Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reluctant heroes

I don't have much to the add to the thousands of barrels of pixels which have been and will doubtless continue to be spilled about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), so I will limit myself to a few probably very non-unique observations. (The rule of the blog is to write about every film I see.)

When I lived in Scotland in the mid-late 1970s, it was widely deplored that it was too difficult to make a feature film in the beautiful Scottish countryside because (a) the sky was often too dark for good images on a full-size screen and (b) the weather changed so rapidly that over the course of a shooting day it would be too hard to make shots within a single scene or sequence to match. It is my understanding that good chunks of HP7 was shot in Scotland, and those sequences too justice to the gloomy grandeur of the landscape. The problem is that so much digital manipulation is possible in post-production, it is impossible to know if the palette of green-grays that dominate the film are natural or man-made. Nonetheless, one must note that this is the greyest Harry Potter film made, which makes sense as Harry and friends have left Hogwarts to find and destroy the horcruxes (magic thingies that have to be destroyed--that's all you need to know).

This is the first of the series to penetrate Central London to any extent, and I am sorry the sequence is as short as it is. I can imagine all sorts of zany hijinks with Ron Weasley being introduced to the Muggles world, but the film doesn't have much time or space for comedy.

I understand that the film could not be expected to recap the previous films -- who would think of watching a film with "7" in the title without seeing the previous installments? -- but it would have been good to review the bidding and remind the audience what the stakes are, i.e. what exactly will happen if Voldemort succeeds. (I'm pretty sure things would be...bad.)

One of the benefits of splitting the book's story into two films is that there is time for scenes, for acting, for the characters to react to the events, rather than rushing from one situation to another. One of the appeals of the book series is that it is packed. Packed with incident, packed with details of this invented world and connections between the people and the incidents found there. Each book was at least a 7-layer cake of invention, which is rare in any kind of literature today, which so often feels attenuated, where the Potter series is robust.

The challenge for a filmmaker is to get all that story and texture in without making the film feel cramped. By spreading the story over five hours and two films, there is more air in the events, and for the first time (for me) I got the sense that Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in particular could actually act and not just speak lines with conviction, which is the reasonable minimum for childhood actors. And sending the characters across a barren landscape put them in a cinematic environment akin to that of a Western, a sci-fi film or a samurai film; those movie environments in which the characters must create or re-create society where there is none.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that, even though it feels lighter on the special effects than previous installments, HP7 feels more like a "movie-movie" than its predecessors. It's a welcome respite, as grim and dark as it is, before what is undoubtedly going to be a loud, operatic and effect-ridden finale this summer.

Central to the peculiar charm of the series, both book and film, is Harry Potter's reluctance and diffidence to the role of hero which history has thrust upon him. From the moment the he re-entered the wizarding world he was celebrated and feted -- which must have felt good -- for something he had done involuntarily -- not so good -- and for what he is bound to do in the future -- total bummer. To be made the future savior of your race is to live under the shadow of potential failure and disappointment your whole life.

That whole conundrum is neatly side-stepped by the hero (and I use the word advisedly) of When The Last Sword is Drawn (2003) a deliciously existential samurai epic which was inadequately distributed in this country, but which I urge you to seek out.

I must plead a shocking ignorance of the samurai genre, other than classics such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (both remade as American Westerns). Both are directed by Kurosawa, who was criticized in Japan for being too Western in approach. Reversing the situation, it would be possible to develop an appreciation for the Western by seeing only Stagecoach and The Searchers, but one could not claim to be knowledgeable about the form, nor could one understand a great deal of the context. Genre gains both depth and texture by the accumulation of the prior examples of the genre. And great genres develop sub-genres within themselves, e.g., Westerns can be "sheriff cleaning up the town", "farmers vs. cattlemen", "cattle drive", "Indian fighting" and "good-bad man", "US Cavalry" and many many other variations. A film about recent Civil War veterans is going to be vastly different from, say a "closing of the west" film set at the turn of the 20th century, a generation and a half later. The same is evidently true of samurai films. Last Sword is an example of the Shinsengumi genre, about the samurai organized to defend the Shogun against the Emperor at the close of the Edo period.

But, although it is helpful to have some historical context, which one can pick up from a site such as Asian Media Wiki, like films of other genres, one can enjoy Lost Sword as pure film. And the pleasures are many and varied. There is some wonderful samurai action, both individual and in massed battle, and one of the most stunning special effects I've ever seen in the execution scene near the beginning of the film. There is a wonderful sense of design and color one would expect from a film which is an expression of Japanese culture. There are amusing and complex acting performances. But most of all there is the near-Brechtian character of Yoshimura, played brilliantly by Kiichi Nakai, an actor whose work I am going to seek out.

Yoshimura is like a talented Mother Courage, although possessed of a sense of honor which would be foreign to any Brecht character. Nonetheless, he has built his own value system parallel to that of the society around him, one in which loyalty to wife and children trumps that of the clan and the samurai code. Perversely, both values are extremely Japanese. An older Korean gentleman who was fluent in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese (he was of the generation in which all those languages were required of students) told me that he preferred to write and speak of family relationships in Japanese, because it had the greatest complexity and subtlety in that area.

Much to the consternation of the warrior culture of which he is part, Yoshimura puts his first priority on the survival of his family, and it makes him very modern, very Western and very Japaneses all at once. In Nakai's performance, Yoshimura is one of the most relatable figures in any Asian film, let alone a samurai film. He is like the early James Stewart, likely to be underestimated because he is humble, self-effacing and almost shy in comparison with the proud men around him, notwithstanding the fact that he may be the best swordsmen of them all.

Accordingly, with all the action and spectacle of the film, the highlight for me is pictured above, when Yoshimura has what turns out to be his final parting with his family, especially his tiny daughter, who bleats out "Papa" (in Japanese) as though she could have known what was happening to them. As a father, I can't be objective at all. Every parent knows the terror of the final parting with a child, and the existential terror of never knowing when that will be.

I know I haven't done much film analysis in this reflection. I'm afraid I found the film to affecting and emotional on first viewing to do so, but I do expect to revisit this movie, whether or not I write about it again.

The best thing is that you don't have to take my word for it. You can watch the entire film here. I envy you seeing it for the first time. (Allow 2-1/4 hours--it will be time well spent. Additional caveat -- there is some advertising.):

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Brushes with greatness

Bob and Ray, the endlessly prolific radio comedians had a short run of sketches called "Brush with Greatness" with sketches like a cabdriver in whose cab Heywood Hale Broun had once left a half-finished crossword. (If you don't know who Heywood Hale Broun was, the joke may be even funnier.) There is a small sub-genre of comedy about contact between celebrities and non-celebrities. The celebrity is often fictionalized, as in The Man Who Came To Dinner, Funny People and Notting Hill, but played by an actor who closely resembles the genuine article.

This is the template for Get Him To The Greek (2010), a sloppily assembled Xerox of My Favorite Year which is meant to combine low comedy, sentiment and character development, in the pattern of the Judd Apatow comedy factory. But Aldous Snow, the Russell Brand cannot be turned into a character we care about because rather than fashioning a life story and circumstances that might have shaped a real person, the filmmakers have attempted build a person entirely out of jokes. We are supposed to believe in his real affection, attachment and need for his girlfriend, but she is an incoherent imbecile engaged in casual unfaithfulnesses making it impossible to believe anyone would care for them. (The girlfriend is played with a surprising comic flair by Rose Byrne, best known for the melodramatic Damages.)

I suppose I find it hard to care for any character played by Jonah Hill, because he is played by Jonah Hill, a squat repulsive pustule apparently made of the residue left once Seth Rogen lost weight and started washing regularly. The idea that he would have Elisabeth Moss as a girlfriend borders on science fiction, but it least it moves toward developing sympathy for him. When at the end of the film, she accedes to an absurd suggestion by Russell Brand in order to get revenge on the unfaithful Jonah Hill, it is clear the filmmakers not only can't write and create real human beings, they may not actually know any.

Some of the things I was supposed to laugh at was sex on a toilet, vomit and inserting drugs in one's anus in the middle of an airport. Here's what I did laugh at - the appearance of the actor who plays Draco Malfoy looking just as annoyed at Jonah Hill as I felt, and the appearance of Paul Krugman in a Today Show segment (and what a gang of whores NBC has become since it has been owned by Universal). The latter encounter consists of vomit-stained Jonah Hill landing on a sofa and looking surprised to see Nobel laureate Paul Krugman sitting opposite him. "You're Paul Krugman," says Hill just as we were coming to the same realization. "Yes," says Paul Krugman, doubtless wondering what he was doing in this tribute to bodily functions. I don't know why, but that was comedy gold.

Far more rewarding, perhaps because the author did not have to invent his main character is the woefully under-distributed Me and Orson Welles (2009). It does help that Richard Linklater, director of Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset, Waking Life and School of Rock, is a talented filmmaker, which Nicholas Stoller is not. Add to that the circumstances that the celebrity in question is real and the story is a more compelling coming-of-age story based on a young adult novel, and the results are bound to be better.

Welles is theater history nearly as much as he is film history, staging several seasons of classical repertoire, including a Voodoo Macbeth, a contemporary Julius Caesar, the original production of Richard Wright's Native Son and a failed Shakespeare epic Five Kings, comprised of the Richard (II, III) and Henry (IV, V & VI) plays.

The story takes a familiar pattern of a young man seeking to find his own place in the world while coming within the orbit of a very strong mentor and, as it turns out, frenemy. Zach Efron need only be reasonably intelligent and personable, and he does that just fine, and be attracted to Clare Danes, which seems pretty easy. But the sine qua non of a film like this is the actor playing Orson Welles, a role assayed in the past by (among others) Vincent D'Onofrio (Ed Wood), Angus McFayden (Cradle Will Rock), Liev Schreiber (RKO 281) and Orson Welles (The Man Who Came To Dinner, television 1972). British actor Christian McKay tops them all (including Welles). McKay vaguely resembles Welles physically, but he has the voice to the tee, as well as the brio, the arrogance, the smugness and the childish petulance of the young Welles.

Of course, Welles could get away with all this because he was brilliant, especially when he was under pressure. Realizing that, he seemed to spend his career contriving high-pressure circumstances for himself, even when otherwise unnecessary. In the film we see Welles's sharp, bold staging and playing of Julius Caesar, and a very pleasant bonus on the DVD is the inclusion of about 12 minutes of the play, most of which was unused in the final film, but is of historical curiosity and could be useful to people like me who frequently have to teach the play in school. The play also takes the trouble to identify and evoke many of Welles' collaborators, including the waspish John Houseman, the tightly wound George Couloris (the old banker in Citizen Kane), the easygoing Joseph Cotten and the ambitious Norman Lloyd (although in this case the physical casting is right, the actor conveys none of the sharp nasal projection of Lloyd, who had a long film career, most memorably as the headmaster in Dead Poets Society.) Most memorably Welles takes the brief throwaway scene of the mob engulfing Cinna the Poet and instead of cutting it, as most directors do and Welles thought of doing, building it up through staging and using contemporary stage and acting technique build it into one of the centerpieces of the play. (There's a very good textual argument for doing so, but there's not time or room to go into that now. Let us simply note that the tyranny and the fickleness of the mob is one of Shakespeare's major themes.)

The design of the film is spot-on, especially for a film which did almost no shooting in New York. Perhaps most impressive is the fakery that creates Bryant Park where there was none. I must confess I haven't a lot to say about Richard Linklater. He is a filmmaker with superb technique who does not impose a set style on his material, but as appropriate for such an eclectic artist, lets the content dictate the style. If there is something that unifies his work, it is the progress toward maturity, understanding and responsibility for one's own actions. This is well handled here by the independent character played by Zac Efron, who is temporarily seduced both by Welles and the Clare Danes character, but has enough sense of himself to avoid devastation when all the rugs are pulled out from him. Instead, he's grateful for the knowledge gained and ready to move on. And his penchant for long takes and camera movement not only serve story and setting (the theater, the ultimate long take), but of course complement Welles's own theater-based style. The film may not be great or moving or startling, but it is terrifically satisfying, and that's a rare quality these days.

And apropos of Welles's theater career, here is the only film we have of the Mercury's work in the theater, a 4-minute newsreel report on the 1936 Macbeth originally presented by the Negro Division of the Federal Theater Project at the Lafayette Theater at 131st Street and 7th Avenue:

Thanksgiving is coming Part 3...

At last the family sits down to enjoy the great repast...

thankful Laurel and Hardy are not serving at your house.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Victim of the System

No, I'm not referring to the protagonist of The Racket (1951), whoever that might be. The film itself is the victim of a studio system which felt compelled to adhere to standardized story tropes and conventions. In this case, a crime film has good guys who catch the bad guys and bring them to justice. That's just the kind of thinking that's going to keep you from making an interesting film, and in hindsight, going to prevent you from creating a decent film noir, no matter how hard Warner Home Video wants to believe The Racket is one.

Sure, we have the two kings of noir at RKO in the postwar years, der zwei Roberten,* Ryan and Mitchum, not to mention the noirest of noir actresses, Lizabeth Scott. But there is no fatalistic outlook, no dark world of shadows (and no Nick Musaraca, brilliant cinematographer to make those shadows), no ambiguous moral universe. The only thing interesting about the piece is that Ryan the gangster and Mitchum the cop are both middle management types straining against the restrictions placed on them by their superiors. Unfortunately, they never have the type of encounter that would have developed their areas of commonality.

In fact they barely play together at all, which is a shame -- Ryan's tightly wound tough guy against Mitchum's laconic-to-the-point-of-sleepy cop. Or better yet, see the roles reversed. Ryan seems a lot more angry about not being allowed to beat people up than Mitchum is that he can't arrest them. In fact, Mitchum is scarcely believable as a cop at all, which is probably why they never show him in any kind of uniform, and his suit looks like he's getting ready go drinking rather than testify to the grand jury.

If only RKO (which put this movie through five different directors in its long labored production history) had stopped worrying about who did what and who should go to jail and just brought Mitchum and Ryan together, perhaps in a situation in which they were dependent on each other and got to see each other's humanity instead of just trading insults, maybe then there would have been a noir, or even a movie. Even Lizabeth Scott can't light it up. This is a case where mere professional competence isn't enough.
* Yes, I know that's cod-German

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving is coming Part 2...

Make sure you have enough pie for everyone.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bald-faced killers with a toupee

I was so intrigued by the cult film Honeymoon Killers and its relationship to a real-life case in the late 1940s that I looked up two other films based on the same case. They could be interpreted as remakes or homages to Honeymoon Killers, or simply parallel films, one of which acknowledges its predecessor extensively and comes up with a rich robust re-interpretation of the story, following the earlier film sequence by sequence. The other turns its back on Leonard Kastle's film, and to some extent on the actual Beck-Fernandez murders, and takes a creative new tack with the story which ultimately fails, and renders the film inert. The question is whether that approach could ever have worked without discarding the central premise of the real-life material, and hence, the very reason to base a film on this particular case.

The actress who plays the Martha Beck character in Profundo Carmesi aka Deep Crimson (1996), Regina Orozco, is primarily known as an opera singer, which tells you something about the movie. Where the lovers Honeymoon Killers were joined in seediness, two con artists who recognized each other, in Deep Crimson they are both absorbed in a fantasy of passionate romance. Neither of them can deal with reality and are completely committed to the idea of the grand passion. Perhaps it is telling that this version of the story includes the fact in which Beck (here called Coral) abandoned her children in order to follow Fernandez. This signals that we are not going to see a gradual slide down the moral ladder, as in the earlier film, but a portrait of a grand obsession. She imagines her paramour to be Charles Boyer, or a reasonable facsimile thereof and frequently dresses in red. She is not nearly as interested in the swindle as she is in the thrill of being on the run with her lover.

Nicolas, who corresponds to the real-life Fernandez, also seems less interested in money than his counterpart in real life or in the Honeymoon Killers. He loves the sport of seduction, and his paramount concern is the condition of his toupee. (Actor Daniel Cacho looks alarmingly like David Margulies, the actor who played the mayor in Ghostbusters, not exactly the most seductive image.) In fact, he loses heart in the whole criminal conspiracy when his toupee becomes damaged beyond repair. On top of which, he seems to have inherited blinding migraines from Clyde Barrow, in a tribute to that other film about killers in love and on the run.

Where Honeymoon Killers unfolds in a clinical, almost judgmental black-and-white, Profondo's director Arturo Ripstein's camera prowls smoothly about (no handheld or even Steadicam is evident here) in the style of early Otto Preminger, with long, takes allowing the actors to move about the environment and interact with each other. Although it is Mexican, it seems much more like a Hollywood movie, reflecting the fantasy life of the two principals. In Leonard Kastle's film, Mahler seemed like an overstatement, but in Profondo, Verdi or Puccini would fit right in.

There are some interesting variations in the way the facts of the case are used. The querulous old widow who is killed with a hammer in Honeymoon gets clobbered with a religious statue in Profondo, after going through a grotesque mock wedding in a cemetery. Profondo makes more of Beck's knowledge as a nurse, although in this version she is a bad nurse, whereas in Honeymoon she was a supervisor. But when Coral promises to perform an abortion on Nicolas's girlfriend, it is clearly in order to bleed her death. But that fails and Nicolas has to do a messy job of stabbing her. And where Beck in Honeymoon does away with the surviving toddler in a cold, frozen manner, Coral does it choking back tears, angry for her inability to connect with the child who stills want her own mother, though she is now a bloody corpse in the room.

Profondo ends like a Western. Whereas the real killers and the ones in Honeymoon die separated on death row, the Profondo killers are gunned down on the plain, dying together in a spoon position, half immersed in water which might as well be blood. Finally, these lovers are victims of as big a delusion as the women they tricked and killed, and they somehow seem pathetic where the originals were repellent.

Lonely Hearts (2006) is almost a complete misfire from start to finish, beginning with its odd conceit to center the story around the investigating policemen (who barely appear at all in Profondo). It is a novel idea, and potentially compelling, given the contrast between the thriving and exciting romantic relationship of the criminal couple and the failing marriage of the policeman. But it has a couple of negative effects. First of all, it sends the film in the wrong direction. Yes, we like policeman to catch bad guys -- especially on television, where we need to see the moral order restored. But in movies, we only like it if they catch monsters, as in Silence of the Lambs. If the criminals are interested, complicated, conflicted, they are going to grab our interest and we will not want to see them caught, at least not until their story is worked out. So our sympathies work against the intended protagonist, John Travolta's cop character.

Second, it flattens Beck and Fernandez into any criminal couple on the run. Beyond the basic mistake of the story structure, writer-director Todd Robinson turns the overweight and homely Martha Beck into the glamorous and irresistible Salma Hayek, takes away her children and all her other problems, including lack of confidence. It makes Ray Fernandez pretty ordinary, too, for whereas the real man was obsessed with a very large woman who berated and dominated him, now he is in love with a sexy, hot babe. Beck and Fernandez become run-of-the-mill swindlers turned killers -- we never see their panic or sense of doom. They are scarcely individualized at all.

In addition to a suicidal wife and a girlfriend played by Laura Dern, Travolta is given a partner, played by James Gandolfini who seems to have no story function at all other than to prevent Travolta from talking to himself and to provide voiceover narration. Neither Travolta nor Gandolfini, nor Scott Caan, who performs a bad carbon copy of his father, is as believable as a cop as they are as criminals, which undermines the film. (Yes, there are films which suggest the kinship between cop and criminal, but this is not one.) It doesn't help that Jared Leto, as Ray Fernandez is so completely lacking in any distinctive personality or style, playing a generic con man when something really unusual and strange is called for.

The one thing Lonely Hearts does well is go to town on the late 40's atmosphere-- the wardrobe, music, lighting, settings. The idea is presumably to align the film with the tradition of film noir. But this story is not going to cooperate with that notion; in fact the writer has done a good deal to destroy any sort of noir structure. It could have been, but Robinson chose to write a police procedural, with some added angst for the cop. (And even here Robinson couldn't help himself changing the details of the real policeman's life -- ironic, given that the man was Robinson's grandfather.) Production design does not a film noir make.

The decision goes to the reigning champion, Honeymoon Killers, with Deep Crimson a worthy challenger. It's time for the governor to declare a moratorium on film versions of the Lonely Hearts Killers.

Alpha dogfight

You've seen this movie: the well-educated reformist upstart against the old-time machine politician. That's the premise of Street Fight (2005) the story of Cory Booker's first unsuccessful run for mayor of Newark against Sharpe James. And we've even seen the ending before. No, he is not swept into office riding a triumphant wave of popular acclaim. He loses, as Booker did in 2002. And the film ended that way when it was first seen in festivals in 2005. By the time it was released theatrically, Booker had succeeded in his second run in 2006, and a title card was added to the film to acknowledge that success, which was confirmed when Sharpe James was sent to jail in 2008 for fooling around with public money, the kind of charge which usually ends political careers.

In a way this mirrors the end of the film adaptation All The President's Men, which stopped halfway through the book it was based on, when the protagonists Woodward and Bernstein were at a low ebb and had just made a colossal blunder. But the audience could supply the happy ending, and perhaps including it would have been just too self-congratulatory. So we leave Cory Booker in defeated in Street Fight, but does the film itself change once Booker has won in 2006? And is the film different now that Booker has reduced crime in Newark and is tackling the school problem, with the support of the Republican governor and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who has pledged $100 million of his shares in Facebook to help fix education?

For a documentary about a political campaign, it steers clear of a lot of politics. The only issues addressed in depth are Sharpe James's machine, its corruption (e.g. using city employees to take down Cory Booker signs), the lack of finance for Booker's campaign (he visits a particularly bleak looking campaign office), James's reluctance to be photographed at a public appearance, and whether Booker is "black" enough. Unlike, for instance, The War Room, the landmark doc about the 1992 Clinton campaign, we are not privy to the strategy of the campaign. We don't know much about the wards and how each candidate is appealing to them. We don't learn much about the party structure -- the story is complex, because the candidates are running from the same party, the only party in Newark, the Democratic party.

Perhaps the most interesting "inside" scene is a fundraiser for Booker in Montclair, a well-heeled suburb 15 minutes outside of Newark, in which we meet his father, an elegant soft-spoken gentlemanly type, though he was a civil rights activist. It intimates that the only kind of money Booker is going to be able to get to run in a dirty town like Newark, is money from outside of Newark. But the film never explores the question -- why not? Fear of offending the candidate? And why no postmortem after the election, either from participants or observers? Is it because director Marshall Curry knows that life will provide a dramatic sequel, or was it simply an oversight?

It is a good film, a film worth seeing, but its protagonist, visible and voluble as he is, remains a cipher. It never asks the question, why does a kid from comfortable Harrington Park, a graduate of Northern Valley Regional (near my home in prosperous Bergen County) want to go roll in the mud with Sharpe James and his associates? Not that Booker could give you an answer, but why wasn't the question asked?

Thanksgiving is coming...

Make sure no one in your family overdoes it with the liquid refreshment, or you'll have problems like Buster has here with his new bride:

This is from his last silent feature, the underrated Spite Marriage (1929) . (Ignore the stupid canned laughter - it stops fairly quickly, and this is the one internet copy of this scene I could find that doesn't clip off the final gag.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Change or die

Of course, Rhinoceros (1974) directed by Tom O'Horgan and starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel (in that order) is not really any kind of a film, nor was it meant to be. It was part of the series of hyper-faithful filmed plays produced by Eli Landau for a limited subscription run. The result was a bastard form, neither film nor play (really a sort of television show) and the death of the project was not unexpected.

In a way, the films based on texts in another language, as was Rhinoceros had an inherent license to be freer with their adaptations, within the limited budgets of the films. The film did not use an existing translation, but commissioned an original script from Julian Barry, who had recently collaborated with O'Horgan on the play Lenny (a biography of Lenny Bruce eventually to become a film by Bob Fosse). Yet the film adheres to the play's settings, character and three-act structure with a half-hearted transliteration of French names and institutions into American ones.

What the film has is a record, albeit flawed, of Zero Mostel's performance as Jean (John), the elegant, sophisticated man of the world who joins in with the rest of the population to become a rhinoceros. Unlike the other characters, Jean undergoes the transformation on stage/on camera. In the New York theater, this role, along with Leo Bloom Ulysses in Nighttown brought Zero Mostel back to prominence after a decade of languishing on the blacklist. I had heard about this performance, read descriptions by critics like Walter Kerr and was a fan of Lenny to boot, so I was really looking forward to this film in January 1974 when I went to see it.

Back then it was a terrible disappointment. The film looked cheap (it was) and felt like a never-ending talkfest (it sort-of is). Mostel's transformation was fun, but not shot or lit very well (still true) and after his departure, the film felt as though it took a terrible slide. The problem was compounded by the "groovy" contemporary music of Galt MacDermot (Hair), who was permitted to insert a song toward the end of the film, which unfortunately nails the film to the period of the early-mid 1970s.

But the passage of time has improved the movie. The growing presence of the rhinoceroses is clean-limbed and easy to follow; beginning as a fringe movement easily dismissed and growing into something impossible to ignore. Mostel's light and airy style of movement in the first part of the film recalls Disney's dancing hippos in Fantasia. Wilder's free-floating anxiety, so apparent in this part of his career is perfectly employed as Berger (here called Stanley), Ionesco's all-purpose mediocrity. Similarly Karen Black's descent into rhinocerosism is clearly laid out and obviously inevitable. The cheap effects still look cheap and the vaudeville acting of Joe Silver and Robert Weil are still miscalculated for the camera (the director's fault, not the actors'), but they are lively and fun, not as tedious as I felt. I wondered why this film seemed to grind on for me back then, whereas it bumps along nicely now -- usually the opposite happens to films over time. What was I waiting for, hoping for?

Or maybe back in the 1970s, the danger of conformity seemed at a low ebb. Everybody was doing their own thing, the institutions of society and government were in disarray and what was bugging Ionesco in the 1950s seemed to have been conquered. Now after years of Reaganism and now the hysteria over terrorism, dissent is being squelched again, and everyone is expected to toe the line again, at least on issues like security and Fear of Brown People, which is gripping the minds of America's Chicken Littles at the moment. Suddenly Rhinoceros speaks again, and for myself, I can sympathize with poor Stanley/Berger, who would dearly like to become a rhinoceros like everyone else but cannot. So he is left alone, an individual not from conviction but from inability to become what he is not.

To talk about the film of Rhinoceros is to spend too much space talking about what could have or should have been -- perhaps animation or special effects or some way to make a cinematic equivalent to the stage's natural penchant for fantasy. The problem of adapting a play like this is probably insoluble. Cinema fantasy is a concrete affair and not given to poetry, even the angry poetry of Ionesco. But to see Mostel and Wilder in their only pairing after The Producers, both eminently well cast and doing their best to make it all go makes one grateful both for the effort and the for the modest pleasures to be found therein.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sherlock Mom

As most of our really clever crime dramas have escaped the big screen for the small, filmmakers from overseas have been rushing in to fill the gap. Time was when all foreign films seen here were art films, and entertainment stayed home, but that is no longer the case, given the huge void in diversion for intelligent adults found in the local Google-plex. Mother (2009) is a wonderful twisty exemplar from South Korea. Or at least it comes wrapped as one -- a crime procedural with the twist of a mother who must,against the odds and the opposition of the police, solve a crime to exonerate her beloved and mentally disabled son, who is charged with the crime. It could have been a Lifetime movie.

But what director Joon-ho Bong and his co-writer Eun-kyo Park have in mind is a black satire on the myth of ever-powerful Mother Love. At first, we are absorbed in the details of her investigation, and there are lovely details planted all the way through which pay off later in the manner of Hitchcock, e.g., the mother's acupuncture practice, the kind junkman, even the peculiar prologue in which the mother dances in a field in a rather non-motherly way, as if to start the entire film off with a wink at the audience.

We see the film at a disadvantage here, for the actress playing the mother, Kim Hye-ja is a well-known and beloved mother-type figure in South Korea. Think of your favorite TV mom, be it from Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver. Then imagine that actress treading the line between fierce and protective love, to obsession to, well, you really should see the film yourself. That almost imperceptible shift provides the wicked fun of Mother. Bong has been making monster films prior to this, and he doesn't seem to have stopped, abetted by the brilliant work of Kim.

Can't say why, but one of the strongest impressions I carry away from the film is what one finds under the characters' feet. The film travels up and down the class structure, from mother and son living at a survival level, to the abundance of a golf course, the anonymous sterility of a police station, to an abandoned hovel. The striations in Korean society seem to be defined by the difference between pavement, tatami mats, country club grass, police-office linoleum, the firm mud of a well-trodden path and the soft mud that marks an area where few trod. I can't think that's an accidental impression, for as one might expect of Asian film, the overall tone of the film is complete control in all its effects, which lends exhilaration to its final reveal.

I am going to be looking at more of Joon-ho Bong's films and writing about them here, that's for sure.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sins of the fathers

Watching The White Ribbon (2009) feels like taking a bath in disinfectant. You are better off when you're finished, but it's pretty tough while you're going through it. The pleasures of the film are more ascetic than aesthetic.

One cannot deny the purely cinematic artistry of a film like this. Whereas I found his previous film, Cache a confused jumble of jabber about a number of conflicting ideas, The White Ribbon is purely visual, clear, specific and precise. It speaks through simple objects: a pen, a dead bird, a burning barn, mangled cabbages, and the white ribbons of the title. In the pre-Christian world, white ribbons offered protection from evil and harm; here, a father ties the white ribbon on his children to protect them from being harmed by the evil in their own minds.

The viewer most wonder if the use of black and white is a reflection of the community's Manichean view of the world, or of fallible memory, for the narrator confesses at the opening of the film: “I don’t know if the story I’m about to tell is entirely true.” (This has the added advantage of excusing Haneke if his interpretation of the German character is incorrect -- it's just that the schoolmaster remembered it that way. )

Moreover, black and white makes it easier to conceal the tripwire that brings down horse and man in the first sequence and starts the cascade of horrors visited on this village. The source of that evil remains as invisible as the tripwire itself, even though it is out in the open and plain to
see, if one has the will to do so.

Most of the discussion of this film has been about morality, sociology, psychology or history. This is merely a film blog, so let me reserve my opinion along these lines. What is striking about this film is that it is possible to make a good film without a scrap of beauty. There is no music but for some diagetic dance music at a harvest festival. There is not one blue sky, not one lovely tree, not a human face depicted with tenderness. All is cruel and cold and terrible. The implication is that cruelty like this is passed on unless one makes a conscious effort to break the chain. And the film simulates the cruelty by communicating the chill.

In an analogous fashion, the documentary Tell Them Who You Are (2005) gets invited into our cinematic parlor by purporting to be a portrait of cinematographer, documentarian and sometime director Haskell Wexler (photographer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In The Heat of the Night, American Graffiti and director of Medium Cool). But it quickly develops into a portrait of an overbearing, unfaithful, jealous and sometimes controlling father who, over the course of the film, learns to accept his son as an independent and worthy artist of his own.

On the way, the younger Wexler gets advice from a surrogate father, Conrad Hall, Paul Newman, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda (who both had toxic fathers) and Michael Douglas, who must have fought similar battles for artistic and personal identity with his father, Kirk Douglas. The challenge is to stop the cycle of attempting to control that which will follow us, always a feckless task.

If you come to Tell Them Who You Are merely as a film buff, you will be disappointed. The clips are few and limited, and the only good "making of" stories are about the films Wexler was fired from, usually for trying to control the direction (most notably One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). That need for control, for recognition, for acknowledgment seems to make so many men into Willie Lomans who push their children away the harder they try and pull them in. (The answer to the film's title is: You are my son. The implication is: ...and nothing else.)

Tellingly, although father is famous as a shooter and father and son are both seen handling cameras throughout the film, it has to be acknowledged that Mark Wexler's triumph in Tell Them Who You Are is as a cutter. The cinematography is unremarkable -- why would it be in a videotape documentary, the writing and direction nonexistent. (A good deal of footage is taken up with Wexler pere attempting to tell fils how to stage a scene.) A documentary is directed in the cutting room, and Mark Wexler's success is testified to by his father's tears at seeing the finished product.

I'm not saying you'll be in tears, although if you have a judgmental parent you have struggled to get out from under, you might be. The White Ribbon shows how this parental poison may be left to fester and infect another generation; Tell Them Who You Are demonstrates how it may be purged.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gilligan's Dilemma, or why all the clam diggers?

In the post just below this, I mentioned Westerns that take place in confined spaces. Confined spaces are things characters want to get out of. In a thriller, it's in order to save their life. In a comedy, it's in order to save their sanity.

A couple of contemporary films investigate the comfort, security and smothering quality of living one's life in anchored to one spot. (Both also involve clam digging communities in the greater New York area.) City Island (2009) is so tightly limited, it would easily fit on an off-Broadway stage. (No, it's not that it's stuck in one room, but that the passions of the characters would be right at home in the theater.) As in many a farce, every character has a secret, a secret that puts them in conflict with the small-town ethos of City Island, New York. Dreams of being an actor, of smoking, stripping and considering infidelity are all deeply suppressed until they explode in a theatrical-style all-out confrontation, illustrated above.

The film has proven an audience hit, and deservedly so, especially for a strangely charming scene in which prison guard Andy Garcia auditions for a Martin Scorsese film by improvising a scene he might have witnessed at work. Maybe it's because we would love to think films succeed by the intrusion of little shards of reality. (A doubtful prospect.) The odd thing is that the film starts off by setting out a great deal of detail about the uniqueness of the setting and the proceeds to ignore those specific unique qualities in favor of treating it as any isolated small-town-type community. The people seem more quirky than the setting, what there is of it. What I'm trying to say is it's hard to say whether this family is meant to be eccentrics or typical of City Island, since all we know about it is that they fish and that some are born City Islanders and others have City Islander-ness thrust upon them.

So it's odd that this film is far more effective than the similarly-themed Diggers (2007), even though the latter film has embedded the characteristics of its setting into the character's DNA. Insularity, "us against them" mentality, "this is the way it's always been" thinking--these are built into the story and situations in Diggers, whereas City Island's characters seem to have had their quirks appliqued onto them after the fact. Nonetheless, or perhaps, because of that, City Island moves along in a purposeful manner, whereas there are dozens of scenes in which seem to lack any point or purpose in the film. They don't provide new information on characters, move the story forward or develop what little theme there is. Diggers seems to have been designed as an acting fest for the pals of writer-actor Ken Marino (late of The State), including Paul Rudd, Maura Tierney, Marino, Sarah Paulson (uncharacteristically as a put-upon mom), Ken Marino and Lauren Ambrose.

As if aping the lives of the characters, the movie ambles around in various brackish backwaters, not headed anywhere and therefore not arriving anywhere. I do have to say they have meticulously recreated the wardrobes of the mid-70s, my college days, which were probably the low point in style for the entire 20th century. It was as if Watergate had so demoralized all of us that we figured, "what the hell, we'll just wear cheap ugly crap until we cheer up."

I suspect both films were made not because of a burning desire to tell these stories, but from a burning desire to get a feature film made and develop a calling card for a feature career. There's no reason for us civilians to linger over them. Next.

Dirty little town

yellow sky wellman Pictures, Images and Photos

One of the joys of the Western genre is that, because of its long history, it has so many sub-genres that it is easy to avoid monotony, surprisingly, given the limited props and settings of the Western -- wide-open spaces, horses, cows, pistols, hats; the palate is limited, yet the prospects for story ideas remained wide open for decades.

Yellow Sky (1948) could be filed under several sub-genres: good-bad man, bad guys on the run (of which Butch Cassidy is exemplar AND parody), western noir and the small group of Westerns which take place in a theatrically circumscribed area. The Tall T is one of these, and A Fistful of Dollars, as is Ox Bow Incident, the best-known Western by Yellow Sky's director, William Wellman. (My favorite Wellman Western is Westward the Women, a story of pioneering women on their own that, good as it is, could yield a fine all-star remake.) Whereas the standard "dirty old town" Western involves a good man coming to a bad place and cleaning it up, probably exposing the dirty secrets of the corrupt city fathers, Yellow Sky has bad men hiding out in a collapsing ghost town, only to find people and additional treasure there. I couldn't say whether this falling-down town is a symbol or just an interesting place to make a movie. (Some claim the film is inspired by The Tempest, but outside of a remote location, an old man and his daughter, I can't figure out what they're talking about. Old-man-and-daughter-in-remote-location is hardly unique to Shakespeare.)

How shall I enjoy Yellow Sky? Let me count the ways:
  • It's a Western. A saloon scene, bad guys with pistols, horses, deserted town, feisty girl with a shotgun, Grizzled Old C, what's not to love?
  • The zippy, no-nonsense pace of Wild Bill Wellman
  • The razor-sharp black-and-white cinematography Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, The Street With No Name AND Pickup on South Street)
  • Gregory Peck as a somewhat more convincing bad guy than in Duel In The Sun (although not as good as in The Gunfighter two years later. The black mustache helped.)
  • Richard Widmark, for heaven's sake. Just so there's a badder bad guy than Peck. Also Harry Morgan, Charles Kemper, so wonderfully wicked in Wagon Master and James Barton, a theater giant (the original Hickey in The Iceman Cometh) who didn't make enough movies. He could have taught Walter Huston a few things about the fine art of Grizzled Old Cootdom.
  • Ann Baxter pre-All About Eve and smoking hot, even if (or maybe because) she's got a gun with her most of the time. Wellman didn't let her put make-up on, and it's the only time I can remember seeking her freckles. She was 25 when she made this picture, but looks barely 18. No wonder there's trouble among the bad guys.
  • A falling-down old town by Lyle Wheeler and Albert Hogsett that Joe MacDonald has a lot of fun shooting in.
  • The contrast of the ghost town and the flat desert around it (partly shot in Death Valley), which comes close to the central ethos of Wellman: you can be trapped anywhere, even in the wide-open spaces.
I'm sure everyone involved in this film believed they were just making something to divert some bored kids and teens on a long Sunday afternoon, which only demonstrates how easy it was for the machinery of the Golden Age of Hollywood to crank out first-rate work without special exertion.

You say "prostitute" like it's a bad thing

Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929) has always been treated as the lesser younger sibling of the first collaboration between director G.W. Pabst and incandescent actress Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box. And certainly, it has nothing like the light, glancing touch or the existentialist amorality of the earlier film. Diary is a melodramatic fable, of how broken families breed corruption. Nonetheless, it still has the amazing Brooks and its share of iconic images and moments. For example, if you're in a rush (and why are you reading my blog when you're in a rush?), start the video above at around 1:35. There in a luminous close-up, Brooks enjoys her first trepidatious sip of champagne (translation: illicit sex) and finds she enjoys it. There is as good an example of silent film acting as you could see. (I wish I 'd known Brooks's work during my film course last year -- I used Lon Chaney as my exemplar of silent film acting, but he is too often unreliably stagy, whereas Brooks is Pure Film.)

This close-up contains almost the entire essence of the film -- that without a real sense of identity, as provided by a circle of loving people -- putting yourself for sale in the world, as represented by literal prostitution in this case, is as good a way as any for defining yourself and obtaining power over your circumstances as any. (Especially true when your family is ready to sell you and not even let you share in the profits!)

Late silent film reached an astonishing height of efficiency, compression and expressivity. Even today, screenwriters wrestle with backstory -- how to get the information out with an elegant and organic way, rather than the manner of the housekeeper in The Real Inspector Hound: "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring...I hope nothing is amiss because we are completely cut off from the world..." etc.

Look at the first few minutes of the film, which get so much information across so quickly with the minimum of titles and the maximum of facial reaction, setting out not only the facts but the social context of those facts:

The film is both more explicit about sex and more conventionally moral than Pandora's Box (could this be because it's based on an actual memoir of a "fallen woman"?), and even contains the kind of message for the audience, satirized by the play and film Chicago: "My audience loves me. And I love them. And they love me for lovin' them and I love them for lovin' me. And we love each other. And that's cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods."

Never mind. There's not much to analyze in this film, and if I continue it will be only to describe and praise the subtextual clarity and precision of its storytelling, time better spent seeking out the movie and watching it from beginning to end.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Voice of ...?

Shall We Kiss (2007) is to be applauded for rejecting a narrative bias that has become so deeply embedded in film as to go almost unnoticed. The implied answer to the title question is, of course, yes. Film and narrative prefer the road taken. And there is also an implicit assumption that new romances are preferable to old and perhaps troublesome marriages. Unless it is a film noir and a femme fatale, adultery is a good thing. Either you find a new, more suitable partner, or you return to your old partner renewed and refreshed. Perhaps filmmakers are trying to craft an argument to justify their own behavior to their spouses? Or is it that narrative wants to push characters to a place they haven't been before and where their behavior will be less predictable? (I will leave aside arguments that moral standards are breaking down because (a) this is not the blog for that sort of thing and (b) you'll find the same complaint in Plato and in Proverbs. Morals are Always Collapsing.)

Shall We Kiss bucks that inclination (pretty surprising for a French film), heading another direction by adding a layer of perspective, introduced by a storyteller and a listener. Unlike most storyteller frames, this one has something at stake -- the title question as applied to speaker and listener, and reflected in the tale being told.

This then, is a film that turns on its narrative as reflected in narration, a tool much underutilized in film today. There is a strong bias against narration in the American film industry. It is considered a crutch, a sign of weakness, of redundancy, of preference for word over picture. And used in a redundant or literary way, that position is quite right. But what such critics of narration ignore is the possibility of juxtaposing word AGAINST picture.

The narrator's voice actually precedes the introduction of synchronized sound. If one looks at the title cards of Biograph films around 1910-1911, one can read something like "Spurred by the treachery of the savage, the brave hunter exerts his utmost to preserve the sanctity of this flower of womanhood." That is, the cards often told the audience what was going to happen in the scene to follow, and is if concerned that the audience would not understand the implications thereof, would provide an overlay of both narrative and social interpretation. (Films of the era seem very anxious to assure the audience that social order, though perhaps temporarily disturbed, will be returned to its Right and Proper status. Or, as Louis Armstong replied when asked how things were, "Same as ever. White man still ahead.") From almost the inception, right through most of the Golden Era, American filmmakers did not trust the audience to get it right. If they understood the storyline, they might not understand what it MEANT. (That's why Dorothy has to tell you there's no place like home, or else you might think it's much cooler to stay in a place like Oz.)

Voice-over narration took a long time to arrive, and at first it was used to remind you that you were watching an Important Film Based on Great Literature. These kinds of films often started with a big book opening slowly, perhaps with tilt-down and dolly-in on the first page. "This is not the usual crap, folks, it's based on a real good book, and we can prove it. See, we're saying the first words of the book as you can see right here." Still, a mistrust of the audience.

But even that simple use of the voice-over opened the door to a more important idea -- the concept of distance and separation from the narrative that was about to unfold. Theater always takes place Right Now. Even if we are in ancient Athens, we are there Right Now because, see, there are the live actors right in front of us, talking right now. Film, by and large, apes that illusion. Even if the sequence of images and sounds is frozen, and we know it is, because there are films we watch over and over, the illusion is that this is all taking place in some sort of now. There is no past tense as the scenes unfold, which is probably why most synopses are written in a breathless present tense, like Damon Runyon without the baroque locutions.

Narration denies that. It says, "This is something that happened," not "this is something that is happening." At first that mode was only employed to say that this is set in the fabled past, or that this is a very important story you should know. Before long, Hollywood went Aesop and started turning stories into lessons, especially in What Not To Do. (This is always a good way to show depravity and immorality, by showing it in detail--fun, fun, fun--and then show people being punished for it. In fact, it's the basis of Cecil B. DeMille's entire career.) There was also the practical of covering time lapses and informing the audience of important changes and developments in a more efficient way than a title card (which suffers from differing reading speeds among the audience, leaving half frustrated at not being able to finish the card in time, and half bored waiting for the others to catch up.) I love the way Truffaut's unemphatic narration in Jules and Jim elides vast gaps in time, space and movements of the heart in a breathtakingly casual way, perfectly consistent with the tone and theme of the film. It's like a narrative torque wrench.

These uses of narration voice-over converged in the hard-boiled crime film (a genre that intersects with film noir), in which the detective shares his process and his outlook on the story as it unfolds. Of course, it is of the essence of the mystery story that facts and circumstances unfold in a non-chronological sequence. Thus there is the underlying narrative and the plot of the mystery laid on top -- that is, the story of how the crime is solved (and often, as in Chinatown, what the crime actually is.) The distancing effect of narration also provides room for humor, usually a wry irony only about a half-clik above sarcasm, but humor nonetheless.

This mode reaches its apogee with A Christmas Story, in which the narrator, author and screenwriter Jean Shepherd tells of epochal, earth-shattering events which are juxtaposed against scenes of an ordinary American childhood. The humor is not of mockery, but of gentle recognition that these little commonplaces feel enormous as we experience our own lives. The irony is one that we share as fellow humans, not one imposed by a sardonic author.

Emmanuel Mouret, writer-director-star of Shall We Kiss? has been compared to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen, although neither his tone nor his visual style has much in common with either of those. Mouret sports neither nostalgia nor neuroses.* But there is the double vision of either the moralist or the humorist (natural enemies), which is the engine that makes this very slight film go. Indeed, I would argue that without the narration frame, one has little more than a minor variation of When Harry Met Sally, this one answering the central question: "can men and women be friends AND lovers?" in the negative.

(Side note - has anyone attempted a gay When Harry Met Sally? It would seem that the line between friend and lover would be even slippier when both parties share gender. Mine is an outsider's perspective, but it seems as though there might be some comic changes to be rung there. And no, I don't mean when the gay character is pathetically crushing on the straight character. That is a ridiculous straight fantasy, and in a lifetime spent in proximity with gay people, I've never known it to be happen. Being an oppressed minority makes most people pretty practical, and unlikely to waste their time chasing those who are not only unavailable, but likely to hurt you.)

The concept that the entire inner story of the film, which consumes at least 80% of its running time is told in order to explain a simple "no" offered in reply to the title question creates an unexpected suspense, i.e., will the answer change, as the telling of the story winds deep into the night, into the storyteller's hotel room, and as she assumes a semi-erotic pose while she tells the story. The fact that the listener is utterly satisfied by the story and a kiss which carries the implicit agreement to part forever -- that is, the kiss is meant as a simple pleasure sufficient unto itself, without the promise of future delights -- is a more impressive bit of legerdemain. Those who know French better than I claim that the French title, Un baiser, s'il vous plait ("A kiss, please) bears the implication of a kiss upon parting, which, if true, throws a lovely melancholy frame over the whole thing. And oddly, the melancholy of the outher story is much more satisfying than the fumbling consummation of the inner story.

All thanks to narration!
* I suppose playing the lead male role invites the Allen comparison and the preoccupation with the tiny physical details of a sexual encounter the Rohmer.