage of his various stuff-ups. But the theme is ultimately a positive portrait of postwar reconciliation that fits in not just the film’s internationalist viewpoint, but also the romantic pairings, for everything in the film is viewed at some point in a cycle of integration and disintegration, fitting for a tale which revolves around systemic variations and the quest for infallible interactions of fickle parts. Frankenheimer constantly binds his four protagonists together in the filmmaking, visually and aurally counterpointing their actions and their perspectives before and during races, and more ominously, noting each man’s blood group medallion before the last race. Such motifs suggest Frankenheimer playing games with autonomy and identity in a much less direct manner than he did in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds (1966), but still finding ways to express it as the racers adventure in extreme zones where they are only as good as their machines: they become something other than human in such zones.

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Grand Prix is most famous for its technical achievements over and above its human side, and whilst as I’ve noted that’s not entirely justified, what is certain is that Frankenheimer’s work with Bass, supervising editor Frederic Steinkamp, and DP Lionel Lindon succeeded in creating a new kind of sports film. Whilst the film’s portrait of the sportsman as existential adventurer in search of perfection in the game but suffering in human interactions surely stands in the shadow of The Hustler (1961), its own immediate influence both stylistically and thematically is intrinsic in films like Downhill Racer (1969), Winning (1969), and Le Mans (1971), and stretching through to Chariots of Fire (1981) and Any Given Sunday (1999), before the more familiar style initiated by Rocky (1976) made the recent sports film a dance towards inevitable triumph.

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Right from the opening frames, the stylistic boldness of Grand Prix is writ large and in many ways still unsurpassed, as the filmmakers assault the familiar limitations of the frame and big-cinema technique by strip-mining various mediums and approaches. The use of split-screen, an idea in mainstream filmmaking that perhaps hadn’t been seen since Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), presents subdivisions that rapidly multiply and turn alternatively kaleidoscopic or analytical. Some shots invoke photo-essayistic technique, capturing detail and momentarily frozen or stuttering vignettes where physical time loses meaning and internal time screws in toward moments of decision and anticipation. One clever motif combines TV, documentary, and New Wave film style in journalistic interviews with the four drivers—their reporting on their personal motives, perspectives, and technical challenges in races are heard in the midst of already unfolding races, providing swift, intelligible exposition and characterisation amidst action.

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Frankenheimer and Bass also took care to film none of the races in quite the same manner, varying rhythmically and visually. For example, the French Grand Prix sequence is rendered as a dreamy discursion, the cars dancing in blurs of motion, viewed obliquely through spring flowers, mimicking both Louise’s viewpoint, as she falls under the spell of both Sarti and his sport, and that of the crowd of Sunday folk out to watch the glamorous event. The Belgian race depicts the difficulty of powering along in clouds of flying water, made alarmingly clear by alternations of point-of-view shots from the cars shooting along the narrow roads (with real spectators captured sometimes in the act of dashing across in front of the cars) and high helicopter shots. The vertiginous car-mounted shots, some of which were captured by cameras fixed to Phil Hill’s car in real races, must have been dizzying on the Cinerama screen, and certainly communicate great velocity even on TV. Frankenheimer nixed any under-cranking to give the impression of speed, knowing full well audiences could spot that, and so everything was staged at high speed, though most of the cars in the film were actually Formula 3 racers made to look like Formula 1 cars.

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In spite of the fancy visual language on display throughout, Grand Prix belongs to an age of cinema where the immediacy of spectacle entailed dazzling the audience with an overwhelming impression of real thrills with attendant risks. Whereas recent works in a similar vein like the Fast and Furious films or Rush (2013) drench the eye in furious cuts and wobbling camerawork to give the impression of speed and danger, Frankenheimer takes care to show his actors’s faces in cars moving at high speeds in elegant panning shots. This is more startling when you learn that among the actors, only Garner was actually an accomplished driver—in fact, he gained high praise from the Formula 1 aces who helped make the film. Amongst that roster of racers who helped make the film are names that still have the ring of legend for aficionados of the sport, including the aforementioned Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Juan Manuel Fangio. The dramatic shape of Grand Prix emphasises that the drivers are, to a certain extent, interchangeable, and each man succeeds, fails, lives, or dies through complex collaborations. Each driver is victimised by bad luck and the tiny faults in their machines: Nino is the only one not to have mechanical trouble, which is why he’s in front in the overall championship by the last race.

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The film contends with the notion that morbid delight in the spectacle of death is the great attraction of the sport, a notion Pat voices outright. The film’s bitter cynicism about the voyeuristic urge, especially those professional voyeurs, the press, is old hat these days, but was much less so at the time. Grand Prix interestingly suggests this is merely the dark side to the need of both audience and drivers to explore the grey zone between life and death and thus “know living more intensely,” as Aron describes it to Yamura. Louise herself tries to cheer up Sarti with this very idea, that he puts something in people’s lives they can’t find elsewhere, a truly invigorating spectacle of challenge where the result can never be entirely known. But Louise is forced to confront the dark side of this dialogue in the raw, hyperbolic instant when she holds up hands smeared in her lover’s blood to a gaggle of photographers, screaming “Is this what you want?”

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The finale, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, sees the drivers taking on a challenge long since banished from Formula 1 racing, as they venture onto dangerous banking that sends them careening at terrific speeds, constantly buffeted by slipstreams and the very road surface. Sarti’s number comes up, as seems curiously inevitable after his chilly encounters with both his wife and Manetta and his admission of love with Louise: a piece of tailpipe falling off Scott’s car causes Sarti’s vehicle to lose control and fly off the banking like a rocket, leaving him dangling bloody in a tree like some pagan animal sacrifice whilst his car explodes in a ball of fire. Manetta displays surprising decency by calling in Nino and surrendering the race to Pete and Scott, who then duke it out unaware of their friend’s death. Pete takes the race and the championship, and invites Scott to share the winner’s podium with him, but any sense of triumph is stymied by the realisation of Sarti’s death. The film leaves off with a poetic vignette of Aron long after the carnival has moved on walking alone around the starting grid at the Monza track, imagining the engine roar of the cars and the announcer naming his comrades, some now gone. It’s hard to imagine a film would be made today leaving off on such a wistful bummer of an ending. The reality around the film’s making bears out the truth of it, too: of the 32 drivers who helped to make the film, 10 would die in races within the next 12 years.


4th 08 - 2014 | 2 comments »

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Director: Anton Corbijn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.

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This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.

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Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.

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There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.

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A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.

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For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.

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Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.

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We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.

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The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.


30th 07 - 2014 | 12 comments »

The Doors (1991)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?” “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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


22nd 07 - 2014 | no comment »

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


18th 07 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.


15th 07 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Fritz Lang

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


7th 07 - 2014 | 12 comments »

7 Women (1966)

Director: John Ford

The John Ford Blogathon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.


4th 07 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (1956)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Robert Woodburn
Coscreenwriter: Robert Altman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

altmanrobert2When 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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’:


2nd 07 - 2014 | 5 comments »

Snowpiercer (2013)

Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There’s 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 a broad 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


27th 06 - 2014 | 5 comments »

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Director: Frank Capra

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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23rd 06 - 2014 | 2 comments »

The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni dzien lata, 1958)

Director/Screenwriter: Tadeusz Konwicki

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.


16th 06 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Night Train (Pociag, 1959)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


6th 06 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Immigrant (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa [1994], The Yards [2000], and We Own the Night [2007]), 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.


1st 06 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Americathon (1979)

The White Elephant Blogathon

Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


23rd 05 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Eroica (1957)

Director: Andrjez Munk

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


19th 05 - 2014 | 8 comments »

Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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