| no comment »
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Although it may be inconceivable to many classic film buffs today, the “touch” Hollywood producers most wanted from Ernst Lubitsch when he made the pilgrimage to Southern California in the early ’20s was for epic historical dramas, his claim to fame in Europe. Prestige became the name of the game for the rough-and-tumble film pioneers looking for legitimacy, and Lubitsch was promised a blank check in his five-picture deal with Warner Bros. to create the spectacles that would stamp their studio with class. Instead, the director ended up specializing in fairly inexpensive sex comedies among the rich—and thank goodness for that!
The last of the pictures Lubitsch made for Warner is the charming So This Is Paris, a quintessential example of the Lubitsch touch and one that allows a viewer to really examine what comprises that touch. Setting the story in Paris instantly confers an air of sophistication and allows Lubitsch’s audience to follow breathlessly behind him as he colors outside of the censors’ lines with bold, but safe innuendo. Having a quartet of rich sophisticates at the center of the story further removes it from the humdrum and any suggestion that “just folks” would be as deliciously immoral as the film’s neighbors, Suzanne and Dr. Paul Giraud (Patsy Ruth Miller and Monte Blue) and showbiz performers Georgette and Maurice Lalle (Lilyan Tashman and George André Beranger). Finally, Lubitsch directs his talented cast with an emphasis on the small, realistic gesture, that light touch that, nonetheless, communicates so much.
It appears we are in for just the kind of historical epic for with Lubitsch was contracted when we see an Arabian princess cower on her silken, drapery-festooned bed at the sight of a shirtless Arabian noble coming toward her with menace. He draws a curved dagger from its sheath and leans over the princess—is he kissing her or killing her. In fact, he is doing neither, as Georgette emerges from beneath him to complain about her husband’s performance as they rehearse “The Dance of the Forbidden Suit.” Recovering from this argument, his perambulation through the title dance is cause for embarrassment, as he moves his hands above his head and from side to side, touching each of his breasts, and ending by grabbing them both. The final stage of the dance, carrying his murdered lady away, is foiled by his inability to lift her. Furious, she runs out of the room and brings back a glass of milk and some eggs to fortify his meager strength. The pianist accompanying their performance is beside himself with laughter, and Lubitsch returns to him again and again as he laughs himself limp, amping our own hilarity at this scene of domestic disharmony with exquisite comic timing.
In the somewhat parallel scene that follows, Suzanne Giraud is reading a racy novel about an Arabian sheik. Lubitsch bores in on the last paragraph filled with hot, forceful kisses and the final words of the novel’s heroine: “My sheik!” Miller portrays her thoroughly bourgeois character panting and swooning in her armchair, genuinely turned on by this bodice ripper. A glance out her window reveals Maurice bobbing into and out of view, his bare chest and turbaned head making a sexually intriguing inroad into Suzanne’s passionate imagination, even though he is only leaning over to eat his egg. When her sharply dressed husband, Paul, comes through the door, depositing his walking stick and bowler by the door, she rushes to him and embraces him with the words “my sheik” on her lips. To divert him from her adulterous glance across the street, she pretends to be shocked at the insult of a shirtless man making himself available to her eyes. She entreats Paul to demand satisfaction from the rogue. Paul sheepishly complies, only to discover Georgette, his old flame, at the door and ready to pick up where they left off. Paul returns home without his walking stick and lies to his wife about trouncing Maurice with it. Of course, when Maurice comes across to return it, he makes a play for Suzanne, who can’t seem to decide whether she wants him or not, her reality confused with her fantasy of love. The rest of the picture offers a variety of set-ups involving the illicit pairings about which only Suzanne seems naïve and morally uncertain.
The film is loaded with sight gags and plot devices that build a complex comedy of errors and witty repartee from the script by Hanns Kräly. But it is the performances that sparkle like the over-the-top party dress Georgette wears to the Artists Ball that is the visual centerpiece of the film. Miller’s Suzanne is as dim as she is lovely, the perfect target for Beranger’s unctuous Maurice, who cleans up very well and uses Paul’s walking stick to blackmail Suzanne into allowing him to keep seeing her. It’s hard to believe that Paul would believe Suzanne was dallying with Maurice just because his walking stick was back in the house, but it doesn’t take much to fool Suzanne; Lubitsch also allows for some ambiguity about the relationship when he films Maurice crossing the street to the Giraud residence and then returning with a satisfied attitude to his walk. Tashman is a treasure as a good-time girl, repeatedly giving Paul friendly shoves at the memory of some of their times together, certainly a stand-in for other kinds of contact the pair made. She is an unrepentant flirt and adulterer, a perfect match for Maurice.
Nonetheless, Monte Blue steals the show as a kind of boy-man. He takes his duties as a doctor seriously, as when he races to treat a Mr. Moreau and threatens the cop (Sidney D’Albrook) who wants to give him a speeding ticket with potentially costing a patient his life. However, once he reaches the address and finds that Georgette has lured him there, he completely forgets himself to the pleasure of the moment and engages in a match of insults with the cop, who has followed him. His expletives are so elaborate, the cop has to ask Paul to spell them so he can copy them down for use at trial. It’s a brilliantly timed and choreographed sequence, with Blue throwing himself into the heat of the moment with hilarious abandon. Paul lies to Suzanne constantly, telling her he has put on his best evening clothes to report for a three-day jail sentence his insultathon cost him because one has to look one’s best. Instead, he sneaks out to accompany Georgette to the Artists Ball with innocent Suzanne’s tearful good-byes sending him on his way.
The most famous scene is the Artists Ball, a cacophony of writhing bodies and black musicians set in an enormous space dotted with pillars in the shape of women’s legs. For sheer vivacity, it shares much in common with the imitation Roaring 20s party in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), and one can practically hear the crowd and music despite the lack of a soundtrack. Georgette and Paul win the Charleston contest and a basket of champagne, which Paul uses to get extremely drunk. It is then that Lubitsch pulls out all his visual tricks, using kaleidoscopic superimposition, skewing angles, and returning often to the increasingly soused Paul who is, ironically, being cuckolded by Georgette at the very table where they are celebrating their victory.
Paul is unrepentant when Suzanne shows up to take him home after hearing his name on the radio broadcast of the ball, mainly because he doesn’t recognize her. In fact, he can’t believe his luck in having a beautiful woman put him in her cab and take him to her home, where he exclaims, “I’ve been here before.” The entire incident wises Suzanne up and gives her the upper hand in their relationship—not because she caught him cheating, but because she has saved him from going to jail through her own skillful bit of lying. The couple share a lovey-dovey breakfast, but it’s not hard to see that there are more merry-go-rounds ahead when the final title card offers the moral of the story: “If you’re planning to sit at a window, put a shirt on.”
So This Is Paris is a rarity only because Warner Bros. claims it doesn’t own the picture anymore and therefore has nothing to gain by restoring and/or reissuing it on DVD. Happily, the solid 35mm print housed at the Library of Congress is available for anyone to project. This film must be made available (hint hint, Flicker Alley!) as a prime example of the legendary Lubitsch touch and, as a bonus, an early glimpse at Myrna Loy’s comedic skills in a small role as the Girauds’ French maid.
| 2 comments »
Samurai (Musashi Miyamoto, 1954) / Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Musashi Miyamoto: Ichijôji no kettô, 1955) / Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Musashi Miyamoto Kanketsuhen: Kettô Ganryûjima, 1956)
Director/Coscreenwriter: Hiroshi Inagaki
By Roderick Heath
In 1955, the foreign-language film Oscar, then still a special rather than a competitive award, was given to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi, retitled Samurai for foreign release. It followed Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1954) as the third Japanese winner in four years, a highly visible recognition of the nation’s cinematic renaissance. Inagaki had close links to the stage, having followed his father into theatre acting at an early age. He found work with Nikkatsu Studios as a performer in the early ’20s, and a passion for fusing theatrical and cinematic traditions would define his work. By the end of the decade he was directing and screenwriting.
Inagaki collaborated on many occasions with Toshiro Mifune, and their work together deserves consideration for the diversity and exploitation of the actor’s gifts over Mifune’s more famous work with Kurosawa: they joined forces on the Samurai trilogy, and then subsequently on Inagaki’s inspired adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Samurai Saga (1958), where Mifune played the large-nosed hero; the grandiose fantasy epic The Birth of Japan (1959); and Chushingura (1962), a much-admired take on the famous tale of the 47 Ronin. The Samurai trilogy is still probably Inagaki’s best-known work, however, a grand, richly textured, folkloric take on the life of Miyamoto Musashi as mediated by a fictionalised novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and its stage adaptation by Hideji Hōjō. Inagaki at once mythologises and presents a profoundly ambivalent analysis of the life of Musashi, surely the most famous samurai of all time.
Musashi’s stature and allure combines aspects of legendary western knights, augmented by the peculiar spiritual and scholastic authority of the samurai tradition. Because of his obscure early life and his great career, which saw him cut a swathe through a host of challengers and officially sanctioned swordsman schools and champions, Musashi also gained the extra edge of glamour afforded romantic outlaws and rebels, a lone-wolf hero exemplifying his creed but obedient only to his personal honour. Musashi’s life coincided with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, the monolithic power that would rule Japan for 250 years whilst shutting down social mobility and progress. But Musashi’s example, whilst exemplifying his principles, held the promise that anyone could, with discipline and fortitude, become a good enough fighter to take on any force. Musashi wrote important books, including the canonical Book of the Five Rings, about swordcraft, but he was reticent about his background and experiences in his writing, leaving a lot of room for popular mystique. Eiji’s novel bent the historical bow quite a bit, presenting Musashi as a wild youth whose path to the standing of samurai master is a long and gruelling process of self-discovery and self-denial. This notion played to Inagaki’s affinity for finding the nobility in ordinary and luckless people: his Musashi, or Takezō as he was known as a boy, begins as an everyman, craving adventure and elevation, leaving his small village of Miyamoto to join the Toyotomi army, the anti-Tokugawa side in the civil war sweeping the nation in 1600, along with his best friend Honiden Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni). Inagaki had already, earlier in the ’50s, made a three-part drama revolving around Sasaki Kojirō, Musashi’s most famous opponent, also with Mifune as Musashi. That series had been the tragedy of a potentially great man brought down by his worldly and egotistical aims. The Musashi trilogy inevitably contrasts this concept, and yet Inagaki still finds surprising, even profound ambivalence in taking on such a storied folk hero’s life as he journeys towards his duel with Sasaki, taking Musashi from primal man to modern man, watching him flower from headstrong tough to brilliant but existentially desolate warrior to philosophical hero.
Miyamoto Musashi unfolds as a tale of complex and shifting allegiances between characters across the breadth of the three episodes in a manner closer to epic saga. At the fateful Battle of Sekigahara, Takezō and Matahachi are mere foot soldiers digging trenches, but Takezō charges into the fray in the midst of the collapsing Toyotomis pursued by Matahachi, who has none of his friend’s nerve and skill. Inagaki’s camera dissolves from the midst of blood and thunder to the sight of his two hapless heroes squirming out of the mud in the midst of battlefield carnage, two losers stranded by the tide of history. Takezō searches for shelter for himself and the wounded Matahachi and eventually bursts into a cabin occupied by Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada), who survive by robbing the bodies of dead soldiers. They help the two men recover, however, and both women come to covet Takezō, who spends his time trying break in a wild horse he has captured while remaining aggressively uninterested in women. The dynamics described here define the whole series and its insight into Musashi’s character, who remains cursed in his incapacity to relate to women in his life under an assumed policy of monkish asceticism, as he tries to train another wild animal—himself.
Oko and Akemi subsist under the sufferance of a bandit brigade that controls the area. The bandits demand the bulk of their recovered loot as payment, but when they come to collect and the leader threatens to rape Oko, Takezō comes out of hiding and slaughters several of the brigands in a display of ferocious fighting wit. Oko, beguiled by spectacles of male strength, clasps onto Takezō worshipfully after this feat, but he runs away. Offended, Oko tells Matahachi and Akemi that Takezō tried to rape her, and then she convinces them both to flee with her and the loot. On the way, Matahachi manages to kill one of another band of much less threatening robbers who attack them. Meanwhile, Takezō heads back to Miyamoto, but when border guards of the new regime try to arrest him, he cuts his way through their number and becomes a wanted outlaw.
Soon Takezō is reduced to the status of a filthy beast subsisting in the hills, as his own family lead the hunt against him partly out of fear of the reprisals by the town governor. The first episode of Inagaki’s series in concerned with how Takezō is elevated from this degraded condition to the threshold of becoming the archetypal samurai. Inagaki portrays these states as points on an evolutionary progression, but vitally related: what Takezō lacks is not fighting ability, but discipline, and discipline, when he attains it, is in its way, just as knotty and self-punishing as base ferocity. The blend of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology Inagaki turns on Musashi in the course of a narrative that resembles a traditional bildungsroman is woven together with the real incidents of Musashi’s life tweaked to become illustrations not merely of his gathering skill and legend, but also as markers in the war of his head and heart. The catalysts for his transformation are Matahachi’s fiancée Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), and the Buddhist priest Takuan (Kurôemon Onoe), in whose monastery Otsu was raised. Takuan takes it upon himself to capture Takezō and punish him, but also to school him and put his spectacular talent to better use, whilst Otsu becomes fixated with Takezō, freeing him at one point and becoming the only woman he loves. Takuan manages to imprison Takezō in Himeji Castle, where he’s kept with piles of literature to train his mind as prelude to training his body. Takezō never emerges from prison, but rather who he becomes, the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. He is offered a chance to join the retinue of the lord, but Musashi declines, stating he still has much to learn.
Otsu waits out the term of Musashi’s imprisonment, taking a job at a food stall near a bridge visible from the castle, but learns that his new path demands he renounce women. Musashi encourages Otsu to forget him and get on with her life, but Otsu refuses, equating Musashi’s sense of manly duty to hold true to his chosen creed with her own female duty to hold fast to hers. The Musashi trilogy is then, on one level, a romantic tragedy about two people permanently separated but eternally joined by their ideals. Their lives weave in with others in a tale that travels the expanse of feudal Japan, as Musashi gains ever-increasing fame as a duellist. Early in the second film, he wins one such duel, but when he encounters an elderly Buddhist priest, the priest dismisses him as still just a strong man out for glory with no concept of chivalry, a thought echoed by a weaponsmith who advertises himself as a sharpener of souls rather than swords, and refuses to work on Musashi’s weapon. Musashi, however, meets both challenges with gestures of humble suppliance, confirming that he’s attentive to his faults and still seeking the essence of his creed.
The second chapter, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, revolves chiefly around the consequences when, seeking out the best schools of swordcraft to test and best, Musashi enters Kyoto and challenges the students of Yoshioka Seijūrō (Akihiko Hirata) to fight with kendo sticks. Musashi lays waste to the students, enraging Yoshioka’s protective clan and friends, who insist on keeping Seijūrō himself from battling the upstart. Instead, they send a gang to attack him, but Musashi fights them off, and when Seijūrō’s brother Denshichiro (Yû Fujiki) comes to fight him, he is quickly killed. Finally, the school gathers together a gang of nearly a hundred fighters to ambush Musashi even after Seijūrō has promised him a fair duel.
Woven in with this violent drama are the other characters introduced in the first film. Matahachi’s mother Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), who betrayed Musashi when he sought refuge with her, leaves their home town with an escort, determined to kill both him and Otsu for dishonouring her clan. Matahachi, Oko, and Akemi are living now in Kyoto, Matahachi having devolved into a fetid, pitiful drunk, whilst Oko has taken the wily and opportunistic Toji Gion (Daisuke Kato) as a new lover. Together, their amoral activities counterpoint Musashi’s transformative labours in a manner reminiscent to the Thenardiers in Les Miserables. Toji is trying to make their fortune by marrying Akemi to Yoshioka Seijūrō. The swordmaster, encouraged by Otsu to claim her daughter with force, sexually assaults her, rendering Akemi’s relationship with her mother even more dank and contemptuous. Akemi, more than a little unhinged by the experience, is fixated on Musashi, and she confronts Otsu in laying claim to the ronin’s affections as both women rush to help him as he fights off a Yoshioka gang. Musashi gains a supporter in master swordsmith Koetsu Hanami (Kō Mihashi), who invites him into his household and introduces him to acclaimed geisha and courtesan Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), who has such composure and poise that even Musashi is astounded by it, whilst she, like Otsu and Akemi, falls powerfully for the great warrior. Most portentously, another young and brilliant ronin, Sasaki Kojirō (Kōji Tsuruta), arrives in Kyoto and studies Musashi from a distance, even intervening unbidden to guard Musashi’s back and keep the Yoshioka gang at bay at crucial moments. Sasaki’s ambition is not ultimately beneficial to Musashi: Sasaki has him marked as his one great rival, and, knowing they must inevitably duel to decide who the best is, is determined to keep him from being killed by hordes or treachery.
The Oscar the first episode captured may well have reflected, like the acclaim for Gate of Hell, the thrill the exotic beauty both works generated regardless of their dramatic wits, with bright colour effects and historical settings far detached from the transformations overtaking postwar Japan. Inagaki certainly never pretends to tell a realistic story, in opposition to the pungent authenticity Kurosawa strove to bring to Seven Samurai (1954). Inagaki’s filmmaking throughout the three films is tremendous, using any device he saw fit to render his story vivid and quick-moving in spite of the contemplative heart of the drama and the complexities of the human islands we see grazing against each other throughout: the Samurai trilogy is one of the fleet and gripping epic achievements of cinema.
Aspects of the trilogy have sunk deeply into the cinematic landscape, less celebrated than the influence of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo (1961) and yet detectable in Sergio Leone’s films, which particularly enjoy the notion of antagonists who protect each other to better serve an ultimate confrontation, and as one of the many reference points of Kill Bill (2004-05), and perhaps even George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s growing ability and search for self-control recall Musashi’s, whilst Lucas’ narratives thrive on similar interlacing plot and character strands across multiple episodes—the final moments of Inagaki’s second film particularly resemble The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Inagaki may even have coined a quintessential martial arts movie cliché when Musashi awes people by snatching flies with his chopsticks. Inagaki pushes stylisation so far as to include a shot of animated birds flying over a set representing the countryside at dawn, echoing back to the artifice of silent cinema. Like many directors who started work in the silent era but whose careers were still strong in the ’50s, including John Ford and Fritz Lang, Inagaki seemed to lose interest in realistic precepts for cinema and turned back to a deliberately, conveniently stylised atmosphere, the better to play out psychological dramas and rock-ribbed moral tales.
Inagaki also bends the arc of his storytelling to include discursions into geisha dance and musical performance, as if rejoicing in the fabric of Japanese classical culture. Inagaki’s indulgence of his theatrical and nonrealist reflexes doesn’t mean, however, that these films are stagy: rather, they are filled with vignettes of astonishing illustrative verve. The early Battle of Sekigahara sequences is a brief but thunderous piece of filmmaking, frames packed with charging cavalry and contorting bodies, bolts of myth-writing lightning and pounding rain, whirling slashes of Musashi’s sword matched by the driving tracking motions of the camera. The location photography possesses the clarity and lustre that has long felt very specific to Japanese film, but Inagaki uses his locations with the same painterly élan as his artificial settings, alive to rolling mists, the fires of the rising sun, the wind-thrash of riverbank reeds, the glow of the moon. The duel that represents the climax of the trilogy, a battle filmed as a form of kabuki dance, uses trees to form a proscenium arch and frame the antagonists. Inagaki uses bodies of water as a leitmotif throughout, tethering Musashi’s journey both to coherent geography and to ready moral, spiritual, and experiential cartography. Marshy swamps and high, trickling streams denote the stagnant and violent state of Japan and the wild yet tentative nature of the hero at the outset. Inagaki constantly cuts way to shots of flowing rivers to denote the passage of time and the paths to maturity, whilst bridges across those rivers are both convenient landmarks for the characters, but also symbolically charged places where the characters often meet and form tentative attachments that may later be revised, as with Akemi and Otsu, who first share a moment of sunny, sisterly friendship when they meet and speak of their lost loves well before learning they’re speaking of the same man. The finale of the second film sees Musashi fighting in rice paddies, using the terrain to his advantage. Sasaki shows off swordcraft before the mercurial beauty of a waterfall. Rivers meet the sea in the last film, where Musashi must cross to Ganryu Island to meet his greatest enemy alone on the edge of the ocean and the day, in the null zone between life and death, the perfect Zen location. Musashi’s choice of armament for this grand battle, a hand-carved boat oar, attains special meaning through this motif.
Paradoxically, whilst Inagaki evokes the most hallowed conventions and traditions of Japanese culture, his Musashi trilogy deals with turmoil on a social and moral level. Inagaki pays acute attention not simply to Musashi’s travails, but also to the way they affect others, most prominently the diptych of Otsu and Akemi but also from characters as diverse as Toji and Yoshino, orphan boy Jōtarō (Kenjin Iida) and braggart horse thief Kuma (Haruo Tanaka), who both become his protégés, and the boatman (Minoru Chiaki) who carries him to Ganryu Island. The voices of such characters are prized by Inagaki to the point where the trilogy starts to feel like a parable for the democratising process gripping Japanese life in the decade since the war, giving a sociopolitical context for Inagaki’s concern for downtrodden and outsider characters. Musashi is conceived as both catalyst and onlooker in this process, presenting a paragon detached from the power structure and upper classes of the age, a hero figure to ordinary people, but in many ways, cut off from such evolution (when Inagaki would cast Mifune as a version of Cyrano, it would allow him to perfectly unite both the exemplar and the outcast in one figure).
Musashi is himself, ironically, often reticent, even inarticulate, particularly when it comes to the women in his life, who wants things from him he can’t give. When he finally does let his passion boil over and grasps Otsu in a desperately erotic clinch, it so powerful and unexpected a display that Otsu is frightened, and Musashi immediately ceases, suffused with shame. Musashi’s quest for discipline and perfect skill finds outflow in art as well as fighting, as he’s glimpsed creating delicately beautiful expressions of a Zen-infused sense of nature. Meanwhile the great warrior is most at ease with children, like Jōtarō and the doll-like geisha apprentice who becomes his handmaiden in Lady Yoshino’s house and whose solitary, rapturous singing in a garden Inagaki films whilst Musashi is off at another deadly battle, a moment of near-fairytale beauteousness that rejects just about every precept imaginable in an historical action film.
The conclusion of Duel at Ichijoji Temple ironically contrasts Musashi’s loss of erotic control with his gaining of gallantry: after fighting off dozens of the Yoshioka toughs, he’s finally challenged by Seijūrō, who escapes his own followers who have tried to keep him from attending the honourably arranged duel. Musashi beats him and holds off killing him once he’s sure his opponent is defeated, proving he’s attained both the skill and wisdom not to kill when it’s not necessary. Yet after his lapse with Otsu, he slinks away from his victory a still-chastened and embarrassed wanderer. The long, intricately staged battle between Musashi and the myriad heavies is certainly one of the great combat sequences in any movie, depending on Mifune’s great physicality for its convincing force as Inagaki expertly films how Musashi takes on a mass of enemies, carefully using his blinding speed, precision, and wits to divide their mass into manageable sections. The subplot of Matahachi and his mother ends as a tragicomic aside, both trying to kill Otsu but meeting an amusing comeuppance when Matahachi, who’s trying to pass himself off as Sasaki, meets the real swordsman, who chases him away. Sasaki then shepherds Akemi away from the battleground, and she accuses him of coveting her because he wants anything Musashi has. In the third film, Sasaki gains the success he craves when he’s appointed fencing master to the shogun’s son, albeit only after Musashi proves uninterested in the job and after Sasaki overdoes things in a bout arranged essentially as an audition, crippling a court samurai in a fencing display.
Sasaki eventually challenges Musashi to a duel, and Musashi accepts, but sends him a letter asking for the date of their combat to be put off for one year. Sasaki accepts, as it gives both men time to create a strategy and conquer their interior troubles. Inagaki pointedly portrays their divergent paths, however. Sasaki settles into the lap of court life’s luxury with the prospect of marrying a lord’s daughter, whilst Musashi continues to wander, eventually settling in a small village on a plain dominated by bandits where he, Jōtarō, and Kuma set about to work the land and teach self-defence to the villagers. The echoes of Seven Samurai here perhaps confirm the swift impact Kurosawa’s film had on the jidai geki genre, but allow Inagaki to bring the story full circle. Where Takezō went to war with a small town, now Musashi sets out to protect one. He chooses a path of abnegation and rude physical labour as the way to school himself for the ultimate trial, and the cause of common humanity rather than statecraft and power.
As Musashi and Sasaki move toward their destined battle, the counterpoint of Otsu and Akemi’s war for his affection builds to a head as both find their way to the village. Oko has since been tracked down and murdered in revenge by Kohei, the leader of a bandit gang whose brother Musashi killed in the first film, and Toji has joined the bandits. When they capture Akemi in a tavern after she runs off from Sasaki, Toji and Kohei compel Akemi to infiltrate the village and clear a path for their gang to charge in, a game Akemi eventually plays out in anger at the way Musashi accuses her of possessing her mother’s malignant streak. Akemi even tries to force Otsu to solve their rivalry in a battle with axes, but the bandit attack forestalls this, and instead Akemi dies defending Otsu from a lascivious bandit. In many ways Akemi is the trilogy’s obverse protagonist in a way none of the men competing with Musashi manages, and surpassing Otsu’s fervent but straightforward passion. Her path from degradation to a flash of nobility in the moments before death mimic Musashi’s journey whilst Inagaki stresses the realities that keep her from obtaining the same stature, the cruelty of desire and forced engagement with the realities of the world that Musashi conquers by distilling them into the theatre of war, an option not open to many others. Her death comes amidst the final conflagration of the worldly distractions and the dramas of pettier men, seen as the villagers and the samurai defeat the bandits but suffer great loss: the tumult of an evil epoch is fading by the film’s end, and history, represented by the hardiness of the villagers, rolls on.
The sequence of Musashi and Sasaki’s beach duel is conceived by Inagaki as a moment of perfect crystallisation, both for the narrative and for the experiences and principles of the duellists. For a brief moment each finds a perfect mirror of ability and the perfect moment of pure reality that is at the same time a gate of transcendence. Musashi’s ultimate victory is the result of forces we’ve seen building since the opening seconds of the first episode, a victory allowed by his final achievement of calm in the face of any event: he enters and leaves the arena without expectations, past or future, whereas Sasaki wants it to be the last chore before settling into a life of acclaim and marriage. True to his own principles, Inagaki’s final grace note is not one of triumph, but the awful fall following zenith, noting Musashi’s anguish in facing a future without such a beckoning purpose and, worse, looking honestly at what it cost him to get here.
| 2 comments »
Director/Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Alex Ross Perry has done it again. He has taken self-proclaimed influences as far-ranging as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen and told another annoying story about a relationship break-up and nightmarish partying in the country among the rich and artistic.
Perry has followed in the footsteps of many a modern filmmaker and emulated a particular genre film—in this case, psychological horror films of the ’60s and ’70s—to tackle his newest obsession: “broken women.” He has taken a couple similar to the New York writer (Jason Schwartzman) and photographer (Elisabeth Moss) who broke up in Listen Up Philip (2014), and instead of offering an interesting look at both their lives as they move away from each other—really, audiences get two films in one from an unexpected change in direction from Philip to the more devastated Ashley—here he has chosen to focus only on the effects of the break-up on Catherine, played again by Elisabeth Moss. In addition, he seems to have been reading a bit of Margaret Atwood, as Catherine’s recovery will be thwarted by her revenge-seeking best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston).
In the very true and funny scene that opens the film, Perry offers an extreme close-up of a mascara-smeared Catherine crying and responding sarcastically to her off-camera boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), who utters every platitude ever offered by someone who wants out of a relationship, along with the usual revelations that he had been seeing someone else for a long time, since, as Catherine puts it, “before the accident” that killed her father, a world-renowned artist. James, ever the sensitive soul, reminds her that it wasn’t an accident. Naturally, James finds Catherine’s mourning and aimlessness too much of a drag to be around.
We next see Catherine carrying a bag and an easel along a country road. Apparently, Virginia was late picking her up at whatever depot Catherine alighted in a rural area along the Hudson River to spend time at the summer home of Virginia’s family, resulting in Catherine’s hissy fit. The friends had been there the previous summer, but in an unannounced change of plan, Catherine brought James along with her. The film is littered with flashbacks to the previous visit during which Catherine walks in on Virginia making out with a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who takes an instant dislike to her and James and who becomes her arch nemesis during her solo visit. Virginia’s constant spats with Catherine indicate some unresolved conflict between the friends and help to send Catherine into a Renfield-like lunacy by the end of the film.
What is the affront Virginia seeks to avenge? Nothing truly terrible, as befits the milieu of Virginia (“I was born to be part of the modern aristocracy”) and Rich, whose name says everything about his place in life. She simply wanted to spend the previous summer alone with Catherine, who was supposed to be there to help her with some unspecified troubles of her own. Oh, there was a little sparring about Catherine working while Virginia sits idle, and Virginia’s ridicule of Catherine’s “career” as a manager for her father, a job she can neither describe nor defend as anything other than nepotism. Her attempts to make her own art are doomed to failure.
I don’t think the problems of the rich are undeserving of consideration and empathy, but Perry doesn’t seem to agree. He seems to hate the denizens of monied and artistic circles, and he certain hates their pretensions. Yet, his attacks on them are just as pretentious, jokey, and ironic. For example, in a nod to the rotting meat in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), he has Virginia bring a salad up to Catherine, who never touches it. Although only a few days pass in the film, Perry keeps coming back to the salad, noting that the greens are getting a little flat. This is his signal that the sorrows afflicting Catherine that his own fisheye lensing and skewed angles suggest are true madness really don’t amount to anything at all. He tries to take shots at the corruption of money, having a groundskeeper near the shoreline tell Catherine that “people don’t take kindly to that kind of money” before starting his leaf blower and aiming it toward a patch of growing grass with no leaves on it at all. It’s all a joke, this noncritique critique, this savaging of characters who don’t deserve our pity or concern because their lives are so trivial and easy.
Moss becomes a grotesque by the end of the film, dressed almost exclusively in a slip and sweater, laughing with a maniacal look on her face, cowering in corners, finding herself in the midst of a party without knowing how she got there. Virginia, well played by Waterston, shifts from rueful to genuine, providing some cognitive dissonance between how she really is behaving and how Catherine may be perceiving her. The men in the film, particularly Fugit, are shallow caricatures who are not offered the same kind of dual view Virginia is accorded. Perhaps Perry’s stated sympathies with his broken woman prompted a speech he gives Catherine near the end of the film in which she puts Rich and, by inference, all her tormenters in their place, one in which she says “You are worthless. You are weak and greedy and selfish, and you are the root of every problem; you are why depression exists.” Bravo, but so what? What are we to make of this declaration? That there are shitty, self-important people in the world who like to kick a gal when she’s down because they think she’s an asshole?
Maybe I’m getting a little too old to appreciate the point of view of a young filmmaker who prefers to quote from such superior films as Repulsion, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) to finding a way to attach a relationship story to something more substantial. The incessant, ominous score by Keegan DeWitt does almost all of the work of making this a horror film. If you took the music away, it would be a French relationship film. If you added a bright score, it would be a comedy. As it is, Queen of Earth is an engaging but empty vessel.
| no comment »
Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn
By Roderick Heath
In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.
When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.
Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.
Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.
Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.
At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.
Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.
The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.
Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.
As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.
Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.
With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.
Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.
As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.
It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away.
It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.
The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit.
Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.
| no comment »
Director: Kim Longinotto
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, I had a discussion about prostitution with some of my regular commenters. Among the ideas put forth were that prostitution is a victimless crime and that sex workers are free to choose other lines of work if they don’t like what they’re doing. My reply to these ideas was that sometimes a choice is not really a choice and that prostitution victimizes many people, from the prostitute to the family she or he is supporting through this work. I continue to hold these beliefs, and now I have evidence to back them up in the form of director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher.
Longinotto is a respected British documentarian who has used her camera primarily to focus attention on women’s issues, such as female genital mutilation and divorce in Iran, as well as such feminist leaders as a group of women who protect and care for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and Indian poet, politician, and activist Salma (Salma, 2013). Dreamcatcher looks at prostitution through the eyes and work of Brenda Myers-Powell, former prostitute and cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based organization working to end human trafficking, prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, and help current prostitutes find a way out of their current lifestyle. Longinotto and her sound recordist, Nina Rice, follow Myers-Powell as she makes her rounds of the streets, prisons, and schools where she connects with at-risk girls and those already in the life, as well as to the home where she lives with her husband and her adopted son, the natural son of her drug-addicted sister-in-law. Longinotto also accompanies her on a trip to Las Vegas where she and an ex-pimp who works with her, Homer, lecture at a conference on human trafficking.
During the opening scene, Myers-Powell is looking for streetwalkers whom she hopes will accept the free condoms she has on hand, as well as some words of help and encouragement. One older prostitute accepts the condoms and climbs into the van emblazoned with The Dreamcatcher Foundation along its side to talk with Myers-Powell. Her story is beyond harrowing, as she talks about being stabbed 19 times by one man and trying to help her friend, another prostitute who was stabbed on another occasion and died in her arms. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that she survived 19 stab wounds, while her friend died from one, and says repeatedly that she doesn’t want to live anymore but is too afraid to kill herself. She leaves the van grateful for having someone to talk to, but it’s hard not to feel that one day soon she’ll get her wish.
That same evening, Myers-Powell finds Marie, a prostitute working in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a wooded, isolated park. Marie is from Portland, Oregon, and has been on the streets most of her life, starting as a child collecting money for a pimp and graduating to hooking. Myers-Powell listens to her story of abusive pimp boyfriends, guesses that she’s pregnant, and offers her judgment-free help. Marie will turn up throughout the film.
We see Myers-Powell at a women’s prison talking to inmates about the choices they made because they had to survive and celebrating that her record has been wiped clean. Her attorney, Rachel Pontikes, speaks before the group, telling them that Myers-Powell actually made law as a result of her petition to have her prostitution convictions erased; in 2011, Illinois passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, under which survivors can petition a judge to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from sex trafficking. The celebratory mood breaks something open in the group, as one woman talks of being repeatedly molested as a child, and then tells the shocking story of being beaten severely, having her jaw dislocated, and then being forced to perform oral sex on the man who beat her.
Throughout the film, we meet women who were molested as children, some as young as four years old. In fact, in one of her weekly meetings with at-risk teenage girls, Myers-Powell listens as one girl after another tells about being molested by relatives and the boyfriends of their mothers. Often, these stories are told in an unemotional way, but some of the girls break down in tears or become angry when telling about how they tried to prevent the abuse, but were not believed by the adults around them. Homer comes to talk with them one week, and reveals that he was molested, too, and found a way to feel powerful and wanted as a pimp.
These stories have the important effect of putting to rest such ridiculous ideas as the “happy hooker” or prostitution as a free choice. Clearly, the abuse the vast majority of these sex workers and at-risk girls experienced in their formative years have had a strong effect, causing Myers-Powell to say repeatedly “it’s not your fault” and “you did what you had to do to survive.” This is the language used with rape victims, which, of course, most prostitutes were as children and are at various points during their lives as sex workers. It’s not that surprising that prostitutes have children: when Myers-Powell learns from a teenager who keeps moving out of her mother’s house that she is pregnant, she remarks, “She wanted someone to love her, so she made one. I know, I did.”
Longinotto makes a stab at providing some sort of uplift for the audience. Marie finally leaves her boyfriend and is shown moving into a shelter with Myers-Powell’s help; she says her spirit was touched and that things will only get better. Maybe, but the preponderant feeling Dreamcatcher elicits is despair. Myers-Powell is a dynamic, determined individual who has survived and thrived despite the dead weight of her background, but the repetition of the same stories by girl after girl, woman after woman, made me feel pretty hopeless about reducing human trafficking, never mind eliminating it. This is an important subject, and Brenda Myers-Powell is a lively central character who does more, I’m sure, than hug people and provide positive messages. Unfortunately, as a piece of filmmaking, Longinotto has produced a static bludgeon of what are, essentially, sloganeering talking heads.
| 7 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith
By Roderick Heath
One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1922), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War ended, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.
For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (both 1913), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before, defining moviemaking at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.
The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.
Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith already had a reputation as one of the movie’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.
Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.
The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.
Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.
The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a perfectly direct, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.
The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.
Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.
At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.
When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.
One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.
One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.
As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.
The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.
One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.
Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.
Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.
Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.
The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.
| 2 comments »
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).
Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French made when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.
The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.
Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.
This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.
French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.
The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signalled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.
If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.
| 2 comments »
Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
Christopher Lee, son of an English soldier and an Anglo-Italian countess who had been an artist’s model, had aristocratic roots that could be traced back to Charlemagne. Born in London, he grew with a diverse education and a swathe of languages at his command, a scion both of imperial England’s waning bastions and Europe’s rapidly fragmenting identities. His gifts and experiences would serve Lee well in life, after his step-father’s bankruptcy and the coming of World War II. His service in the war was shrouded in legend ever after, and some have suggested his step-cousin Ian Fleming based James Bond partly on him. After a suggestion by another cousin, an Italian ambassador, Lee decided to try acting after the war. Lee was marked as a potential star and put through Rank’s “charm school” training, perhaps to mint another dashing screen roué like James Mason or Stewart Granger or to put his fencing talents to work in swashbucklers.
Lee, however, struggled for a long time to find his place in the cinematic scheme of things. Something about him didn’t quite fit—perhaps he had too much premature gravitas, too little untroubled charm, to be the romantic lead in the anodyne atmosphere of early ’50s British film. Lee carved out a career as a character actor instead, playing everything from a spear-carrying soldier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to a comedic nightclub owner in Powell and Pressburger’s Battle of the River Plate (1956). Ironically for a performer equipped with a deep, unmistakeable, well-trained voice, he was then offered a role with no lines at all. Lee, who had been dogged by the opinion he was too tall for an actor, was offered the part of Frankenstein’s monster for just that reason. He accepted instantly, perhaps remembering that the same part had turned Boris Karloff, another British misfit, into a star.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) represented a gamble for Lee just as it did for Hammer Films, the small, relatively low-rent filmmaking concern built by actor William Hinds and entrepreneur James Carreras and later developed by their sons Anthony and Michael. After success adapting the Quatermass TV serials for the big screen, the company tried its luck with a series of proper horror movies, a genre that had been largely inactive since the mid-1940s. These films were produced in colour, a choice that would automatically make their product stand out when most fantastical films of the time were cheaply made in black and white, and with the disreputable but commercially smart object of shocking audiences with gore. Lee’s costar in Frankenstein was Peter Cushing, another actor whose career had been varied and frustrating but who had finally become a well-known face working on TV. Reviled by critics faced with its gaudy, painterly, potent revision of both Mary Shelley’s model and the well-worn Universal film series, The Curse of Frankenstein was nonetheless a hit, and Hammer quickly gathered the people responsible back to take on another storied horror property, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cushing again was cast as the lead, and Lee as the monster that he must fend off. Young screenwriter Jimmy Sangster proved himself ingenious when paired with director Terence Fisher. Fisher, a respected editor, had moved into directing like former collaborator David Lean, but where Lean quickly achieved prestige, Fisher subsisted as a quickie helmsman. Yet, like Lee, such fare gave him a chance to develop a no-nonsense professionalism that would serve his creativity exceedingly well when finally let off the leash, and he proved himself adept at dark melodramas like So Long at the Fair (1952) and injecting such cornball scifi as 4-Sided Triangle (1953) with visual drama far beyond its means.
Fisher proved to have the perfect sensibility for horror cinema, stimulated by the chance he found to play around with the established tropes of gothic horror. Fisher and Sangster had determinedly distorted the Frankenstein myth to return the scientist to the centre of the tale and strip him of nobility, an idea perfect for the growing cynicism of the atomic age. Faced with the equally hoary figure of Dracula, their take centred squarely on the understanding that the vampire overlord was a version of the ancient folk figure of the demon lover. Some critics have seen the Hammer Dracula as a prefiguration of the movie version of James Bond: a sexual fantasy incarnate, if still here held in check as an image of villainy. The film’s opening credits, exploring the surrounds and interior of the vampire overlord’s castle, resolves in a tracking shot that slowly zeroes in on Dracula’s name carved into the lid of a massive stone sarcophagus upon which blood starts to drip. This vision has a powerful quality as an abstract encapsulation of the visual texture where dusty browns and greys and the violent lustre of gory hues will dominate. But it is perhaps more important as a prototypical pop-art declaration of the Hammer brand and the changing face of pop culture, heralding an awareness of iconography, an idea that the James Bond films would exploit more fully.
Revising the story for a straitened production and with an eye to a tighter, more intimate story, the filmmakers stripped away much of the foliage of Stoker’s novel, including the long voyage from Transylvania to England, the hunt for the vampire’s resting place, and the wealth of background characters, to concentrate on the essential idea of Dracula as dark force assaulting the Victorian bourgeois idyll and faced down by the forces of iron rationality. Jonathan Harker (Fisher regular John Van Eyssen) was changed from a naïve realtor to a fellow scholar engaged with Van Helsing in infiltrating and uncovering abodes of the undead, letting himself be engaged by Dracula to archive his library as a Trojan Horse warrior bent on tracking down the vampire’s resting place and killing him. Fisher set out to bait the audience into taking Dracula as a figure of campy appeal by having him first appear as a looming shadow at the top of the stairs, and then undercut it by having Lee stride into the light, imperious, courtly, smoothly charismatic. Evil suddenly was sexy.
Rejecting the images of ruin and infestation that F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning had originally offered in their takes on the material and Expressionist stylisation, Fisher and the Hammer production team instead insisted on a firmly tangible visual texture that is lightly stylised more through use of colour than lighting. Dracula’s castle, first glimpsed under the opening credits complete with a hulking stone eagle statue hovering with unstated menace against the grey sky, is a solid, tangible abode of stonework in a perpetually autumnal land of damp mists and fleeting brown leaves. This setting resituates Stoker’s material in a solidly English tradition of gothic imagery. Sangster discarded all supernatural manifestations, like Dracula’s ability to transform into a bat or a wolf, again for budgetary reasons, but also to aid Fisher’s program to create a universe for his horror material that is substantial, enacted on the level of physical oppression and appropriation. Dracula’s castle dominates its landscape exactly as such castles were built to do: to intimidate and belittle, to ward off and keep out. Harker can only enter by guile. Stoker’s Dracula was a remnant of a legendary past now turned septic remnant; Fisher’s is a still-living force. Dracula’s status as dark romancer was hardly new–Bela Lugosi’s and John Carradine’s counts had both effectively embodied the same idea, in contrast with F.W. Murnau’s rodentlike Nosferatu (1922). But Lee, Fisher, and Sangster pushed the idea into a realm of explicitly erotic menace. Where Lugosi and Carradine compelled with hypnosis, Lee dominates with sensual and corporeal stature, and his close encounters with the women in the films shot unabashedly as erogenous preludes.
Fisher’s rigorous filmmaking, not as spectacular as Murnau’s or as densely visual as Mario Bava’s, nonetheless made the Hammer brand what it became. Settings are not transformed landscapes of the mind, but islets of obsessively fussy, romanticised folk-memory. Bava, a cinematographer, inevitably offered a decorative eye; Fisher was fascinated by the use of space and the rhythm of structure. Early scenes of Dracula move sonorously through lapping dissolves and deceptive quiet, time slowing to an eerie crawl as Harker enters Dracula’s remote castle on his mission (notwithstanding cheap effects: a “mountain torrent” that looks a bit like someone left the hose on). The sequence leading up to Dracula’s first appearance is a gem of subtle construction. Gaunt’s vampire girl appears in the background as Harker picks up spilt objects from the floor, an unexpected presence bringing unexpected, erotic appeal to the dry-as-dust scholar. Sexual egotism under the façade of gallantry is almost immediately Harker’s downfall when he is confronted after his arrival at Dracula’s castle by a young woman (Valerie Gaunt) who appeals for his help but is actually one of the vampire’s undead companions. Harker is quickly lured close enough for her to launch an attack on his jugular vein, only to suddenly stiffen and dash away. Harker, bewildered, slowly turns and gives a start as he sees a huge, menacing black shadow at the top of a flight of stairs. The shadow advances. Dracula appears, armed with Lee’s looks and impeccably polite authority, instantly dispelling any anticipations of camp amusement. The monster is a charming host, and more importantly, strangely potent. Stoker’s Dracula was a figure out of Europe’s mythical past, a remnant of an ancien regime feeding on the early modern world’s lack of vigilance and credulity for the idea of the past as a haunting thing; Fisher and Sangster’s vampire overlord on the other hand is rudely, impudently alive and assured in tyrannical domain.
The wry segue from menace to courtly savoir faire gives way later when Fisher restages the sequence for raw horror. This time, when the vampire girl draws close to Harker, his hilariously precious assurances of protective intent are undercut as Fisher privileges the viewer with the sight of the girl eyeing his neck greedily and unsheathing her fangs before plunging them into his jugular. Harker throws her off whilst Dracula appears suddenly in a doorway beyond and between them, in Fisher’s favourite rhetorical device, a single wide shot binding a sudden confluence of actions.
Fisher then dives in for one of the greatest close-ups in cinema: Dracula, teeth bared, fresh blood smeared on his face, animalistic in his fury at his chattel daring to defy his rule and attack his guest. The effect is delirious after god knows how many viewings: the cool, eerie tone suddenly turns to a display of primal evil, as Dracula hurls his bride about and grips Harker in one hand, squeezing the breath out of him, Lee’s gore-smeared maw elongating with weird and savage glee. Courtly Dracula never returns. The beast is exposed, and it’s a sight so compelling that Lee’s Dracula, for better or worse, would essentially remain in that mode in the next six Hammer entries in which he would star except for a brief scene in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), where he plays a real estate tycoon and employs a plummy Slavic accent.
Harker awakens under the threat of becoming a monster himself thanks to the bite that’s festering in his neck, and sets out to destroy Dracula and his bride before the sun falls again. Harker successfully kills the girl, but her death wail awakens the Count on the threshold of night. Harker is terrified to realise he’s trapped in the castle vault with the vampire overlord, and in a memorably dark, mischievous touch, Harker is next glimpsed occupying the girl’s sarcophagus, victim of vampire bisexuality? Fisher fades out on the confrontation in the same way directors of the time faded out on imminent rape scenes.
The revisions to the novel shifts the rest of the action from England to an enclave of Britons resident somewhere in Austro-Hungary. Rather than Dracula being an exile trying to gain a foothold in a new land, the protagonists are all innocents abroad discovering life is a dank and disturbing adventure. The arrival of Van Helsing (Cushing) in the narrative signals a balancing of scales between good and evil. Van Helsing is first glimpsed with back to camera, face abstract, his status as human, but equal adversary to the monster implied. The hostile innkeeper (George Woodbridge) warns him away from prying into the reign of terror and the conspiracy of silence that enables it, but a barmaid, grateful for Harker’s decency, smuggles Van Helsing Harker’s recovered diary, enabling the erstwhile academic to understand the fate of his comrade. When he penetrates Dracula’s castle, he’s confronted by a hearse carrying Dracula away to new hunting grounds and the sight of Harker looking like a sated leech with teeth in his new bed. Conspiring to kill Harker off in this way provides a neat twist in the familiar tale and also helps make Stoker’s rather awkward narrative a bit more logical. In a manner that would permanently mark the horror film, it also offers a realisation that the traditional, romantic ingénue hero a la David Manners’ Harker in the Lugosi version, upright and decent and slightly effete in the face of evil, was not necessary or even particularly desirable in horror stories Thus, Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who takes Harker’s role as husband of the threatened damsel Mina (Melissa Stribling) is something Gough’s amusingly prissy performance grasps intuitively as the essence of stuffed-shirt Victorian urbanity.
Murnau and Browning had never really seemed to know what to do with Van Helsing as a character in a drama woozy with fascination for the sepulchral. Edward Van Sloan had been appropriately intelligent and resolute in Browning version, but even there he was left a somewhat passive onlooker, a Merlinlike guide for the handsome young men and women who are the familiar protagonists of romantic melodrama. Instead Fisher and Sangster remoulded Van Helsing as a heroic figure, creating a more direct opposition of the avatars of rationality and chaos. This approach both extends and inverts that of the Curse of Frankenstein, where the scientist and monster were made virtually interchangeable to better explore the implications of science without morality. But in Dracula, the scheme is used to study the inhuman aspect of both unleashed priapism and punitive moralism struggling over the fates of the merely human and the pathetically victimised in a tug-of-war. It also bears noting that in Expressionist-style horror, the rare rational figure was an interloper in a dream world, whereas the solidity of Fisher’s vision reimagines the vampire as the eruption of the id into the everyday.
The rest of Dracula is dominated by the notion of the vampire eating the Victorian bourgeois home first from the outside and then, most ingeniously, from within. Dracula targets first Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and then Mina, wife of Lucy’s brother Arthur, in a programme of calculated revenge for the death of the first bride. Lucy’s nightly visitations by the vampire see her lying in thrall in her bed awaiting the black-clad seducer, his approach signalled by stirring autumnal leaves beyond the threshold of her open French windows, whilst James Bernard’s score swirls with increasingly feverish impatience and cloud whips by the full moon. Later, when Dracula sets his sights on Mina, he gets her to hide his coffin in the household cellar.
The prim and wan Mina turns up the morning after being lured to Dracula’s hiding place with an unmistakeably postcoital glow: Fisher’s wit extends to the impression that Mina has far more blood in her veins after being attacked by a vampire (Fisher purportedly told her to act as if she’d just had the best sex of her life). Whilst Arthur and Van Helsing watch her bedroom windows from outside, the vampire is able to walk into her room for a night of sanguinary passion, a moment as close to the outright erotic as mainstream film could get at the time, Stribling’s Mina the goggle-eyed bird fixated by the beast in her boudoir before he pins her on the bed and caresses her face with imperious appetite. Dracula has been reconstructed, not even the novel’s dark, entitled romancer anymore, but a creature of utterly uncontained sexual appeal. Meanwhile Van Helsing’s attempt to intervene and prevent Lucy’s death fails when the Holmwoods’ servant Gerda (Olga Dickie) clears out the garlic flowers planted to keep the monster out, and Arthur blames Van Helsing for her death. The professor is forced to hand over Harker’s diary as proof of the nature of the evil.
Lucy’s resurrected form haunts the forests beyond the town, enticing Tania (Janine Faye), Gerda’s daughter, out for moonlit games. Another superlatively mounted, instantly iconic sequence comes as Arthur, with the seeds of expectation planted by Harker’s diary, goes to check Lucy’s crypt and finds her arriving with Tania in tow. The setting is a nirvana of gothic fantasy, with whirling leaves, licking ground fog, and desolate stonework. Sickly intimations of paedophilia and incest abound as Lucy turns from small girl into a dead-eyed parasite delighted at the thought of partaking of her brother’s blood, begging for a fraternal kiss from the appalled Arthur. A crucifix is thrust into the frame, cutting the air between the pair: Van Helsing, the sentinel of implacable reckoning, drives the terrified vampire back and scorches her brow with the touch of the holy object. The dark side of Van Helsing’s heroism is underlined both here and when he subsequently stakes Lucy, giving her rest at the expense of extinguishing a powerfully carnal creature, both victim and byproduct of failed repression. Fisher also takes a moment to observe Van Helsing comforting Tania, giving her a “pretty thing”–the cross–and telling her to wait and watch the sun rise with the solicitude of a favourite uncle. In spite of the brutal necessities and insidious forces in this vision, Fisher accords a simple grace between such Manichaean extremes.
The flaws of Dracula stem, like its best ideas, from concatenating a complex narrative for a low budget. The relative proximity of Dracula’s homeland and the locale of the Holmwood house here means that the epic pursuit described in the book gives way to a horse chase that could have strayed out a lesser western. Comic relief is variable: the actor and writer Miles Malleson, who had helped pen the screenplay of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the few British fantasy films of its age and in some ways a precursor to the Hammer horror brand (with Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar a definite ancestor of Lee’s Dracula), appears briefly but amusingly as a gabby, absent-minded undertaker, whilst Geoffrey Bayldon contributes less funny stuff as a corrupt border guard. But the proper finale is another breathlessly well-staged sequence that sees the horror film lurching close to something like action cinema. Indeed, Fisher would have an acknowledged influence on later, kinetically gifted, blockbuster filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Burton, and Cushing pushed for a climax that had a physicality worthy of Douglas Fairbanks. The production couldn’t quite stretch that far, but the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing has a ferocity that’s still gripping thanks to the combination of Fisher’s jagged edits, the actors, and Bernard’s thunderous scoring. The fight builds to a swashbuckling move where the vampire hunter leaps onto a long table, dashes down its length and pulls down curtains, pinioning Dracula in the sun’s rays, where he agonisingly disintegrates into a pile of ashes, a moment that stands as one of the most quoted sequences in horror cinema, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the resolutely low-tech effects.
Dracula was a big hit upon release, one that set a horror renaissance that would power on until the 1980s officially on course. Lee later estimated the film made upwards of $25 million, a huge sum for the day. Lee himself declined to play the vampire again, afraid of being typecast. In the interval, Fisher helmed The Brides of Dracula (1960), with Cushing returning as Van Helsing, but that film, though later reappraised as amongst the finest Hammer films, was greeted as a compromise at the time. Finally, after eight years and some commercial stumbles by Hammer and Fisher in working through the classic canon of horror tales, Lee was persuaded to return as the count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The result of this deal, has often itself been regarded as a lesser Hammer horror, but Prince of Darkness deserves more respect, in large part because whilst the original Dracula had been a perfect fit for 1958, the sequel has a prognosticative element, one Hammer would ultimately fail to comprehend, leading to its commercial decline. Dracula: Prince of Darkness strips down Fisher’s concept of Stoker’s mythology to an even more purified essence and, with it, the underpinning anxieties and fantasies of much horror storytelling; in doing so, it looks forward to what would happen in the genre in the ’70s. The basic plot is the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and other films where a bunch of young people find themselves stranded in some evil locale at the mercy of malignant foes. This time Dracula didn’t even get a single line, and it testifies to the force of Lee’s performance and Fisher’s direction that he doesn’t need any to bend the gravitational flow of the film.
This time, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds, a regular Hammer producer working under his usual writing pseudonym John Elder, replaced Van Helsing with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a creation who, as a religious man, focuses the dualistic take on good vss evil more than Van Helsing could. Following a replay of the first film’s climax, Sandor is glimpsed at the outset berating a fellow priest as a superstitious idiot and warning the Carpathian villagers not go desecrating the dead in the belief the Dracula is still plaguing them. Sandor later warns a quartet of English tourists not to go anywhere near Dracula’s castle, which is missing from maps. The unwitting tourists are brothers Alan (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and their wives Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Diana (Suzan Farmer). Charles is the younger, glibber, mostly reformed playboy brother who delights in teasing Helen, the uptight and nervous representative of stiff-necked English mores.
In spite of Dracula’s death, the locals are still petrified by his memory, a fear that plays a part in the travellers being left stranded before his castle and forced to take refuge there–helped along by a mysterious carriage pulled by a couple of self-directing horses. They find a servant, Klove (Phillip Latham), tending to the castle and maintaining the supposed last wishes of his deceased master to take care of all visitors. Fisher stages Klove’s appearance as a new twist on Dracula’s in the previous film, stepping out of shadow to reveal himself as neither hideously deformed nor towering and charismatic, but rather like someone left Alistair Sim in the fridge too long. Helen quivers with anxiety as she senses the malevolent strangeness behind all of the odd events, but her companions remain oblivious and increasingly irritated by her mood. During the night, the sound of Klove dragging a large chest around draws Alan out to find what’s happening, only for Klove to stab him to death, suspend his body over an open sarcophagus, and use his life blood to reconstitute Dracula from his own collected ashes. Klove then entices Helen out to become the resurrected monster’s first victim/bride. Charles and Diana fight their way out of the castle and take refuge at the monastery headed by Sandor, but Klove brings the count and Helen to the monastery and lays siege.
Fisher’s direction this time around was more of an experiment in pacing, prowling camerawork suggesting the presence of evil long before it shows its face, a mood of quiet oddness dominating the first half. The narrative is deceptively straightforward, paring away distractions to create a cleverly focused variation on the original’s concerns. Hinds’ script works in elements from the novel left out of the ’58 film, including a version of Renfield named Ludwig (Thorley Walters, in a note-perfect turn), a resident at Sandor’s monastery who lost his mind after some hideous experience near Castle Dracula and now binds books for the monks. He soon proves to be a sleeper agent for the besieging monster, and the key to the moment when Dracula forces Diana to drink his blood from a gash in his chest. Fisher observes the slow gathering of forces that will attack the interlopers, with their readily familiar quirks and flaws plotted exactingly and building to the hideously beautiful sight of Alan’s gushing blood feeding the reconstituting mess in the sarcophagus. Matthews’ Charles makes for a deliberately callow hero, forced to rapidly grow up in the course of fighting for his and Diana’s lives, whilst Diana herself, though in thrall to the vampire later in the film, is, in many ways, the most forthright and gutsy character: her attempt to intervene and save her husband reveals to Sandor a way to kill the monster.
But Dracula: Prince of Darkness is essentially about Helen, a vehicle for Fisher to return to the obsessive point of duality that drives this fantasy and push the metaphors of neurotic repression and lunatic explosion to an extreme within a single character. She’s insufferable in her vinegary attitude and priggishness, the epitome of a certain cliché of English repression. She’s also the only one with the sense to see the situation for what it is, a Cassandra no one will listen to. Presented to the dark marauder lurking in the castle, Helen is transformed into a devilishly passionate creature, lusting after Diana and clinging tightly to the count. Shelley, who had only gotten to play half of Fisher’s last study in dichotomous female representation, The Gorgon (1963), here describes the shift from lamb to predator with fiendish grace, as when Helen appears at Diana’s window at the monastery, playing the lost and freezing innocent in a vision out of folk myth, then leaping for Diana’s neck with wolfish delight the moment her way is clear.
Like the use of the monster in Curse of Frankenstein as a way of revealing the monstrosity of the creator, here Fisher reduces Dracula to an almost abstract force peeling away the contrivances of civilisation, anticipating the increasingly blank and faceless avatars of evil that would proliferate in later horror films. When the monks capture Helen, the scene is staged like a gang-rape, Sandor hammering the life out of her. Here Fisher looks forward to the historical savagery and indictments of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971). Fisher complicates by not making Sandor an obvious avatar for repressive religious fanaticism, but rather a good-natured, earthy man whose fearsome streak is stirred only by the spectacle of real evil. In spite of his relatively marginal presence in the film, Dracula is not reduced; his authority, and Lee’s, is brought out all the more as he silently and effortlessly dominates any character and any scene he’s in, as when he gestures for a mesmerised Diana to remove her crucifix necklace, a moment that perhaps better than any other captures the level of concentration and rigour Lee poured into his performances as Dracula. The film’s cobra-and-mongoose-like intensity finally combusts for another segue into serial-like action at the climax. Charles and Sandor dash across country to catch the carriage driven by Klove and carrying Dracula and the stolen Diana to the castle. Here the script makes inspired use of a relatively obscure piece of vampire lore, that running water is a fatal barrier. As Charles and Dracula fight on the frozen mantle of the castle’s moat, Sandor shoots the ice until the vampire is stranded on a frigid raft, before he pitches into the brine and sinks to his doom. Naturally, the count would be back. Having broken his ban, Lee would return to the role seven more times, five of them for Hammer. In spite of those films’ varying levels of quality and inspiration, and following a remarkable late-career resurgence as the must-have actor mascot for grand movie fantasies in the 2000s, Lee would, nonetheless and above all, always be Dracula.
| 3 comments »
Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.
| 2 comments »
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Richard Lester, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a weeklong retrospective of the works of American-born, British-based Richard Lester. The series will of course include his most famous works, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), but will range across his career to include lesser-appreciated films like Juggernaut (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). What it will not include is his debut feature film. The privilege of seeing It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm this week was solely that of the patrons of the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society, which, after lengthy negotiation, managed to pry the only projectable print out of the Sony vault for our enjoyment and edification.
Many movie buffs and Beatles fans know that Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night based on the Fab Four’s wild enthusiasm for the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a short film Lester made as a first foray onto the big screen after several years in television. What isn’t as well known is that another Lester effort, a TV pilot called Have Jazz, Will Travel, made an impression on Amicus Productions cofounder Milton Subotsky, another American expat in Britain with a TV background trying to reach the teen market with music, and later, horror films. Subotsky handed Lester a 24-page script, a large roster of jazz and pop stars, and a free hand in filling them both out to feature length. The result was a 78-minute concert film with a comedic story thread and a wealth of visual inventiveness that occasionally tips the film into experimental territory.
Although the film is nearly nonstop music, there is a story that Lester mines for some great visual gags. The mayor (Felix Felton) of an English suburb goes out to a cafe for a quiet cup of coffee, only to have his repast rudely interrupted by a swarm of teens coming in to dance to the rock ’n roll records on the jukebox. They also watch TV announcer Alan Freeman as he presents such acts as Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band. The mayor gets the town council to approve a ban on jazz, sending two of the town’s teens, pop stars Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, on a mission to bring a jazz concert to town to show the townspeople that the music is just good clean fun.
The wrap-around story affords Lester the only opportunities to indulge his comedic instincts. He shows the mayor crushing records in a vise, only to stop when his aide accidentally (?) hands him a Lawrence Welk record. When Shapiro and Douglas decide to go to London to enlist the aid of Freeman, Lester breaks the fourth wall with a snappy verbal exchange and moves the film strip across the screen to change the town location to the broadcast studio; similarly, when the teens strike out with Freeman and decide to go to a nightclub to try their luck with announcer David Jacobs, he flips the scene again and pops some evening clothes on them for good measure. He ends with more visual zaniness as the mayor, who has unwittingly agreed to a jazz concert in town, sets up obstacles to the bands coming to play. Giant rubber bands bounce the musicians’ van between two sets of trees, and when the van breaks free, the police pile furniture into a high roadblock, only for the van to drive around it.
Most of Lester’s real work is in trying to provide interesting set-ups for the 26 acts that comprise the bulk of the film, and he largely succeeds. He uses masks to split the images of Terry Lightfoot and his band, creating boxes within boxes that offer the static image some movement. When Helen Shapiro sings, he gets right into the crowd of kids swirling around her and creates an almost flickering effect of her peeking out between the moving heads and bodies. He favors close-ups, perhaps thinking it would be rather funny to move into the maw of a crooner, as he does with the megaphone-wielding singer of The Temperance Seven. The gargantuan images he creates with this effect are rather monstrous, creating an impression not far off from what the mayor objected to—that hopped-up music and teen culture would take over the world, as indeed they did.
Lester and Subotsky almost pulled off a coup as the first people to capture Chubby Checker on film doing the twist—in this case, the “Lose Your Inhibition Twist”—but lost out when Teenage Millionaire appeared in 1961. The scene with Checker is notable for being at an integrated nightclub where black and white dancers mix freely on the dance floor.
It is worth noting that the film’s British title, It’s Trad, Dad, refers to the label Dixieland jazz has in Britain—traditional jazz. Thus, the film is loaded with Dixieland bands and music, including Chris Barber and his Jazz Band with vocalist Ottilie Patterson doing “Down By the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My favorite was British clarinetist Aker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band; Lester seized the opportunity to create a visual narrative for the band’s rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” that presages similar work in the Beatles films.
A dramatic moment is Gene McDaniels singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Another Tear Falls.” Lester films him first in dramatic silhouette and then maintains minimal key lighting to reflect the song lyrics and McDaniels’ powerfully emotional voice. Sadly, the liberal lipsynching used in the film creates an unintentionally funny moment in this excellent performance when McDaniels takes a puff on his cigarette and ends up spitting smoke for several bars.
There aren’t many recognizable pop songs, though artists such as Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, and Gary U.S. Bonds were at the top of their game when this was filmed. Sixteen-year-old Helen Shapiro made her screen debut in this film, but she was hardly an unknown; she had been voted Britain’s top female singer, and The Beatles’ first national tour of Britain, in 1963, was as her opening act. Her deep voice and energetic phrasing in “Let’s Talk About Love” demonstrate what a major talent she was.
How much you like this film may depend on how much you like the music. Although some of the outdated vocal and fashion styles garnered laughs from the audience with whom I saw It’s Trad, Dad, the hands-down favorite of the evening were The Temperance Seven, a cross between the Nairobi Trio and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Their cheeky, untranslated French lyrics and ennui-filled performance are delightfully droll and unabashedly fun. It’s absolutely fitting that they should be in Dick Lester’s very first feature film.
| 6 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth-most-successful French film ever.
Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)
Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.
T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.
The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.
T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.
T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.
The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.
The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.
Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.
| 2 comments »
Director: William A. Wellman
By Roderick Heath
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.
| 2 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Edward Yang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.
The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.
The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.
The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.
Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.
Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.
Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”
Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.
The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.
| 10 comments »
Director: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
New frontiers, vast and infinitesimal: Michael Mann commences Blackhat with a brief symphony of cinema comprising visions of systems micro and macro. The Earth is pictured from space, not as a zone of seas and continents, but rather as a glowing mass of connections, a wired-up world, before plunging into the tiniest components of a computing system, where the flow of electricity and energy sets in motion grand dramas. Microscopic grids flow with pulses of energy, tripping the gates of information flow that define the digital mechanism. Mann then pulls back to observe the interior of a nuclear power station, just as alien and geometric as the innards of a silicon chip, circuit boards and nuclear cooling rods as indistinguishable, symmetrical hunks of hardware. The streets of supercities unfold in the same geometric forms in a colonisation of the mind and the world by the precepts of the abstract and the mechanistic. Blackhat is at once a stripped-down, businesslike machine of a film, and one that bears the weight of summarising Mann’s career with covert elasticity. Blackhat is Mann going internationalist, finding the computer age is just as wide open and lawless, replete with shadow-enemies and doppelgangers, as Mann’s wilderness society in Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the mean streets of his neo-noir films, backdrops of burning sulphurous light and ashen, digital dark. Borders are disrespected to the point of invisibility in the new digital world, and the systems of the human world aren’t just failing to keep up, but lie immobilised, distraught at the collapse of familiar fiefdoms and settled dominions.
A “blackhat,” slang for malicious internet corsair, hacks into the mainframe controlling a nuclear power station in China, shutting down the water pumps for the reactor coolant, causing an explosion and threatening a meltdown. Shortly thereafter, the same insidious computer program is used to hack into the New York Stock Exchange and start a run on soy futures. The Chinese government reaches out to the U.S. through young, American-schooled, cybercrime expert Captain Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang) to instigate a joint task force to track down the all-but-ethereal criminals able to reach into the heart of nations. Dawai asks his sister, Lein (Tang Wei, the moon-faced tragedienne of Lust, Caution, 2006), to turn her computing expertise to the problem and come with him.
The Americans cautiously agree to help, with the taskforce’s team leader, FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), under orders to move carefully and not risk any security exposures to the Chinese. Probing the fragments of the “RAT” (remote access tool) coding used in the hacks, Dawai is shocked to recognise it as something he wrote in college his roommate and pal Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) as a show-off gag. Nick has since been imprisoned for a long stretch after using his prodigious hacking gifts to siphon millions from various financial institutions, but Dawai argues successfully that only the man most responsible for creating the code might be able to help unravel it. Nick is released, albeit with a tracker on his leg and U.S. Marshall Jessup (Holt McCallany) as watchdog until he comes up trumps or heads back to jail.
Nick soon proves his worth as he deduces how the stock exchange was hacked—it was by a criminal who got himself a job as a janitor inserting a USB stick with the malware into a mainframe computer. The team quickly tracks down the criminal and find him dead from an overdose, but his computer still offers a thin thread that leads them on through a web where the spider sits in a nest tugging on strings setting hardware—human agents—to facilitate and protect the real action, which takes place deep in the infinite sprawl of fibre optics and circuits. Hacking and cybercrime are pervasive facts of the modern world, but they have proven notoriously tricky, unpopular subjects for filmmakers (and given Blackhat’s box office, probably likely to remain so). Mann negotiates his way into this world with a key assumption that the world of virtual crime and real world crime are not really that separate or distinct.
Mann’s career has been built around probing and dismantling pop culture archetypes—cop, criminal, monster, hero, and perhaps most particular to American mythology, the lone man in the wilderness, be it primal or urban, doing battle alone and becoming one with his tools to survive. This is the kind of person colonial nations tend to mythologise, and yet work assiduously to snuff out in real life. They can be heroes in Mann’s work, but more often are rendered antiheroes because they can’t be assimilated. Nick is the latest in the long line of such figures, whose profoundest epitome is Hawkeye in Mohicans. Nick, once a soft, larkish college genius, has been hardened by two stretches in prison, the first a brief, but tough spell in “gladiator school” as punishment for a bar fight gone bad. His hopes for a great tech career foiled, he felt forced to turn his talents to nefarious ends, taking out his inferred rage at the world on banks and other institutions he considers corrupt, leading to his second, lengthy sentence. In our first glimpse of him, Nick is attempting to maintain a bubble of self-created reality, reading Foucault and listening to music on a headset. Guards to burst in and start tossing his cell, treating Nick to a face full of mace and carrying him out head first when he protests about someone standing on his book. The warden accuses him of using his iPod to hack bank accounts and give all of his fellow prisoners $900, but Nick retorts that he only used it to call up Santa Claus.
Mann refers right back to his debut with Thief (1981) and the epic diner gabfest of James Caan and Tuesday Weld, through to Heat’s (1995) famous coffee-break meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, when Nick and Lien settle down for a toey one-on-one in a Korean restaurant, an Edward Hopper-esque zone of social neutrality and tenuous connections afloat in the night. Nick explains in assured, yet uneasy fashion his wilful dominance over his situation through exercise of the mind and body. Lien retorts that he still sounds like a man mouthing mantras to himself in jail, staving off the moment when he has to actually face the reality of living the rest of his life. Somehow, Mann manages to shoot Hemsworth in such a way that he seems composed of the same igneous material as some of his predecessors, from Scott Glenn in The Keep (1984) to Will Smith in Ali (2001), his usually bright surfer boy face recast as dour, sulky, grey with a prison tan even as he’s built himself into a hard machine of muscle as well as digital prowess (pace all the stupid hacker stereotypes Hemsworth doesn’t live up to).
Mann’s gift for pirouettes of imaging that dispenses with a need for underlining dialogue has already yielded a breathtaking vignette of Nick, released from prison and escorted to the airport, pausing for a moment in wonder and fear in contemplating open space, Lien’s fingers folding about his shoulder a momentary shock of empathic human contact more alien than the bruising, bloodying tussles behind and ahead of him. After Nick’s first grilling by the prison warden, he’s put in solitary, shut away from his music and books: most directors would have made this the moment when Nick’s stoic façade drops, but Mann instead shows Nick pull completely within himself and start doing power pushups, readying himself for a day of battle still to come.
Mann creates in Nick a character who is at once supremely modern, aware and gifted at penetrating the veils of contemporaneity, but also schooled in ancient arts, a man stripped back to the essentials of his nature. A similar schism fuels Blackhat, the very title of which suggests classic genre motifs, the black hat of the Western villain, turned digital avatar, and very old games played with the shiniest toys, but finally regressing from super-modern to street fight. Blackhat, underneath its thriller surface, is perhaps closer kin to scifi, one of those epic tales of a civilisation that devolves from atomic power to sharp chisels and knives in the course of a conflict, as if Mann is playing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in reverse, or transposing “Genesis of the Daleks” (TV, 1975) onto the contemporary geopolitical frame. Indeed, so much of today’s geopolitical purview is a battle of disparities—holy warriors taking on drones, improvised explosives breaking armies’ hearts. In Public Enemies (2009), Mann noted the prototypical surveillance culture of modern law enforcement counterbalanced by the raw firepower suddenly available to criminals. Mann saw that age as rough draft for later decades of state power versus armed radicalism, rival organisms with internal factions both idealistic and evil, an idea he brings to the threshold of futurism here.
In the same way, Blackhat contemplates computer technology as both enforcer of hegemonies and device for assaulting them, and the moral imperatives that vibrate throughout the film question the viability of rapidly dating systemics (countries, law enforcement agencies) versus swiftly evolving ones (terrorist organisations, online crime), and the characters’ fluctuating status between the ramparts. Although violent action combusts several times in the course of the film, the crisis at the core of Blackhat’s narrative isn’t a shoot-out or a terrorist attack, but a squabble between different branches of law enforcement. Carol tries to get help from an NSA contact to use Black Widow, a hush-hush piece of software that can resurrect deleted data, but her request is turned down because of the faint possibility of the software being leaked to the Chinese—so whilst that same program was used to nail Nick for crimes against capital, looming assaults against populaces must be ignored. The elephantine nature of the modern state is an illusion of control; the white ants invade the substructures. Although Nick’s entry into the team of law enforcers initially sparks conflict between Dawai and Carol and place Nick in an adversarial position, his gifts in the dark arts of hacking, an incoherent sprawl of hieroglyphs for most eyes, prove a powerful weapon, as does his hard-won street smarts. The two don’t always mesh so well, as when Nick tries to scare his invisible enemy with prison yard threats, only to relearn they don’t work over the wires. But when real thugs fall upon him and Lien under the scrutiny of remote eyes, brawler tactics work wonders as Nick is reduced to slashing enemies with broken bottles and slamming tables over their heads.
The uneasy alliance of individuals and motives forced together in the pan-Pacific taskforce melds eventually into a unit of diverse yet harmonious talents. This is a familiar genre motif with specific echoes of Howard Hawks’ fascination with such teams, albeit one Mann sets up only to demolish with exact and startling force later on. Mann lets them have moments of glory in the meantime, as when Carol expertly bullies a resisting Wall Street honcho (Spencer Garrett) into handing over records from the soy run to get a lead on the siphoned money—a particular highpoint for Davis, in the way her character’s mix of wary intelligence and deeply sad weariness seems tattooed on her face, amidst a great sustained characterisation. The breadcrumb trail forces the team to relocate to Hong Kong and confront a gang of heavies run by Kassar (Ritchie Coster), a former soldier turned muscle for hire, and tease out the elaborate means by which the blackhat keeps his operatives at arm’s length. The chase demands venturing into the ruptured heart of the modern world, the nuclear power station balanced precariously on the edge of meltdown, to extract vital information that can lead to the blackhat. Effective communication, as ever in Mann’s films, is a laborious task, to the point where Dawai and Nick can only effectively converse about Nick’s burgeoning romance with Lien over headsets in a helicopter.
Dawai locates the money the blackhat made on their engineered futures run, and Nick zeroes in on a remote unit that allows the agents to contact their controller without entering any wider system, but brings ever closer the point where the virtual hunt collides with the very real firepower of Kassar and his men: finally, when the money begins to move, so, too, do the guns, and as the Americans join local cops in swooping upon the suspects, a thunderous shoot-out erupts as Kassar’s insurgency approach sees IEDs and machine guns meeting the lawmen. The way Mann shoots his Hong Kong sequences suggests he might have been watching some of Johnny To’s concrete wilderness dramas, just as To surely has watched Mann’s code-of-conduct melodramas, and Blackhat vibrates with a similar sense of exposure in the wilderness of the new that is the modern Chinese landscape. Mann sees something of the same milieu as the 1930s America he analysed in Public Enemies in contemporary China, a land of haphazard novelty and striving individuals.
Mann was long regarded as a savant of style whose early work on the Miami Vice TV series helped define a haute couture-like ideal of pop culture, in tweaking the noir landscape for a different age with a different palate. Yet Mann has often pushed his sensibility further than his audience has been willing to go, from the dreamlike elliptics of The Keep to the unique, tersely beautiful blend of digi-realist immediacy and sprawling pop-art vistas in his recent films, as if someone commissioned the team that shoots Cops to remake Touch of Evil (1958). Mann’s visual language in Blackhat has evolved into a toey, restless aesthetic alternating twitchy handheld camerawork and compositions that blend immediacy with elements of expressionism and abstraction. Mann is still somewhat unique in contemporary genre cinema in that he labours to convey his films’ thematic and emotional information visually. Here, his teeming, tidal, oblique camerawork captures everyone and everything in the zone between animation and objectification, rarely conceding to this world even the dreamy lustre he gave his film version of Miami Vice (2006), perhaps because the air of unseen oppression generated by a war with an invisible enemy and Nick’s sense of exposure in the world define this tale and its telling, rather than the druglike, ephemeral romanticism of the earlier film.
The fascination with humans subordinated to controlling structures evinced in Public Enemies likewise arises. The first Hong Kong shoot-out sees the curves of sewer systems, arrays of concrete blocks and cargo crates becoming geometric obstacles of a human pinball machine, echoing the similarly alien sense of the world glimpsed in the work of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles. So many of Mann’s recurring themes and obsessions recur throughout Blackhat that it becomes a virtual textbook of his cinema, a language that, like the hacker computer code, flows through the film, giving it a contiguity elusive to many eyes. Nick’s gift for blackhat programming turned to a righteous end reintroduces a theme Mann tackled in Manhunter (1986), albeit with a very different tone, with the outlaw aiding lawman in bringing another criminal to justice. Nick’s brotherly loyalty to Dawai stretching across ethnic and national lines nods to Hawkeye and Uncas in Mohicans. Nick and Lien’s quickly combusting, almost ethereally intense affair recalls many throughout Mann’s works. Perhaps most revealingly, here that coupling eventually fuses into a union of mutual aid and moral as well as emotional symmetry, a blessed state that notably eluded most of their predecessors.
Blackhat is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to a contemporary Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), though Mann works from almost the opposite precept to Lang’s founding text of the paranoid thriller. Whereas Lang, working from Norbert Jacques’ novel, placed his infinitely malleable villain at the centre of the narrative and forced the audience to take the ride with him, Mann renders the blackhat himself a near-total void, a momentary personification of a force that has long since become free-floating, as indeed Lang rendered Mabuse’s legacy in his later films: anyone might do what the blackhat does if they have the tech and the will. Unsurprisingly for a filmmaker often obsessed with the noble impulses in criminals, Mann depicts Nick as a hero operating according to a private code rather than an imposed morality, and then reveals how everyone else operates the same way. Dawai uses his power to get a pal freed, and Carol and Jessup eventually make a conscious decision to work according to their private compasses, with Carol driven by immediate personal loss: her husband died in the 9/11 attack, and the spectre of further terrorist assaults drives her to agree to Nick’s most radical proposal—to hack into her NSA contact’s computer and use Black Widow to salvage the damaged information taken from the power station’s computers. This foray works and allows the team to track the blackhat’s operation to Jakarta, but the breach is quickly uncovered. Dawai is instantly ordered by his superiors to cut Nick loose, and Carol is told to bring him home in a storm of paranoia that Nick might sell Black Widow to the Chinese. Dawai, however, warns Nick, and he skips out just before Carol and Jessup can lower the boom.
Mann detonates his own film ostentatiously here, shattering his fusing team as each member is faced with a crisis of loyalty and purpose that drags them confusedly in different directions within and without. Mann then goes one further as a sudden attack by Kassar destroys the team more thoroughly: his bandit team, trailing Dawai, blow him up in his car with a rocket launcher, leaving Nick and Lien, who were just making their farewells as he was faced with a life on the run, stranded and cowering under a hail of bullets. Carol and Jessup, searching for Nick, race in to the rescue only to both be gunned down. Jessup manages to take several enemies with him in a display of professional bravura, but he still inevitably falls, caught in the open and outgunned. This sequence is stunning both in its abrupt, jarring narrative pivoting, and also as filmmaking. Mann’s signature slow-motion turns the explosion of Dawai’s car and the dance of death Jessup and his targets perform at a distance into arias of motion, before zeroing in on Carol’s face as she dies, gazing up at a tall Hong Kong building, a mocking echo of her motivation to save other people from her own personal hell before the big sleep, a fleeting flourish of woozy poetry as strong as anything Mann’s ever done. Mann has been stepping around the outskirts of tackling terrorism as an outright topic for a while now. Blackhat often feels like Mann’s companion piece-cum-riposte to the initially dark and probing, but ultimately victorious vision of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and its careful elisions of questions about the situations is depicted. Mann depicts the biggest obstacle to gaining justice in a post-9/11 world as the proliferation of self-interested bureaucracies supposedly erected to deal with the problem, but perhaps instead arranged to create greater insulation from responsibility, and cordoned, mistrustful states whose turning radius is so great they can’t possibly react in time to such dangers, the human agents of those states, no matter the nobility of their purview, as lost, endangered naïfs compared to the hardened natural citizens of a more warlike age.
Nick and Lien manage to flee and are forced, for the sake of both allegiance and revenge, to continue pursuing the blackhat as renegades. Nick realises that the blackhat’s real purpose, for which his initial attacks were only a test and a financing operation, respectively, is to flood a dammed valley in Malaysia, destroying a number of tin mines and sending the price of the metal skyrocketing—reversing his earlier programme to wreak havoc in the real world to affect another virtual realm, the stock market. Stripped of alliances and cover, Nick and Lien must improvise from moment to moment in their hunt, and the outlay of ruses and tactics lets Mann strip the film down to the raw elements of method: the abstract systemology of the virtual world gives way to physical operations that nonetheless run on similar precepts of disguise, retooling, and manipulation; they use low-tech devices, from knocking a van off a roof and taping magazines to Nick’s chest as improvised body armour to utilising some coffee carefully spilt on some papers as a gateway to hacking into a major financial institution.
When Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen), the blackhat himself, is finally revealed, he’s a terse, aggressive, stocky operative who might himself be only a front for other forces. He could easily be Nick himself if he hadn’t been caught, turned middle-aged, cynical, and utterly unscrupulous. Nick penetrates his icily dismissive shell by stealing all his money, forcing him and the remnants of his crew to face Nick’s wrath. The finale, staged in the midst of Nyepi Day celebrations, doubles as action climax and visual-thematic joke: the flow of humans engaged in solemn rituals mimics the grid of the computer innards, whilst Nick and his enemies bob and weave in free patterns within the system, climaxing the duel of wits, technologies, and instincts in a way that sees Nick victorious. This confrontation doesn’t reach the same level of operatic drama that Mann gained with the Iron Butterfly-scored shoot-out of Manhunter or Mohicans, but it does set a memorably nasty, intimate seal on a film that may one day find the acclaim it deserves.
| 7 comments »
Director: Bill Condon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.
Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.
Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”
As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.
The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.
We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.
The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?
Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.
It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.
Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.
| 2 comments »
Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim
By Roderick Heath
Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large, but not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés of studio cinema: the great genius cut down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native strengths. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
Stroheim found fame as an actor, his turns as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate,” including his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time, that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal, and so at least at first, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two films, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922). (With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms.) Foolish Wives was brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams, and for a long time afterward, however ruefully, Hollywood played along.
Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly eat at the frame. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony,that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed, but his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry backed up by bogus cash supplied to them by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting at bottles by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
From the start of Foolish Wives, however, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm comes looking for shelter: pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen, complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.
| no comment »
Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.
This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.
The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.
The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.
The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.
The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.
The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.
Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.
The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.
Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.
Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.
Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.
Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.
| no comment »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Abel Ferrara
By Roderick Heath
Note: This review is of the 125-minute version.
Abel Ferrara has been one of American cinema’s lawless heroes since his feature debut in 1979 with the punk-slasher-art film The Driller Killer (1979). Born in the Bronx, Ferrara negotiated film school and the hard-knock college that was the arty bohemia of 1970s New York, complete with early ventures into porn, before his erstwhile breakthrough became a centrepiece of the “video nasty” debate in Britain and marked Ferrara in many minds as a sleaze merchant. His follow-up, Ms. 45 (1980), stirred polemical debate with its portrait of a young rape victim going on a misandrist killing spree, but also caught many film critics’ attention for its jarring and vigorous blend of raw immediacy and high style. Ferrara’s work superficially evoked Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma: he shared the former’s feel for New York, the latter’s sense of spectacle, and both men’s fascination for violence and contemporary degenerateness conflicting with flailing moral scruples. Ferrara, however, spurned the relieving dollops of playful cinephilia those directors usually offer, hewing closer to the scruffy Catholic-schooled atheist cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini and pushing his themes to extremes that always seemed to have one foot planted in the old Times Square grindhouses and the other in a seminary library. After spending the ’80s directing punchy, wilfully grunged-up B-movies like Fear City (1984) and China Girl (1987), Ferrara dabbled with the mainstream for a time, directing episodes of “Miami Vice” and a studio remake of Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (1991). But he also built up a head of auteurist steam that gained him acclaim as a wild talent with works like King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). The acclaim of the latter film promised big things, but the mid-’90s instead saw Ferrara’s career go awry with increasingly demanding, uncommercial films like The Addiction (1995), and for the last decade or more, his work has generally landed straight on DVD.
With Welcome to New York, Ferrara’s gall proves still copious and potent, as he tries his hand at that old ploy of the professional muckraker, the fictionalised, torn-from-the-headlines, true-crime melodrama—in this case, the matter of Dominique Strauss-Khan, the French head of the World Bank whose stature and political intentions were toppled by accusations he molested an African immigrant working as a hotel maid in the Sofitel New York Hotel in 2011. The case was such a perfect triangulation of contemporary concerns, invoking a swathe of opine-fit topics, from rape culture to colonial fallout to one-percenter arrogance, that if a dramatist written them they might have been dismissed as a corny attempt at being edgy. Ferrara’s film has no pretence to being docudrama or reportage, and the pileup of issue-isms finds him largely uninterested: it’s easy to imagine one of his characters noting the essential feeling that innocent victims are boring. Welcome to New York is, rather, an attempt to digest the myth of the event and translate it back as purposefully rude art for the audience.
The attraction of the material lies in Ferrara’s lifelong fascination with transgression and sin, suffering and sensual greed, base impulse and transcendent yearning. The film’s title alone presents a flotilla of sarcasm, taken from the sign that hangs over JFK Airport’s exit: for Ferrara, who’s been exiled from his native stomping grounds for a time, it’s a homecoming just as much as it’s a romp in a foreign land for his Strauss-Khan avatar, Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu). Ferrara playing the impresario of forbidden delights and damnations has an ironic edge at first, considering this new New York he surveys could barely be more different to the place he filmed in the ’70s and ’80s. That place had its id on full display, and the underworld more visibly met the elite out on 42nd Street. Now, Ferrara kicks off with an interview that deliberately blurs the lines between the famously difficult, ornery actor and his character before leading in with a montage of money printing and shots of grandiose financial institutions around New York, promising that some cheesy Michael Moore or Oliver Stone-ish agitprop is on the way. But whilst the power of capital is certainly one of Ferrara’s targets here, there’s another joke in play, as he suggests the old traffic of New York, both fiscal and flesh, has simply shifted indoors and gone upmarket.
Consequently, much of the first half-hour or more of Welcome to New York is a depiction of the sustained orgy that is Devereaux’s life. Our introduction to this bacchanal comes when an advisor, Roullot (Ronald Guttman), visits his office to warn him about some of the problems about to beset him as a potential French presidential candidate whilst Devereaux’s collection of female employees-cum-concubines try to ply him with creature comforts and oral sex. Devereaux heads over to New York for a getaway and books into a swanky hotel, where he invites the attractive concierge (Ilinca Kiss) to join in his depravities, an offer she politely turns down. His pals and procurers, Pierre (Ferrara regular Paul Calderon) and Guy (Paul Hipp, who also sings the mournful version of “America the Brave” heard at the outset), bring hookers quite literally in shifts to keep the wealthy, perpetually horny plutocrat serviced, and they join him for a sex party where Pierre mixes up milkshakes and pours the froth over the women.
Pierre and Guy leave satiated, but before going, Guy brings in two more prostitutes, and Devereaux starts all over again into an extended threesome. When the two hookers leave, they pause to make out in the hallway before ducking out giggling after a family with kids stray into view, whilst Devereaux looks on from his room door. The spectacle of real desire between the two women but excluding him, their paying squire, seems to sit uneasily with him, stoking him to an even more bullish and intransigent state. In the morning, a maid (Pamela Afesi) comes into his room to clean up, and Devereaux grabs her and rubs her face in his crotch against her frightened protests until she bites him and flees. Devereaux dresses, packs, and heads to the airport. But the maid has reported the incident and two cops, Landano (Louis Zaneri) and Fitzgerald (James Heaphy), cook up a way of extricating him from the plane to arrest him. Devereaux soon begins a journey through the gullet of the New York justice system.
Much like Scorsese’s more overtly charismatic, but also more easefully entertaining The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Ferrara is starting with an obvious point—that one great spur to acquire riches is to indulge one’s various appetites to the extreme. He invites the audience to share both jealousy and disdain for this fat, aging, rich, white man as he uses other people, particularly women, as existing to gratify his tastes, and then walks the stereotype into contradictions. Ferrara has often played about with medieval concepts and ethics of clan, overlordship, gladiatorial strength, even vampirism, lurking within the modern body politic, and like the eponymous King of New York, Devereaux goes a step further, setting himself up as a barbarian ruler with a harem and pleasure garden within the anodyne gloss of the hermetic one-percenter life. Like the protagonist of Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara seems to feel for his protagonist even more keenly and become all the more determined to penetrate to the root of his soul the worse he acts. Both Scorsese’s take on Jordan Belfort and Ferrara’s take on Strauss-Khan confront characters whose drives spin out of control and become self-destructive in part because they can’t live by the petty hypocrisies and arbitrary boundaries others, including even most other rich people, honour or are seen appearing to honour. As Welcome to New York unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that Devereaux is actually on the run from something in his life and taking refuge in conspicuous consumption. His comeuppance, the subject of the film’s middle third as he’s hauled over the coals by system and family, could even have been invited, or is at least the logical fate Devereaux has charged at like a wounded bull even as he rants about how everyone who judges him can go fuck themselves.
Ferrara is one of the few directors standing who has passed through just about every level of American filmmaking save the blockbuster, having started off in the lowliest precincts of the industry imaginable. Part of the charge of his cinema lies in the way he’s never entirely shaken off the grindhouse ethic of raw effect and played at getting respectable even as he become an ever-more individual and fearless artist. Ferrara digs the pornographic fantasia Devereaux drapes himself in, and has no problem showing it or twisting it around on itself, as young, naked courtesans give way to old, naked Depardieu. Ferrara’s dead-eyed portrait of Devereaux as he’s swept up by the cops, charged, jammed into a holding cell, transferred to a prison to await a bail hearing, and submitted to all of the procedures and petty humiliations imposed on a detainee recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly stringent interest in criminal procedure in The Wrong Man (1956). The motive is the same: both films track a man whose interests the justice system is designed to defend being submitted to its dehumanising indignities, except that where Hitchcock deliberately portrayed an innocent man and scratched at the edges of his sense of bewildered innocence, Ferrara allows no illusions about Devereaux’s status as a creep, but still insists on immersing the audience alongside him in his travails. “Do you know who I am?” Devereaux demands of the maid as he advances on him, and, as the line’s use as its poster tagline confirms, it’s the shibboleth to the whole affair, the slipstream of wealth, repute, and power Devereaux is used to easing his path.
The world Ferrara creates is entirely impersonal. The halls of JFK, the tasteful, deadening minimalism of the hotel, rolling surveys of lingerie-clad bottoms, the grey halls of justice, and the $60,000-a-month house Devereaux’s wife rents for him to wait out the subsequent legal proceedings are all filmed in the same tones and hues and with scarcely a skerrick of personality or individuality. Everything is commoditized in the bubble in which Devereaux lives, and it’s that bubble Ferrara is fascinated by and wants to explore. Whilst he never suggests apologia for Devereaux (or Strauss-Khan), Ferrara insists on travelling with Devereaux on his journey so that the weird logic in his actions is laid bare: in a drug-addled, sex-frenzied state in a world where everything’s offered up to him, he sees the latest woman to stray into his room as just another flower to be plucked. (Ferrara’s anger at the film’s edited and reshuffled U.S. cut is entirely understandable in this light: he wants us to ponder Devereaux with the ironic distance of people who know he’s guilty rather than excited by a preoccupation with the question.) Ferrara does not, in the end, try to pass Devereaux off as Strauss-Khan unalloyed, but as his idea of a man passing through similar situations. Devereaux contains evident aspects of both Depardieu—an idea Ferrara warns the audience about right at the outset with that interview—as well as Ferrara. The way Devereaux acts in his holding cell, pacing back and forth, snorting through his nose and bewildering his fellow prisoners, suggests it’s not the first time he’s experienced such a moment, and perhaps Ferrara means to suggest that like Depardieu and himself, Devereaux may be a long-coddled celebrity, but still carries the streets of his youth tattooed on his corpuscles. This becomes more possible as aspects of Devereaux’s character and history leak out, lending the film, however vivid and straightforward it is in most ways, a quality of performance-art provocation.
When Devereaux is arrested, the cops don’t quite know “who” they’re dealing with and take some quiet delight in degrading his type for a change, making jibes about his weight and leading up to a lengthy sequence where he’s submitted to a strip search, a vision unlikely to make it into the annals of popular internet nude scenes and yet Depardieu offers something majestic in his nakedness with his grandiose paunch and refusal to be cowered. Rescue, if temporary, comes in the form of his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), on whom he uses his one phone call to fetch from the midst of a banquet (being given in her honour for her support for Israel, no less). Devereaux’s odd family life has already been suggested when, just before his arrest, he has lunch with his daughter Sophie (Marie Mouté) and her Canadian preppie boyfriend Josh (JD Taylor) and insists in shocking him, in a way with which Sophie seems familiar, by asking him with salubrious gusto how their sex life is. Simone, an heiress with a colossal family fortune at her back who wants to play kingmaker, is also very familiar with her husband’s proclivities. Her entrance into the film turns it into a study in marital perversity as Simone’s loyalty to her husband and readiness to bail him out is matched only by her fierce anger and frustration that he’s completely pissed away his shot at being president—an ambition she imposed on him, he says, to satisfy her own ego, but which she argues was his great chance to make good on his talents with her family fortune at her back. Devereaux finds the whole business, and that family fortune, an onerous thing. His intransigent wilfulness and reflexive ass-covering surge to the fore as Simone call him to account: “I didn’t do it!” he repeatedly bleats, meaning he didn’t rape the maid, before explaining with ferocious miming just what he did actually do.
Crucially, Devereaux debases himself in such moments as he debases others, as Welcome to New York is in part a document of the man who, stripped not just of illusion but also of pretence, attempts to be honest with himself and others, and is taught in the course of the exterior drama that there’s a terrible price to be paid for being honest when it collides with the laws of society. His need to defend himself demands he put a temporary damper on his rawness for Simone, the media, and the forces of the law, and this necessity infuriates him more than anything else as partly the appalling gall of a man who’s let his soul turn septic and is willing to blame others for it, and partly a spoilt child dedicated to its appetites and reflexes and chucking a tantrum when denied. But it’s also something subtler and less easily and comfortably assimilated by witnesses: a crisis of spirit that’s left his sense of common humanity in a yawning void. This has turned Devereaux into an existential shark, out of a wilful, almost philosophical choice dictated by his realisation there’s nothing else that means anything to him, and his own discomfort with playing roles vividly contrasts with the way he can make others play them. “I wish I could have helped you stop,” Sophie tells her father as they talk after his travails have destroyed her relationship with Josh. “I didn’t want to,” he replies, and then, after a moment’s contemplation, adds: “Correction— I don’t want to.” He wants to keep living large in a manner that seems like a 17-year-old boy’s dream of the high life. Just because he’s in trouble doesn’t mean he’s finished with a drama that started long before the film starts and won’t finish until long after.
To illustrate this, Ferrara stages two scenes late in the film in pointed contrast that almost seem intended specifically to bait the audience into blind alleys of understanding about Devereaux. First, attending a ritzy reception at an art gallery, he displays his beguiling side as he extemporises on a painting to the fascination of gathering ladies, including a beautiful young French-African woman named Marie (Nneoma Nkuku), a law student who wants to work for the International Criminal Court: the two slip into flirtation that segues into a night of easy lovemaking. Devereaux is debonair, romantic, still able to use his natural gifts rather than money to get laid, passionate and genuine with his lover. That Marie’s black and a young, spunky idealist seems to speak to something in Devereaux, because it’s the first time Devereaux is seen at his best. Perhaps it’s the last tiny fragment of his youth we’re seeing him use up here. Ferrara seems at his most casual, almost careless in framing this sequence at this point in the film, but in fact, his sly and ruthless wit is working most concertedly under the surface to subvert, if briefly, the rhetoric of race and history surrounding the Strauss-Khan case that buzzed on the airwaves and internet, giving us instead dashing leftist hero and lover. So, of course, Ferrara follows it with Devereaux at his worst: when he tries the moves on a young journalist who comes to the rented house to interview him, he offers compliments on her book as a down-payment for nooky. She turns him down, so he begins trying to strip her naked against her frantic protests, until she finally breaks free and dashes out without her blouse. Ferrara leans in like a romantic only to pour a vial of acid in our laps, reducing Devereaux to greedy, bratty, brutal lecher.
Devereaux’s duality, and beyond that, everyone’s duality, connects with one of Ferrara’s singular recurring themes of people dragged between extremes of transcendence and debasement. So, too, is the theme of the good person worn down by the world’s evil and embarking on a journey through their own underworld, a notion that connects most of his work, and here most particularly recalling Lili Taylor’s distraught humanist turned bloodsucking monster in The Addiction, whose idealistic impulses readily transform into corrosive nihilism and hungry exploitation. A similar process has beset Devereaux when the pricy defence team Simone hires sends him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist, a process he describes in contemptuous terms to Simone. But later, Devereaux wanders the streets at night, with his unleashed confession to the shrink heard as ethereal voiceover, a meditative description of his pathos. Declaring himself an atheist, but “When I die, I will kiss god’s ass forever,” he describes the process that took him from brave, young crusader who signed up to battle the world’s poverty, which slowly and insidiously overwhelmed him by its scale, to wanting to squeeze every last drop of sensual gratification from his own life as he runs from success, from fear of aging, and from his wife’s plans and political ambitions.
Simone’s labours work, naturally: the case against Devereaux collapses for unstated reasons, and there’s nothing left then but Devereaux’s smug smile and Simone frustration at his seeming belief that some sort of natural justice has won out. “The other side of love is not hate—it’s indifference,” Simone mournfully tells her husband even as she proposes they return to France determined to maintain their best face, whilst he turns to the household maid and asks what she thinks of him. She says he seems nice. Why seek blessing when you can buy it? Welcome to New York doesn’t quite have the ferocity of Ferrara’s best work, but it’s still a major film by a highly undervalued filmmaker, and Depardieu and Bisset offer performances amongst the finest of their careers.
| 2 comments »
Director/Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell
By Roderick Heath
David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) was a little gem of a film that revealed its creator as half in love with the classic canon of teenage rites-of-passage cinema and half sceptical, shambling, observational poet. Rejecting most of the usual overtones of such films, ranging from moral panic to slick fantasy, Mitchell instead adopted a dreamy, protean perspective that captured his young heroes on that most delicate of edge between childhood and adulthood and created a tone that was at once intimately realistic and like watching life unfold deep under water. It Follows, his second film, has gained plaudits and attention far wider than his debut, and like Mitchell’s first work, it represents dichotomous impulses, referencing with an amused smirk a swathe of bygone genre films of exactly the sort its young characters enjoy watching, and blending with his own, very specific cinematic sensibility. It Follows clearly belongs to a recent strand of lo-fi, stripped-down, spacy horror from Ti West and some other recent art house/genre crossbreeds; it also expands a growing body of work by up-and-coming filmmakers that patently reference and revere the genre cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially John Carpenter’s early oeuvre, whose throbbing, propulsive electronic scores and restrained, fluid camera style Mitchell quotes. Yet, It Follows feels unique, a contemporary horror film that feels even more connected with a type of haunting tale from the pages of musty Victoriana and the echoes of classical mythology, with a storyline that strongly recalls M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” which provided the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night of the Demon (1957).
One challenge Mitchell took on with It Follows and parlayed with elegance was to create as intense and unsettling experience as he could on a small budget and with limited technical means. The very opening is a single, extended shot that unfolds without camera move more sophisticated than simply pivoting on the spot: a young woman, Annie (Bailey Spry), emerges from her suburban home in Detroit in an agitated state, dashing around to the far side of the street and back, before fleeing in a car. Mitchell’s camera stands off but actually skewers his human subject like a butterfly collector’s pin, as it mimics the fixation of the strange, unseen force that pursues the desperate girl without resorting to that more familiar trick for suggesting malevolent presence—the handheld point-of-view shot. Annie drives to a remote patch of Lake Michigan shoreline and leaves a plaintive, heartfelt, frightened message in the event of her death for her parents with her cell phone. The film jumps to the next morning and a shot of her dead body torn and mangled into an obscene shape, but laid out for the camera like a diorama specimen.
The scene shifts to another, equally nondescript corner of Detroit, with Jay (Maika Monroe) as the focal point. Jay and her small gang of friends are eddying in that period between the end high school and the beginning of college or a job. Jay and her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), go to a movie theatre to watch the portentously titled Charade (1963) and waste time before the show guessing who in the crowd each of them would trade places with. When Hugh suggests Jay has chosen a woman in a yellow dress hovering by the entrance, Jay looks for her, but can’t see her. Hugh becomes extremely agitated and demands they leave the theater, so they go to a diner instead. On a subsequent date, they have sex in Hugh’s car. As Jay reclines in postcoital distraction, Hugh sneaks up on her with a pad soaked in chloroform and cups it over her mouth until she falls unconscious. Jay awakens tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned, ruined office building, with Hugh trying to break through her panicky distraction to explain the strange and terrifying situation she’s now in. He claims that she’s going to be pursued by a demon that seems to be passed from person to person via sexual contact; it will kill its current target if it catches them and then resume pursuing whoever it followed immediately before. As an added sting, the demon constantly changes its appearance, often resembling former victims or taking on the forms of its prey’s loved ones. Clearly, Annie was Hugh’s last lover, and her death had set the demon back on his tail. Hugh keeps Jay captive long enough to see the demon and be confronted by its slow, remorseless progress, before cutting Jay loose and fleeing.
Jay reports the assault to the police, who determine only that Hugh was living under a pseudonym in an abandoned house in a decaying precinct of the city. After the entity tracks Jay through the corridors of her college, Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) flock to her house to comfort and protect her. During the night, stricken with sleeplessness, Jay goes downstairs and sits watching old movies with Paul, who has a mad crush on her but hasn’t gotten anywhere with her since early adolescence when he gave her her first kiss, but then dumped her for another girl. The sound of breaking glass in the kitchen sends Paul checking for an intruder. He sees nothing but a broken window, but when Jay enters the kitchen, she’s confronted by a tall and cadaverous-looking man. Jay retreats in frantic anguish to an upstairs room, pursued by the entity in various guises, all invisible to her companions, before climbing out the window and running for her life.
The notion of an otherworldly fiend that feeds on sexuality is an ancient one, speaking to a murky part of the human identity and its relationship with one of our most fundamental drives, and the horror film has long been regarded with suspicion from many quarters as a vehicle of conservative reaction, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Mitchell does seem to be encouraging his audience to approach his story as some sort of metaphor, for STDs or teen pregnancy or something else as PSA-worthy. Some sensed a similar cautioning in such AIDS-era films as the later Alien movies and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Yet, by film’s end, it seems plainer that Mitchell is baiting the viewer in this regard to make us bring our own sexual baggage to his story. In Sleepover, one of his chief achievements was to resensitise his viewers to the reality of youth and its simultaneous beauty and frailness to contrast the usual run of teen flicks where twenty-something models are cast for pornographic fantasies. Mitchell cast young actors in Sleepover who actually look young, and here, though his characters are slightly older, a similar method is at play, as Mitchell emphasises the physical and emotional awkwardness of his characters. An early scene where Jay looks at herself in a mirror in her underwear sees her beholding a new body that’s still finding definition, and its uses as vehicle of life, pleasure, and taunting appeal to others are still perplexing. A ball bounces off the bathroom window as she looks at herself, one of the film’s many moments of jarring oddness, and she goes to the window see who threw it. At first, it seems like a possible manifestation of the threat beginning to dog her, but instead it proves to have been a ploy by Paul to draw her to the window. Paul, in a manner all too familiar to many teen boys, is stranded in a state of desirous distance and perpetually unsated horniness, whilst Jay finds experience with older boys in a pretty adult world of dating and sex, one that bitten her in the darkest, most unpleasant way.
Hugh’s actions in passing along the curse, although logical and, in a way, benevolent—he drugged and tied her to show her the demon and make sure she believed him—is also a potent and distressing act of assault and violation, albeit one that comes after sex rather than before. Mitchell works in a sly joke, one Paul would understand too well, as Hugh breathlessly tells Jay to just find someone to pass the demon on to: “You’re a girl, it’ll be easier for you!” Jay’s slacker neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins Jay and her pals as they track her down to a park where she sits in solitary pathos after abandoning her house, and together they delve into the mystery by first attempting to track down Hugh. They go to the house the police found he was living in, and Paul, idly flipping through a pile of porn mags left behind, finds a photo of him with Annie in his high school uniform. This lets them track him to through the school and learn his real name is Jeff. Confronted by Jay’s pals, who think he’s laid some heavy bullshit on her, Jeff squirms fearfully as they interrogate him in a park, and asks eventually if they see a girl who’s been approaching steadily through the conversation; the others casually and confusedly state they see her, too. Mitchell’s narrative constantly walks such a fine edge between droll diminuendo and ratcheting alarm, as any figure glimpsed in the vague distance could prove to be the demon—or just a casual passer-by. The demon recalls all those jokes about the lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy or Romero’s zombies as creations only dumb white people could possibly fall prey to. The thing’s slowness, however, proves to be a deceptive trait. Invisible to everyone but the intended victim, it can approach unnoticed and then spring with a sudden and remorseless force.
The haunting builds to a head as the young band flee to Greg’s parents’ lake house: lounging on the shore, a playfully distracted mood overtakes the gang, only for a young woman to slouch out of the woods and approach Jay from behind. Suddenly, from the viewpoint of the others, Jay’s hair seems to levitate spontaneously, and then she’s gripped and held in mid-air by the force. Paul strikes at the entity, only to be swatted away like a shuttlecock. Jay shoots the entity with a gun belonging to Greg’s father, but even this doesn’t stop it, as it transforms into a child to slip through a hole gouged in the side of the shed the gang hide in. Finally, Jay runs off from her friends and flees in a car, only to crash off the road in a quick swerve to avoid another vehicle. She awakens in hospital with a broken arm.
One of Mitchell’s most original and admirable inspirations here was to have created a supernatural agent which, though ethereal in nature, is tethered to set rules of physical manifestation. This touch is, again, in great contrast to the opportunism of many contemporary horror filmmakers who use supernatural themes as an excuse to assault the audience from any direction that suits their game. Mitchell is still able to wring such a creation for phobic potency, indeed perhaps even more so, as the figuration of the dread being that stalks with utter relentlessness does have the pungent aspect of something ripped out of a million nightmares. It can be outrun but never beaten, hindered but not halted; on it keeps coming, sleepless and unswerving when you’ve stopped running until that deadly little moment when you’re off your guard. Jeff theorises to Jay that it takes on the guise of people close to its victims to give an especially cruel piquancy to its hounding, and as the demon gets close to its prey, it often takes on the shape of a parent: one character is confronted by the demon as his mother and Jay later sees it as her father, the rotten scent of incestuous intent permeates the proceedings as it becomes clear that the demon rapes its victims whilst wringing the life out of them in a travesty of familial roles.
In this regard, It Follows echoes back to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), which likewise contemplated adolescent sexuality via a dream-state landscape inhabited by potential lovers and oppressive relatives who keep morphing disturbingly into one another, as if contemplating the shift of roles encountered in each life stage and also the troubling way those most intimate with us mould our characters and sexuality. But Mitchell’s chilly, anxious vision couldn’t be more different to Jires’ playful disassembly of such Freudian tropes. The leafy environs of banal suburban streets instantly call to mind Halloween (1978), whilst It Follows is one of a string of recent films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014), to exploit Detroit as a surreal location, a part-ghost town where the decay and detritus of the industrial age echoes with a haunted sense of defeat, something usually associated with the old Gothic horror film’s castles and cemeteries. Mitchell’s essential conceptualism recalls that of Val Lewton’s famous series of horror films with their suggestive approach to horror, particularly the psychologised viewpoint of Cat People (1941) and even its odd sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944), which use the mood of horror cinema to strike at subtler understandings of the psyche. The problem here, however, is that Mitchell actively avoids making the demon subject to ambiguity: Annie’s ugly fate and Jeff’s introduction of Jay to the demon quickly confirm the reality of the monster—which is fair enough. Mitchell states outright that he’s making a monster movie, however artful, perhaps understandably when just about every indie genre crossbreed these days specialises in some kind of reality game. Mitchell wants his demon and the danger it brings to be undeniable on a corporeal and immediate level, his concern not the mind, but the body.
Mitchell’s sinuous, distanced approach to shooting works in sympathy with his tale and also at a slight remove from it: whilst following his characters in the moment, he avoids the techniques of heightened immediacy so common in contemporary genre filmmaking, preferring to to read his characters and their actions from without in alien manner. Sleepover displayed the detachment of an ethnographer studying social ritual and a distracted poet noting oddball asides, and It Follows works with a similar quality. Throwaway flourishes of plot import, like noting the newspapers and comic books taped over the windows of Jeff’s abandoned house as part of an initially mysterious but soon all-too-clear purpose, merge with wistful asides like watching Jay place stripped blades of grass on her forearm or her habit of drifting in her backyard pool—idle habits of distraction that suggest Jay’s difficulty dealing with the moment and capturing that period of youth when reality isn’t quite real. After Jay’s hospitalisation, Mitchell’s camera drifts by the windows of the hospital noting individuals and pairs of people engaged in their own little worlds of cause and effect, from flirtation to dying, before settling on Jay’s room where Greg is making love to her. This proves to be both an act of selfless friendship to end her persecution that is also an artful way of Greg getting his end in, whilst Jay lolls in the confused act of sex that blends pragmatic dispassion and real attraction. I was reminded here of an epiphany found in Suzanne Collins’ original The Hunger Games novel (completely missed by the lacklustre film version) that depicted its heroes engaging in mock behaviour that shades into the real thing, with the understanding that much of teenage discovery occurs in a similar fashion, acts undertaken for their own sake under the guise of some assumed part.
Mitchell’s camerawork evinces a sinuous respect for space and physical context and a concision of effect that’s rare in contemporary filmmaking. This approach that pays off in his suspense sequences, as the drama depends entirely on understanding of where the demon is at any one time in relation to the characters, what form it’s taking, and, importantly, its invisibility to others. The battle at the beach house sees Mitchell shoot the crucial moment in a long shot, the blandest perspective available to the filmmaker, and turns it into a space in which utterly weird things occur, from Jay being gripped by the invisible entity to Paul striking at thin air only to be shunted away out of shot. Mitchell’s melding of his early art house vision and nuts-and-bolts genre suspense mongering through It Follows is generally successful, but cumulatively, the film adds up to less than it should have. Just why is hard to identify. The climactic scene in which Jay and her friends try to lure the demon into a swimming pool to electrocute it recalls the worm-turns moments in Wes Craven’s entries, as the young folk rise to the challenge of defeating the entity. The demon, now in the guise of Jay’s father, instead of venturing into the water after Jay, hurls the various electrical objects the gang have arranged around the pool over at her. Mitchell stages this sequence well, his calm filmmaking breaking into a harum-scarum mesh of coinciding and conflicting actions as Paul accidentally wings Taya as he tries to shoot the demon, whilst Jay tries to dodge all the blunt objects thrown at her. But this climax proves ungainly and anticlimactic, and doesn’t seem to have been that well thought through by either the characters or the writer-director. The pool is, of course, too large to be electrified by such small currents, whilst the demon itself proves hardly fazed by water, which begs the question of why it goes through such an oddly clumsy exercise of trying to kill Jay from afar.
In fact, that shot of Jay and Greg in the hospital feels like the actual climax to what concerns Mitchell, his fascination with human behaviour. The ultimate failure of It Follows, however, is wound frustratingly in with the most distinctive qualities in Mitchell’s approach to his material. Whereas the outside-looking-in approach of Sleepover suited his object there, here it leaves his protagonists lacking the ornery vividness that gives this kind of horror film peculiar kick—think back to gabby PJ Soles in Halloween or everyone in Scream (1995). Where Mitchell was so good with younger teens, these older subjects are a tad ill-defined and blowsy. It’s very hard to believe someone could actually write a film about teenagers stalked by a sex monster where the teens don’t ponder just what kind of sex draws the demon. Would it bother for a blow-job? Anal? Would it follow lesbians? If this had happened to me and my friends in our late teens we’d have all been killed by the demon whilst arguing such matters. For a film that takes on such a subject, It Follows is restrained and resists trashy impulses to a degree that’s passing excessive. Mitchell’s subject demands a crazier, messier sensibility, a sense of dark eroticism.
Mitchell’s deconstructive assault on a much less structured genre when he took on teen flicks worked because it suited an aimless, rambling mode of experience. Here he never quite lets his characters bloom as independent beings; we don’t really know much more about Jay by the end than at the beginning. It Follows is in part a fable about evolving character in which Jay develops into a woman who won’t pass on her problems to others, a lesson she learns the hard way as she witnesses the demon going after Greg, and Paul, who, unlike Greg, believes in the demon and steps up to the plate to shoulder her troubles, too. Both, although given chances—Jay encounters a bunch of partying frat boys on a boat, whilst Paul drives by prostitutes with an assessing eye—seem to retreat from these options. Instead the film follows the couple walking hand in hand up a street with a figure in the background possibly tracking them. The demon now in Greg’s form? Talk about relationship baggage.
| 1 comment »
Director: Frederick Wiseman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the documentarians whose films are hallowed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps none stands taller than Frederick Wiseman. A fly-on-the-wall chronicler of subjects as varied as the University of California at Berkeley, the New York City Ballet, the Panamanian Canal Zone, and Long Island’s Belmont Park racetrack, Wiseman demonstrates again and again that those entities we call institutions are, in fact, human expressions, organizing principles for social intercourse. At the perhaps not-incidental age of 60, Wiseman chose to spend several months filming the denizens of the medical intensive care unit (MICU) at Beth Israel Hospital in his home town of Boston. His interest was more specific than the workings of an MICU, however—he fixed his gaze only upon dying patients. Thus, Near Death looks at the modern approach to the end of life and the clinicians who work near death on a regular basis.
Health care has come a long way in less than 100 years. The discovery of penicillin in 1929 heralded an age of miracle drugs that eradicated the death sentences previously dealt by many infectious diseases. Further advances in medicine, medical technology, and surgery have increased the life expectancy and vigor of the aged; today, the United States has more centenarians than any other nation—53,364 reported in the 2010 census, or 17.3 per 100,000 people. Health care has become a consumer-driven industry from which we have come to expect a fix for every ailment from infertility to paralysis. The formerly unimaginable ability to prolong life after a person’s vital functions have failed is a particularly acute one for Beth Israel’s MICU clinicians.
Just what constitutes life and death had become a real muddle by the time Wiseman began this film. He shows MICU nurses participating in an ethics training group discuss the difficulty family members have understanding that “brain dead” means “dead” because they see their loved ones breathing with the aid of a respirator. The growth of the hospice care movement since the 1990s has eased this confusion and offered a real alternative to patients and families searching for a more consistent and peaceful end-of-life care plan. None of the clinicians in this film seem to think that prolonging life at any cost is humane, but Wiseman gives us room to consider whether they might sometimes be in too big a rush to throw in the towel.
Bernice Factor, a stroke victim who cannot speak, was admitted to the MICU after her breathing proved inadequate to sustain her. A tube was inserted down her windpipe through her nose and attached to a ventilator to support her breathing. This is the seventh time Mrs. Factor has undergone the painful procedure of temporary intubation, and the clinical staff discuss creating a permanent airway for their tubes via a tracheostomy in her neck. After telling a nurse and the attending physician, a pulmonary specialist named Dr. Weiss, that she doesn’t want a tracheostomy or further intubation should she stop breathing after the tube is removed—in effect, that she wants to be allowed to die naturally—her long-time physician, Dr. Curlin, goes to see her and finds her to have grown more ambivalent about her decision.
Mrs. Factor is not truly terminal in the sense that prolonging her life is pointless—she can still communicate and share time with her devoted husband—thus Dr. Weiss seems to have jumped too far forward in thinking that he understood the clear wishes of the patient. To further illustrate this point, Mrs. Factor’s story follows one in which a dying patient named Mr. Gavin and his family are told at least five times in exhaustive detail about treatment options and the consequences of a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, even though the patient has a living will stating his wish to be allowed to die with dignity. Although these discussions get a bit tedious for the viewer, they are vitally important to include to illustrate how difficult it is to help people in crisis to reach a rational decision, particularly when the decision will lead to death.
At the time this film was made, Beth Israel’s policy of including patients and families in all treatment decisions was not routine in the medical community, and it’s clear that some of the clinicians find it frustrating. We hear Dr. Weiss say what many had long suspected—that lethal doses of morphine were administered to patients who were “imminent.” Behind this seemingly cold-blooded “angel of death” approach are philosophical questions that clinicians face every day and that society at large has yet to come to grips with: Are we managing patients’ lives or manipulating their deaths for our own emotional ends?
In the film, Dr. Taylor is the individual who provides a bridge for the audience between the clinicians and the patients and their families. A man who can speak frankly about death to his colleagues, he shows seemingly infinite patience as he listens carefully to Mrs. Sperazzo as she goes over the choices for her beloved husband Charlie. She is a sweet, old woman who breaks down in tears frequently as she contemplates life without Charlie, but she affirms to Dr. Taylor that she understands what he is saying about working not toward Charlie’s recovery, which is unlikely, but toward his comfort. Dr. Taylor, choosing his words carefully, never rules out the possibility of a miracle, never claims 100 percent certainty about Charlie’s prognosis, but helps ease Mrs. Sperazzo toward acceptance of the inevitable. Wiseman’s carefully tuned ear offers as much dignity to her in his edit of Near Death as he tries to offer to the gravely ill patients on the MICU—both are sometimes robbed of their humanity by the machines that engulf them and the medical professionals who dismiss their intelligence and emotional struggles.
Although the core of Near Death is death’s approach, the film inevitably spills into the after-death activities at Beth Israel, including showing nurses move a body discreetly through the hospital corridors and into a drawer in the morgue. We see only one of Wiseman’s subjects beyond death, Mr. Cabra, a 33-year-old Latino father of three who successfully fought testicular cancer. He returns to the hospital in rapidly failing health and is eventually found to have fibroids in his lungs, a rare side effect of gliomycin, the drug used to treat his cancer. He will never be able to breathe with his own lungs again, and his wife bravely agrees to a DNR order and donates his body to science. The end point of this tragedy, as an MICU nurse accurately describes it, is knowledge for a medical school class that has a chance to examine his lungs.
With a running time of 6 hours, Near Death is Wiseman’s longest film. Through his compassionate, unblinking gaze we become attuned to the rhythms of the MICU, the regular comings and goings of the orderlies appearing to pick up the trash and wipe down the rooms and floors, the nurses giving report on their patients’ status to the next shift, the meetings and grand rounds of clinicians, the beeps and displays of monitors and infusion devices. Wiseman gets exceedingly lucky in recording a snippet of diagetic music, the Nino Rota/Eugene Walter love song “What Is a Youth” from Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). The lyrics provide a wistful commentary on the human drama unfolding on the screen:
What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
a rose will bloom….
It then will fade:
so does a youth,
so does the fairest maid.
Death will come soon to hush us along.
Wiseman’s deep engagement with this most primal of subjects avoids the romance of Romeo and Juliet, but reveals the peculiar kind of love of humanity these sometimes brusque clinicians must have to face down death every day of their working lives. By escorting us through their world, Wiseman largely succeeds in getting us past the kind of morbidity that causes most of us to crane our necks toward a car accident and breathe an uneasy sigh of relief that it was someone else, not us, who was unlucky—this time.
Next Page » — « previous page