10th 12 - 2015 | no comment »

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.

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Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.

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The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.

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Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.

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Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.

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Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.

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Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.

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Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.

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Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.


7th 04 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.

You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.

The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”

A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.

New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.

When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.

Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.


10th 06 - 2010 | 4 comments »

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Spike Lee

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Everyone who reads me knows my great admiration for Melvin Van Peebles, whose ground-breaking films have created an authentic, modern voice for the African-American experience. His heir apparent is, of course, Spike Lee, the most enduring of the African-American directors to emerge in the 1980s. His debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, is a derivative affair—one is constantly reminded of Woody Allen while watching it—but at the same time, it has all the vitality and fizzy, alchemic mix of amateurism and professionalism our best directors demonstrate in their juvenilia.

She’s Gotta Have It is structured in a documentary style, with its central character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), telling the audience that this film will set the record straight about who she is and what she’s about. Nola, a sexy, attractive, independent woman, lives alone in a large apartment in Brooklyn and makes a living in graphic design. She got that apartment, we learn from her friend and former roommate Clorinda Bradford (Joie Lee), when Clorinda complained about all the strange men she would find using her bathroom in the mornings after their evenings with Nola. We go on to meet the three men Nola has settled on since moving out: Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). Each man, like Bradford, is introduced with his name overlaid on the screen, and given the chance to tell his version of his relationship with Nola.

Jamie, who seems to have the inside track with Nola, followed her after seeing her on the street and basically threw himself at her feet. He’s solid, sincere, and romantic; when they make love for the first time, it is sensuously choreographed to the wonderful jazz score Spike’s father Bill wrote for the film, with all of the candles on Nola’s many-shelved headboard blazing and melting.

Mars is a nebbishy Woody Allen type, with insecurity and immaturity written all over him. He wears a large, gold, autograph necklace around his neck, rides his bike everywhere, and repeats sentences over and over like he is trying to jackhammer himself into Nola’s consciousness (his famous plea, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please,” has been a staple on t-shirts since the movie came out). Nola likes him because he is funny and brings out the kid in her, and he seems to have known her a long time from the neighborhood. Their sex scene seems to emphasize Mars’ childishness by focusing closely on him sucking on her nipple in a contrasting style of arthouse chic.

Greer is successful, narcissistic, and lives in the center of the universe—Manhattan. He tells us that he molded Nola, taking her out of her raggedy-ass self and teaching her refinement. She is always very chic in his company, and a scene where Nola and Greer’s exercise routine gives way to sex is a small comic gem. Nola seductively lowers the straps of her leotard and gets into bed. Greer slowly removes each piece of clothing and painstakingly folds it while Nola grows increasingly bored and impatient. This comedic set-up is followed by overhead shots quick-cut to humorous effect as Greer moves under the covers and around the bed almost like an aerobic workout.

But, predictably, the men in Nola’s life don’t like sharing her. Jamie is particularly persistent in trying to become her one and only, literally offering her a song and dance—the only part of the film shot in living color—as proof of his devotion and then taking up with the female in the dance duet to make Nola jealous. In what can only be described as the act of a clueless woman, Nola invites her three lovers over for Thanksgiving, emphasizing that it’s the very first Thanksgiving feast she’s ever cooked. The men squabble—Mars makes fun of Greer’s preference for white meat—and Nola leaves them to their own devices as she goes to sleep. Jamie cradles her on the bed as Greer and Mars finally give up and go home.

Lee seems to have gathered all his friends and family for this one, casting his sister and having his father play Nola’s father. I have to think that Raye Dowell, who plays a lesbian who is interested in Nola, was cast because she was a family friend—she is without question one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen and spent half of her short acting career in other Spike Lee Joints. Johns is as fine as the men in the film say she is and is very likeable and intriguing in this role, even though her line readings reveal that she probably wasn’t a trained actress either—this was her first film. The male actors have substance, with Spike as the best of them, his energy and sarcasm enlivening the proceedings.

Lee may have latched onto a Woody Allen theme (male insecurity), format, and environment, but he’s a modern man who accords women their own agency, as a number of the better films of the 1980s did, most notably Sea of Love (1989). Jamie, frustrated with Nola’s insistence on following her own desires, rapes her, and Greer sends her to a psychiatrist (S. Epatha Merkerson, the only actor in the film to have made a recognizable name for herself), who declares Nola completely normal. Nola breaks up with Greer and Mars, but can’t make a go of it with Jamie, who we see from the very beginning is too possessive. In the end, Nola declares “It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.”

The film incorporates a collage of styles Lee must have studied in the Tisch School of Arts’ film program. There’s a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) in Lee’s use of photographic stills, shot by his brother David, to create certain montage scenes, a technique he seems to echo in the collage Nola creates on her wall. He’s goes the full-color route for the dance duet in the park as an apparent homage to the great Technicolor musicals Hollywood churned out in its Golden Age. And his architectural landscapes reflect both Antonioni and Allen’s Manhattan.

Lee would return with more force to the subject of love and independent agency in subsequent films, such as his superlative School Daze (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as the intraracial politics in the African-American community that he subtly explores here. His body of work is polished, accomplished, and important, but She’s Gotta Have It is an exuberant, homestyle film that deserves respect and affection.


25th 06 - 2007 | no comment »

The Naked City (1948)

Director: Jules Dassin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Long before I knew there was a film called The Naked City I was a committed fan of a TV series that ran from 1958 through 1963 called Naked City. An important element of that show was its narrator, who took viewers through the procedures of a compelling crime case each week and spoke the words “There are 8 millions stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

The entire template for that popular series, which TV tried to revive in the early 1990s without success, was this unusual movie by one of the best crime-film directors around, Jules Dassin. Influenced by the Italian Neorealist style, the film’s producer, a former newspaperman named Mark Hellinger, was convinced that a movie filmed entirely on location in New York City would create a thrill in audiences unlike any they had yet experienced. And as the film’s voiceover narrator, he comes right out and says so.

In its opening shot, which would be reproduced for the TV series, an airplane flies over Manhattan, from the Battery, over Central Park, along the East River, and past other locations. Cameras at ground level show people going about their daily activities as Hellinger describes their doings—some with no knowledge that they are being filmed; some, characters in the screenplay; and then the money shot. A blonde named Jean Dexter is being murdered in her apartment—strangled unconscious and then drown in her bathtub. In this way, the film sets the stage for a police procedural that manages to capture both the methodical drudgery of investigative police work and the exotic thrills Hollywood is good at delivering to eager fans.

The investigation launches after Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen), the victim’s maid, lets herself into Miss Dexter’s apartment, picks up a newspaper lying on the floor, rights some toppled knick-knacks, and tries to rouse her employer from sleep. She enters the bedroom, finds the bed rumpled but empty, then notices water on the floor. Martha peers into the bathroom, and then we get the stock close-up of her whipping her head around, eyes wide with horror, mouth twisted in a scream. Soon the police are on the scene questioning her.

Naked%20City%204.jpgIn classic fashion, the veteran cop is mated with the new member of the detective squad. I absolutely love Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, the man who’s seen it all but hasn’t quite gotten used to it. The role shows that Fitzgerald, practically bleached of his actory colors by his sentimental rendering of Father Fitzgibbon in the Bing Crosby cornfest Going My Way, knew what he was doing. Even the few Irish ditties he sings while he’s washing up at home seem part of his character, not a page out of the Irish caricature manual. His young partner, Detective Jim Halloran (Don Taylor), is smart, good-looking, and completely comfortable wearing out his shoe leather walking from lead to lead throughout Manhattan. A short scene of character-building shows him coming home to his wife (Anne Sargent), who has donned a sexy summer outfit to coax him to give their son a whipping for crossing a busy street alone. It’s a good sparring match, entertaining, and in keeping with the day-in-the-life style of the film.

As the homicide squad works the case, they turn up Dr. Stoneman, (House Jameson), a doctor who wrote a prescription for the dead woman; Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), a friend with whom she modeled at a dress shop; and Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a man the maid said came by frequently to visit Miss Dexter. They also are searching for a Mr. Henderson, described as a tall, thin, older man, possibly from Baltimore, who called on Miss Dexter and apparently gave her expensive jewelry, according to the maid, who saw a drawer full of jewels in the murdered woman’s dresser. All of the interviewed people say they’d do anything to help capture Dexter’s killer.

Naked%20City%203.JPGHoward Duff plays the spoiled rich kid gone bad with devious precision. He is an incredibly convincing liar. Even after Muldoon quickly and accidentally learns that he has lied during his very first interview—Niles says he barely knows Morrison, then she walks into the interview room and identifies him as her fiancé—he, and we, continue to get ensnared in his web of intrigue. Eventually, it all comes down to a neat conspiracy and a man who plays the harmonica, capped by one of the most exciting chase sequences in film history—one that may have inspired Jimmy Cagney’s run up a gas tower in White Heat just a year later. All along the way, Hellinger interjects comments about what someone might be thinking, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, as though he were sitting in our heads and narrating our thoughts.

Some people have called this film a noir, but the femme fatale is the murdered woman, and to me, that’s not noir. Additionally, there is no web of fate drawing unsuspecting pigeons into its trap. Instead, we have several career criminals drawing an amateur, but willing, man (Duff) into their ring and entrapping another in a blackmail scheme. Therefore, what we have is a straight-up detective story handled expertly by Dassin, a director of cracking noirs who made it big in Europe under his own name after he was blacklisted; his masterful Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes, 1955), a French noir that plays more like a crime caper, captures some of the attention to detail of actually doing a job found in The Naked City, but from the criminal’s point of view.

naked%20city%201.jpgHellinger’s narrative grounds this film solidly in the work-a-day world, capturing the motives and movements of its members. But it is the location shooting that really gives this film its vitality—the vitality of New York itself. The kids playing in the water released from fire hydrants are real. When the murderer jumps over fences and darts down alleys with Halloran in pursuit, they’re real fences and alleys. Whether we wish to believe in the robbery ring, which seems to come right out of central casting, we have to admit that this film makes it seem that crimes like these happen in neighborhoods like this.

As much for its time-capsule depiction of New York as for its other fine attributes, The Naked City has received a fine Criterion Collection release. Enjoy this story in 8 million from the Naked City and all the extras.


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