Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jacques Rivette | Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais)

by Douglas Messerli

Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Jacques Rivette (writers), Jacques Rivette (director) Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais) / 2007; USA release 2008

Antoinette, Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), a woman known throughout Paris as a beauty and wit, is clearly bored by her husband—who is absent throughout this film. At one of the innumerable parties she attends, this at the mansion of her friend Clara de Sérizy (Anne Cantineau), she is introduced to the famed Napoleonic hero, Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), and like any beauty of the day, she quickly circles in to dazzle and captivate him. By evening’s end he is anticipating a visit to her home the next day with intent of making her his mistress.

The great film director, Jacques Rivette, who came of age in the 1950s and has directed over 20 very full-length features since, has chosen two actors, neither of whom are figures of great beauty, but who in their physical bearing and evanescent personalities are extremely successful in drawing attention to themselves. As Montriveau, Depardieu broodingly hobbles and stomps about the high society soirees given by the Duchess’ friends like a buffalo let loose in a formal tea garden. His polar opposite, Antoinette, carefully costumes herself and postures her positions in extended flirtatious assaults upon the addle-brained hero, eliciting, in small segments, his boringly straight-forward tale of his adventures as if it held for her the same interest as the tales of Scheherazade. The Duchess may be a bit past her prime, but she is a genius when it comes to acting the siren.

For weeks she draws the hero to her, only to speed him on his way as she prepares for endless social events. In an interview with Jeanne Balibar, the actress declares that she sees the work as being about sex, “…more particularly about two people trying to reach an orgasm at the same moment. The two hours of the film are really about synchronizing their simultaneous orgasms.” And there is some truth to what she says. Rivette has created a tension-ridden work that builds into a kind Tristan and Isolde-like fervor in which the sexual excitement can never truly be released.

As Antoinette artfully toys with Montriveau, her aunt, the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry (stunningly portrayed by Rivette regular Bulle Ogier) warns her “He is akin to an eagle—you will not tame him.” Soon after Montriveau clumsily retaliates, abducting the Duchess on her way home from a ball (at which Rivette’s camera brilliantly captures a Quadrille in its most formal enactment) threatening her with both possible rape—the idea of which he quickly abandons—or branding her between the eyes—presumably both as a testament to her sinful behavior and a declaration of his property rights. Her seeming acquiescence to the latter choice destroys any possible pleasure he may receive from such a ridiculous act.

As several critics have correctly pointed out, the real battle here is not just between the sexes but between the times, between the shifting ideologies of eras. Montriveau, the war veteran, is of the Napoleonic era, a period of forceful and impulsive soldiers, while the Duchess is clearly a representative of the Restoration, a time of returning to civility and grace. Of course, the Duchess, despite her own claims that she is simply acting in a manner to protect her good position and name, is anything but civil; and by film’s end, having run her entire being along the edge of Montriveau’s axe (the original French title of this film is Don’t Touch the Axe), she has fallen desperately in love in a way that only romantic heroines can, willing to risk everything for the restoral of their relationship. Sending her carriage in broad daylight to Montriveau’s door, while she remains at home, Antoinette commits societal suicide.

The director parallels this clash of the eras by framing the episodes of the film with archaic-sounding titles, that in their silent film-like parody, create a near-comic effect for contemporary audiences. Like Balzac’s characters, we have no choice but to recognize ourselves as completely displaced observers of this seethingly romantic and sentimental tale. At first, I must admit, this humorous post-modern intrusion upon Rivette’s otherwise richly textured and lushly colored costume-drama irritated me. Did we really need to be reminded of living so far outside this anything-but-story-book romance? Upon second thought, however, the story-board interruptions utterly reiterate how ludicrous and out of touch Armand is with the world around him. Montriveau is a hero in an unheroic age, in a time when manner and dress, the artifice of life, has replaced action. And in the end, he is given no choice but to refuse to act at the very moment when his lover is betting her whole life on his impulsiveness. Her only choice now is to run away, to escape from the stasis of her everyday existence.

When Armand finally uncovers the Duchess, now a Carmelite nun living in a Majorcan Convent under the name of Sister Teresa, his attempt to retrieve her is too late. He and his friends storm the convent just as the other nuns began to celebrate a mass for the dead. Breaking in upon her room, he discovers the shocking evidence that Teresa herself is the body being “celebrated.”
While neither the original novella nor the film make it clear, we can only suspect that his earlier conversation with her at the Convent in the presence of the Abbess contributed to her death. In punishment for her lies, was she starved, tortured by the nuns themselves?

As Montriveau’s colleagues argue at film’s end, it no longer matters. The Duchess does not exist: “THAT was a woman once, now it is nothing. Let us tie a cannon ball to both feet and throw the body overboard; and if ever you think of her again, think of her as of some book that you read as a boy," argues one of Armand’s friend in both the Balzac text and Rivette’s film.

"Yes," assents Montriveau, "it is nothing now but a dream." His time, indeed his life, he finally recognizes, has come crashing to a close.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2007
Reprinted from Nth Position [England], (February 2008).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Robert Altman | A Prairie Home Companion

by Douglas Messerli

Garrison Keillor (writer), Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZenik (story), Robert Altman (director) A
Prairie Home Companion
/ 2006

Directed by one of America’s most noted filmmakers, Robert Altman, and with a screenplay by the beloved humorist and radio-host Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion was perhaps one of the most anticipated films of the lackluster 2006 film season. Despite some critical appreciation, however, the film mostly garnered mediocre reviews, in particular in the widely-read New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. A. O. Scott of the latter paper perhaps summarized the comments best in his characterization of Keillor and Altman’s collaboration: “Together they have confected a breezy backstage comedy that is also a sly elegy: a poignant contemplation of last things that goes down as smoothing and sweetly as a lemon drop.” In summary, the New York paper noted that Keillor’s “weekly cavalcade of wry Midwestern humor and musical Americana has never set out to make anyone’s hair stand on end. Notwithstanding the occasional crackle of satire or sparkle of instrumental virtuosity, it mostly offers reliable doses of amusement embedded in easygoing nostalgia. It looks back on—or, rather, reinvents—a time when popular culture was spooned out in grange halls and Main street movie palaces….” The movie, Scott concluded, was “more likely to inspire fondness than awe.”

Similarly, David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, noted that Altman and Keillor are very similar in the smooth flow of their work—Altman in the movement of his camera and Keillor through the tales of his tongue. “…A bit of tension might have helped the movie. A Prairie Home Companion has many lovely and funny moments, but there’s not a lot going on. Dramatically, it’s mellow to the point of inertia.” Evidently preferring the radio show to the movie, critic Carina Chocano observed, “The Prairie Home Campanion of the movie is hardly the middlebrow juggernaut known to listeners. Instead it’s been converted to kitsch museum, which might as well house a giant ball of string. The improvised patter is funny and sharp, the music kicky and the nods to fake sponsors familiar, but without Keillor’s monologue and the show’s collective inclusion on the joke, the movie falls into a strange nostalgia for something that hardly anyone remembers.”

The Los Angeles Times' evaluation is particularly interesting given the fact that I saw this film as an apologia of sorts for just the “strange nostalgia” so apparent in Keillor’s radio show. In this sense, the movie I witnessed—which clearly is not the same movie seen by these critics—is a requiem of sorts, a musical celebration for the dead, a kind of secular mass in celebration and confession of the tongue-and-cheek, slyly winking art that Keillor has brilliantly performed over these many years. It is almost as if Keillor were telling his American audiences—as Star Trek star William Shatner once told an avid fan—“Get a life!” Keillor and Altman do work brilliantly together, but their artifact, far from being a smooth-running linguistic machine, is actually a gathering of disparate and dissociative individuals and events that merely pretends to represent a larger whole. As Chicago Tribune reviewer Michael Phillips perceptively commented, Altman “captures a sense of ensemble and, at the same time, an ensemble dissolving into individual puzzle pieces—outsiders all, everybody doing their own thing.”

Pretense, indeed, is the major subject of this film. The performers crowding St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater stage are as romantic as F. Scott’s Daisy and Gatsby, larger than life figures creating their own realities as they go along. The hilarious cowboys, Dusty and Lefty (typological names for American cowpokes) may harmoniously sing and joke their way through their performances, but offstage they bicker perpetually over each other’s behavior, weight, and physique, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) being particularly concerned by the obvious outline of Lefty’s (John C. Reilly) butt crack—hardly the usual subjects of discussion by such archetypes of American mythology. If the two might imagine themselves onstage as joke-spinning Lotharios, their offstage relationships with women consist of child-like humor such as pretending ignorance of the assistant director’s pregnancy, which former detective Guy Noir jokingly reveals by lifting up her blouse.

The two remaining sisters of the former Johnson family act (“The Carter family. Like us only famous”), Yolanda and Rhonda (brilliantly performed by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) recount in offstage conversations an absurd series of events centered on their hard-working mother’s attempts to keep the financially strapped family together. Their sister, suffering a hypoglycemic attack, is arrested and jailed for eating a doughnut without paying; upon hearing of her arrest, their shamed father suffers a stroke and dies.

Their lives, we discover, are also intertwined with Keillor’s: he later recounts how he saved a naked man attached to a runaway kite. In search of employment he and his new-found “friend” head to Chicago, but, tiring of his company, Keillor purposely leaves him behind in Oshkosh, where his former companion meets Yolanda and marries her. Years later, Yolanda and Keillor also have an affair. In short, these sisters represent their whole world as a kind of extended dysfunctional family. In response to these and other changes in her fate—including the final performance of the ongoing show the night of the film’s action—Yolanda speciously argues that when-ever one door closes, another opens up. No matter that behind the new door there might be even more disasters in store, in her cul-de-sac of logic, she floats through a life—with her more cynical and savvy sister beside her—that is no more believable than the stories she relates. When in the final scenes of the movie her daughter Lola gets her “big break”—performing a disastrously improvised rendition of “Frankie and Johnnie”—Yolanda perceives it as the new opportunity she has been seeking; never mind that the young, suicidally inclined girl has little stage talent. The film later reveals she has a head for business.

Keillor does not spare himself in his revelation of individual pretense. On stage the brilliantly glib commentator comes alive, but offstage he is presented as an unemotional and seemingly unfeeling human who refuses even to announce the death during the show of fellow singer L. Q. Jones, who has died while waiting in his dressing room to consummate his love with the set’s “lunch lady.” When asked, “What if you die some day?” he coolly responds, “I will die.” “Don’t you want people to remember you?” “I don’t want them to be told to remember me.” Unable to accept the fact that Keillor has obviously “closed the door” on their relationship, Yolanda continues to chastise him even during a moment of onstage improvisation.

Hovering over these self-pretending beings is “the dangerous woman,” seen by some but not by all. To Keillor she recounts her own death which occurred when she lost control of her car while laughing at his “A Prairie Home Companion” penguin joke (a joke—featured on the actual radio show—that Keillor delivered in such a badly mangled way that it became a recurring skit):

Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin
says, “you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo. “The second
penguin says, “what makes you think I’m not?”

She asks Keillor, “Why is that funny?” “I guess because people laugh at it.” “I’m not laughing,” she replies.

Indeed, it is not “funny” in a standard sense. As Henri Bergson tells us, most humor is based upon incongruity, upon something that would not be normally funny if it actually happened to us. The penguin joke—a perfect example of what Bergson describes as “inversion”—works because it so openly reveals our desire to accept the simulacrum instead the real. Since the penguin vaguely looks like he’s dressed in a tuxedo he may be actually dressed in a tuxedo. The joke points to our desires to believe in a reality that we know is untrue, our willingness to be gullibly deceived.

This joke, in fact, is at the heart of Altman and Keillor’s film. For the “strange nostalgia” that A Prairie Home Companion evokes is, like the penguin, a simulacrum of the American past, a past so wittily and craftily presented that Americans want to believe it even while recognizing its falsity. So too does this film present onstage a musical world so engaging—the songs, whose lyrics mostly were created by Keillor himself, seem close enough to the real thing that we enjoy them as if they were classics—that despite what the film has revealed about the offstage lives of these figures, audiences (the false audience of the film, the “real” film-going audience, and, evidently, most critics) cannot help but feel the immense pleasure of swallowing the sweet lemon drop.

The “dangerous lady,” however, is more than dangerous and more than a lady, for she is the angel of death, Asphodel. In nature, the asphodel is a narcissus-like flower. Accordingly, this “angel” suggests that we often love ourselves and our past, perhaps, more than a present filled with other living beings. Death is, so to speak, “in the house,” and she mercilessly slays not only a singer and the visiting Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) out to destroy this artifice of nostalgia, but ultimately everything and everyone upon who she casts her cold eyes. As Keillor has warned us, he too will die—and so too will we. But the question remains, will we live our lives in acceptance of the truth of being or will we remain, like Yolanda and the other performers of homespun travesty, trapped in a mythologized invention of our experiences.

Keillor and Altman reveal that such a view of reality can only end up with Americans facing the same philosophical endgame that Yolanda claims to joyfully embrace. Americans, Keillor and Altman suggest, are so desperate for the simulacrum, so much in love with the sentimentalized past epitomized in dramas such as Our Town—a scene from which Yolanda quotes early in this film—that we are readily willing to abandon the truth of our daily lives. What will it take to awaken us? Keillor warns, “We are not a beach people. We are a dark people who believe it could be worse, and are waiting for it,” a people afraid of the light.

Within the movie, the characters do not awaken but, while dreaming of reviving their show, die, playing out their imaginary lives even in the sweet bye and bye:

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell us what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked about something to eat,
They just answer in accents so sweet:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land in the sky!
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good,
There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 5 (November 2006).
Copyright (c) 2006 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Preston Sturges | The Palm Beach Story

by Douglas Messerli

Preston Sturges and Ernst Laemmle (writers), Preston Sturges (director) The Palm Beach Story / 1942

One the funniest of films about the institution of marriage, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, almost did not get made. The script, originally titled Is Marriage Necessary?, was rejected by the powerful censors at the Hays Office several times—despite continued changes—for its “light treatment of marriage and divorce,” along with its “sexual suggestive” situations.

It’s hard to imagine what those revised situations might have been, but they certainly would have had to involve Mary Astor’s man-hungry character, Princess Centimillia, who criticizes her would-be lover, Captain McGlue (Joel McCrea) (in the film’s reality, Thomas Jeffers, the husband of Geraldine [Claudette Colbert]), who accuses him, at one point when they are dancing, of “letting her flop around.” This is a woman who has been married, in the original script, eight times (plus two annulments), and she wants most definitely to be held tightly.

But letting her “flop around” might also be Gerry’s complaint of Tom, who, because of his inability to support her, lets her slip away to flop where anyone will let her, staying one night in a train car filled with gun-toting, drunken millionaires of the “Ale and Quail” Club, and literarily losing all her clothes. She has escaped the Club’s railroad car because of because they have taken up target practice with their rifles; the engineer orders the car that car to be uncoupled and left.

By the next day at the she has been invited to be a guest in the palatial estate of America’s richest man, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), an obvious jibe at John D. Rockefeller.
Tom is a ridiculous dreamer, an architect who is trying to build airplane landing nets that hang over downtown city streets! If he could only raise $99,000 to test it out!

Before her amazing voyage from New York to Palm Beach, the couple was about to lose their glamorous apartment, with the grocery bill is growing larger every day. Gerry, a long-legged beauty, insisted she could do something about it and packed her bags to prove her theory.

Apparently, she was right, for just by standing in her bathroom in her wrapper the hilariously near-deaf Wienie King (Robert Dudley) handed her a substantial amount of money, and on her second day out Hackensacker has purchased an entire wardrobe for her, including a diamond bracelet, agreeing to invest in her brother-husband’s absurd invention. He’s clearly fallen for her, and when Tom shows up to claim his wife, Hackensacker’s sister, the Princess, is just as determined to claim Tom for herself.

The only problem is this irreverent marital comedy is that the two, Tom and Gerry, are still in love. The propulsion of the movie, accordingly, hinges on the strange question: What are we going to do about it? Who could resist the life styles of such rich and famous beings?

Fortunately, the would-be lovers are as ridiculously outsized as the comic-book pair at the center of this tale. As Hackensacker observes of the Princess: “You know Maude, somebody meeting you for the first time, not knowing you were cracked, might get the wrong impression of you.” Even she admits “Of course, I'm crazy, I'll marry anybody.” Her former “lover” Toto (the marvelous Sig Arno) gives evidence for that!

The more reserved Hackensacker is almost as hilariously absurd when he reveals to his sister that he determined to “bundle” with his wife just to test her out. His idea of romance is as ridiculously ancient as the actor who plays him, crooning to his sweetheart outside her window in the dark.

Tom and Gerry are not just a bit “screwy” because of their refusal to accept their marital bliss, but, as those viewers who have stayed attentive during the credits, they are perhaps not truly who either of them think the other is. By film’s end we come to realize that they are both identical twins, and that the intended wedding couple was hijacked from their own marriage plans. As in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, by film’s end we truly don’t quite know who was married to whom, as Tom and Gerry call their twins to their rescue, who marry the wealthy Hackensacker and Princess in their steads.

In such a world perhaps there is no true need for marriage, just love and sex. In the “real” world the Hays Office let the movie proceed only after its director-writer, Preston Sturges, reduced the number of Princess Centimillia’s marraiges to three (plus two annulments). One has to ask, is the film world or the real world more like a screwball comedy? For Sturges’ characters get everything they wanted: love, sex, and wealth! Or—as the film itself asks—do they? At least Tom can build his airport!

Los Angeles, January 16, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Monday, January 17, 2011

Andrzej Wajda | Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble)

by Douglas Messerli

Aleksander Scibor-Tyiski (screenplay), Andrzej Wajda (director) Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble) / 1977

Wajda's documentary-like film, Man of Marble, centers around a young film student, Agnieszka (a character based, in part, on the real-life film director Agnieszka Holland) who has chosen as her subject a national hero of the 1950s, a bricklayer Mateusz Birkut (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Her faculty advisor strongly discourages her from tackling this subject, trying to steer her on to something about steel and industry, as opposed to the now obscure figure who helped build the Polish city for 100,000 people, Nowa Huta.

No one has yet touched on the 50s. Why don't you deal with a
subject that has no risk of ambiguity. A better project would be
facts—facts are steelworks and their output.

Exactly why Agnieska has chosen her subject is unclear; apparently she is simply interested in finding out more about her father's generation. But once she has begun her research she (and the audience) become more and more spellbound by the mysterious story surrounding Birkut. At first, even the head researcher is skeptical about the young director, and is disinterested in the forgotten documentaries she has uncovered for Agnieska: obvious propagandist pieces of the day with titles such as "Birth of a City" (an uncompleted film, where the second director, so the credits list, was Wajda himself) and "Architects of our Happiness." But as she grows to know the young woman, it is clear she becomes more and more fascinated by her behavior and obsessions.

Indeed the lanky Krystyna Janda plays Agnieska in a manner attune to the blaring, jazz-inspired score of composer Andrzej Korzynski. Her every move is a rush forward, her body itself a dare to anyone who might stand in her way. Awake, she is in near-constant motion, edgy, nervous. The rest of the time she collapses into sleep. With the help of three camera men, one an old-timer who admits this may be his last film, and who has a somewhat difficult time adjusting to her insistence on the use of a hand-held camera, she barges into a national museum and slips into a back room where no one is allowed to enter, clandestinely shooting a large marble image of Birkut. When the assistant queries her about her interest in the backroom, insisting "We've got better sculptors here now." Angieska's response is an ironic, "I daresay."

Through these forays into the past, interviews, and the documentaries, the filmmaker comes to play the role of detective, gradually revealing the story of a simple believer, a true "paragon." Like thousands of other such workers, Birkut, lured from a small village to work on the vast construction project, was, as he is later described, a real country bumpkin. His handsome good looks and his obvious innocence and belief in the system—despite the deplorable working conditions and the insufficient food served the workers—makes Mateusz the perfect victim for the up and coming filmmaker Jerzy Burski, who in order to promote Stakhanovite principles (ideas based on the theories of Aleksei Grigorevich Stakhanov, who encouraged workers to engage in competitive battles, resulting in contests in which miners, for example, mined 607 tons of coal in one shift, etc.) challenges the young bricklayer to participate in an event where he and others will lay 30,000 bricks in just a few hours. To Agnieska, Burski boasts, "He was my greatest discovery, my biggest coup!"

Birkut wins the challenge, laying 30,509 brinks before he nearly falls over in exhaustion. That film and his youthful, handsome demeanor make him a national hero, and for a short while, the young country bumpkin rises in the party ranks, with his friend Wincenty Witek, touring the country in an attempt to explain his techniques and stimulate the workers.

At one such event, however, Birkut is handed a heated brick and badly burns both hands. Instead of recognizing the dissention of workers against the Stakhanovite methods, authorities prefer to describe the event as a traitorous act emanating from outside the country, focusing on Witek (who was wearing gloves when he handed his friend the burning brick). Birkut's attempts to defend Witek, end in Kafka-like episodes. At one point when Birkut accompanies Witek to the criminal offices, he watches his friend enter a small room with one door, only to soon after discover a official sitting in it alone at his desk, who insists he has not seen Witek. Traveling to Warsaw in Witek's defense, Birkut is told to leave the case alone; if there is an error, it will be corrected.

Having displeased the authorities, Birkut and his wife are forced to leave their Nowa Huta apartment; in one documentary Agnieska observes authorities removing a banner of Birkut and replacing it with another. The man of the people, the "paragon" has fallen into disgrace. Clearly now disillusioned, Birkut hires a gypsy band and travels with them to the office of Internal Security, where he throws a brick through the front door.

In yet another documentary discovered by the film school's researcher, we see Birkut at the trial of Witek. Hearing that Witek has confessed to delivering the burning brick, Birkut astonishingly admits that he has been a co-conspirator, that he knew about the event beforehand. Birkut is found guilty, along with the so-called Gypsy Band conspirators, and is himself imprisoned.

Later in the film the young director, discovers that Witek has been rehabilitated and is now head of the Katowice steel mills. Flying over the mills in a helicopter, we witness a Witek who has sold out to the system, ironically running a company that Agnieska has been encouraged to focus on for her diploma film.

Birkut is also released, but he returns to Nowa Huta as a stranger, discovering that his wife Hanka has left, after having denounced him. Tracking her down in a bourgeois apartment where Hanka has indentured herself to a local restaurant owner, Agnieska is told the story of how Birkut came to her, pleading for Hanka's return. Her answer is a painful admission of her moral decline. Now an alcoholic, she beaten by her restaurant-owning lover.

Certainly by this time in Wajda's powerful film, we have witnessed enough to know that Agnieska's film within a film is a significant one, a work of utter honesty about a world where everything is lied about or hidden. In such a world it seems inevitable that the school refuses to accept the reels she shows them and demands that she return the camera.

Dispirited for the first time, we now witness her at her father's home, lying upon a couch in a near stupor. Her father argues that it is ridiculous that they have turned down a project to which they had previously committed. If I were making such a film, he argues, I would want to talk to the subject. As he leaves the house, he slips his daughter some money.

Previously Agnieska has been unable to find either Birkut or his son. But she now suspects that the son is working, not under the name Birkut, but with his mother's name Tomczyk in Gdansk. There, armed with a camera she has obviously purchased with her father's gift, she finds a man that looks amazingly like Birkut (the role is also played by Radziwilowicz), who admits he is Maciej Tomczyk and explains that his father has died. That death is unexplained in Man of Marble, but in Wajda's later film, Man of Iron, we discover that Birkut has been killed along with other striking workers in Gdansk. (That Wajda has brought us to this place three years before the Gdansk Solidarity Movement is no accident; the leader of the 1980 strike, Lech Wałesa, lost his job there in 1976, and appears as a character in Wajda's 1981 film).

Tomczyuk enters the shipyards, while Agnieska waits. Upon finishing his day, Maciej finds her where he left her, admitting that he knew she would not give up. In the last scene we see them quickly striding forward down the hall of the film school, apparently convinced that her picture will now be made.

It is a hopeful ending to a rather ambiguous reality. In truth, Wajda was forced to cut his original ending, which showed the 1970 events in which Birkut was supposedly killed. Although the film was released in Poland in 1976, it was withdrawn from distribution two months later, with Wajda being accused of "falsifying history." Perhaps the image of one of Agnieska's instructors about to enter the hall as the young director and Birkut's son move purposefully forward is more telling; that man quickly returns to his office, closing the door. Truth is always a difficult thing to face.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Carol Reed | The Third Man

by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene (credited writer), Carol Reed with Orson Welles (uncredited writers), Carol Reed (director) The Third Man / 1949

I presume that most readers of an essay on The Third Man have already seen this classic 1949 film and are acquainted with its rather creaky plot. For those few who may be approaching this material for the first time (I’d suggest, however, they first view the movie), I’ll briefly recount the story.

As the opening narration—recited, in what I think is the most appropriate version, by director Carol Reed in the British cut, reveals post-World War II Vienna as a city divided into five sectors, controlled respectively by the Russians, the British, the French, the Americans and, at the city’s center, an international patrol—“all strangers to the place and none of them [speaking] the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German.” Although most of the action of this film takes place in the British and international sectors, the character at the center of the story is an American, Holly Martins, who has traveled to the bombed-out Vienna upon the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime, another American, who “had offered him, some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job.”

What Martins, a writer of American Westerns, discovers almost immediately upon his arrival is that his friend, Harry Lime, has just been killed in an automobile accident. The porter of Harry’s building briefly describes the death; but a short while later, a friend of Harry’s, Baron Kurtz, who, with Harry’s doctor, Winkel, arrived upon the scene immediately after, suggests a slightly different version of events of Lime’s accident, and Holly is confused by the inconsistency. Attempting to check into a nearby hotel, he is told by the British sector head, Major Calloway, to leave the city

CALLOWAY: Go home Martins, like a sensible chap. You don’t know
what you’re mixing in, get the next plane.
MARTINS: As soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll get the next plane.
CALLOWAY: Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to
the professionals.
MARTINS: Mind if I use that line in my next Western?

An accidental encounter with the head of a local cultural club, Crabbin, who invites Martins to lecture to his group, gives Holly the purpose and cash to stay on in search of the truth of his friend’s death.

One of Martins’ first encounters is with Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, suddenly the subject of questioning and a house search, where the British police uncover a forged passport (she is Czech-born and, accordingly, should be living in the Russian sector). It has been a gift, evidently, of Harry, and viewers immediately suspect that such acts of forgery and other minor criminal acts are at the heart of Calloway’s warnings. Lime evidently has a tradition of slightly unsavory activities, and, as we later discover, has previously left Martins in the lurch. But the underground activities seem limited to the context of petty thievery, the kind that the Baron and Anna both suggest is necessary to get on in post-War Vienna.

Soon after, Martins discovers from the porter that there were not two, but three men on the scene just after Lime’s accident; and almost immediately upon Martins’ relaying that information to the police, the porter is strangled. The search, briefly, turns to the discovery of who was the “third man.”

The quick-minded viewer immediately suspects what soon becomes obvious, that Harry himself was the “third man,” and, accordingly, brilliant scriptwriter Graham Greene reveals that Harry is alive by following the movements of a cat known to love only Harry. The scene where Orson Welles (Harry Limes) suddenly appears out of the hidden shadows of the Vienna streets is one of the most memorable of the film.

As Calloway proclaims upon being told of Harry’s reappearance: “Next time we’ll have a foolproof coffin.” Lest Martins continue in his delusion that his friend was merely a petty thief, Calloway details Lime’s criminal activities, among the most horrific of which is his buying up of penicillin, diluting it, and selling it back through the underground, acts which result in death and madness for adults and, particularly, sick children.

Meanwhile, Martins blunders through the city, demanding to see Harry during the daylight hours. Their encounter, high up on a Ferris wheel, is one of the most devastating portrayals of moral lassitude ever committed to film. As Martins confronts his “friend” with the facts he now knows, Harry uses nearly every standard line known to self-justifying criminals. Asked if he’s ever seen any of his victims, Lime responds:

You know, I never feel comfortable on these sorts of things. Victims?
Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of
those dots [pointing down at the people below him] stopped moving
forever. If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that
stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would
you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income
tax, old man. Free of income tax—the only way you can save money

Lime further supports his own immorality with history and cultural stereotypes, boasting of his behavior by comparing it—in what has become one of the most quoted lines in film history (a speech comparable to that of Henry James’ worst European scoundrels)—with the Borgias, in opposition to democracy, symbolized here by the Swiss:

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in
Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder,
and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci,
and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brother love—they had 500
years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo
clock. So long Holly.

Goodbye, indeed! To a film audience watching this only a few years after the War, Harry’s speech must have stood against everything for which they had just fought. Faced as we are nearly every week with the moral emptiness of business and political leaders it is hard for us today to comprehend just how shocking is Welles’ placidly glib defense of greed; does it still shock?

Even as Martins faces the possibility that he, too, might now become a victim of Lime’s disdain for human life, he still resists playing a role in his friend’s possible capture. Only Calloway’s “accidental” arrangement that Holly see for himself—through a visit to the children’s ward of the local hospital—the results of Harry’s actions convinces Martins to collaborate, ending in a dramatic chase through the Wienkanal (the channels of the Wein river on their way to the Danube) where Martins shoots his own friend to prevent his escape.

The film’s title seems to suggest—and most plot outlines even speak of it as (to use Hitchcock’s favorite term) the MacGuffin of the film—that the search for the third man lies at the heart of this work. As I have suggested, however, the whole issue of a “third man” exists for only a brief period in the film, and any seasoned reader of detective or murder mysteries might easily unravel the so-called mystery.

Upon recently re-viewing The Third Man I was more intrigued by another enigma of the film: why was Martins invited to Vienna in the first place? Even the narrative voice seems to be a bit confused about it, suggesting that Limes had offered him “some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job.” In the American version, the voice was that of Martins himself—which makes this confusion even more intriguing—the character himself doesn’t even know why he is there. And why would any normal person—exactly what Martins pretends to be—come to such a war-marked city with no money in his pocket and no real offer of a job, and, even more baffling, on the invitation of a friend who has previously left him in a lurch? Certainly we may suspect—Anna gives us some evidence and Martins hints of it—that Harry is a very loveable being; Welles plays him as just such a figure. But might this draw even a man as naïve and, apparently, ignorant (he has, for example, never heard of James Joyce) as Martins to a city where he is told, time and again, “everybody ought to go careful”? Just as important, if Lime is the kind of self-consumed monster he is portrayed throughout this film, why has he invited Martins? To deal him in on such nefarious schemes? To share some of the grimly gained loot?

Even if we were to imagine that Martins’ arrival in the city—with the expectation of a quick exit—might confirm Lime’s death to authorities, it seems a rather pointless and clearly unnecessary gesture. For it is precisely such blundering innocents who often gum up the works. Indeed, Martins is an absurd innocent—an inexperienced American who goes about the dark and nasty underworld of bombed-out Vienna shouting at the top of his lungs, “I want to see Harry,” “Is that you Harry?” and other such inane demands. Everything he discovers is immediately made apparent to all about him, ending in the temporary arrest of Anna and the death of the porter. Is it any wonder that at one point in the movie the whole city seems prepared to chase him down as if he were the murderer (Peter Lorre) in the German expressionist movie M. Not only is he dangerous—dangerous to both sides—but he’s a bore, as the attendees of the city’s cultural forum make clear in their mass exit of his lecture on “the novel.” He has nothing to impart, even to an audience willing to listen to a lecture on Hamlet one week and watch a “striptease” of Hindu dancers the next. His whole world seems to be encapsulated in the titles of what he himself admits are “cheap novelettes” such as Oklahoma Kid. John Wayne is, by comparison, a subtly profound being. Anyone who has read Greene’s The Quiet American recognizes Martins as one of his guileless and “innocent” Americans, in need of either control or extermination.

Why, one must ask again, is Martins invited to attend Lime’s death? Is the bird (a martin) simply drawn to the lime to become entrapped.*

One answer that I don’t want to make too much of but which equally I cannot quite ignore is that which also attracts Holly to Anna and puts the two in league with one another: both love Harry. Questioned by Major Calloway, Martins reveals some of his relationship with Harry, openly admitting not only that he knew him better than anyone else (“I guess nobody really knew Harry like he did…like I did”), but describing their first meeting “back in school: I was never so lonesome in my life until he showed up.” Later, he gushes, “Best friend I ever had.”
Obviously, one can make too much of their male bonding and their apparently long-lasting relationship. Yet, even if it is in Harry’s best interest to throw Holly off the Ferris wheel, he does not—at the very same time that he has sacrificed Anna to the Russians.

Anna, quite clearly, is of Harry’s world, the decadent Europe that the fallen Vienna represents. Even when told of Harry’s criminal actions, she refuses to participate in his capture, and warns him away from the meeting with Martins. Martins, on the other hand, represents something different, has qualities which Lime might once have had, but no longer possesses. It is almost as if Lime has invited Martins to his imaginary funeral to observe his real spiritual death—to become another kind of “third man,” a witness to the end of innocence. If Holly (a man with a self-admittedly “ridiculous” name) and Harry’s relationship is not a homosexual one, it is based on something far more unusual—upon a shared sense of purpose and meaning that we recognize by film’s end has been interminably lost.

Deluding himself up until the very last frame of the film, Martins declares his determination to “help” Anna, while we all recognize he is only seeking a replacement for the previous object of love. Anna’s long walk out of the screen without so much as a glance at her suitor is not simply a statement of her complicity with decadence, but represents her disdain of the moral superiority that Americans like Martins proclaim with their every gesture and act. In a city where all is hidden, twisted, perverted, with Holly Martins what you see is what you get: nothing but the dazed look of a man—an ugly American indeed—who has just seen any possibility of love walk out of his life. And, in that sense, the film has even greater significance today than it did in the post-World War II period. For all the universal love we Americans now seek, we must admit it is becoming more and more difficult to find.

*In the context of this film, it may be interesting to quote Webster’s dictionary definition of birdlime: Birdlime \Bird"lime`\, n. [Bird + lime viscous substance. An extremely adhesive viscid substance, obtained from the middle bark of the holly, by boiling, fermenting, and cleansing it. When a twig is smeared with this substance it will hold small birds which may light upon it. Hence: Anything which ensnares.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2007
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, V, no. 2 (Spring 2008).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock | Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, and North by Northwest

Shadow of a Doubt (2 images above)

Rear Window (2 images above)

North by Northwest (2 images above)


by Douglas Messerli

Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Anna Reville (writers), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Shadow of a Doubt / 1943

Over the past few years, I have come to realize that what interests me most about the films of Alfred Hitchcock is not simply that he is a brilliant director who produces some of the most dazzling images ever seen on film, but that he and his scriptwriters have a great interest in narrative structures — what we might describe in fiction or poetry as genre. This is nowhere more apparent than in his 1943 masterwork, Shadow of a Doubt.

Hitchcock couldn’t have chosen more brilliant writers for this project. In addition to his wife, Anna Reville, who worked closely with him on many of his films, the film was scripted by one of the major American playwrights of the day, Thornton Wilder, writing just a few years after his classic Our Town, and by a figure who knew small-town America perhaps better than anyone, Sally Benson, whose Kensington Stories were the basis of Meet Me in St. Louis (a film which appeared the following year, and which she must have been working on during the shooting of or soon after Shadow of a Doubt); Benson later wrote film scripts such as The Farmer Takes a Wife and Anna and the King of Siam. The abilities of these three to present a near-perfect portrait of small-town USA matched Hitchcock’s evident belief that evil, revenge, and murder coexisted always with innocence, love, and kindness.

The film demonstrates this theory in many ways, particularly in the comic episodes between Joseph Newton, father of the loving family at the center of the work, and his friend, Herbie Hawkins, who, at the very table where they will soon dine with a real murderer — Joseph’s brother-in-law Charlie — plot the imaginary murders of each other.

But the important focus of this film is on Joseph’s daughter, also named Charlie, a young woman, who, like most awakening teenagers, is absolutely boredby and frustrated with the family life into which she has been born. She is desperate for adventure and, in a highly intuitive act of frustration, visits the telegraph office to send her uncle Charlie, after whom she was named, a plea to come for a visit.

The audience already knows that this somewhat sinister figure is on his way at that very moment, and has just notified the family, through the same office, that he is soon to arrive. The coincidence is a haunting note in this otherwise normal-appearing world, for it becomes quickly clear that uncle and niece have more than their name in common, that indeed they are mysteriously intertwined with each other, the bond between them being much stronger than family blood and affection. We sense almost from the beginning that their relationship is a bit perverse, and Hitchcock and his writers take the story far deeper than any sexual attraction might allow, putting it on a level that is archetypal at the very least and almost mythic in its scope. As the young Charlie tells her uncle upon his arrival: “I know everything about you. You can’t hide anything from me.”

In short, we quickly sense in this film that these two, in their intricate interconnectedness, stand apart from the world they inhabit. They are a sort of Yin and Yang, female and male, young and old, innocent and evil, light and dark (although, in this, reversed from the Chinese model), truth teller and liar, believer and skeptic, one living in the present, the other in the past.

At the celebratory dinner for the uncle, young Charlie reveals that she cannot get a tune out of her head in connection with her uncle: The Merry Widow Waltz. As in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, shown in theaters the year before, the authors and director of Shadow of a Doubt take that theme as an emblem, almost, of their structure. The music and the accompanying waltz (montaged over the family center of the kitchen as young Charlie and her mother are about to serve dinner) becomes a sinister prefiguring of character action: the two Charlies, locked in another’s arms, are doomed to dance until one or the other is dead!

A gift of a ring from her uncle — again signifying the symbolic “marriage” between them—sends the intuitive young girl into a spin as she discovers a name engraved within and quickly connects it with the page her uncle has torn from the newspaper.

A quick trip to the library teaches this apt pupil information one hopes no child should ever have to learn: that the man to whom she is bonded, so to speak, is a murderer — The Merry Widow Murderer! (a name taken from the fact that he preys on elderly widowed women).

From that horrible moment of discovery to the end of the film, there is no turning back for this young, fresh, and believing girl, so touchingly portrayed by Teresa Wright: in her young dance of life and death she must endure and discover all the dark hate and evil of her uncle’s being, just as he will recover (or at least claim the recovery of) some of the values of youth he has lost.

Until this moment, Uncle Charlie has been exhausted, unable to sleep; now suddenly his niece falls into a deep sleep from which she awakens only the next evening. What she must now face is the plotting of a real murder — her own — just as her father and friend mockingly playact murder and detection. Detectives indeed have already shown up at the Newton house, again masquerading as people who, like the uncle, are searching for the average American family.

Once more, young Charlie sees through their deception, but as Uncle Charlie begins the attempts to murder her (a step of the back staircase of the house has been sawed through) and her uncle exposes her to his disgusting view of life, she is nearly desperate to keep the detectives near her.

The ring her uncle has given her is stolen; the symbolic “marriage,” in short, is annulled. But the very fact that she now has no real evidence of his guilt, and her realization that accusations against her uncle would destroy her sentimentally inclined mother and forever change family life only force her to continue the appalling waltz. She too must now plot, recognize lies and greed in those around her. Nearly killed in her uncle’s second attempt to murder her, she is forced to steal, recapturing the ring to assure the older Charlie’s departure from their lives.

As Uncle Charlie is seen retiring to the train for a voyage away from the family, some may feel relief, but the astute viewers perceive that the dance is not quite over. Forced to remain on the train after it has pulled away from the station, the young Charlie must accept her partner in one more galop as, arms around her in dance-like position, her uncle attempts to push her off the train. Youth has no choice but to struggle against age and destroy it. Her uncle leaning out from the car is decapitated. If not in actuality, at least within the myth of the film, she has now also committed murder. She has been forced, to ensure her survival, to experience all the evil that he so horribly insisted was the condition of life.

In the awful last scene of this painful film, the young Charlie stands outside the church wherein her family and the community piously mourn the loss of her uncle, revealing her new social and metaphysical position. She has had her adventure, but she can never truly return to the innocence, love, and protection of her childhood home again.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2005

by Douglas Messerli

John Michael Hayes (writer), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rear Window / 1954

For most of years since I first saw Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant film, Rear Window, I had concluded — along with most of the commentators on that film — that the work was primarily about voyeurism, about a society of voyeurs, about a particular voyeur (L. B. Jefferies/James Stewart), and about the way voyeurism plays a role in the making and watching of films themselves.

There is a kind of perversity about the work, and the fact that, as some commentators had noted, the “murderer” suddenly turns the tables, crashing out of the frame to attack Jefferies for the invasion of his privacy, allows one easily to characterize Hitchcock’s film, like his later Vertigo, as a study in psychosis: that of character and audience alike.

Of course, everyone recognizes that there are important aspects to the film that take it in adventuresome and comic directions — such as the strangely distant relationship of Jefferies and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and Lisa and Stella’s (Thelma Ritter) involvement with Jefferies’ voyeurism. But the film long seemed to me a frightening statement on society’s passive psycho-sexual propensities.

Increasingly over the past few years, however, I have felt that I was missing something in perceiving the movie only in this way. The writing (by John Michael Hayes), for example, is quite remarkably clever. And, despite the darkness of its overall concerns, there is more comedy in this work than in almost any Hitchcock film other than The Trouble with Harry.

Recently, in revisiting the film, I observed that, despite Jefferies’ vocation as a photographer — an accident in connection with his photography is why he's stuck in the two-room apartment—he does not actually use his camera for the usual purposes. We do discover that he has taken
photographs (he has pictures of the garden and comments on having taken “leg art” of the young woman across the way), but as audience we see him use the camera only as a kind of telescope — and, later, as the murderer comes calling, as a flash device to temporarily ward off attack.

It is obvious, indeed, that Jefferies is nearly impotent with his leg in a cast: he cannot, metaphorically speaking, use his “tool,” the tool of his trade. Similarly, he cannot be sexually stimulated by one of the most beautiful and well-dressed women in the world — Lisa Fremont. As Stella observes, he can’t even get a temperature — he is symbolically and, apparently, literally frigid, despite the heat wave disturbing all the other tenants and his visitors.

Moreover, he himself is in camera, trapped in a room not unlike a judge’s chambers — where he is judged as a failure by both his nurse and would-be lover. Like the camera he uses he now exists in a kind of black box from which he cannot escape, and which, in turn, forces him to look outside of his own self and space.

It becomes quite apparent early in the film that L. B. Jefferies has no life other than that of a nomadic observer of things. Like many American boy-men (a phenomenon on which I have commented elsewhere) he finds any suggestion that he “settle down” to be an unpleasant alternative he has no intention of accepting. His and Lisa’s witty discussion of “here” and “there” is almost a treatise on the kind of meaningless life he has lived: she, the healthy sexual beauty, ready to offer up her body as a “free mount,” is all “here,” while Jefferies is only “there,” anywhere but where love and social engagement exist.

Through the accident of his being laid up, Jefferies is forced to view what is around him, and that consists of various sexual and societal possibilities. Rather than focusing, as do most critics, on the window of the “murderer”— which takes the movie in the direction of the murder mystery genre which, argues one critic, Hitchcock settled on after presenting the possibility of others—it might be useful if we were to consider first the various tableaux presented to his major character.

There is the single, hard-of-hearing sculptor, a creative spirit who lives rather nicely by herself. But Hitchcock and, by extension, Jefferies presents her as a busybody. In this rear window tableaux, her satisfaction is the exception.

The woman living above her, Miss Torso, a shapely young girl who parties each evening, is seen by Jefferies as offering up, almost like a prostitute, her sexuality. Lisa perceives her, rather, as “juggling wolves,” not at all interested in any of the men surrounding her each night. Ultimately, we discover that Lisa is right, for Miss Torso is delighted upon the return of her rather unattractive soldier boy.

Nearby lives “Miss Lonelyheart,” a middle-aged woman who, unlike the sculptor, is not at all happy being alone; she sets the table for two and play-acts a visiting guest. At one point, when she actually brings home a stranger, his sexual advances force her to demand he leave, and she is left unhappily alone again. Both Stella and Jefferies are terrified that she may attempt suicide.

A composer, whom both Stella and Lisa admire, is described by Jefferies as a man living alone who “probably had a very unhappy marriage”; later he describes him as “getting it” (the topic is inspiration, but the subtext is sex) mostly from his landlady.

Also across the way a couple, to escape the heat, sleep on their balcony in full view of all, which clearly suggests that they do not have much of a love life; their major activity centers around hoisting their dog up and down into house and yard by means of a small basket, and when the dog is killed by the murderer, their grief is broadcast to all the neighbors.

A young married couple who briefly appear at another window spend days in bed apparently enjoying the sexual bliss of new matrimony. Jefferies similarly scoffs at their behavior.

Indeed, Jefferies is almost prudishly critical of all these individuals and their relationships with others.

But it is the “murderer” Lars Thorwald and his wife who most clearly represent what the observant prisoner perceives as the standard condition of a relationship — a nagging and bed-bound wife driving her seemingly patient salesman husband to distraction — and ultimately, of course, to murder.

In short, because of his enforced entombment in his “plaster cocoon,” because of his temporary
“imprisonment,” (Stella claims in the very first scene to know that there is going to be “trouble” and that her patient will wind up in the New York state prison Dannemora), Jefferies, locked in a prison of his own making, is forced to encounter the “here,” the world of societal and sexual interrelationships. Despite the difficulty Lisa has in getting him to “mount,” and to climb the symbolic mountain of her love, the “adventurer” must give up all action before he can discover how to behave. If he has previously lived only as a voyeur, as someone who clicks and snaps images of reality, he is now forced to truly observe and encouraged to involve himself in the world.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for that involvement. Since he cannot function and cannot enter the world, Lisa enters it for him, endangering her own life. Lisa’s illegal entry into the Thorwald’s apartment and her discovery of the wife’s wedding ring forces Jefferies to perceive his failures. As Lisa slips on the ring to prevent Lars Thorwald from discovering what she has found, she has, symbolically speaking, married him. And in that act, Jefferies is made to recognize another alternative to the possibilities of social involvement he has witnessed.

Observing Lisa and Jefferies’ rear window communication, however, Thorwald, like Thor, the ancient god of thunder (Jefferies first observes his neighbor behaving suspiciously during a thundering downpour), takes action, threatening the very body of the observer-witness, an act that ends in Jefferies’ defenestration, his literal fall—a fall not just out of his isolation and into the “here,” but a falling into love and sexual being.

The movie ends with Jefferies comfortably asleep (something he has been unable to do throughout much of the movie) aside Lisa who, reading an adventure-travel book, puts it aside to pick up a fashion magazine.

Given these perceptions about this movie, I see Rear Window now less as a study in cultural psychosis than as a comedy of social interrelationships, a comedic playing out of various sexual-social combinations that allow our “hero” to move from his child-like isolation to an adult social and sexual being. Most of the perversity associated with this film, accordingly, seems to have less to do with the major character’s careful observation of his neighbors—something he points out, that they also can do to him—than it does with a failure to recognize than the often frightening but essentially comic sexual and social encounters he watches are those of normal human beings—of us all.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2005

by Douglas Messerli

Ernest Lehman (writer), Alfred Hitchcock (director) North by Northwest / 1959

While watching North by Northwest again the other night for the 50th time (I do not exaggerate, and probably I have seen this film more times than that) I tried to puzzle out why, at the highly judgmental age of 12, the year I first saw this film, I did not like it. The year before I had seen Vertigo at the same movie house and was completely enraptured by it. Certainly the latter film had confused me, made me even question whether it was an appropriate movie for someone of my age, but I had loved every moment of it, and sat through it twice.

Vertigo is still my favorite Hitchcock film, but now, obviously, I find North by Northwest highly watchable and engaging. While viewing it this time, it suddenly became apparent that it was the form that had put me off as a child. At the time, I had long been reading novels, and begun my passionate commitment to the theater, reading plays by Beckett, Albee, Ionesco and Genet. Given my literary experience — and ignoring the issue of whether or not I was able to truly comprehend these works — I could understand the psychological structure of Vertigo. Despite its strange double-helix narrative and its languorous cinematic love-affair with the city of San Francisco, I knew it was centered on the hero, Scottie. And the multiple meanderings and confusions of the plot were those of his mind. I may not have understood his obsessions — particularly his voyeurism — but I got the idea right off.

North by Northwest, on the other hand, was neither romance nor psychologically grounded fiction. The bond between Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kendall involves no mysterious workings of the mind. They are immediately attracted to each other physically and proceed to do something about it — even if later, to protect herself, Eve must throw him to the wolves, so to speak. And he, in a reciprocal gesture, returns to her, even though he knows by that time that she is somehow involved in his intended death. No, this is most definitely not a “psychological thriller!”

There is little about the mind in this film. Roger may not know why he is being mistaken for another man, but he knows who he is, and he is gradually told the true story behind it by the CIA (or whoever they may be). If information is withheld from the viewer it is not so that the character will gradually perceive and reveal it. We find out everything when he does; and we are simply told the information as if in a report. Eve, like her namesake, is purposely and necessarily duplicitous, engaged as she is with both the serpent and the thorn-laden hill (the route out, so to speak) she must climb in order to escape her life of sin.

Rather, the plot is driven by the mad linear movement of its characters on the run, from New York to Chicago and prairie environs, to Rapid City and on, finally, to the home of the symbol of
American values: Mount Rushmore.

The structure is really quite a simple one, akin to the picaresque. Indeed, as in the traditional form, we meet our hero upon his metaphorical birth, so to speak, as he exits the dark cavern of the skyscraper office where he works as an advertising executive.

It is hard to imagine the affable and handsome Roger as either an executive or a man who composes advertisements. Less important than his writing ads, he is a walking advertisement of American virility. “Do I look heavyish,” he asks the secretary, who treats him as if she were his nanny. “Remind me to think thin.”

Like a child, Roger is completely selfish: his first action in the movie is to take over a cab from another would-be customer. And his dedication, like all children, is to his beloved and bemused mother. Indeed, it is his interruption of a business meeting to cable his mother that leads to his being kidnapped. As in a Charles Dickens fantasy, Roger is whisked away from home and family into a world of corporate castles (which he appropriately seems to know little of) and confused identities.

After he receives the magic elixir (an overdose of bourbon) he escapes into the hands of the police, who like all authority in this kind of narrative, want only to lock him up and help to make things worse.

After one last meeting with the disbelieving mother, he has no choice but to hit the road. And so he does, as adventure follows upon adventure until together the two lovers climb their thorny hill, the faces of their ideal. Roger even “dies,” the way all picaros generally do. At least he should have died, were he in a more realist work. Hanging from the ledge of his monumental values, he is quite literally stomped out by the villain. But in such fantastic works, we all know, death is not a true option. As Northrup Frye has mentioned in his observations on the picaresque, although the picaro may die, he retains always the possibility of resurrection. Our villain is miraculously shot to death by the very authorities who have allowed Roger to fall into this position.

It is also necessary for the sinful Eve to fall to her death; and she too, having “slipped,” is left hanging in a position that seems quite impossible. We never see her actual salvation, only the simulated one, on the train, as the hero invites her into his bed.

To a self-satisfied twelve-year-old the simple actions of this child-like story seemed ridiculous. Where was the depth of feeling and emotion? The high drama? The complexity of thought? If Vertigo was a masterpiece of modernist values, North by Northwest was an apparent throwback to what seemed to me then as a simplistic form—to the more linear structures that one might find in the early 17th and 18th century works and in the absurd coincidences of Dickens. We now recognize this return to older and hybrid forms as part of our postmodernist sensibility. And Vertigo seems, in contrast, to be a far more “old fashioned” movie, a sort of angst-ridden portrayal of the existentialist man in the manner of writers like Sartre and Camus and artists such as Alberto Giacometti.

One also now comprehends the comic genius of North by Northwest and enjoys the movie for the pure adventure of traversing the American landscape. And in this sense, the movie is (along with Shadow of a Doubt and The Trouble with Harry) Hitchcock’s most American work. The next year the great director would return to more European forms in the Gothic horror tale told from the viewpoint of a the psychologically disturbed iconic figure of Norman Bates.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2003
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, iii, no. 1 (October 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Marc Forster | Monster's Ball

by Douglas Messerli

Milo Addica and Will Rokos (screenplay), Marc Forster (director) Monster's Ball / 2001

If for no other reason, Monster's Ball deserves our notice simply for devoting its first hour and a half to a series of nearly unbearable events, beginning with the execution of a penitentiary prisoner (played by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), followed soon after by a series of racist acts played out by the movie's major figure, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a fight between Grotowski and his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), Sonny's suicide, and the death, by a hit-and-run car, of the child of the executed prisoner. And that's only the beginning: the dead prisoner's widow's car breaks down, she (Halle Berry) loses her job and faces eviction from her apartment.

While all these events are painfully riveting (tears rolled down my face for much of the film), the writers of this work, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, have embellished their characters with so many dilemmas, along with layers of guilt, silent suffering, and social and political injustices, that it is difficult, at moments, to see through to their humanity upon which the rest of the film depends.

Like his own father, Hank has remained a tower of strength by refusing to face anything coming close to friendship or love. He is a silent loner, choosing not even to face the prostitutes he fucks, rejecting any demonstration of love to his son, and, following in his father's footsteps, ignoring any of the strides of equality made by Blacks in the South. Leader of the correctional officers at the local State prison, he determinedly employs protocol as they prepare to execute their prisoner, urging his men, including his own son, to put all feeling behind them: "You can't think about what he did or anything else about him. It's our job."

Yet through a meeting with the prisoner with son and wife and of the focus of the camera on the suffering prisoner (who, for a few dreadful moments, cannot catch his breath for fear of his approaching death), one very much does wonder about what he did and are caught up with his life. One readily comprehends, why, as they take the prisoner on his "walk of death," Sonny vomits; but it is for the other officers an unforgiveable act of personal expression.

After the torturing series of electric shocks sent through the prisoner's body, Hank confronts his son, leading to an intense fight. The next morning he orders him out of the house. The younger man threatens him with a gun, ending in the downstairs living room , where he challenges his father: "You hate me?" When Hank admits, "Yeh, I hate you. I really do," the son wails back, "Well, I always loved you," as he puts a bullet through his head. When at the funeral the priest asks him if Hank should read a particular passage from the scriptures, the father vengefully replies: "All I want to have is that dirt hit that box."

It may be a stretch for the viewer, accordingly, to understand why this martinet of a man suddenly quits his job, and soon after, develops a relationship with a Black waitress—the wife, it turns, of the man who he has just executed—beginning with his decision to help her rush her dying son to the hospital and falling, a few frames later, into a frenzied sexual union in which the couple release their pent up tension, anger, and hate. Upon discovering her identity through a photograph of her husband and a sheaf of drawings she shares with him, he, like his son, vomits out of sympathy and self-disgust. They both have experienced moments, as Hank suggests, when you feel like you can't breathe.

Leticia visits her new lover's house, gift in hand, in response to which Hank's father attempts to displace his son's new companion, with a racist comment. In reaction, Hank places the old man in an assisted living facility, inviting Leticia into his house and bed. They both, presumably, have been born again; yet we have a hard time understanding their transformations, for we are allowed to witness only the aftermath. Such miracles may indeed happen, but in order to sympathize with these new beings, we have to first comprehend them as humans instead of the typological characters to whom have been introduced.

It appears that even the filmmakers are not sure their characters' sudden love will survive. As Hank goes to fetch ice cream in celebration of their new life together, Leticia wanders to the attic, where she discovers the drawings her husband has made of Hank and his son on the last night of his life. The secret history of her lover is suddenly revealed, and her passionate response is, understandably, fury. When he returns, however, and she is invited to join him on the porch, she says nothing about her discovery, as he quietly speculates: "I think we're going to be all right." Perhaps history, in world such as the one these two beings have inhabited, is best forgotten.

Los Angeles, December 29, 2001
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August 2009).

Copyright (c) 2001 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lisa Cholodenko | The Kids Are All Right and Mike Leigh | Another Year

The family hosts the sperm donor in The Kids Are All Right

Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in Another Year

Peter Wight and Leslie Manville in Another Year

by Douglas Messerli

Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg (writers), Lisa Cholodenko (director) The Kids Are All Right / 2010
Mike Leigh (writer and director) Another Year / 2010

The feel-good movie of 2010 might be said to be Lisa Cholodenko's comic The Kids Are All Right. Like many another movie of its kind, the writing centers on the well-being of children coming of age within a family that is either having difficulties or is about to fall apart. The standard requires everything to turn out all right at the end, and Cholodenko's work follows that pattern precisely. The only difference with this version of the genre is that Cholodenko's family consists of a lesbian couple rearing a 15-7ear old boy and a soon-to-college girl, who are just at the age when they begin to wonder who their father was—in this case the same sperm donor for both women. Despite the healthy relationship of the kids to their mothers, the young Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is eager to know what his invisible "father" looks like, and pleads with his sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) to call the donor center for information.

With information in hand, he telephones the local man, Paul (well played by Mark Ruffalo) and sets up a lunch appointment with the man, himself and his sister. The man they discover is a slightly empty, but well-meaning chef/restauranteur who successfully grows his own garden, despite his seeming inability to tend adult relationships with women. His main "squeeze" at the moment is his hostess, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta).

Meanwhile, the mothers (Nic and Jules, both excellently acted by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are beginning to wonder about Laser's behavior, unable to comprehend his relationship with a trouble-making boy, Clay (Eddie Hassell) and wondering, particularly when they discover their own gay male porno lying open by the DVD player, if he might be gay. When they question if he is keeping secrets, he admits to meeting with the sperm donor—a man they've never seen before—which clearly promises various emotional responses from them. But since the children seem to have liked him, like any caring parents, they must open up their lives as well to meet the biological father of their kids.

Although Nic remains dubious about the whole thing, Jules finds Paul appealing, as he hires her to landscape his back yard. At this point, however, the movie takes a kind left turn that, while creating the drama of this small work, also slightly confused me. Perhaps we should go back to that gay male porno tape which the women watch. I have no problem with beings of either sex watching a gay porno tape—indeed I've seen the very tape glimpsed in the movie—but is this common with lesbian sex? I have never watched a lesbian tape, although I know there are gays probably attracted to that as well. But, for me, it seems to indicate somehow the confused sexuality that rears its head once Jules begins working for Paul, particularly when they find themselves engaging in abandoned sex, as if Jules had just been waiting for this release her entire life. I am ready to admit that I know very little about lesbian sexuality, but does Cholodenko really want to confirm the male heterosexual myth that lesbians are just waiting for a truly good cock? I have had at least three women friends who, when I was younger, apparently felt that they could save me from my homosexuality, and were determined to do so. Not desiring conversion, I quickly moved off. But Cholodenko's character apparently cannot control herself.

What we also discover in Jules's temporary abandonment of her seemingly happy relationship is her own inability to accomplish what she sets out to do, that she is somewhat confused as she stumbles about her life. Nic, on the hand, is utterly controlling in her immense abilities often ready to treat her mate as another daughter instead of a supporting lover.

Perhaps I should just stop there, and attribute the issues I've brought up to the complexity of the characters. We all know that there are many mixes of sexualities in all of us. It may be that we've now grown sophisticated enough that we can easily assimilate these variations. Upon her discovery that her companion has been sleeping with "the enemy" so to speak, Nic, despite her anger and hurt, and, after telling Paul to go find another family to adopt or to create his own, seems willing to accept her partner's indiscretions. As Jules, somewhat incoherently, admits:

...marriage is hard...Just two people slogging through the shit, year after
year, getting older, changing. It's a fucking marathon, okay? So, sometimes,
you know, you're together for so long, that you just... You stop seeing the
other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of
talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid

The son reiterates his support for his mother's relationship with an unintentionally humorous observation:

Laser: I don't think you guys should break up.
Nic: No? Why's that?
Laser: I think you're too old.
Nic: [wryly] Thanks, Laser.
[Jules grins and puts a hand on Nic's knee, and Nic covers the hand with
her own]

At film's end, Joni is off to college and Laser has given up his mean-spirited and problematic "friend." The kids, indeed, are all right. We must ask, however, how about the mothers?


If I was slightly confused by sexual issues in The Kids Are All Right, I was even more puzzled by the social relationships of the central couple, Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), in Mike Leigh's Another Year. The couple is portrayed from the beginning as nearly perfectly happy, living in a lovely, if modest, townhouse, gardening away their free time, and mutually cooking up tasty lunches and dinners. In their plain simplicity (of appearance and behavior) they are near perfection, politically and socially aware—Tom is an soil engineer and Gerri a psychological counselor—caring for their friends and carbon footprints simultaneously. There is only one very serious problem: all their friends and, in Gerri's case, clients, are dreadfully unhappy, themselves uncaring or inordinately selfish, nearly unable to make their way through the daily events of life.

This fact makes a film that is so brilliantly acted and directed that you want to cry, a true mystery. What are you to think about these figures? How are you to care for them? At first, the audience is lead to truly admire the gentle support and caring of Tom and Gerri (who lovingly joke at their own moniker). But the interlopers into their life bring with them an immense strain that effects not only the heroes but the audience as well.

Gerri's co-worker, Mary (Leslie Manville), is the most insistent visitor to their flat, bringing with her each time a kind of reckless emotional abandonment which she tries to cover over with a feigned sense of joy of her clearly empty life. Manville is one of the most brilliant actors I have seen in film in the last few years, and it is a wonder just to watch her up close as Leigh shoots his actors, shifting her face from instant to instant as she attempts to deflect reality and to erect barrier after barrier to hide the wreck of her life. A lift of the eye, a sag of a check, a hand brought up to follow the curl of her hair—everything, in short, reveals her suffering, helped along by large doses of wine. As the film progresses (Leigh has loosely structured the painful encounters in the cycle of the seasons), and Mary buys a car she dangerously maneuvers through the streets, we feel more and more distressed by her very being. Will she survive the next scene?

While Mary babbles into a drunken collapse, other figures glower in the corners: the couple's old friend Ken, an overweight, cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking clown of man, who cannot get out of his work-a-day rut; Tom's dour, nearly mute brother, Ronnie; Ronnie's violent son; and others who lend to the film, even when Leigh is not portraying it, the sense we are attending a wake. As the narrative unfolds, we can only ask ourselves, why hasn't this couple chosen to have some friends like themselves? If they absolutely radiate joy, then why have they chosen these apparent "losers," readily inviting them into their house, where they sustain them but, also, behind their backs, express their frustration about their friend's drab lives?

What becomes quite apparent is that this "happy" couple has sought out these very individuals to help them sustain their own sense of "superiority." Perhaps that is too strong a word; certainly it is not a word that would come out of their saintly mouths. It may be simply a kind of dependency. Yet as time passes, and another year comes into being, we begin to realize a certain smugness on their parts. When their son Joe (who also works as a kind of social caregiver, offering legal help) brings home a new girlfriend, Katie, the couple are absolutely delighted. Katie is a quite chipper and outspoken individual, also a caregiver (she cares for older people) who perfectly fits their mold. Mary, however, although older than Joe, has deluded herself that she and Joe might one day develop a relationship, and quite nastily snipes at the woman she sees as an interloper. The result is that, until the final scene of the film, Mary is ousted from her "adopted" home, locked out of her friends' love.

When she shows up again at their house, desperately in need of emotional support, she finds only the brooding Ronnie, who has come to stay a few days to recover from his wife's death. Convincing him that she is truly a friend of his brother and sister-in-law, she enters the house, making herself a cup of tea, chatting with the equally emotional dead brother. What is remarkable is that together, frail as they are, the two begin to develop a relationship, a friendship, at least, that it is clear the anointed Tom and Gerri might never have elicited from them.

Upon the couple's return home, they are both quite aghast at Mary's intrusion, and Mary is devastated by the knowledge that she is no longer welcome in their house. Despite the fact that Joe and his girlfriend are coming for supper, Gerri invites Mary, out of pity, to dinner. But this meal is quite different from all the others. The conversation this time centers entirely on Katie, the girlfriend, and her questions about Tom and Gerri, who grandly—and quite boringly—describe their trip around the world early in their relationship. Mary and Ronnie are set afloat, nonentities at the table of love, and Leigh ends the film by focusing on their silent endurance. But it is an endurance that, strangely, now makes them stronger somehow than the blessed couple. And we end the scene almost pitying these happy spouses and their perky new daughter-in-law, while recognizing the remarkable survival of those who may never find such happiness.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death)

by Douglas Messerli Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death) / 1969 Fassbinder's first film, Love Is Colder Than Death, is both a comic work and a series of homages to various French New Wave directors, including Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard. But it also, coming as it does two years after Bonnie and Clyde, tips its hat to the American director, Arthur Penn, several times. There are moments in this film, a work filled with references to American gangster movies and American-produced objects, where Fassbinder seems to be quoting images and even scenes from Bonnie and Clyde, while simultaneously working against them.
Certainly, the "situation" of the film nicely parallels the Bonnie and Clyde figures. Like Clyde Barrow the hero, Franz Biberkopf (played by Fassbinder himself), is a petty criminal; most of his money, however, comes from pimping his girlfriend, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). Despite their small time activities, however, it appears that they have caught attention of the "Syndicate," who want Franz to join them. His refusal ends with his being beaten. Yet he remains determined that he wants to be free, to work for himself.
Among the others that the Syndicate is attempting to recruit is a knock-out beauty of a man, impeccably dressed in a suit, Bruno (Ulli Lommel). As Fassbinder's camera focuses intensely for what seems like several minutes upon his image, the closest thing possible to a cinematic "swoon," we quickly recognize that Franz has fallen in love. As the men bed down for the night, Franz drops his blankets immediately next to the prone man. Yet hardly any communication occurs between the two, except a kind of weak friendship, in which Franz calls Bruno "Kid," and invites him, when he is released, to share his and Johanna's flat in Munich.
Indeed, in these early scenes not much is said, but the entire context of this gangster film is established. In what may appear, at first, to be ridiculously bad acting, Franz punches out one of the thugs—without touching him! Fassbinder plays out the scene almost in Kabuki style, and the violence portrayed throughout the film is consistently presented as something occurring off screen. We witness only the gun going to the head, never the slug. The gunfire of Bruno's later murders, sounds like it comes from another room. In short, this is a violent film with hardly any violence. Fassbinder has perhaps made us even more aware of the coldness of their acts by presenting them as theatrical tropes instead of realist events.
Similarly, the love between the two men is never represented by any sexual or even sensual act. Indeed the two seldom even touch. Yet the way both men observe and relate to Johanna, one can easily perceive that any love in the room is between the two men. At one point, when Johanna, laughs at a few caresses Bruno has proffered her, Franz slaps her face. Her confusion for his act is answered as simply as it might be: "He is my friend." In short, just as Fassbinder has removed all the realism surrounding violence in this quite violent story, so too has he erased any physical representations of love in what is quite clearly a homosexual romance.
In fact, Fassbinder goes even further in that respect by slowly revealing that Bruno has not come as a real friend, but, having given into the Syndicate's demands, has come as "a professional friend" to involve Franz in a series of escalating crimes and, finally, to kill him. 
The crimes they undertake, however, are once again insignificant or even meaningless. Their first "caper" might as well have been undertaken by the characters of Breakfast at Tiffany's instead of a crime movie. All three approach a shopclerk selling sunglasses, riddling her with questions that confuse her just enough that they can each slip a pair of glasses in their pockets.
A trip to a gun-selling cobbler results in their acquisition of guns (real and fake) and ends with the cobbler's death.
Their third "heist" is the pocketing of a few bottles and packages from a grocery store!
Their next action, however, is brutal: Bruno shoots the Turk who has threatened Franz's life. The additional murder of the waitress, moreover, reveals to us just how cold runs Bruno's blood. 
Even though all the shots have come from Bruno, Franz is later arrested and kept in jail overnight. But here too, Fassbinder, sucks all the drama from the event, as the detective asks him over and over where he was at a certain time, and who he was with. The police seem as ineffective as Franz is as a criminal.
Their final foray into crime is a planned bank robbery. By this time, however, Johanna has grown so jealous of Bruno that she calls the police. At the very same moment, men from the Syndicate are preparing to kill Franz, sitting in the get-away-car, and, as the police close in on Bruno (who is armed, incidentally, with a dummy machine gun instead of the real thing), the men from the mob take off. The police shoot Bruno, and, in the only true sign of the depths of his love, Franz pulls out a gun threatening them as he clumsily collects Bruno's body.
Even the final chase is unlike any other in the genre. Once he discovers that Bruno is, indeed, dead, he stops to toss away the body, speeding ahead, while the police, preoccupied with the body, seem to abandon all else. Love is indeed cold, made even colder by Johanna's admission that she had called the police. Suddenly recognizing that he has been betrayed by everyone, Franz spits out the word "whore," suggesting that their relationship has also fallen dead. Los Angeles, January 8, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli