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Monday, June 25, 2012

John Huston | The Night of the Iguana

man's inhumanity to god
by Douglas Messerli

John Huston and Anthony Veiller (based on the play by Tennessee Williams), John Huston (director) The Night of the Iguana / 1964

The more I see of Tennessee Williams' plays and the films based upon them, the more I perceive that his strongest works are often the least taut and structured. These days I much prefer the kind of wandering and wondering mazes of unrelated phrases and perspiringly panicked figures than the orderly march of the comic matron of The Glass Menagerie. Any attempt to contain Williams' sprawling wordfests, as in Brooks' cinematic adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, results in a kind clinical imprisonment of the characters, as, in their babbling confessions, they become locked up in themselves. Williams, as I have suggested again and again, is not a successful realist, and to tie any work of his to real life is miss the point. New York Times critic Brosley Crowther did precisely that in his review when the film premiered:

                Since difficulty of communication between individuals seems to be
                one of the sadder of human misfortunes that Tennessee Williams is
                writing about in his play, "The Night of the Iguana," it is ironical that the
                film John Huston has made from it has difficulty in communicating, too.
                      At least, it has difficulty in communicating precisely what it is that is so
                barren and poignant about the people it brings to a tourist hotel run
                by a sensual American woman on the west coast of Mexico. And because
                it does have difficulty—because it doesn't really make you see what is so
                helpless and hopeless about them—it fails to generate the sympathy and
                the personal compassion that might make their suffering meaningful.



    I have to agree that for a man in such an "unstable condition" as the ex-Episcopal priest Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) describes his situation(he has only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown), the once handsome Welsh orator doesn't sound like he's so shaky. The spinsterish artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) is so lovely to both listen to and look at that it is neigh impossible to  comprehend why her only brush with sex was with an elderly man who requested an article of her clothing. And the gutsy and raunchy hotel owner, Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), dancing and drinking out the day with her cabana boys, certainly doesn't seem to be on the edge. But that's just the point. As Shannon tells Hannah "The Fantastic Level and the Realistic Level are the two levels upon which we live." And clearly for much of this hot-house concoction the characters exist on the Fantastic Level, pouring out their inner fears and desires to anyone who might hear them out.

     Moreover, for the long night ahead at the dilapidated Mexican hotel to which Shannon has run, the four most fantastic figures—Shannon, Maxine, Hannah, and her poet father, Nonno (Cyril Delevanti)—must face a entire bevy of real world literalists, determined to put an end to their absurd existences. The very idea that such exaggerated figures should have to rub up with a whole busload of female singing Baptist tourists, headed by an hysteric moralist such as Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall) aboard to chaperone the sexually "precocious" Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon) is nearly preposterous. But what fun!

     Part of the great joy in this film is the comic explosion when a truly moral man, formerly of the church, rubs up against a pack of wolves desperate—in the young girl's case—to get him into bed or—in the case of the elder tourists—to discover him in that bed and torture him to death. The great guffaw of Williams' underrated work arises from the fact that all the self-proclaimed moralists of the film see sex everywhere, while the morally "unfit" live relatively chaste lives. Shannon has, after all, not run away to this run-down Mexican retreat to meet up with Maxine as much as to be mysteriously "cured" by her former husband, Fred, a man who apparently had little to do with her sexually ("He lost interest," Maxine notes), preferring to spend most of his time "fishing," another word, one suspects, for "cruising." Shannon, in fact, seems quite fearful of and resistant to women. After attempting to "swim to China," an attempt at suicide, Shannon, bound and tied to a hammock, responds to Hannah:

                                     I thought you were sexless. But you've just become a
                                     woman. And do you know how I know that? Because
                                     "you" like "me" tied up! All women, whether they wish
                                     to admit it or not, would like to get men into a tied-up
                                     situation. 

     Hannah has not even had sex. Maxine spends more time dancing with her cabana boys than snuggling up to their bodies.

     On the other hand, the singing teacher harridan, Judith (tagged by the fantasists as a closeted lesbian) perceives nearly any motion as a sexual act. When her young charge swims out to join Shannon taking a dip in the ocean to get out of the blistering sun, she slaps the girl across her face:


                     Judith Fellowes: Dreadful girl. You defined me. You "deliberately"
                                                defied me.
                     T. Lawrence Shannon: What did you think we were doing out there,
                                                 Miss Fellowes? Spawning?

As Shannon summarizes her condition: "Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her."

     Both Shannon and Hannah share a view of the world that is quite all-encompassing. As Hannah explains: "Nothing disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent." Shannon decries "man's inhumanity to God," a statement I interpreted as admonishing religious believers for forgetting that God, as Christ, lived life as a frail and sometimes erring man. We are not gods but humans in need of forgiveness. And what links them, strangely, is their chastity, their commitment to their vocation, she to her art and her father's poetry, he to the church, despite his having been "locked out" for a supposed sexual tryst with a Sunday School teacher ("kneeling led to reclining"). And despite her seemingly hard-drinking and sexually-craved personae, Maxine is at work's end willing to leave her hotel to the management of the spiritually soothing Judith and the restored Shannon as she prepares to return to the states. Shannon's act of cutting the tethered iguana loose obviously represents the freedoms—including the absolution of their sins— these characters demand.

       It is the legion of travelers—which in Williams' original play included a group of Nazi tourists—who are truly immoral, all being people who believe fervently in their righteousness. Like an army, they are internally on the move, destroying nearly everything that crosses their paths, leaving the lame, the panicked, and the dead—Nonno dies mercifully after completing his poem—in their wake. 

      At work's end, Shannon remains with Maxine, the only aspect of Huston's film I find somewhat unbelievable. Doubtlessly, he will also spend most of his time, now that he has abandoned his religious restraints, "fishing" like Maxine's Fred.

Los Angeles, June 24, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alexander Hall | Little Miss Marker

bad girls like me can’t pray
by Douglas Messerli

William Lipman, Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman (screenplay, based on a story by Damon Runyon), Alexander Hall (director) Little Miss Marker / 1934

As in Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles, the Damon Runyon story on which Little Miss Marker was based centers around a bookie, a showgirl, and the various thugs and roughs associated with the New York betting gangsters. In this case, however, the central character, Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) is simply a bookie, instead of the head boss. The showgirl, Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell), is also a much tougher doll whose relationship to the head man, Big Steve Halloway (Charles Bickford) is more that of a kept woman as opposed to the hardworking singer-dancer, Queenie-Missouri Martin, in Capra’s films.
    It hardly matters since the characters they play are so similar, the two leads, Sorrowful and Bangles, acting out a bickering relationship destined for the marriage altar. In this case, however, there is a third woman, the appealing child, Marthy Jane (Shirley Temple), left by a desperate gambling father as a marker for his bet on Dream Prince, a losing horse.

      Once Marthy (immediately dubbed “Little Miss Marker”) enters the scene, one can feel a dense layer of sugar coat the teeth. Fortunately, the writers, Lipman, Hellman, and Lehman, along with director Hall, whipped up a story that when faced head-on tastes more like a jigger of gin thrown down the gullet. For despite the cuteness of this human marker, as Marthy cajoles, scolds, and cries in her struggle for the affections of Sorrowful, all else is delightedly perverse. We might start by examining why the stingy Sorrowful has taken her as a marker in the first place, particularly given his natural curmudgeonly contrariness. It is clear from the moment that he lifts her into his arms, ostensibly in an attempt to hand her back to her father, that he is as smitten with her as if she were a dame of his own age. Sorrowful quickly assigns her to the care of his two comic stooges, Sore Toe and Canvas Back, who remind us also of the two dumb brothers in Lady for a Day. Their hilarious interpretation of Sorrowful’s instruction to “mind” her ends in their retrieval of a barber shop sign (which she perceives as a gigantic peppermint) and result in her temporary loss.

      When her father does not return to collect—we soon discover that he has killed himself—  she is found again, this time by a young Black janitor, and returned to Sorrowful at Holloway’s club just a Bangles is warbling out a song of painful feminine woe. So begins a relationship of the young girl with Sorrowful that on the surface may seem utterly cuddly and charming, ending in a complete alteration of his life, but just out of the radar of the common viewer is a tale of abduction and child endangerment that might almost be read as pedophile’s fairytale—the last word being one that is repeated throughout.*

      Quickly removing the big boss, Halloway, from the scene, writers and director hunker down to focus on the catfight between women, old and young, for Sorrowful’s heart. Marthy has the advantage: she’s cute and sweet and, as everyone knows, no adult actor on screen can match the appeal of a child or puppy. And who could resist Temple’s tearful pouts:


                           Sorrowful: What’s the matter now?
                           Marker: You don’t like me!
                           Sorrowful: You always cry when somebody doesn’t
                                              like you?
                           Marker: Yes!
                           Sorrowful: Well, you got a lot of crying to do. Now go to
                                              sleep.
                           Marker: My mommy used to read to me about King Arthur
                                         every night before I went to sleep.
                           Sorrowful: Now, Marky, be reasonable.
                           Marker: I won’t!
                           Sorrowful: All right, all right.

Obviously, she wins the fight and with it his heart. At the other end of the spectrum is Bangles, secretly in love with Sorrowful as well:


                           Bangles: [about Marky] Well, you can’t leave her here.
                           Sorrowful: Afraid of the cops?
                           Bangles: No, I’m afraid of the kid. I don’t want her here. I’m
                                          not going sappy over her!


     Both she and Sorrowful are soon as sappy as everyone in the audience, she purchasing a wardrobe of clothing for the child and, with Sorrowful, throwing a party of absurd proportions and questionable merit, with their whole underworld crew dressed like knights of the round table in the hope that they can restore the innate “niceness” of their little princess, who—influenced by their conceptions of themselves and their world—now describes herself as “a bad girl who can’t pray.” Enter her Dream Prince, a horse who they are intending to drug and, in so doing, kill the very next day. Enter also the jealous Halloway, having been clued in by Bangles’ maid of his girl’s growing attention to Sorrowful, and, suddenly, the consequences of their indecent behavior become all too obvious. The horse, who hates the boss, rears, tossing the object now of everyone’s love to the floor and into a coma.

      She needs a transfusion so the doctor’s proclaim, but it has been made clear already, now verified by tests, that none of them have the right blood. Beyond all reason, it turns out, Big Steve Halloway alone has “good blood,” saving the day and reviving their stolen princess, as well as redeeming his pride and life. Now, presumably, as usually happens in Damon Runyonland, everything will turn out just swell: Sorrowful and Bangles will marry and keep their ill-gotten gains. But what are they going to tell her about her real father? Does it really matter in a world so corrupt?   

Los Angeles, June 22, 2012

*The long scene where Sorrowful seems to be making up a chair as her bed ends in the child entering his own bed. We must presume that Sorrowful sits out the night in the chair. In a later scene, Bangles falls to sleep in bed with the child. Throughout, every male character lifts and holds her in numerous manners in an attempt to guess her weight. In short, almost everyone in the film holds and embraces this self-proclaimed “bad girl.”
     Director Hall, evidently, actually abused the young actor, telling Temple that her mother had been kidnapped in order to invoke her tears.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Alberto Lattuada | Il Cappotto (The Overcoat)

object of obsession
by Douglas Messerli


Alberto Lattuada, Giorgio Prosperi, Giordano Corsi, Enzo Curreli, Luigi Malerba, Leonardo Sinisgalli, and Cesare Zavattini (adaptation and screenplay, based on a story by Nikolai Gogol), Alberto Lattuada (director) Il Cappotto (The Overcoat) / 1952, USA 1953


The story, as any reader of Gogol knows, is a deceptively simple one. An obscure government worker, long in need of a new coat, spends his life-long earnings on a beautiful overcoat which, in turn, changes his whole conception of himself, as he is transformed from a menial lackey into a proud and handsome man. But the transformation lasts just for a day, for as he stumbles home on New Years' Eve he is approached by a stranger who steals the coat, resulting in the central character's death.

     Director Alberto Lattuada and his several co-writers transform Gogol's freezing government clerk into a small northern Italian calligrapher, Carmine de Carmine (played by the wonderful comedian Renato Rascel) working for a corrupt and pompous mayor (Giulio Stival) who, in his attempt to become a senator, ignores all the petitions and complaints of the citizens in order to further tax and fine them so that he might rebuild the center of the city in order to please the visiting emperor.

     Unlike his co-workers, who appear to do little work unless the  general secretary or the mayor enters their confines, de Carmine has the gift of creating beautifully formed alphabetical characters, noted by the mayor himself. But his calligraphic gift is a product of slow, quiet process, not the frenzied note-taking to which the mayor assigns him while meeting with a local professor—who has just discovered a small object from antiquity—and with other city leaders, who together conspire to cheat their citizens. Freezing in the windy, open air, expected to not only get the gist of their conversations but proffer them up in a misrepresentative rhetoric, de Carmine fails notably, and is even threatened with being fired.

     On top of this, his co-workers have mischievously conspired to tell daily petitioners that they must contact the powerless de Carmine. At home, his neighbors berate him for their new taxes and fines simply because he works for the government itself. Attempting to mend a hole in his coat, the overwhelmed nebbish becomes distracted by a beautiful woman in the apartment across the way—Caterina (Yvonne Sanson), who coincidentally is the mayor's not-so-secret lover—and cuts away a large part of his already fraying and hole-ridden coat! Indeed his coat has so deteriorated that the local tailor refuses to mend it, trying to convince the poor calligrapher that he needs a new garment.

     When he again encounters the same beautiful woman in a nearby shop, she does not even notice him! As critics have suggested, it is not simply that de Carmine is cold, is has been frozen out of existence. Looking as if he were a penniless street person, he is fed a few coins from her purse.

     Yet the cost of a new overcoat is unthinkable, particularly given his precarious position. When the next day he is called into the undersecretary's office, presumably to be dismissed, he cannot even enter the room; other officials stand before the door arguing with one another as they remark of the undersecretary's scandalous behavior. When de Carmine finally enters, he is, in fact, fired; but in explanation for his late entry, he repeats what he has  just overheard and is suddenly given a bonus and returned to his job. Without his knowledge, his silence has been bought.

     But now, at least, he can put down the money for a new coat! Lattuada's wonderful interludes between the timid and perpetually perplexed government worker and the gangly, excitable tailor are absolutely delightful as the two play out a sort of Abbott and Costello-like routine. As critic Dave Kehr has noted: "The scenes in which the tailor flutters about him, throwing out his spindly arms and legs like a Disney flamingo, are wonderful studies in motion." Both conflicted and confined in small frame shots the two work together with comic relish.

     With the tailor's complete abandonment into his creative act, moreover, we come to understand the utter joy of the recipient. Unlike Gogol's tale, the director here portrays the calligrapher's stroll into the world with his new layer of skin as gleefully as game played by a child, the tailor trailing after to spy on the reactions his new creation receives. Suddenly, the obscure nobody is transformed into a handsome man-about-town. For the first time, people suddenly notice him and even praise his mien. That evening, he is invited to the under secretary's apartment with the mayor in attendance!

     The event is a certain disaster as the changed man suddenly finds the courage, clothed in his coat, to dance with the mayor's girlfriend and even to present the petition to the mayor handed to him by an aged veteran who has been waiting for 40 years for a pension. With complete irony, Lattuada conveys his little hero's grand delusions as opposed to the utter disdain of his actions by his superiors. So obsessed is de Carmine by his new possession—clearly the only thing of worldly value in his life—that he is suddenly convinced that he has charmed everyone, when, of course, his character has only charmed the motion picture audience being told his tale. So does the director reveal the vast separation between a story and what the story relates as art.

     We know the ending; there can be no other possible way to rid one of such a delusion. The coat is stolen, de Carmine going mad and dying. Writers and director take their tale even further, as officials and leaders throughout the town begin to find their coats being pulled from them, buttons being stolen. Even if the film's final scene—in which the mayor, encountering the ghost of the nobody whom he has berated, promises to mend his ways—is unconvincing, we are struck by the quiet power of this seemingly insignificant man who has come to life, died, and come back to life again through the artistry of the tailor's creation.

Los Angeles, June 17, 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shōhei Imamura | Guta to gunkan (Pigs and Battleships)

live like pigs

by Douglas Messerli

Hisashi Yamauchi (screenplay), Shōhei Imamura (director) Guta to gunkan (Pigs and Battleships) / 1961, USA 1963


I've never seen nor read the John Arden play whose title I have borrowed for this short essay, but I cannot imagine a more appropriate phrase since Shōhei Imamura's 1961 film is not only literally about pigs and battleships, but is, metaphorically speaking, a work in which all the characters more or less live like pigs within the post-war Japanese society of the port Yokosuka. Although the Allied occupation of Japan has seemingly brought some sense of industry to the democratized city, it is still a world of slums and darkness where nearly every individual—Japanese, Americans, and other outsiders—are on the take, each preying on one another in the form of everything from sex to pig slop, from, as the title suggest, pigs to battleships—or, at least, what comes with the latter.


     Like Kurosawa in Druken Angel, Imamura takes the viewer through a world of thriving backstreets and alleys, all lit up with neon and filled with sailors, prostitutes, petty thieves, hoodlums, members of the Shore Patrol and Japanese police. At times his camera is so frenetic in its chase of figures through his set, that audience members might almost lose their breaths. But for Imamura this energized chaos is as comical as it is dangerous, each layer of the social structure using the others to sell and buy, the body being the most saleable commodity, or, as the local Yakuza describe it, to rake in "contributions."


     At the center of this fomenting world is the likeable but slightly dumb-witted Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his pretty girlfriend, Huruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who works in a nearby bar. In large this couple stands apart from the rest of the community in their simple desire to marry and find a way to eke out a living. But in this dark world, there is no easy escape. Kinta stupidly thinks he is rising in society as he moves from a position of a ringer who brings American sailors into the underground brothels to a role in the local gang as a pig farmer, a capital venture of gangster Tetsu and his friends, who use black market slops to feed the profitable beasts.


     Huruko faces daily pressure from her mother to leave her job at the bar and become a high class prostitute, like her older sister, serving the American sailors under the tutelage of the slightly mysterious American, Mr. George, who is suddenly replaced by a similarly opportunistic figure. And, at least twice in the film, the young girl, penniless and fed up with the actions of her lover, is drawn into this dark sexual underworld, at one point being gang-raped by three American sailors—an event which quite literally sets her mind and Imamura's camera spinning—and, after she attempts to steal cash from one of them, is arrested.


     Despite this, however, Huruko and Kinta's elderly father are the only ones presented who seem to have moral values. Throughout the film Huruko's major role is her attempt to try to convince Kinta to leave the Yakuza and travel with her to a neighboring city where they can find employment in a factory.


     Factory wages, however, are notoriously low, and Kinta has dreams of either owning a band that might play every night on the American base or working as a high-class pimp. Despite his own involvement with gang shakedowns of nearly everyone, it never seems to dawn on him that no matter what money he might make, it would taken. Because of these ridiculous aspirations and his blind belief in his gang future, the Yakuza make exaggerated demands of him, forcing him to agree, after they kill an aging gangster, that if the body is found he will claim the guilt.


     Imamura's work soon swings into full motion, lurching back and forth over more and more absurd events, sometimes without a great deal of narrative coherency. But the result is as lively story-telling as are his hilarious types. The handsome head of the gang, Tetsu, like Kurosawa's Matsunaga, is a dying man, or, at least, he is convinced he is (in fact, he has only a stomach ulcer). And the others betray one another as they struggle to make payments to the American for the outdated rations to feed the pigs. When they cannot come up with the money, both sides attempt to sell the animals, which leads to a free-wheeling street chase between big-rig trucks—with Kinta mistakenly thought to have betrayed both. In one of what has to be one of the most ludicrously comic scenes in film history, Imamura places the inexperienced Kinta at the center of a machine-gun battle that shoots up the entire town, ending with a mad release of hundreds of pigs who go trotting up and down streets and into the alleys, ultimately trampling the members of the Yakuza to death. In a mockery of James Cagney-type American movies, Imamura shows Kinta being shot, eventually dying face down in a woman's latrine.


     At film's end, a new battleship has arrived, as the women in the town rush out to meet it and the Americans who will pay for their pleasures. Although she has been finally convinced by her mother to join the others, in the final scene Huruko moves off in the opposite direction toward the train station that will take her away from the pigs and battleships that have destroyed any possibility of true love.


      Imamura's movie is, at times, patently anti-American, but he is no easier on his own countrymen, who in attempting to get their hands on the American dollar, live like pigs on their way to slaughter. In the end, the director transforms Hisashi Yamauchi's sometimes loopy story into a serious and memorable satire.


Los Angeles, June 16, 2012

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Clarence Brown | Intruder in the Dust

pride and prejudice
by Douglas Messerli

Ben Maddow (screenplay, based on the novel by William Faulkner), Clarence Brown (director) Intruder in the Dust / 1949

Although Faulkner tells wonderful stories, the power of his works lie in the language he uses to tell those tales, language that stretches out ideas, retelling them in different ways, and turning the ideas connected to them back upon themselves, so that what might be a simple event, a lynch-mob gathering around a small-town jail, as his Intruder in the Dust, takes on new and different meanings as his central characters react.


      Given the complexities inherent in Faulkner's works, it is almost impossible to imagine a film, particularly a Hollywood, narrative-driven film, to create the same impact. Yes, Faulkner's tale is about small-town prejudice and about a proud Black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who refuses to play the role of the "darkie" and almost loses his life for that. The book is also about a murder, but Faulkner is not as interested in the discovery of the murderer as he is in the relationship of his central figures—two young boys, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), Aleck (Elzie Emanuel), an older woman, Miss Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), and a lawyer reticent about getting involved, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian)—perceive and interact with Lucas (Juano Hernandez).

      The genre of Clarence Brown's movie is clearly more of a whodunit, with ancillary focus on the moral implications of the characters' involvement. And in pursuing the narrative thrust of Faulkner's work instead of following the psychological interrelationships between characters, Brown and screenplay writer Ben Maddow, as some critics have noted, erase the complexity of figures. Certainly the young Black boy, Aleck, is portrayed in the film as much more passive and indeterminate than he is in Faulkner's book. And that most certainly effects the way we see Blacks in the film. Since almost all the Black characters here are passive, Lucas Beauchamp's stubborn pride, his refusal to reveal to the Sheriff and lawyer Stevens what he knows of the murder and proclaim his own innocence, seems even more inexplicable.

      Also lost in this film is the gradual awakening of conscience for Chick, as he faces his own frustration for not being able to make restitution to Lucas for having given him shelter after falling in a creek. By refusing to grant a white payment for the act, Lucas has clearly put himself apart from the rest of the Black community with which the boy is acquainted. The relationship here, at least in the book, is a subtle one of both resentment and respect, a kind of hatred and a hushed, unaware love that is difficult to portray in a straight-forward narrative. And the young actor chosen for that role, perfect for conveying his sense of innocence and unawareness (just right for his earlier role in The Yearling), has a face that often remains too inexpressive and flat, making it hard to imagine that he is slowly growing in comprehension as the film proceeds.

      Yet for all that, Brown does capture some of the strange transformations through his splendid cinematography. In the scene where Chick returns alone to confront Lucas, we see first Lucas' eye behind the wooden bars of the cell, and then are shown the view from within looking out at Chick. The implication, of course, is that both Lucas and Chick are imprisoned, in different ways, by racial relations. But there is also, in both cases, a special way of seeing one another, a shared respect and admiration which is why, clearly, Lucas trusts Chick to solve the case over the adults, whose views have already hardened into outright prejudice.

      Brown's ghoulish presentation of the night voyage to the cemetery, the horse's refusal to enter the stream because of quicksand (in the film, Chick announces this, while in the novel it is Aleck who recognizes the horse's alarm), and the digging up of the empty coffin by Aleck, Chick, and Mrs. Habersham quite chillingly represent an act of not only irreverence, but an act that through these societal "outsiders," converts their desecration into a kind resurrection—at least for Lucas, since it proves that someone else has been involved in the crime.

      Similarly, the director intensifies the scene where Mrs. Habersham stands up to the leader of the lynch mob, challenging him even as he pours out gas and is about light a match. The show-down quality of this scene helps to remind us that, although most of the town's citizens seem to have joined the mob or at least have no compunction for watching the lynching as a sort of entertainment, that this feisty survivor of a more graceful past, stands in opposition to the contemporary mindless prejudice.

     And then there is Juano Hernandez's magnificent portrayal of Lucas as a strong bull of a man willing to die rather than abandon his sense of moral righteousness. His portrayal of a proud Black man, long before Martin Luther King and the vocal advocates of Black pride, is perfect.

    If in the end, accordingly, some of richer nuances of Faulkner's novel have been lost, the film Intruder in the Dust still is a strong portrayal of the author's concerns. In the context of my objections to To Kill a Mockingbird, it is clear that Brown's Intruder offers a solution to many of the same issues that Harper Lee's novel and Mulligan's film did not. Although Atticus Finch may share some of the gentle values of Gavin Stevens, the children and outsiders of that world could not save the innocent Black man from either being destroyed or destroying himself.

Los Angeles, June 15, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

Charles Martin | My Dear Secretary

spaghetti and meatballs
by Douglas Messserli

Charles Martin (writer and director) My Dear Secretary / 1948

This pleasant comedy has a predictable plot: playboy novelist Owen Waterbury (Kirk Douglas) is less interested in writing than in living the life of a noted writer—consuming women and money as an alcoholic does wine. As the story begins, in fact, he has just broken up with his former "secretary," and is in search of a shapely replacement. Speaking before an adult creative writing class, Waterbury meets Stephanie 'Steve' Gaylord (Laraine Day), suggesting that she apply for the job; once he perceives her assets, she is quickly hired. She determines to leave her current job working for bookstore owner Rudy Vallee in search of independent study, but quickly discovers, to her dismay, that Waterbury prefers doing almost anything but practicing his "art."


     Between rejecting his advances and her attempts to reform him, Gaylord pens her own best seller, outdoing her former employer. He has no choice, since she has hooked him as well, but to marry her and reform. End of story? Fortunately not.

     While these two carry out their timid romance, a whole cast of character actors rush in to make this film a comic delight. Most notable among them, is a sort of live-in butler-friend, Ronnie Hastings (Keenan Wynn). Writer and director Martins is quite obviously unsure of how to define his relationship to Waterbury; is he a kind of sardonice sponge, taking advantage of an old friendship or a sort of would-be lover, cooking, ironing, and housekeeping for his bachelor partner?* It hardly matters, for he is a failure at whatever he attempts except for the constant campy humor he dishes up to nearly everyone he meets, particularly the outrageous landlady, Horrible Hannah Reeve (played with perfection by Florence Bates). Instead of paying the rent, Waterbury awards her with Hasting's barbs:

                              Mrs. Reeves: I guess I'll run along.
                              Ronnie Hastings: Must you go? I was just poisoning the tea.

    The marvelous Irene Ryan plays Mary, a singing, tattle-tailing cleaning woman with permanent nasal drip and Grady Sutton perfectly captures his role as soap-opera writing mamma's boy, as taxi-drivers, bookies, ex-lovers, a wannabe actress, and a detective run in and out of the Waterbury apartment to bring further comic mayhem into this pallid romance. None of this makes sense except as a kind of desperate attempt to keep the implausible relationship of the two leads from view. And it almost works. Indeed the director himself seems to be of two minds, ferrying his gifted cast back and forth between a slightly moronic romance or a series of comic riffs. Fortunately Wynn's character is there to point out the inevitable choice:

                               Ronnie Hastings: Is it informal, or shall I bathe?

Or, as he later describes the role the aspiring actress, Dawn O'Malley, would play, based on Waterbury's non-existent book: "You have to be insincere and be a moron."

     Better that direction than taking the pious Gaylord—who seems to be attracted to the most undesirable of men, including the maxim-spouting publisher and the empty-minded mamma's boy—and her marriage to Waterbury seriously. Fortunately, the comedy boils over the romance:

                              Ronnie Hastings: I made a wedding breakfast...spaghetti and
                                                          meatballs.


Los Angeles, June 11, 2012

*The fact that Waterbury's romantic interest has a male nick-name, Steve, and a last name that suggests quite the opposite of a heterosexual relationship, Gaylord, further spices the pot.

Friday, June 8, 2012

François Girard | Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould



intellectual exercises
by Douglas Messerli

François Girard and Don McKellar (writers), François Girard (director) Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould / 1993

Basing his structure upon that of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, one of Glenn Gould's most renowned recordings, Canadian film director François Girard has created a polymorphous work that challenges the notion of a single coherent being, perhaps the only way one might logically present the life of this conflicted artist. As Girard makes clear through his Arias, the numerous titled "filmlets" and the final "End Credits," Gould (performed by Colm Feore) was a complex being. The virtuoso pianist, as legend has it, began playing in his mother's womb, responding to the music she listened to daily, and already at the age of 12 had graduated with the high marks from The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Although many found his interpretations of Bach and the numerous other Baroque, Pre-Baroque and contemporary artists to be merely eccentric—Gould sat in a low chair, especially built for him by his father, pulling the keys with his fingers as opposed to striking them from above, and swaying with the rhythms of the music, groaning and humming as he proceeded—the artist was beloved by many in and outside the music community, and during the years in which he professionally performed quickly gained an international reputation.

      Gould, declaring the concert hall to be similar to a sports arena, ended his performing career eighteen years before his death, announcing after a concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles in 1964, that we never perform again. The film that portrays this momentous decision shows a composed and friendly Gould, asking a stage hand how many years he had worked and willingly signing a program for his wife. Throughout much of his performing career, Gould had not been so affable, and was known for cancelling concerts or simply not showing up. Just before a concert with the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein announced to his audience, "Don't be frightened, Mr. Gould is here and will appear in a moment."

     That decision obviously created a flurry of reactions, which the Gould character spoofs in the short piece, "Gould Meets Gould," where he plays the role of a critical interviewer to whom he responds in like. In another short piece violinist Yehudi Menuhin, agrees that performing is often difficult, the sound of each hall varying, the temperatures radically differing, etc., but notes that, unlike Gould, who treated his playing as an "intellectual exercise," that Menuhin craves and enjoys the company of his audiences.

     With the end of his performing career, Gould, far from retiring, devoted his time to recordings, using many of the new technological developments to enhance his performances. One of the most humorous of Girard's short takes on Gould portrays one such recording session, where in one room Gould listens to the tape of what he has apparently just played, while behind the glass partition the technicians speak loudly about various unrelated topics, including food.

     In another jocular piece, we see Gould in a Hamburg hotel, speaking on the phone while a German cleaning woman works around him. She is about to leave, when he requests that she remain. Hanging up the phone, he puts on a record of one of his recordings, motioning her to sit. Reluctantly she does so, but as he lurches around the room one can detect her discomfort and fear for what he might want with her. But gradually, as the music proceeds, a smile comes over her face as she delights in the music. At work's end, she lifts the album cover to see who has played the work, discovering that she has been invited to listen and react to the performer himself.

      As Girard makes clear, Gould was often neurotic. Throughout most of his life we wore a coat and gloves, no matter what the temperature, and demanded rooms be highly heated. He complained of a number of ailments, few of which were detected in the autopsy upon his death. As the film reveals, he took a wide range of prescription medicines, however, as he proclaims, "not all at one time." Driving across the country, he listened to top-ten music, despite averring a dislike of popular music. His major method of communication with others was the telephone, which he would use to suddenly call family and friends to speak for hours at a time or call to report, as he does in one short film, that he has had a dream about Arnold Schoenberg.

     Gould also wrote numerous articles about music and other subjects, and performed on Canadian radio. A selection from his radio documentary, "The Idea of North," is represented, as he gathers voices much in the way one might tonal registers of music. Similarly, Girard shows us one of his trips to Gould's favorite diner, Fran's Restaurant, where he simultaneously listens into the conversations of several different customers as he eats his regular, scrambled eggs and catsup.

     Clearly Gould himself was aware of his numerous eccentricities, both mocking them and celebrating them. In the short "Ad" he jokingly puts himself forward as one might in a "lonely hearts" advertisement:


                  Wanted: friendly, companionably reclusive, socially unacceptable,
                  alcoholically abstemious, tirelessly talkative, zealously unzealous,
                  spiritually intense, minimally turquoise, maximally ecstatic moon,
                  seeks moth or moths with similar qualities for purposes of telephonic
                  seduction, Tristanesque trip-taking, and permanent flame-fluttering,
                  no photos required, financial status immaterial, all ages and
                  non-competitive vocations considered, applicants should furnish
                  sets of sample conversation with notarized certification of
                  marital disinclination, references re: low decibel vocal consistency,
                  itinerary and sample receipts from previous successfully completed
                  out-of-town moth flights, all submissions treated confidentially...

     Because of his seemingly "puritan-like" behavior and his own statements of his being "The Last Puritan," some had suspected that Gould was homosexual, but some years after this film, Cornelia Foss, wife of artist Lukas Foss, revealed that she had a four and a half year relationship with him, assuring others that "he was an extremely heterosexual man."

       What these 32 takes of Gould demonstrate was that the artist was simultaneously many things, a devotee of the past who was obsessed with new techniques, a man who loved to be around "regular folk," but who also isolated himself, and communed with Canadian intellectuals of his time such as Marshall McLuhan and Northrup Frye. While he devoted most of his life to the works of Baroque musicians, he also embraced some 20th century composers and was proud to have had his music included in the Voyager space ships "destined to reach the edge of our galaxy." Gould was utterly intellectual and yet self-deprecating and, as this film shows us, was often very witty. In short, Glenn Gould existed as a series of self-reflecting and sometimes opposing personalities who might never perceived in a more traditional biopic.

Los Angeles, June 6, 2012