Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jan Švankmajer | A Game with Stones / Punch and Judy / Et Cetera / Picnic with Weissmann / A Quiet Week in the House

five shorts by jan švankmajer
by Douglas Messerli

Jan Švankmajer (director) Spiel mit Steinen (A Game with Stones) / 1965
Jan Švankmajer (director) Rakvičkárna (Punch and Judy) / 1966
Jan Švankmajer (director) Et Cetera / 1966
Jan Švankmajer (director) Picknick mit Weissmann (Picnic with Weissmann) / 1968
Jan Švankmajer (director) Tichý týden v domé (A Quiet Week in the House) / 1969

Prague-born filmmaker Jan vankmajer, who describes himself as a Surrealist, has been a major influence on animators as varied as Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Quay, and Tim Burton. Although in more recent years, Švankmajer has made primarily full-length feature films, his earliest works, and some of his most innovative work, was done is shorts, five of which I write about below.

      1965's A Game with Stones features a strange clock, underneath which sits a kind of bucket into which, when the clock strikes at the quarter hours, various amounts of stones plop out of an attached faucet-like tube and into the bucket. While in the bucket the stones take on various patterns, sometimes abstract, at other times positioning themselves in anthropomorphic images; the stones break into small pebbles or fracture, swallowing each other up. After each "game" or what I might describe as a "dance of stones," the bucket dutifully pours the contents unto the floor below, but by the last series of outpouring rocks, the very weight of the stones has caused the bucket to give way, forcing the final stones through its ruptured bottom to fall directly onto the floor. In this early work, we see images that will appear again and again in Švankmajer's shorts, as natural images turn into human-like figures or themselves become forces which are threatening. There is something menacing about these stones throughout, a fear of their very animation and ability to move into abstract and identifiable images.

     One of the very best of Švankamjer's early films in Punch and Judy which combines puppetry with automatons filled with mechanical gears and a live hamster. The effect is quite surreal as the camera shifts from the robotized motions of the automaton to the repetitive strokings of the hamster and on to the jackhammer attacks of hammers upon the Punch and Judy figures. Combining these with small sets, houses whose inside walls are covered with intriguing collages, and the very decaying and peeling paint of the puppets, the director evokes an eerie sense of the inevitable death of both characters (they bury one another several times) as, finally, they slip from the puppeteers hands at the end of this moving cinema. By combining these stylized figures with a real, living, breathing animal, Švankmajer creates an even deeper sense of the divisions between life and death, play and reality, and violence and love. It is a beautiful short film, worth viewing again and again.

     Et Cetera, just as its titles suggests, is almost an afterthought, a short piece that breaks into two equal parts connected with images of embroidered letters, much in the style of Gilliam's later Monty Python interludes. The first concerns an Icarus-like figure who is determined to fly, using larger and larger wings each time as he moves from a chair to floor, the next time a bit further, and, finally, flying away and back again. The second half of this short involves an animal trainer, whipping his beast into complex movements, with a sudden switch of the beast obtaining the whip to which the animal trainer jumps and leaps. Another switch completes their saga.

     In both of these parts, animal and man become interchangeable or, at least, interconnected. As in Game with Stones nature overtakes the human even as the human attempts to use nature for his own purposes.

     My favorite of these early shorts is the ghoulish Picnic with Weissmann. In a lovely meadow we observe several chairs, a closed cabinet, a chaise lounge upon which lay a male costume—shirt and pants—a phonograph playing romantic German songs, and other objects, all which seem to have a life of their own. As the afternoon wears down, the chairs move together, tumbling down a long, rock-strewn hill, the records roll away from the phonograph to be replaced by others, and the pants and shirt eat olives, carefully dropping their pits through the sleeve of the shirt into a nearby bowl stationed on a small side table. All of these inanimate objects come so thoroughly to life are quite disconcerting, but the most menacing image of the film is a small trowel that emerges from the nearby cabinet, which throughout the pleasantly playful afternoon digs what appears to be a grave. The songs continue, a breeze comes out, the trees shiver, their leaves falling into large piles covering over several of the objects. The trowel completes digging out the grave. Suddenly the doors of the white cabinet open, where, within, we see a man dressed only in his underwear, bound. His body falls from the cabinet directly into the grave.

     If in the earlier Švankmajer films inanimate objects and nature seemed only slightly threatening, here they become deadly, having overtaken their human counterpart, now freed to celebrate, they take the afternoon in the sun that Weissmann, so it appears, had planned for himself.

     Following in that vein, A Quiet Week in the House (also called The Flat) concerns a young man literally directed by arrows to a room where he is tortured by all sorts of inanimate objects, including a typewriter, various dishes of food, and other household standards. All his attempts at human activity, in short, are foiled as he endeavors to create, eat, and, finally, sleep—the bed itself dissolving into the down of its pillows and coverlet and shavings of wood. Even an attempt to peer through a window ends up with a seemingly divine punch in the face.

     An older man appears with a chicken and hatchet, clearly expecting the young man to decapitate the fowl.. When the young man refuses, he hands him the hatchet which the young man uses to break down what appears to be a door. Behind it is only a wall where numerous others, obviously trapped in the same situation as our young hero, have created a graffiti of names and dates. Bending down with a provided pencil, the young man adds his name to the others that came before him.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Suddenly, Last Summer

american consumers
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal (screenplay, based on the play by Tennessee Williams), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director) Suddenly, Last Summer / 1959

There's a wonderful moment in Willard Carroll's excellent film comedy, Playing by Heart, when an acting teacher responds to yet another rendition of Catherine's monologue in Suddenly, Last Summer: "If one more actress saunters into this class and recites Catherine's 'Native boys ate Sebastian' speech, I am going to puke." Angelia Jolie, playing Joan, who is about to do precisely that, escapes from the room in horror.

     I kept thinking of that line throughout my revisit to the Joseph L. Mankiewicz version of Suddenly, Last Summer yesterday. But I was having too much fun to feel any gastrointestinal disorders. For, beyond the absurdity of William's "poetic" play, the film version is simply a hoot. I can well understand why Williams—despite penning, with Gore Vidal, the screenplay—utterly denied any involvement with this fiasco, describing the work, like the teacher in Carroll's film, as something that "made [him] throw up." Yet, for all that, Suddenly, Last Summer is quite in keeping with, and is perhaps the best example of, his perverse comedies, even if the perversities of this film were not the same of the original.

      I mean, how often can you get to see Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Mercedes McCambridge play over-the-top versions of themselves? Hepburn is particularly effective as the slightly mad—by film's end, thoroughly mad—Violet Venable. Descending, via open elevator, onto the set, she begins her conversation before she can even be seen, and exiting her throne, dives in to a dithering performance wrapped up in her most New Englandy hauteur, endlessly repeating herself just to hear the intonations, apparently, of her melodramatic reading of the text:

                   Strictly speaking, his life was his occupation. Yes, yes, Sebastian was
                   a poet. That's what I meant when I said his life was his work because
                   the work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet
                   is the work of a poet. I mean, you can't separate them. I mean, a poet's
                   life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.

With "A is B because B is A" logic, Mrs. Veneable sweeps across rooms, sits, stands, sweeps again, and pulls Dr. Cukrowicz (the forlorn, slightly drugged out Montgomery Clift) into her primordial garden where, in perfect gothic comedic form, she feeds flies to her Venus Fly Trap. No drag queen could play her better!

     Recovering from his 1956 car crash, Montgomery Clift, with a now grimacing, reconstructed face—and who, in reality was now reliant on drugs and alcohol—stumbles through his role with an over-serious demeanor that often makes us wonder whether he has lost his way into an earlier film such as A Place in the Sun or I Confess. The long scenes were so exhausting for him that the director had to cut after every couple of shots before moving on. But then, any viewer might share the same experience in this monologue-driven frenzy. I had seen the film, fortunately, several times earlier, so it did not destroy my comprehension to break up the long retellings of past history on which this film depends in order to give myself short breaks.

     Dr. Curkowicz, as performed by Clift, is so dense-headed ("What do you mean, by 'using people?' What do you mean by 'bait?'") that one wonders whether, by film's end, if he has really put together the facts that Sebastian is a gay man who has used his cousin Catherine and before that, his own mother, as a decoy to attract young men. It is almost as if the doctor himself had undergone one of his own lobotomies.

    A few years earlier, of course, Clift might well have played the beautiful Sebastian, whose face we never see in Mankiewicz's movie. No wonder, perhaps, that Mrs. Veneable confuses him with her son at film's end. So badly treated was Clift by director and producer, rumor has it, that once she had spoken her last line and was assured her services were no longer needed, Hepburn spit into Mankiewicz's face!

     Mercedes McCambridge gets to play the greedy, empty-minded Mrs. Grace Holly, pouring southern syrup upon her gravel-throated voice in a way that she had last attained in 1954's Johnny Guitar. In this film she is a delight as a clumsy-footed loon told by son, daughter, and doctor over and over again to "shut up."

     And Elizabeth Taylor—well she's allowed to be Elizabeth Taylor at her very best and howling worst. The long last monologue in which she tells the story of how the Mexican boys gathered around Sebastian to play on instruments constructed out of tin cans and other metals before chasing him through the streets and attacking him to devour his body, is perhaps one of the most absurd monologues of all time. And the visual accompaniment to her tale, in its menacing depiction of, as Vidal described it, "overweight ushers from the Roxy Theater on Fire Island pretending to be small ravenous boys," is so ludicrous it makes one cringe.  Is it any wonder that Mrs. Venable wants Catherine's "obscene babbling" to be "cut out of her brain" and nearly all others think she is mad? To give her credit, Taylor whips herself up in a proper frenzy through method acting (evidently she focused on the death of her former husband, Michael Todd), screeching out the final horrific memories she has sublimated for so long. Her performance is also "over-the-top," but one can forgive her that since the story itself is like something from outer-space, all heated up in the white Cabeza de Lobo sun. The understated reaction by the venal hospital administrator to her hysterical-laden history reaches the heights, almost, of camp: "There's every possibility that the girl's story is true!"

     In a strange way, however, Williams' story was on target, for certainly he had chosen the right metaphor for the consumerism in which Sebastien and his partners engaged. Using a kind of switch-and-bait "come on" to attract "customers," the beautiful man in white paid boys for the use of their bodies; their decision, accordingly, to pay him back by fully consuming him might even be described as a literalizing of what he sought. For isn't capitalism, by nature, a kind of cannibalistic act?

Los Angeles, March 25, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky | A Londoni férfi (The Man from London)

over his head
by Douglas Messerli

Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by George Simenon, screenplay), Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky (directors) A Londoni férfi (The Man from London) / 2007, USA 2008, 2009

One is tempted to include Béla Tarr's masterful The Man from London in a discussion of films such as those I have gathered under the rubric "Crime Pays," for at film's end the London inspector awards both the wife of the thief-murderer Brown (Ági Szites) and the opportunist-thief and murderer Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) a monetary award. But, as usual, Tarr turns any generic relationships with other films on its head, creating an original work that cannot quite be compared with others. In the majority of the "Crime Pays" genre, although the heroes may feel an occasional pang of guilt, their "getting away with murder" is a thing of pleasure, a joyful overturning of an already corrupt system. The heroes of these works are generally masterful crooks—or at least comically bumbling ones—whose careful and crafty maneuvers give us more pleasure than the authoritarian attempts to check their actions. We side with the crooks, and the fact that they come away unscathed demonstrates just how little they (and we) disrespect what is usually an equally corrupt moral code.

      In The Man from London, however, Tarr permits us very little joy in Maolin's dark and brooding gestures. From his position high above land and sea, working as a railway pointsman, the middle-aged worker moves with a Frankensteinian plod in a kind of zombie-like voyeurism, watching through the various viewpoints available to him incidents on ship, land, and water, ponderously evaluating their meaning and, ultimately, taking advantage of the situation at hand.

     A ship has docked, and in a drawn-out sequence of visual repetitions, Tarr ponderously forces us to observe, for long periods, what seems to be inaction. Yet the slow pace is purposeful in demonstrating not only the intensity of Maloin's voyeurism, which we are sharing, but signifies the meaningless boredom of that worker's nightly life, a man working alone, whose only major act is, once it has filled up with the ship's passengers, to set the train upon its designated track. Nothing much else happens, but what does occur is obviously an enormity of activity compared to the uneventful emptiness Maloin must endure night after night.

     Two Englishman can be heard talking, one evidently (since we hear only fragments of their conversation) warning the other of consequences. Slowly one of the men exits the ship, showing his papers and, instead of moving, as most of the others, into the awaiting train, walks forward along the edge of the dock. Eventually we see him standing a ways from the hull of the ship, where suddenly a brief case is tossed from ship to shore, with him retrieving it. With briefcase in hand, he walks along the quay, disappearing into the fog. A few minutes later, however, we see two men wrestling at the edge of the quay, shouting at one another, fighting evidently over the contents of the same briefcase. One man is thrown into the ocean along with his briefcase. The other hurries away to a nearby cafe.

      Tarr almost hides the fact that what we have been observing for nearly the first half-hour of this film, is also being observed by the pointsmen. We hear his footsteps, see bars of black and white as he moves sideways along the window patterns, but know little else about his existence. It is only now that he comes into being. With a long tow-hook in hand, Maolin slowly descends from his sanctuary, moving to the edge of the quay, and, with the help of the incoming tide, eventually retrieves the briefcase. Inside, as we discover once he has returned to his aerie, are stacks of British pounds, 55,000 we later discover. One by one, the methodical worker sets them upon the stove to dry.

     So begins the downfall of an everyday, hard working man, living in a decrepit apartment in this port town (originally filmed in Corsica before having to move the film company elsewhere). Maolin has no easy life. At daylight he slowly trudges back home, discovering along the way that his daughter, working as a clerk in a nearby butcher shop, has now been forced to clean the floors backing the alleyway. She is no beauty, and it is not an impossibly difficult job, yet he is outraged; for him, clearly, it is yet another insult in a life of small abuses, abuses which he, in turn, transfers to both daughter and his hard-working, loyal wife (Tilda Swinton, in the version of the film I saw, dubbed into French). His absurd logic is expressed in a chauvinist proclamation: everyone can see her ass. And a few days later he acts on his ridiculous perceptions, forcing his daughter, Henriette (Erika Bók) to leave her employment without notice.

     In what might almost be seen as a kind of incestuous pride, he takes her to the cafe for a drink and, on the way home, using some of his personal savings, buys her a fur stole. The purchase is a ridiculous one, the thin role of fur looking quite absurd around the neck of the horse-faced Henriette, but the act obviously helps to salve the years of silent abuse he has endured. His wife, quite understandably, insists he has lost his mind, that he is mad! But after all the abuses she hurls at him, it is clear in Swinton's silent facial frieze—a gesture only Tarr's patient (some describe it as "glacial") camera could capture—that her anger arises not only out of the foolishness of the act but a deep envy, a feeling of neglect for the years of cooking and serving and saving she has had to suffer.

     At the heart of Maolin's anger and meaningless acts, we realize, is his growing sense of guilt, a feeling—reinforced by being trailed by one of the thieves, Brown—that he has gotten in over his head. Maolin may not yet understand the consequence of his acts, but he senses something amiss, suddenly, in his life. He has money that he dare not and, because it is in British pounds, cannot expend. The appearance of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), the man from London, further unsettles him. Having tracked down Brown, Morrison lays out his cards, explaining why they suspect him and offering him his freedom and two weekends of theater sales if he returns the money. Brown's answer is to slip from Morrison's watch, escaping into a world of hunger as he goes on the lam.

     Morrison's next step is to bring in Mrs. Brown, painfully explaining to her the situation, and encouraging her to play along as he concocts a story of her son's illness, hoping to lure Brown back to her and into his net. Szirtes tearful reaction to Morrison's revelations are one of the emotional highlights of this dark tale in which feelings are otherwise mostly hidden and bottled up.

     Overhearing much of these cafe conversations, Maolin is increasingly made uneasy, so much so that when the clever inspector pays him a visit at the train-tower, he is clearly ill at ease, setting a pot of hot water upon the burner where he had previously dried out the bills in order to steam the windows over as if to hide the view from which he has observed the crimes. The discovery of the body of Brown's cohort, however, can only further hint that there was something to be observed.

     In a sudden twist of the plot, Henriette reveals to him, back in their apartment, that a man has entered their oceanside storage hut; she has locked him in. Gathering a few provisions, wine, bread, etc., Maolin slowly trudges off to the hut, opening the lock and entering. Again Tarr does the unexpected. For several long minutes we hear little and see nothing. What is going on inside is left to our imaginations.

     When Maolin exits, he is short of breath. In the very next scene he appears before Morrison, the briefcase in hand, admitting to Brown's murder. Ordering the cafe owner to keep Mrs. Brown there, he and Maolin return to the hut, Brown's wife disobediently following.

     The film ends, as I have suggested, with both Brown's wife's and Maolin's rewards, along with his being given a clean slate. Neither openly accepts the money, as Morrison slips the bills into her purse and into his pocket. Both their faces remain blank as they stare off into a future that cannot free them from their own falls from grace.

     Tarr's study of the moral breakdown of order and society, along with the individual's involvement in that collapse cannot exactly be described as subtle, but, in its long visual manifestations of the turmoil of the inner soul suffering in such a world, is certainly powerful and cerebrally moving. That the film, time and again, was waylaid by individuals and corporations seemingly determined to see that it would never be shot, still evokes such a powerful message is almost a miracle. And if it is not quite up to the cinematic levels obtained by the director's Sátántango and Werckmesiter Harmonies, it only reiterates how brilliant Tarr is as a filmmaker.

Los Angeles, April 24, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Richard Brooks | Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

bricked up in boyhood
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Brooks and James Poe (screenplay, based on the play by Tennessee Williams), Richard Brooks (director) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof / 1958

There are surely a great number of perverse comedic effects in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, beginning with the earliest scene, in which the handsome former star athlete, Brick Pollitt (Paul Newmn) drunkenly sets up—in his arrangement of jumping hurdles—the scene for his own downfall. Brick is anything but the solid rectangular form his name suggests, but is rather like a plate of jello. Awash in his own feelings of sorrow for himself and, particularly, on behalf of his enchanted youthful past, he drinks endlessly until he can hear the “click,” when the waves of self-pity and sorrow, guilt and desire, suddenly disappear into the depths of his unconscious mind. He is a still a boy, as his father, the imperious Big Daddy (Burl Ives) declares, at the age of 30. And he will someday, if he cannot change his ways, be a boy still at the age of 50. He is, in short, bricked up in boyhood, unable to face his role of a man living in the world of the present, pouting his way (and oh how Newman can pout!) through life.

     His beautiful cat-like wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), on the other hand, is equally perverse in her determinedness to remain with him, despite his complete dismissal of her constant sexual readiness, to bear out the hot stare of the sun on the tin roof of the Mississippi mansion in which Brick and she, along with Brick’s brother, Gooper (Jack Carson), sister-in-law Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their four children have gathered to celebrate, purportedly, the 65th birthday of Big Daddy. Some of the best comic lines, in fact, are given to Maggie, who impatiently withstands the assaults of Gooper and Mae’s “no neck monsters,” who, through Mae’s careful plotting, spend the entire film insensitively marching, trumpeting, singing, dancing, waving, and shouting their way through the abyss of these touchy adults. Despite his declared pleasure in the fecundity of the female species, it is clear that Big Daddy cannot bear their presence—nor, for that matter, the presence of his forebearing, ever cheerful wife, Big Mamma (the wonderful Judith Anderson). No matter how much one loves children, these are clearly dreadful examples of breeding combined with the machinations of their mother to keep them constantly on view with the hope of dramatizing that fecundity (she is pregnant with yet another) to Gooper’s parents as opposed to the barrenness and lovelessness of Brick and Maggie’s marriage.

     Gooper and Mae’s outrageous maneuvers to inherit Big Daddy’s millions and land is often hilarious, as they, piece by piece, lay out the evidence for Brick’s incompetence and Gooper’s patient facility—he’s a lawyer who has helped with Big Daddy’s affairs as the old man has grown ill. Armed with stacks of legal documentation and wills, hiding around corners to overhear incriminating evidence, Gooper and Mae are like some comic spies right out of a story located in the Balkans. Somewhat like her children, Mae whines and pleads, cattily attacks and smugly stands her ground in her attempts to make their claim for Big Daddy’s bucks.

     The only problem, as the play begins, is that Big Daddy, having just returned from a visit to the best clinic in the state, is declared by the doctor to be cancer free, and the self-centered barrel of pork and self-made satisfactions intends to live forever, perhaps finding himself a young lover to get pleasure out of life! The doctor, however, makes the mistake of telling the “truth” to the sons. If the relationship between Brick and Maggie is a strange and mysterious stand-off (there on the wide screen is one of the most handsome heterosexual actors of the day, denying even the touch of sinuous, sapphire-eyed sex goddess), the relationship between Big Daddy and Big Momma, if possible, is even more absurd. The years of abuse between them has created, particularly in Big Momma, a kind of scab which protects her from any infection of possible love. She is a tough as Maggie, as audacious as Mae, is a kind of dragon-lady pretending to be a pleasant old Southern belle. As she herself admits, “We never were a very happy family. There just wasn’t much joy in this house. It wasn’t Big Daddy’s fault. It was just…you know how some families are happy.”

     Strangely enough, in this family of liars, Big Daddy is determined to get to the truth. He and Brick share, so they insist, a hatred of mendacity! And through an interlocution of Brick, the old man is determined to get to the truth of why his handsome son (even Maggie muses that as he gets more and more alcoholic his looks improve) has become an drunk who refuses to embrace is willing wife. As Ives, playing Big Daddy, huffs and puffs his way through the house, shouting out his hatred of mendacity, however, the film turns strangely self-referential, creating an odd feeling among the those might have witnessed the Williams play on which this perverse film was based.

     The long drawn-out series of admissions Big Daddy elicits from his son are a mish-mash of excuses and explanations that simply don’t add up. Seems—according to writers Richard Brooks and James Poe, helped along by the merriment of the boys and girls at the Hays Office—that the two boyhood friends, Brick and Skipper had a kind of idealized relationship, wherein Brick depended upon the seemingly invulnerable grace of Skipper and Skipper depended upon the skills of Brick, a friendship transgressed upon by Maggie who could no longer endure their locker room camaraderie. Sick for one game, Brick is hospitalized, and Skipper is forced to play the game without him. According to Maggie’s account, without Brick he grew cowardly, unable to complete plays, fumbling throughout. The team significantly lost, and Skipper’s confidence in his own abilities was forever compromised. Deeply depressed, Skipper needed someone to rely on, inviting Maggie into his room. To Brick’s way of thinking, her entry was an outright seduction, a way to ruin his relationship with Skipper “by any means necessary.” But Maggie claims that Skipper was equally a partner in the proposed encounter; it was she who, at the last moment, got cold feet, afraid that instead of winning Brick that she might lose him in the act. She ran, leaving Skipper to fend for himself. Completely at odds, with no one to help him, Skipper called Brick in his hospital room, explaining the depths of his fear, his sense of emptiness. Angry, Brick hung up, refusing to answer the several rings of the phone, the pleas, symbolically, of a desperate Skipper, who later that evening committed suicide.

     So there! That explains it: Brick’s refusal to have anything more to do with his wife, his alcoholism—a product of his guilt for turning his back on his life-long friend. Huh?

     “Mendacity!” shouts Big Daddy. “There ain’t nothing more powerful than the order of mendacity!” We can smell it even through the screen. Men rarely kill themselves over a loss of a football game. They rarely commit suicide when a friend’s wife refuses to have sex. And a man does not usually deny his wife, particularly a wife as shapely as Elizabeth Taylor, over the death of an idealized friend—even if it represents a lost fantasy.  Even Big Daddy explains: “You didn’t kill Skipper. He killed himself. You and Skipper and millions like you are living in a kids’ world. Playing games, touchdowns, no worries, no responsibilities. Life ain’t no damn football game. Life ain’t just the high spots.”

     Inattentive readers might be forgiven if they imagine they have missed something. Even reading in—as I’m prone to do—upon this muddied narrative, it’s hard to glean the “truth.” Of course, I’ve read the play, but even if I hadn’t I’d have to imagine that something was not being said, that the relationship between Brick and Skipper was not just an idealized boyhood friendship out of which Brick had never been able to emerge! No! There was something else going on in that locker room of which Maggie the cat got a good whiff. It’s that age-old love—at least in 1955, the date of the stage premiere—without a name. When Skipper, having batted out with Maggie, called Brick to name it, the boy just got scarred, that’s all, scarred to find out what he probably knew all along, that he and Skipper had a queer love deeper than his and Maggie’s could ever become.

     “This room smells of mendacity,” shouts Big Daddy in Richard Brook’s 1958 film, as he comes up from his basement tryst with Brick, ready to face what he now realizes are his last hours. He has squared off with the spectre, is ready to wander his estate with his wife to take in the last pleasures of the world he has created. But the film—given the perversities of the Hays Office and filmmakers of 1958—must reel off just a few more lies: Maggie announcing that she has a life within her (both Big Daddy and Big Momma are perfectly willing to agree that there is life within her, whether it be a metaphor or a real foetus); but poor Newman has to almost choke on his last lines: “No more lies in this house,” he declares embracing his “unembraceable love,” fiddling with her to fix up her fib.    

Los Angeles, March 20, 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jaco Van Dormael | Toto le Heros (Toto the Hero)

boom: exploding life
by Douglas Messerli

Didier De Neck, Pascal Lonhay, Jaco Van Dormael, and Laurette Vankeerberghen (writers), Jaco Van Dormael (director) Toto le Héros (Toto the Hero) / 1991, USA 1992

An elderly man, Thomas Van Hazebrouck (Michel Bouqet as the old man), locked away in what appears to be a state-run old age facility, plots the death of Alfred Kant (Peter Böhlke), born the same day as Thomas, who—at least in Thomas’ unreliable memory—was exchanged by Kant’s mother during a hospital fire. Alfred, accordingly, who grew up as the son of a wealthy grocery-chain owner, is, in Thomas’ childhood mind, living a life he should have lived, while he must endure life next door, as the son of a poorer couple. What is unsaid, although made clear in Alfred’s taunts of Thomas (he calls him Van Campellsoup), is that in this French-speaking part of Belgium, the Van Hazebrouck’s are of Flemish background, while the Kant’s are wealthy Walloons.

     Moving fluidly back and forth in time and space, Van Dormael’s film portrays Thomas’ life, which, in fact, is a joyful one. The young Thomas’ father (Klaus Schindler) is a dashing pilot, who loves his children, Thomas (Thomas Godet as the child), his elder sister Alice (Sandrine Blancke) and the younger, retarded brother, Celestin (Karim Moussati), entertaining them with magic tricks and the wonderful theme song of the film, “Boum” (“Boom”) with its delightful nonsense lyrics. Thomas’ mother and father are passionately in love and the home seems an utterly pleasant one, while it is clear that the Kant home is less harmonious, particularly given the son’s bullying postures.

      Despite these facts, however, Thomas remains jealous of Alfred and his life, missing out of the pleasures of his own loving household. Since he is convinced that he is a changeling, moreover, Thomas falls in love with his vivacious sister, imagining a life with her as his lover and wife. Later, however, when he discovers that Alice is secretly meeting with Alfred, even that imaginary aspect of his life is taken from him.

     Other events associated with the Kants further grab up elements of his life. Asked by Mr. Kant to undertake a dangerous air trip to bring back bonbons for his grocery stores, Thomas’s father crashes into the sea, his whereabouts unknown to the family. Bitterness—again directed at the Kants—consumes both Thomas’ and Alice’s imaginations, which ends in the two destroying the statue of the Virgin Mary to which they have been praying.

     When Thomas’ mother leaves to check out a plane authorities have found near Dover, Thomas and Alice live for a few days in a kind of enchanted fantasy, but when Thomas grows angry over his discovery that his sister is consorting with the boy whom he perceives as the enemy, Alice determines to prove her love for Thomas by burning down the Kant house. She is killed in an explosion of the gasoline can she has dragged into their garage.

     Much of the old man’s memories—again played out in disconnective snippets and repeated images from the future and past—are of Thomas as a young adult (Jo De Backer), working, it is clear, in a bureaucratic office where the only actions we observe him accomplishing is sharpening pencils. With the report of his mother’s death, whom he has apparently not visited for several years, Thomas with an older Celestin (Pascal Duquenne) attends the funeral and takes time off from his job. At a soccer match, Thomas sees a woman who reminds him of Alice, attempting to find her again in the crowd. Later, he observes a woman in a pawn shop purchasing a trumpet (the instrument played by his sister) and he follows her, accosting her outside of her home, the old Kant house. Despite her discomfort with his stalking, she, Evelyne (Mireille Perrier) agrees to meet him between rehearsals (she evidently plays with an orchestra). A whirlwind love relationship ensues, ending with her decision to leave her husband. But when she does not immediately show up for their rendezvous, Thomas drives to the house, only to encounter the grieving husband, Alfred Kant himself. There he also uncovers a silk flower, just like one that Alice has created previously for him.

     The visit ends in his complete breakdown as he takes a train away from his home village. Was the woman actually Alice, or a woman who was so similar to Alice that both men were equally attracted to her? Although the one possibility might actually involve incest, for Thomas it hardly matters; the paramount issue is that once again Alfred has stolen an important part of his life from him. And she will now always be Alfred’s Evelyne, a kind of passed down trophy.

     What happens for the rest of Thomas’ life also matters little. As Thomas admits early in the film, he and his life have been nothing but a kind a “sound and fury, signifying nothing” Consumed by jealousy Thomas has done “nothing” and taken no joy in the pleasures proffered him. He hates old people, he claims, by way of saying he hates himself.

     Hearing the news that Alfred’s plans to close his grocery stores has resulted in an attempt upon his life, Thomas plots an escape from his old age home: the deed, he insists, is his by rights. He will kill Alfred, just as he had all his life plotted the heroic events of his imaginary self, Toto, a kind of film noir G-man who saves the day.

   Waiting in the reconstructed garage, Thomas’ mind moves in and out of dreams, encompassing others and himself on the prowl for Alfred, who does not show up. On the following day, when Alfred appears to have returned, Thomas pays him a visit, beginning with a playful “bang,” a murder of the imagination. Invited in, Thomas observes a man even more decrepit that he is, a man who time has destroyed. Alfred admits to unhappiness, expressing his envy of Thomas’ life, a life in which Thomas, so it appeared to him, had the freedom to do anything.

    But, of course, Thomas has chosen to do nothing, not even to run away with the love of his life, Evelyne-Alice. Alfred says that he still sees her from time to time and tells Thomas that she still thinks of him. The two, Thomas and Evelyne, now an elderly lady (Gisela Uhien) meet, touchingly kissing before she is called away by her current husband. Once again time has stolen everything from the would-be hero.

    Hitching a ride into a distant field, Thomas takes out his gun, prepared to kill himself. But suddenly he tosses it away, returning to Alfred’s home, locking up his nemesis in one of the rooms. Dressing in Alfred’s suit, wearing his cologne, Thomas drives temporarily away and returns. The assassins have reappeared, awaiting outside the house. They telephone, and Thomas as Alfred answers it, whereupon shots ring out. The scene we have been shown of Alfred’s death time and again throughout this film, we suddenly realize, is Thomas’ death—his life gone somewhat comically into the “boom” of his childhood song.

     Taking back “his” life, Thomas has finally become a kind of hero, accepting Alfred’s fate as his own and, in so doing, saving Alfred from certain annihilation. In this act, perhaps the first “act” of Thomas’ life, he has finally become someone, a man who has accomplished something, even if a slightly tragic event.

      If Van Dormael’s film, the way I describe it, seems to be a solemn meditation on what it is to live life, however, I assure the reader that it is not. Van Dormael’s first, and most endearing film to date, may end with a kind of a self-destructive, suicidal act, but it is a delightfully joyful experience, a kind a dark comic rondo throughout. It is only too bad that the hero has not been able to understand his life story for what it was.
Los Angeles, March 19, 2012