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Friday, April 29, 2011

Martin McDonagh | In Bruges




BRUGES—KILLING TIME
by Douglas Messerli

Martin McDonagh (writer and director) In Bruges / 2008

Martin McDonagh's 2008 film, In Bruges, is a movie that tries so hard to be likeable, that it seems almost mean-spirited to say anything else. By combining a witty and tough dialogue, dangerously petty criminals who are tender at heart, and story that walks a tightrope between a bloodbath and a tale of impossible love, the film pleads for its audience to find some kind of center with which to hold on.

It was hard for me, however, to believe in anything McDonagh had cooked up except for the beautiful streets and churches of Bruges where his preposterous plot takes place. The directors' characters, no matter how many "fucks" they spew and no matter how insensitive they are to human life, seem more like Damon Runyon figures than the London murderers they are supposed to represent.

Ray (a likeable Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have just blundered in a hit, intentionally killing a priest their boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) has ordered dead, but also unintentionally killing a small child as the bullet passes through the priest's body. Together this unlikely duo are sent out of town to the Flemish city of Bruges, until things cool down.

Ken, who has apparently been in the business for some years, is a slightly sophisticated and curious gay man, who is delighted to get the opportunity to see the beautiful "Venice of the North," while Ray, who is the one who accidentally killed the boy, is a course and most definitely heterosexual, undereducated Dubliner who has no patience for touring and even less time for Bruges:

There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents
underneath it that'll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all this, I'd
go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punish-
ment she chose for me. Prison...death...don't matter. Because at least in prison
and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fuckin' Bruges. But then, like
a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that's what hell is:
the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin' Bruges. And I really really hoped I
wouldn't die. I really really hoped I wouldn't die.

Holed up in one room with Ken, Ray is a time bomb ready to explode, and does fizzle, at least, several times, punching out a Canadian couple who complain about his and his lady companion's cigarettes, and, latter, shooting out the eye of his girlfriend's cohort in crime (she picks up men after which her boyfriend shows up to rob them). There are a lot of absurd subplots, one about a movie being shot throughout the city with a dwarf (Jordan Prentice) as the lead (apparently Ray is fascinated by what he calls "midgets"), and other extraneous encounters.

The important thing, however, is that a strange rapport develops between the two criminals, Ken and Ray, as they take in the city sights. Despite his tough-guy demeanor, Ray is truly haunted by his act, unable to get it out of his head, and is seriously guilt-ridden, conditions which Ken tries to ameliorate without success.

By the time Ken hears from Harry that he must kill Ray, he discovers Ray holding a gun to his own head, about to commit suicide. Ken saves Ray's life, and sends him off by train to any other European town so that Ray can start over again, while Ken will be left to face the consequences.

The consequences, while at first cloaked in a sort of gentlemanly regard between Harry and Ken, quickly turns murderous, as Harry shoots out Ken's knees, and, discovering that Ray has been returned to Bruges by the police for the incident with the Canadian couple, runs from the tower into the square intending to kill Ray himself. To warn Ray, Harry jumps from the tower, sacrificing his own life for that of his friend-become almost a son.

For a brief time, the film switches to an action-adventure tale, as Harry chases Ray down the narrow, cobblestone Bruges streets. Returning to his hotel, Ray collects his gun, and jumps from the window into a moving canal boat below, Harry at the chase. Harry's final shot goes through Ray's body, hitting and killing the dwarf, which Harry believes is a child. A man of deep conviction if not of moral values, Harry turns the gun upon himself.

We end the film not knowing whether or not Ray has survived, but his voice pleading for his life, seems to suggest that he lived through the ordeal. The question is, which Ray? The murderous, crazy one? The boyishly good man at heart? The slightly clever conman? The drunken and drugged out lunatic?

The problem with nearly every figure in this film is that they have no center—as well as no place in which to exist. Ray's disdain of Bruges—as beautiful as the city obviously is—seems justified. Why "In Bruges?" You can almost hear McDonagh say, as might Harry, "Cause I'd like to fuckin' go there; it's a kind of fantasyland."

But so too is his film a kind of garish fantasy world where no real human being dare show up. All are types, figures shifting in and out of various situations and set pieces, drifting always between the humorous and the downright ugly. Who could ever believe characters who converse as follows?:

RAY: What am I gonna do, Ken? What am I gonna do?
KEN: Just keep movin', keep movin'. Try not think about it. Learn a new
language, maybe?
RAY: Sure. I can hardly do English.
[Pause]
RAY: That's one thing I like about Europe, though. You don't have to learn any of
their languages.

From a sort of conscience-ridden, even it sentimental pondering, we quickly jump to the kind of advice one might receive on a cozy talk show, then on to a self-aware joke that seems incompatible with Ray's previous behavior, straight to the beat (1-2-3) before the punch line, a stale joke about the loss of European countries' identities, all in a few short sentences and interjections! McDonagh seems unable to keep any one character in his mind for more than a few lines, so that ultimately we lose all possibility of belief in anything but the writer's whims.

Next time I go to Bruges, it will be alone!

Los Angeles, April 28, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gregory La Cava | My Man Godfrey



THE EXEMPLARY TRAMP
by Douglas Messerli

Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind and Gregory La Cava (screenplay, based on a story of Eric Hatch), Gregory La Cava (director) My Man Godfrey / 1936

Long ago I heard a commentator say that the difference between the Marx Brothers and the Beatles was that the former team created chaos in a orderly and uptight world, whereas the latter were cool and controlled in a world of chaos.

You might say that a similar difference exists between Charlie Chaplin, for example, the little tramp who, although well-intentioned, sweet, and romantic, is constantly out of sorts with a priggish society; Chaplin, no matter how hard he tries, will never be anything but a tramp on the outskirts of society, and the humor of his films lies in that fact.

In Gregory La Cava's screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, however, it is the tramp who lives the exemplary ordered life of propriety, as opposed to the nut cases of the wealthy Bullock House, including the snippy and mean-spirited, "Park Avenue brat," Cornelia (Gail Patrick)—who rides horses into the family library—the befuddled and always slightly hung-over mother (Alice Brady), and the truly wacky Irene (wonderfully played by Carole Lombard) who takes on the tramp as a "responsibility," just has her mother has adopted as her protégé, Carlo (the absurdly funny Mischa Auer) who does little but play "Ochi chyornye" and mope. He can also cleverly imitate a chimpanzee.

Encountered in a pile of ashes in the city dump, Godfrey (William Powell) is one of the requirements, a "forgotten man," for a society scavenger hunt, which—because of his agreement to participate—allows Irene to beat her sister for the first time in her life. Having just lost their recent butler (butlers evidently come in and go in the Bullock house with great regularity), she hires the penniless man, fighting her mother, sister, and even her bungling, forbearing businessman father for Godfrey's retention. And when Godfrey turns out to be the perfect butler, nearly all the family members, with the exception of Cornelia, are delighted, the maid, as well as Irene, falling in love with him.

Godfrey seems at home in his new position, if only he might have a "home," even if it is only a bedroom. Without any social constrictions, Cornelia enters his room, imagines a love relationship with him, and competes for his attentions around other family members. In short, she behaves like a "tramp," while Godfrey is all restraint, bound in protocol. As he asks Irene, "Hasn't anyone ever told you about certain proprieties?" When Godfrey attempts to explain, Irene answers, referring to her mother, "No she hasn't. She rambles on quite a bit, but then she never has anything to say."

We soon perceive, moreover, that the chaos at the center of this family is similar to the lives of nearly all the well-to-do the film represents. The competitors of the scavenger search appear to be more out of some vast madhouse scene than working for a good cause. As Mr. Bullock quips: "All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

Similarly, a party in his own house is filled with empty-headed and self-admiring fools, including Godfrey's former friend, Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), whom Godfrey later admits, doesn't have the ability to think. Tommy almost spills the beans over Godfrey's true identity, and Cornelia smells a rat. Meanwhile, Irene, angry over Godfrey's lack of attention, declares she's gotten engaged. To whom, everyone wants to know? Irene tosses a name into the air, while the owner of that name, Charlie Van Rumple, becomes utterly flummoxed. Mrs. Bullock sums up her guests' mindsets through her confusion upon the arrival of her husband:

ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, Alexander, you missed all the excitement.
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: What's going on?
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, let me see. I knew what it was I wanted to
say, but somehow it slipped my mind.
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: What's the matter with Irene?
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, yes, that's it: Irene's got herself engaged!
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: To whom?
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, I don't know. Van something-or-other. I think
he's the boy with his arm around that girl in pink. He's got lots of
money.
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: Well, he'll need it.

Utterly exasperated by Irene's behavior, Godfrey temporarily loses his cool, carrying her into the shower fully dressed, before turning on the cold water, an act Irene immediately recognizes, because of his atypical behavior, means he loves her!

Godfrey, we ultimately discover, as in many an 18th-century comedy , represents true wealth; a blueblood from Boston, he a man of even higher societal position than the Bullock family; having been jilted by his lover—we are never sure why or how—he began to feel sorry for himself, spinning out of his social realm, too proud, apparently to return to his snobbish family, and falling in with the homeless men on the edge of the river. Although the film has little real political commentary, Godfrey's observation sums up the realities of day: "The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job."

Meanwhile, Cornelia also unpropitiously enters Godfrey's room in order to plant her pearl necklace in his bed before she calls the police to announce it is missing. Discovering the necklace, Godfrey hides it away, and with sound business investments—the kind of good business practices in which Mr. Bullock evidently is unable to engage—makes enough money to invest in a restaurant near the river on the very location where he once lived as a vagrant. Hiring the "forgotten men" of his past, he has transformed the cafe into a hotspot for society regulars, giving him enough cash to buy back Cornelia's pearls, save Mr. Bullock's company, and award them their damaged self-respect.

Yet Godfrey is also somewhat blind to the truth, as Irene visits him in his office/home behind the restaurant, bringing along a picnic dinner, and carefully inspecting her new quarters. Everyone but Godfrey has known of their love, Tommy notifies him. "Stand still, Godfrey. It'll all be over in a minute," orders Irene, as the mayor pronounces them man and wife.

Irene, it is clear, is a necessary force if Godfrey is to escape propriety into the frenzy of everyday living.

Los Angeles, April 25, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sidney Lumet | Dog Day Afternoon




ANYTHING FOR LOVE
by Douglas Messerli

Frank Pierson (screenplay, based on an article by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore), Sidney Lumet (director) Dog Day Afternoon / 1975

Sidney Lument's death this month, on April 9th, sent me back to review his 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, a work I remember with great fondness.

For the first half of the film, however, it appears that Dog Day Afternoon might be weighted down with the thematic concerns that are so dominant in his oeuvre, focusing on the moral, political, and social issues as in works such as The Pawnbroker, A View from the Bridge, Serpico, and The Verdict. These films are all admirable, and are well-directed. But for my taste there is something almost lugubrious about many of them, as they slowly uncoil, revealing their characters' moral fibre and the social conditions which define them. In some respects, many of Lumet's works never seem to be completely transformed from stage plays into cinematic creations, although that is precisely what I love about his Long Day's Journey into Night.
Dog Day Afternooon begins simply as a badly bungled bank robbery, with one young participant abandoning his cohorts even before the two central robbers, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino*) and Sal (eerily played by John Cazale) can notify the manager and tellers what they are undertaking. When they do demand to be taken to the vault, they discover that there is no money, it having just been picked up for deposit elsewhere.

The only takings that Pacino has for all his trouble are the teller's drawers, which he carefully empties, making sure that he does not pull all the bills out at once so that he will not trigger an alarm. When offered, by one teller, the wrapped new bills, he refuses, noting that they are marked. Yet for all his carefulness, he is soon called to the phone, where a policeman wants to talk to him, the bank having been already surrounded.

Suddenly we perceive the absurdity of the whole event. The inept robbers are now forced into a standoff with what appears to be, as Sonny later announces, "the fucking militia." Indeed, there are so many policeman, setting up camp across the street, blocking off cars, swarming the roof and the back of the building, and hanging from fire escapes that one would think they were responding to an international terrorist threat. Even though he is now forced to take the tellers and manager as captives, as he himself proclaims: "I'm a Catholic, I don't want to hurt anybody." Even the dense-minded Sal insists he doesn't smoke because "the body's the temple of the Lord."

Before long a large crowd has developed, and the movie appears that it will shift into a work dealing with police brutality, particularly when, on one of his sidewalk discussions with the police coordinator, Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), Sonny invokes the Attica prison riots of 1971, when, after days of negotiations, police killed and caused the deaths of over 39 prisoners. Pacino, brilliantly over-the-top, whips up the crowd for his cause—and assured safety:

Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!
Put 'em down! Put the fucking guns down! Put those guns down!
Attica! Attica! You got it, man! You got it, man! You got it, man!
You got it! You got it! (pointing to different individuals in the crowd
as they should ATTICA! ATTICA!)

Moreover, when Lumet briefly inserts scenes showing Sonny's mother (hilariously played by theater director Judith Malina) and his overweight, beleaguered, and not very bright wife, we begin to fear that the film may attempt a psychological explanation for his acts.

But even early on, we suspect that the story has something important yet to reveal, particularly when, after being lied to by the Moretti, the two have the following interchange:

SONNY: Kiss me.
MORETTI: What?
SONNY: Kiss me. When I'm being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.

Everything soon shifts, in a delicious twist of reality, when we discover the wife Sonny has asked for the police to bring to him is another man, Leon Shemer (Chris Sarandon), and the reason for the bank robbery is Sonny's attempt to get enough money for Leon's sex-change.

Even stranger, it is not Sonny demanding the sex-change, who seems to be perfectly in love with Leon as two gay men, but the psychiatrist's idea:

LEON: I couldn't explain why I did the things I did. So I went
to this psychiatrist who explained to me I was a woman
in a man's body. So Sonny right away wanted to get me
money for a sex change operation: but where was he to get
that? 2500 dollars! My God, he's in hock up to his ears
already.

Before long the gays have joined the crowds surrounding the absurd standoff, Sonny becoming a kind of ridiculous folk hero in an era in which police were hated for their abuse. And Lumet has sent his film on a loony and, quite frankly, bravely outspoken path where I am sure some members of the original audience had not been prepared to go. One must remember that the only major American film that had seriously and openly dealt with homosexuality was William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band of 1970, a film so based on gay stereotypes that, even after I had served for a few nights as an usher during its New York run, Howard and I, along with other members of the newly formed gay liberation group at the University, picketed the film outside the Madison, Wisconsin theater where it was shown.

Lument was not only taking on the issue of homosexuality in Dog Day Afternoon, but transgender sexuality, and, even more complicated, the subject of bisexuality, since Sonny was also heterosexually married with two children! Yet Lument allows this subject to be treated seriously, by including the scene where Sonny dictates a will, leaving most of his money to Leon, with only a small amount going to his legal wife.

Even though he is, as he admits, "a fuck-up" and "an outcast," Sonny is also a caring and loving man. As he admits to Sal, "I got all these pressures!" and, at another point, "I got to have all the ideas!"

And strangely and absurdly, he takes those ideas to their logical extension, planning to use the hostages to get an airplane traveling, of all places, to Algeria! When asked to what country he might like to go, Sal replies, "Wyoming." We know, accordingly, that there can now be no turning back, and there will be no way of returning to whatever they might define as normality for these poor, sweet outcasts. The only element of the plot still unrevealed is whether the two will be brutally murdered or simply arrested.

Both happens, as the limousine driver pulls out a gun and shoots Sal, the police arresting Sonny.

In real life, John Wojtowicz served 14 years in prison for the attempted robbery. The $7,500 he received for the movie rights went to his lover, Ernest Aron, for the sex change. Aron became Elizabeth Eden, dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer on January 2, 2006.

Los Angeles, Easter 2011________
* I might note that there is a wonderful irony in Pacino's performance, for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. In real life, Wojtowicz and his co-conspirator Salvatore Naturile had seen The Godfather, in which Pacino also played, earlier in the day and planned their robbery based on events in the film. John Cazale performed alongside Pacino in The Godfather as Fredo.

Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Michelangelo Frammartino | Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times)





ASH TO ASH
by Douglas Messerli

Michelangelo Frammartino (writer and director) Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) / 2010, USA 2011

Le Quattro Volte has sometimes been spoken of—quite mistakenly—as a documentary, or, at least, as a quasi-documentary. While it has a bit of that feel, and uses the locals of a small Calabrian village as its actors, it is a very carefully constructed tale, and must be understood as a kind of ruminative fiction if it is to work at all. As a documentary it would be merely coy in the way that I previously described The Story of the Weeping Camel. While many of the events are natural occurrences in the small Calabrian town, others are clearly staged and enacted only for the sake of the written and plotted story.

Frammartino's "story" is a truly a simple one—so simple that it is almost banal—about the cycles of life, and, in his Italian neo-realist method, he trods a path that is well worn. The film begins with a charcoal kiln, smoke pouring out from it into the land around, before focusing for a short period on the life of an elderly goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda), near death.

There is no recognizable speech in this film, no subtitles, and very little a human talk. The sounds belong mostly to the animal world and nature, as we follow the herder and goats into the hills about the town, and return back to the old man's simple living space. The goat bells, church bells, dog barks, and the old man's cough, along with the occasional engine of a truck, quietly spoken words on a street corner, and the bleats of the goats dominate the aural aspects of this film, that put together they create a kind of profound music.

Similarly, the action is simple, the camera tracking the voyage back and forth into nature while revealing the glorious landscape and the stony isolation of the town in the distance. The old man believes that the cure for his cough is to drink water filled with ash, and he purchases ash swept up from the floors of the cathedral by a cleaning woman, who blesses them before carefully wrapping them up in paper.

On our second trip with the man and goats to the countryside, we observe him sitting (perhaps relieving himself) before he turns to take the goats home. The attentive viewer will notice that the packet of ashes has dropped from his pants. And when he returns home, after gathering the up his snails who miraculously have escaped from their pot with lid held down a brick, discovers his loss. A trip to the cathedral in the night proves fruitless, and by morning we see him lying, near death, in bed.

Meanwhile other villages have gathered under his window to participate in a staged performance of Christ's journey to his execution upon the cross, many in costumes of the Romans and Israelites. The old man's dog guards his territory, goats and house, keeping several of the performers at bay, until a couple of costumed Roman soldiers attempt to chase him off.

Returning to his post, the dog, almost as if in revenge, removes a rock that keeps a small parked truck from sliding down the hill. The truck, now freed, rolls across the street into the gate of the goat barn, freeing the animals, who soon can be found everywhere in the old man's house, including upon his table and chairs. As the goats congregate, the old man dies.

In the next scene, the old man is laid to rest in a crypt, Frammatino forcing us to witness the closing of the grave from within.

Suddenly we view a kid being born, dropping from its mother's uterus, and over the period of a few more scenes, we watch the new goat in its surroundings within an even larger congregation of goats led by a different goat herder. We follow him as well as he takes out the goats and returns, only to repeat the pattern with the new baby goats included, the next day.

The small white kid, presumably a reincarnation of the old goat herder, becomes lost in the passage of the goats to a distant field, and after fiercely bleating as it searches for its mother, finally lies down exhausted at the foot of a great tree to die.

A huge storm rises, the wind blowing, the clouds roiling up, and when morning light appears, we see the whole valley covered with snow. The new kid surely would have been unable to survive.

A new "time" comes to the valley, the snow melted, spring has arrived. The tree is covered with ants and lichen. Villagers come to cut the tree down, carrying it into town, where, with great effort, they stand it up in the square, with packages tied to its top. After celebrating they let in fall again, several of the villagers scooping up the packages in celebration.

The tree is chopped into pieces and transported to the location where the film began. Carefully and painstakingly the workers build up a kiln of logs and sticks, covering it over with straw and tar before lighting it up once more to produce the charcoal which keeps the villagers warm. The ash pours out of the kiln over the entire valley, much of it obviously coming to rest once again on the cathedral's floor.

Frammartino's fable about the interconnectedness of peasant life is clearly sentimental, and, at times, I felt this film was unnecessarily manipulative. Yet the director presents these cyclic patterns with so much dignity and equal humor that ultimately his variations of human, animal, vegetable, and mineral interactions grow into something more meaningful. If nothing else, the film is a spectacularly beautiful, nearly surreal at moments, view into Calabrian life. The only professional used in the film, claims Frammartino, was the dog.

Los Angeles, April 19, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Jack Clayton | The Innocents




THE PERFECT KISS
by Douglas Messerli

William Archibald and Truman Capote (screenplay, based on a story The Turn of the Sscrew by Henry James), John Mortimer (additional scenes and dialogue), Jack Clayton (director) The Innocents / 1961

After seeing the Los Angeles Opera production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, I determined to revisit Jack Clayton's 1961 film, The Innocents, based on the same James novella. Although I saw it the year of its release, I had not seen it since, forgetting almost all of its details.

Although the plot remains the same as in the opera, with a new Governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) coming to care for Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) in Bly hall, the effect is far different from the Britten piece, and significantly more focused on the psychological, more even than James, who was certainly a psychologically-focused author.

Although it is often described as a variation of a horror story, even being named one of the 11 best horror films of all time, I wouldn't describe it as having any real horror, and, perhaps, not even ghosts. It is apparent from the beginning that the young governess (Kerr, a not so young 40 at the filming), the daughter of a minister, is completely inexperienced with regard to worldly matters. Indeed, except for the fact that Kerr is always so capably in command, we might suggest the character is still a kind of child. And, for that reason, it might have been better to cast a ingénue in the role instead of the gifted Kerr. Nonetheless, Kerr works hard—and somewhat successfully—to convince us of her innocence. If nothing else, we realize that she has no clue of how to deal with children, and is far less sexually aware than they are.

Of course, Miss Giddens has led a thoroughly protected life, while the children have come under the influences of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who, at least according to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grosse, became sexually involved, performing their sexual acts openly, perhaps even where the children might see them. Quint, moreover, was a close companion to Miles, as Miss Jessel was to Flora. Yet Clayton's film strangely resists any of the suggestion that pilots Britten's interpretation that Miles and Flora might themselves have been the subject of sexual abuse. Here, the ghosts of the past where apparently only bad influences upon the children, not perpetuators of horrors.

In fact, Archibald's and Capote's screenplay strongly plays down the idea that there really are "ghosts." Every sighting of these figures is made by the Governess alone, while the children and Mrs. Grosse claim to not be able to see anything where Miss Giddens points. Unlike the haunting ululations of Britten's Quint, these ghosts never speak.

It is quite apparent, in this version, accordingly, that much of the surrounding "horror" of Bly belongs to the imagination of Miss Giddens, which narrows the possibilities of James' original significantly. By so clearly suggesting that it is all the product of a slightly hysterical woman, Clayton loses much of the richness and, most certainly, the true darkness of James' original. Cinematographer Freddie Francis does his best to hint at the "blackness" of the place by filming brightly lit objects against totally darkened backgrounds, and positioning objects at long distances from each other. Yet, in the end, these often seem like gestures towards something that we cannot truly believe is there.

What the film does offer in place of the suggestion of child abuse is the children's eroticism, expressed in their constant whispers and strange outbursts—amid absolutely perfect behavior—of obscene language and violent acts, and, in Miles' case, a flirtatiousness that suggests experiences far beyond his years. The most notable of these is the long kiss upon the lips he gives Miss Giddens, and her inability to reject it demonstrates that it may be her first kiss, a kind of "perfect" kiss since it cannot be reciprocated, only enjoyed. There need not nor cannot be any emotional commitment on her part, the perfect way for an old maid to enjoy that in which she is too frightened to participate.

Nonetheless, Miss Giddens has, at least mentally, committed herself to Miles, and she is clearly jealous of the dominating past Peter Quint and Miss Jessel represent (even if it they are specters of her own imagination). Her only way to free the children of that past, is to cast out the demons, psychologically speaking, by having her charges admit they are communing with the dead.

Flora goes into an absolute fit, spewing out obscenities, according to Mrs. Grosse, of which it should be impossible for her to have knowledge. Miss Giddens packs off Mrs. Grosse and Flora to her uncle, despite his commandant to leave him out of any family situation. Suddenly she is left alone with what is now the focus of her misguided love, Miles.

If she can only get him to say Quint's name, she muses, as if the saying of the name were a magic elixir that would free him from all former influences. Symbolically speaking, that would mean that he would have no past—in short, it would mean his death. Which, as he speaks out Peter Quint's name, comes to pass. She, at first relieved, goes to him upon his faint before discovering that his heart has stopped. Now there are no longer any consequences, and she can kiss him upon the lips as he had her. The abuser, so Clayton suggests, exists not in the past but in the present, trapped in innocence.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Michael Curtiz | Casablanca




WHERE'S RICK GOING?
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch (screenplay, based on a play Everybody Comes To Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), Michael Curtiz (director) Casablanca / 1942

No sooner are we told that in Casablanca everybody "waits and waits and waits," than we are treated to an evening at Rick's, where the waiting, at least, is pleasurable, a place where "everybody comes" to hear music, drink, gamble, tell secrets and buy black market goods. Who wouldn't want to come?

On top of that the producers have emptied out the Warners Brothers' closet a host of character actors to support the three top stars, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Any movie that has Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S. Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson, and Leonard Kinskey just has to be good, and Casablanca has dozens of other capable supporting actors as well.

Everybody probably has at one time spent the evening at Ricks, so I won't take up much time describing the plot. I simply remind the reader that, after running guns to Ethiopia, and fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, Rick Blaine has opened a bar in Paris just in time to fall in love with a beautiful woman who abandons him the moment the Germans enter the city. Now in Casablanca he owns and manages his popular night spot. The only trouble is that Rick is still harboring both bitterness and love over the long ago incident. He bans his piano player, Sam, to ever play the couple's favorite song, "As Time Goes By," and seems not to have found another woman to replace the one he's lost. As the movie begins, he's just "thrown away," as Captain Louis Renault describes it, Yvonne.

Suddenly who should walk into Rick's Américain Cafe and back into his life but Ilsa Lund, now accompanied by her husband, the hero of the Czech underground, Victor Laszlo. The couple is attempting to find an exit visa to escape to Portugal and on to the US, documents, it appears, that will not be found—until Ugarte shows up at Rick's bearing two letters of transit, stolen, evidently, from German couriers.

Before the evening is over, Ugarte is murdered by the Vichy police, and Rick is in possession of the letters.

The dilemma at the center of this work concerns Rick's wounded pride and his inability to comprehend the situation of Ilsa, who was married to Victor even before she and Rick met, but had been told that he had died. Victor, having shown up alive just before Rick and Ilsa were to have left Paris, prevented (even if unintentionally) the illicit relationship to continue. Will Rick and Ilsa, whose love life is far more developed in the film than her marriage to the hero, be able to get back together, or are they doomed to separation? It is that question that propels the film forward to its satisfying end.

We never quite do know what Rick is planning to do. Indeed, Rick himself may not know until the very last moment. It all depends upon what kind of man Rick is, the neutral and uncaring cad Captain Renault perceives him to be, or the passionate and caring man of commitment? And, in that sense, there are two Ricks whom we encounter throughout the film, one a passive supporter of fascism, the other a soldier fighting for a good cause. While we may root for his selfish love, even enjoy him as we do Captain Renault for living without morals, we also hope that he can grow into the man of whom he gives us hints along the way, shown, most notably, when he rigs his gambling tables so that a young Bulgarian couple can obtain the funds to buy a ticket without the girl having to prostitute herself to Renault. Rick's relationships with Sam and his friendship with Carl, a member of an underground cell in Casablanca, also hint at his good side.

But his brooding anger seems to dominate as he falls into drunkenness, and, when he sells his cafe to Signor Ferrari, and, at the last moment, tells his friend Renault that he is planning to send Victor off without his wife Ilsa, we fear that he may be telling the truth.

As any seasoned filmgoer knows, however, such an action would be impossible, particularly during one of the worst years of World War II. As Laszlo prepares to board, he makes it clear that she must accompany her husband, an oft quoted dialogue that is worth considering again:

Rick: Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I've done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you're getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.

Ilsa: But, Richard, no, I... I...

Rick: Now, you've got to listen to me! You have any idea what you'd have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we'd both wind up in a concentration camp. Isn't that true, Louie?

Captain Renault: I'm afraid Major Strasser would insist.

Ilsa: You're saying this only to make me go.

Rick: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Ilsa: But what about us?

Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.

Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

[Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry]

Rick: Now, now... [Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet]

Rick: Here's looking at you kid.

The question remains, however, where is Rick planning to go—having sold everything he owns—where she cannot go? If he's simply going to "join the fight" somewhere, why has he made his intentions so obvious, particularly in front of the Vichy captain, Renault, who predictably does report his actions to Strasser? It seems from several of Rick's comments that he simply plans on being arrested once the plane leaves the ground.

The writers distract us from this question, in part, by having Rick kill the German Major, freeing Louis to abandon his Vichy water and authority. In his refusal to arrest Rick, after a dramatic exchange of eye contact between the two, we recognize a hidden subtheme throughout the film, namely that Louis, although he is the worst of womanizers, is also in love with Rick.

He hints at it quite openly to Ilsa when she asks about the owner of the cafe:

Ilsa: Who is Rick?
Captain Renault: Mamoiselle, you are in Rick's! And Rick is...
Ilsa: Who is he?
Captain Renault: Well, Rick is the kind of man that... well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick. But what a fool I am talking to a beautiful woman about another man.

Later, he tells Rick himself about Ilsa's questions:

Captain Renault: [to Rick regarding Ilsa] She was asking about you earlier in a way that made me very jealous...

Apparently, Renault is jealous of Rick for receiving Ilsa's attentions, but it might also be that Louis is jealous of Ilsa for Rick's interest in her.

Throughout the film, indeed, there is a deliciously funny—both humorous and strange—dialogue between the two men that, while not necessarily suggesting that they are gay, does oddly wed them. Louis' suggestion that Rick leave Casablanca, quickly shifts from his friend's journey to a statement of "our expenses." And with that linguistic transformation, by both giving up their pretenses of not caring and taking up with each other to travel to the free French forces in Brazzaville, they have, as Rick subtly describes it, begun something even more than what they previously had between them: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Beautiful is not usually the kind of word you might apply to a friend, unless he is suggesting something other than the word he has chosen. And whatever he might be saying or not about his sexuality, Rick has suggested that two are clearly about to enter a world that is shared only by males. The fog rolls in just as both sets of couples begin their new, and "free," adventures.

Los Angeles, March 5, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jean-Luc Godard | Le mépris (Contempt)




PENELOPE’S DEATH

by Douglas Messerli


Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay, based on a novel, Il Dispezzo, by Alberto Moravia), Jean-Luc Godard (director) Le mépris (Contempt) / 1963 For his sixth film, Jean-Luc Godard turned to what superficially appeared as a much more commercial project. Based on a fiction by the well-known writer Alberto Moravia, this new work was supported by Hollywood and major European producers, Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti, and Joseph E. Levine. Godard even sought Hollywood actors, Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra, as his central characters, but they turned him down. When Ponti suggested his wife, Sophia Loren and Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, Godard turned them down. All producers were agreeable to his suggestion of Brigitte Bardot, as long as, Levine argued, the film contained a nude scene—good for the box office, of course.

The film, moreover, was shot in cinemascope, which was clearly not Godard’s idea; in the script actor-director Fritz Lang, almost playing himself, expresses Godard’s view of the color process: “Oh, it wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes—and funerals.” And there were numerous other issues where Godard expressly did not share the producers’ concerns and ideas. Anyone hoping, accordingly, that Godard would truly make a commercial film, is in for a big disappointment. While the scenes throughout Rome and Capri are beautifully shot, revealing lush and splendorous visages not previously available in the directors’ earlier films, Godard successfully undermines the Hollywood film tropes.

In the first scene, indeed Bardot is undressed, with the camera tracking up and down across her backside, as she, almost narcissistically, queries her husband Paul Javal about his love for each of her body parts. Filmed mostly in red, while revealing, as Marcel Duchamp might put it, L.O.O.Q. (a pun for "she has a hot ass"), the color undermines most of the sexuality of the shot. When she later appears nude, a book lies across her buttocks as if replacing literature for sex.

The film is literally stuffed with references to other films and their makers, poets (Homer, Dante, Hölderlin, Brecht) and philosophers, while satirically representing the producer (Jeremy Prokosch, brilliantly played by Jack Palance) as a selfish, aphorist-spouting monster, who has no conception what film is. At an early moment in the work, after Lang mentions the Gods, Prokosch baldly proclaims: I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel—exactly. Lang’s witty response, says everything: “Jerry, don’t forget. The gods have created man. Man has created gods.”

Godard’s contempt, obviously, is directed at the whole commercialization of filmmaking, of which he had taken advantage to accomplish his project.

The couple we see in the very first scene, quietly reassuring one another about their deep love, is similarly affected by the brash stupidity of the commercial film world. Jerry Prokosch, apparently, has just taken over the Rome film studio, Cinecittà, and after firing nearly everyone, violently expresses his displeasure with director Lang, who is attempting to finish a film of Homer’s Odyssey. Prokosch is furious with what sees as an “art” film, instead of a sellable product, and has called upon writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rewrite the script. Although Javal is dubious about the whole project—and the few scenes we do see might give anyone pause about working on this movie—he cannot turn down the money he is offered, he and his wife having just purchased a new condominium in Rome. Like Godard, he is clearly tempted to take the money and run, but he is certain that he can credibly restore this film into powerful work, primarily by psychologizing Odysseus and his wife Penelope.

Yet almost from the moment he signs on to the project by accepting Prokosch’s check, his entire life changes. Stopping by the studio to pick him up, Camille, his wife, introduced to Prokosch, finds herself suddenly being “turned over” to the producer, as he races off in his Alpha Romero car with her in the front seat, leaving his assistant, Francesca (Giogia Moll) and Paul to follow him by bicycle and taxi to his house. Although nothing happens in the interim, it is clear to all that Prokosch’s intentions are, as all his acts, dishonorable, and Camille is horrified by having been placed in this position. By the time Paul shows up a half-an-hour later, she is clearly angry and uncertain of everything that has proceeded in her and Paul’s relationship. And by the end of the afternoon, observing a slight sexual interchange between Francesca and Paul, she has developed what becomes the major “mépris” or contempt of the title. By the time they return home they are enveloped in a long (32 minutes of film time) fight that includes Camille’s describing her husband as an ass, a jerk, and in other disreputable terms, while he becomes more and more certain that, inexplicably, she is no longer in love with him. Godard’s presentation of this growing confrontation, although somewhat tragic, is also comic, as they move about their new Roman paradise, Paul always with a hat on his head, in an infantile imitation of actor Dean Martin in Some Came Running, and Bardot donning a black wig. Both are hiding something, clearly, that even they cannot quite comprehend. Godard cinematically expresses this incompleteness of their lives by having them move about the still unfinished condominium, climbing through door frames without glass, and moving in and out of empty, unpainted rooms. As Camille reveals in a voiceover, “I’ve noticed the more we doubt, the more we cling to a false reality made murky.”

By that evening, Paul comprehends, he has become Odysseus, about to set out away from his Penelope, while Camille has become the Penelope of whom he wants to write, a woman who had already broken with Odysseus before he left, which accounts for remaining away for ten long years. The question is, can her survive with the ill-will of his Poseidon, the producer Prokosch? In Godard’s version of the myth, however, the problem is not only that Odysseus has left his Penelope in the hands of other suitors, but still refuses to move on by himself, desperately trying to get her to change her mind about their suddenly floundering relationship. And the rest of the film, as the two join Prokosch and Lang in filming on the island of Capri, is filled with their friction, as each expresses his or her anger before retreating, time and again, with a smile or sudden token of their former esteem. Yet, even when Paul, a guest in Prokosch’s villa, rails out against the whole filmmaking project, the couple knows, along with the audience, that there can be no going back.

If Paul will not leave for his journey, Camille knows that she must, and with Prokosch driving, heads off to Rome, where she is determined to return to her career as a typist. But unlike the events of the Odyssey, Poseidon destroys her instead of her husband, his breakneck driving ending both their lives in a crash with a big rig. Godard’s 20th century Odysseus is, like so many of us, a man who instead of leaving on a series of marvelous adventures, has been completely unable to act. And he returns to his Ithaca, Rome, with even less of a life than he has had at the beginning.


Los Angeles, April 1, 2011