Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paul Bartel | Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills

comebacks, or let’s misbehave
by Douglas Messerli
Bruce Wagner (screenplay, based on a story by Paul Bartel and Bruce Wagner), Paul Bartel (director) Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills / 1989

Bartel’s dark and witty comedy of 1989 begins with a huge orange tent being draped over what is supposed to be a Beverly Hills house. Anyone living in Los Angeles would recognize immediately that the house was being fumigated and the home shown is not at all in Beverly Hills but in the swankier Hancock Park section of the city, where the houses are more palatial than in the wealthy city to its west.

      Two misnomers of this film’s title, accordingly, are, at least I interpret it, no real class struggle occurs, both servants and masters being readily willing to crawl into each other’s bed and, at least in one case, to form a “lasting” relationship, and, even were to have been a “struggle,” it has not occurred in Beverly Hills!

     Having decided to leave her philandering, gynecologist husband, Lisabeth Hepburn-Saravian (the marvelous Mary Worono) has order up the fumigation as part of the cleaning-out process. She, along with her brother, Peter (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his new wife, To-Bel (Ametia Waler)--who pay a surprise visit to Lisabeth--must temporarily camp ou next door in the equally large mansion of Lisabeth's friend, Clare Lipkin (Jacqueline Biseet), who along with Lisbeth's daughter, Zandra (Rebecca Schaffer) and Clare's son, Willie (Barret Oliver), Lisbeth's handsome houseboy Juan (Robert Beltran), Clare's chauffeur Frank (Ray Sharkey, her aphoristic-spouting maid Rosa (Edith Dias), and the ghost of Clare's recently self-strangulated husband Sidney (Paul Muzursky) fill the house with their pyschological conundrums and sexual peccadillos. Add to this bizarre assorment of individuals Clare's "thinologist" Dr. Mo Van De Camp (Paul Bartel)--a firm believer in binge and purge eating--occasional guest, Michael Feinstein, playing himself, and the return of Lisbeth's erring husband, Howard (Wallace Shawn), and chaos breaks out.

     The lovely Zandra is having sex with the chauffeur, Frank, who has also indirectly been responsible for Sidney’s strangulation while masturbating, and, as a bisexual, has the hots for Juan. The ailing Willie spends a great deal of his time in bed taking naps with Rosa when he isn’t watching porn tapes provided to him by Juan. Although just married to To-Bel, Peter is quickly attracted to Clare, an admirer of his absurd-sounding dramas, and soon finds his way into her bed. To-Bel is fucked “animal-style” by Frank and she provides her services as well to the inquisitive Willie. Meanwhile both the wealthy women, Lisabeth and Clare, contemplate sex with the servants at the very moment Frank and Juan make a bet on who can bed Lisabeth and Clare first. If Juan loses, Frank wants Juan to try sex with him. Even in his ghostly manifestation, Sidney would like to return to his wife’s arms, while Howard, who coincidently had an affair in Hawaii with To-Bel, would like to crawl back under the covers with Lisabeth.

      A bit like a more frenzied Smiles of a Summer Night, Bartel’s lusty work entertains with the naughty comings and goings of these confused misfits, whose bizarre couplings are revealed at brunch in front of a shocked and terrified young woman reporter, interviewing Clare about her attempt at a comeback as a television actress. In a sense, each of the film’s figures are seeking a sort of comeback, a new yet familiar direction or audience in which to channel their loves.

     Near film’s end Lisabeth pairs up with Juan, but not before Juan, claiming to lose his bet to Frank due his macho protection of Lisabeth’s virtue, joins Frank in a homosexual coupling; Clare, determined to finally devote some time to herself, leaves her son in the protection of the quite mad (Juan insists that she is burned-out as a housekeeper) Rosa; Zandra takes off with the slimy Doctor to the depths of Africa to help with his “hunger project” (he warns her they will have to share a tent); To-Bel returns to her former gynecologist lover, Howard; and Frank, presumably, will continue to bugger everyone in sight. Only the self-enchanted playwright Peter is left in the lurch—but then, there’s always Frank!

     True to the model of what have been calling the Los Angeles sub-genre of film, almost everyone in this work, except Clare, are outsiders—all attempting to find a new home and relationship. Although, at film’s end, only Willie, Rosa and Frank stay in Los Angeles, the others will surely take Los Angeles on their diaspora. And all, except perhaps for Peter, the outsider who does not find a place for his heart, are certain to return to the city where such misbehaving folk are most at home.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2012

Watching Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills again the other evening, I almost felt like it was old home week, for I have make the acquaintances of four of the actors in this film. I have known Mary Woronov now for several years, both as an artist and an actress who gained early fame for her acting in several Andy Warhol films. She was also a colleague of mine at Otis College of Art + Design.

     In the early years after moving to Los Angeles, I used to stop by a restaurant-bar across the street from our condominium on my way home, a place frequented by former LAMA Photography curator Robert Sobieszek, who often shared a table with Paul Bartel and filmmakers and writers, all attended by then restaurant manager and later art gallerist Sara Lee, who married Robert.

     I met and spoke to Wallace Shawn for a long while after one of his plays was produced in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art, talking, in particular, about the possibility of publishing one of his plays on my Sun & Moon Press.

    Moreover, several years ago, when I was attempting to put together a book on film by writers and filmmakers, a friend took me to visit director Paul Muzursky, with whom I had a long and pleasant conversation about his films and those of others.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

George Clooney | Good Night, and Good Luck

Applause, Applause
by Douglas Messerli

George Clooney (director); George Clooney and Grant Heslov (screenplay), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s movie about Edward R. Murrow, is the kind of film that audiences always applaud. My companion, Howard attended the movie twice before I took in a showing on a weekday afternoon, and at each performance, we concurred, the audience so responded.

Certainly the focus of this film—Edward R. Murrow’s head on attack of then Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Committee for UnAmerican Activities—an act of great bravery on Murrow’s and CBS’s part—is worthy of audience appreciation. Murrow’s reporting, his incisive appeal to his viewers that Americans were able to encounter ideas that threatened their system without censorship and arrestment of those involved, and his outright disdain for McCarthy’s methods of innuendo and lies is well documented and in this film is represented through an almost noir-like dramatization of real events interspersed with actual television and film footage of the period. The world McCarthy and his committee had created is brilliantly presented by Clooney and cinematographer Robert Elswit in cinematic terms through extensive use of rack-focus camera shots and a blurring of the background in many scenes, along with jumpy, held-hand camera effects that recreate the sense of early television and suggest the psychological condition of people involved in a time when it was sometimes difficult to clearly see the broader picture of world politics and where even the tiniest of questionable political behavior might jeopardize one’s career. W. H. Auden and others described the period as “The Age of Anxiety”; certainly it was a time that simply made one nervous to do anything out of the ordinary—or even sometimes within the ordinary , all which Clooney and Heslov reiterate through several dramatic episodes, particularly in scenes revealing the hidden marriage of Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) [studio executives did not permit employees to be married] and the continual need for self-evaluation of personal sympathies or even relationships with those who might have had seemingly Communist connections [CBS news announcer Don Hollenbeck (played by Ray Wise) is attacked by newspaper columnists for having “pinko” connections which brings on his suicide; and, when Murrow (brilliantly played by David Strathairn) and Fred Friendly (played by Clooney himself) demand their staff tell them of any possible communist connections, one staff member suggests he should leave the team for having previously been married to a woman who had attended Communist Party meetings before he met her]. In short, it was a time of deep paranoia that effected everyone.

On that fateful night in 1954, Murrow’s “See It Now” broadcast begin the downfall of McCarthy and his years of destructive effects on the American psyche, effects that still have consequence in today’s battles between the political left and far right. But if Murrow won the proverbial battle, he lost the “war,” so to speak. Soon after that brave journalistic act—one now recognized as among the most outstanding moments in American journalism—CBS and its head William Paley (played here by Frank Langella) cancelled this regular news program, moving its diminished series of five shows to Sunday nights. And it is this fact that, it seems to me, is really the issue of this motion picture. Clooney and Heslov document the McCarthy attack effectively, but they have another, perhaps more far-reaching theme to present: the general decline of American journalism, and the rise of MTV-entertainment television and newspaper coverage. The movie begins and ends a few years after Murrow’s famed show with a lecture he made to the American press about the ever-increasing lack of serious news coverage.

Accordingly, Clooney’s film, although presented as a kind of realist costume drama, is more than that, is a film that continues to have important significance today. It is unfortunate that the film only suggests—although quite forcibly—these issues. When one thinks about the declining coverage of serious events on US television, where local news stations now spend most of their time—at least in my city of Los Angeles—on car chases and local and national disasters; when one perceives that even the half-hour of national news coverage reveals little about major international events; when one recognizes that journalists today often do not seem interested in pressing for the truth behind political statements and presidential edicts or, when they do, like Judith Miller, they often connive and fabricate; when one understands that most books sections across the country have disappeared or, as with the New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times Book Review have chosen to refocus their attentions on more popular genres and best-selling publications; when one puts this into the context of Murrow’s impassioned plea for more serious and complex reporting, one is perhaps made “nervous” again. Do we as a populace even know now when we’re being lied to? Do we even recognize today that our news is incomplete—or worse—simply not existent? I am always depressed when I return home to my family in Iowa, where in the thin pages of the Cedar Rapids Gazette—just as in most smaller citys—the entire news coverage is presented in brief AP notices? Yet my mother is convinced that she knows everything that’s happening of importance in the world; “I keep up with the news,” she proudly says.

Finally, it comes down to a societal and institutional disdain for Americans themselves, a feeling by a few who believe they hold knowledge (and often have no better grasp of it that anyone else) that the general populace cannot and will not assimilate complex information. A few years ago I had lunch with then-editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sonja Bolle. When asked what books I was soon to publish on my Sun & Moon Press label, I replied that we had just published a translation by the French Oulipo writer, Raymond Queneau. “O, I love Queneau,” she gushed, much to my surprise. “He’s a wonderful writer. But, of course, we couldn’t possibly do a review of his work!” “Why not?” I naively responded. Oh, our readers couldn’t understand a review about his literature. You know, most newspaper readers read at the sixth grade level.

I was appalled, not so much by the journalistic cliché we have all heard many times, but by the absolute misunderstanding, it seemed to me then and does yet today, of who her audience was. “Do you think,” I asked, “that it is the least literate part of your audience who reads the book section? Why even have a book section if that’s the case?

There are many readers for different reasons,” I concluded. “We live in a very diverse time. And furthermore, I don’t believe that any reader of a newspaper is a complete idiot. Don’t you owe readers something more than your disdain?” I could have been talking to the wall.

Accordingly, I wonder, when those many audiences applaud Clooney’s excellent film, just what it is that they are applauding: Murrow’s bravery for attacking a bigot? Murrow’s advocation of a more serious journalism? Clooney’s presentation of these issues? Or perhaps it is for all these reasons and more. I would like to think that in applauding Good Night, and Good Luck these audiences are simply asking to be treated as Murrow treated his, as intelligent adults.

Copyright ©2006 by Green Integer.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nicholas Ray | The Lusty Men

being scared
by Douglas Messerli
David Dortort, Alfred Hayes, Horace McCoy, Andrew Solt, and Jerry Wald (writers, based on a novel by Claude Stamush), Nicholas Ray and Robert Parrish (directors) The Lusty Men / 1952

You have to forgive this film for its utterly inappropriate title, The Lusty Men—it might as well have been titled The Randy Cowboys. Clearly, one or more of its numerous writers tossed out the title to attract prurient interest, or some studio head demanded a more “sexy” come-on. But, fortunately, it has nothing to do with Nicholas Ray’s sensitive portrayal of rodeo performers and their addictions to that self-destructive sport. Despite sometimes tense male-to-male relationships and both central characters’ love for the film’s central woman character, played by Susan Hayward, there is nothing even slightly “lusty” about their acts.

     Injured by a Brahma bull he attempts to ride, veteran rodeo rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) decides to retire, returning to his childhood home, a now crumbling, run-down place owned by Jeremiah (Burt Mustin). The place, however, would be perfect for a local couple, Wes and Louise Merrit (Arthur Kennedy and Hayward), who attempt to save money to buy it from Wes’s meager earnings as a cowhand.

      Hired to work at the same ranch, Jeff attracts the attention of Wes, who, without telling his wife, is determined to enter a local rodeo. When he does well, he becomes determined to join the rodeo circuit with Jeff as his trainer-partner, over the objections of his wife. Since he can make far more at a single rodeo that he can save from his own annual wages, he stakes his chances on riding, insistent that we will pull out the moment he makes enough money to buy the derelict farm. As he tells Jeff, who is a kind of worn-out, slightly cynical philosopher throughout the film:

                        Wes: A fella’s bankroll could get fat in a hurry, rodeoin’.
                        Jeff: Bahh… Chicken today, feathers tomorrow.
                        Wes: Now if he played it smart when he had the chicken.

       As a rodeo wife, however, Louise begins to perceive the other side of “rodeoin’, as she meets former friends of Jeff, such as Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt), who, once a champion, is a now crippled old man.

                         Jeff: Old Book used to be one of the best bronc riders in the
                         Wes: What happened?
                         Jeff: Punchy. Bronc shook his brains loose. He’s head wrangler
                                 for Dawson now.           

    When another competitor, Buster Burgess (Walter McCoy) is killed by a bull, he leaves behind a bitter wife, Grace (Lorna Thayer). Depressed by what she has observed, Louise decides to stay away from the rodeo activities, allowing another woman, Babs (Eleanor Todd) to move in on her husband. When he is invited to a party Babs is throwing, Louise attends the affair, pouring a drink over her rival’s head.

       Meanwhile Jeff warms up to Louise, at one point, when she has been offered the possibility to take a shower in Rosemary Burgess’ trailer, comically encountering a suddenly jealous friend:

                     Buster: (entering Rosemary’s trailer to find Jeff sitting inside. The
                         can be heard running in the background). Who’s in the shower?
                     Jeff: Lady.
                     Louise: (from the shower) Jeff, can you hand me a towel?
                     Buster: (Jeff starts to get up but Buster stops him) I’ll get it.
                        (He walks in on Louis in the shower and she screams.) That
                        ain’t Rosemary!
                     Jeff: Nooooooo.

 But when Jeff attempts to suggest a relationship with Louise, she remains true to Wes. His answer represents the kind of witty, understated dialogue behind much of Mitchum’s acting and reveals Ray’s brilliant manipulation of his characters:

                     Jeff: (to Louise) I do think I ought to kiss you just once,
                               though, for all the times I won’t.

       Throughout, Jeff has represented riding as an act that requires respect, arguing for a healthy fear for what they do, presenting the idea, once again, in his philosophy of alternatives:

                           Jeff: I’ve been scared, I’ve been not scared.”

 But as Wes continues winning, having now won more than enough to buy the house, he loses the necessary “being scared” about his profession, lashing out against his partner for his sometimes skeptical comments and for taking part of the money based on Wes’s own feats. When the two part ways, Jeff determines to go back to “rodeoin” even though he is clearly now out of shape.

      In the first two events, roping and riding, he does well. But in the bronc riding contest his foot becomes caught in the stirrup after he has brilliantly ridden the horse, and he is killed, demonstrating to the hard-headed Wes, just how dangerous the business is. Wes quits the rodeo circuit, returning home with his loving wife.

      One might argue that Ray’s film represents a kind simple and predictable plot, but the dialogue and acting make it one of the best of his earliest works, reiterating his ability to turn a series of character encounters into a more serious moral parable, as he does in later films such as Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause.

Los Angeles, September 26, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Robert Dornhelm | Echo Park

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Ventura (screenplay), Robert Dornhelm (director) Echo Park / 1985

Echo Park  is the kind of movie critics like to describe as "endearing," a small, off-kilter film that overall does not quite hold together, but has charming moments nonetheless. The film does have a great deal going for it: wonderful props—a rambling old house ready, so it seems, to fall down the hill at any moment, a lit-up pizza truck that looks like it's decked out for Christmas—presumably all the creation of the film's art director Bernt Capra (father of my typesetter-assistant, Pablo); a wonderful cast of characters, including Susan Dey, Tom Hulce, Michael Bowen, Shirley Jo Finney, Timothy Carey and the young Christopher Walker; an often heartfelt story; and a 1980s backdrop of the then young and down-and-out Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, along with its scraggly palms and golden sunsets. The character types, however, are just that, outsized stick-figures whose loony lifestyles make them hard to believe; you know a film is a bit over-the-top when Cheech Marin plays the film's so-called "straight" man!

May (Dey), a bartender-waitress at a dreary local pub, is having a hard time of it, trying to keep life in order while staying a step ahead of her quickly maturing son, Henry (Walker); to help raise money she determines to rent out a room in her already over-cramped half of the dilapidated house. Director Dornhelm brings out nearly every extreme character actor in Hollywood as hopeful roommates before delivering up a local pizza boy, Jonathan (Hulce) whose friendly face and clean looks gets May's attention. Next door to her is August, an Austrian body-sculptor with dreams of becoming another Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, each of these figures wants to become someone other than they are—at least by trade. May wants to be an actress, and lamely expresses that hope week after week by posting newspaper announcements: "Experienced actress available for immediate roles." Jonathan quietly and moodily writes songs. And August is torn between creating a machine to harness the energy of actors' genes in order to renovate the worn out bodies of others and seeking a career as an bit actor in television ads. Henry just wants to survive the childhood through which he is struggling.

     One comprehends that these unlikely folk are thrown together so that they can miraculously help each other achieve the impossible dreams they seek. And that's Ventura's and Dornhelm's problem: their plot is so predictable that it is hard for them to move forward without the film turning into a kind of TV sit-com about all the crazies a city like Los Angeles attracts.

     Of course, despite some initial resentments and hesitations, Jonathan and Henry (whom he rechristens "Hank") eventually bond while delivering pizzas throughout the neighborhood in his brightly lit-up truck. May gets an audition and procures a job with a substantial wrinkle—the role is as a party-going stripper! But, after a while and a few lessons from her employer, Hugo (John Paragon), she gets used the job and even somewhat enjoys it. August, the most ridiculous dreamer of them all actually gets a TV ad as a kind Hun-like dragon slayer sprayed by Viking deodorant. Jonathan even gets a bit of attention from a local band, but seems so passive that he cannot even sing his song for them ("It's not finished yet.").

    We can also expect, obviously, a few more serious setbacks. August is turned away from an Austrian consulate party where he had hoped to meet his hero, Schwarzenegger. When he is turned down in his attempt to make films advertising his new invention by Syd (Marin) the owner of the local gym where he works, he violently explodes and is arrested. And—we could see this one coming a mile off—Jonathan and Hank deliver pizzas to a party where May is already half-naked. The shock of seeing his mother actually doing what she pretends is a performance, sends the boy into the streets with Jonathan and May at the chase, the mother despairing of the damage she has done to her son.

      Yet August is sprung from jail, Hank returns to his surrogate father and real mother, and May actually gets asked to audition for a real TV ad. The whole group springs into a kind a ritualistic dance as they imagine their dreams slowly taking shape.

      Into this madhouse comes August's father, direct from Austria, having been telephoned by the police upon his son's arrest. Encountering his son in the midst of this insane gathering he raises his hand to slap August's face. Suddenly writer and director take the group's dance into the mountains of Austria with the adult characters loping through the pastures as if they were attempting to channel Maria Van Trapp in The Sound of Music. What are they trying to tell us, one must ask? Earlier in the film, May, in conversation with August, admits that when she has sex she is just "fucking," while when he has sex, he is, as he puts it, "making love." The suggestion is that in his true madness, August is the biggest dreamer of them all. Have these characters, accordingly, been transported into the lunatic state of mind that August inhabits? Or is it simply evidence that a bit of patriarchal control has been played out before them, allowing them to restore their lives?

     Echo Park is an endearing, small, off-kilter film that does not quite hold together.

     But here again, as I argue for this LA sub-genre, an outsider has found his way among a society of misfits. Or perhaps the misfits have found their way into the outsider's societal bliss.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2012

Monday, September 24, 2012

Jan Švankmajer | Něco z Alenky (Alice)

drawers and doors
by Douglas Messerli
Jan Švankmajer (writer and director) Něco z Alenky (Alice) / 1988

The great Czech animator’s first full feature film, Alice, is not so much a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland as it is a kind of “riff” on Carroll’s work, or, to contextualize it more with the academic community, is a deconstruction of the original Alice. Indeed, the Czech title for the film means “Something from Alice,” suggesting that the work is a product of Alice’s creation as opposed to a hallucinatory tale which occurs to her. Throughout his film Švankmajer makes sure the viewer perceives that this is Alice’s tale, as he presents all the film’s dialogue (dubbed in the version I saw into English) through closeups of Alice’s lips as she speaks the words of The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, etc.

  The director’s vision loses something by not more fully playing up the bizarre narrative of the original, but gains a great deal through its theatrical reenactment of the basic elements of Carroll’s tale through stop-motion photography of dolls, puppets and other objects—even a slab of red meat—and his reversals of filmed scenes and quick transformations of the central character as she moves from a large human being to her doll-shaped imitation and even into another doll-encased self from which she eventually escapes but cutting away its outer wall, as if she were eating herself away from her own cocoon.

      This director’s Alice, far from being a genteel Victorian child of Carroll’s fantasies, is a rather bored, rock-throwing girl, determined even from the very first scenes to get into trouble. Švankmajer’s Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), living in a derelict room filled with the detritus of not only her own childhood, but of  the mysterious family in which she lives, is surrounded by a world that, quite literally, is falling apart. A bit like Czechoslovakia itself under the Soviet rule, doors are in bad need of painting, walls veer up more like ancient images of decay, covered over with peeling wallpaper and layers of yellowing lace, than a world of Victorian protection.

      The moment the child’s taxidermically stuffed rabbit comes to life, escaping its glass case, Alice almost passively follows, determined, just like the always late rabbit, to escape her own role in the suffocating world in which she is also encased.

       Following the hare into a drawer of a decaying table, this animator’s Alice also finds herself descending into a kind of hole, a warehouse-like elevator, announcing each floor, as the child discovers herself among entire shelves of bottled up specimens—ancient animals, pharmacological substances, and jams (some of which of filled with nails and nettles). The magical underworld in which Alice finds herself is just as antiquated and outdated as the house in which she lives. Besides the issues of her shrinking and expanding size, Alice is faced time and again with obstacles of drawers and doors. As she attempts to open drawer after drawer, the handles come off in her hand, and she is forced to pry them open in various ways, through nimble manipulation of her fingers or using other devices. Some drawers contain only dangerous weapons, scissors, knives, etc.; other contains important keys or liquids which help her or hinder along her paths. Opening decaying door after door, with keys large and small, Alice is faced with numerous problems, including her inability to enter because of size or the fear of entering by shouts of “we’re full” and other threats.

      Locked away in a room where she almost drowns from her own tears, with a mouse staking territory upon her own head, she is freed only to become again locked away in a children’s playhouse like a giant caught in a Lilliputian world on the attack. At one point even socks become animated enemies, boring away holes in the very floor on which she stands. One of the socks, stealing an eye for itself and a pair of dentures, becomes Carroll’s famed Caterpillar. But the dance of his kindred brothers is more like a serpent kingdom which attempts to charm even her own stockings off her feet.

      Perhaps the most wonderful scene is Alice’s encounters with two marvelous puppet-toys, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, as they move up and down the tea tables with the Mad Hatter calling out for clean cups while rewinding his friend up so that they might continue their meaningless conversations.

       The Red Queen, who demands their heads, is a playing card—quite literally, the Queen of a deck of cards and a card acting out her theater in front of various Victorian-like theater sets. This Alice has no idea what to say in the short trial which proceeds her own possible beheading.

       In short, Švankmajer’s world presents less of a fantastic pageant than a psychological playing out of the young girl’s own frustrated limitations, a girl caught in a glass case as surely as the White Rabbit had been in his. Upon “awakening,”  Alice discovers all of her beloved toys still surrounding her—except the Rabbit, whose case remains cracked open, the figure missing. So we cannot be certain whether she has merely had a horrible dream and suffered a “real” nightmare induced by her culture itself. If you see this film in a theater, leave the children at home. It’s hard to imagine them pondering the significant differences—and terrorizing consequences—of these two alternatives.

Los Angeles, September 23, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pedro Almodóvar | Le ley del deseo (Law of Desire)

loving the wrong people
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Le ley del deseo (Law of  Desire) / 1987

It some respects it's hard to say exactly what Almodóvar's 1987 film, Law of Desire is truly about. True, there is a lot of "desire" spread around the movie's few figures: handsome, middle age film director Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) clearly desires his current young "boy-toy" lover, Juan Bermúdez, and, apparently, sleeps with him on a regular basis—despite the fact that the young man is "straight." It is apparently for that reason that he sends the boy away, hoping to cure himself from his infatuation with Juan.

     Pablo's sister, Tina Quintero—a transsexual played by a woman, Carmen Mauro—desires a career on the stage and falls in love, at present, with women, living in quasi-lesbian like relationships. She also dearly loves the daughter, Ada (Manuela Velasco) of her former lover, also named Ada (performed, in a typical Almodóvar switch, by the beautiful transsexual Bibi Andersen).
Another young man, Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas) seeking a career in acting, almost explicably becomes obsessed with Pablo, seeking to replace Juan's role in Pablo's life. Like Juan, he too appears to be "straight," but is completely ready and willing to make love to Pablo, getting fucked for the very first time upon their second encounter. In Almodóvar's fuzzy screenplay, however, it is hard to know whether he truly sexually desires Pablo or whether he desires the career Pablo may offer a good lover. In any event, it does not pay off; Pablo's next project in a stage version of Cocteau's The Human Voice, basically a monologue for a woman; the director offers his sister the part, with the young Ada playing a delightful minor role. Pablo's script, Laura P., is never completed.

     As in nearly all of Almodóvar's often masterful films, the colors and decor are beautiful, the characters equally attractive or, as in the case of Carmen Mauro, fascinating to watch. But in Law of Desire these figures circle round each other with little apparent logic, creating sexual or psychological flashes that, at times, seem more voyeuristic in their effect that dramatically essential.

     The central dramatic thread is kept alive by the young Antonio who moves in and advances on Pablo with all the force and skill of a trained commando group taking over a terrorist compound; snooping through Pablo's correspondence, reading his scripts, overhearing conversations, and ingratiating himself with the filmmaker. Perhaps Almodóvar is telling us something about his own personal experiences. Certainly, the film seems to have no possible direction but the route it takes, creating a kind of Fatal Attraction-like subplot, where Antonio stalks Pablo's former lover Juan, first attempting to rape him or, at least, to possess him as an accessory to the director (he has also purchased an exact copy of a shirt Pablo wears), but eventually killing the young boy in the process.

      With that act, it appears, Almodóvar did not have clue where to take the plot, creating an inexplicable detour where Pablo, having determined to visit Juan, is chased by the police and, after crashing into a tree, winds up in the hospital with temporary amnesia. There has always been something soap-opera-like about Almodóvar's stories, and often that is part of their charm. But this time, the unexpected twist of the story seems to have been created only so that Tina, in an attempt to bring back Pablo's memory, reveals that she has been responsible for their parents' separation, having had a affair with their father while still a young boy, and transforming her sexuality after their parents' divorce, to go on living with him—introducing a strange Freudian wrinkle that takes incest about as far as it can go. At least we now understand why Tina has become a lesbian!
       Oh, but I forgot to mention, she now has a new boyfriend. Although Pablo regains his memory, he fails to ask the boyfriend's name until it dawns on him who Juan's murderer might be. Negotiating with the police and Pablo by holding Tina and Ada as hostages, Antonio wins an hour alone with his former lover. Another quick jump into bed closes with Antonio shooting himself, Pablo bent over the dead body with what appears to be new remorse. Had he really come to love this intruder?

     It really doesn't matter, of course, since the entire film has been little but a dance of figures all in love with the wrong people.

      Fortunately, the very next year Almodóvar swung back with a new finely tuned farce that was comically brilliant, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Woody Allen | Crimes and Misdemeanors

the sum total of our choices
by Douglas Messerli
Woody Allen (writer and director) Crimes and Misdemeanors / 1989

Arguably Allen’s most complex and rich film to date, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a existentialist study in moral ethics. Using a symbolic motif of eyes and different ways of seeing, Allen positions his numerous characters on two opposing sides, those who live within a moral system, either religious or social, and those that dismiss and/or violate moral values, believing if you can get away with it, any act is as good as another.

Family man and ophthalmologist, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), has lived basically a good life, allowing his wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom) and his children a well-off existence and, if we are to believe the speakers at a banquet celebrating him, providing the community major philanthropic efforts, helping even to create a new hospital. Yet, like all men, he has made mistakes, been involved in financial indiscretions (although all has been paid back with interest) and has secretly had an affair with a airline stewardess, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). As the movie opens, Dolores, fearful of losing Judah and angry because he has not divorced threatens retribution. Dolores has already sent Miriam a letter—which Judah has intercepted and destroyed—and warns him that she will tell his wife the truth about their relationship. Although Judah pleads with her and tries to reason, Dolores, at wit’s end, is emphatic about going through with the revelation, something which terrifies Judah, sure that his wife would be unable to accept it and that his carefully lived existence will whirl out of control.

      One of his patients, Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi—a man quickly going blind—advises Judah to tell his wife the truth, suggesting that often such events even strengthen relationships. Speaking of his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a shady mafia-like figure, he tells Ben:

                  Jack lives in the real world. You live in the kingdom of God.
                  I’d managed to keep free of that real world but suddenly it’s
                  found me out.

At another moment during Ben’s advisement, he responds:

                  Ben: It’s a human life. You don’t think God sees?
                  Judah: God is a luxury I can’t afford.

In short, Judah, up until now, a blessed man, is suddenly, like Job, faced with despair.

      So determined is Dolores to reveal both their relationship and his financial acts that Judah feels he has no choice but to turn to his brother, Jack, who arranges a “hit”—the murder of Dolores, an act that Judah witnesses, after the fact, when he goes to Dolores' apartment to retrieve letters and her diary.

      At the other end of the spectrum is the loser, Clifford Stern (Woody Allen), whose own relationship with his wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), is falling apart, and whose career as a documentary filmmaker is going nowhere. For years he has been working on a documentary of a little known American philosopher, Louis Levy (psychologist Martin S. Bergmann). As fascinating as the clips we see from that film—counterpointing the very issues of morality played out in Judah’s and other characters’ lives—it is also clear that Clifford’s “talking head” piece will never get finished and that no one will want to produce it.

     Wendy’s brother, Lester (Alan Alda) is a highly successful television producer—focusing, evidently, mostly on comedies (“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks it’s not funny,” he keeps repeating) who in self-congratulation is seeking to have a documentary made about his own life, and out of deference to his sister, asks his brother-in-law, Clifford, to direct it. A serious-minded filmgoer, Clifford cannot abide Lester, but agrees to take on the project just so that he can raise enough money to support his other work.

      Here, once again, it appears, another character is ready to sacrifice his moral principles, giving into a corrupt figure. But, as usual, Allen’s cinematic self is too much a loser even to be corrupted, shooting reel after reel of Lester’s bull-shit philosophy and interweaving it with scenes of Mussolini’s comic-like posturing speeches, even catching the glib Lester (perhaps Alda’s most perfect role) shouting at his staff and trying to seduce a young actress. When Lester becomes furious after seeing the rushes, Clifford quips, “What is this guy so upset about? You’d think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before.”

     Meanwhle, Clifford’s life has become even complex, having fallen in love with Lester’s associate producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who shares the filmmaker’s admiration for Levey. But by film’s end Lester has invited her to London and, upon their return to New York, announces their engagement. The great philosopher Clifford so admired has suddenly committed suicide leaving a note:

                          Clifford: He left a note. He left a simple little note that said
                                         “I’ve gone out the window.” This is a major in-
                                         tellectual and he leaves a note that says “I’ve gone
                                         out the window.” He’s a role-model! You’d think he’d
                                         have left a decent note.

     In his quiet (and this film is quiet) way, Allen’s movie has, accordingly, asked some major questions: “Is there no justice?” “Do the wicked and “sub-mental” (as Clifford describes Lester)
receive no punishment?” or, the put it another way, “Is there no God?”

      It appears that only the saintly, now blind, Ben—who is also Clifford's brother-in-law—can truly see the truth, that “without law, it’s all darkness.” It is perhaps fitting that the last poignant scene of this thoughtful film takes place at the wedding of Ben’s daughter. In the warm, golden wash of cinematographer, Sven Nykvist’s lighting, Judah, escaping the after wedding dinner for a few moments, encounters Clifford in the lobby, and sits down beside him. Describing the events of his life within a hypothetical discussion, he again brings up Allen’s moral conundrums.  Judah, it appears, having gotten away with his dreadful crime—a drifter has been accused of Dolores’ murder—has almost overcome his moral dilemma, arguing that, over time, any moral crisis will pass. Cliff, clinging as always to his dark view of his fate (Allen is, after all, the eternal Job), insists that one is fated always to bear one’s burdens for all “crimes and misdemeanors,” a dark revelation if one perceives this statement within the context of Allen’s own not-so-perfect life. A quote from Professor Levy perhaps summarizes Clifford’s position best:

                          We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions.
                          Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these are
                          on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we
                          have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices.    

Judah may have found some sense of peace, but at what cost? Certainly he is no longer, particularly in his own eyes, a good man, which, of course, is why he is sharing his tale again, and surely will continually to retell until the day he dies. It is a kind of confession that can find no absolution whatsoever.

Los Angeles, September 17, 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Luc Godard | Tout va bien (All's Well)

inventing history
by Douglas Messerli
Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin (screenplay and directors) Tout va bien (All’s Well) / 1972

Starring Yves Montand and the American actress Jane Fonda, Gorin and Godard’s Tout va bien has often been described, somewhat mistakenly, as Godard’s return to commercial film after his four year involvement with the Dziga Vertov Group films, for which he created works, as J. Hoberman described them, that were “were openly tendentious in their more or less Maoist analysis of the political situation in various countries.” While clearly espousing strong leftist positions—Fonda’s journalist character even describes herself as being the authority on leftist causes—Tout va bien is also a work which questions and even mocks Godard’s own work of the past. Indeed, it begins almost cynically, arguing for a movie that might make enough money to support the endless costs (an early scene showing checks, one by one, being torn away for all the actors, sets, costumes, designers, etc.) by bringing together major stars—which, of course, is what Godard’s film features. Yes, the narrator admits, there must be a society in which the characters exist, but the central genre it proposes for itself is a “love story.” And, in the very first scene, we see Montand and Fonda, walking, hand in hand, repeating lines from the “what do you love about me” scene between Michel Piccoli and Bridgett Bardot in Contempt. And, in some senses, Tout va bien repeats the film about film tropes of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou of 1965.
    More importantly, Montand plays a filmmaker, formerly part of the New Wave, who has now turned to making (quite awful, if the scene we are shown is any evidence) commercials, a “more honest” way to make money. Although both husband and wife have formerly been involved in the French revolutions of the 1960s, they now speak of their involvement with some distance and questioning of their own sentiments and actions. Fonda’s journalist figure can no longer bear the “single-voiced” broadcast scripts she is forced to repeat and yet does not evidently have the ability to craft her own.
The main action of the film is an almost accidental confrontation between the two and a group of activist laborers in a meat-packing plant, who, tired of union inaction, take over the plant, destroying files and offices on the very day that the journalist has had an appointment with the manager to speak about modern management techniques. Having locked away the manager in his own office, the plant revolutionists capture Fonda and Montand—who has inexplicably joined her for the interview—throwing them into the office with the manager.

     There the manager, in a spot-on satire of corporate managerial self-justifications, lectures the two before, out of disgust with the manager’s words, the journalist begins interviewing the holed-up workers, each of them attempting to tell her the “real” truth about working conditions and the society in which they live, while simultaneously feeling as they speak that they failed to say anything new.

The entire factory, its outer walls pulled away, becomes a kind of stage-like set which reveals the factory’s innards as the workers tell their tales, often with Montand and Fonda seen performing the workers’ boringly repetitive acts of filling sausages and carting off carcasses of cattle. While Godard and Gorin’s Brechtian presentation may, indeed, point up social inequalities, it is also a comic representation, with no one becoming any wiser in the process. Fonda is not even sure that her studio will air what she writes (indeed, no recounting is broadcast). After three days of this “no exit”-like existence, the three are freed, the laborers brutally arrested.
     The couple has perhaps learned something in the process, and both are changed to a certain degree. The Montand figure returns to “real” filmmaking, despite financial losses; Fonda’s figure tears up the copy she is set to broadcast and is ready to leave her job. Moreover, the couple can no longer find comfort in each other, for, in an important sense, they can find no comfort in their selves. What Godard and Gorin reveal is that, despite their political affinities, the two no longer can make sense of most political acts. Did what the revolutionary laborers do help them or merely silence them further, lock them away from the society at large? Were their actions, represented in the film as both heroic and ridiculous, of any significance?

      The question is asked once again, as the directors show us another assignment that the journalist undertakes as she visits a large French grocer, reminding one of a kind American Wallmart. Into this world of row after row of ringing cash registers, the activists return, challenging an old-fashioned leftist who cannot ever answer for the rhetoric in his book before filling up their shopping carts with mounds of food and other goods and, after capturing the store’s microphone, announcing to all customers that everything is free. For a few minutes, it appears, their actions have created the desired effect, as the silent shoppers suddenly fill their carts and move toward the doors without passing by the expectant clerks. But here too, the revolution ends, as the police, in full riot gear, move forward, clubs in hand, beating the customers and revolutionaries both as they proceed. Has anything been won?

      In short, the film, while espousing Godard’ politics, becomes itself an intense questioning of his and others' deep beliefs. What can alter the course of corporate greed, of a masculine-dominated marriage, of a culture that no longer seems to embrace change? And, in that sense, Tout va bien is perhaps a more moving expression of how to make films “politically” than were Godard’s Dziga Vertov films. In the end, the only answer to these questions seems to come in the notion that what is important is that each of us ask these questions, write them down and attempt to answer them, play them out in our minds, so to speak. Whatever answers we come to will be the definition of our histories, of history itself—as differently as each of us respond. For me, that is a profound realization: the fact that the most important thing is that the questions are asked and answered to the best of our abilities by each of us, not simply received from a dominating party or group.
     At film’s end, the directors even allow that the marriage between the couple might be saved— or perhaps not. But Montand returns to Fonda, Fonda to Montand. Whether their meeting again will result in good or bad, no one can say, but it is the coming together of people, a meeting of the minds, that truly matters.
     In hindsight, Tout va bien, a film that was disastrously attacked upon its first showing, seems a perfect bridge in Godard’s long and distinguished career, a work that was not afraid of questioning his own methods and direction.

Los Angeles, September 16, 2012