Friday, November 23, 2012

Akira Kurosawa | Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low)

the house on the hill
by Douglas Messerli

Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay, based, in part, on King’s Ransom by Ed McBain), Akira Kurosawa (director) Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low) / 1963

In Japanese Kurosawa’s film translates literally as “Heaven and Hell,” two metaphysical positions that can be seen to shift throughout the work, whereas the English language translation of “High and Low” are formally set: the fashionable house on the hill where Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) and his family live quite obviously representing a “high” life, while the crowded slum in which the film’s villain, medical intern Ginjirō Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exists, revealing the sociological underside of Japanese culture, most definitely the life the low. Yet Kurosawa’s seemingly bi-partite (in truth, it is more tri-partite) structure sets up a number of reversals right from the start.

       Gondo, his wife Reiko (Kyōko Kagawa), and his young son, Jun, seemingly have all they might desire. As an executive in the National Shoes company, Kondo has a personal secretary, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) and a live-in chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), and a fabulous view of the surrounding city. But, as the film quickly reveals, the world in which he lives is about to be threatened. Other executives from the company have paid him a visit to ask Gondo to join them in taking over the company from its founder so that they might produce more cheaply made but more fashionable shoes. Gondo, however, rejects their offer: he would prefer the well-made shoes the company currently produces were simply more stylish, although he knows the profit will not be as substantial. The others see shoes as decorations, like a hat, something purposely made to go out of style quickly, while Gondo believes that quality will pay off in the long run. So, it appears, that Kurosawa has set up his central figure as a man of moderation, an individual arguing for customer satisfaction and permanence rather than simply basing the product on money. The other executives, angered by his refusal, are rudely shown out of Gondo’s house by his secretary.

      We soon discover, however, that Gondo has determined to leverage a buyout of the others, having mortgaged everything he has in order to raise the money to gain company control, believing that he will make back his expenditure with profits. He orders his secretary to travel to Osaka to pay the first installment. In short, Gondo is not at all what he first seems, and is scolded for being so impolitic by his clearly more level-headed wife. When his child, playing cops and robbers with the chauffeur’s son appears, he encourages his son to not simply run as the other shoots, but to trick his opponent through surprise maneuvers. Reiko’s disdain for his attitudes is apparent. The house on the hill may look like “heaven,” suggests the director, but trouble is clearly brewing beneath the surface.

     Almost immediately that “trouble” boils over as the chauffeur appears, asking if they have seen his son Shinichi. He has been playing with Jun, they report. The telephone rings, bringing the voice of a man claiming that he has just kidnapped Jun, demanding a large payment and insisting that if they go to the police, he will kill the boy. Horrified, Gondo realizes that he has no choice but to use the money with which he intended to buy out the company for his son’s release. But just as suddenly Jun reenters the house. A few minutes later, the couple and their chauffeur realize that it is Shinichi who has mistakenly been kidnapped, the fact of which the kidnapper, calling again, confirms, while still demanding the money on the same terms. Suddenly, Gondo shifts position; he refuses to pay ransom for another’s son, and despite the kidnapper’s threat, he calls the police. Once more we see that Gondo is not at all altruistic, but a man who attempts to manipulate situations for his own gain. The secretary is again ordered to make plans to travel to Osaka.

      Throughout this long scene, Kurosawa films the family and their employees, along with the police, as being trapped within the shuttered living-room of the house while Gondo struggles with his moral scruples, both his wife and his chauffeur pleading for him to pay for Shinichi’s release. To do so, however, would be to lose everything they own, including their beautiful house. Reiko, he reminds her, has been born into luxury and would be unable to survive such a radically changed life. She, in turn, reminds him that he has used her dowry, in part, to buy the kind of life they live, suggesting that the couple also represent a kind of high and low pedigree, Gondo obviously having worked his way up the social ladder.

     Into this closeted, emotional maelstrom, moreover, both the kidnapper and the policemen intrude themselves, the latter spending the night on Gondo’s floor and couch. By morning, Gondo has determined, so he announces, not to pay the ransom. Reiko and Aoki continue to plead, even the chief of police entering, at times, into the debate. When Gondo’s ambitious secretary, however, admits that he has told the other executives about his bosses’ plot, Gondo gives in, ordering the bank to deliver the money in the proper denominations which the kidnapper has demanded.

      Film critic Joan Mellen has argued that this first part of the film—65 minutes of the 143 minutes-long movie—with its “obvious moral message,” is salvaged by the film’s descent in its second part to the low-life world it portrays. But as I suggest, it is not so clear in this film what is high and what is low, whether the life the Gondos lead is one aligned with heaven or closer to a life in hell. Moreover, it is just those moral conundrums of the first part give such intense meaning to the rest of Kurosawa’s great work.

     Certainly there is no question, however, when suddenly in the very next scene, where Gondo sits worriedly on a bullet-train seat, the cases of money tightly grasped, that something has radically changed. The very horizontal motion of the speeding train racing across the countryside is a startling shift from the darkened verticality of the Gondo house. If in his own house Gondo appeared to be in control, once he has made the decision to give away his money, descending into the world below and moving from the vertical to the horizontal, he is represented as a frightened being, a true fish out of water.  Cleverly, the kidnapper has not entered into this horizontal world, but telephones to the train, explaining that Gondo will see Shinichi standing by upcoming bridge and that, upon seeing him alive, Gondo should through the money out the bathroom window. The police aboard the train have no choice but watch Gondo’s tortured acts: the train will not stop until several miles down the track.

      The boy is rescued, but Kurosawa does focus upon his return to the house on the hill, nor do we immediately follow Gondo’s return to his world. Rather, Kurosawa takes us into what suddenly seems like a new genre different from the psychological film of the first part. Suddenly, we are dropped into a police conference that might have been the inspiration for episodes for the American TV series, Hill Street Blues. One by one, pairs of detectives, each assigned different tasks, report their results, often enough revealing no real information or their informants’ lack of facts, at other times pinning down pieces of obscure bits of gumshoe research that might lead to something. If the Gondo house was “heaven,” we are clearly now in purgatory, a world where nearly everything might or may not be consequential. Here instead of things moving vertically, actions are defined by their circularity, as in the long sequence where, realizing that the chauffeur has taken his son in search of seaside villa in which he was held by partners of the kidnapper, two detectives follow other clues, arriving at the same location via an entirely different route. Within the villa are dead men and women, killed, evidently by injections of “pure” heroin. Realizing now that the kidnapper must have had connections with the medical profession, the detectives circle in on a young medical intern, ultimately following him into the final world of the picture’s title, the hell wherein the kidnapper lives.

     If Gondo, living in “heaven,” spends much of his time looking down into the world below his hill top house, medical intern Takeuchi is almost always seen in the film as moving up, upstairs to his apartment, upstairs—as the police first glimpse him—in the hospital in which he works. By tricking him to believe that his cohorts have survived their heroin-laced murders, they force Takeuchi to repeat his own crime, sending him, they hope, once more up into the hills where the villa sits. Following him, the police are taken in directions they might have not expected, first to a flower shop (reminding one, somewhat, of Madeline Elster’s several visits to a flower ship in Vertigo) where he purchases a carnation.. The next stop along the way is a crowded bar that might appear to be a literal manifestation of the hellish world in which the intern lives. But even here, carnation in his lapel, Takeuchi sits high above the din of unruly dancers, pimps, sailors, and American voyeurs—a world in which, satirically, the underground policemen seem to be a home. Only when he discerns his “connection,” does the kidnaper descend to the dance floor below.

      His next destination is also into a hellish world, but again one they might not have expected: a dark cul-de-sac where desperate drug addicts await the arrival of anyone who might provide them a high. Only here, finally, are the police recognized for who they are, and made unwelcome at the street gates, while Takeuchi is readily admitted. But why has he stopped here in his voyage to the hillside villa one can only ask?

      As he seeks out a young woman and takes her into a nearby sleazy hotel room, both police and audience suddenly recognize that he has stopped along his way simply to test out the potency of his uncut drug. Before the police can rush in to save her, the girl is dead. But in his attempt to rush away, Takeuchi is apprehended even before he can begin the climb to the villa’s heights.

      Although they find most of Gondo’s money, it is too late, his possessions and his house all having been repossessed. In a brilliant last scene Kurosawa brings to the two men, the former executive and kidnapper, the fallen and aspirant, both men of questionable ethics—although, in an ironic twist of events, Takeuchi has transformed his enemy into a hero—together at a prison visiting window, wherein the criminal attempts to explain his motivations.

                       Kingo Gondo: Why should you and I hate each other?
                       Takeuchi: I don’t know. I’m not interested in self-analysis.
                             I do know my room was so cold in winter and so hot
                             in summer I couldn’t sleep. Your house looked like
                             heaven, high up there. That’s how I began to hate you.

Takeuchi, clearly suffering deeply, is the true fool, for he has imagined a heaven that is equally a hell, while through Takeuchi’s acts, Gondo in his fall, has been redeemed. Just as in moving in different directions, the police and the chauffeur and his son have reached the same spot, so too have Takeuchi and Gondo discovered their destinations are similar, even if one is free and the imprisoned, Kurosawa merging their facial images in the glass between them.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kenji Mizoguchi | Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chyrsanthemum)

a dream of the past
by Douglas Messerli

Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay, based on a novel by Shōfû Muramatsu), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum) / 1939, USA 1979

In late 19th century Japan, the adopted son, Kikunosuke Onoe (Shôtarô Hanayagi), of the Kabuki master, Kikugoro Onoue (Gonjurō Kawarazaki) performs on-stage with his famous father. Kikunosuke is what some describe as a “ham,” a weak actor whom the large cast and backstage hands mock behind his back while only presenting smiles and praise to his face. Even his father, speaking to others of his son’s inability to act, calls him up from his downstairs dressing room to commend his acting. In short, no one,, it appears, will speak the truth to the future inheritor of the great Onoue name. The spoiled boy, accordingly, spends most of his nights out carousing until well after midnight instead of studying his art.

      On this night, however, he meets, just outside his house, the family nurse, carrying his father’s recently born son. The child is unable to sleep and the nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori) holds it to calm it down. Politely scolding Kikunosuke for coming home at such a late hour, she mentions that she has been to the theater with a friend to see his performance, and when he asks about his acting, she is honest. He must be more rigid and learn his art, she summarizes.

      Struck with her honesty, knowing himself that he is lacking, a relationship begins to develop between the two. A few days later, when his family is out of the house, he once again encounters Otoku, accepting her offer of a watermelon, cutting it up himself and serving it to her. At that very moment, the family returns, shocked to see him at table with a servant.

      Kikunosuke’s mother immediately fires the girl, despite Otoku’s protests that she has done nothing wrong. When Kikunosuke discovers that Otoku is gone, he goes in search for her, finding her days later and offering to marry her. Angered by his son’s now scandalous behavior, Kikugoro demands he leave the woman, the son responding by leaving his family and Tokyo, working for another Kabuki master, Tosiba, in Osaka.

      When the master dies, Kikunosuke and his wife have little money for food and board. When that company disbands, they have enough only to stay in an inn for a few nights. By coincidence Kikugoro Onoue and his company are performing in Osaka, and hearing of it, Otoku visits Kikunosuke’s father, pleading for his return to the family, which they accept if she will give him up. She agrees, but refuses to tell her husband the truth.

      In the years Kikunosuke has been performing alone, due to Otoku’s love and the suffering he has had to endure, he has become a great actor who now, in performance with his father once more, is recognized as a changed man. As the cast join to celebrate in a great river procession, a friend of the family comes to report that Otoku, staying with her sister, is near death. Kikugoro gives his son permission to visit his wife, and Kikunosuke rushes off.

      Hearing of her husband’s success and the father’s change of mind, Otoku tells him to return to the river procession, as she joyfully accepts his proclamation that he can now “be happy in both his profession and life.” The film ends with the river procession with Kikunosuke waving to the appreciative crowds, as we perceive that at the same moment Otoku has died.

      To most American viewers, this story can only be thought of as a kind of sentimental soap-opera, a tale of a young artist who, attempting to marry the wrong woman, loses his career only to rediscover himself, ending in a reunion with his family—the kind a work told over and over in American musical comedies such as There’s No Business Like Show Business. But Mizoguchi’s film is something much different: a work of dimension and subtlety that is difficult to explain.

     Part of the problem here, obviously, exists in the cultural differences. Our lack of understanding of Japanese societal distinctions, the Kabuki art, and the deification of the artist in general create gaps in comprehension. For Mizoguchi’s tale is not simply or even generally about a man who has fallen in love below his societal rank, but about a culture that in some senses allows no way out for anyone, neither the family nor the lovers. Mizoguchi’s story, moreover, is not as much narratively based as it is cinematically oriented. It is his way of showing this story that makes for such a transformative work of art.

       As critic Dave Kehr has commented, from the very first scenes of the film in the Kabuki theater we are shown the stratification of the patriarchal order of this world: “the small, neatly ordered rooms speak of a compartmentalized society, a place for everything and everything in its place. Graduating from the dank shadows of the offstage area, where the extras prepare, to the brightly lit and decorated dressing room of the star. Kikunosuke is literally called from the depths to confront his father when the performance is over.”

      Much of the work, as in Ozu’s films, is shot in a horizontal space, in which characters are set out in a seemingly non-hierarchical positions; yet their verbal expressions, many of which in the tape I saw remained translated and perhaps untranslatable, says it all.  The camera, usually placed at a far distance from the actors, does not judge, but the characters are very much evaluating and judging each other. These figures, moreover, are nearly all entrapped, locked away in a series of interlinking rooms, some leading to nowhere or small cabinets and closets, others to further entrapment. Even more importantly, the director generally impedes our vision, placing his actors behind bars and blinds, cutting them off from each other with doorways and windows. Much of the action—and the language being expressed—occurs just out of camera range. Up and down, inside and outside, behind and in front, Mizoguchi’s work suggests a world in which figures are already cut off from one another, positioned in a landscape that will not allow open communication, certainly not dissent. As Kikunosuke, late in the film, says to Otaku of his father: “I can’t show him my face.”

      As Kehr points out, only in scenes between Kikunosuke and Otaku do we sense a kind of equality, an openness that represents their unexpressed (on camera) passion. In particular, the scene in which they move laterally in an outside space when they first meet and the scene in which Kikunosuke cuts watermelon both reveal a world different from the Onoue home and theater. In both instances, Kikunosuke has accepted an offering from Otaku and openly shared it: in the first he has accepted her criticism of his acting, which utterly changes him as a human being; in the second, he accepts the fruit but, breaking with the tradition in which she would be expected to cut it up and serve it to him, he does just the opposite, playing the role of the woman as he will to his father later in the film on stage. Late in the movie, when Kikunosuke returns home, he observes the same action of a servant cutting a melon, staged in repetition of the first scene, which tells us everything we need to know. Here the action is a joyless task, while earlier it was all about the pleasure of giving, of sharing.

     Finally, in several scenes Mizoguchi’s camera literally tracks its characters down, racing along with the searching figures, between structures, through neighborhood structures, upstairs and downstairs. As opposed to the static relationships apparent in the house and theater, here we comprehend a desperate search for something outside tradition, an almost frenzied attempt to track down the other, to find what soon might be or has already been lost. As opposed to the predetermined gestures of Kabuki, the staid status quo of the Onoue household, or the theatrical bows of the river possession, with which the movie ends, these clearly represent the living force that Kikunosuke and Otaku have discovered in one another, something which the young artist must give up in order to survive in such dead space.

     The plot, accordingly, is one thing, but Mizoguchi’s camera shows us something deeper, more horrifying, even perverse: a “dream of the past” with no present, no future.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sergei Paradjanov | სურამის ციხისა (The Legend of Suram Fortress)

a good deed does vanish without a trace
by Douglas Messerli

Vaja Gigashvili (writer, based on a folk-tale by Daniel Chonkadze), Sergei Paradjanov and Dodo Abashidze (directors) სურამის ციხისა (The Legend of Suram Fortress) / 1984

Sixteen years after the making of his previous film, Sergei Paradjanov was able to return to cinema. The intervening years, when he was held in a prison, could never be recaptured, as Paradjanov himself proclaimed; yet the amazing work that followed, which, although it might be read as somewhat autobiographical, demonstrates no rancor or even bitterness. The lightness and beauty of both story and landscape is of a piece with his The Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964). Although The Legend of Suram Fortress is more  narratively expressive than his highly abstract 1968 film, Paradjanov continues in this work to develop a poetic cinema that, in this case, alternates between scenes of narrative action with tableaux vivants, highly theatrical dances and high-wire antics that remind one, at times, of Kabuki theatre. Paradjanov’s world, as Richard Brody wrote in a 2010 New Yorker review, has strong links to the early days of filmmaking, combining as he does “the Lumière brothers’ painterly wonder at the artistic possibilities of mere recording with Georges Méliès’ revelry in the medium’s power to depict the imaginary, the invisible, the impossible. By leapfrogging back, over the methods of the classical cinema, to the ancient, he leapt ahead into an audacious modernism.” I would suggest, rather, he brought film into postmodernism.

     After having centered his first two works on Ukrainian and Armenian culture, the director chose for his third film a beloved Georgian folk-tale, focusing his work on Georgian symbols and landscape. Freed by his master as a serf, Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) visits his lover, Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili/Sofiko Chiaureli), to request that she perform a dance with him before the local chieftan, explaining that afterwards he will go on the road in order to make enough money to buy her freedom. Vardo, however, is highly troubled by his decision, insisting that she will never see him again, a prophecy that, unfortunately, comes true, and results in the tragedy at the center of the tale.

     Even as he begins his travels, bad luck prevails, as the horse given to him by his previous master is demanded to be returned, forcing Durmishkhan to travel by foot. At one point he encounters a caravansary of Islamic merchants, headed by Osman Agha (Dodo Abashidze), who takes a liking to the boy and, after hearing his story, tells his own tale of how as a serf he and his mother were made to take up a yoke like oxen by his cruel and often drunken master. His mother dies in harness, and the young Osman Agha (born Nodar Zalikashvili) flees his owners, joining up with a caravan, and renouncing his Christian faith to become a Muslim. Awarding Durmishkhan a beautiful robe and a horse, Osman Agha suggests the young man join the caravan as his partner. When the young man becomes overwhelmed by his elder’s generosity, Osman Agha proclaims, “A good deed does not vanish without leaving a trace.”

     Becoming a successful merchant, and himself converting from Christianity, Durmishkhan marries a beautiful girl, who soon after gives birth to a son, Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili), who ultimately grows  into manhood.
     Meanwhile, seeking out her lost lover and grieving over the events of her life, Vardo visits an aging fortuneteller, who is near death. In her sorrow, Vardo determines to replace the fortuneteller and soon gains notoriety throughout the region.
     Osman Agha, who has had a vision his erring ways, returns to Georgia, giving up nearly all his possessions in penance for having abandoned his faith, and leaving his business to Durmishkhan. When Durmishkhan undertakes another long voyage back into Muslim territory, his son remains in Georgia with  Osman Agha.

      War between the Christians and the Muslims is brewing, and the Georgians, protected by large fortresses throughout most of the country, are fearful because of their vulnerability to attack at Suram, since that fortresses’ walls have crumbled every time they have attempted to build them up. Determined to rebuild the Suram Fortress once again, the Czar sends emissaries to the Vardo, the Fortuneteller, to tell him how to create permanent walls.

      Refusing to speak to the emissaries as a group, Vardo sends away all but one, the handsome Zurab. The Fortuneteller explains, through metaphor, that the cement must be mixed with the body of blue-eyed young man, and, recognizing that person as himself, Zurab allows his body to be bricked up within the wall. The fortress stands, saving his country and the Christian faith.

      As the film ends, Vardo returns to the wall, explaining that she has not acted out of  revenge but out of necessity, for Zurab, in her way of thinking, was also her son.

      That final incident gives the story a strange dimension that it would not otherwise have. In embracing the boy as her son as well, Vardo has interlinked her life to the life of others in a way that suggests a commonality among peoples. She has, in a sense, converted a story that might be read as a struggle between individuals and rulers—an issue at the center of both Durmishkhan’s and Osman Agha’s tales—into a myth in which the communal survival outweighs the individual life. And, accordingly, we see Zurab’s act of self-immolation less as an act of heroism than it is a societal demand, a death borne not out of a personal decision but a determination of a social order.

      Without making too much of this, it is easy to read Zurab’s entombment within the walls of Suram Fortress—an burial aided, strangely enough, by Zurab’s beloved teacher, Osman Agha—as a metaphor of Paradjanov’s own imprisonment. It is as if the director’s society has insisted upon the spiritual death of one of their most beautifully vital figures, had required the death of art itself. Yet, in giving us this new film, Paradjanov has been resurrected, returning to form with another spectacular vision. It is difficult, in the end, not to read Osman Agha’s maxim as a statement about the director himself, for surely good deeds, in my estimation, describe Paradjanov’s four major works of art.

Los Angeles, November 17, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wojciech Has | Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript)

dividing infinity
by Douglas Messerli
Tadeusz Kwiatkowski (screenplay, based on the novel by Jan Potocki), Wojciech Has (director) Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) / 1965, restored edition, 2001

Potocki’s grand Borgesian-like book from 1815 tells stories within stories within stories, creating a kind of puzzle book of interlocking and often contradictory tales centering on a Spanish officer’s ancestor. The audacity of Has’ adaptation of that fiction is obvious from its earliest scenes, as an officer stumbles into Saragossa, gunshots and charges of dynamite surrounding him. Seeking refuge in a small inn he discovers a fascinating book with drawings. So entranced with the book is he that when enemy soldiers come to arrest him, he refuses to look up, soon after encouraging the Spanish enemy to translate the work for him.

      The Spaniard’s ancestor, Alphonse Von Worden, is played by one of the most notable of Polish actors, Zbigniew Cybulski, who only a few years earlier, in 1958, had starred in Andrej Wajda’s great film, Ashes and Diamonds—after which he was described as the Polish James Dean. Although still somewhat handsome, the star of Has’ film has lost he youthful looks and is slightly overweight. His character, Alphonse, moreover, is a fool, a stubbornly clumsy captain of the Walloon Guards, who with two unwilling servants is seeking the shortest route through the Sierra Morena Mountains on his way to Madrid.

     The two men warn him against the route since it lies in haunted territory, but Alphonse, claiming he does believe in ghosts, ventures forth, losing one of his retinue, his donkey, and provisions, and is forced to stop for the night at a inn, Venta Quernada, whose owners, terrified of the dead who revisit the town each night, abandon it at sunset. Although the inn appears to be empty, Alphonse soon encounters a bare-breasted Tunisian woman who leads him through several doors to a secret room wherein two Moorish princesses, Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka) are dining. Both encourage him to make love, explaining that they are his cousins, the last of his mother’s line, and that he must marry both of them in order to provide heirs. They are, however, Islamic, he a Catholic, and they encourage him to convert, which he refuses. Nonetheless, they seduce him, telling him that since he will not convert that he can only visit them in his dreams, and serve him a potion from a skull goblet to drink.

Suddenly he wakes to discover himself back in the countryside from which he has escaped, lying next to piles of skulls and two gallows, from which, we later learn, the Zoto brothers have been hung. Voyaging forward he encounters a hermit priest whose major activity seems to be his attempt to cure a possessed man, who eyes has been gouged out and who cries from the torments of his past. After giving Von Worden goat’s milk to drink—nearly all the film’s dozens of episodes involve food or drink—the priest insists that his charge tell his own life story, which in some respects parallels Von Worden’s meeting with the two princesses. In the possessed man’s tale, a younger woman marries his father while he longs to marry—but is forbidden by the father—his mother’s sister. Plotting so that her son-in-law might make love to her sister, the mother looks on as the sibling and son in bed.

      After a frightening night of noises in the chapel, the young fool-hardly hero ventures forward once again, only this time to be captured by members of the Spanish Inquisition, who begin to torture him before he is rescued by the two Tunisian princesses and the Zoto brothers, who have somehow been resurrected. In their rooms, once more, the two beauties again seduce Alfonse, who in lovemaking is interrupted by the arrival of their father Sheikh Gomelez, who gives Alfonse a choice of death or drinking from the skull goblet.

       Alfonse awakens once more at the gallows, this time encountering a cabalist who speaks in the abstract concepts of numbers and their linguistic significance. They soon meet up with a rationalist, a mathematician, who a short while before had been almost arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, mistaking him for Alphonse. Not knowing which direction to take—a situation that occurs throughout Alphonse’s travels—the cabalist suggests they take refuge in his nearby castle.

        The mathematician best summarizes, perhaps, the first part of this incredible movie: “The human mind is willing to accept anything, if it is used knowingly.”  

        At the castle, Part II, we discover a secret plot being undertaken by the cabalist and his sister, Donna Rebecca Uzeda. In the castle library, Alphonse uncovers the same book which has begun his series of misadventures, but the book is quickly removed from his sight, the plotters afraid that he might read ahead of where his life has so far reached. When a group of gypsies arrives, their leader begins a series of new stories, each nested in the other, all involving, vaguely, love, deceit and honor. As Donna Rebecca summarizes about the tales—in some of which appear characters we have encountered previously, others of which containing figures that will be important in later stories: “All these adventures begin simply. The listener thinks it’ll soon be over, but one story creates another, and then another.” To which the mathematician answers: “Something like quotients which can be divided infinitely.”

        Indeed, his words might sum up the structure of both Potocki’s masterpiece and Has’ film. The adventures that occur to and told to our bumbling hero, Van Worden, do divide infinitely, even though, obviously, the film could not contain as many variations as did the novel. Even when Alfonse finally returns to Venta Quemada to meet one last time with the princesses, now both pregnant with child, and is told by the Sheikh that all has been a series of fictions created to test the captain’s courage, we immediately perceive the tale-telling to be endless. Like One Thousand and One Nights, the stories have the potential to go on forever, each story creating another from within itself, and another and another. The Sheikh gives Alphonse the book with which the film began, encouraging this comic adventurer—a kind of unperceiving Don Quixote—to complete his own tale.

Waking once more under the gallows, Alphonse discovers his original servants to be still with him, as if all the previous adventures had been a dream only. At a small inn in Saragossa, we observe him writing in the large book the tales, presumably, we have just encountered— until he is told two princesses are awaiting him. Tossing the book aside, he exits, the book landing on the table precisely in the same spot where his descendant’s enemy had first discovered it.

       While many have described Has’ film as “surrealist,” and Buñuel, himself, expressed admiration for the work, I would characterize it as having more in common with Sergei Paradjanov’s staged tableaux vivants, like the illuminated manuscript at the center of this work. And, although Has’ film was not without success in Eastern Europe, winning the Golden Wolf award in the 1965 Bucharest Film Festival, its greatness was obscured, in part, because it did not fit into the realist concerns of the Polish Film School with which Has was first connected, while the moral angst of later films by Wadja and other Polish directors did not resonate with the more theatrical and static images represented in this movie—just as Russian realism found no sympathy for the cinema of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky. Fortunately, due to the labors of musician Jerry Garcia, and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, we can now watch a restored version of this masterpiece.
Los Angeles, November 13, 2012



Monday, November 12, 2012

Lina Wertmuller | Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties)

a man in disorder: a rotten comedy, a lousy farce
by Douglas Messerli

Lina Wertmuller (writer and director) Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) / 1975, USA 1976

Although I saw Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties sometime after its American release, I remembered little about it, although a kind a queasy feeling prevented me for years from revisiting it. After watching it again the other afternoon, I now perceive the reasons for my postponement. For this film might be described, as Wertmuller has a character say about his wartime experience, “it’s a rotten comedy, a lousy farce.” The very audaciousness of basically creating a comedy, much of which takes place in a Nazi concentration camp, is almost unthinkable (although figures from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks have approached the subject similarly), something for which Wertmuller was condemned by figures such as concentration camp survivor, Bruno Bettelheim, when the movie first premiered. Others hammered the openly macho attitude of its central character, Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) and others could not forgive its focus on such an absolutely self-serving figure as its “hero.”

      Of course, Pasqualino “Settebelleze,” brother of seven quite ugly sisters, is not truly a “hero,” but as critic Roger Ebert has described him, is an absolute fool, a man who is “not brave, or bright, or even cynical or cowardly.” Pasqualino is a Neapolitan braggart who might be metaphorically described as a walking, talking penis, whose only mission in the world is to penetrate and pleasure itself—and, obviously, to recreate itself—in short, to survive. He is, as Pedro, an Anarchist Prisoner (Fernando Rey) describes a potential savior of the race, “a man in disorder.”

      Pasqualino, a local hood, who goes about with a gun strapped to his pants, is inexplicably loved by all the local women, whom he equally seduces and abandons. He has only one somewhat laudable value, “family honor”; but given the unpleasant appearance of his sisters and the prewar economy—his whole family shares a large room with several other families—it is a pointless virtue. The eldest sister is already performing, quite miserably, at a local dance hall, and, soon after is helped by her pimp boyfriend to join a brothel. Egged on by the local Comorra head, Pasqualino kills the pig in his sleep, cutting up the large body, packing it into three suitcases, and shipping them each to a different destination. His efforts, however, have been for nothing, for he is soon arrested, tried, and—after admitting, one might even say bragging that he committed the act—found insane. Working in the hospital ward of the asylum, he attempts to rape a woman bound to her bed, and is given shock therapy. The only way out is for him to join the Fascist army.

      Soon after he deserts, along with a friend, Francesco (Piero Di Iorio), the two of whom we first encounter in the film within a German forest, where they come upon a mass murder by Germans of Jews, from which they run in horror. While Francesco is disgusted with his own inability to “spit into the faces” of the perpetrators, Pasqualino becomes even more determined to survive, soon after breaking into a German cottage to steal bread, meats, soup, and fruit. The robbery is apparently reported, for while the two are enjoying their repast, Nazi soldiers arrest them and take them to a concentration camp.

      Wertmuller’s depiction of the camp is somehow even more disturbing than Pasqualino’s behavior. The entire camp is represented as a large, quite theatrical set, a white chalky dust floating through the air as prisoners are randomly rounded up, shot, their bodies stacked into piles—all overseen by a highly stereotypical German Prison Camp Commandant (Shirley Stoler), a large, scowling woman with an ever-present whip in her paw. Such exaggerated conceits merely aestheticize the tragedy of reality, while seemingly turning the unspeakable into a kind of comic set up. For we know, by now, that the desperate survivor, Pasqualino, will inevitably try to find a way into the heart of this disgusting image of a woman. He does and succeeds, if you can call their desperate gropings and posturing a sexual “success.” But she, with a heart even colder than his, sees through him transparent deception, punishing him by putting him charge of his barracks and demanding that he choose six of his fellow prisoners for the firing squad.

    Even as Pasqualino goes about the grisly business, Francesco and the Anarchist are so disgusted with him that they volunteer to be among the dead. Pasqualino “saves” them only to have the Anarchist rush forward, throwing himself into a pit of shit and Francesco publically begging Pasqualino to shoot him as a friend. Pasqualino obliges and the six he has chosen are shot.

     In the final scene of this deeply troubling movie, Pasqualino returns home, the War over. Waiting for him are his mother and the seven beauties, along with a young girl whom he had joked that he might one day marry. All have survived through prostitution. What can he say when he has led a life more deeply dishonest than them. He is a penis: “I want lots of children” he yells out to his young fiancée.
     Strangely, for all of Pasqualino’s swaggering stupidity, he is still loveable. As he admits, he is not handsome; as we perceive, he is not admirable. Like some Rabelaisian figure, Pasqualino represents the worst in all of us; and because we can still laugh or at least smile at him, this sacred clown, this disordered being, salves our wounds for being part of the spiteful, hateful human race.
     So too does Wertmuller’s film seem to come alive in the whirling vortex of her abhorrent images. This is not reality, she reminds us, again and again, but a kind of theater of the absurd, a representation of a world so criminally brutal that it cannot be truly represented. It is a nightmare from which we seemingly can never awake. It all makes for a rotten comedy, a lousy farce, but is both a comedy and farce nonetheless.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stanley Donen | Charade

trading up
by Douglas Messerli
Peter Stone (story and screenplay), Marc Behm (story), Stanley Donen (director) Charade / 1963

Stanley Donen’s comedic thriller, Charade, begins with a wealthy young woman, Regina Lambert (Audrey Hepburn) at a ski resort (Megève) admitting to her friend, Sylvie, that she is soon going to get a divorce from her husband Charles: there are too many things she does not know about her husband, too many secrets that he has seemingly kept from her. A few moments later a handsome stranger, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), complains to her about her friend, Sylvie’s water-gun shooting son. The stranger is rebuffed with a clever put-down:

                             Reggie: I already know an awful lot of people and until one
                                 of them dies I couldn’t possibility meet anyone else.
                             Peter: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.

When he turns to go, she chides him, “You give up awfully easily.”

      The scene sets up the movie in a nutshell: love, divorce, guns—or violence, at least—will be our focus for the next 100 and some minutes, along with, of course, some tuneful songs by Henry Mancini.

       Upon her return to Paris, Reggie discovers her entire apartment has been cleaned out, her maid is missing, and, before long, receives news of her husband’s death, a man murdered and tossed from a train. She can now “meet” that new someone, and on cue Peter Joshua again shows up—a clumsy and basically unexplained plot element that nonetheless seems to make sense, for we already know that they destined to fall in love.


      Charade’s ludicrously labyrinthine plot suddenly takes over as we are introduced, one by one—at Charles’ funeral, no less—to the major characters, Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass), a group of ex-soldiers who, along with Charles and another figure, Carson Dyle, robbed an OSS shipment of $250,000 in gold that was to have been delivered to the French Resistance, and the US government—so Reggie is told by embassy officer, Hamilton Bartholomew—wants it back. He and, evidently, the three remaining robbers, are convinced that, since Charles held the money, she must know of its whereabouts.

      Once this ridiculous plot contrivance is set up, the movie settles back into a romantic comedy as Reggie and Joshua rush about Paris, threatened and harassed, from time to time, by the evil “gang.”   

     Grant, so the story goes, was hesitant about being involved in a film where he (at the 59 years of age) was chasing Hepburn (34), so the writers simply cut all of his lines that suggested his sexual interest in her, and gave them to the character Reggie, the result of which is that Grant plays his character with the most laid back diffidence of his film career. He seems more bemused by Reggie than sexually interested.
light it up
     As the threats and acts of violence (a burning-match attack in a telephone booth, the kidnapping of Sylvie’s son, a battle between Joshua and Scobie on the roof of the hotel) begin to pile up, it also becomes evident that Joshua is not whom he seems, finally admitting that he is Carson Dyle’s brother, Alexander. At first horrified at his lies (it is lying after all that separated her and her husband), Reggie quickly recovers her equilibrium and, even more incredulously, her trust in Grant’s character, the authors repeating the same conversation that she had with Peter Joshua, as a standing joke:

                           Reggie: Is there a Mrs. Dyle?
                           Alexander Dyle: Yes…
                              [Reggie’s face drops]
                           Alexander Dyle: but, we’re divorced!
                           Reggie [smirking] I thought that was Peter Joshua?
                           Alexander Dyle: I am just as difficult to live with
                               as he was.


     Off they go for more adventures, these ending in several deaths, as the robbers begin to suspect each another. Once more, Reggie and, now Alexander, go through the contents of a small bag Charles Lambert had left behind: toothpaste, a small calendar, a letter, a ticket to Venezuela, and passports in multiple names etc., nothing that seems of value.

     But now, following the instructions of the embassy official Bartholomew, Reggie finds herself in even more terrorized situation, particularly when he insists that Dyle’s brother died years ago, and soon after the camera pulls back to find the Grant figure in the room with the remaining “gang” members.

     The former Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle now admits he is simply a professional thief, Adam Canfield. The series of questions is repeated once again, her trust in the man amazingly intact.

looking at it   

     As the body count raises, both Reggie and now Adam, follow a clue in her husband’s calendar where they encounter several booths selling stamps to collectors. In a simultaneous instant both she—who has given the letters on the envelope to Sylvie’s young son—and he realize the truth: the money has been used to purchase several rare stamps, which the boy, Jean-Louis, has exchanged with a stamp dealer for a large package of international stamps. When they track down the dealer, he admits the rarity of the stamps, returning them to Reggie.

       But now that they have the “money,” Reggie is in even more danger as Bartholomew, the embassy man, lures her to a square outside the Paris Opera, with Joshua/Dyle/Canfield chasing after. Bartholomew, we discover, is really Carson Dyle, one of the original soldiers who have stolen the gold, and is now about to kill Reggie. Hiding in the prompter’s box Reggie is stalked by Dyle as Canfield, high above, tracks his steps across the stage, finally springing open a stage trap door which sends Dyle to his death. I told you the plot was ludicrous and labyrinthine, now operatic.

      No matter, Reggie is safe, has the money in hand, and has fallen in love with Canfield. Crime seems to have paid off, even if the stamps, now glued to the envelope, may not have the same net value. Oddly, despite being a professional thief, Canfield, encourages her turn over the stamps to the US embassy.

      As Reggie enters the office of the US agent, Brian Cruikshank, the government official in charge of recovering stolen property, she is suddenly greeted by, you guessed it, Canfield, who now admits his real name:

                          Reggie: Is there a Mrs. Cruikshank?
                          Cruikshank: Yes.
                          Reggie: But you’re divorced.
                          Cruikshank: No.
                          [Regina’s face drops]
                          Cruikshank: [getting out his wallet to show her a picture]
                              My mother, she lives in Detroit, you’d like her, she’d
                              like you too.
                          Reggie: Oh, I love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian, what-
                          ever your name is, I love you! I hope we have a lot of boys
                          and we can name them all after you!

     It appears, she has traded in the stamps—which presumably had formerly been the contents of her house—for a new husband. And so many people have died or simply been extinguished in this story, that she will now clearly have room to meet many another in her life.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2012