Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | In einen Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons)

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) In einen Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons) / 1978

I found Fassbinder's In a Year with 13 Moons such an overwhelmingly rich film that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the somewhat occult explanation at the beginning of the film, despite the fact that Fassbinder seems to negate it throughout, will help to explain the contradictory realities the film presents:

Every seventh year is a lunar year. Those people whose
lives are essentially dominated by their emotions suffer
particularly strongly from depressions in these lunar years.
The same is also true of years with thirteen new moons,
although not quite so strongly. And if a lunar year also
happens to be a year with thirteen new moons, the result is
often a personal catastrophe.

This claim, based on a conversation Fassbinder had with an astrologer shortly after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier, in 1978, the same year of the movie and a lunar year with 13 moons—an event which occasioned the making of this remarkable picture—prepares us for the series of events which happen to Erwin/Elvira Weishaupt (stunningly performed by Volker Spengler).

As a young child, Erwin was given up by his mother to a Catholic orphanage, so we find out later in the film when he/she and his prostitute begin their quest to understand Elvira's problems; as a young boy the nuns were delighted with the shy and handsome Erwin and, ultimately, through the encouragement of the head nun, Sister Gudrun (played by Fassbiner's mother, Lilo Pempeit), a couple became interested in adopting him. But upon seeking legal permission from his mother, Sister Gudrun perceived that the mother had been legally married at the time of the adoption, and gave up the child without consulting her husband. Now the mother is terrified that her husband may find out about her actions—he is, evidently also a violent man—and will not agree to making it known. Accordingly, despite the love Erwin feels for his potential parents and they for him, the church cannot go forward with adoption, and the loving couple disappear from his life. The charming young boy turns into a lying, stealing teenager, unable to understand why he has been rejected.

Fassbinder's telling of this history, in which the family, state, and religion have unintentionally conspired to refuse him love, is not a thorough explanation of Erwin's condition, indeed, does not even psychologically explain most of Erwin/Elvira's later actions. His presentation of this information is less like a revelation, accordingly, than a kind of staged confession, in which the nun who tells the tale, moves back and forth across the garden as Erwin, now a female, Elvira, and her friend Die rote Zora (the Red Zora) stand in the foreground; and, even before the tale is completed, Elvira is seen to have collapsed. But it does help us to imagine the hero's strange confusion and desperation to be loved.

Indeed, throughout the quest through which Elvira journeys in this film, people reveal equally strange stories, myths, tales, and absurd fragments of information that when layered upon each other recreate the distressed and conflicted being at the film's core.

In the very first scene, we witness Erwin in an early-morning park, dressed not as Elvira, but as a man, so lonely, that he tries to pick up another man. As the love-making begins, however, the younger man discovers that Erwin is not a male "John," as he expected, but a woman, a being without a penis; disgusted, he shouts to his fellow workers to join him in punishment.

The bloodied Erwin staggers home only to discover his long-time lover, Christoph, has returned, this time to leave forever. But before he goes, Christoph also takes time out to verbally and physically abuse Erwin/Elvira, insisting that she/he look at herself in the mirror to see the fat, ugly human which he must daily face. In short, Fassbinder's hero is an outsider even to outsiders like men in the park and the homosexual Christoph. As Zora later declares, the strange thing about Elvira is that she/he is not even gay!

In fact, the young Erwin underwent a convenient marriage, finding in Irene a woman, not only willing to accept him later for his "changes," but a person who remains his life-long friend. His daughter from that marriage still calls him "daddy." It is apparent, however, that the love between man and woman was not enough. So desperate for love was Erwin that he befriended a small-time crook, Anton Saitz, going so far (so we discover in Fassbinder's written story upon which the film was based) as being willing to go to jail for him. However, Saitz, who as a young boy survived the horrors of the Belsen-Bergen concentration camp, is purely heterosexual, and cannot return Erwin's interest. A passing statement that he might be able to love him if only he were a woman sends Erwin on a insane trip to Casablanca, where he undergoes an operation, removing all signs of his masculinity. Now dressing as a woman, he returns to Anton, who still rejects him, spinning the new Elvira into the series of events about to be uncovered.

Irene also visits her ex-husband on this crucial day, adding her vitriol in response to an interview that Erwin/Elvira has recently given about those long ago days, and which has just been published in a magazine. Irene is terrified that the now wealthy gangster-businessman Anton may attempt to get even for the interview by somehow harming their daughter.

It is this third attack upon her being that sends Elvira and her prostitute friend on the quest to discover the past and, ultimately, to apologize to Saitz for revealing it.

Bit by bit, we begin to piece together a chaotic string of events, no parts of which seem to belong together, symbolically involving not only the entire city of Frankfurt but the whole of post-World War II Germany. Fassbinder brilliantly exposes this discordant world through cramped images of beings caught up in a society of brutal noise and radically shifting realities. Erwin describes his first job, where he worked as a butcher simultaneously with Fassbinder's presentation of hideous images of the slaughtering of cattle, the draining of their blood, and the removal of their hides—all accompanied by a Handel organ concerto while our heroine speaks calmly of the peacefulness of killing and quotes Goethe.

Another scene in which Elvira is entrapped in the dark confines of a bar filled with ringing pinball machines, as she encounters the man who attacked her that same morning. It ends with Zora arriving to take her sobbing friend into another, even stranger, location: the apartment of a man living with a silent muscle builder. Within in his dark room, filled with lighted candles, he, dressed only in undershorts, sarcastically refers to his horrors of the past and his fears of going out of the house, ending the encounter by breaking down into tears himself.

When, after the encounter with Sister Gudrun, Elvira tries to sleep, Zora tells her a story similar to a Grimm Brothers' fairy-tale, but ending with a Fassbinder-like twist. An evil old witch has lured two children into the forest, transforming the boy into a mushroom and his sister into a snail. When the snail grows hungry, the brother encourages her to eat of him, the mushroom, as the girl readily bites off first his ear and then his leg.

After Elvira falls asleep, Zora turns on personal tapes of Elvira and her former lover, and flips television channels between a talk show of Fassbinder's description of his own troubled youth, a soap opera, and the news of Chilean dictator Pinochet's "great achievements." At other times American pop-singer Connie Francis, singing in German, alternates with pieces of Nino Rota's music for Juliet of the Spirits and other Fellini films, the parallels between Fellini's suffering housewife and Fassbinder's confused lover becoming apparent.

When Elvira finally visits the tower in which her wished-for lover resides, she encounters in the ground-floor bar a man, dying of cancer, who after being fired by Anton Saitz, has spent months staring out the window at Saitz's office. As she climbs the stairs—in a reversal of the Rumpelstiltskin story—to reach her lover, she encounters a series of empty rooms, where she briefly falls asleep once more, to be awakened by a man come to hang himself who invites her to watch.

Everywhere she travels, there are people suffering as badly as she, individuals who unable to find love or, as Elvira describes it from a dream she has had, have had simply too brief of friendships, symbolized to herself as graves marked by short dates.

She reports the stranger's suicide to a cleaning woman whose major activity seems to be looking through a key-hole, laughing loudly at whatever she is witnessing. The woman shrugs her shoulders and returns to her voyuerism.

After passing through what seems like an interminable series of empty rooms, itself a nighmare-like image of the Frankfurt economic "miracle," Elvira is met by Saitz's chauffeur, who, in imitation Cerberus, guards the entry to Saitz's little hell. But even here the director turns the dramatic situation into an absurdly comic event.

At first it appears that, without one of the codes, Elvira will be refused entry. Yet she finally does make a guess, horrible reminder that it is: Bergen-Belsen, the A-pass. And she enters. When she is shown into a room with several men within, she turns to ask the now-genial chauffeur, which one is Saitz. The irony is earth-shattering; after changing his-her entire being and life for the man, she cannot now even recognize him.

When told that he is the thin man in tight tennis shorts, she is forced to watch an even more grotesquely comic manifestation of power. While a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movie, You're Never Too Young, plays upon a television, Anton forces his male staff to reenact parts of the tennis court scene, a piece filled, in the original, with a chorus of marching cheerleaders led by the singing duo. Elvira joins in. Their performance is hilarious, but also mad. There is not even evil here. Reality is too strange for that.

Elvira reveals his former name, Erwin, which, at first, seems to mean nothing to Saitz. But after she presents him with a photograph of the young Erwin, he does realize who this woman is, but seemingly remembers only that she could make coffee as good as his mother, suggesting they make a trek to Elvira's apartment so that she can serve it up. At the apartment, Zora is sleeping upon Elvira's bed. While Elvira moves off to the kitchen, Anton moves in on Zora, who readily accepts him in an embrace. Elvira returns to witness them in the sexual act.

Cutting her hair, redressing as a man, Erwin returns to his wife and daughter, hoping that he might possibly begin over. It is, quite clearly, too late for that. The girl will soon be off to college, and his former wife, although still a friend, cannot now accept his as a man.

The author who had interviewed Elvira, finds Erwin waiting on the staircase of his apartment. But when asked if they might have a talk, he gently sends him away. It is too late an hour.

Having moved through life so impulsively and full of passionate need, all is now too late for the man without any remaining identity. He is not really a woman, not really a man, not even, quite, a transsexual or a transgendered being. Erwin/Elvira is no one—and yet is everyone who has ever needed love. One by one the people who might have offered him this gift, gather at this door, now guarded by the Cerberus-like chauffeur. Inside is Anton and Zora, evidently locked in when this hero returned to slit his/her wrists. No one in particular is guilty; yet everyone is obviously guilty for the death of the shell they now witness.

Los Angeles, August 18, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriagie of Maria Braun)

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich, Peter Märthesheimer, and Kurt Raab (dialogue and screenplay), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) / 1978, released in the USA in 1979

The first of Fassbinder's so-called BRD Trilogy (the Bundesrepublik Deutschland series that includes Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss) The Marriage of Maria Braun is clearly one of Fassbinder's most brilliant films, but also, one of his most puzzling.

The story itself, concerning the rise after the end of World War II of a young German woman (splendidly portrayed by Hanna Schygulla), who has survived during the war by trading her body for necessary commodities, is quite transparent—a story told perhaps hundreds of times in post-war literature. But Fassbinder's characters seem more complex, or one might say "confused," than typical stereotypes upon which these figures have been built. Certainly the most puzzling aspect of The Marriage of Maria Braun is the marriage itself, which begins, significantly, with an explosion of gunfire, presumably by Allied forces. As we discover the woman of the title, we grow increasingly confused by what she has seen in her husband, Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), and why, after only one night of true marriage, she still so strongly loves and supports him throughout the film. After that one blissful night, Braun is forced into the German military and is believed dead, until one day, as Maria is about to bed her major customer (and father of the baby in her womb), a Black soldier named Bill, Hermann shows up, having been released from prison.

Nearly speechless by what he has witnessed, Hermann lashes out against Maria—whom we have already discovered, despite her sexual activities, has been a loyal wife—she assuring him of her innocence and her love by promptly knocking her American over his head, killing him. Unable to bear the proceedings of her trial, Hermann confesses to having killed the soldier himself, and is promptly returned to prison.

Maria, leaving her crowded family home, sets out by herself to make a success, with the hope of building a home and financial future for her husband when he is again released. The attentive viewer already perceives that she is doomed to succeed, for Maria, a brilliantly capable woman, has learned the art of seducing men in order to control them—most often, surprisingly, for their own betterment. Trapped on a train in second-class, Maria pushes her way into first class where only one individual sits, a French industrialist, Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny).. Before they have reached their destination he has already fallen in love with her and made her his "personal assistant."

Despite the outcries of Oswald's unimaginative "bookkeeper," Senkenberg, Maria brokers a deal with an American companies for new machines, and Oswald's somewhat moribund company is suddenly in the position to become part of the economic miracle of Konrad Adenauer's post World War II's government (through the film we hear snippets of his speeches). One of the great joys of this movie is watching Maria as she gradually grows into the job, transforming herself both emotionally and physically into the capable and wealthy businesswoman she was determined to become. She has even predicted the changes of her own body and personality. Before Oswald can ask her into his bed, she determines, as she later tells him, to have an affair with him.

Karl Oswald: You were different last night.
Maria Braun: Last night I slept with you. Today I'm working for you.
Karl Oswald: Afraid someone will think we're having an affair?
Maria Braun: I don't care what people think. I do care what you think. And you're
not having an affair with me. I'm having an affair with you.

In short, necessary to her very survival, that is not only how Maria succeeds in her course of action. For despite her open sexuality and obvious intelligence, she is still utterly in love with her husband of the past, visiting him in prison regularly each week, and working with a lawyer for his release.

What we gradually began to perceive is that Maria's success—and by extension post-War Germany's success—is intrinsically tied sentimentally to the past. While outwardly they completely abandon the old world, accepting with gleeful greed and desire its new materialism, the German people are deeply tied to older relationships such as those of Frau and Ehemann, husband and wife, managers and labor, etc. It is not so much "love" that ties them to the past, but the rites themselves, the positioning of the themselves in the society. For Maria, however, that role is tolerable only as long as she is in control, is the one on whom the house and finances are dependent. She has purchased a kind of mini-mansion for the day when her husband will return and she will be able to live out the "romance."

It is that split her personality, the ability to move forward while linking herself to the myths of the German past, that makes Maria so attractive. We have only to consider her sister Betti's inability to encompass those necessary changes to understand why her husband, Willi, returned also from the front, can no longer stand the sight of her. Unlike Maria, she cannot intellectually alter her life; she is only the Frau, now growing fat. Even their mother (Gisela Uhlen) is more sexually and intellectually adventuresome, her greed for life being revealed even in the early scenes of the movie. As she says, early on:

Mother: It's wrong to give all you love to only one person, Grandpa. If you
don't have potatoes, you eat turnips. When the turnips are gone,
you eat gruel. But every girl loves her one and only. He goes to
war; five months later he's dead; and you mourn the rest of your
life. Does that make sense to you, Grandpa? It drowns you.

What Maria does not know is that Oswald, frustrated by her refusal to marry him—which would certainly mean a release of that control and a rejection of certain deeply held beliefs from the past—has discovered her marriage, and made an agreement with Hermann that, if released from jail, he will travel to Canada, leaving Maria to Oswald for the brief time he has left before his death.

In some ways, The Marriage of Maria Braun gives us the template for a character like Petra van Kant. Had Maria lived, she might certainly have been a kind of independent neurotic, like Petra, who has given up on men. But Hermann's return with his revelation that he is now financially able to support her, usurps her power at the very moment that she is told, through Oswald's lawyers, that she will inherit money; however he has given its control over to Hermann. She has been merely a pawn in trade between the two men.

Intentionally or accidentally, depending upon how one wants to evaluate her anger, her fury at the discovery of the truth, Maria leaves the pilot-light on her stove upon lighting up a cigarette. The explosion, when it comes, is inevitable and seems to me to have been destined; we have already witnessed several scenes of her dissolution as a caring being. Only if she had broken from all ties to the old German society, might she have survived. But sentimentality, an idea of behavior, tears her and her world apart. Yet Fassbinder's film, ironically, ends with a false sense of achievement rather than failure, as the German soccer team of 1954 beats Hungry, winning the World Cup Soccer Match for the first time. Out of the ashes of people like Maria Braun and her husband, a new country has risen.

Los Angeles, September 10, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Malcolm Venville | 44 Inch Chest

by Douglas Messerli

Louis Mellis and David Scinto (writers), Malcolm Venville (director) 44 Inch Chest / 2009, released in the US in 2010

44 Inch Chest is a revenge tragedy which gradually morphs into a dark comedy about marriage, love, and brutal masculinity. When Liz Diamond (Joanne Whalley) announces that, after twenty years of marriage, she has fallen in love with another man, her shocked and furious husband, Colin (Ray Winstone), after attacking his wife and wrecking his home, calls upon his four thuggish friends—Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), Meredith (Ian McShane), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), and Mal (Stephen Dillane)—to kidnap Liz's French "loverboy" (Melvill Poupaud) and slowly torture him to death. Two of them, the Old Man and Mal, would have slit his throat in a moment or, more probably, slowly pummeled the man to death. Meredith, a slightly sleazy gay gambler, would just as easily have killed the bastard, although in a more subtle manner. Archie, a man who still lives with his Mother, might have simply conked him over the head. But the decision of method in this perversely structured male masochistic gathering is up to the cuckolded husband, and Colin is so tortured and confused that one day later he has not yet accomplished the task.

As they gather again in a boarded-up flat, the four men, spouting more expletives and sexual stereotypes (the writers are the duo who cooked up the script of Sexy Beast) than David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, and Enda Walsh could have dreamed of, speak a language so obscene that their conversations, despite the invective and determined murderous intent, become comical and, at times, strangely poetic, as they mockingly repeat and alliterate their venomous outpourings—mostly in an attempt to pull their friend Colin out of sentimental and self-pitying funk.

The joys of this kind of theater—and this film is so theatrical that one keeps feeling it must have been adaption of a stage play—is the ensemble timing of the actors, working in joyful conjunction with one another as their characters, who come alive only in this malfunctioning male society, as they gradually reveal their hates and pleasures. Strangely, it takes Meredith, the gay man, to describe the beauty of Colin's wife; the others may lust after her, but have no ability to actually deal with the women they abuse. Meredith plays out the same pattern, in many ways, with his young men, using them only for sex, with no intention of getting to know who they might be inside their skin.

As we gradually come to realize, particularly when Meredith describes the man to himself, is that Colin is only one of the whole lot who can love. When they finally pull the prisoner out of the cell of a dilapidated armoire, it is as if masculine beauty has been brought out of the closet. Blood stained, a hood upon his head, the "loverboy" is still recognizable as a thin, muscular body as opposed to the flabby, red-faced, flat-assed figures about to destroy him. And we comprehend Liz's decision.

Colin demands time alone with the kid, and once the others have left the room, proceeds on a long rumination about love. At its core is a heart-felt, if unintended apologia about marriage, centering on the recognition that thousands and thousands of compromises and sacrifices must be made for any relationship to survive, most of them greeted with ignorance or, at most, a surprising pat on the bum by one's lover. But that "pat," as Colin makes clear, means everything.

Although Mellis' and Scinto's script creaks in this scene, at times nearly destroying the funny, pun-laden scorn of the previous sequences, there is still great poignancy in Winstone's delivery. He is a brute, yes, but inside his 44 inch chest lies a heart full of caring and tenderness.

The most notable failure in this long "aria"-like performance is the director's attempt to recreate the back story by taking us into filmic reality, outside the "set," which vents some of Colin's intensity. The more surreal scenes, imaginary encounters with Colin's wife and friends, are a bit more successful, but one wishes that they were even more absurd and unreal, distancing rather than familial, all of which might have worked better on a theater stage. Yet the scene is saved when, after the reality of his past comes crumbling down around him, Colin clings to the knee of his victim, while the boy gently caresses his head, a pietà that is nearly too painful to watch.

There will be no murder. Colin's love extends even beyond the boundaries of that love, helping his own wife leave him. Still bound and nearly naked, "loverboy" is sent off into the night, while the homophobic Old Man Peanut strolls off with Meredith to try out a gay bar. These monsters are, after all, just men.

Los Angeles, January 20, 2010
(c) Copyright the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar | Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)

by Douglas Messerli Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) / 2009, released in the US in November 2009 For several years now I have followed the films of Pedro Almodóvar with great interest and, most often, enjoyment (see my review of his Volver in My Year 2007), but I've also been a bit dismayed, particularly with his last few films, with Almodóvar's subtle shifts to a more and more self-conscious and highly referential film-making that detracts from the raw, sexual, and farcical energy of his earlier works. This director still makes beautiful, watchable, and even engaging films, but their conscious attentiveness to the art of the film—something I admittedly sought out in some of his first movies—has somewhat drained the passion from his work.
Harry Caine (a name that calls up a series of Hollywood films from The Third Man [with its Harry Lime] to The Postman Always Rings Twice [based on a James M. Cain novel]) is a writer and ex-filmmaker, now blind, who works on scripts with the help of his handsome young assistant, Diego (Tamar Novas). Caine (original name Mateo Blanco, played by Lluis Homar) establishes from the very first scene, where he quickly beds a young woman who helped him find his way home from the streets, that he is obviously still a kind of lecherous lover, reiterated by the arrival of his agent Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), who oversees the young woman's departure with silent disdain. She has a new offer for him to write a script.
Diego and Caine, meanwhile toss out an idea of a new screenplay that Diego has imagined, a story about vampires who work in a blood bank, stealing the blood their customers provide without actually having to embrace them themselves for the necessary bite. Inevitably one vampire falls in love with one of the givers, and must resist the temptation to take the bloodletting to a new level. As the two joyfully toy with the story's erotic possibilities, we already suspect that the film ahead, although having nothing to do with Dona Sangre (Giving Blood)—will be more about temptation and resistance than all-out commitment.
Enter the mysterious Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), another man who has determined to become someone else, who wants to do a film with Harry. Harry turns him down; but when the stranger leaves Harry asks Diego to open a drawer and leaf through a series of photographs to see if the visitor appears in any of them. Ray, so we soon discover, is the gay son of the wealthy industrialist Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) who has died, so the papers announce, that very day.
Bit by bit the story is revealed of how Caine (then Blanco), backed by Martel, once directed a film "Girls and Suitcases" (a work that calls up Almodóvar's own 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)—a shift for Blanco from serious drama to farce. Searching for the correct actor for the starring role, Blanco-Caine finally decides on Martel's own mistress, who tired of being only a pampered lover, desires an acting career. Her photo-session, where Blanco dresses the mistress Lena (Penélope Cruz) alternatively as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, convinces him she is the right woman for his film, and, in the process, of course, he falls in love.
Martel, suspecting their affair, encourages his son to shoot a "filming-of-the-film" documentary, the sessions of which he reviews each night playing them over and over, while, with the help of a lip-reader, interpreting their secret communications. The gay son, the perverse use of film, the vengefully determined scorned lover all remind sophisticated filmgoers immediately of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The rest of the story, as Diego and Harry attempt to restore the earlier film and Judit and he reveal the full history of that film and Caine/Blanco's love affair with Lena, takes us down the road of a Douglas Sirk-like tearjerker employing, along the way, several Hitchcockian tropes as well as reminding us of Almodóvar's own All About My Mother. The tale ends, as one might suspect, with a series of startling events, including a purposeful accident (the car that hits the couple was driven by Martel's gay son) which kills Lena and blinds Blanco. A final admission by Judit, presumably hidden from Harry, is that Diego is his and her son.
Despite all of these highly emotional revelations, however, there is little real feeling evoked. The embraces, after all, have all been "broken" or were about to be, given Caine/Blanco's driven omnivorous sexuality. In his new identity Harry hides most of his past, even from himself. He lives, after all, primarily through his creations. And that is, it appears, Almodóvar's point: if this is a tale of passion, it is, as in Diego's and Harry's imaginary script, "bloodless."
While I truly enjoyed Almodóvar's concoction, his emphasis on his cinematic influences and his own film history ultimately break the embrace of the audience and director necessary to sweep us up into an ecstatic movie experience. As sensual as his characters and sets seem, they remain only celluloid and light, shadows. Los Angeles, March 25, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Friday, September 24, 2010

Julie Gavras | La Faute a fidel! (Blame It on Fidel!)

by Douglas Messerli

Arnaud Cathrine and Julie Gavras (based on the novel Tutta colpa di Fidel) (writer), Julie Gavras (director) La Faute à fidel! (Blame It On Fidel!) / 2006 / US release, August 2007

Nine-year-old Anna de la Mesa (Nina Kervel-Bey) lives a comfortable and pleasant life as the daughter of a wealthy Catholic bourgeois father and mother, Fernando and Marie, in France. She attends a parochial school where she is a good student, particularly in catechism. In her lovely and large home, she is cared for by a Cuban-born nanny, who gives her and her brother a bath each evening before serving her excellently cooked dinners, while blaming any evil she perceives on Fidel Castro.

When Anna’s aunt Marga and her cousin Pillar, political refugees from Franco’s Spain, come to live with them, however, everything begins to change. Fernando suddenly becomes more politicized, and, excited about the changes Salvador Allende has begun to make in Chile, he moves his family to a smaller apartment, determining to travel with his wife to that country to observe things first hand. Anna and her brother Benjamin are temporarily shuttled to their conservative grandparents, who own a vineyard in Bordeaux. Upon the parents’ return Marie begins a documentary on birth and abortion. The Cuban nanny is replaced by a Greek political refugee and then by a young woman from Vietnam. Soon their house is filled each night with barbudos, bearded Chilean activists, and each day with women describing to Marie and her tape recorder their distressed and abused lives. Anna is allowed to continue at her school, but is taken out of catechism. Outraged by her parents’ sudden transformation into communists, the young girl is now taunted by her parents' friends as being a “mummy,” the term for followers of the political right, and looked down upon, as well, by her conservative schoolmates. Like her Cuban nanny of the first scenes, she might well blame everything on Fidel, for Castro was, in fact, a major influence on Allende, and Allende, when his government was overthrown (in large part by the American government and its operatives), is reported to have killed himself with a rifle given to him by the Cuban dictator.

Although director Julie Gavras’ (daughter of the Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras) sympathies obviously lie with the father and mother, her film tenderly portrays a young girl, who despite being somewhat deadened to the real world—who is a sort a living “mummy”—gradually comes to life as she overhears the horrible tales of the women and is slowly educated to “solidarity” through marches with her parents and their activist friends’ gentle explanations of sharing the wealth.

The young Anna, moreover, begins to see cracks in her own parents’ relationship. As her father celebrates Allende’s victory in the 1970 election, her mother publishes her book on women and childbirth, and Fernando becomes furious with her usurpation of his joy! The revolution, evidently, has not yet reached his sexual consciousness, and as the two lash out against one other, Anna takes the hand of her young brother and escapes to the streets. Upon her and her brother’s return home, her parents have realized, in their desperation over their children’s absence, the absurdity of their battle.

Meanwhile, Anna is taken by her father back to his childhood home in Spain for a visit. Without a single line of dialogue, Gavras reveals to both the daughter and audience the overwhelming layers of baroque sensibility—conveyed through the appearance of the house and the photograph books through which Anna leafs—that account for both the father’s earlier lack of political awareness and his recent conversion. He too has lived much of his life as a “mummy,” a man frozen in his own family’s past.

In the final scenes of this sensitive study of political change and its effects on the young, Anna determines to leave her Catholic school and to attend the French public school system. As she enters the new schoolyard, she stands now as a complete outsider, a young girl set apart from her new schoolmates and her own past. The camera creates almost a vertiginous feeling as it pulls back to reveal the games of the children while Anna stands in the center utterly alone. But suddenly a young circle of girls reaches out for her hand, and she joyfully accepts, embracing the solidarity of this new group. Politics, as Gavras reveals, does not lie only in the governing of countries, but in our every act, in the governing of one’s own life.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2007
(c) Copyright 2007 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Guillermo del Toro | El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

by Douglas Messerli

Guillermo del Toro (writer and director) El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)/ released December 2006. I saw the movie on January 14, 2007

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) consists of two seemingly unconnected tales, the first of a young girl, Ofelia (played with a sort of wise innocence by Ivana Baquero), who, as her mother, Carmen, suggests, is perhaps a bit old for the fantastical romances with which she is obsessed and which dominate her imagination whenever she has a spare moment to employ it. In fact, except for occasionally helping her pregnant mother, who suffers the pains of imminent childbirth, Ofelia is very much left alone to her own thoughts. Her mother has only recently remarried, and her new stepfather Vidal (Sergi López)—at the center of the second, realist story—is a frighteningly cruel Captain stationed at a remote forest outpost of Generalísimo Franco’s repressive fascist army in 1944 Spain. Vidal, we soon discover, is a man as brutal as the government he supports. When his men discover a peasant father and son near their base, the Captain drives a pick through the eyes of the younger man and shoots them both before finishing the inventory of their satchel wherein lies the evidence that supports their claim that they are simply hunters: a dead rabbit.

In the fairytale logic of del Toro’s film, the old mill house, where Ofelia and her mother have come from the city to live with Vidal, is located not only in a mountainous forest but near the remains of an ancient labyrinth leading to what the film’s narrator describes as an ancient kingdom where the king and queen await the return of the princess Moanna, who abandoned it.
Hardly has the young girl had a chance to settle into this creaking house of horrors before she has entered the forbidden labyrinth, led by a fairy (who appears to the adults as a praying mantis), to encounter a decaying faun, who claims she is the lost princess who must undergo three tests to prove that she has not become human.

If the first two fantastical challenges seem nearly impossible for the young child to accomplish—that she crawl into the center of a giant rotting tree to reclaim a golden key from the innards of a gargantuan frog, and that she cross a grand banquet hall filled with food she is warned not to touch in order to retrieve a hidden dagger—the challenges of the adults around her are far more dangerous. Vidal’s head servant Mercedes and his house doctor are in league with the nearby rebels; when several men of the guerrilla band are killed and one is captured, accordingly, the two within Vidal’s house suffer the terrors of seeing their friends tortured and destroyed and, potentially, their own identities revealed.

While Vidal cruelly tortures his adversaries, he himself is psychologically tortured by the heroism of his own father, who bequeathed him a watch dashed to the ground to mark his passing.* Throughout this film, stocked with various modernist symbols—keys, clocks, food, books, animals, etc.—the maternal figures—Mercedes and Carmen—predictably represent love and the nurturing forces of life, while the paternal figures demand absolute obedience in a mad rush into chaos. Vidal diffidently crushes those around him, while obsessed with his own mortality. Despite the shattered face of his father’s watch, Vidal has returned it to working order and constantly checks to see if it is still running, as if the watch represented the beat of his own heart. The birth of his son appears to be his only chance to preserve his lineage. Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, is seen less by Vidal as a loving companion, accordingly, than as the bearer of his heir, the continuance of his blood. If there is a choice of the survival of the child, he explains to the doctor, the mother’s life is secondary.

Like many children held in captivity in both real life and in fairy tales, Ofelia is an intent observer of both worlds, sometimes interfusing them—she imagines she is told to save her mother by placing a mandrake root, soaked in milk and fed with blood, beneath the bed, a magical remedy that appears to have positive results—but also able to separate them in comprehending the strange new world into which she has been cast. If Vidal is blind to Mercedes’s traitorous acts, Ofelia recognizes them immediately, keeping them secret in order to protect her new friend, who, upon the death of Carmen, becomes her surrogate mother.
Meanwhile, Ofelia has evidently forfeited her possibility of eternal sal-vation by disobeying the faun, eating two grapes from the banquet table even as she escapes the ogre with eyes implanted in his hands—a figure representing Chronos or Saturn, who, associated throughout Greek mythology as the keeper of time, who devoured his own children. Just as Ofelia has been cast out of the world she has known with her real father and beloved mother, she is now told by the figures of her fantastical dreams that she will never be able to return to the magical kingdom she was to have inherited.

Had del Toro brought the film to a close at this point, it still might have been a powerful legend about a young girl having to come to terms with the unjust and cruel world around her. Yet as Vidal uncovers the treachery of the doctor—whom he summarily shoots—and Mercedes—whom he is about to torture—a seeming miracle redeems the “real” world: Mercedes escapes, to be saved by her partisan friends.

So too is Ofelia given another chance in her fantasy. She must take her baby brother to the entrance of the underworld of Pan’s labyrinth. Doctoring her stepfather’s drink with drugs, she escapes with the baby at the very moment that the guerrillas attack the fascist outpost. But her father, like all monsters, relentlessly chases after, and she is suddenly forced to confront both worlds—the real and the fantastical —side by side. Pan demands the blood of an innocent, commanding the baby be handed over. The girl refuses, and is forced to give it up to its father, who calmly takes the child into his embrace before shooting and killing his stepdaughter. As the blood drips from her dead body down into the well of the ancient world, it is clear that an innocent has been sacrificed after all.

The fantastical kingdom Ofelia now enters, where her “loving parents” sit on the impossibly high towers representing their potency, suddenly reveals that Ofelia’s fantastical world and the realist construction of Vidal are simply mirror images of each other, and as such they create an allegorical relationship for the viewer of the film. Both worlds demand the same thing: the blood of innocents, the meaningless death of individuals who deny those in power.

As some postmodern writers and theorists have long argued—I am particularly thinking here of Spanish-language writers such as Cuban novelists Severo Sarduy and José Lezama Lima, writers who del Toro may have encountered—the fantastical fictions of the magical realists offer few alternatives in their structures from the paternalistic social fantasies of realists earlier in the 20th century, who claimed their work represented the “truth.” In both worlds there is no escape for those who suffer its indignities; there is no way out.

Whether del Toro intended his mirror-like structure to be a warning or not, he has brilliantly shown us that neither the realist-conceived nor fantastical visions of the world can offer a livable space. Yet we feel in Pan’s Labyrinth nonetheless a sense of tragic resolution, for both Ofelia and Mercedes, despite impossible odds, have found a way to deny the horrific visions of the world by simply saying “no.” As the doctor replies when Vidal claims he simply could have obeyed him, “But captain, obey for obey’s sake... That’s something only people like you do.” Those who are truly free, who are not puppets to some cause, can speak up, deny both the real and its implicit fantasies.

Ofelia refuses to give Pan her brother; taking the child from Vidal’s hands before her friends shoot him, Mercedes vengefully announces to the captain that the child will be free of his heritage, that she shall never speak Vidal’s name to his son.
Friends Wendy Walker and Tom La Farge pointed out to me, after reading this essay, that at Vidal’s banquet table one of the guests notes that the Captain’s father was a hero in the war in Morocco. That war, the Rif war or the War of Melilla (1919-1926), was a disaster and embarrassment for Spain, as the Berbers massacred 15,000 Spanish soldiers. The Spanish won only when the French joined them in battle. Francisco Franco distinguished himself in that war, however, and his involvement in the struggles helped to bring him to power.

Los Angeles, January 15, 2007
(c) 2007 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Barbet Schroeder | Reversal of Fortune

by Douglas Messerli

Nicolas Kazan (screenplay, based on the book by Alan M. Dershowitz), Barbet Schroeder (director) Reversal of Fortune / 1990

Early in Barbet Schroeder's taut and beautifully filmed drama of the rich and haunted, the wealthy socialite Sunny von Bülow narrates:

I never woke from this coma, and I never will. I am what doctors call
"persistent vegetative"—a vegetable. According to medical experts, I could
stay like this for a very long time—brain dead, body better than ever.

This voice, speaking from the dead, reminds one, somewhat, of the voice of dead man lying face-down in the pool in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. But at the time of these lines, delivered in the 1990 film by actress Glenn Close, Sunny was still living in her vegetative state, and the haunting reality of her being a narrative ghost did not end until 2008, 28 years after she fell into that coma.

Schroeder's film, like Sunny's audacious statement, is, in fact, less a simple recounting of the events that led to Sunny's husband, Claus von Bülow, begin accused and found guilty of attempted murder—actually two attempted murders—as it is a study in warring realities, an ironic yet respectful investigation into what it means to be alive.

On the surface any couple might wish to have been blessed as magnificently as the von Bülow's. Claus, a self-made socialite who took the name of his maternal grandfather, former Danish Minister of Justice, adding the "von" at a later date, was assistant to J. Paul Getty when he married Sunny in 1966.

Sunny, (born Martha Sharp Crawford) was nicknamed according to the manner of her personality. And why shouldn't she be "sunny"? She had inherited some 75 million dollars from her father, Robert Warmack, and upon her mother's death came into possession of Clarendon Court, the Newport Rhode Island mansion depicted in the film musical High Society (starring Grace Kelly, with whom Sunny was often compared).

From a former marriage with Austrian Prince Alfred von Auersperg, Sunny had two children, Annie Laurie "Ala" Isham and Alexander von Auersperg; and with Claus, Sunny produced another daughter Cosima Pavoncelli. The three children were said to have been close until their mother's overdose/attempted murder, when Cosima took the side of her father, the two other children accusing Claus.

As Schroeder portrays family life at Clarendon, the children, always formally dressed, are packed away in a formal living room, quietly watching television, while Claus and his wife fight a nearly silent war in the bedroom, icily arguing at times, but mostly keeping to themselves, Claus, following a strict pattern of daily behavior, the now "unsunny" Sunny, drowning her sorrows in alcohol and drugs. The tension between them is palpable, even as they pass in the night. They are both ghosts, both speaking from the dead.

Schroeder brilliantly characterizes the lavishness of their home, their possessions, their potential pleasures, yet despite the glitter, there is no gayness. Everything, as rich as it appears, is on the surface. The lives within this prison are indeed dark, and the viewer finds it difficult to comprehend what is occurring inside these seemingly blessèd folk. As Claus admits to lawyer Dershowitz's comment, "You are a very strange man": "You have no idea."

Jeremy Irons plays Claus von Bülow with a mannered reserve that allows this character, despite his despicably smug surface, a great deal of inner humor, which, in turn, allows us to imagine this "villain" as possibly innocent. When a discussion between von Bülow and Dershowitz turns to the testimony of a priest, the lawyer quips, "A priest? Well, a priest is the ideal witness: it's like getting the word of God." Claus quickly betters him: "I checked. God is unavailable." To Dershowitz's bleak assessment of his client, "You do have one thing in your favor: everybody hates you," von Bülow retorts: "Well, that's a start."

Against this bleak, hidden world, Schroeder counterposes the open, light-filled existence of lawyer Alan Dershowitz (played by Ron Silver), who, in a rambling Victorian-like house that might have been the home of the family of Meet Me in St. Louis, is surrounded at all times by legions of arguing students, people willing to do nearly anything for him just to further learn how the legal system works. Dershowitz and his students argue perpetually, but it is a friendly and nearly incessant chatter, filled with humor and, more importantly, an attempt at honesty.

Sarah: He had a gorgeous mistress and he went with an ugly whore?
Raj: You know, there are some things even mistresses won't do.
Alan Dershowitz: Like what?
Raj: I am not telling.

Dershowitz's is an active world, filled with quick basketball games, fast-food chow-downs, loud discussions, and, almost always, light. The rooms of this house are sometimes even shabby, crowded with cheap desks, corners stacked with papers. But it is Dershowitz's world that can save individuals, perhaps even the guilty. And it is this noisy, open space, rather than the marble, hidden one that can redeem lives.

As we are told, over and over, throughout the film, no one will ever know perhaps whether or not Claus von Bülow attempted to kill his wife. But everyone will remember that he was found innocent through the efforts of Dershowitz and others. Far more convincingly than Sidney Lument's 12 Angry Men, Schroeder reveals that the American judicial system can work—albeit with substantial financial resources—that guilt cannot be presumed even for those who appear most guilty.

Los Angeles, Easter 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Roman Polanski | The Ghost Writer

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Harris and Roman Polanski (screenplay, after the novel by Robert Harris), Roman Polanski (director) The Ghost Writer / 2010

Just when it appeared that Roman Polanski had disappeared from an active film career—after a five year hiatus in directing a full-length feature film and imprisonment in a Swiss prison for his crimes in the USA in 1977 (see My Year 2009)—the noted Polish director has appeared to have outdone Houdini, recovering his art in an elegantly complex political thriller, The Ghost Writer, a work at once visually stunning, excitingly scripted, and heighted by a well-crafted score with near perfect sound.

It is hard to imagine that Polanski was forced to edit this film in prison, but he has always battled adversity in his work, and it is apparent that when he is cornered, he pours his life into his art.

A man (Ewan McGregor), named throughout the film only as The Ghost, has been hired, with much resistance on his part, to replace the former Ghostwriter to the British ex-Prime Minister, Adam Lang. Lang refers to him only as "Man."

The previous Ghostwriter has been mysteriously killed, having evidently fallen overboard on a ferry trip between Martha's Vineyard, where Lang (mischievously played by Pierce Brosnan) has a home, and the mainland. The Ghost, who lives in Great Britain, must make the transcontinental trip to the island to meet with Lang and rewrite the memoir in just a few weeks.

Although Lang's lovely home is as moderne as they come, it might as well be a creepy Victorian mansion the way Polanski infuses it with dark intrigue. Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) screams out at someone upstairs, while Lang's blonde secretary (Kim Cattrall) cheerily organizes and protects her employer while simultaneously oozing sexuality. Even the cook and driver seem suspicious. The Ghost is permitted to read Lang's original version of his memoir only in one room, and is unable to take any of its pages from the house, where it is locked away in a code-protected cabinet. An attempt to download the manuscript on his own computer sets the house afire with warning bells. As The Ghost proclaims this haunted tomb-like domicile is "Shangri-La in reverse"; "I'm aging."

No sooner has The Ghost met Lang and begun the arduous task of uncovering the man's past, than the former politician is being attacked in the press for having been involved in the torture of prisoners in the Iraqi war. Clearly based on Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, the Langs are an odd couple to whom Adam serves as likeable performer of Ruth's deep intellectual insights.

With the attacks in the press and television come new responsibilities for The Ghost, as he is drafted to write a press release about the incidents, and, soon after, told to leave his hotel. Lang, in danger of being arrested if he returns to England (in a situation that Polanski must have devilishly relished in the script Lang is forced to remain in the USA, while Polanski continues to be trapped in France and other European countries) is trotted off to meet with US officials, while The Ghost broods over the entire change of events and particularly the increasing attentions of Ruth.

Like any good story by Hitchcock—a mentor who Polanski revealed as far back as Rosemary's Baby—the already deteriorating situation grows even more murky when The Ghost discovers in his room, the former Ghost Writer's room as well, hidden photographs of Lang and other figures taken from their Cambridge University (Blair went to Oxford) college days, when he was involved in the theater. One date on these photographs stands out: Lang had met his wife some years before he claims he met her in his book. The name and address of another figure intrigues the writer, and a telephone number scrawled across this material turns out to belong to the man, a former aid, who has leaked the information about Lang's war crimes.

Curious about the former Ghost Writer, The Ghost takes a bicycle trip around the island, uncovering a old man (Eli Wallach) who reveals the body was found too far away to have washed up from the ferry and reports that a woman living near the beach had seen flashlights on the night of his death. Mysteriously, she fell in her home soon after and remains in a coma.
Although The Ghost may now be haunting the Langs, he is, strangely enough, completely innocent and therefore doomed to repeat the pattern of his predecessor. Worried about his absence, Ruth comes to bring him home, whereupon he tells her all that he has discovered. She, it is clear, is highly troubled by the news, and, after a long walk in the rain, returns home to crawl into The Ghost's bed.

Determined to leave the house and his now demanding clients, The Ghost discovers that the car, loaned to him by the chauffeur, has been programmed to take someone via the ferry to a house in the mainland. The house turns out to belong to one of the figures in the pictures of Adam and his friends, Paul Emmett (icily played by Tim Wilkinson), who poses as a professor but, in actuality—we soon learn—works for the CIA. As The Ghost begins his return back to the island, he is chased by a car, and it is clear that he is nearly doomed, like the first Ghost Writer, to drown. He escapes by leaping from the ferry just as it pulls away.

But again his innocence betrays him. He calls the mysterious telephone number once more, and Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton), the man behind Lang's downfall, answers, soon after rushing to the terminal hotel where The Ghost is hiding out. It is now apparent, he declares, that Lang has been a CIA operator, explaining why all Lang's political decisions have paralleled those of the US.
It is suddenly clear that The Ghost is "in the gap," caught between both sides, even if those perimeters are not yet clear. Having now told both Ruth Lang and Kroll everything, The Ghost has little chance to survive.

But the scriptwriters still have some tricks hidden away, as an angry Lang, returning by airplane, picks up the straying Ghost and lectures him for his stupidity. As they arrive back on the Vineyard, Lang is shot and killed by a purportedly angry father of a fallen soldier , while the other figures scatter in fear and horror. Although determined to erase himself from what remains, The Ghost has no choice, perhaps, but to finish what he started, and the film ends with Lang's memoir being published.

Secretly invited to a book-launching party by Lang's former secretary, The Ghost hides in the crowd while Lang's wife champions her late husband. The Ghost has brought the original manuscript as a present to the woman who once so carefully locked it away each evening. After all, he muses, she had been so attentive to it, perhaps it should belong to her. Oh, it wasn't me, she demurs. They were afraid there might be some incriminating information in it, something about the "beginnings."

Suddenly the truth becomes apparent in The Ghost's formerly confused mind. Escaping to another room, The Ghost takes the first lines of the early chapters—chapters which he edited out—piecing them together to reveal that it was Ruth, not Lang himself, who had joined the CIA early on. Her advice to her husband was informed by the Americans throughout Lang's life. Was this hidden puzzle Lang's secret attempt to redeem himself or an embedded admission?

Despite all he now understands, The Ghost is still a fool, as he writes the phrases he has discovered on a piece of paper and passes it forward through the crowd to Ruth. She now knows that he knows. But surely it does not matter. The Ghost was dead before the story began. And this Ghost, it is apparent, living only in the shadows of others, was never, as Ruth taunted him, able to do anything of his own.

As he exits the bookstore, manuscript still in hand, a car rushes forward. In a brilliant cinematographic decision, Polanski does not show the man being hit, but focuses the camera in the opposite direction as the pages of the manuscript, one by one, blow down the street, ensuring that that truth will never come to knowledge. As in Polanski's Chinatown—as in so many of his films—evil easily wins.

Los Angeles, April 8, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Sidney Lumet | 12 Angry Men

by Douglas Messerli

Reginald Rose (screenplay, based on his teleplay), Sidney Lument (director) 12 Angry Men / 1957

A tired and disinterested judge gives the jury his final summation, and they are locked away in the concrete box called the jury room. It is a hot and humid day, about to rain, and the fan does not seem to work; the windows are difficult to lift. The twelve men about to sit down to decide the fate of a young teenage boy are, as the title suggests, all angry—except perhaps for three or four who gradually reveal more temperate personalities.

Director Sidney Lument shoots these early scenes from high above, with the camera looking down on these seemingly insignificant beings. Gradually, as they begin to discuss the case, the camera joins them, closing in upon their faces until the audience is made to feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of this intense space.

As anyone who has seen this melodramatic and creaky confection knows, the men begin their deliberations by discovering that all but one of them is convinced of the defendant's guilt. Only Juror #8 (a role brilliantly downplayed in a kind of "aw shucks" manner by Henry Fonda) believes there is a reasonable doubt that the boy is innocent, and, gradually over the 96 minutes of this film, convinces the other jurors, one by one, to see it his way. As he admits several times, "I really don't know what the truth is."

The intent of Reginald Rose's teleplay transformed into screenplay, quite obviously, is to give credence to American jurisprudence, to demonstrate the importance in the process of the twelve jurors to reach a unanimous viewpoint before convicting a man. For me, however, the slow unmasking of Juror #8's eleven opponents is absolutely horrifying. What Rose's work reveals is just how strongly bigotry, personal jealousies, selfishness, fear, and just plain ignorance influence a jury's, any jury's, decisions. Certainly the fact that there is not a single man of color on this jury (white immigrant Juror #11, George Voskovec, substitutes) and no women represented may account for some of the open hostility expressed, particularly by Juror #10 (Ed Begley) and sadistic and failed father (Lee J. Cobb). The 1957 film seems to indicate, however, that even these kind of men, given the rational consensus-building of Juror #8, can be turned around or, at least, made temporarily to see their own mistakes. Yet one finds it hard to believe that this rather soft-spoken individual could sway the votes of some of these unreasonable beasts.
Today, given the radically divided and outspoken fractiousness of our society, it seems even more unlikely that one man or woman could affect a group in the manner that Henry Fonda does.

Perhaps that's why it is so important to have the protection of unanimity, but what it suggests is that, whatever the outcome of the process, true justice is a nearly impossible thing to accomplish, particularly given, in this instance, Fonda's concession after the first round of discussions to go along with the others if there is not another one among them who will change his vote. Certainly Juror #8 would not have been permitted to explore his own investigation by locally buying a knife similar to the one that killed the boy's father, and he would never today be allowed to bring it into court. I fear, moreover that, in reality, some jurors might join with the majority, as does Juror #7 (Jack Warden), simply to escape the process and get to a beloved baseball game or other event.

Yet we do know that some people having served jury duty describe the experience as uplifting and even spiritually moving, and believe that the men and women with whom they served tried as best they could to make a fair and just decision. Perhaps Americans are not as truly divisive and inwardly angry as writers and the media portray them.

If so, it seems even stranger that 12 Angry Men—which I recently revisited on the television screen—is so routinely touted as an American classic, a work chosen, for example, for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Rose's depiction of the jury process is a fairly mannered expression of a series of different viewpoints, as well, as I've argued, as representing a frightening vision of the American common man, unless we see Fonda as the only paragon. And, if so, who are all those other men filled with such anger, even hate? Why is it that today more Americans are in jail than almost any other country in the world? Maybe the accused might be better served by the admission, as in some cultures, that no group can truly be unanimous when it comes to innocence or guilt.

Los Angeles, April 1, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Corneliu Porumboiu | Politist, adj. (Police, adjective)

by Douglas Messerli

Corneliu Porumboiu (writer and director) Politist, adj. (Police, adjective) / 2009

On the surface of Porumboiu's Police, adjective (meaning, literally, in one Romanian definition, "a novel or film about criminal happenings"), not much seems to occur, yet a great many stories get told in its "cracks," what the director refers to as its necessary silences.

Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a policeman (the English language equivalent of Politist, adj.) in Vaslui, Romania, has been assigned a case in which a young stool pigeon (whom he refers to as the Squealer) has reported that a high school friend has provided him with hashish, a criminal act. Indeed, through shadowing the high school student, Cristi observes the boy sharing a cigarette with his friends, Alex and a girl, several times between classes; the tested cigarettes prove positive for hashish. In short, the case is settled nearly before it has begun.

Yet Cristi continues to follow the two boys in an attempt to find the source, whom he believes to be either the brother of the provider or the brother of the young girl, who travels out of the country frequently and has been involved in a drunken accident. Perhaps, as he begins to suspect, the real "criminal" is the Squealer himself.

His superiors are understandably pressuring Cristi to finish up this small case by staging a sting against the three students, and hoping to get them to talk. Yet the crime for smoking drugs in Romania is three years or more in prison. Cristi, who has traveled to other European countries where small amounts of pot and hashish are not a criminal offense, is unwilling to ruin the life of a young boy because he has simply done a stupid thing. Besides, the government may change the law. It is a matter of conscience, he maintains, an act that would only bring him a lifetime of regret. In short, he is a moral man.

This is not everyone's kind of movie. My movie-going companion felt it was boring and obvious. For in an attempt to uncover the "truth" about the matter, Cristi must do what he does every day: stand around waiting for things to "happen," for the three to gather, the girl to visit her friend, the father and mother to drive off to work and to return home each evening. For long periods in his film, the director focuses his camera on Cristi's body beside a pillar of white-sprayed concrete and attached yellow wood, alternating between this central figure and the gate of the house he watches. At other times we simply follow the policeman through the streets of this deteriorating small city. Indeed, the camera tracks him several times as he returns to his warren of an office and to his small home, which he shares with his newlywed wife, Anca, a school teacher. For seemingly endless minutes, we witness Cristi eating, hear his wife play an obnoxious song on her computer (after which the two discuss whether its lyrics are images or symbols), observe neighbors and their pets going in and out of a small grocery store, and suffer a secretary busily clacking away on her computer. In several instances these clearly represent acts of absurdity, but they also function in other ways.

What struck me about this intense focus on the ordinary, in a film of straight-forward realism, was just how experimental and fresh those slow-moving scenes were. Porumboiu, in his beautiful camera positions and images, often posting the action just outside of the camera's range, creates a world of people and objects as rich as John Cage's musical silences. The crumbling sides of buildings, the crunch of stale bread, graffiti painted across a wall say more about the society in which Cristi functions than a police chase or exchange of gunfire might ever reveal. Major emotional events are caught in a single glance or a seemingly offhand remark such as that Anca makes: "I don't think things are working out between us."

As A. O. Scott intelligently commented in his review of this film in The New York Times: "The more you look, the more you see: a movie about a marriage, about a career in crisis, about a society riven by unstated class antagonism and hobbled by ancient authoritarian habits."
The biggest "action" occurs when Cristi desperately attempts to search out information on the families of the two boys and girl, trying to force his bureaucratic fellow workers to do the very research for which they were hired. Cristi is in a rush to uncover information before he is ordered to arrest.

When the final showdown comes, it is, strangely, not in the form of a shouting match, but in a humiliating putdown with regard to the meaning of certain words. When Cristi refuses to order a sting, insisting it is an issue of conscience, the Chief of Police determinedly forces him to read the dictionary definitions of "conscience," "morality," "law," and "police," all of which, in his Romanian dictionary, seem to push away from the simple English-language definition of an individual's "faculty or power" of "feeling to do right or be good." For Police Chief Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) conscience is linked to the morality of laws enforced by the police, and is never open to personal exceptions. The decision for Cristi is whether he wants to remain a man or a policeman, part of an adjectival force as in a "police state" or an individual out of a job.

The final scene reveals what we knew all along. Living in the world we have just witnessed, it is impossible not to have regrets.

Los Angeles, December 4, 2009
(c) Copyright 2009 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke | Das weisse Band—Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon)

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke (writer and director) Das weisse Band—Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon) / 2009

In the small German village of Eichwald just before the outbreak of World War I the people appear to be God-fearing and hard-working citizens, obeying both the economic rule of the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and the religious values presented to them by their pastor (Burghart Klaußner). Through their families and school teacher (Christian Friedel), the children have been taught humility, purity, and, above all, obedience. Although Eichwald is a poor village, it is, on the surface, a model German community.

As the School Teacher narrates, however, a series of events begin to happen that brings everything into question. It starts with a small wire being struck between the gate to the Doctor's house, which throws him, killing his horse as he returns home from his medical rounds. The Doctor, himself, we soon discover has recently lost his wife, and is forced to rely heavily on the neighborhood midwife (Susanne Lothar) for the care of his older daughter, Anna and his young son, Karli. The Midwife's son, Kurti, represents another burden since he is mentally retarded.

This purposeful attempt on the life of the Doctor—who survives with a broken collarbone and arm, but is forced to spend weeks in a hospital in a neighboring town—causes pain and fear within the family and general consternation throughout the community. Yet no one is able to explain who might have done the act, nor can the wire be found soon after the event.
A short while later, an older working woman is killed on the Baron's property when a rotten floor gives way. The bereaved family, particularly the elder son, are convinced that the accident has been a result of carelessness on the part of the rich landowner, and the son "revenges" his mother's death on the day of the harvest celebration by destroying most of the cabbages in one of the Baron's plots. His crime, in turn, forces the family into near-starvation when the Baron refuses to further employ them.

Through his stunningly beautiful black and white landscapes, which help to distance us from the period and view his film from a more objective perspective, Haneke ultimately takes us into the homes of some of these "good folk," where we see them almost as August Sanders-like photographs come to life. The Pastor, for example, is shown to be a strict autocrat at home, severely beating his children for arriving late for dinner and, as further punishment, forcing his two eldest children to wear white ribbons as signs to remind them of purity and faith. When he discerns that his eldest boy, Martin, has been masturbating, he ties the child's hands to the bed each night. Arriving at the school for Confirmation lessons, he discovers the children loudly playing with others and forces his daughter, Klara, to stand at the back of the room, her face turned away from him as he berates them for their actions, a sermon which ends with her collapse.

When the seemingly "kindly" Doctor returns home we quickly discern that he and the Midwife have been engaged in a long-time affair in which he verbally abuses her, while he is also sexually abusing his teen-age daughter.

Surely the adult abuse of these children is somehow related to the events occurring throughout the community.

And still more "little atrocities" occur: the Baron's barn burns, his son, Sigi, goes missing and is found tied up naked to a tree where he has been badly beaten. In another instance one of the Steward's sons throws Sigi into the river, and, in return, is beaten by the Steward. In another home a baby, left beside an open window in the cold winter night, has grown ill. The peasant whose wife has died on the Manor commits suicide.

At the Pastor's home, Klara, recovering from her breakdown, kills her father's pet bird by running a scissors through its mouth and guts.

These acts of hate, punishment, and revenge affect even the innocent love of the School Teacher and the young nanny, Eva, working at the Manor. After Sigi's abduction, Eva is fired, even though she has been hired only to care for the baby, and she is forced to return home where "they will never understand." Later, the School Teacher's attempt to ask for her father for her hand in marriage ends abysmally with the Father demanding that he wait another year before asking again.

Meanwhile, the "little atrocities" grow into near murder as the Midwife's retarded son is found beaten, his eyes gouged, an act that nearly blinds him.

The Baroness reveals to her husband that she has fallen in love, on her temporary escape from Eichwald to Italy, with another man. She wants to take the children out of what she perceives as a world of distorted values.

On June 28, 1914, in the very midst of all these inexplicable happenings, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is killed by a Serbian nationalist, and by September of that year Germany outlines its intents and plans for War.

In an attempt to visit his beloved Eva, the School Teacher borrows the Baron's bicycle, but before he can even leave the yard he is met by the Midwife, who demands that she be given the bicycle; she knows, she insists, who is the guilty party behind all the these atrocities, and is on her way to the nearby town to report it to the authorities. Dumbstruck, the Teacher permits her to take it away, but as an afterthought he checks her house, which she has boarded up and locked. Has she left her young son there alone? Upon exploring a back window he discovers the children from several families gathered, trying to call in to Kurti, who has apparently been the source of his mother's information.

Suddenly, the School Teacher remembers that these same children had gathered at the Doctor's directly after his accident. One of his students had previously revealed a horrible "dream" about Kurti. Are the children themselves guilty of these horrendous acts?

The Doctor, he soon discovers, has also just left the village, taking along his two children. When he attempts to query Martin and Klara they offer him no information. A talk with their father ends in the Pastor's explosive dismissal of the Teacher, assuring him imprisonment if he dares to tell his fears to anyone else.

Local gossip, meanwhile, tells a terrible tale of the Doctor's and Midwife's ugly relationship, an affair, the locals claim, that began far before his wife's death, and which bore the son they both tried to abort, the retarded Kurti.

Here, the story comes to a conclusion. The War has been declared, and the Teacher is inducted. The voice of an old School Teacher who has been telling this story, now a tailor, has never seen Eva again. He has no real evidence, moreover, of who may have committed all these acts so long in the past.

In a sense, it doesn't matter. Everyone in this small village has in some way been involved in each of these "little atrocities" almost as preparations for the German and Austrian actions of the greater atrocities of both World Wars. Eichwald was simply a microcosm of the culture's transformation of good and kind people into fearful and hateful ones.

Los Angeles, January 3, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli