Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Richard Brooks | Sweet Bird of Youth

nobody’s young anymore
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Brooks (screenplay, based on the drama by Tennessee Williams, and director) / 1962

Just as Richard Brooks had bowdlerized Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, washing away any literal suggestions that Brick was gay, so did he alter the ending of his 1962 version of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, but here the change makes very little sense given that the movie quite openly deals with a gigolo, the Benzedrine-popping Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), who services the aging movie actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), herself an alcoholic who  smokes hashish. Chance, in turn, has passed on venereal disease to his childhood girlfriend (Shirley Knight), whose father is an open bigot, “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley), who has bought up the state gas reserves along with the services of the Florida State governor as well as lining the pockets of the local mayor and the head of the city hospital, who “cured” his daughter through sterilization. That after that list of transgressions, the director should still feel the necessity of gussying up the character of Chance and switching the boy’s final castration to a scarring the face makes absolutely no sense, particularly after Finley’s henchmen make it clear that they are going to destroy “lover boy’s meal ticket,” and Finley himself earlier warns, after referring to Chance as a “Prince”: “I had a dog called Prince. I had to butcher him to keep all the bitches in town from being violated.”

      Despite those needless changes, nonetheless, Brook’s version of the 1959 plays comes through remarkably well through the powerful tragi-comical huffs and puffs of Page as she comes out of a several-day stupor into which she has crawled after witnessing the camera’s unforgiving revelations of her aging face. The handsome, golden toned and firm-bodied Chance has been a salve and restoration which she has awarded herself. As she gradually comes to in a hotel bed in St. Cloud Florida on, coincidentally, an Easter celebration of and white washing of “Boss” Finley, she tries to recall just who her bed partner is. Donning glasses, partly broken in a drunken fall, Del Lago, hiding under the moniker of Princess Kosmonopolis, summarizes the tone of Williams play: “Well, I may have done better…but God knows I have done worse.”

     Chance, meanwhile, has only done worse in his spiral downwards from a young man with a promising theater career into an older, after-the-Korean war, actor knocking on so many doors that he finally has entered all the wrong ones. As he admits to his age-conscious “princess,” “Nobody’s young anymore.”

    During Del Lago’s dazed stupor he has gotten her to sign him on as an actor for a film company in which she is partner. And later, to protect her need for him, he has caught her talking about her drugs on tape, even daring to blackmail his employer if she does not go through with the deal and provide him with the money necessary to reach his goal.

     She laughs in his face, but negotiates with him, nevertheless, demanding sex—now that she has been temporarily resurrected—in exchange for the money and gig. Chance recognizes her as a kind of “monster,” a being entirely devoted to herself. Yet in her near complete honesty, he also must grant that she is a kind of “nice monster,” as opposed to the real monsters—Finley, his bourbon-swilling political friends, his book-burning, idiot son (Rip Torn), and the others of the community who capitulate to Finley’s bullying tactics—with whom he has grown up. From the wrong side of the tracks, Chance is a kind of mirror image, in fact, of Del Lago, a fact she immediately perceives; but while she has, at least in the past, had real talent, Chance, as she puts it, may have only talent in bed.

       What she doesn’t know is that Chance is also an incurable Romantic, a man still in love with his high school sweetheart, Heavenly, the daughter of the despicable Finley, and that he has returned home, once more, to take her away with him to his pipe dream acting career in Hollywood. Never before had I comprehended just how similar, in some respects, is Williams’ Chance Wayne—even by name suggesting a kind gambling cowboy—to Willy Loman and his sons. Finley, in fact, has recognized that immediately, providing the boy with the money to get away, prove himself and, incidentally, get rid of him and his attentions to his beloved daughter. In a sense, Finely is a more ruthless kind of Willie, selling the young man a perverted notion of the American Dream: “This is America. Today you’re nobody, tomorrow you’re somebody.”  But, of course, it is a dream deferred, as Langston Hughes put it, a dream that in its delusional grandeur can never come true. And, in that sense, Chance is a fool as well as a man who has given up all of his values to achieve the impossible. Although he may be as much a “monster” as Del Lago, unlike her, he is a self-deluded monster, a being who thinks he is acting on behalf of others through his own insatiable desires.

     And unlike Miller, Williams’ does not even attempt to deem Chance and Del Lago’s absurd excesses as a subject of serious thought. If “attention must be paid,” it is not for the sanctity of their lives but for the insane comical performances of the larger-than-life exaggerations of their daily behavior. Yet there is a kind sacredness in those exaggerations. If they are fools, they are also, strangely enough, figures not unlike Christ, recognizing, as both finally do, that they must accept the inevitable crucifixion for their acts. Del Lago—whose name suggests a strange kind of water saint, an element that surrounds them throughout (the film was shot not in the South, but in Malibu)—is, at film’s end, determined to return to the bruising honesty of the camera’s glare when, through Chance’s accidental reconnection of her with columnist Walter Winchell, she discovers that her film has been a hit. So too, upon discovering that he has infected and destroyed the love he has had for Heavenly, Chance walks directly into the enemy’s hands, almost ecstatically accepting their torture as expiation for his acts.

     That that punishment should be nothing more than a broken nose and a possible scar, is absolutely absurd. It has to be the destruction of that one thing for which Chance truly had a sexual magneticism, the magical ability that all of Williams’ anti-heroes share—and which too many Americans, encapsulated in the hypocritical puritanical outcries of the Finley’s of the world, still can’t accept—to sweat it out in lust.

     The fact that Brooks shows Heavenly joining up with her former lover and that her long-forbearing Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) curses her tormentor, Finley, as she leaves the house (“You can go straight to hell!”) really doesn’t matter; they are merely two Marys reiterating the miracle which they have just witnessed. For Williams’ Christ has clearly risen from the dead.

Los Angeles, Memorial Day, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jean Renoir | La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion)

a world of the dead
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak (screenplay),  Jean Renoir (director) La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) / 1937, USA 1938

Seeing Grand Illusion the other day upon the large screen of Los Angeles' Laemmle's Royal Theatre, I perceived this film in a new way than I had watched it as a young student years before.  In the interim, I had attempted to view an old VCR tape, but the quality was so washed out that the subtitles were impossible to read and it was painful even to the eyes. This 1999 restoration was, in every way, a revelation.

     If I had originally perceived this film as an almost comical anti-war statement from the great film director, this time around, provoked by comments from my companion, Howard, I realized that despite the film's international admiration, it is a work that is not entirely self-contained, that particularly for the young without a strong sense of history, its meaning might be blurred. Despite what we generally know about the savagery of the first modern war of the 20th century, Renoir's work depicts the wartime situations from the strange vantage point of various German prisons for officers in which, although we are shown some deprivations and the utter boredom of prison life, for the most part the officers from various countries—although Renoir focuses primarily on the French—are treated relatively humanely, particularly when they are transferred to Wintersborn prison under the command of Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (the imperious Erich Von Stroheim). Indeed, in some respects, given the hefty food packets received from home by Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), their gastronomical condition is far better than the Germans, who survive primarily on cabbage. Yes, they are all prisoners, forced at times to endure painful punishments, but they are given liberties not even conceived of in Billy Wilder's World War II encampment of Stalag 17, which, along with numerous other films, owes much to Renoir's 1937 work. Although there are certainly outbreaks of anger and even violence between the various prisoners and their captors, Renoir's work has none of the front-line futility of a film like All Quiet on the Western Front of seven years before.

    Even the film's final escape into German territory, where the two survivors, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal are forced to cohabit a small cottage with a widowed German farm woman (Dita Parlo) and her daughter, is presented as almost idyllic, and the two men's final escape into Switzerland is greeted with respect and appreciation by the German soldiers attempting to track them down.

    In short, one might ask, what is this film, so obviously cinemagraphically well-conceived, really about? War, at least from Renoir's perspective, is certainly not hell and, at times is even lauded, particularly by the aristocratic career officers, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein. Even if we take Renoir's own statement that his film is "a story about human relationships" that demonstrates that the commonality of mankind is far more important than political divisions, Grand Illusion seems, at first sight, a timid statement of pacificism.

    The film's seeming relativism, moreover, seems even more strange given the movie's date, 1937. Although World War II, if one ignores the Japanese-Chinese War already raging in 1937, is generally dated as beginning in 1939, there was no question at the time of the work's filming that Europe was moving in the direction of another violent encounter between countries. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany four years earlier, the Italian Fascist party under Benito Mussolini had seized power nearly a decade before. France had allowed Italy to conquer Ethiopia and in 1935 the Territory of the Saar Basin was reunited with Germany, repudiating the Treaty of Versailles. In return for Germany's support of their Ethiopian invasion, Italy dropped their objection to Germany's desire to absorb Austria. By 1937, almost anyone except perhaps for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, would have recognized that the whole continent was again about to explode into war.

    Renoir's gentlemanly depiction of the previous war's prison camps, accordingly, seems almost cowardly in retrospect. Yet, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels named Grand Illusion "Cinematic Public Enemy No. I," ordering all prints to be confiscated. The French authorities banned the film in 1940 for "as long as the war should last." When the German Army marched into France that same year, the Nazis seized every print and negative of the film for its ideological criticisms of Germany. What are we today missing in that picture?

     In part, it is simply Renoir's great sense of irony that has been lost. For years now I have maintained that irony has disappeared in the young, to be replaced instead with satire or camp exaggeration. A long tale told through vignettes that subtly play out a conflicted statement is perhaps hard to comprehend in a time of pastiche.

    Let me attempt to explain Renoir's masterwork by suggesting that the world it portrays was recognized by most intelligent viewers of the time as a world that had long before been destroyed, that the characters of Grand Illusion existed, at the time of the film's making, in a world of the dead. Accordingly all their values, whether fascistic or humane, were "grand illusions," visions of a world that would be destroyed by the war in which they were engaged. By moving us away from the front lines, removing us from the playing fields, so to speak—and Renoir's work is very much one about the relationship of soldiers and children at play (consider Captain de Boeldieu's statement: "Out there, children play soldier...In here, soldiers play like children.")—we can more vividly see the delusions of all concerned.

     The most obvious of those delusions is the absurdity of class, the belief, encapsulated in both Captain de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, that in their aristocratic commitment to their military world, that they stood somehow apart and superior to the political divisions which they were ordered to impose. Having just finished reading Joseph Roth's wonderful fiction, Radetsky March, a few weeks before seeing Grand Illusion, I am struck by the parallel conclusions of Roth's and Renoir's visions. If nothing else, World War I completely shattered the smug contentions of moral superiority embedded in militaristic nations such as Germany, Austria, and even France. As grand as these gentleman officers might have perceived their world, it was they who brought war into existence and it was they, as a class, who were most obliterated by their involvement. The only difference between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein, is that the former comprehends that he represents a world of the past to be replaced by the working class officers like Maréchal and outsiders such as the Jewish Rosenthal, while the survivor, Rauffenstein, lives on as a kind of mad Frankenstein, his body made up of metal and wood, much of his blood and bones having been destroyed in battle after battle. But even von Rauffenstein knows what lies ahead: "Believe me, I don't know who is going to win this war, but whoever it is it will be the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus."

     Sacrificing his life to what he perceives is a new future, de Boeldieu finds a more graceful "way out," playing the clown as he runs up and down the castle staircases, flute in hand, cigarette in his mouth, to serve as decoy for his escaping soldiers. Although he is described as a "regular guy" by Rosenthal (whose family is nouveau riche), Maréchal comprehends throughout that the Captain is a man apart, a remnant of a world that has been an illusion all along, a world shared by von Rauffenstein of the belle epoque, represented in the film by the Paris restaurant Maxims, Frou-Frou, and woman they both loved.

     Yet, Renoir does not stop here in revealing his characters' personal illusions or delusions. War has already made them comprehend numerous realities that they had previously not conceived. For most of them, their wives back in France have taken up with other men, and their own sexualities, once so completely defined, have come into some question. One of the most touching moments in the film is the arrival of theater costumes, women's dresses, by which the men, who will soon don them for the joy of entertainment, are amazed given their short length and their silky textures, changes in styles since they have left home. As one young man puts on a dress and wig, the others stare, jaws locked in wonderment: for them he is clearly the reincarnation of womanhood, the stunning object of their desires. Renoir goes no further in this revelation of gender transformation, but we, as perceptive theater-goers, comprehend its significance.

     If class differences seem to have truly been obliterated, racial, religious and social differences are still very much alive, as, fed up with each other, the escapees, Maréchal and Rosenthal, suddenly turn on one another, hurling epithets that no longer have meaning. They reunite, but the pain of those abuses never quite heals.

    Renoir's gentle German farm woman, Elsa, is only too pleased to invite the two invaders into her home; after all, her own husband and brothers have been already killed in the war, in the horrible battlegrounds—Verdun, Liège, Charleroi, and Tannenberg from which Renoir has kept his audience—and she is lonely.

    Although Maréchal may be the better lover, bedding Elsa soon after their arrival, Rosenthal is the better father, a man who talks with and even educates her young daughter, going so far as to create a Christmas crèche for the child, an act that goes against his faith. Both delude themselves in their short stay in paradise, that they might return for Elsa and the child, bringing her and Lotte of "blaue augen"—the dominant symbol of Hitler's pure German—back to France after the war. As Maréchal expresses his hope that this war will be end of all wars, Rosenthal argues that such thinking is another "illusion."

    Although they both escape into Switzerland, the last few images are of them attempting to move forward as their feet become entrenched in the deep snow. And we recognize, as Renoir certainly did in 1937, that in the world to which they return, if they make it, they once more will be conceived of as a "rough" mechanic and a "rotten" Jew; certainly Rosenthal might not have survived what came after. In an early version of the script, Rosenthal and Maréchal, near film's end, agree to meet in a restaurant at the end of the war, with the final scene, celebrating the armistice, showing two empty chairs at a table.

     In short, what may have appeared as a gentlemanly world based on codes of honor, valor, and trust, are just as destructive, so Renoir suggests, as the bombs and gas in the trenches at battle's front, offering no more hope for the future than a bullet to the heart.

Los Angeles, May 24, 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

F. W. Murnau | Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh)

the coat in the closet
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Mayer (writer), F. W. Murnau (director) Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) / 1924

If one wanted to explain to someone the basic difference between an art film and a cranked-out Hollywood-like production, one could not choose a better example than the two films that make up F. W. Murnau’s German-produced The Last Laugh. For the larger part of this film is one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever filmed, using the camera (strapped to photographer’s chests,  held by cinematographers rolled about on wheelchairs, and dropped from heights via rope) in near constant motion, zooming in and out of the major rooms of the Atlantic Hotel, where most of the action takes place, in a way that was not only ahead of its time, but which has seldom been matched in the art form since.

    From the very first moment of Murnau’s Kammerspielfilm we are awed as we descend, within the glass encased hotel elevator, into the vast lobby that tells us immediately we are in a world of lavish pomposity and wealth. A few seconds later the camera comes to focus on almost as large mass, that hotel’s Charon, the grandly coated doorman, Emil Jannings, the central character in Murnau’s morality play.

Jannings performs his role with near operatic intensity, but what might have been perceived elsewhere as comically melodramatic, here is perfect to convey the inner man. Although the city in which this hotel exists might be any great metropolis—Alfred Hitchcock, working at the time in the same German studios reported that Murnau had all the street and shop signs translated into a version of Esperanto—we know, simply by the uniform, that The Atlantic exists in Germany. For Jannings' doorman absolutely exudes his pride, not only in his job as guide to the hotel’s cavernous domains, but in the uniform in which the hotel has dressed him: its officious tent-like shape, its several buttons (surely all of gold) and the decorative epaulets. For this doorkeeper, the dress is more important than the man.

     Arriving home from his day at work, we further observe just how important this uniform is in relation to the character’s personal life and community. The gossip-mongering women of his apartment complex, their mean-minded husbands, their nasty and bullying children, all stop what they’re doing as he passes in full dress. Smiles are plastered upon their faces, fights are interrupted, the dust beaten out of dirty clothing and beds, shooed away. Some even salute. So does Murnau make clear in his silent film, without a single title card, the lay of the land. The uniform and the man within is loved and respected. It not only symbolizes his life, but has transformed it. In his uniform he is quite simply a man of some importance.

     His home life, similarly, is presented as nearly idyllic. On the night we first see him at home, his niece is quite apparently overjoyed: she is to be married the very next day. Both wife and niece treat their breadwinner with love and loyalty, overjoyed just to see him strut imperiously through the apartment yard on his way to work.

     During the rainy afternoon of the day before, however, we have witnessed a small flaw in this man’s charmed world: rushing in and out, umbrella in hand, to usher the hotel guests back and forth, he has been asked to lift down one of the customer’s huge trunks. Gathering up all his strength, he brings the burden into the hotel, but he is exhausted by act, in need of a small sip of schnapps to regain his vigor. The hotel doorman, it is clear, is growing old, a fact not lost on the Geschätsführer, the hotel manager. The very next morning, the doorman is called in and handed a note. Taking out his glasses, another sign of his age, he slowly reads what’s written upon the paper (the only use of the written word in the central part of Marnau’s film): he has been relieved of his position as a doorman and ordered to replace the hotel’s oldest employee, the washroom attendant.

      Murnau quipped that the switch was actually for the better—“everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman”—but for Jannings' character the change is utterly inconceivable. As the manager forces him to remove his beloved uniform, the former doorman gradually shifts from a Charon into an Atlas, as he replaces the previous burden of a trunk by the weight of the world. Before our eyes, Jannings ages, by scene’s end hardly able to move. The uniform and all that it stands for is locked away into a closet, the key for which this now old man cannot resist stealing.

     Doors, which have previously been busy centers of entry and egress, suddenly grow into objects of gigantean proportions eerily rocking against their jambs without a person in sight. The world of the lavatories lies below the busy first-floor lobby, a journey that takes one through long, arched corridors that cannot help but remind one of entering Hades. Forced to put on a white work jacket, Jennings sits, his huge frame exposed, as if he were now naked.

     At the close of the day, this destroyed being is now reduced to sneaking into the manager’s office, escaping the harsh light of the hotel watchman, in order to retrieve his treasured coat. As he slinks out of the hotel, his whole being is possessed by a vision of the world that can only remind one of the First World War-time depictions of the German Expressionists, everything is askew, at an angle, dizzying in perspective.

     This man’s return home is now a painful one, but since he has returned in uniform, no one notices, and his family is delighted with his arrival, for now they can celebrate his nieces’ wedding. Yet. if the day before life had seemed idyllic, it is now filled with drunken souses, figures out of peasant carousals. The former doorman, himself, becomes inebriated, his head spinning out of control. By morning he is little better, as his earlier militarist strut is replaced by a stumbling, slightly drunken reeling forward motion. He arrives at his lavatory post late.

     He has also forgotten his lunch, and we soon witness his joyful wife on her way to deliver it to him. She quickly shows herself at the front door, darting behind a nearby wall to await his appearance. When he doesn’t show, she shows herself again, but cannot spot him; another man has apparently taken his place. An inquiry leads her into the hotel’s bowels where she sends a message for him to appear. When he does, she faces the nobody he has become, shocked, angry, ashamed. The new attendant painfully sits out the day, but by the time he picks up his former uniform in a train station check where he has left it, word has gotten out among the apartment dwellers: he has lost his job!

     Dressed once more in his magnificent attire, he is this time mocked by all the envious gossips, rejected even in his own apartment by his wife, niece, and her husband. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the grand hotel. This time he does not hide, but seeks out the night watchman, and, in one of the most painful scenes in all of film history, sheepishly hands him the stolen uniform. With apparent regret, the watchman hangs it, once more, in the forbidden closet.

     Together the two descend into the inferno of the men’s lavatory, where the watchman gently strokes his friend’s head and covers him with a coat before leaving, the camera documenting the sad heap of a the proud man he once was.

     So ends this great work of art.

Or so it should have ended. Universum Film (UFA) executives demanded a more positive close, forcing the director and writer to add an epilogue, prefaced for the first time with an actual title card reading: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” Mocking both the epilogue and the reason for it, the title card makes clear the creative partner’s perspective. And, in fact, the rest of the tale is acted out mostly with the other characters laughing in derision of the now wealthy former doorman, who has inherited a fortune from an American millionaire named A. G. Money, a patron who died in his arms in the hotel bathroom. Or perhaps they are just laughing at this ludicrous appendage.

      Throughout the film’s early scenes we have observed the lavish dinners served in the restaurant just off the lobby. Now, at the very center of that posh establishment sits the well dressed new millionaire, sloppily slurping up a gargantuan dessert as he awaits the arrival of his former night watchman friend, for whom he orders up platter after platter. Finishing the feast, the two exit through the door which he once guarded, awarding tips to all the hotel employees before employing one of the very carriages from which he had escorted numerous hotel guests.

     Where is this unlikely couple going, one well might ask? Why to Hollywood, of course, where Murnau showed up two years later, to escape, as a homosexual, Germany’s severe penal code! Cut to sunrise, the name of his next feature.

Los Angeles, May 21, 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

Frank Capra | Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles

damon runyonland

all about us
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Riskin (screenplay, based on a story by Damon Runyon), Frank Capra (director) Lady for a Day / 1933

Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend (screenplay, based on a story by Damon Runyon and Robert Riskin’s script), Frank Capra (director) Pocketful of Miracles / 1961

For years my companion Howard and I have preferred Frank Capra’s remake of his renowned Damon Runyon adaptation of “Madame La Gimp,” Pocketful of Miracles, over his 1933 film version, Lady for a Day. Sure, the 1961 remake is all Hollywood and about as sweetly syrupy a confection as ever made—that is, after all to be expected in Capra’s cornball vision of American life, where everyone defines himself as a hick compared to the snooty, wealthy snobs. And yes, the opening Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cohn theme song, sung by a children’s chorus, makes any music lover want to turn tail and run from the theater. The pouting coos of the young Ann-Margret’s Louise are nearly unbearable; Glenn Ford’s gee-gosh rendition of the supposedly suave Dave the Dude often produces viewer cringe; and even Peter Falk’s wise-cracking cynicisms seem to be from another movie. I even admit that Hope Lange’s Queenie Martin, the dancing speak-easy owner desperate to get married and move back to Silver Springs (a.k.a. the DC suburb Silver Spring)—a desire never once expressed by the tougher Missouri Martin of the original—seems utterly ludicrous. And the whole film is just too long!

     Still, Capra does project a kind of glorious Technicolor magic in his tale of the street hag, Apple Annie, magically transformed from a “cockroach what turned into a butterfly!” And who could more brilliantly portray that improbable resurrection than the radiant Bette Davis, late in her glorious career? The supporting actors—Edward Everett Edward Horton as the witty butler Hudgins, Mickey Shaughnessy as the dim-witted comedic Junior, Sheldon Leonard as the mobster Steve Darcey, and the linguistically gifted con-man, Thomas Mitchell as Judge Henry G. Blake, among others—are about as perfect as one can imagine. One need only compare a single scene—the moment Annie is first viewed in her completely made-over body—with the original to realize that Capra did sometimes have a genius for dramatic scenarios. In Lady for a Day, May Robson is announced by Glenda Farrell without much ado, simply appearing suddenly at the open doorway. While she certainly looks quite grand and proper, Robson’s Mrs. E. Worthington Manville transformation falls quite dead, as if the cosmetic and clothing magicians had simply draped her in a new dress and topped her head with a nice-fitting wig. There is little of magic in the scene. In Pocketful of Miracles, however, the transformation seems to take hours as Junior, snoring away in boredom successfully tosses cards into a hat (something he cannot achieve, apparently, while he is awake). Suddenly the door of the bedroom opens, as the utterly exhausted makeup and clothing experts stagger out, Queenie following them with an imitation of a trumpet blare. Chords from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite swell up, and out struts the beautifully coifed and elegantly dressed Davis. One can hardly resist clapping in delight for the pure theater magic of the moment.

    By comparison, Lady for a Day is coarse and crude. And once Capra convinces us through that Pocketful of Miracles scene that such magic is his subject, we believe that Dave the Dude can truly save the day by bringing with him, at the very last moment (with Hudgins reassuring the Count, “Nobody arrives first, sir. They all arrive last”), the real New York Chief of Police, the city's Mayor and the state Governor ready to claim Mrs. Manville as their friend, replacing the Dude’s clumsy henchman and Queenie’s tough molls.

     It hardly even matters that everyone involved, including the hood-winked, aristocratic Count Romero and his son, are engaged in a monstrous deceit. As the Governor tells his wife, it felt good, made him feel young again. And isn’t that, after all, the role of Hollywood comedies?

     The other day, however, in preparation for my several pieces on Damon Runyon stories adapted into films, I again watched, after some years of neglect, the 1933 black-and-white version, and, for the first time, had to agree with most critics that Lady for a Day was superior. First of all, this film, with all its rough edges, does seem somehow fresher, freed from the glossy Hollywood imitations of actors like Hope Lange, Ann-Margret, and Glenn Ford. Without the various plot complications of the remake—the Dude’s negotiations with the Chicago Mob, Martin’s desires to go straight—the story straight-forwardly focuses, moreover, on Apple Annie, instead of flying off  in the many directions of the 1961 cut.

     The tough-girl image of Glenda Farrell’s Missouri Martin seems utterly believable compared with Lange’s saintly sinner. And while Ford’s Dave the Dude often appears like a befuddled office worker, Warren William’s subtle elegance makes one comprehend how he’s been awarded his moniker, putting him in a league with Runyonesque fast-talking conmen like Judge Blake, who Guy Kibbee played with almost as much panache as Thomas Mitchell.

     As great as Bette Davis was in Pocketful of Miracles, May Robson, older and more irascible than her reincarnation, is also more sure-footed in her role. When Robson gins it up, one truly believes she loves the stuff. When she sends her cat flying, one becomes convinced that she has truly kicked the cat. As marvelous as Davis is, there is something too elegant about her Annie and too tenuous about her Mrs. E. Worthington Manville. One need only compare the moment when the Manville figure realizes that she must reveal her true existence to the Count. Entering the room, Robson restates her understanding of why he has traveled to America to meet and evaluate Louise’s family with a speech something to the effect: “You wanted to know all about usOh, I don’t blame you. It would terrible if after the marriage you found out….” Robson reads those lines quite assertively, hinting at both her comprehension and her disdain for the Count’s petty snobbery; and for a second, one truly does believe she is willing to spill the beans, that she will finally speak the truth. Davis says the same words, but pauses a second or so, her voice somewhat shaking just before her denial of any blame, and in that pause she reveals a sense of a deep inadequacy, almost a sorrowful expression of her own inferiority which might force her to admit what will destroy her daughter’s life. But in that pause, as poignant as it is, the viewer also realizes she will never complete her sentence, she cannot reveal her true self. While Robson’s Annie is a proud being who despises the very class distinctions she is forced to act out, Davis’ Manville is ashamed of her true self. Capra’s Lady for a Day represents precisely what its title suggests, a woman who becomes a lady just for a day; for, at heart, she is a beggar who is proud of her profession. The same director’s Pocketful of Miracles utterly reveals the later version for what it is as well: a magic bag of tricks. Can one truly imagine, at the end of the second film, when, as the boat pulls away Davis commands her beggar friends to get to work, that she can ever truly return to her life in the streets, that she will again fall from the heights of the imperious beauty to again become a hag, or, as Runyon characterizes her, “a gimp?”

      Finally, Lady for a Day has a treasure that even outshines the genius of Edward Everett Horton’s bemused butler: Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the kind of sour cynic about who can quip, as does Missouri Martin, “Happy, if you break anything, be sure it’s your neck,” while at the very same moment breaking out in a guffaw. If there was ever anyone born to utter Runyon’s Dadaist-like Americanisms, Sparks was the man! The interchange between that film’s butler, Halliwell Hobbes and Happy says everything you need to know about why Capra succeeded the first time round:

                             Happy McGuire: That should be a cinch.
                             Butler: I beg your pardon, Sir.
                             Happy McGuire: I said that should be a leadpipe cinch!
                             Butler: If I had choice of weapons with you, Sir, I’d choose

Compare that with Horton’s admission in his role as butler: “I love a good fairy tale,” and you can understand why a director devoted to self-deluded American dreamers of the middle class preferred the remake.

Los Angeles, May 20, 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Robert Bresson | Le diable problement (The Devil, Probably)

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson (writer and director) Le diable problement (The Devil, Probably) / 1977

Often described as Bresson's most controversial of films, Le diable probalement (The Devil, Probably) today seems almost prophetic, and, unless one is willing to close his eyes upon the environmental and social issues concerns the movie presents—and unfortunately, we all know individuals who fit that definition—there is little of real controversy in the work. The four young individuals at the center of Bresson's work sit through documentaries, lectures, and other presentations on subjects such as global warming, the effects of the atomic bomb and atomic energy, the overfishing of the world's oceans, and numerous other still-hot topics that seem as central to our world today as they obviously appeared to these young French drop-outs of the late 1960s.

      Perhaps what people mean by describing the great film director's work as controversial derives from his forceful and unwavering statement of these young people's correct evaluation of the a world gone crazy in its greedy search for quick expedients and money. Bresson does not leave anything to doubt as to his position, utterly mocking the university professor who, in describing the advantages of atomic energy, for example, keeps suggesting that "eventually" the problems of using such energy will be solved by vague military and corporate forces in the United States! As Charles summarizes it: "To reassure people, you only have to deny the facts."

     From the very first scene to the final images of the film, Bresson makes it quite clear that, even though his androgynous hero chooses the solution of suicide to cure his illness of "seeing too clearly," his commitment is to life.  But then Bresson's heroes, from Mouchette and the Country Priest to his compulsive pickpocket, all choose routes to salvation that might be damned by their faith. That is the way it is with such a great deep moralist as Bresson: for individuals faced with the evils of the world, probably the work of the Devil, there is no easy decision in knowing how to survive and react.

     Much like a kind of hippie cult leader, Charles (Antonie Monnier) collects a small group of people around him—Edwige (Laetita Carcano) and Alberte (Tina Irissari) as well as the drug addict Valentin (Nocolas Deguy) and Edwige's former boyfriend, Michel (Henri de Maublanc)—as they undergo a series of what might be described as educational explorations of the decline of  contemporary society. Unlike some cult leaders, he asks only that, with him, they witness discussions of the societal problems. In return he offers each of them a deep love—which we observe most intensely when Valentin is desperately in need of a fix and suffers withdrawal symptoms, Bresson showing Charles not only obtaining the drugs but gently pulling the covers around his suffering friend. At one point, Charles even offers to marry the more needy of his two women friends.

     Yet Bresson hardly ever sentimentalizes his figures, and the characters here are also kept at a kind of emotional distance through the director's fragmentation of their bodies—as in nearly all of his films, his characters' acts are often recounted in the movements of hands, arms, legs, and feet, instead of head-on face shots—and through the effect that sounds—music, footsteps, voices, sirens, etc.—have upon his actors' psyches. These cinematographic devices give the viewer the sense of sharing their lives since we observe them so very closely, while at the same time releasing us from an objective viewpoint. We are encouraged to mentally and physically share in their daily experiences. And so too do we, then, become witnesses of and participants in the world they are forced to evaluate.

     It is almost inevitable, we come to see, that the sensitive Charles should chose to commit suicide; certainly his friends fear for it. But as he tells his psychiatrist, he does not really want to die; it is simply that in such a world he cannot sanely go on living. Like the Romans, accordingly, Charles chooses another—in this case, his drug-needy friend—to carry out his wishes. Always in need of a quick fix and the money to find one, Valentin agrees to become Charles' Judas, carrying out the awful deed only too well, shooting and killing his loving friend mid-sentence, as if to cut off any possibility of regret or his friend's ability to talk his way out of the end he has determined for himself.  In his suicide-murder, Charles is also, probably, a kind of devil, but at least he has been saved from seeing, like Cassandra, everything he has predicted come true. Whereas, unfortunately, we must now daily face just those horrors which Charles and his friends already witnessed, as well as facing all those still in denial today.

Los Angeles, May 19, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Huston | Wise Blood

savage demands
by Douglas Messerli

Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (screenplay, based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor), John Huston (director) Wise Blood / 1979

John Huston’s 1979 film, Wise Blood, received mostly positive reviews, many of them arguing how faithful the film is to Flannery O’Connor’s legendary first novel. In many respects, one would have to agree that this film, surely a difficult work to achieve within the Hollywood definition of what is a saleable film—Wise Blood had German and American backing—comes off far better than one might have suspected. Indeed all of O’Connor’s strange players reappear in their compelling and compelled roles in the small, mythical Southern community of Taulkinham, including the war veteran Hazel Motes, the “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, his sex-crazed daughter Sabbath Lily, the lonely and lost boy Enoch Emery, the religious-spouting conman, Hoover Shoates (re-baptizing himself as Onnie Jay Holy), and the scheming landlady, Mrs. Flood. And most of these larger-than-life characters are quite convincingly acted, including Motes (Brad Dourif), Emery (Dan Schor), Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton), Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), Shoates (Ned Beatty), and Mrs. Flood (Mary Nell Santacroce)—particularly given that their roles are so much larger than life.

    For the most part, Huston downplays the shocking encounters between these figures, steering his narrative away from what might have been absurdly exaggerated types at the best, and campy versions of Southern degenerates at worst. Certainly a work in which the central character, preaching against organized religion, argues for a new “Church of Christ without Christ,” in which“the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way” in the midst of world quite literally fermenting in religiosity, is a hard line to tow in a medium that generally pushes everything off the cliff of realism. Add to that a blind preacher who can see all too well, his daughter, determined to marry Motes (“I'm just crazy about him. I never seen a boy I like the looks of any better.”), a lunatic friend, Emery Enoch, with the mind of child, who steals a mummy from a local museum to present Hazel with the symbol of new church and later steals a gorilla costume and attempts to shake hands with the natives, and, finally, a landlady determined to get Hazel into her bed, and one immediately perceives the director’s immense talent to be able to transform these “freaks,” as O’Connor herself might have called them, into figures about whom we still care.

     Huston seems to have, in particular, sustained our belief in the hero, Hazel Motes, who raised to be a kind of preacher, cannot resist the task, despite his desperate attempts to denounce his and his community’s beliefs. Throughout, the film focuses  on his faith in a world in which he proclaims is doomed. Despite every evidence to the contrary, Hazel continues to sing the praises of the run-down car he has purchased (“This car is just beginning its life, a lightning bolt couldn't stop it.”) up until the very moment a passing policeman sends it to its death in a local lake (in the book, the car’s end is even more ignoble). Hazel may try to free himself of disciples, yet he quickly finds a willing believer and follower in the simple-minded Emery. Although he seems basically disinterested in the opposite sex, he immediately attracts the eye of the prostitute, Leona Watts, the embraces of Sabbath Lily, and the motherly fondles of Mrs. Flood. If Asa Hawkes does not have the nerve to blind himself as evidence of his beliefs, Hazel does, ending his life as a blind man whose body is ravaged through his self-imposed bodily tortures and his suffering through a stormy night out of doors. In short, Hazel’s whole life gives lie to his credo: “I don't have to run away from anything, cause I don't believe in anything.” Huston convinces us that, in fact, Hazel believes in almost everything, that he cares enough about the truth to even kill for it.

    Also central to O’Connor’s parable, however, is the amazingly childlike faith of Emery, who not only is able to bring Hazel a kind a Christ-child in the form of the stolen mummy (which Sabbath Lily immediately takes to breast, as if she were the Madonna of the ancient Bible tale), but ends the work as a version of Yeats’ “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born anew from his gorilla-like existence. But here, and in other such spots, Huston’s film falls apart as composer Alex North (whose excellent score I recently reencountered in the stage version of Death of a Salesman), after rousing renditions of nearly every Southern-born hymn, strikes up a banjo-twanging hillbilly accompaniment that diminishes Emery’s role and turns him, along with others such as Sabbath Lily and Hoover Shoates, into a bunch stupid crackers. Accordingly, while the film has successfully struggled with the profound contradictions of its central figure, it marginalizes and even mocks the men and women surrounding Hazel who give credence to the powers of his ministry. Emery’s final gesture of shaking hands, while dressed in his gorilla outfit, with a couple waiting at a bus stop—a meaningful attempt to link the miracle of his newfound faith to everyday folk through a simple handshake—is played here for its comic ridiculousness rather than presenting it as an act of absurd significance.

     In the end, consequently, Hazel Mote’s last gasps, while the chattering Mrs. Flood plans out his future in her bed, seem quite meaningless; in Huston’s world he has just been, after all, another fool, a kind of kooky con-man, who, as the chorus of Iowa hucksters of The Music Man might proclaim, “doesn’t know the territory”—while the fact is that Motes knew his world better than even he might of imagined, recognizing the savagery of its demands.

Los Angeles, May 18, 2012