Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jason Reitman | Up in the Air

by Douglas Messerli

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (screenplay), based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Jason Reitman (director) Up in the Air / 2009

One of the reasons that many people do not like to travel by air these days is the utter impersonality of the trip: the blandly imposing air terminals filled with rushing figures who are herded into lines where they are half undressed and released into the hands of mechanically-smiling stewardesses who hurry them into cramped little spaces where they are discouraged from moving until they reach their destination. Even assembly-line workers might experience more variance. Yet this anonymous world is just what the hero of the dark comedy Up in the Air desires. As Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is described by several women in this film, he is a "man-child" with a phobia for interpersonal relationships. Marriage is clearly not for him. His big goal in life is flying enough miles to receive American Airlines' Ten Million-miler Executive Titanium card. At occasional motivational speeches Ryan teaches people how to travel light, to unload their backpacks, not simply of personal belongings, including their houses and cars, but to free themselves of friends, family, even their husbands and wives:

The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving
is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live
symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.

As a hollow man, Ryan has, perhaps, the perfect job: he and the company for which he works fire employees for "for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves." Day after day, he destroys people's lives without giving it a thought.
Ryan's own home back in Omaha, a place he visits only a few days each year, is a dreary one room apartment with nothing in it except a table, some chairs, and a bed. He lives for the most part in planes, hotel rooms, and bars.

Into this perfectly empty world comes a fellow-shark, the beautiful, witty, and wise Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who seemingly shares the same purposeless passions of Ryan. A minute or two after meeting in an airport bar, they are slapping down airline, hotel, and car rental cards, comparing brands and privileges. The size of Ryan's annual airline miles is quickly turned into a sexual pun, and two rush off to bed with, evidently, several successful rolls in the hay. They seem perfect for one another, clicking open their computer itineraries to determine where and when they can next meet.

Back at the Omaha homebase Integrated Strategic Management has just hired a young Cornell graduate, Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick) who convinces her boss that a less costly and more effective way to lay-off the thousands of employees they process each year is to use the internet. For Ryan, of course, this is not only a major job change but a life change, one, we fear, he cannot manage. He convinces his boss and the inexperienced Natalie that before they transfer to the new system she needs to actually know what it is they do, in other words, how to manage people losing not only their livelihoods but their purposes in life.

Suddenly the film transforms from a dark statement about a hollow man, to a comic road film, as Ryan takes to the air with his new trainee who not only has no clue of what she is about to encounter but cannot even pack lightly for the trip. The experienced Ryan empties her suitcase as easily as he has his motivational backpacks, but he has a harder time in convincing this eager, highly committed young girl that his life has meaning.

The process of education is more than comic, however, as we gradually come to perceive that there is some kindness and even purpose in Ryan's man-on-man firings. At one point when an employee just fired painfully asks how will he be able to care for his children, Ryan answers that he should seek a job doing what he truly wants to do, become a chef for which, according to his resume, he had originally trained. Others are encouraged to see their lay-offs as new opportunities. The dozens of firings we witness are even more difficult to watch when one knows that many of the people were actually real workers only recently laid-off because of our current economy.

Natalie's attempt at firing is less successful, as an older Black woman, upon the young girl's offer of the severance packet, responds that she knows what she'll be doing; "I'm planning on jumping off a bridge near my house."

No matter how distressful their encounters are, however, it becomes clear that real human beings are better bearers of bad news than machines. When Natalie finds out that her boyfriend has left her it is through a text message, to which Ryan quips "It's like being fired over a computer."

In the midst of Natalie's sorrow Alex reappears, and Ryan and her calm things as Natalie intimately discusses her goals in life, the more seasoned pair assuring her that her goals will change. When the older duo announce they plan on crashing a tech convention party, the young girl joins them, and together the three, along with a young man Natalie meets, have a great time, with the audience now strongly rooting for the Ryan's and Alex's budding relationship.

The next day, however, teacher and student are ordered to test out the screen method. A beefy Detroit worker breaks down into tears upon hearing the news, and Natalie is forced to firmly send him on his way. As we watch him leave a nearby room and walk down a hall beside them, we witness her turning away so as not to be seen. What was previously done openly and honestly is now something from which she must hide. Summoned to return to Omaha, the two fly off to continue their work via computer.

The experience of working with someone and the growing pleasure of being with Alex has somehow changed Ryan while altering the audience's perception of him. He suddenly switches his plans, rushing off to his younger sister's wedding in Wisconsin, taking Alex along for the ride.
When on the day of the wedding the young groom suddenly gets cold feet, Ryan is enlisted to talk him into continuing with the affair, a bit like asking an undertaker to help with a childbirth.
Yet the brother who has steered clear of his sisters for most of his life, comes through, convincing the young man that life is only meaningful when it is shared with someone else. The wedding continues with a growing sense of romance developing between Alex and a now more vulnerable Ryan. This time when Alex leaves him on her way to Chicago, we can sense, for the first time, his utter loneliness.

Back in Omaha the computers are up and running, workers using their peers to test the new system. Again Ryan bolts, this time hurrying off to Chicago. The formerly hollow man is nearly desperate, we sense, to fill up his life, to entangle himself with everything he has formerly rejected. The woman who comes to door is called from within by a child and a husband. Alex's backpack is already too full for her to share anything more than one night stands.

A lawsuit has just been filed. The Black woman who threatened suicide has jumped from the bridge and died. Nathalie herself is fired, the computer program cancelled. Ryan is ordered back into the air, a man free to continue his job moving from city to city without even having to come up for air. But the man sitting in first class—whom, it is suddenly announced, has just flown enough miles to receive the 7th American Airlines' Ten-Million Miles Card—is someone else, a man with a heavy heart. "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over," muses Ryan in the closing monologue. For him moving has, at last, become living, while he has become one with his vehicle of motion.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (January 2009).

Alain Resnais | Mon oncle d'Amerique

by Douglas Messerli

Jean Gruault (writer), featuring the writings of Henri Laborit, Alain Resnais (director) Mon oncle d'Amérique (My American Uncle) / 1980

Resnais' My American Uncle is often described as a "didactic" film, since it features the theories of French physician, writer, and philosopher Henri Laborit, who is interviewed from time to time throughout the film by the director himself. Yet, I would prefer to call it a film "structured" around psychological and philosophical ideas in the sense that Resnais' characters are not so much examples of Laborit's ideas, but are closer to living experiments of his theories in the manner that Resnais himself, at one point in the film, comically suggests: as human rats.

These "human rat" figures include René Ragueneau (Gérard Depardieu), Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), and Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre), who each share a strong sense of individual identity, thwarted by family, friends, and the work place. René, born on a farm, is determined to leave home and become a financial success, and ultimately is hired as a textile executive; Janine, raised by a political active Communist family, wishes to become an actress; and Jean, born of a wealthy and well-placed family, seeks political power, becoming for a time the influential director of a state television station like RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française).

Given our current economic situation, Resnais' film seems very contemporary as all three of these individuals lose their jobs, coincidently becoming intertwined in their personal lives and situations. At one point in the film, Jean meets the actress Janine, falls in love with her, and leaves his wife. But their relationship, although filled with passion, flounders when he develops kidney stones. Meanwhile, his wife secretly approaches Janine asking her to allow her husband to return home, since she is near death. Janine, also feeling somewhat entrapped in the relationship, accordingly abandons Jean, but later discovers that the wife has been lying, and that she has now lost her former lover forever.

The painful encounter between them on Jean's family island, and his insistence that he is truly better off with his wife, suggests—as Laborit predicts—that she may react suicidally. Certainly, she seems to have no one or any belief system to turn to in her loneliness and sorrow. Yet Janine, who works now as a designer associated with René's textile company, remains strong, and, agrees with René's boss, that they must fire him as director of the textile firm. When René, who has worked loyally if somewhat unimaginatively all his life, discerns the situation, it is he—the solid Catholic family man, who attempts self-murder. He is saved by a telephone call from Janine shortly after he has tried to hang himself.

In short, if Laborit's predictions sometimes turn out to be correct, they are also miraculously thwarted by coincidence and chance, elements central to many of Resnais' films; and the human rats, accordingly prove more adaptable than imagined, suddenly forging fresh inter-relationships. Life, so Resnais suggests, may not always be a completely fulfilling and joyful experience, but, as these figures demonstrate, neither is anything truly predictable.

The fact is that all three of these individuals also live dream lives, lives of new possibility, represented in Resnais' film by clips from older movies starring Danielle Darrieux, Jean Marais, and Jean Gabin. Although human rats may behave selfishly, imposing their will upon others, although they can force each other to suffer pain or even death, as individuals they can also imagine themselves as someone else, as other beings filled with strength and grace.

Each of these figures also grew up in families that spoke of an "American uncle," a man who had left the world in which the rest of the family remained, a being who, for better or worse, richer or poorer, stood as a kind of talisman for difference or change. These kinds of dreams, these kinds of imaginative possibilities, Resnais makes clear, do not exist for rats. And so the tragedy is over even before it has begun.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kon Ichikawa | The Burmese Harp / Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / Yukinojo henge (An Actor's Revenge) / Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters)

Two images above: from The Burmese Harp

Two images above: from Fire on the Plain

Two images above: from An Actor's Revenge

Two images above: from The Makioka Sisters


by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, Kon Ichikawa (director) The Burmese Harp / 1956, released in the US in April 1967

As critic Tony Rayns notes in his essay accompanying the Criterion re-issue of The Burmese Harp, this film was Ichikawa’s twenty-seventh feature, “his first real landmark in his career.” And “nobody in the industry or the press singled him out as a major talent on the strength of the first twenty-six features, all of them company assignments….” What made this feature so different from those others?

Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio, The Burmese Harp had already received popular success in its literary form. Indeed, it had been an important book in helping to heal the Japanese wounds of World War II. As Ichikawa would later tell Donald Richie, “Oh, but I wanted to make that film. That was the first film I really felt I had to make.” But as Rayns observes, although remaining basically true to the story of the book, Ichikawa made several important changes that bring the film into greater focus, and affect the structure and significance of the work.

The original novel, like the film, is the story of a Japanese company stranded in Burma at the end of World War II, attempting to escape the British attacks by crossing over into Thailand. Without food, forced to march through often mountainous and always unknown terrain, and given little aid by the unsympathetic Burmese (the extent of Japanese war crimes committed in Burma would later be revealed), Captain Inouye’s soldiers are a frightened and vulnerable lot.

Yet, as the novel makes clear upon the return of the survivors to Japan, these men seem in better condition than other war prisoners. The secret, and one of the major themes of both the book and film, is that Inouye has studied music, training his men to sing in an choral style that uplifts their spirits—and, one might add sometimes also sentimentalizes Ichikawa’s presentation of the horrors of war. One of their men, Mizushima, has become an expert on the local Burmese harp, accompanying the men’s choruses, and using the instrument to signal news of his forays as a scout. Dressed in the traditional Burmese longyi, carrying the harp, Mizushima, his fellow soldiers tease, looks just like the locals.

The power of their music is apparent throughout the film, particularly when it briefly allows them a few friendly moments in a Burmese village where they are well fed before the villagers scurry off to their huts. Recognizing a possible trap, and quickly observing that the village has suddenly been surrounded by soldiers, the captain orders his men to sing as a ruse while they prepare for battle. But the song they sing, “Hanyu no yado” (a Japanese folk song that in English we know as “Home, Sweet Home”) seems to charm the enemy, as it joins in the refrain, coming forward without shooting. The scene might be entirely ludicrous were the Japanese not soon after to discover that they have had no choice but to surrender, since their country has capitulated and the war ended three days earlier. Music, accordingly, is represented not only as a force that crosses national boundaries, but is—for these men at least—a true salvation. They survive because they have not been forced to fight.

Another Japanese company in the nearby mountains, however, is still battling with the British below. Inouye is determined that his men and all others must survive to return to Japan and help rebuild the country. Mizushima is sent to attempt to explain to the remaining rebels that the war has ended and they should surrender.

His warring countrymen greet him with disbelief, perceiving him either as an enemy agent or as a traitor. Daring this company’s captain to behave with honor, Mizushima is unable to dissuade the unit, all of which are ultimately killed by the British; Mizushima himself is shot.

In Takeyama’s original book, Mizushima is “found and nursed back to health by a non-Burmese tribe of cannibals, who plan to eat him (a theme that reappears in Ichikawa’s 1959 film Fires on the Plain), but in the film version, the surviving musician is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, which completely alters the perspective of the work, and more thoroughly justifies Mizushima’s later conversion to Buddhism.

At first, however, Mizushima is not all interested in what he might learn from the monk, going so far as to steal the holy man’s robe as the soldier attempts to rejoin his company at a war camp in the south. Yet his long and painful journey (he must climb the rocky mountains and hills barefoot and is near starvation) radically changes him, particularly as he encounters multiple corpses of his countrymen and other soldiers along the way, all unburied, lying in the open prey to buzzards and other scavengers—one of the worst horrors for a man of a culture that reverences their dead. At one point, he is compelled to drag a few corpses away, burning them, carrying their ashes off.

By the time Mizushima has reached water’s edge near the prison camp, he has begun to rethink his entire life. Many critics seem determined to understand his acts emanating only from his traditional sense of Japanese values; indeed my former Temple University colleague and friend Joan Mellen argues in her book The Waves at Genji’s Door that “Mizushima has decided to sacrifice loyalty to a single group for devotion to a larger entity” uniting “himself with the family of ancestors comprised by these dead.” Accordingly, she sees Ichikawa’s film as “whitewashing” the Japanese troops, as a work with a “lack of consistent point of view or personal commitment.”

I see Misushima’s transformation, however, not simply as an attempt to reclaim the Japanese dead—although that is certainly one of his stated goals in his letter to his captain, read aloud at the film’s end—but as a recognition—a fact also mentioned in that letter—of the meaninglessness of his previous acts, the horror of war itself. He has no other moral choice, accordingly, but to escape his role as a soldier—Japanese or other—and take on a new role as Buddhist monk. His poignant refusal to recognize his own former comrades as they come upon one another on a bridge—a scene introduced by the director and repeated, in Rashomon fashion, from each point of view—is, in fact, a different kind of traitorous act. As the comrades repeat his name over and over in their questioning looks, he not only denies their existence, but the actions of all his countrymen, of soldiers of every country. In that very denial, however, he has forged a new moral identity, a transcendent existence.

Yet Ichikawa’s film is not precisely an anti-war film either, and that is perhaps what makes this work so implausibly rewarding. Neither direc-tor nor character lash out against the soldiers and their acts; they have only done what all soldiers are taught to do: to kill, to survive, to serve the higher order of their nation. Their continued wonderment about their former colleague and their determination, des-pite his refusal to recognize them, to have him join them in their return home, perhaps helps to redeem them as well. It is as if the siren song of music might lure him back, and with him some part of their lost selves. One of the most brilliant images of many stunning visual moments in this film is the company singing at the top of their lungs in an attempt to bring back Mizushima across a wire fence, faced by a group of local Burmese, their faces reflecting both the enjoyment and confusion of their enemy’s vocal performance.

The captain goes even further; seeing a parrot on the monk’s shoulder, he buys its brother, teaching it to repeat “Mizushima, come back to Japan.” When the men convince a Burmese woman trader (the wonderful Kitabayshi Tanie, speaking an Osaka-accented Japanese) to give the bird to the monk, we recognize it not just as an attempt to regain one of their lost, but, as the trader suggests, the return of one brother to the other, a temporary joining of the two cultures.

Mizushima’s answer, to return the first bird, whom he has taught to say “I cannot join you,” expresses only the inevitable truth: his spiritual journey can never be reunited to their earthly desires. After the two forces—the men’s voices and Mizushima’s Burmese harp—are once more momentarily and joyfully married, Ichikawa’s camera follows the monk’s silent turn and disappearance into the haze and smoke of the Buddhist landscape where he must remain.

Los Angeles, February 29, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Shohei Ooka; Kon Ichikawa (director) Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / 1959

Just three years after The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa again tackled a story that focused upon the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, this time concerning the retreat of soldiers in the Leyte-Philippine front in 1945. In Fires on the Plain, all traces of sentimentality have disappeared; the commander of this straggling platoon, far less sympathetic than Captain Inouye of the earlier film, begins the movie with a harangue against one of his men, Tamura, who, having contracted tuberculosis, has returned after just a few days at the hospital. His sergeant, who hasn’t enough rations to properly feed any of his men, declares that Tamura is of no use to him, demanding he go back to the hospital and insist upon being admitted. If they will not admit him, he proclaims, he must commit suicide.

The seeming insanity of this command is only the first of a series of absurd demands put upon the living-dead soldiers of Ichikawa’s darkly comedic work, a tale which reminds one, at times, of Beckett’s utterly confused and immobile figures.

Tamura, played by actor Eiji Funakoshi, is what one can only describe as a kind of wise fool, a good and obedient man with little of the ego of the men he meets. When he is told he cannot be given a bed—men still able to walk or even crawl are all refused refuge—he patiently waits with a group of others outside the hospital, many of whom are near death and survive only on tubers the local farmers long ago planted about the countryside.

When the hospital is bombed by American planes most of the bed-ridden patients are killed, as the squatters and hospital staff run for cover, Tamura along with them. The deaths of the escaping patients, forced literally to crawl across the yard in an attempt to escape destruction, is one of the most startling images through which the director reveals the horrors of war.

So begins Tamura’s near endless journey through the Philippine countryside, as he encounters other men from surviving units as they attempt to reach Palampon, where they hope to be evacuated. Sick, malnourished, reduced to eating soil and leeches, Tamura instinctively—if mistakenly—moves away from these soldiers toward the few signs of life he observes, small fires burning across the plains.

That the path he has chosen is the most dangerous one is obvious. At one point, seeing a small church in the distance, he comes across an abandoned town, only to discover outside the small cathedral the bodies of dozens of Japanese soldiers, who en masse have been gunned down. Yet the return of a Philippine couple to retrieve a cache of salt they have buried in their hut, arouses his hopes that he can establish human contact. When he encounters the couple, however, the woman begins to scream uncontrollably, and after silently pleading for her silence, he is forced to shoot, killing her as her husband escapes.

Startled by his own violent actions, he rids himself of his rifle shortly before encountering a pair of outlaw soldiers, Yasuda and Nagamatsu (the later played by popular Japanese entertainer Mickey Curtis), who follow the troops only to sell tobacco in return for food. Gathering with other men at a road and river crossing, they wait for nightfall, hoping to protect themselves from American guns, but as the crossing begins American tanks turn their lights upon the escapees, killing many,

Those living, move gradually forward, some of them prepared to surrender. Again, Ichikawa demonstrates the impossibility of any sane action in war as a young Japanese man, waving a white flag as he runs toward a Red Cross truck, is gunned down by a Filipina guerilla soldier in an American jeep before the Americans can prevent her from what is clearly an act of revenge.

The long march forward is brilliantly captured in a series of dark, satiric images in which one soldier, coming across a dead comrade, steals his shoes, leaving behind his own; a short while later another soldier takes these discarded boots, leaving, in turn, his own nearly soleless shoes behind; another takes these up as he rids himself a shoes without any bottoms.

Near death and nearly mad, Tamura once again encounters his bandit friends, joyful just to be in human company. They offer him monkey meat, but he cannot stomach food and his teeth, now rotten, fall out as he puts it to his mouth. Yasuda, now unable to walk, seemingly cannot survive without Nagamatsu’s help, yet the later sleeps far from him, his bed hidden in the forest, because, as he tells Tamura, he fears his “friend.” And we quickly begin to recognize what Tamura is unable to, that both men are more dangerous perhaps than capture or even death.

As Nagamatsu goes in search of monkeys, Tamura follows him, suddenly witnessing Nagamatsu’s attempt to shoot another soldier before the gun is turned upon Tamura himself. “Don’t worry,” Nagamatsu assures him; he has no taste for infected meat.
The meat they have been eating, quite obviously, is human flesh. When Nagamatsu discovers that his guileless friend has given up his grenade to Yasuda, he hides in waiting, shooting his former companion and, while Tamura looks on in horror, eviscerating his body as he swallows down his innards.

Tamura has no choice but to slip away, running toward another fire he perceives in the distance. Of course it is dangerous to move toward what he has previously been told are places where the natives burn their corn husks, but he is now desperate to reencounter what he imagines as “normal people.”

In war, as Ichikawa has made clear, however, there can be no normality. Gun fire, presumably from Philippine partisans, shoots him down.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Nato Wada (writer), based on a film by Daisuke Itô and Teinosuke Kinugasa), Kon Ichikawa
(director) Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge) / 1963

Film historians report that after a string of financially unsuccessful films—films that, however, were often critically acclaimed—Ichikawa was assigned to remake Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge), based on an older novel by Otokichi Mikami and previously made as three-part serial by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1935 and 1936, starring Kazuo Hasegawa. Critic Donald Richie humorously describes the task to be “like asking Buñuel to remake Stella Dallas.” Yet Ichikawa, working with his wife and life-long collaborator, Natto Wada as the screenwriter, brilliantly rose to the occasion, even employing the original actor, in his 300th movie role, in the lead role of the Kabuki female impersonator Yukinojo and in the role of her secret admirer and the film’s narrative commentator, the thief Yamitaro.

With the use of highly saturated colors and a score that—despite the film’s setting in the Tokugawa period of Japanese history (1603-1867)—employs romantic theme music of the 1950s melodramas as well as contemporary jazz, Ichikawa creates a work that might easily be compared with the films of American directors of the 1950s such as Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.

During the midst of her performance in Edo, Yukinojo catches a glimpse in the audience of the wealthy merchant Kawaguchiya, accompanied by the corrupt magistrate Sansai Dobe and Dobe’s daughter Namiji, the mistress of the powerful shogun. The two men, along with another merchant, Hiromiya, have been responsible for her father’s and mother’s deaths, the facts of which have been kept alive in Yukinojo’s mind by her manager-mentor. After all these years, it is now time for revenge.

It is clear from the very first scene that the beautiful Namiji has fallen in love with Yukinojo—the fact of which, given Kazuo Hasegawa’s advanced age and his retention of the mannerisms and dress of a woman throughout the film, merely accentuates the theatricality and artificiality of the work. Combined with the introduction into the film of Yamitaro, a charming thief from whose attempted robbery and murder Yukinojo escapes—and who comes to admire and perhaps even love Yuinojo—and Yukinojo’s repeated run-ins with Yamitaro’s competitor, the woman thief Ohatsu—who ultimately declares she too has fallen in love with Yukinojo—An Actor’s Revenge might be dismissed as a strange black sex comedy ahead of its time were it not for the Hasegawa’s brilliant acting and Ichikawa’s refusal to permit what we would now describe as post-modern intrusions to alter the focus of his larger-than-life historical adventure: the destruction of the evil men who destroy anyone in stands in the way of their greed and lust for power.

Through repeated gestures of servility to these proud men, several swordfights, wile, stealth and outright lies Yukinojo gains entry to their houses and is a given a modicum of trust which permits her to carefully weave hearsay and rumor into a net of consequences in which each man is ultimately trapped, as they turn against one another and, particularly in the case of Sansai Dobe, destroy themselves.

Unfortunately, the delicate Namiji, a woman—unlike Yukinojo (a man pretending to be a woman) or Ohatsu (a woman with the physical prowess and unchecked confidence of a man)—finds herself trapped in the net as well, and as her innocence is betrayed, dies. Yukinojo leaves the theater and disappears from sight and, eventually, we are told, even from memory.

In her story, however, Ichikawa has clearly created a legend that explores the complex issues of human sexuality more thoroughly than most films of the day.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Shinya Hidaka and Kon Ichikawa (writers), based on the novel Sasame-yuki by Tanizaki Junichirō, Kon Ichikawa (director) Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters) / 1983

Ichikawa’s beautifully filmed adaptation of Tanizaki’s masterwork begins in what is described as 1938 Osaka, at a time when families—in particular the noted Makioka family—join in strolls under the cherry blossoms. These first scenes of the film, rendered in the kind of oversaturated, but slightly fading images that we associate with the cinematic travelogues of the 1940s and early 1950s immediately tells us that this formal display of beauty represented by both the flowers and the carefully chosen kimono costumes of the major characters is a thing of the past, something that will not last.

Indeed, there is a kind of fragility to all of Ichikawa’s scenes throughout the movie, a quality of the film, in its extended close-ups of characters and theatrically presented glimpses into family life, that makes us sense we are witnessing something that at any moment might collapse.

Although Japan is at war throughout much of the film, and the shortages of food and products is every now and then mentioned, one would hardly know from the manner in which these sisters live that Japan was suffering any hardships. Daughters of a renowned shipbuilding father, the four Makioka sisters live in two houses, the larger house ruled over by the eldest, Tsuruko, her businessman husband (who has taken the Makioka family name) and their several children; the slightly smaller home is ruled by Sachiko, a more open-minded and practical woman, married to an accountant (who also is now a Makioka). Because of issues relating to a family “scandal”—the youngest sister Taeko has attempted to elope but the newspapers has mistakenly published the name of the third eldest sister, the quite properly behaved Yukiko—the two have moved out of Tsuruko’s rule and into Sachiko’s smaller domain.

The plot of this complex interweaving of family life, in some respects, bares resemblance to a grand soap-opera; but unlike, say, the American play August: Osage County I review later in this volume, the family battles and sexual intrigues, for the most part, in the work are kept at the level of a whisper. And for that reason, the narrative, at times, is purposely thwarted as characters again and again are cut off in conversation and forced to recover their restraint as servants and other family members come and go; these people most certainly do “duke it out,” so to speak, but smile and bow as they thrust in the knife. The tension this creates demands the viewer pay attention to every word and gesture of this wonderfully talented ensemble, as politesse is subtly transformed into bitter hate, as love quietly acquiesces to despair and pain.

On the surface, the major actions of these sisters center around the third eldest daughter as they attempt to marry her off to a suitable suitor before the independently-minded Taeko ruins all chances of family respectability—something that matters intensely to the Makioka brood.

It is fascinating to watch the procedures as the family meets each potential husband for Yukiko. The formal first meeting with the suitor and family members, however, is repeated in more and more informal settings as Yukiko turns down each marriage offer. The final meeting, with a handsome, young man of a noted family, is a somewhat embarrassing get-together at the man’s own home. Higashiya seems to have tried out every career before becoming a worker in a aeronautics factory, but with him, sitting in the least formal of settings, Yukiko finally finds love.

Taeko, meanwhile, who desires to become a doll-maker, and who lives alternatively with a young “rich kid” without any money and a photographer using her, it appears, to gain a studio, ultimately runs away from home again, this time with the owner of a local bar. When she tells her sister that she now is able to earn money by being a seamstress, we can only note the pained look of Sachiko, as she gently turns away, trying to hide her feelings of shame.

It is this subtlety of feeling and expression along with the genuine love between the sisters and their husbands that saves this work from becoming a Dallas or August: Osage County, that rescues Tanizaki’s great study of mid-20th century Japanese life from a more course expression of stereotypes. Although Tsuruko may imperiously resist her husband’s decision to move his family from Osaka to Toyko, she ultimately gives in to his wishes, seemingly recognizing that despite her desires she cannot continue to live in the past. Although Sachiko clearly suffers over her husband’s illicit affair with Yukiko, she wisely refuses to transform it into a crisis, quietly determining to marry off her sister as quickly as possible.

What is so touching about the relationships of these people is that none of them, except perhaps Taeko, will survive another year. As the fine, melting snow drifting to earth at the end of this film (the original title, Sasame-yuki, means just that: a fine, melting snow) these fragile women, dressed in their elegant wrappings, will likely be unable to suffer through the post-war destruction of Japan. In the last narrative sequence of the film, we witness Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke alone in a restaurant, drinking himself into oblivion as tears fall from his eyes. He has lost his illicit sexual partner, yes, but he seems also to be lapping up what he himself describes as “the poison” he and his family must soon swallow. It is their world, the world of people like the Makiokas, after all, that sent Japan into war.

The final images, set to an almost militantly sweet melody, return us to the picture-postcard world of the early part of the movie, images that we recognize no longer can exist.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (August 2008).
Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Andrzej Wajda | Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds)

by Douglas Messerli

Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda (screenplay), Andrezej Wajda (director) Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds) / 1958

Wajda's masterwork, Ashes and Diamonds, begins in a seemingly bucolic world, with two men, Maciek Chelmicki (performed by the gifted actor Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lying on the ground near a small country chapel. A young girl is attempting to open the chapel door, and asks their help. Slowly the men, clearly exhausted, are roused, Maciek, in dark glasses, taking a long while to awaken. Suddenly another man signals them, a car is coming, and we recognize that we have misread the peaceful scene. The girl is sent off, and, as the car comes into view, Maciek and Andrzej ready their guns, brutally murdering driver and rider.

It is, as we discover later, a botched murder; the two killed were factory workers, not the Communist party leader Szczuka, whom the assassins were ordered to kill. Entering the nearby provincial city on the last day of World War II, the two meet up with a local contact, the secretary to the city's mayor, who gives information, but refuses to participate in their activities. While reporting on their success, Maciek overhears the arrival in small hotel of Szczuka, and realizes their mistake. There is no choice now but to finish the assignment, Maciek checking into a room next to Szczuka's.

Szczuka is in town to celebrate his return from the Russian front and the appointment of the mayor to a ministry position. The banquet is to be held in the hotel itself. Maciek and Andrzej seek out the hotel bar, where Maciek discovers a beautiful barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), and proceeds with a kind a crazed flirtation with her that in his behavior reminds one of a mix the American actors James Dean (Cybulski was later described as the "Polish James Dean") and Marlon Brando. He is clearly toying with danger, daring the world about him, a world where he has daily had to face death.

Both men have been part of the Polish underground, and now hope to defeat the rising Communist influence. Yet neither Andrzejewski's original novel nor Wajda's film side with either the partisans or the Communists. Although a formidable and bureaucratic-like figure (no match for the appealing Maciek), Szczuka has fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and later warns of the dangers of "having power."

Andrzej is called away for further instructions, while Maciek determines the best moment to kill Szczuka is late at night, when the man has fallen asleep. In the meantime, he continues to woo Krystna, eventually seducing her into his room, where the couple celebrate their youth and sexuality at the very same moment that the banqueters celebrate their political futures and the townspeople the end of the war.

Throughout the long night, we begin to see that nothing in this celebratory world is quite right. Through Wajda's brilliantly surreal imagery, we witness a wooden image of Christ hanging upside down in a bombed-out church, a white horse loosed upon the streets. While Maciek and Krystna discover love, the banqueters grow drunker and drunker, ultimately throwing over any remnants of respectability and civility.

In this whirlwind of change, bringing both a corrupt new leadership and hopeful love, the young assassin is confused. He has never before disobeyed an order, but is now seemingly ready to give up his previous ways for the new possibilities of life—a life of young idealism he has never had the opportunity to experience.

Yet the system in which he has been living will not permit escape. Andrzej returns to remind Maciek of his duty.

As Szczuka awaits a car to take him to his son, arrested with a group of failed partisan rebels, Maciek shoots, killing Szczuka; the body falls forward into his own arms so that the two appear to be embracing death together, symbolizing the pact that the Polish people will ultimately make with the Communist forces.

Inside the banquet hall, the participants, worn out and drunk, demand the orchestra play Chopin's Polonaise in A flat: while the tired musicians perform a rendition that is hardly recognizable, the celebrants enact what appears more like a stuporous dance of death than a spirited polka.

Attempting to escape the city, Maciek, spotted by troops, is shot. Stumbling forward he finally reaches the dump at the town's edge, collapsing and convulsing, little by little, into death. Krystna, the diamond of his world, is forced to join in the devil's dance.

Wajda's great film may not openly take sides, but by comparing the death of the beautiful Maciek with the surreal polonaise, we know that Poland's future will not be a thing of beauty, that the ashes of World War II will fall over anything that shines.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tom Ford | A Single Man

by Douglas Messerli

Tom Ford and David Scearce (screenplay), based on a novel by Christopher Ishwerwood, Tom Ford (director) A Single Man / 2009

Tom Ford's first feature film, A Single Man is a beautiful and intentionally serious work, presenting the last day in a Literature Professor's life. George Falconer (brilliantly played by Colin Firth) is a gay man who has lost his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), in an accident, and has since that time lost himself to grief, stumbling through the early 1960s society (the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is played in the background a of couple of times during the film's action) like a dead man walking, unable to connect with his neighbors—the Strunks, with three somewhat obnoxious children—with his students—to whom he attempts to teach Aldous Huxley's novel After Many a Summer Dies a Swan, a book, appropriately about death and longevity—or reconnect with his close woman friend, Charley (Julianne Moore). It is a time when being gay, particularly for a careful and slightly fastidious man like George, is not openly shared; and after having had sixteen apparently happy years with his companion, he is quite frankly all alone in life, a man who at times feels truly singular, if not entirely "single."

To increase the drama of his film version of Isherwood's 1964 novel, Ford has slightly altered the plot so that on this particular day, the day we follow his actions from waking up until his death, George has determined that he will kill himself, ending his utter loneliness and, as he wryly describes his New Year's resolution to Charley, to put to rest the things of the past.

One of the important elements of Isherwood's fiction was, that despite his homosexuality, George was, in fact, an average person, an intelligent ordinary man, whose loss of love had simply led to a great emptiness. And Ford, given the strength of Firth's performance, also attempts to capture that ordinariness. Everything George does during the day, with a couple of exceptions, is set to pattern. As he drives past the play-gun of the neighborhood boy, he cocks his finger and shoots back, he briefly drinks coffee in the faculty lounge before facing this disinterested students, he shops for a bottle of gin Charley has begged him to bring to her party that night, he visits the local bank.

The trouble is that Ford has so beautifully and precisely framed these events, carefully dressing his characters and sets, stunningly lighting his stylish designs, and choosing some of the most beautiful people to portray his odd assortment of figures that he renders George's great angst nearly meaningless. Accordingly, it is hard for the audience to share that character's state of mind.

Yes, George's great love of life has disappeared, the homophobia of the period underlining his lover's death: he is secretly called by a family friend who reports Jim's death, telling him, in no uncertain terms, that the funeral will be a family-only affair, disinviting the most loved "family" member of the deceased. In her attempt to woo him back (Charley and George once had a temporary fling), Charley reveals the sensibility of the time, characterizing George's and Jim's shared life as "not a real relationship." We certainly understand his isolation with regard to the society of the day. As a gay man, as Jim proclaims, and later, as his student reminds him, George is "invisible."

Yet George lives in one of the most beautifully moderne houses possible, all windows and sleek lines. He dresses in well-designed suits. He is helped in his daily chores by a maid. He works only a few hours a day teaching the literature that he, if not his students, most loves. He is adored by his friend Charley, who lives only a few houses away. He drives a Mercedes.

On the day of his intended suicide, moreover, his student, the radiantly fresh Kenny (played by the photogenic Nicholas Hoult) openly flirts with him. A stunningly handsome Spanish James Dean look-a-like (played by eye-catching model Jon Kortajarena) is ready to jump into his car and bed if he wants. And then there's the sky, the glorious sunset over the city of Los Angeles! We are told, of course, that sometimes the most beautiful things are dangerous; that incredible sunset, after all, is a product of pollution, while in the background is a poster for Hitchcock's Psycho. George is apparently in danger, despite all these lovely trappings.

Yet it is hard to completely square Ford's carefully choreographed picturesque sets with the despair George seems ready to embrace. Were it not for Firth's intense commitment to the role, we might break out laughing, as the audience almost does—this humor intentionally sought—when George tries to find a comfortable spot and position in which to shoot himself in the mouth. Fortunately, after thrashing about like a just-caught fish in a sleeping blanket, he fails to find the level of comfort necessary for the act.

After a lovely dinner and intense argument with Charley, George returns home, now more than ever determined to end it; but he still cannot get up the courage. Out of liquor, he runs to the local bar, a kind of gay-straight joint on the nearby beach, wherein awaits his student Kenny.

The two now attempt a game of trying to find just how far the other will go, until they discover themselves swimming naked in the ocean and return home to George's intended house of horrors. Despite the sexual overtones, or even "overtures," no actual sex occurs as George, exhausted by his games, falls asleep after nights of lying awake. He awakens to find Kenny asleep in the other room, guarding the discovered handgun within his blankets to protect the older man. George steals it away from the sleeping angel, locking it up.

Suddenly, he has come through, as D. H. Lawrence might have put it, he has reconnected with a person (an action which Ford heavy-handedly reiterates time again throughout the film by transforming the color of George's skin from gray to a warm yellow-brown whenever he makes close human contact), bringing him a moment of clarity. As George opens the patio door to look at the stars, an owl flies up. Abandoning wisdom and its attendant reservations, George has been redeemed and saved.

But life is not like the movies, particularly not Ford's near-perfect universe; as George returns with his newfound happiness to his bedroom, he falls dead of a heart attack, an irony that almost redeems the film itself.

Los Angeles, December 16, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jean Renoir | La Carosse d'Or (The Golden Coach)


by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, and Giulio Macchi (writers, based on a play by Prosper Mérimée), Jean Renoir (director) Le Carosse d'Or (The Golden Coach) / 1952, released in the US in 1954

Into a backwater Peruvian town of the eighteenth century come an Italian commedia dell'arte troupe, promised a theater and hotel rooms. The local inn has neither and the inn keeper is determined to keep 60% of their profits. Fortunately, they have traveled with their star's, Camilla (played by Anna Magnani), lover, Don Antonio (Odoardo Spadaro), who demands and gets a fairer share.

Their first performance is a near-failure, as the inattentive audience members—most of whom have not been asked to pay—sell and buy goods and applaud and shout at the arrival of the local toreador (Riccardo Rioli). But by the end of the play, Ramon has also been smitten by Camilla.
Next door lives Ferdinand, the Viceroy—whose overdressed mistress and bewigged ministers and servants clearly bore him—overhears the theatergoers applause, which intrigues him enough to invite the theater company to perform in his home, despite his courtier's disdain.

The same boat that brought the company to town also carried his brand-new golden coach, a new display of his wealth and power, which the company has shared as a bedroom.

Meeting the unimpressed and easy-going Camilla in person a few days later, the Viceroy (Duncan Lamont) feels relaxed, even going so far, as the Marquise observes, to "remove his peruke before her." For her part, Camilla reclaims a comb she has left in the golden coach. In short, they literally let down their hair with one another!

Love, of course, follows, with a hilarious series of crisscrossed dalliances, lies, and duels straight out of both commedia dell'arte theater and 19th century farce. Throughout, Renoir frames his various theatrical imitations in a rich Technicolor palette of golds, reds, greens, and blues, as his Columbine plays out love and treachery again and again.

The three lovers, in turn, represent three apposing possibilities for Camilla as the wife of an empty-headed and conceited adventurer (the toreador), a wise and wealthy scoundrel (the Viceroy), or an earnest and honest dreamer determined to live life like the natives (Don Antonio). But her heart, the viewer comprehends, is given over the drama of life rather than reality. She is a born actress despite her complaints, a failure as a lover in the flesh.

As the Viceroy, who has awarded her the golden coach, faces deposition and possible execution for his profligacy, Camilla dramatically saves the day by handing over the coach to the Bishop of Lima, who was to decide the fate of Ferdinand. Her theatrical gesture saves him, but in the process she must give up all reality. Behind a sheer curtain, as the camera pulls away, she is asked "Does she miss real life. "A little" the actress meekly replies, as Renoir's theatrical film comes to a close, leaving his actress locked away in another kind of reel life.

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jean Renoir | French Cancan

by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir (adaptation, based on an idea by André-Paul Antoine), Jean Renoir (director) French Cancan / 1954

It might be fascinating some day to compare and contrast the various versions of films centered around Montmartre's famed Moulin Rouge and the various figures involved—from John Houston's 1952 Moulin Rouge, focusing on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec, to Renoir's French Cancan of two years later, from the 1960 stage-inspired film musical Can-Can to Baz Luhrmann's extravaganza of 2001, also titled Moulin Rouge. All of them perhaps have the word excess in common. Moreover, it is quite revealing to compare Renoir's love-letter to Parisian bohemian life and Walter Lang's rather insipid movie tribute to a dance: while in the American version, the can-can is presented as a revolutionary, scandalous dance fought by the forces of moral reform, Renoir treats the same as a revival of an old fashioned dance that faces only the obstacles of love and money. For the Americans, accordingly, the cancan represents a radical step forward in sexual freedom, while Renoir's French Cancan is a recreation of a romanticized past.

In my estimation, however, only Renoir's movie represents truly great film-making. Unlike the other versions, fettered by psychological revelations, ridiculous turns of plot, and casts of thousands, French Cancan almost entirely dispenses with story in order to present the viewer with a spectacularly colorful image of a bygone era.

Henri Danglard (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) is a down-on-his-luck owner of a small club featuring his lover, Lola de Castro de la Fuente de Espramadura "La Belle Abbesse," a lovely but somewhat talentless belly dancer. One night, slumming it, as we might describe it today, Danglard, "La Belle Abbesse," and friends visit a small Montmartre café where the locals still dance the cancan and other peasant-like trots.

Spotting a beautiful young laundress, Nini (Françoise Amoul) in the crowd, Danglard dances with her, angering his lover, who quickly begins a fight, but not before Danglard arranges a meeting with Nini for the next day.

The impresario suddenly has an idea; he will build a new club, the Moulin Rouge, in Montmartre and reintroduce the cancan as the French cancan, attracting just such people as he and his friends to a safe haven in a somewhat rough, down-and-out neighborhood, alluring his customers by hinting, as the Follies Bergère hand and later Ziegfeld follies would, at sexual licentiousness. From the beginning we know that the place is destined to be a great success!

The only other events that occur are those which center around Lola's jealousness and revenge, the difficulties in raising enough money for the venture, and Danglard's inevitable romancing of Nini, frustrated by her love for her innocent boyfriend and the attentions of Prince Alexandre (Giani Esposito).

We know from the start, however, that eventually things will take care of themselves and that Danglard will have his way: the Moulin Rouge will eventually open; and Renoir speedily takes care of any fragments of the plot so that he can devote the rest of his film to a spectacularly visual recreation of the theatrical event, not perhaps as dizzyingly over-the-top as Luhrmann's massive choruses of shifting torsos, arms, and legs, but still a splendidly beautiful series of performances of whistling, singing (by the incomparable Edith Piaf), and, after removing the onscreen audience, chairs, and tables, presenting an exuberant cancan.

In this, the second of the director's trilogy about love and art, Renoir, not only captures a past world, but seems to call out for a time gone when art was at the center of living, was one of its major avocations. Love may be beautiful, he argues, but it is, even for "La Belle Abbesse" and the randy Dangland, only a past time; art, music, dance, literature, these are the forces that keep one alive! Will Nini find happiness? Will her boyfriend, who has refused to accept her if she sets foot upon the stage, be able forgive her? In Renoir's nostalgic creation, it doesn't matter, for Nini has had the joy of performing, an act that transforms life. Living is, after all, so much less interesting!

Los Angeles, February 23, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jean Renoir | Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men)

by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir (scenario, adaptation, and dialogue), Jean Serge (adaptation), Jean Renoir (director) Elena et les hommes / 1956, USA release 1957

The third of Renoir's trilogies about theatrical life, is subtitled a "musicale fantastique," and indeed, Elena et les hommes plays out, this time using the background of pre-World War I French politics, a kind of fantastic series of musical interludes, dominated by a street song tribute (sung by Marjane) to Paris and French life.

At the center of this farce is a beautiful Polish Countess, Elena Sokorwska (a stunning Ingrid Bergman), who, despite her poverty, pretends a life of great wealth. She is about to marry a wealthy boot-manufacturer, Martin-Michaud (Pierre Bertin), but a few days before the event, lured into the streets by the celebration for Général François Rollan (Jean Marais), she encounters Le comte Henri de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer) who clearly wins her heart. He, in turn, introduces her to Rollan, whereupon, a love triangle is immediately established, continuing a few days later in the country house of Martin-Michaud, whose son, also about to be married, carries on with the servants, while Elena shifts her lovers from room to room—an hilarious series of frames that immediately recalls Renoir's earlier film, Rules of the Game. While that satire, however, had serious consequences, Elena, although occasionally suggesting the state of the nation is at stake, it represents more a theater of the heart than a theater of war; and Renoir seems determined to move entirely out of the realm of realism by ultimately encamping the three in a whore house, surrounded by the police, gypsies, and Rollan's adoring public.

In order to help Rollan escape, Henri must stand in for Elena's lover, as they kiss before a window with the crowds watching below. Elena is, at first, angry with his behavior, but gradually she warms up to his amorous embraces as the crowd is transformed, like beings out of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," into a kissing and embracing tangle of bodies.

Some critics, particularly The New York Times's Bosley Crowther, were outraged by what they saw as an inferior Renoir film. Crowther blamed Warner Brothers executives as having interfered with the cutting: "How this fiasco could have happened is difficult to explain." The work, alternated, he declared, between a romantic drama and a slapstick farce. Jack Warner himself had complained that he found Renoir's plot incomprehensible.*

In fact, Elena et les hommes is a farce from beginning to end, like the films that came before, it is a work that embraces the love of all things theatrical, realities larger than life. Accordingly, the film is also movingly romantic; "Was there ever a more sensuous actress in the movies?" asks Roger Ebert of Ingrid Bergman. Jean Marais is a dashing hero, Henri a handsome lover, and the two of them keep the forceful Elena from having to deal intensely with the reality of her existence. Together they help her rush bravely forward into territory where angels fear to tread, and ultimately reward her with a fabulous life of fiction as opposed to a shabby existence with a venal businessman.

Once again, Renoir celebrates romance over the ordinary, the fantastic over the real, sex over frozen commitment.

*To give Crowther his due, the version he probably saw was the American editing, Paris Does Strange Things, which Renoir disavowed as his own work.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Budd Boetticher | The Tall T / Ride Lonesome / Commanche Station


I must admit that of all film genres, my least favorite, at least as an adult, has been the Western. Of course, I recognize those masterworks of John Ford and the works of the later career of Howard Hawks. I too love the great showdown of High Noon. But by and large, the film Western seldom appealed to me.

When filmmaker Budd Boetticher died on November 29, 2001, however, I determined to discover why he was so admired for films that were described as grade-B westerns. What I saw quite amazed me. And I have become a true fan of his cinematographic gifts and of Randolph Scott’s acting abilities. The films I saw were on badly deteriorated tapes, but in 2008 Boetticher’s four great films—three of which I write about below—were published on DVD.

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (screenplay), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Budd Boetticher (director), The Tall T / 1957

On his way into town to buy a bull, homesteader Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) stops by the stagecoach waystation to visit his friend Hank Parker and his young son. In this early scene we already sense the dangers and tension in director Budd Boetticher’s vision of the frontier, as, observing someone riding his way, Parker immediately grabs his rifle. The boy, however, has better eyes than his father and recognizes the man immediately as their friend, ignoring the calls of his father warning him to remain still, instead running forward with anticipation. As Parker soon after tells Brennan, living “stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself, knowin’ nobody but stage drivers and shotguns,” “ain’t no fit life at all"; certainly it is not a life he wishes for his son.

The child asks Brennan to bring him some candy back from town, a task to which the laconic and kindly farmer readily agrees. But once in town he is tricked by his former employer—a man who would like Brennan to return to work with him—to bet his horse against his ability to break the bull, which if he succeeds he will receive for free. Tossed into a nearby watering trough, Brennan comically loses, forfeiting his horse. After a quick visit to the candy shop, he is forced to walk the several miles back to his farm. While on route, however, the stage, driven by his friend Ed Rintoon, passes him, and he hails a ride—over the protests of the couple who have hired it—back to his stead.

Within the coach sits a cowardly bookkeeper, Willard Mims, and his new bride, a severely plain woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is the daughter of a wealthy copper miner. Clearly, the bookkeeper has married for money, and although the daughter may look plain, we see her through the eyes of Brennan as a quietly beautiful woman (she is after all Tarzan’s beloved Jane). Thus far, accordingly, Boetticher has set up the structure of a seemingly typical Western. We know love will blossom between the lonely Brennan and the miner’s daughter; it is just a question of when or how.

But Boetticher’s Westerns are not usually what they seem, and a few seconds later we enter an entirely different world, where simple black and white values suddenly disappear. When the stage reaches Parker’s station house, we see it has been taken over by three men, Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his quick-to-draw partners Chink and Billy Jack. Parker and his son are nowhere to be seen, and we suddenly perceive that what we are about to witness in the next hour is a terribly dark vision of western life when Chink shoots the coach driver dead and, upon Brennan’s inquiry into the whereabouts of Parker and his son, he is told that their bodies have been tossed into the well where a few hours earlier Brennan had watered his horse.

Before we can even catch our breath from this horrific announcement, Usher orders Mims’s wife to the house to cook, while Mims quickly strikes a bargain to leave his wife behind while he goes back to demand a ransom payment from her father. Accompanied by Usher, Mims speeds away, while the nearly speechless Brennan—the only one of the group who recognizes it may be best to hold his tongue—and Doretta Mims are cornered into a small cave-like shack from which any attempt to exit is met with gunshots.

Mims and Usher return with the news that the miner will be sending ransom by the next day; but if there is question of possible salvation in that fact, one of Usher’s men quickly shoots Mims dead. While Brennan has hidden the fact from the wife that Mims has offered her up for ransom, Usher and his boys now make it clear just how disgusting his role has been, and Doretta beaks down into fearful sobs. Later, Brennan, trying to help her regain her equilibrium, discusses the ridiculousness of her marriage:

PAT BRENNAN: Did you love him?
DORETTA MIMS: I married him.
BRENNAN: That’s not what I asked.
DORETTA: Yes! Yes, I did.
BRENNAN: Mrs. Mims, you’re a liar. You didn’t love him, and never for
one minute thought he loved you. That’s true, isn’t it?
DORETTA: Do you know what it’s like to be alone in a camp full of
roughneck miners, and a father who holds a quiet hatred
for you because you’re not the son he’s always wanted?
Yes, I married Willard Mims because I couldn’t stand being
alone anymore. I knew all the time he didn’t love me, but
I didn’t care. I thought I’d make him love me….by the time
he asked me to marry him, I’d told myself inside for so long
that I believed it was me he cared for and not the money.

Such language seems to belong more to the psychological stage dramas of the day—works by William Inge and Tennessee Williams—than the adventure genre of Western movies.
Soon after, moreover, Boetticher’s screenplay writer, Burt Kennedy, takes the drama even further into new territory as the cruel murderer Usher reveals in a conversation with Brennan that he hopes one day to get himself a place, “something to belong to,” and settle down. Usher goes so far as to insult the two men with whom he rides as “nothin’ but animals.” Brennan sees through the murderer’s self-delusions, however, reminding Usher, “You run with ‘em.” “Nothin’ you can do with ‘em,” Usher replies. “Nobody ever tried,” rejoins Brennan.

Indeed, there is something almost homoerotic about Usher’s controlling and manipulative relationship with the two younger villains. And in this fact, there is also a quality in Usher—in his inability to control his own apparent instincts despite his ideals—that makes him oddly likeable, as if given half a chance he might have turned into a man more like Brennan.

We know however, despite Brennan’s absurd assurances to Mrs. Mims, (“Come on now. It’s gonna be a nice day”) that if he does not act quickly they too will be destroyed. As Usher rides off to collect the ransom, Brennan tricks Chink into believing that Usher intends to leave without them, and the young man quickly rides after Usher. Suggesting to Billy Jack that he “look in on the woman,” he captures the boy’s gun and kills him. When Usher and Chink return, Brennan shoots them dead, walking off into the sunset with Doretta Mims. He will no longer be alone in “the middle of nowhere.”

There is something so dark and grandly absurd about this work that one recognizes its influence upon the work of a contemporary, postmodern dramatist such as Sam Shepard.

Los Angeles, October 17, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Ride Lonesome / 1959

Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome begins where most Westerns end, with its bounty-hunter hero Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) catching up with the murderer Billy John (James Best). Billy, thinking he has outwitted Brigade, is waiting for him, threatening a show-down before revealing he has hidden his men behind nearby rocks, and warning Brigade that if he doesn’t turn around and leave, he’ll be killed. The wily Brigade, however, admits that he may die, but not before he “cuts” Billy John “in half.”

The dim-witted criminal calls off his men, com-manding them to tell his brother and his gang that he has been captured, and throughout the rest of the movie, we await the arrival of Frank and his men to save his younger brother.

Meanwhile, Brigade moves forward with his prisoner to the nearby way station. But as in The Tall T, they realize that something is wrong as they discover two other outlaws, Sam Boone and his long-time partner Whit (James Coburn) have taken charge of the place. Inside waits Mrs. Carrie Lane, before she enters the scene, rifle in hand, in an attempt to run them all off; her husband, evidently, has gone to round up some missing horses, leaving her alone. She obviously is a hardy and seemingly unintimidated pioneer woman, ready to defend her domain—until a coach comes crashing into the station, its driver and all passengers killed, evidently, by the nearby Indians. Suddenly, it is apparent that her husband is in danger, and that, if Brigade wants to move forward to Santa Cruz with his prisoner, he must join forces with the outlaws.
An overnight stay at the way station reveals the increasing attraction of the men to Mrs. Lane, in particular Boone, who has “seen…in her eyes” that she is “the kind that got a need.” To Boone’s description of Carrie as a beautiful thing to look at, Brigade replies, with the laconic wit of Burt Kennedy’s writing, “She ain’t ugly.”

While the group awaits the Indians, it becomes apparent that Boone and Whit have gathered at the way station to await Brigade; Boone wants to take Billy John in for the reward, not of money, but of amnesty (a word which has taken him a long time to comprehend). For like Usher in The Tall T, Boone wants to settle down on a small ranch he’s purchased (“I got me a place. Ain’t much—not yet it is”); amnesty will free him from his past crime and his role as a gunfighting outlaw; but, obviously, before they can take in Billy John it is clear that he must kill one more time.

When the Indians finally arrive the next morning, it is not to fight but to trade a horse for Mrs. Lane. Brigade pretends to play along with them, hopeful that when he refuses the horse as an insufficient price, they will ride off. Warning Carrie not show any fear in front of the Indians, they ride forward in pretense of the trade; when the chief presents the horse, however, Carrie suddenly breaks down: the horse, she recognizes, is her husband’s.

Brigade and his small group ride off, hoping to outrun the Indians to another, burnt-out way station, a feat they achieve, killing the Indian chief as the other Indians escape. In the run, however, Carrie’s horse has fallen, and Ben spends the night watching the horse, hoping that he can convince it to again stand, while the others urge him to simply shoot it. When, come morning, it finally stands, Boone summarizes the situation: “Looks like we don’t need to shoot him either.”
Their leisurely movements forward brilliantly reveal the potential dangers through composer Heinz Roemheld’s music, which begins as an almost familiar horse ambling tune which sickeningly spirals down into the minor scale before returning to its original cowboy-like melody. Repeated over and over throughout the movie, we sense the dread of all those concerned.
When the group finally beds down near an old hanging tree, Boone realizes he must act. Trying to explain to Carrie his position:

BOONE: I got ‘a kill him.
CARRIE: Two dogs fighting over the same bone.

Yet Boone and Whit have come to realize that Brigade’s trip to Santa Cruz has been an inordinately slow one, as he meanders toward his destination in the open, for all—Indians and Frank and his gang—to witness. In a conversation with Carrie, Brigade’s actions become apparent: it is not Billy John in whom he is interested, but his brother Frank, who years earlier—when Brigade was sheriff—abducted Brigade’s wife, hanging her on the tree beneath which they now stand.

When Frank and his men finally do catch up, Brigade has strung Billy to the same tree and is ready to hang him if the elder brother does not come forward alone. Frank has little choice: if he shoots, Billy will be hung, and if doesn’t he will be killed by Brigade. The outcome is inevitable.
To his horrific crime of the past, Frank has nothing to say but, “I ‘most forgot.” History, as it is for Boone and Whit, is something to be forgotten. Only moral men such as Brigade can allow memory to guide their acts.

Having achieved his goal, Brigade allows Boone to take in the prisoner and possibly redeem his life, and, as Boone and Carrie ride off to the civilized world, Brigade can be seen burning the hanging tree: the past is laid to rest at last.

Los Angeles, October 14, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Comanche Station / 1960

The last of Budd Boetticher’s westerns with actor Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, presents a familiar pattern for those who have seen his films. Although the movie begins with hero Jefferson Cody seeming to be captured by Comanche Indians, it soon again becomes apparent that the more dangerous of enemies are the renegade cowboys. For Cody has purposely sought out the tribe to trade for a white woman whom they have captured. Although we are not told until late in the film, we discover that Cody’s wife has been taken ten years before, and during the lonely years since he has continued to seek her out, trading for the lives of many captured pioneer wives.

It only takes a few minutes after the woman’s release before writer Burt Kennedy and director Boetticher begin a series of humorous and, at times, near-absurd dialogues that pepper their cinematic collaborations. In response to Cody’s bemused question, “All right what’s your name?” the woman answers straightforwardly: “Nancy. Lowe,” to which Cody oddly replies, “I should have known.” A few minutes later, Nancy says, “So you came after me. Why?” “I thought it was a good thing,” wryly responds the former soldier. It is often the verbal wit of these films more than the inevitable action scenes that make Boetticher’s works so original.

As the two ride in to Comanche Station, a waystation typical of the Kennedy stories, they are met with three outlaws, Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his younger partners Frank and Dobie. Cody has known Lane from army life of long ago, when Lane had so brutally killed Indians that Cody, then a major, testified against him, resulting in a court martial for Lane. Lane and his followers, it seems, have been on the track of Mrs. Lane, determined to bring her back for the reward of $5,000 offered by her husband.

It soon becomes apparent that in order to claim the money, Lane and his boys will have to kill Cody and, in order to escape suspicion, Mrs. Lane as well; after all, her husband has offered the money for his wife, dead or alive! But since they must first pass through the remainder of Comanche country, they now need Cody’s help, and Cody needs them to help get him and the woman back to civilization.

In several of the films of this series, the Randolph Scott figure, in his need for temporary friendship, seems almost to admire some of the young villains he encounters, and a kinship is often established between the obvious “good” cowboy and the “bad” men. Dobie recognizes Cody immediately as a good man, a man of the type his father had wished he might become, a man who to his way of thinking has “amounted to something”:

DOBIE: A man does one thing, one thing in his life he could look back
on…go proud. That’s enough. Anyway, that’s what my pa used
to say.
FRANK: He talked all the time, didn’t he.
DOBIE: Yeah. He was a good man. Sure is a shame.
SHAME: Shame?
DOBIE: Yeah, my pa. He never did amount to anything.

Unlike the other villains of this series, however, Ben Lane has no intentions of giving up his evil ways and settling down to farm life. Accordingly, he is perhaps one of Boetticher’s least appealing villains. But the other two men, particularly the young, “gentle” Dobie, who cannot abide the idea of killing the woman, offer Cody more kinship.

Dobie would clearly like to fulfill his father’s desire. And in his profound loneliness, Cody offers him a way out that is as close to an offer of deep friendship—and an obviously homoerotic relationship— than we had seen in this genre to date.

DOBIE: Me and Frank were riding together up Val Verde Way. Frank was
alone, same as me. And we heard about this fella who was looking
for some guns. We’ve been with him ever since.
JEFFERSON CODY: You’ll end up on a rope, Dobie. You know that.
DOBIE: Yes, sir.
JEFFERSON CODY: You could break with him.
DOBIE: I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about that a lot. Frank says, “A man
gets used to a thing.”
JEFFERSON CODY: Dobie, when we get to Lawrenceburg, you can ride with me
for a ways. A man gets tired being all the time alone.

The boy practically gushes in appreciation like a courted maiden. Sadly, fate determines that Dobie will not escape. While on lookout, Frank is killed by the Comanche’s, and Dobie is forced to stay with Ben. After crossing Comanche territory, Cody steals their rifles and sends them off into the wilds in order to protect the woman and save his own life.

As we have already been told by Lane, however, he has a plan. Having hidden away another rifle, he insists that Dobie wait for him at a point past where Cody and Mrs. Lowe will have to pass. When Dobie refuses to participate, Lane shoots him in the back.

The resounding murder, however, saves Cody and the woman, and the inevitable showdown ends with Lane’s death. Mrs. Lowe is returned to her husband, whom we discover has not himself come to save her because he is blind. Her physical beauty, so readily observed by the other men, has meant nothing to him: like Cody, John Lowe’s love is clearly a love that transcends.

The final view we have of Jefferson is as he passes behind a large domed rock, coming into view again at a far lower elevation from where he have just observed him. It is as if Cody, a man who once amounted to something, without wife or even someone “to ride with,” has collapsed into the landscape over which he formerly prevailed.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

G. W. Pabst | Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera)

by Douglas Messerli

Béla Balázs, Léo Lania, and Ladislaus Vajda (writers), based on a musical drama by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Kurt Weill (music and lyrics), G. W. Pabst (director) Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) / 1931

Only that man survives
Who’s able to forget.
—Kurt Weill
G. W. Pabst’s expressionistic production of Brecht’s and Weill’s Threepenny Opera has many failings, and perhaps for the director’s excising of most of that work’s original songs, he deserved to be sued, as he was, by its creators; however, they lost the suit. Although the film contains a fair amount of dialogue and reproduces several of Weill’s noted songs, for the most part Pabst uses the tropes of silent film making, shooting many of his scenes in the melodramatic overstatement of a time before the “talkies.” He basically presents the songs, moreover, as dramatic commentary by the musical narrator.

Nonetheless, Pabst’s carefully framed sequences do capture the overall sense of the Brecht-Weill original, and the excellent performances by Carola Neher (as Polly), Rudolf Forster (as Mackie Messer) and Lotte Lenya (in her signature role of Jenny) redeem his rhetorical approach. In a sense, of course, the theatrical conventions used by Pabst recreate some of the Verfremdungseffekt (the alienating effects) of Brecht’s original.

For the first half of the musical, we go along with the suave manners of the anti-hero as the narrator sings of Mackie’s seemingly coincidental (and apparently unproveable) involvement in a series of robberies, murders, and sexual escapades. His clumsy wooing of Polly as he sweeps her into an underground bar were he intimidatingly stares down two men, a Laurel and Hardy-like pair who we later discover are his own henchmen, in order to take over their table, demonstrates his true temperament. The important thing in these scenes is that Polly appears to be a complete innocent about to become prey to Mackie’s machinations.

The hilarious preparations for the suddenly announced wedding between the two, including the arrest, soon after, of one of the gang members while carrying a wedding present of a stolen grandfather clock, ultimately reveals Mackie’s close friendship with the Chief of Police, Tiger-Brown.

No sooner has the viewer recovered from that revelation than the script lets us know that the innocent seeming Polly is the daughter of “the poorest of the poor,” the wealthy Beggar King. Suddenly Polly is wise to all of Mackie’s doings, asking outright: “Is all of this stolen, Mackie?”
Polly’s powerful explanation of why she has married Mackie is one of the high points of Pabst’s production:

You must be cold and heartless as you know
Or else all sort of things happen
You must say no.

But because Mackie has not offered any of the nice things a young lady in her position might expect, because he has been so crude and clumsy in his attempts at romance, she admits she had no choice this time ‘round, but to say yes: “You can’t be cold and heartless now!”

Discovering that his daughter has run away with Mackie, the Beggar King Peachum demands that Tiger-Brown bring him to justice, and when the Police Chief wavers, he threatens to interfere with the Queen’s coronation by organizing a staged protest by the beggars, who marching toward the Queen will be somewhat impervious from violent threats—after all, what will it say of the Royal family if the police heartlessly shoot down these poverty-stricken citizens as they attempt to “pay homage” to the Queen.

Hearing of her father’s intentions, Polly convinces Mackie that he must escape. And he, in turn, hands over the operation of his underworld activities to his wife. Returning to his prostitute friends, Mackie is betrayed by Jennie and, after several attempts at escape, is arrested. One of the best moments of this film is Mackie’s sudden appearance upon the brothel’s rooftop minutes before we observe his arms and hands maneuvering along the building’s drainpipe.

While Peachum plans his protests, Polly takes the gang’s ill gotten money and purchases a bank. Dressed now as bankers at a board meeting, Polly and the former gang members clearly demonstrate Brecht’s theorem that there is little difference between robbing a bank and controlling other’s money.

When Peachum’s wife announces that Polly and Mackie will be attending the coronation, sitting in the stands near where the Beggar King’s minions will attempt to interrupt the event, Peachum runs off to stop the march. Pabst’s brilliant presentation of their slow robot-like forward advance makes clear that Peachum has unleashed a monster in riling up the masses!

The Queen’s absolute terror in facing her people, moreover, explains everything, particularly the survival of those who can forget. In Pabst’s handling nearly all the action takes place while the screen goes dark, reiterating Weill’s observation: “Some men live in darkness, while others stand in light.”

At film’s end, Peachum also willfully forgets, joining forces with his banker-daughter and Mack the Knife. Together they will rule the world, the wealthy and the poor alike.

Los Angeles, August 6, 2009Both essays reprinted from Nth Position [England] (May 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli