23rd 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Director: Arthur Berthelet

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In past years, the CIFF set aside some of its programming for films from bygone eras of particular interest to film enthusiasts. That practice went a bit into decline in recent years, but happily, this year, filmgoers can see three films in new restorations: William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968); To Sleep with Anger (1990), in conjunction with the festival’s tribute to its influential director, Charles Burnett; and perhaps most exciting, the newly recovered Sherlock Holmes. The latter film was thought lost for nearly a century, but was found in 2014 at the world-famous Cinémathèque Française in Paris, a happy occurrence of the type that has become more common in recent years.

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The significance of the find is immense, as it was the only film in which the great stage actor William Gillette ever appeared, preserving his famous, standard-setting characterization of the super-sleuth in his own highly successful co-adaptation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the writer’s first Holmes story to appear in Strand Magazine, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891). Its significance to Chicago film history is even more noteworthy because the film was shot at the Essanay Studios at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which now serves as the Essanay Center, a division of St. Augustine College.

2015_02_Flickering_EmpireWhat? Chicago film history? Yes, indeed. For a short time, from 1898 through 1918, Chicago was the filmmaking capital of the United States. A fascinating history of this era written by my good friend Michael Glover Smith and his coauthor Adam Selzer, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry offers a look at this crucible time in film history, with engaging profiles of the major players in the Chicago film industry, including Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson and George Spoor, founders of Essanay; Selig Polyscope founder “Colonel” William Selig; film distributor and producer George Kleine; and some of the directors and actors who answered the call of Chicago before they found warmer pastures in Hollywood, including Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Oscar Micheaux, and Ben Turpin.

Recently, I sat down to talk about the Chicago film industry and Sherlock Holmes with Mike Smith, whose other claims to fame include his charming indie film, Cool Apocalypse, set to screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 and 23, and his engaging blog White City Cinema. Our conversation ranged across a number of subjects, from film preservation to CGI.

Marilyn: Even though I knew there was a Chicago film industry, I had no idea how much was going on. What got you interested in doing this history?

Mike: The impetus was discovering how large the film industry was here, which I had no clue about even though I’ve always been really interested in early cinema. As a film history teacher, I always taught that era—the 1890s and early 1900s. But I mostly talked about Europe and the northeastern United States, Thomas Edison, Biograph, because that’s what the history books focused on.

I discovered by chance how large the industry here was when I went to the Chicago History Museum. They have a very small display devoted to film, TV, and radio, and they had an old Essanay camera on display and a little plaque describing Charlie Chaplin making a film here and the address of Essanay. I knew Chaplin had worked here, but I wasn’t sure when it was, where it was, how long he was here, or how many films he made. So I decided to do a bit of research, and I was surprised to learn he was only here for 23 days, and he only made one short film!

I went to Essanay and was amazed to find that it was intact, and when I started to learn more about the studio, I was surprised to learn that there was no book-length study of Essanay or the local film production scene in the silent era. There have been books that devote a chapter or two to the era, and there have been great biographies written of people like “Bronco Billy” Anderson and Col. Selig, but there’s never been a whole book devoted to just that era in Chicago film history. When I learned how crucial Chicago was to the developing film industry in America, I thought it was a worthy subject for an entire book.

I also think that the fact that Columbia University Press put out the book, which I’m still over the moon about, is that I think they realized that there was no other book devoted solely to this subject. Hopefully, Adam and I have helped to fill in a gap in early film history.

How did you and your coauthor get together?

Adam has been a good friend of mine for over a decade. We met by chance in line at a Bob Dylan concert at the Vic Theatre back in 2004. He is an author, historian, and tour guide and has a number of books out, primarily young adult novels. But he has some history books out, too, most notably The Smart Aleck’s Guide to U.S. History. So it was kind of a natural fit, because he knows Chicago history very well and I know film history very well.

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You bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago. You can do anything here in Chicago, nobody will stop you. How did you feel about the characters you encountered?

I was fascinated by all of the major players and that entrepreneurial spirit really made researching this a lot of fun. I grew to really respect them as visionaries. This industry didn’t exist, so they were helping to build it up from nothing and they were coming from different backgrounds. Col. Selig was a phony medium who saw a kinetoscope and thought, ‘I want to get in on this.’ So the line between artist and businessman was totally blurred and also what it meant to be a filmmaker, a distributor, and an exhibitor. That was really interesting because in a few years, everything would become separate and regimented, but in the early days of cinema, they were selling cameras and they needed films that people could project. For George Spoor, certainly, filmmaking was an afterthought; he wanted to sell cameras.

I was really fond of George Kleine. He became my favorite character even though we write about him less that the others because he wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a distributor and he stood up to Edison the most and also, he was the only one who retired a success in the 1920s. He’s the only one who did not lose his fortune at the end of the local industry here.

Thomas Edison is someone I grew to grudgingly respect. Early on, Adam and I joked around about how he was going to be the villain of the book, and in some ways he is, but we also ended up sympathizing with him the more we looked into his point of view. I don’t think he was a super-villain trying to monopolize the industry out of greed. I think he truly thought that he had a case to make for patenting this equipment, and then the other thing to understand is that he didn’t understand how big the film industry was going to become. So when we look at what he did from today’s perspective, he seems really, really greedy, but if he had known how large the industry would become, he would have behaved differently. He was trying to make practical decisions to protect his own business interests by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) and only licensing his patented equipment to nine studios, and he did do some positive things, such as getting fire insurance for all the theatres that showed his films. In the early 20th century, that was very progressive. We tried to be balanced.

It’s hard to predict the future, though some people seem to have a sense of it, like Selig, who was a very innovative individual.

Moreso than Spoor and Anderson.

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But he didn’t have the business acumen or didn’t know how to realize his dreams the way that he saw them. That’s often a problem with visionaries—they need somebody else to do the grunt work. I’m curious about Selig, too, because I know him more for his work out west. Can you tell me more about his Chicago versus western work?

I don’t know exactly how many films he produced here versus there, but I would estimate that the majority of the films he made were here because he started in 1896, and he didn’t shoot his first films out west until 1909. They call him the man who invented Hollywood—that’s the name of the biography of him because he was the first filmmaker to use a location in southern California, but that was almost by chance. He shot part of The Count of Monte Cristo (1908) there, and realized it was so ideal for shooting, especially in the wintertime, that he decided to set up a second branch out there.

The mythology is that Hollywood became Hollywood because Chicago was too cold, which is partially true, but not the whole story. Do you think there was any way that Chicago could have maintained, if not the center of film production, some ongoing film concern here?

That’s an excellent question. It’s hard for me to imagine the industry continuing beyond what it initially was. I feel like it’s almost a miracle that it happened at all.

Film production had already begun in the northeastern United States. Thomas Edison was producing films prior to their public exhibition, and I feel like the only reason it sprung up here was because he stunted the growth of the film industry there. I think it was a combination of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the fact that Chicago was such an important hub for distribution, and a number of other factors that made it conducive to film production at that particular time, but I don’t think it was destined to last.

There was one really curious individual in this book—the censor, Major M.L.C. Funkhouser. What a great name! If anyone put the film scene in a funk, it was him. Obviously, there were a lot of bad business decisions that were sinking the industry, but do you think censorship was a contributing factor?

Definitely! Although we couldn’t get hard evidence against him, we tried to imply that he was in the pocket of Edison’s trust, the MPPC. The evidence comes mostly from the fact that he was a lot stricter about censoring independent films and foreign films than he was the MPPC films, especially as time went by. So I think that if he wasn’t in their pocket at the beginning, he eventually became that way. But he became that way at the wrong time because the ship was already sinking. Early on, when he did censor local films, he probably hurt the industry, and then later on, he was part of the sinking ship. Metaphorically, he was on the Eastland.

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Metaphorically, but almost literally as well because the people most affected by that disaster were not allowed to see the films of it. I find that rather irresponsible and considering the history of the newsreel and how it became more codified here in Chicago, it seems like a real crime against Chicago cinema in that sense.

That footage could be seen in the suburbs but not in the city itself, which I agree is a tragedy. There are a few fragments of the film, all of which were found in an archive in Amsterdam, and one of them is unbelievably gruesome.

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One of the amazing things about writing this book was witnessing the discovery of a lot of these old films. The Sherlock Holmes film was found just as Flickering Empire was going to press, so we were just able to add a footnote that it was going to be restored and rereleased. And now I’ve seen the film, and I love it. I think it’s wonderful. And there are a couple of other films that were either rediscovered or have been restored and are coming out soon in definitive editions.

I think we’ve hit into an era where film recovery and restoration is on the upswing. A lot of archives are opening and have the tools to finally see what they have, and I think we’ll see a lot more of these recoveries.

I think you’re right, and what I like is that a lot of these films have been discovered in an archive where they know there are films, but they’ve probably been mislabeled or the archive is in another country and the title was translated as something different so they don’t quite know what they have. So it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a cinephile, and it’s great that enough people care that there’s a market out there for this stuff. And that was another reason I wanted to write this book, because I’m always trying to show my students that film history is exciting. It’s not a boring, dry, academic endeavor. Just to watch films that are 100 years old can be a hell of a lot of fun. I think a film like Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade is as entertaining as a movie can be. Hopefully, my enthusiasm for this topic comes through in the book.

Telling this chapter in film history is really important if you’re going to get a true picture of how film developed in this country.

You’re so aware of the fact that this is the first time it was ever done on film. Maybe there are genre elements that come from literature and theatre, but when you see it on film, you realize that this is the beginning.

Like with William Gillette. Having his stage performance preserved for posterity, those opportunities don’t come along very often and it’s really a treasure to see that.

The last thing I want to say in terms of trying to capture this particular era is that I didn’t only want to transfer my enthusiasm for early film history to the reader, I also wanted to capture the excitement of the age, especially in the first chapter. That was the hook we wanted, to show how movies were sort of the climax of this flurry of invention that included other exciting breakthroughs—the lightbulb, the phonograph, and then there were moving pictures.

You really did that. The early nickelodeons, the idea of just being able to put your face down into the viewer and watch these moving pictures is revelatory to people. This wasn’t always here.

It’s hard to impress upon my students what the world was like before people saw moving pictures because today we’re just bombarded with moving images wherever we go. You’re at the gas station pumping gas and there’s a screen with people moving on it. There are screens in front of you all the time.

Lumiere Brothers

One of my favorite stories about early cinema is the Lumière Brothers had a film about a couple and their baby. They are in the foreground of the shot, and they’re outdoors. What made the biggest impression on audiences was not what was happening in the foreground, but rather the leaves blowing in the wind in the background. If you read contemporary reports of the screening, they talk about how that caused a sensation in the audience. And in a way, it makes sense if you think that people had looked at so many paintings and still photos of trees, just to see leaves blowing is revelatory.

There is a contemporary version of that with CGI, when you can see individual strands of hair moving, which I found fascinating because I was used to traditional cel animation.

I heard there was a hair physicist in Disney’s Tangled (2010) credited in that film. And that’s the great thing about film history, it’s a never-ending series of breakthroughs.

Sherlock Holmes screens Saturday, October 24 at 3:00 p.m.at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Treasure: Sly comedy about the pressures of capitalism in the new Romania and the pleasures of buried treasure from Romanian New Wave star Corneliu Porumboiu. (Romania)

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


20th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Treasure (Comoara, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.

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Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.

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That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.

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The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.

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The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.

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Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.

There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


19th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Motley’s Law (2015)

Director: Nicole Nielsen Horanyi

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The documentaries at this year’s CIFF lean heavily on portraits of influential individuals, including Chicago “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, and architect Helmut Jahn, whose State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago may be facing the wrecking ball. I don’t deny that these and other individuals highlighted at the festival are interesting and notable, but I’d bet large that the most fascinating and arguably most important person profiled in a CIFF documentary is Kimberley Motley, the central figure of Motley’s Law.

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Motley is an American attorney and former Mrs. Wisconsin who is the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. She first went there in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department and spends approximately six months a year in Kabul mainly defending foreigners caught up in the country’s legal system and pursuing women’s rights cases on a pro bono basis.

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Motley, half-black/half-Korean, proudly sporting her University of Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts and a dizzying array of dangling earrings, would be a striking figure anywhere, but in Kabul, she’s utterly singular. She never wears a veil anywhere, not on the streets, not at the prisons where she consults with her clients, and not in court. She’s forceful, no-nonsense, and relentless in pursuing justice under whatever laws apply—constitutional, Sharia, or tribal. She shakes off the fact that a grenade was thrown into her house while she was in the States and tells her assistant Khalil, who wants to bring her car into the courtyard, to leave it on the street. She prefers to be the intimidator, not the intimidated.

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We follow her as she visits a prison to see her client, a South African contractor who was convicted of what may have been trumped-up charges and has been in prison for six years. Instead of waiting however long the prison guards see fit before allowing her in, she simply breezes in through the open gates, blankets of barbed wire flanking her on either side. The South African has found ways to keep his spirits up, but he says he has reached his breaking point. He knows that if he pays a $5,000 bribe, he will be released—the two Nigerians who were convicted with him went free long ago, most likely because they paid up—but he refuses. He has already gotten a letter ordering his release from Afghanistan Attorney General Aloko, but the court officials want to keep bouncing his case around, perhaps hoping he will eventually pay them off. Motley isn’t exactly patient, but she hangs in there, restating her points over and over; finally, when she offers to help an official with a green card problem he has in the United States, her client gets his walking papers. “Every system is corrupt,” Motley says, “but this system is really corrupt.”

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Motley is very frank in stating that she came to Afghanistan for the money, which affords her, her husband, and their three children a very comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina. We see the contrast during the fall months when she’s at home celebrating Halloween with her family and neighbors. Horanyi takes her camera down a North Carolina street lined with trees and comfortable houses and then immediately contrasts it with a Kabul street, where a father, mother, and baby stand in the middle of the street, seemingly with nowhere to go, and children wade through garbage-filled water. The military roams everywhere.

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Although Motley lives in a very large, fairly luxurious house in Kabul, she is subject to power outages and leaking plumbing. When the lack of utilities becomes too much, she decides to move into the luxury Serena Hotel; 15 minutes after her check-in, gunmen arrive and kill nine people. She sluffs it off as just another attack to her husband—she likes to drive after an attack because the streets are usually clear—but he learns how serious it was from U.S. news reports. Ironically, her husband is nonfatally shot through the jaw when he visits his family in Milwaukee. Motley decries Americans and their guns, but she isn’t sure she’ll remain in Afghanistan as cut-ins of President Obama announcing the pull-out of U.S. troops in 2015 (now delayed) means decreased security for her and increased factional fighting.

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It’s hard to know what keeps Motley going in such capricious and dangerous circumstances, but one case she handles provides the best clue. A young, religious woman has been thrown in jail for running away from her husband. He took her to a party where he wanted her to drink and have sex with his friends. Motley points to the Koran to defend her and wins her release. The poor woman, practically a girl, is crying as she talks to Motley and says she would kill herself if she didn’t fear Allah. Motley may have been in it for the money, but it’s clear that she considers herself, as her banter with Khalil at the beginning of the film states, like a member of DC Comics’ Justice League.

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I found Motley’s Law inspirational as well as informative about what life in Afghanistan is like beyond the dutifully reported attacks and counterattacks. While anarchy may seem to reign, people like Motley prove that the infrastructure of Afghan democracy, while shaky, still stands.

Motley’s Law screens Tuesday October 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, October 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Emperor in August: Beautifully shot, compelling, and updated telling of the final days before Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


18th 10 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

Mars, the near future. The members of Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, pick at the surface whilst pursuing their scientific mission. The team consists of commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and a crew of highly competent supernerds, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). As Watney and Martinez trade their practised acerbic banter, the team are called in because a powerful sandstorm is heading for their mission base. Rather than weather out the storm and risk the safety of the rocket that will take them off the planet, Lewis orders the mission aborted and immediate evacuation. During the near-blind and floundering trek through the storm to the rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and flung into the maelstrom. Lewis tries to find him but, faced with the evidence that he’s probably dead, and with the rocket in danger, she gets aboard and orders lift-off. The accidental tragedy, the kind that can befall such dangerous missions, is reported, and NASA boss Teddy Daniels (Jeff Daniels) breaks the sad news to the world’s press. Watney, however, is not dead. He awakens half-buried in the red Martian soil, a steel spike jutting from his chest, his pressure suit leaking but not enough to kill him. He manages to get back to the habitation unit, dig the jagged metal out of his body, and staple the wound closed. He is then confronted by the awful fact of his situation: the smart-aleck botanist and engineer knows he’s alone on Mars, his communications wrecked, and the rations left behind insufficient to last him the wait of up to four years until the next mission arrives.

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Watney must improvise the best he can with the limited tools available to him, the limits of his existence reduced to a glorified tent on an alien alluvial plane. There’s nothing left to do but, in his words, to science the shit out of this. Watney is presumed dead by everyone on Earth for many months, and his survival is only discovered by accident when the NASA director of operations, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), asks permission to scan the site of the Ares 3 mission by satellite to check its condition. Technician Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) quickly discerns that someone is driving around the abandoned rover vehicle. Daniels refuses to pass on the news to the Ares 3 crew, who are already grieving his loss, but NASA snaps into gear to work out how to resupply Watney in a tight window of opportunity. Unexpected disasters soon begin to make the situation critical, as Watney’s crop is destroyed by a near-fatal rupture in his airlock, and the first rocket built to send food to him crashes during launch because of its hurried construction. The head of the Chinese space agency, Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), offers to help with his organisation’s new experimental booster rocket, but a young telemetry expert, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, stealing scenes), has a better and less risky idea, and proposes turning the Hermes, the spacecraft used by the Ares crew, around and sending them back to fetch Watney after a resupply. Teddy nixes the idea, not wanting to risk the rest of the crew, against the heated disagreement of Mission Controller Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), so Mitch secretly transmits Rich’s plan to them, essentially making it their call whether to turn around and trek back across space to save their friend. Meanwhile, Watney survives his ordeal with the only supply of Earthly culture left behind for him: Lewis’s USB collection of ’70s sitcoms and disco music.

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Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian had a very contemporary genesis. Weir, after dabbling unsuccessfully as a writer, started the story as a blog purely to amuse himself, but then the project developed much like the adventures it portrays: a solitary task that attracted like minds fascinated by the same ideas and problems Weir postulated. The ideas readers contributed via comments were woven into the tale. Weir placed most of his emphasis on the science part of science fiction, striving to create a believable depiction of survival on another planet. Weir’s narrative template was obviously Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: as with Defoe, the nuts-and-bolts survival methods of a castaway concerned him first and foremost, tackling in abstract the very real and likely problems of survival as a mixture of thought exercise, best-practise thesis, and classical frontiersman narrative. For dramatic convenience, Weir eventually brought in other characters and viewpoints, including a collective of NASA brains and Mark’s own guilt-ridden crew. Weir’s novel was deliberately (in part) artless, most of it presented in the form of Watney’s daily log that suited the initial presentation on a blog perfectly whilst also reviving an old literary form, the epistolary novel. Watney’s yammering, authorial voice was replete with pop cultural references, sophomore sarcasms, and nerdy enthusiasms—pretty much the voice we’re all used to reading on a thousand fliply amusing websites. The blend of hyper-detailed procedure and antiheroic humour wasn’t great drama or deep contemplation, and yet it made for a very enjoyable read.

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Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was destined to be a rather different creature, though screenwriter Drew Goddard, who handled the witty, if minor, horror genre riff The Cabin in the Woods (2012), follows the novel scrupulously in many regards. Scott, one of the few great maximalists left in cinema, couldn’t be much different to Weir in his approach to his art. But it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of the material for the director. For one thing, it lets Scott operate in several genres at once, most of which he’s tackled before, particularly in his restless late career. It’s a scifi vista about fighting for survival a la Alien (1979); a comedy about characters with weak social skills like Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2006); an epic pitting man against primal forces following on from Prometheus (2011) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014); and a tale of a searcher founding new worlds like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The sequence in which Watney operates on himself suggests a prototype for Prometheus’ best scene, which depicts more sophisticated self-surgery. Prometheus was doomed to stay in the shadow of Alien because of a confused screenplay, whilst it also discomfortingly revealed how much more staid and lumpen much current big cinema often is compared to that from the days when Scott emerged. The mild disappointment of the experience seems to have stung Scott out of a relatively flat period. The Martian, excellent as it is, might also count as a decline from the gutsy strangeness of The Counselor (2013) and the epic vigour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, two films with completely diverse brands of ambition that few seemed willing to process.

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Most vitally, though, The Martian allows Scott a chance to approach narrative entirely on the level of systematology, a notion he’s been dabbling with for most his career but started reflecting most seriously on his underrated crime movies American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. In those films, he strove to do what most gangster flicks avoid and demonstrate the drug industry as a chain of cause and effect leading right down from kingpin to the most pathetic junkie. Even more impudently, he used a spectacular chain of logically metastasising events to illustrate that most illogical of things, divine intervention, throughout Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watney is Scott’s anti-Moses, and yet echoes his take on the mythic hero, partly signalled by Scott’s return use of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a location for the drama (whilst also tipping his hat again to Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, which also used the same location). Watney is forced to rely purely on his own invention, using happenstance advantages, like the manna provided for him in a package of potatoes shipped for a Thanksgiving feast that gives him the chance to grow enough crops to live, and then carefully manufacturing what he needs, including water, through risking chemical and mechanical processes. Weir’s book was obviously far more detailed and in-depth about the pure process of this undertaking, and to a certain extent Goddard’s script skates over the very business that is the essence of the tale. But then The Martian is a mass-market movie, and it’s already stretching the template by avoiding many regulation elements and clichés—only the very faintest hints of romance, little action, very little religion, and a bunch of eggheads for protagonists.

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The Martian’s can-do poptimism strikes a refreshing note in the contemporary film landscape, following Weir’s lead in contemplating a situation where scientists get on with their jobs without political interference and the world’s populace looks on, riveted by the spectacle of how to do a lot with very little—a very now theme if ever there was one. The Martian belongs to a recent string of science fiction straining to be more accurate than the cinematic branch has often been seen as in the past, whilst also connecting to hallowed works of the genre’s history. The speculative problem-solving has roots not just in Robinson Crusoe but also in Jules Verne’s template of blending hard and soft science based in the best available knowledge and cutting-edge concepts of his time. Cinematically, Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe in Mars (1964) is an obvious intermediary: Haskin’s film dragged in scientific improbabilities, like stones that give off oxygen when heated, and the outright fantastic, when aliens eventually appear. But it also evoked an eerie, distinctive, dislocated mood that anticipated the serious science-fiction filmmaking of the next two decades, including Alien. Haskin had worked long before that with George Pal, who had produced Destination Moon (1950), the first modern scifi film and one that was just as persuasively preoccupied with the true problems of space travel. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001), a controversial flop at the time of its release and another film made in the image of Stanley Kubrick’s tirelessly (and, increasingly, tiresomely) influential 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helped reinvigorate realistic scifi with its elegant use of the authentic limitations of travelling in space, usually sidestepped readily by filmmakers, as the very matter of its drama—the danger of meteors, the tyranny of distance and scarcity, the exacting punishment attending the smallest of faults and miscalculations.

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More recently, Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) had delved into similar territory (The Martian shares Interstellar cast members Damon and Chastain). One thing The Martian has that those films conspicuously lacked is its scallywag sense of humour; Scott’s film is less pretentious than either whilst going well past them in actual, practical acumen. If it lacks the intermittent glimpses of unusual grandeur Christopher Nolan conjured in his work, it also avoids the bad wobbles of story and characterisation, and actually lives up to the promise of convincing use of a far-out setting on which Gravity failed so conspicuously to deliver. But actually, a closer ancestor to Weir’s novel was The Andromeda Strain (1970), Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel where almost all of the drama was found specifically in scientific exegesis. A lot of Weir’s more finicky process details are left out of the film, and Scott is more attentive to the physical level: Watney, as his ordeal continues over months, degenerates from a man blessed with Damon’s weathering but still very boyish features and sturdy physique, to scrawny, sore-riddled, malnourished remnant sprouting a ragged beard. Scott’s filmmaking is part of the great pleasure of The Martian: avoiding much of the mannered and assaultive lexicon of contemporary pseudo-realism (some of which Scott helped invent), Scott instead offers a work of classical filmmaking sweep, perhaps his most successful attempt: it somehow manages to be at once fast-paced and dashing, yet also curiously relaxed, a work of profoundly casual skill.

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The filmmaking here is most memorable when regarding the Martian landscape itself, a vista grand and beautiful, but also utterly desolate. Watney’s journey across the planet to locate the escape ship intended for the next mission but now to be repurposed as his ark is an interlude of cinematic grandeur that again nods to Lawrence of Arabia’s Nefud Desert crossing sequence, alternating viewpoints both godlike and eye-level. Some have called Scott’s approach to the material distant, but I found it simply elegant, and perhaps that’s so rare these days, no one recognises it. The mix of old-school cinema and new-age humour, potentially awkward, works for the most part. Perhaps there was the seed of something shaggier and more genuinely oddball here, in the mould of John Carpenter and Alien collaborator Dan O’Bannon’s heady Dark Star (1974). But of course, that was never part of the mission statement. Weir resisted introducing much introspection on Watney’s part, with the suggestion that Watney’s detail-focused approach to his situation holds at bay existential angst. One of the best jokes transcribed here satirises a tendency towards heavy metaphysical ponderings in such fare, when Kapoor wanders what Watney must be thinking, before cutting to the stranded astronaut deploring the lyrics of disco music.

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Scott, on the other hand, whilst not trying to graft something too weighty onto the material, doesn’t let Watney escape unscathed, simply utilising his filmmaking to acknowledge a sense of isolation and the tug of eternity, and finds a sense of wonder as much in the miracle of a sprout of living green, with all its scientific and poetic meaning, as in the vast reaches of an alien world. Watney is confronted with a landscape of perfect solitude, his status as pioneer, the first one to go just about anywhere on the planet, a space cowboy and tourist who has the technology-provided ability, familiar again to most of us these days, to define his own reality with the music he constantly blasts, and yet with the tug of airless infinities just beyond his cocoon of plastic and digitised music.

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Scott and Goddard smartly dial back on some of Weir’s more awkward, populist-wannabe touches, like the clashes of temperament between Teddy and Mitch, aiming more for an interesting diminuendo where a confrontation of the two men after Mitch makes his risky play acknowledges consequences like grown-ups. It’s tempting, indeed, to read Mitch, with Bean in the role dampening his trademark machismo and playing up his intelligence, as Scott’s avatar in the film, a man long used to playing by a larger game’s rules but willing to occasionally remind everyone he doesn’t always sign on with the smooth, hierarchical, technocratic suppression of human instinct (Bean’s presence also presents an opportunity for one great in-joke for Lord of the Rings fans). I was also pleased that Chastain, who might have been prodded to overplay the fearless leader in a manner close to her charmless part in Interstellar and her steely-neurotic spymaster in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), instead offers a portrait in mature leadership that, again, feels rather rare in recent filmmaking. Chastain expertly handles the moments like when she holds herself accountable for leaving a very-much-alive Watney behind with pliant skill, registering both piercing reprobation and lucid realism. In fact, the cast is so generally excellent that many actors, like Kristen Wiig, must count as wasted.

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The Martian isn’t perfect. I could’ve done with a few less rounds of NASA technicians cheering and cutaways to enthralled audiences in Times Square and other international locations. The theme of contact and cross-pollination between cultures is one close to Scott’s heart, and yet The Martian gets oddly stiff when contemplating an American’s butt being saved with Chinese aid. Yet something of the crowd-sourced joie de vivre of the novel’s genesis has slipped through into this film, one that invites the audience along and doesn’t talk down much as it explains the minutiae of growing crops on Mars and explores the method Watney has to use to strip down and repurpose the ascent vehicle in order to reach the Hermes, reducing to a “convertible,” as Watney quips, assaulting the craft to the point where it seems unsafe, and indeed this turns out to be so.

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The climax is a particularly brilliant display of technique and visual power, ratcheting up tension but also finding weird epiphanies of motion that extend the film’s theme of seeing the beauty and wonder even at the outermost fringes of survival. The jokey yet fundamental theme of music as a basic human need resolves in a zero-gravity dance where the need to grip onto another human is quite literally a life-saving act of faith. Scott and Goddard go further than Weir for a postscript that underlines, amidst a mood of bouncy triumph, the notion that experience equals knowledge that then must be passed on in the same way a seed leads to a green shoot. Such uncynical epiphanies make The Martian one of the most charming big-budget movies of the year and one of Scott’s most entertaining works.

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13th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Emperor in August (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Masato Harada

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The story of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, which unofficially ended World War II, is one of obvious interest to the Japanese people. In August 1967, director Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day, the first major film to deal with this event, premiered in Japan (and showed at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival), where it was a smash hit. Now we have a new film version of that story. Of course, remakes are standard operating procedure in Hollywood and something audiences around the world are used to, but some in Japan have wondered why The Emperor in August needed to be made.

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Director Harada felt the time was ripe for a retelling, not only to reveal established and new information about the surrender to a new generation of Japanese indifferent to their country’s history, but also to correct some misperceptions about the emperor’s responsibility put forward in two American histories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2001, respectively—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His approach eschews the melodramatic style of Okamoto’s film to reveal the workings of Japan’s constitutional monarchy and the real power behind the symbolic power of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).

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When the film opens, Japan’s war effort is on its last legs, and its government is faced with the decision of whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese Chairman Chiang Kai-shek or go on fighting. Harada focuses mainly on Prime Minister Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aged general who reluctantly formed a new cabinet at the request of the emperor (Masahiro Motoki), Army Minister Korechika Anami (Kôji Yakusho), and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Sakomizu (Shin’ichi Tsutsum) as the main political players in deciding the fate of the Japanese nation.

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Anami is a proud soldier who believes the Japanese could yet win the war through a coalition of all of Japan’s military branches and has the joyous support of the army in pushing for the “decisive battle” on Japanese soil, using the Soviet sacrifice of 20 million soldiers to win the war against Nazi Germany as an example of what can be accomplished. The emperor (Masahiro Motoki) implores Suzuki to persuade the cabinet to accept the Declaration, fearing that there will be no Japan if all of its people are killed; the “new bomb” has already been dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki will be bombed within the film’s timeframe. Suzuki is old and mostly deaf, but he knows that if he presses Emperor Shōwa’s case, he could be executed for treason under the terms of the constitution, which grant no governing authority to the emperor. Sakomizu observes and records every cabinet meeting, an uncomfortable neutral party in a war of words and passions.

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The 2¼-hour film is filled with politicians and military brass moving from meeting to meeting, securing the emperor underground after the Imperial Palace is destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo, and outsmarting the army, which is poised to stage a coup. Yet it is the more personal moments in the film that resonate most deeply. Anami is shown at home having dinner with his wife, daughter, and future son-in-law as they plan their marriage. Despite the material privations and bombing threat, Anami insists that they start the marriage right with a grand affair at the Imperial Hotel, though the venue will change when the hotel is burned in the firestorm. Anami is deeply touched when the emperor asks him late in the film whether the wedding occurred as planned—a show of concern from a godlike man that convinces Anami that his sacrifice of his political position and his life in the honorable ritual suicide of seppuku are in service to a worthy man and his cause.

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The prelude to his suicide—the suicide itself is shown in semigraphic detail, including the politely refused offer of one of his retainers to “relieve (cut off) the head”—is intermixed with scenes of his wife walking for four hours to bring her husband news from a soldier who served under their beloved son, who died in battle at age 20. She arrives in time to see his corpse laid out carefully by his retainers under his uniform, and delivers details of her son’s service as though Anami were sitting across from her drinking tea. The decimated countryside through which she travels is the only time we see the common people of Japan, and their lot is desperate indeed.

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Harada lavishes attention on the gung-ho young officers, focusing on Major Hatanaka (Tôri Matsuzaka) as the touchpoint for all of the young officers who refuse to accept surrender, the loss of national sovereignty, or a diminution of the position of the emperor. The emperor has made a recording for national broadcast in which he reads the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. The officers seize the radio station, though quick thinking by Sakomizu puts the recording out of their reach. They later try to coerce a general into signing a false order to continue fighting; Hatanaka shoots him when he refuses and forges his signature—an ink impression of his official seal. The passion of these nationalists is furious and intense, a reminder of why war and nativism stubbornly persist.

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The film is mainly procedural and a bit confusing until all of the characters are firmly assigned in one’s mind; a quick review of the history of this event in an encyclopedia would help audience members make sense of some swiftly moving action. Harada offers some visually stunning moments, which include the glow of Tokyo burning to the ground and a vision of fully flowered cherry trees that Suzuki fears will never bloom again if the war continues. His landscape of faces front extremely impressive performances of all the principal actors, with Yamazaki and Yakusho particular standouts, the former full of shrewdness as well as decisiveness, the latter burning with pride and a surprising vulnerability. I hoped against hope that he would wait for his wife to arrive before gutting himself, perhaps allow her to talk him out of it, though, of course, she would never even try, military families being what they are.

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Harada hopes that this film will help frame the debate in Japan about rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution. He wrote a line of dialog with this in mind: “Gun o nakushite, kuni o nokosu” (get rid of the military, save the country).” No one can say for sure whether The Emperor in August will provide the wake-up call Harada thinks his country needs, but his masterful treatment of a crucial historical moment should be must-viewing for any serious cinephile or student of history.

The Emperor in August has only one screening, on Sunday October 18 at 1:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.

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All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.

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As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.

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If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!

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Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.

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The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.

Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.

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David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?

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Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.

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What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.

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Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.

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Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.

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Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.

Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


8th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Clever (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Divorce is never a joyous affair. While it may be a relief to both parties, there is usually an instigator who has the courage to throw in the towel and who can more easily move on. The ego blow taken by the discarded partner is not so quickly healed and often results in a quest for love or status of any kind to replace the feelings of unattractiveness and deflation.

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In psychological terms, it seems that cars are symbolic of the male ego, and that certainly is the case in the mordantly funny Clever, a new comedy from the Uruguayan filmmaking team of Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. The duo, who were both born in Montevideo and earned social communication degrees from the Catholic University of Uruguay, have worked together since 2005, honing their unique style in the process of making short films, music videos, and experimental documentaries. In this, their feature film debut set sometime in the early 2000s, Borgia and Madeiro take aim at machismo, chronicling the frustrations of Clever (Hugo Piccinini), a martial arts instructor who, in the opening scene, is sitting in court as the presiding judge grants a divorce to his wife Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone).

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Clever did not want the divorce, and soon after the court hearing, we see him persuade Jacque to get in his rusted, blue Chevette and then try to force her to kiss him. She fights him off and disappears behind a gated entrance to the home they once shared. When we next see the couple, it is six months later. Clever has completely shaved his balding head, giving him a tougher look, and painted his car orange. He is picking up his son Bruce (Santiago Agüero) for his weekend of custody. The exes talk to each other amicably, though Clever grills Bruce later about the new man in Jacque’s life.

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After a trip to the dojo where Clever teaches, he takes Bruce to his apartment, minimally furnished and very much a divorced man’s pad. Bruce isn’t much like his namesake and Clever’s idol, Bruce Lee, preferring to sit in front of the TV playing videogames on a cheap game console. When he wants to play with Clever’s model cars, Bruce must be very careful—this is a collection as fragile as Clever’s ego. Bruce does delight his father, however, when he notices a car painted with flames as they drive along a Montevideo street. After Clever’s friend and coke-snorting buddy Juez (Ernesto Borgia) strong-arms the car’s owner into telling him who painted it and where he can be found, Clever sets off for the sleepy town of Las Palmas to find the artist who can make his wheels the most badass at the city’s annual car show.

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Borgia and Madeiro’s shooting style, ably lensed by cinematographer Ramiro González Pampillón, favors extreme close-ups and slow horizontal pans that provide humorous juxtapositions. For example, we see only the stubbly mouth of the judge in the opening scene as he steams his glasses with his breath in slow motion and rubs them clean. We watch Bruce pumping small dumbbells, followed by a pan to his father pumping considerably more iron in one of many mirror images that dot the film. The directors use slow motion to suggest Clever’s emotions, as when he sees his car after Sebastian (Marcos Escobar), the body-builder/artist, drives it out of his shed; this priceless moment of ecstasy uses a corny love song about sex in a car performed in English by singer Ismael Varela to reveal the dragon-shaped flames along the side and the classic pose of Bruce Lee with hands at the ready painted on the hood.

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In the grand tradition of Paris, Australia, in Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) or Werner Herzog’s Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), Las Palmas is a place that reason forgot. When Clever stops to relieve himself in the bushes, a boy on horseback rides by and shoots his tire out with his rifle. His arrival in town along a long approach appropriately lined with tall palm trees lands him next to a cantina with a red popsicle painted on its side. Everyone near the cantina, including a man wearing a pageboy wig, is slowly sucking on a popsicle, a Las Palmas specialty made of wine from locally grown grapes. Police play pick-up sticks with a handcuffed prisoner and argue about whether he moved a stick. Clever incurs the wrath of the man (Néstor Guzzini) he was told was the artist by rightfully doubting he is who the villagers and he say he is (and slights are not forgotten in this small, possibly inbred town.) Finally, Sebastian and his mother (Marta Grandé) form quite a pair—a muscle-bound, religious mama’s boy who has “a 100 percent latin temperment” and possibly a hard-on for Clever, and a sexually frustrated woman who has decorated their home with hundreds of her paintings and drawings of nude males.

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Where Clever succeeds most spectacularly is in the offhand depiction of the masculine psyche. The man whose car sent Clever on his quest is a flabby, hair-covered, unattractive man who projects his desired self-image onto his car. Clever’s car, at the beginning, reflects the shabby state of his ego. He is assertive in Las Palmas, but can’t wheedle his way out of sleeping in Sebastian’s bed—feet to head—and finally simply abandons Sebastian near a small lake where they are shooting photos of the car when it appears that the artist is planning to make a major move on him. His impotence in the face of his wife’s rejection finally erupts when he bashes a large rock through his rival’s windshield, a perfect image of his shattered ego. In the end, he reveals himself to be very much the boy, as he and Bruce sit side by side wolfing burgers down at a sidewalk stand and playing in the cars most suited to them—bumper cars.

This film is filled with oddball moments, gorgeous frames, and most important, a central character whose confusion is touching and funny in equal measure. This is a film to treasure.

Clever screens Saturday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 6:15 a.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Adama: An ingeniously animated coming-of-age story depicts a 10-year-old West African whose journey to save his brother takes him into the heart of battle during World War I. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


5th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Adama (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.

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In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.

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The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.

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Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.

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Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.

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Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.

Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


2nd 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: How to Win Enemies (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Gabriel Lichtmann

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is Gabriel Lichtmann the Woody Allen of Argentina? Although Lichtmann has only made two feature films in 10 years, both deal with his Jewish identity in his big-city hometown of Buenos Aires, both are written and directed by him, and at least one—How to Win Enemies—has an intellectual, sexually bumbling nerd as its main protagonist. How to Win Enemies is, like his own description of his feature debut, Jews in Space or Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? (2005), also a sad comedy, and though rather predictable, it is still a well-executed film that holds one’s attention and sympathy for its duration.

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Like Jews in Space, How to Win Enemies begins during one of the more important rituals of Jewish life—a wedding. Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), an attorney in practice with his brother Lucas (Martín Slipak), is marrying another attorney in their firm, Paula (Eugenia Capizzano). We come in right before the end of the wedding ceremony and get to watch Max smash the wine glass underfoot as the guests yell “Mazeltov!” The film cuts to the wedding reception. A nervous Paula asks Lucas whether he can tell that there is a rip in her dress, and he assures her she looks fine and is too good for his brother. He delivers Paula and Max’s speech, which he has written, to the head table, and Max opens the envelope containing the speech, unfolds it, and says the first two lines: “How do you win enemies? By telling the truth.” Then the film flips back to two days before the wedding, when a series of misadventures turns Lucas, an Agatha Christie fan who has written a mystery novel, into an amateur detective.

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The film takes its time moving into the mystery portion of the film with a languorous introduction phase meant to acquaint us with likely suspects to a theft Lucas will find himself investigating. This phase does not proceed as it does in many mysteries I’ve seen because it doesn’t present these characters as having obvious axes to grind or hidden agendas. In fact, most of the suspects seem unequivocally innocent and delightful. The real pleasure of this film is not in solving a mystery, but rather in the perfect vignettes of the talented cast that reveal different aspects of life in Argentina’s capital.

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The mystery involves a set-up in which Lucas is the target. That he feels he was specifically marked and not just some random victim of an opportunistic thief comes from his instincts, not from anything the plot reveals. As he starts weaving the threads of information together from Facebook, to a library, to a seedy part of town, and then closer to home, we meet a very resourceful woman (Inés Palombo) with some muscle to back her up, a sarcastic librarian (Carla Quevedo) who may turn out to be the woman of Lucas’ dreams, and a professional criminal (Ezequiel Rodríguez) who seems to think Lucas isn’t entitled to enter a conference room in his own law firm.

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Lichtmann peppers the film with realistic vignettes that are sometimes comical, but really aren’t all that funny. For example, Lucas is trying to help a woman get an order of protection against her abusive husband, but his witness backs out of testifying. He goes to “Pelícano,” (Sangrado Sebakis) a large, curly-haired fixer to be his witness for hire. Pelícano asks for $3,000, Lucas counters with $600, and the deal is quickly struck—a little larceny in service to a good cause that plays with all the comedic humanity I’m sure Lichtmann intended. We also travel with Lucas through the streets of the city as he follows an attractive woman, very likely a hooker, to an elementary school to pick up her son and bring him back to an apartment complex with burglar bars over the windows. Yes, this is Buenos Aires, too.

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Max’s bachelor party is loaded with attractive hookers and a porn movie blares in the background, but this scene made me feel rather sad for Paula and for Lucas as well. Lucas seems disgusted with the throwback machismo Max displays with entitled ease, and we get the feeling that Paula will be turning to Lucas almost immediately after the ink on her marriage license dries, and that Lucas knows it.

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Most of all, we see Lucas and Max bickering and looking out for each other in equal measure. Lucas puts up with Max’s hooker-strewn bachelor party, while Max indulges Lucas’ reminiscing in their childhood home left vacant by the recent death of their mother. The latter is a scene to which many middle-aged people will relate, revealing an inventory of outdated furniture and decors, shelves of family photos, a kitchen crammed with a lifetime’s worth of gadgets and tableware, forgotten card collections and treasures crammed in the boys’ desk and dresser drawers. These moments of unity appeal to Lucas’ romantic side, while Max has little use for anything that doesn’t matter in the here and now.

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It doesn’t take Lucas long to figure out who Mr. or Ms. Big is—but I was way ahead of him. No matter. When we return to where the film began, the wedding reception, there will be a payoff and a payout. It’s not as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked—I’m more vengeful, I suppose—but in a movie about Jews, it provides the Old Testament eye for an eye that is not only appropriate, but also inevitable. If Lichtmann is the Argentine Woody Allen—and this is a rather lightweight, conventionally made film in the Allen mold—he is nonetheless graced with a bigger heart and a better eye for the absurdity of human existence.

How to Win Enemies screens Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45 p.m., Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


1st 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Director: Gillian Armstrong

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

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Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns carry a rowboat like a coffin. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.

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Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.

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The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.

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Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.

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The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.

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It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.

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Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!

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Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.

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Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.

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Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.

Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


29th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Paul Taylor Creative Domain (2015)

Director: Kate Geis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.

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The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).

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Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to accommodate the “clay” with which he is working.

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Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.

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When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.

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What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.

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One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.


27th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Everest (2015)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

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By Roderick Heath

Mount Everest has always loomed in my imagination, a behemoth of rock standing like some exposed bone of the earth, puncturing the sky. When I was a kid, I watched the documentary Conquest of Everest (1953), which depicted Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent, fixated by the scale of the feat. Hillary’s photos of Norgay on the summit, wearing his mask and breathing oxygen, made him look like the first true astronaut, the pair of humans balancing on a pebble and touching the void. A lot of people obviously share this fascination, but some aren’t happy to just watch it on a screen. Forty years later, climbing Everest became a commercial tourist enterprise, professional climbers leading parties of variably rich and enthusiastic amateurs to the peak. The subject of Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is the mountain’s dormant treachery, the danger always present when climbing its bulk to heights usually traversed only in jets.

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In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer had the painful and dubious fortune to join an Everest climbing party and find himself in the midst of a tragedy that he would report on in his book Into Thin Air. His account inspired a popular telemovie; a small industry of other accounts by survivors, some aimed at rebutting his take on the story; and now, a big-budget feature film. Recently, even worse disasters have struck would-be climbers of the great peak, lending timeliness to a tale that counsels respect for the power nature can still wield over us. Icelandic filmmaker Kormákur, began his directing career 15 years ago with a very different piece of work, the droll and raunchy Almodovar-esque comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000). He has been making movies ever since in both Iceland and in Hollywood, and here makes an overt stab at epic stature.

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Mountain-climbing movies have a long pedigree, harking back to the craze for them in Weimar Germany, exemplified by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1928), a film that defined a finite blend of wrenching physical intensity and spiritual romanticism associated with great heights where people can die and yet remain, frozen and unchanged, for ages. Mountain climbing is an innately cinematic activity during which even the most banal maneuvers can be charged with visual beauty and a sense of fraught peril. The Challenge (1938) depicted the first climb of the Matterhorn, whilst films over the years of varying degrees of seriousness and excitement, including The White Tower (1948), The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1992), and Vertical Limit (2000), have all plied varieties of high-altitude melodrama. Everest, in telling a true and largely grim story, has no plot contrivances or great, driving stakes to lean on (like Vertical Limit, which was essentially 1953’s The Wages of Fear on a mountain), leaving Kormákur to create his sense of drama by paying attention to the contrasting spectacles of human-scale ambition and suffering, and the vast, dwarfing vista of the mountain, ignorant of the tiny creatures perambulating up its flanks. The chief players in the impending tragedy are professional mountain climbers Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), men who pioneered opening the mountain to tourism by acting as guides to small, relatively select groups of amateur climbers, who find themselves merely two of many competing operations.

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Rob and Scott couldn’t be much more different as personalities: Rob is a sturdy, circumspect New Zealander who leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home to ply his trade, whilst Scott is a scruffy, blissed-out Yank fond of a good drink until he snaps into action. Rob is described as a “hand holder” who does his utmost to get all of his clients, no matter how shaky, to the top. Scott prefers a more Darwinian approach, believing only people capable of getting themselves to the summit under their own steam should make the trip—those who can’t hack it can head back down. Both men are intrinsically aware of the disconnect between the mores of dedicated, experienced mountain climbers and the concessions to the people they’re now dedicated to aiding. Mountain climbing can be a group activity, but treats strong, prudent, self-sufficient people the best. The vagaries of nature are indifferent to the timetables and expectations of paying customers. Scott’s tough, terse righthand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), avoids climbing with oxygen, as he feels they lend an air of false security, preferring hard, fast ascents and descents. This approach, however, asks more of the less rugged and experienced types their business depends on than some can manage.

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Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, who was going to make the ascent with Scott’s Mountain Madness team, but instead signs on with Rob’s Adventure Consultants outfit and their motley crew of experienced and hardy climbers. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is out to finish her project of climbing all of the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent, by taking on the biggest of them all. Americans Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) are two highly contrasting personalities unified by their dedication to conquering the peak after many frustrations in pursuing their love of climbing. Beck is a big-mouthed, wealthy Texan, whilst Doug is a wiry man who laboured at three jobs to put together the funds for the climb, and even then, still needed Rob to give him a discount. Rob’s regular team includes fellow pro climber Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and loyal manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and newbie team doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), both of whom provide support at base camp. Rob and his company transport their clientele to the foot of the mountain to begin the rigorous acclimatisation and training process before launching a proper assault on the summit. On arrival, they’re confronted by the army of other climbing teams, some of whom resent Rob’s air of authority as the pioneer of their business and habit of looking askance at shabbier practices, like littering up the camp site.

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This competition starts to make the situation tense and dangerous, at one point creating a human traffic jam at a dangerous crevasse crossing point. Teams try to get across this before the rising sun makes the ice brittle, and the delays make it ever more dangerous. Beck has a terrifying moment dangling from the rickety ladder bridge that leaves him shaken and inclined to tear a few angry strips off Rob, whilst Doug shows signs of susceptibility to the lung problems that descend at high altitudes. Faced with the prospect of teams tripping over each others’ toes when making their final ascents, Rob suggests to Scott that they cooperate and make their ascent together. Scott is cautious, aware of the teams’ different styles and ways of handling clients, and the teams’ lead sherpas Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa) clash heatedly. But Scott eventually agrees to the pact, and they head off during a window of good weather. There are always calculated risks in this business, with a storm cell hovering in the Bay of Bengal that may or may not come their way, an array of bodies that may or may not withstand the strains of more than eight kilometres above the sea, climbing with a squad of men and women who may or may not be able to effectively work together. When a brisk wind that dogs the team up to the South Col dies off, leaving a pristine and perfectly silent moonlit view of the peak, the climbers seem set for a swift and lucky ascent.

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Kormákur presents Everest as a blend of movie styles, matching a polished, imposing brand of Hollywood spectacle on the visual level and the cues of an adventure drama, like Dario Marianelli’s thunderous music score, with a finicky, detail-based variety of realism on the dramatic level, exploring not just the whys and whens of the tale, but trying to come to grips with things as subtle as how body language signals differences in people that can help explain how eventually they will die on a mountain. Kormákur doesn’t always elegantly mesh these approaches, in part because of the slicker pretences of his filmmaking and the screenplay by one-time Gladiator (2000) cowriter William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, who has been selling the travails of ordinary people as multiplex fare as far back as The Fully Monty (1997) and who also penned 127 Hours (2009), a tale of similarly punished extreme sports hubris.

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Everest is at its best when it sticks to studying the woozy, edgy camaraderie of these mountaineers, the sense of troubled awe found in the landscape, and the accumulation of minutiae that mean little in themselves, but add up to a deadly situation still being talked about 20 years later. Clarke and Gyllenhaal are particularly good as men bound by a certain code, but who approach it in divergent ways—the uneasy, assessing alertness that lurks under Rob’s affable, practiced demeanour, Scott’s tendency to play beach bum in the sky until duty calls and sees him push his body to a breaking point. Rob and Scott become, to a certain extent, victims and culprits in the calamity, men who sell their skills and their hard-won knowledge of the rarefied zones to others whose expectations and naivete, which no matter how hardy and experienced they are can’t entirely be shed until they venture into the deadly region above 8,000 metres, inevitably drive them to make perilous decisions.

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Krakauer prods his fellow climbers over their motivations, but finds it hard to extract such nebulous, yet powerful drives from them; Rob fills in with that old standby, “Because it’s there.” The climbers’ overwhelming need to pit themselves against such a challenge and the feeling that they can’t rest until they’ve won against the mountain has no logical end, except perhaps the desire to not simply experience the extreme but to then share the experience. For Doug, it’s a virtually communal act, considering that he’s been partly sponsored by schoolkids and wants to plant a flag they gave him on the summit. Beck seems to be pushing against his own masculine self-image and fear of approaching middle age. Sam Worthington is shoehorned in as Guy Cotter, another climber who takes over communications when the team runs into trouble.

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Kormákur emphasises the array of nationalities represented by these errant souls, people truly from every corner of the earth (and this is probably the first and last time in a major Hollywood film where a large percentage of the cast is playing Kiwis). The scaling of the mountain and subsequent events take up a bulk of the running time, and Kormákur handles this extended set-piece extremely well. The shoot was spread over a variety of locations, including some real footage taken near Everest ,but with most high-altitude footage shot in Italy and mixed with occasional, mostly seamless special effects. It adds up to a convincing, dizzying approximation of the experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain and makes the film a must on the biggest screen you can find.

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Kormákur holds a peculiar form of faith with the people he’s depicting. The act of reaching the peak is a maxim in their lives worth knocking on death’s door, and Kormákur follows them step by bloody step on a journey that is a stirring and noble moment in and of itself, but underscored by the anxiety that every extra second spent up that high brings these people closer to the disaster sneaking up on them. In this environment, tiny faults and minor delays become great big problems. Scott rushes down the mountain shepherding a wash-out, injects himself with dexamethasone to guard against pulmonary edema, the high-altitude equivalent of the bends, and heads on up again, pushing his body to the limit exactly when he needs reserves of strength and physical integrity. Beck, who had eye surgery years before, finds his vision going blurry from the altitude and cold and is left dazzled and lost by the trail. Crucial ropes needed to make the dangerous part of the ascent go missing.

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Doug is halted by breathing trouble, but eventually he restarts and follows the party at a distance: when he proves determined to summit even as the rest of the party starts descending, Rob sticks with him, a seam of sentiment stirred by Doug’s agonised dedication—but with fateful consequence. A storm sweeps up the valley and slaps the mountain, and the people on it are immediately lost in a violent and freezing flurry that turns the operation into a hectic and lethal free-for-all where even the most experienced are readily overwhelmed. Those well-versed in these events or the various earlier versions will obviously know how these events play out, removing some of the tension from the familiarly constructed narrative, except perhaps for an immersive sense of the shock of the moment.

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Kormákur captures the descent into chaos effectively, and makes the first death a particularly heartbreaking moment for not overplaying it: one moment a man is there, the next, nothingness. The grandeur remains, but has turned murderous. But Everest is hurt by a tendency to graze the obvious, like having Beck first appear wearing a Dole-Kemp campaign shirt to tell the audience he’s a bit of a good ole boy through period detail. Later, Beck has visions of his family, inspiring him to battle against the elements and begin an agonising trek, the kind of touch no filmmaker should be trying to ply in 2015. Kormákur has roots in a kind of oddball surrealism, but he would have done better sticking more purely to the docudrama template. The time-honoured desire to encompass a broad audience by appealing to basic reflexes of family relationships stretches a bit far. Actresses of the calibre of Watson, Knightley, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s wife Peach, are called upon to have their four or five minutes of screen time on the far end of increasingly distraught phone calls and do their wobbly-face emoting, in a business that is defined by a passing surreal disconnect between relative proximity and remoteness. This quality is at least drawn out by the pitiful strangeness of Jan’s attempts to contact her husband on the mountain as he struggles against soul and body-grinding forces of nature, proving that modern communications can reach anywhere, but still provide only an illusion of closeness and safety; that this scene is also true makes it especially poignant (also, kudos go for Knightley and Watson’s great Kiwi accents).

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On the other hand, a scene in which Peach and her pals try to whip up action from diplomats and politicians from a coffee table war room sticks out for reeking badness, a cringe-inducing attempt to appeal to Republican mores where Peach stirs action with some mama bear growls, with Wright as the only caricature in the film. The final scenes, which depict a dangerous attempt at a helicopter rescue of one survivor at altitudes right at the threshold of the machine’s reach, feel rushed and flimsy, though again, this part of the tale is true. I also wonder why Yasuko’s story isn’t emphasised as much as the other characters, given that it’s just as dramatic and tragic as theirs: as a non-English-speaking woman, is she considered not as universally interesting? The straightforwardness of Kormákur’s approach gives the film crowd-enticing gloss, but also retards to a certain extent what should be a haunting study in stoicism and death. Only the very last shot, which is perfect, captures something of the same melancholy, spiritual grandeur, and vision of eternal stasis that Fanck and Pabst did so long ago.

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Everest is ultimately an imperfect and perhaps slightly under-ambitious film, one that misses a chance to explore an obsession with the ethereal and the far reaches of experience in deference to remain a nail-biting hit. But it’s also the kind of big moviemaking with a human core that’s been desperately lacking this year, especially compelling to me when compared to blockbusters that are hollow displays of technique, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, so I’m willing to forgive its faults. Most crucially, I walked away with a sense of healthy respect for both the living and the dead of Everest, and the mountain itself, which, however hazardous, still looms majestic in the mind, a place where dreams flow, for better and for worse.


21st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director: Mu Fei

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By Roderick Heath

When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.

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The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.

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The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.

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When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.

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Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.

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Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.

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Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.

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Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.

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The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)

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Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.

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Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.

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The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.

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The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.

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The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.

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Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.


18th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

So This Is Paris (1926)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

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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!

Paris 8The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.


11th 09 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Samurai Trilogy (1954-56)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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7th 09 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Queen of Earth (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.


3rd 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


1st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Dreamcatcher (2015)

Director: Kim Longinotto

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 tell 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.

_83595763_brenda-on-steps_editedThese 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.”

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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.


30th 08 - 2015 | 7 comments »

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith

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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, 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.

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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 and immediately responded to as something new and amazing. He had helped define the cinema 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.

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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.

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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 by this time already had a reputation as one of cinema’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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 concise, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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