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Friday, August 31, 2018

Jean Cocteau | Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet)


behind closed doors
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Cocteau (writer and director) Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet) / 1930

Many writers about cinema have described Jean Cocteau’s first film, The Blood of a Poet (1930), as a surrealist work, a fact which the director himself alternately denied and accepted, insisting he was the first to use such imagery. I see the work less as surrealistically conceived—as Julia Levin has argued, Un chien andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’or (1930) contain images that are far more frenetic and dissociative than Cocteau’s slower-paced and fairly dreamy piece—than it is a work of poetic symbolism, whose narrative is more associative than it is radically conceived.
      As Cocteau later wrote:

It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of Le sang d’un poète, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.

I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.

That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.

My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
















The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes. 

     If this seems to deny my observation about its poetic symbolism, I would argue that it merely proves my point, that he himself he needed to deny the notion, while allowing the viewer to reiterate it in his or her own manner. Surely, his symbols are not standard literary symbols nor even Jungian-like archetypes to be easily assimilated by the culture at large, but are far more of a personal kind, representing images, as he puts it, that “came forth from the great darkness of the human body.”
      In fact, this is a seemingly biographical work, containing images of suicide and death likely influenced by the author’s own youth, when in his father committed suicide.
      Moreover, his film is a kind of retelling of the Pygmalion myth. The artist (Enrique Rivero, at first wearing a wig that might remind one of the 18th century, but later peeling it off to reveal a head of dark black hair) is described as a poet, although his poetic acts, in this case, mostly involve painting (an activity in which the multi-talented Cocteau was also involved). Like the great Renaissance artists which the movie invokes, Pisanello, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno, he becomes a “painter of enigma.”
      He first begins to create an image of a male, but quickly rubs it out to create a female image, which, with a knock on the door by a seemingly intrusive friend (Jean Desbordes), and the artist suddenly rubs out the woman’s lips. But in his hurry to do so, he has imprinted them unto his hand, and when he goes to wash off the paint, it begins to bleed, as he discovers that he cannot erase the lips he originally painted.
     Although he quickly dispenses with the intruder at his door, he finds that he cannot escape the lips, which quickly attach to a nearby marble frieze, whose arms are missing. Coming alive, the female figure commands that he step into the mirror, clearly a command for him to look into himself and his past. Like Cocteau’s later Orpheus, this half nude artist finds his way into the mirror, discovering himself in a shoddy hotel, where he voyeuristically peers into several keyholes, witnessing a hermaphrodite shifting sexes before his eyes, and opium smoke whose actions are played out with 
shadow puppets, a terrified young girl who flies about the room in order to escape her whip-bearing mother, and a man who hands him a gun, explaining how to use it and commanding him to shoot himself; fortunately when the artist does so, he remains alive, or does he?
     Finally, he cracks back through the mirror into the present (or is it the past?), since soon after he recalls a snowball fight from his childhood, where several innocent boys fight, until the two school bullies show up, throwing a snowball at a young boy who dies, his body remaining through much of a later scene—until the body is finally consumed (swept into heaven one presumes) by a black guardian angel (Feral Benga)—while a clearly bored woman is playing cards with a man, who, when she wins, commits suicide.
      This last scene, at a grand opera was originally filmed with Cocteau’s financial supporters for this work, Vicomte de Noailles and his famed wife, Marie-Laure de Noailles, showing the wealthy donors gossiping with one another during the card-game action on the stage. When the supporters finally realized the ending of the film, they refused to participate, and Cocteau find substitutes, including the female-impersonator Barbette, all which delayed the film for more than a year, and threatened its release, particularly since it was now seen as being religious blasphemous as well.
      Like the Pygmalion story, this work is mixed with a terror of the opposite sex, particularly the overwhelming marble bust come to life which insists the virile male be made to observe his own weaknesses, and results in the deaths of the both the child in the man and the player himself. Cocteau was an open homosexual who had sometimes notorious sexual relationships with numerous Parisian poets and actors, including Raymond Radiguet (the young poet-novelist who died of typhus), Jean Desbordes, Marcel Khill, Panama Al Brown, and his long-time lover Jean Marais, the latter of whom performed in several of his films. Unlike Eliza in My Fair Lady, in this version the marble statue come-to-life is shattered and destroyed, a dangerous figure to be shunned.
      Finally, one might today even read this work as a kind of “infection” of the male ego of this obviously virile gay “poet” by the world around him. He is killed twice, once by bullying peers and a second time by an uncaring woman set within the context of a dismissive society. Contemporaries of mine might even read this as a kind of ur-myth that was later played out in the AIDS crisis, also a kind of disease of the blood. Who cares about this frail boy, the man losing the game to a bored woman, art patrons who could care less by their own patronage? Let them all die. We don’t want to hear their “dirty” secrets, their frightening observations of their pasts, even while they might create an art that is so “real” that it can truly come to life. Their mirrors, after all, are dangerous to the secrets that we all keep behind closed doors.

Los Angeles, August 31, 2018

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Björn Runge | The Wife


the winner
by Douglas Messerli

Jane Anderson (screenplay, based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), Björn Runge (director) The Wife / 2017, USA 2018

Swedish director Björn Runge's 2017 film, The Wife, based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer, is not a great movie, although by the time I finish this review you might change your mind.
      The rather pedestrian plot keeps getting in the way. Joe Castleman, evidently a great American novelist (writer of what appears are rather plot-driven novels, something that doesn’t exactly excite the Swedish Nobel Literary Prize committee, although this year, in complete chaos, we can no longer know), lies sleepless “waiting for the call.” I can’t quite imagine any great writer, given the whimsy of that Nobel committee, expecting a “call.” But that’s the story, always so intrusive here that it gets in the way of the cinematic revelations.
 
     Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce, living in a “castle” of his own making) does get that call, and immediately—and even before that call—we recognize him, as we all know many a writer to be, as a narcissist, who seems to “expect” greatness, even though we quickly suspect he has no reason for that expectation. Even though we already don’t quite like this character, we pay attention simply because his wife, Joan (Glenn Close) seems to care for him, even allowing him to have sex, clearly unwanted, to relieve his tensions about the possible telephone message.
      The plot is already, we perceive, almost a melodramatic-driven notion of what literary greatness is (not actually that very different, in some respects, from Mark Robson’s semi-turkey of a movie about a Nobel Literary winner, The Prize). How I wish this film were simply about a literary celebrity instead of a Nobel Prize winner; surely it might have made more sense.
      But clearly Wolitzer and writer Jane Anderson wanted to up-the-ante, so to speak, to make their narcissist writer an international figure in order to give greater significance to “the wife,” who, we gradually discover, actually has edited or perhaps actually ghost-written her husband’s books.
     To some viewers, surely, this will come as a slow narrative surprise. But the tensions, the immense mix of expressions that cross the brilliant actor Glenn Close’s face at every moment, quickly gives it away. We hardly need the flashbacks of their youthful encounters, she (played by Close’s own daughter, Annie Starke), and he (played by the handsome Harry Lloyd) to reveal the truth—although we do need these inserts just to comprehend why these beautiful youths fell in love, despite Castleman’s own marriage at the time.
      The true issue of this film is a study about that love. Why has Joan kept the secret all these years, suffered through her husband’s numerous affairs, accepted the role of a simply supporting housewife, when she, after all, was the genius behind his career?

       I suppose we could explore hundreds of great writers and their wives’ relationships. Dickens apparently abused his wife, as Joyce did his beloved Nora; didn’t poor Alice spend much of her life (as did the young Joan) typing up her lover Gertrude’s almost ineligible manuscripts. The list goes on. Joan, in this film, is complicit in the secret of his success (only later admitting her role as “kingmaker”) because of her love. She may be angry, even bitter for all the years in which she has had to stand aside while her husband basked in the endless praise of his peers; but like so very many wives (and occasionally husbands as well) before women’s liberation (and I suspect still today), she sacrificed her life to the man she vitally loved.
      She has lied to her children—in particular, her troubled son, David (Max Irons)—to their friends, and now must supposedly lie to the world about her husband to help create him as a force of culture, although we recognize his near-complete failure. In fact, this couple, I am sure like so many thousands of couples, worked together to create a beautiful lie of success, particularly women of a certain age, who dressed their husbands, caressed their inadequacies, built up their egos, and made their homes a greeting place for others.
      Yes, this is a familiar melodrama, which might have been played out even in a 1950s film such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and so many others. But here, we have something different simply because of Glenn Close.
      
      Never before (well, seldom before) has an actress so portrayed the numerous contradictory feelings she has. In one shot, her face flashes signals of love, anger, bitterness, hate, and love again for the man to whom she is married. In a marvelous scene with the sleazy would-be biographer (Christian Slater) she plays a tough, totally perceptive opponent, a slightly drunken and bitter housewife, and a slightly flirtatious woman of an older age—without giving up any of her personae. This is, Close makes clear, a woman of such depth that we don’t quite know what to make of her. Joan Castleman is a woman no man should or could possess, a genius at knowing how to keep the man she loves while expressing her own identity—if only one might look deeply enough or might ask the right questions.
      On the plane home from the Nobel fiasco (rather appropriate in hindsight), she promises her son that she will sit down with him and her daughter and tell them the “truth.” Strangely, and despite her fierce self-honestly, we’re not sure what she will tell them: that she has actually written all of their father’s books, that she has simply collaborated with him making editorial decisions, or allowing them to live in the myth of their father’s literary greatness. Perhaps “truth is not always truth.”
      If Joan might not truly deserve the Nobel won by her husband, the actress certainly deserves an Oscar for this role.

Los Angeles, August 26, 2018

Saturday, August 18, 2018

William Wellman | So Big!


a ferber fantasy
by Douglas Messerli

J. Grubb Alexander and Robert Lord (screenplay, based on the fiction by Edna Ferber), William A. Wellman (director) So Big! / 1932

William A. Wellman’s film So Big! from 1932 is based on Edna Ferber’s 1924 melodrama, a work in the manner of other of her such works as Cimarron, Giant, and long before, Show Boat. I recall my high school teacher, the wonderfully intelligent Elizabeth Belden, slightly scolding me for having chosen to write a Junior high school report on one of her books. She was right. Yet I loved them for their epic presentation of the American scene. And yes, they are about as silly and sentimental as you can get—as I perceive today—yet they still ring true with a ridiculous notion of what might have been the American Dream. Popular fiction, as bad as it generally is, can still pull us deeply into the emotional maelstrom of our culture, particularly at a time when we can only feel embarrassed for it.
     
     Yes, it is certainly hard to believe the always amazing Barbara Stanwyck (playing the outrageously named Selina Peake) in her fall from a daughter of the dandy gambler (Robert Warwick), particularly given the vortex she makes from a finishing-school child living in Chicago’s Palmer House (where I stayed many a time on my visits to that city—even today I cannot imagine how my parents, totally middle class, allowed me to stay there on my bus trips to see plays in the windy city; perhaps it was just not as grand in those days, but I loved it!), to a local boarding house and, finally, after her father is murdered in a backroom gambling room, in her role as a school teacher living in the house of the course farmer Klass Poole (Alan Hale, Sr.), who mocks the young teacher’s admiration of his endless rows of cabbages.
      And it is even more impossible to imagine that their young son, one of the many in those days who were not allowed to attend school because they were needed to work the farm, in this case the sensitive Roelf (Dick Winslow as the child and George Brent as the adult personae), whom she home-
taught, in this case evidently simply by asking him to read Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers. Well, if you don’t believe this, you won’t believe I Remember Mama either, wherein the family son is educated by the nightly readings of a rogue to whom they’ve rented a room. These characters are out the US myths of underhanded education, which perhaps really existed. Roelf not only becomes educated but is transformed into an internationally known sculpture. Ayn Rand couldn’t have been prouder.
      Yet the likely architect of this story, Dirk De Jong (Hardie Albright, played as a child by Dickie Moore), Selina’s “so big” son, born from her farm worker husband, Pervus De Jong (Earle Foxe), whom, when he dies obviously of his hard labors, she takes over, determining to replace his potatoes and cabbages with asparagus. Could Prairie Hill, Illinois truly have grown asparagus? It is centrally a product of Europe and, in the United States, California, Washington, and Michigan. Well, perhaps it grew in Illinois as well, but I never knew it as a product from that state. And the “Prairie Heights” do not seem a good place for this water-needy plant.
       Well, this is Ferber fiction, isn’t it? Heroes come out of the woodwork, and Selina is definitely one, a larger than life figure who saves the farm, her now dissipated son (who despite his name grows increasingly “so small”), working eventually as a successful bond broker, who can no longer disguise his disdain for his hard-working farmer mother, whose hands show their hard work in the soil. We are now in James Agee territory, where the depression workers are lionized and celebrated. Although it’s a difficult stretch to see the sophisticated and smart-talking actress Stanwyck playing this role. Let us forgive it once more, this is just a Ferber fantasy.
       Yet, when the spoiled Dirk finally meets the sophisticated artist Dallas O'Mara (played by the equally sophisticated Bette Davis), we must say, maybe this is enough. Fortunately, Dallas is out to teach the young Dirk a lesson. Although it’s apparent that she and Dirk have something sexual between them, it takes her to teach him the facts by inviting in the great artist Roelf, having conveniently just returned to the US, to teach Dirk a lesson, as the former student of his mother travels back to the home farm to pay homage. It’s all loving and very touching, if unbelievable. Dirk has his upbraiding simply in Dallas’ and Roelf’s simple admiration for her.
      What becomes of all this is not clear. Will Dirk leave his position as a wealthy bond broker, will he marry the wonderfully open Dallas? We never know. But it’s fun to imagine the outcome, which Wellman allows us to contemplate, without moral complications. In this pre-code film, people were allowed to make mistakes.

Los Angeles, August 18, 2018

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Törst (Thirst)


the hell we have
by Douglas Messerli

Herbert Grevenius (screenplay, based on stories by Birgit Tengroth), Ingmar Bergman (director) Törst (Thirst) / 1949

Bergman’s 1949 film Thirst, although not as complexly plotted as many of his later works for which he provided the texts, is a psychologically revealing and emotionally compelling film that matches some of his best.
       The tale consists basically of a long train trip from Italy back to Sweden, where a married couple, Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and Rut (Eva Henning), have been vacationing on a very low budget. The time of this trip is crucial, occurring as it does soon after the devastation of Europe by World War II, which helps create another layer of explanation for the couple’s obvious angst, the key to their “hunger” and “thirst.”
     Their hunger, in part, has to do with the fact that they have so little money; yet they have been able to pack a rather ample picnic basket to fill their stomachs during their voyage home. But even before they set out, Rut rummages into the basket to sneak a slice of sausage, almost as if she were starving.
      Yet, once they are on their way, it is apparent that her real problem is drinking to fulfill her thirst. At once point, when they encounter an entire train station full of starving children and adults, Rut readily hand out the basket’s contents to the post-war sufferers. It is wine, beer, and cigarettes that she

 
most desperately needs to fuel her endless battles with Bertil, seemingly a loving companion who often patiently puts up with her bouts of abuse followed by sudden attempts to make up. Yet, he too is not without his verbal assaults directed to her, and, often, he plays the tormented saint, together the two of them reminding one of a tamer Martha and George of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
      And like Albee’s couple they have plenty of reasons to do battle with life. Rut, in particular, has lost not only a child, aborted by a callous earlier boyfriend, Raoul (Bengt Eklund), but in that process has become infertile, which has also ended her previous dancing career. Unlike the American play, however, this couple not only argue but toss out darkly witty observations a bit as if they were simply playing darts—but aimed, of course, at each other’s heads.
      The amazing thing about Bergman’s film, in this case, is how quickly the action moves between a simple domestic comedy and a darker drama, while also fluidly shifting from past to present, present to past, all the while paralleling an early voyage between Switzerland and Sweden (both neutral countries at the time) with Rut and Raoul.
      Simultaneously, the director takes us briefly through the lives of other friends of Rut, most notably her former co-dancer Valborg (Mimi Nelson), who disgusted by the men in her life, turns to lesbianism, attempting to seduce Viola (Birgit Tengroth, on whose stories this film is based), who has been equally abused by her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman).
       In short, beneath the desperateness of what appears to be nearly the entire European population, these more middle-class survivors suffer the deprivations of love and career. At times, it’s hard to know who’s better off, the hard-drinking, obviously guilt-ridden Swedes, or the starving masses they encounter during their trip. Both may survive, but at what cost?
       In some respects this film calls up the later Roberto Rossellini masterwork, Voyage in Italy, wherein another couple (played by another Swede, Ingrid Bergman and British actor George Sanders) who have a marital meltdown; or, in a kind a comic twist, the “visit to Italy” from 1956, by Lucille
Ball in I Love Lucy who suffers over not being back home for little Ricky’s 3rd birthday, determining to celebrate it with a young shoeshine street boy, who brings all of his young friends to the party claiming that it is their birthday as well. It is perhaps the closest Ball ever came to a psychological meltdown in her entire series and is the least wacky of the entire I Love Lucy shows. Obviously postwar Europe, Italy in particular, not only attracted the tourists because of its post-war inexpensiveness, but revealed other tensions in their lives.
     Thirst ends far more upbeat than it might have, with Bertil finally admitting that “despite the hell we have,” he would rather be with Rut than without her, rather be married than a lonely old man. And perhaps they can mend their seemingly fraying relationship.
     Bergman, fortunately, does not attempt to hint at the future; they are quite apparently caught up now in their pasts. Whether or not they free themselves to the future is undetermined. Perhaps none of us ever have been completely able to. As an immediate postwar baby, child of a father who’d been stationed during the war in Italy, I’m still haunted by the event that serves as an important backdrop in Bergman’s movie.
     Finally, what this film reveals is that before he became the great director that we now know him to be, he was making wonderful smaller films. Thirst was certainly on of them, and ought be watched by a far larger audience.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2018

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Jean-Pierre Melville | Un flic


no heroes here
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Pierre Melville (writer and director) Un flic (The Cop) / 1972

Whenever I sit down to watch a film by French director Jean-Pierre Melville, I relax. I know, just as I know whenever I see a film by Alfred Hitchcock (although he has occasionally disappointed me) that I will be taken into a strange world which I might never have imagined but will be rewarded with a wonderful tale that can only amaze me in its complexities.
      
     Melville’s specialties generally involve a deep entry into the criminal mind, where we watch the complex intricacies of crime figures—generally those who are planning a deep heist, although sometimes only so that they might turn that into an even greater complicity that might include drugs, betrayal of crime friends, and, often police involvement—in which they often get off scot free. Unlike Hitchcock’s highly moral world which reveal his paranoia about evil in the world, Melville’s films often promote their criminal figures and associates, who are treated in fact as interesting individuals, and sometimes do not get punished. Truth is never so simple in Melville’s world, and everything is made even more complex by the outrageously convoluted plotting of their absurd machinations.
     Yes, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible films leaps off buildings, dives deep into the ocean, commandeers helicopters which he must fly through dangerous mountains; James Bond jumps into action against some of the most impossibly nefarious forces of evil. But Melville’s flat-footed, nonetheless clever and often handsome policemen such as Commissaire Edouard Coleman—in this film Alain Delon, who previously played criminals in other Melville films—have a difficult time in tracking down their obviously plotting nemeses, in this film the American actor Richard Crenna—playing the very clever Simon, who robs a bank not for the money but as a payment to plan his robbery of a stash of cocaine aboard a moving train. Possibly the only match to him in American film is Hitchcock’s sophisticated villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in North by Northwest; but Vandamm, who may have taken down an entire plane to protect his international intrigue, is clearly a morally despicable individual.
      Melville’s plotting criminals work much harder for their “supper,” and often get tripped up by the complex situations they have negotiated, such as in this film, when a simple teller is able to retrieve a gun and wound one of the robbers, which forces them, in turn, to do-in their friend. Melville’s films are filled with aging gay men whose young tricks attempt to steal their artwork, and by betraying women, or in this case, a transgender woman who reports directly to Coleman.
 
     And even the so-called “moral” authorities in this director’s works are often misled and confused. In this case Coleman, the “flic” or cop, is desperately attracted to Simon’s “moll” (as the American film noir works might have described her), Cathy (Catherine Deneuve). She throws him kisses even as she whispers about her involvement with Simon’s criminal activities. And she runs a kind of ur-strip club in which no respectable American cop would dare be seen. In short, the differences between the immoral figures and the supposedly moral upholders of society’s values are very unclear in this and other Melville films.
      Although this work, as in nearly all of the French director’s films, does not disappoint in creating a great deal of highly plotted-out criminal undertakings, fun to watch simply because of details they reveal about these clever evil minds; but in this Melville film, the real subject is not the achievement of capturing the money, the drugs, or even the criminals, but is really far more about mortality itself.
     The heroes, this time around, are not just fated, but in Un flic are meeting up with their own inevitable deaths. Melville uses the craggy faced Crenna, 46 at the time of this film, precisely to represent the aging process having taken over the actor known to American audiences as a young, handsome child-actor in Our Miss Brooks and as the young Luke McCoy in the popular television series The Real McCoys, At the early age of 46, Crenna clearly looked far past his prime.
      More startling was the fact that the always beautiful Delon no longer looked quite so handsome. He major roles were behind him, and here he is a slightly pudgy-faced, if still strikingly beautiful, at age 37, in a period right after the so-called "Marković affair,” when his bodyguard, Stevan Marković, was found dead after being dropped into a rubbish dumper. Delon was a person of interest, since he and others, including Claude Pompidou, the future wife of Georges, the French Prime Minister, had been evidently involved in lavish sex parties, whose members revealed that Delon himself may have been homosexually-inclined.
      The relatively young Catherine Deneuve, who had already appeared in her major movies, at just 29 is made-up in this film to look thin, drawn, and stringy-haired, not at all the alluringly beautiful figure she usually played.
     These figures, criminal and supposedly defenders of cultural values are all worn out and tired in Melville’s Un flic, characters who work so hard to accomplish their night-bound tasks that they might have been better working in a local factory or as shopkeepers. They have hardly anything to show for their endless plotting and search of the truth. By story’s end, it is apparent that Simon has plotted his own suicide, as he pretends to pull out a gun to kill the “flic,” who shoots him dead. No gun is found, and Cathy is left, empty handed, in the nearby get-away car. Each of them comes away with nothing: no money, no proof, no love.
       As always, Melville argues that the criminals work just as hard to do what they want as daily laborers, or even the police to un-do them. Life is never easy for those who question the authority of law, nor for those who attempt to carry it out. No heroes here, despite what cinema often attempted to suggest. And, in that sense, perhaps Melville was a greater moralist than even the more comically oriented and cynical Hitchcock.   

Los Angeles, August 12, 2018

Friday, August 10, 2018

Steven Cantor | Dancer and David LaChapelle | Take Me to the Church


born to dance

David LaChapelle (director) Take Me to the Church (with Sergei Polunin) / 2013
Steven Cantor (director) Dancer (with Sergei Polunin) / 2016

Ford Maddox Ford begins his great novel, The Good Soldier, with the statement "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." In many respects this is an ironic statement given the near perfect life the central character Captain Edward Ashburnham leads. But it haunted me yesterday while watching Steven Cantor’s documentary of the amazing Ukrainian-born dancer, Sergei Polunin, titled simply Dancer. The movie and its haunting sense of sadness is still with me this morning as I write.
       In the south Ukraine city of Kherson in 1989, a basically working-class city, there was little opportunity for advancement. But Polunin’s mother, as Sergei himself has admitted in an interview with BBC Television, was a visionary, who imagined something else for her child. He began dancing 
at age 3, along with a training in gymnastics in which he was also talented. But when it became clear that he was a natural dancer, Polunin’s father immigrated to Portugal, and his grandmother to Greece to get better jobs in order to support Sergei’s training at the famed ballet school in Kiev, a very expensive proposition.
     Indeed, much of this film is about immigrants sending back their paltry wages, sacrificing everything for the betterment of their children, a centuries’ old pattern that seems to have been forgotten or willfully ignored today. Most American families had just such parents, who lived their own lives simply with the hope of helping the next generation to be better off than they had been. Even Polunin admits he did not quite comprehend the sacrifice his family made in for him to become such a remarkable dancer.
      Even as a teenager, Sergei was an amazing performer, eventually showing such talent that his mother realized that he had to study at a more renowned institution, in this case the Royal Ballet in London. It is so touching when mother and son can hardly find the audition venue, buried as it was within, as they describe it, a park. Still, they did find it and, after waiting for weeks to hear, he received a grant from the Nureyev Foundation to study there—and at the shockingly young age of 19 was appointed their principal male dancer.
     Talent he had, and crowds of admirers crowded into his performances, asking him to sign their programs, to take selfie photographs, or just to ogle the beautiful dancer. I think it is difficult for even a viewer of Cantor’s quite revealing film to comprehend just what kind of life such a dancer must lead, working 11-12 hours every day without being able to question the ballet-master’s or choreographer’s instructions, being drilled even as he had as a child in gymnastics and ballet movements without any possibility but executing them precisely. And Polunin was still an obedient child, despite the fact that as a young man he naturally began to experiment with tattoos, drugs, and other forms of rebellion, which resulted in him being described as the bad boy of dance. But even he, as he righteously argues, never missed a performance or a rehearsal. He had become at age 20 a kind of automaton, a beautiful creature who could wow the crowds with his Giselle, Spartacus, and other traditional dances.
      


















His sacrificing mother was not even allowed to view his performances, and, moreover, could not afford the trip from Ukraine to London to see them. When she and the long-separated father finally divorced, something clearly snapped in his personality. If the goal all along had been to provide hope and financial stability to his family, there was no longer any family there. As one of his dancer friends reminds us, Sergei was just 22 when he decided to abandon his illustrious career.
      At the very same age, I abandoned college for a year to explore my sexuality in New York City—without even telling my parents where I’d gone. As Polunin himself admits, I was playing games with the press without comprehending what that meant. Now branded as unreliable, he was unable to reenter the ballet world which he still loved.
      Returning to Ukraine, Polunin determined to perform one last dance, this filmed by friend David LaChapelle, of Sergei dancing, bare-chested, without the powder-puff covering of his several tattoos of his self-choreographed version of Hozier’s bitter “Take Me to the Church”:

My lover's got humour
She's the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody's disapproval
I should've worshipped her sooner

If the heavens ever did speak
She's the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday's getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week

"We were born sick"
You heard them say it

My church offers no absolutes
She tells me, "Worship in the bedroom"
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you

      Danced in a skin-colored half leotard, Polunin alternates between floor-bound rolling’s and sudden bursts of air-flight (the only way to describe his astonishing tombés, pirouettes and Tour en l’airs). This is a somewhat angry dance, a kind of war-whoop that expresses his issues of control and worship, while subtly mocking the world that determines such values. It became a UTube phenomenon which recharged his career.
     
Even though he had to detour to Russia, Polunin is now a guest artist in many major European companies, planning a performance with this girlfriend, the ballerina Natalia Osipova, in New York late 2018. And he is also now working at an attempt to help dancers to seek agents and other negotiators to help them from being so bound to the theaters in which they dance.
    So, perhaps it is not the “saddest” tale one can imagine. Yet, this beautiful young man, who still loves the craft he had so definitively been trained to achieve, seems to represent a sort of very sad life, with his youth—like so many ballet dancers, musicians, singers, athletes, or even young maniac publishers like me (I too danced, sang, and played an instrument)—whose very talents do not permit them to live a normal life. Fortunately, I now realize, I was not as talented, and did not have parents willing to give up their lives for my own.

Los Angeles, August 10, 2018

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kon Ichikawa | Kagi ("The Key") translated into English as Odd Obsession


cod roe

Keiji Hasebe, Kon Ichikawa and Natto Wado (writers, based on the fiction by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki), Kon Ichiwawa (director) Kagi (“The Key,” in the west described as Odd Obession) / 1959

Kon Ichikawa ’s 1959 film, based on Japanese fiction writer’s Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Key falls into the cracks of so many genres that it is difficult to know where to begin to describe it. It is, overall, a kind of murder mystery overlaid by a romance, not just a daughter / suitor affair but a mother / daughter’s boyfriend affair, a story of an old man’s delusions and his attempts to stave ff death through his own voyeuristic proclivities, a tract of correct society’s inability to perceive the truth, and story of extreme jealously on many of the characters’ parts. It’s also, unequivocally, the story of a cultured man’s destiny in a society which does not truly appreciate poetry and art.
      And then it gets more complex when you include sexual incompetence (an issue seldom discussed in Japanese culture of the day—or in the US during the same period for that fact) and add in a bit of psychological incest. And then, of course, we must face the issue of the good young doctor’s manipulation of the family for his own financial gain, which also links it, tangentially, to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity of a decade earlier. And that’s just the beginning.
      American critics seem to focus in on the fact that the elderly “hero” of this tale, Kenji Kenmochi (Ganjirō Nakamura) is obsessed (as the Western title shouts) with his lack of sexual prowess. In this pre-Viagra period one might have thought that the movie was simply arguing for this elderly man to get one more hard-on with his quite beautiful wife, Ikuko Kenmochi (Marchiko Kyō). Yet, it is truly represents all aspects of old age that haunt this elderly gent: he can no longer remember telephone numbers, names, etc. In short, it is not only his sexual condition, but his growing dementia that haunts the work. And that fact creates a kind of darkly comic aura to the film, as he increasingly plots his wife’s encounters with the handsome young doctor Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai). The ambitious young man has long been the boyfriend of Kenji’s plainer daughter, Toshiko (Junko Kano), and has even had a rendezvous with her in Osaka—evidently a popular sexual retreat of the day. But now, with the excuse of the cod roe he brings the family from his home, he enters increasingly the world of the Kenmochis, discovering that the much younger wife to be quite charming, she, in turn, suddenly turning from the highly obedient world in which she has suffered, to be able to laugh and even charm the younger man.
      Even darker, Kenji not only encourages the relationship between his wife and the young man but uses it as a way to excite himself sexually, attempting—after their meetings—to be reunited with his supposedly “erring” wife. Throughout most of the film, Ichikawa does not let us know about any sexual picadilloes, of which they are seemingly innocent. But it is through his imagination that the old man now lives, and that discharges a contagion over the entire family, as the daughter and their housekeeper Hana (Tanie Kitabayashi) begin to suspect the worst of Ikuko. They are both convinced that she is now trying to “murder” the old man through sexual excitation, without realizing that it is he himself, suffering from high blood-pressure and numerous other psychological and physical pathologies, who is determined to keep up some kind of sexual contact.
      In the closeted world of the Kenmochi household no one seems to perceive that it is Ikuko herself who is in danger, forced to drink alcohol by her husband, after which she falls into real (or, perhaps, we can never know for sure) afflictions, usually ending with her having passed out in a hot bathtub.
      It is only when she finally admits to her husband that she has been privately seeing the young doctor—although intensely denying any sexual activity—that her husband is sexually aroused once more, attempting to have sex with his wife but nearly dying of a stroke in the process. Of course, both onlookers, daughter and cook, once more presume the worst of Ikuko, imagining that she has attempted to kill him.
    














Both the original story and Ichikawa turn this into a truly darker tale when we realize that Ikuko and Kimura have perhaps actually been having a sexual relationship when she offers him the key to the house, telling him when everyone else will be asleep or out. It is the sound of Kimura’s footsteps as he arrives that betrays both nurse and her elderly husband that he has returned to have sex with Ikuko. And when Kenji awakens from his coma, the first thing he attempts to relate are the words “F-O-O-T,” representing the “footsteps” he has heard in the night.
     When Kenji finally does die, his wife seems almost joyous, celebrating with a small dinner with Kimura and her daughter, while Kimura, by this time—perceiving the true poverty of the household, who survived primarily on Kenji’s art dealings and poetry involvements (none of them truly representing any wealth)—begins to truly regret his involvement with the family.
     The daughter, Toshiko, attempts to poison the couple through a pesticide she injects into the tea. It doesn’t work, since Hana has already transferred that poison to another container, which she pours upon the salad.
     All three are killed, but even her admission to the crime is ignored as authorities who presume it is a triple suicide due to the poverty of the family, an irony that can’t be missed. Evidently, the symbols of art and wealth are far more important than the actuality, just as the appearances of adultery are far more important than the possibilities of a real love, or the avarice of a young doctorial striver. This is a world of many overlying levels of sexual and cultural corruption. The key, is precisely that, an indexical revealation all their multifarious actions. The corruptness of the society has permeated itself into the very core of family life: a man who cannot accept his aging, a young woman who cannot accept her lover’s attentions to her mother, a mother who is willing to forget her role in order to seem again attractive and young, and a doctor who attempts—as Kenji himself admits earlier—to use this family for his own advancement.
      Despite all of the plot development, an essential aspect of this film, Ichikawa balances the inner turmoil of his characters with the rhythmic patterns of nature, the trees and reeds blowing in the wind, the corrugated rooves of houses, the very stones, covered with leaves, on which Kimura walks to get to his mistress, even the trams (which he shoots from underneath) that take these characters on their journeys. When Kenji falls into his coma, he sees his own wife as a vision of the desert, with layers of endless waves of sand.
     











Despite the perverse and intense desires of his figures, Ichikawa reveals that patterns are still at the heart of their behaviors. There was perhaps no more docile and obedient wife than Ikuko or a politer and more respectful suitor than Kimura. These are not monsters, but simply sexual beings caught up in the process of living. Kenji simply cannot accept the fact that he will soon be no longer be part of that process, just as Toshiko cannot accept that in her bitterness she has been left behind.

Los Angeles, August 8, 2018