Sunday, December 30, 2012

David Fincher | The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

by Douglas Messerli

Robin Swicord [screenplay], based on a screenplay story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (suggested by the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald), David Fincher [director] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button / 2008

 As perceptive critics have noted (as opposed to those, such as Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who dismissed this film), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, very loosely based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a love tale, a fable of love moving in opposite directions. The hero, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), is born as a man of eighty -years old, who falls in love with a young girl named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, as she grows to a young teenager and, later, a young woman, continues to reenter and leave Benjamin’s life until the moment when they are both nearly the same age and for a few precious years have a intense relationship, themselves bearing a child.

The tragedy of this tale, however, is that before long Benjamin is doomed to grow too young to care for the child at the very moment when Daisy is becoming too old to care for them both. Accordingly, he leaves her, and she marries another man who is a good father to her young daughter. Benjamin disappears into youth, meeting Daisy only once for a brief sexual encounter, and reenters her life again as a young boy for whom she cares as he descends into infancy and, finally, as a baby, dies.

If this had been the entire focus of the film, and if Swicord and Roth had let the piece remain, as it is in Fitzgerald’s original, as more of a fable than a veristic story, the film might have had a sort of bittersweet charm that could have swept audiences up its myth. But the authors and director David Fincher have added numerous unrelated adventures, setting the story in a New Orleans about to undergo Hurricane Kathrina and propelling Button and other characters to the bitter cold of Minsk and into heroic adventures of World War II, all the while alternating these highly realistically- portrayed events with a kind of moralistic essay on the superior humanity of the film’s Black figures and the gentle wisdom of its old. Although the movie skirts general sentimentality, it toys with it in its simplistic messages centered around carpe diem.

 Fortunately, this film is saved by another, more subtle theme, which I believe gives it an epic weight that justifies its length. While Benjamin moves solidly through the film backwards in time, the other characters moving forward are forced in their encounters with him to rethink their lives and face up to their failures in the past. This results in a kind of “turning back,” a decision to change the errors of their past, and in that sense, leads for a kind of redeeming of life for each of them.

Benjamin’s father, Thomas, faced with the horrific specter of an eighty-year old infant, a child moreover that has ended in his wife’s death, has cruelly abandoned the child on the steps of boarding house over which a black woman, Queenie presides. Upon discovering the child, Queenie readily adopts it, allowing it to grow up old in a house of old people. Yet Thomas, upon encountering the child years later, at a time when Benjamin is closer to 50, invites him to dinner and further encounters, ending, as the father grows old, in his revelation to Benjamin that he is his son. At first, Benjamin is outraged by the fact of the abandonment as opposed to the continued kindnesses of his Black mother. But Benjamin, in some senses, is presented as a blank slate, and ultimately a reunion between the two, however shaky, is accomplished, and he nurses his father into death.

Similarly, the older woman, Elizabeth Abbott (wonderfully played by Tilda Swinton) with whom Benjamin has an affair in Minsk, is encouraged in his gentle love to look back upon her failed marriage and her own lack of initiative. Once a great swimmer who attempted, unsuccessfully, to swim the English Channel, she has done little since except suffer the empty relationship of her marriage. By film’s end, and at the unlikely age of 62, she successfully achieves the goal she had previously abandoned.

So too does the heavy-drinking captain Mike of a New Orleans-based tugboat shift, upon encountering Benjamin, from braggadocio and whoring to heroic accomplishments as his small craft rams a German U-boat that has destroyed a large Allied warship.

Daisy, intrigued throughout the story by Benjamin, rejects his proffered love simply because he will not go bed with her the one night she is in town. Later, upon his visit to her in New York, she resists his love because of an affair with another dancer; and finally, suffering from an automobile accident that has robbed her of the possibility of ever again being able to dance, she demands he leave her bedside.

Months later, however, she too “turns back,” returning to him in New Orleans where they have their intense if brief love affair.

 Despite her anger over Benjamin’s decision to leave her and their daughter, she gradually recognizes that it has been for the better, and as he descends into boyhood and, ultimately, infancy, she takes over the role of his mother, nursing him back into the metaphorical womb.

Her own daughter, Caroline, has clearly been distanced from her mother, but in the framework of the narrative, has returned to New Orleans to her hospital deathbed during the advance of Hurricane Katrina. She too, accordingly, has turned back, coming to the aide of her mother, as her mother, turning back one more time, insists Caroline read the autobiography of Benjamin Button which reveals the girl’s own parentage.

 In short, each of the major figures, faced with a being moving in the opposite direction of the flow of life, are encouraged to reexamine their own forward rush into death. The result is redemption far deeper than the easy lessons on the surface of Fincher’s interesting but deeply flawed film.

Los Angeles, January 5, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (January 2009).

John Frankenheimer | Seven Days in May

code catchers
by Douglas Messerli
Rod Serling (screenplay, based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II), John Frankenheimer (director) Seven Days in May 1964

While watching John Frankenheimer’s likeable entertainment Seven Days in May again yesterday, I was struck with just how old-fashioned were its narrative structures. Part of the problem, is the result, obviously, of the pop-fiction work on which it was based, Fletcher Knebel’s and Charles W. Bailey’s novel of the same name; and no one has ever suggested that the film’s screenwriter, Rod Serling, was more than a kind of hack whose dramas are primarily dependent upon ironical shifts of reality. But, unlike the far more witty and complex story of Frankenheimer’s earlier work, The Manchurian Candidate, this tale is told with an almost plodding commitment to a horizontal storyline. In fact, the director reminds us of its simple calendar-based structure again and again, counting down the days of crisis as if the film were akin to some kind of 1940s romance in which the pages of life flip, one by one, forward, the words “Time Passes” flashing across the screen.

       From the very beginning, the director sets out his major opponents, President Jordan Lyman—a slightly paunchy and gruff liberal, Fredric March—and the dashing and passionately conservative General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). In between them stands the intelligent assistant to Scott, Colonel Jiggs Casey, played with fierce determination by Kirk Douglas, whose cleft chin has never been more on display.

       Casey believes in the constitution, while the arch-conservative Scott apparently is ready to stage a coup, information about which piles up in the first few scenes as if the film’s creators were attempting to bombard their audience not through weapons but with word-bound clues. All but one of the country’s major generals has agreed to bet, apparently through Scott, on the Preakness horse race. An unknown desert base, ECOMCON, is suddenly mentioned in small talk. A right wing Senator pays a late night visit to General Scott. All of this occurs at a time when the President is about to sign an anti-nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, and just a few days before military maneuvers at Mount Thunder, where Lyman will be watching, out of sight of any of his staff or news reporters.

      When Casey brings up these coincidences to the President himself, both Lyman and his aides laugh it off. The fools! Don’t they know this is the way every coup begins?

       In short, Frankenheimer creates little tension, pouring out the story as if it were something he needed to quickly get off his chest, before settling down to the complications of Casey, Girard, the President’s aide (Martin Balsam), and Lyman’s political friend, the alcoholic Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), are sent off in search of evidence. And even here everything goes pretty much by the book. Clark finds that there is, in fact, an unknown desert camp (and is held captive within); aide Girard tracks down the one commander who has refused to bet on the Preakness—code for going along with coup—and gets a signed confession (he dies in a sudden plane crash); Casey takes up Eleanor Holbrook’s (Ava Gardner) invitation for dinner since she has been Scott’s former lover. Holbrook refuses his offer of sex, but predictably provides him with what he seeks through a series of love letters Scott has sent. We never discover what are in those letters, but we know, vaguely, that they contain incriminating evidence.

       Understandably, the President suddenly declines to attend the war exercises, and, soon after—as if Frankenheimer is in a hurry to wrap his film—calls in the offender, laying his cards on the table and demanding the General’s resignation. Scott refuses, realizing that the President has little evidence (he actually has only the mysterious letters, which he, just as mysteriously, refuses to use). The General even attempts to convince the President that Lyman himself had long ago given his approval of ECOMCON! For a few precious minutes it appears that Seven Days in May might even have a plot complication. But no luck! With deus ex machina precision, Senator Clark is released, reporting back to the President, and the signed confession is discovered among the plane’s wreckage, hidden in Girard’s cigarette case.

      Scott and his cronies have no choice but to resign. The President goes on television to assure the nation that all is well, the director thus ending this slightly paranoiac film with a homily instead, as he had in The Manchurian Candidate, with a profanity.

      If at times it almost seems that this movie might take us into a secret world of unpredictable occurrences, writer and director seem to have determined to take the straight path to the conventional. Unlike the novel, General Scott doesn’t even have to die in a car crash, but presumably lives out his life in comfy obscuration. I should have mentioned, however, the opening credits are great!

Los Angeles, December 30, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock | The Trouble with Harry

burying the dead
by Douglas Messerli
John Michael Hayes (writer), based on a novel by Jack Trevor, Alfred Hitchcock (director) The Trouble with Harry / 1955

Soon after filming To Catch a Thief in the beautiful Riviera landscape, Hitchcock and company were summoned to Vermont, location experts claiming that the leaves were in their full fall color. The world presented in the 1955 film, The Trouble with Harry, could not be more different from that of the wealthy citizens of Monte Carlo, Nice and Cannes of the former movie. If guilt—guilt both for having great wealth and guilt for stealing it from others—is a major theme of To Catch a Thief, the prelapsarian world of upstate Vermont is one in which none of the small town citizens seemingly has any money—and no reason, accordingly, for guilt.

     Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), a retired captain, lives, as he puts it, in a man’s world without any woman’s homey touches; his hunger for food, indeed, begins the series of events at the center of the story.  Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) runs the local general store without even a cash register, with many of her customers, such as artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), unable to pay her; in an attempt to raise money for him and herself, she exhibits his paintings alongside the vegetables and cider she sells to the few tourists passing through town. Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) gets by, supporting herself and her young son the best she can, on her dead first husband’s insurance money.

     We soon realize that for all but one of the town’s citizens, the lack of money presents no real difficulties, as they barter for goods and services—Sam promising his paintings as credit for his groceries, the young Arnie trading a dead rabbit for a frog and two blueberry muffins—and are seemingly ready to exchange whatever little they have with one another. Only Calvin Wiggs—whose very name suggests the religious roots of American financial “accomplishment”—is in search of money, working as a policeman by the “piece” and attempting to sell remodeled antique cars. Calvin has what Sam describes as a misunderstanding of art—not just of visual art, but a miscomprehension of the art of living.

   Even more remarkably, the citizens of this idyllic village seem to be the most placidly content folk on the face of the earth. The fact that the Captain has accidentally shot and killed a man in his hunt for a rabbit is met with utter complacency by the near army of people who pass by the body lying in the woods. As the Captain vaguely contemplates how to cover up his “crime,” Miss Gravely greets him with friendly hauteur: “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”  After explaining the situation to her, she acceptingly replies, “If I were going to hide an accident, I shouldn’t delay.” Indeed, not only is her demeanor imperturbable, but she uses the opportunity of encountering the “murderer” to invite him for blueberry muffins and coffee, with, perhaps, some elderberry wine.

    Arnie, the child who has originally discovered the fallen man, returns with his mother in tow. Jennifer Rogers not only complacently accepts the reality of the man’s death, but seems absolutely elated by it; it is an act of “providence,” she declares; the world has seen the last of Harry (we later discover he was her second husband, brother to her first) as he lies in “a deep wonderful sleep.” When the child asks if he will get better, she replies, “Not if we’re lucky.”

    The local doctor, Greenbow, wandering the fields while reading Shakespeare’s love sonnets, trips over the body, his near-sightedness allowing him to not even recognize it as a dead man. A local tramp is delighted by the discovery of the corpse which provides him with a new pair of shoes.

    As the captain notes, “Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.” And, later, as the final witness to his supposed crime, Sam Marlowe, is seen approaching, he quips, “Next thing you know they’ll be televising the whole thing.” Sam, like the others, unruffled by the sight of a dead man, simply takes out his drawing pad and charcoal to begin a sketch.

    This general imperturbability of the film’s characters—the source also of much of the picture’s dark humor—has been misunderstood by many otherwise perceptive film critics such as Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, as representing “British restraint” and a “discreet style” that makes for “wooden” performances and “coy and awkward” situations.

     As the excellent film critic Lesley Brill has argued, however, the people of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry are so in touch with nature that death and resurrection is seen as absolutely natural: “Death passes and life renews without effort or anxiety. The bland tone of The Trouble with Harry constitutes more than comic technique; it results from a profound confidence that death lacks the power to destroy and that hope can scarcely help but prosper.”

     We soon discover that the dead figure at the center of this masterwork, an outsider to this paradisiacal society, is named Harry Warp, and as quickly as we learn his name we realize that in our interaction with the various Vermont characters we have entered a sort of “time warp,” a world bent differently from the one most of us inhabit, a place where—as the young Arnie puts it—“today” is “tomorrow,” and “tomorrow” is “yesterday,” in short a world without time, where past, present, and future come together to create a near Edenic universe. Upon the Captain’s question, “What time is it?” Sam looks to his empty wrist and then to the sky, “I’d say about noon.” And from that instant forward, Hitchcock weaves a sense of timelessness through his work as the major characters, each intent upon resolving their relationships with the dead, bury Harry, dig him up, bury him again, dig him up, and bury him once more, before resurrecting the body, washing it, redressing it, and returning it one final time to its original resting place in the open field where it was originally discovered. Rather than resulting in what, in our fallen world, might be negative consequences for their involvement, each of Harry’s resurrections results in rewards for the members of this small funereal band.

     In a series of absurd events, Jennifer Rogers has hit Harry over the head with a milk bottle, in response to which the stunned man, stumbling about the woods and determined to find his wife to restore his sexual rights, encounters Miss Gravely, whom he attacks, she driving the heel of her shoe into his head; meanwhile, the Captain, in search of prey, shoots three times. The three major suspects in Harry’s “murder,” accordingly, are each forced to lackadaisically address his or her connection to the corpse, to recount their “trouble” with Harry.

     With Sam’s help, the Captain attempts to hide the evidence of his crime; but when he discerns that he is innocent (recalling that his first shot hit a beer can, the second a sign, and the third Arnie’s rabbit), he is insistent upon disinterring Harry. His reward, in turn, for that burial and resurrection comes in the form of the restored Miss Gravely and their budding relationship.

     Miss Gravely’s belief that she has killed him results in the Captain and her returning to bury the body once more. Upon further reflection, however, and with the recognition that in hiding her evidence she may lead the police to find her guilty, she also demands Harry’s resurrection, which is rewarded, perhaps, by the sale of Sam’s paintings to a millionaire. In this non-capitalistic world of barter, however, Sam accepts payment by granting the desires of his friends: a box of monthly strawberries to Jennifer, a smelly chemistry set for Arnie, a chromium-plated cash register for Wiggy, a gun and hunting outfit for the Captain, a hope chest “filled with hope” for Miss Gravely, and a double bed for himself and Jennifer, his soon-to-be wife.

    Later, when the group considers the fact that the somewhat seamy details of Jennifer’s marriage to Harry may come out with the discovery of the body, she is faced with the decision that leads to Harry’s third burial. But again new doubts arise as this small society recognizes that Jennifer will be unable to marry Sam without the evidence of her second husband’s death, and the grave diggers, appearing in the film like the “dance of death” figures of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a film released two years later), unbury the corpse one last time. After depositing the body in Jennifer’s bathtub, they discover, upon the doctor’s investigation, that the cause of death was a natural one: Harry simply had a bad heart.

    We have already perceived, from Jennifer’s testament, that Harry was heartless, with little appetite for the flesh she represents, while Sam, on the other hand, is nearly ready to pounce. “I’d like to paint you in the nude,” he announces upon their first meeting. Later, as he moves in for a kiss, she commands: “Ignite me, Sam. I have a very short fuse.”

     Freed now from any of the negative responses from the world outside their own, and having nothing to hide (Brill points out the comic use throughout The Trouble with Harry of a door that repeatedly opens to reveal only an empty closet), these fortunate few have successfully restored their world to the way “things happen(ed),” revealing the course of nature. As Sam has argued early in the film, Harry’s death is perhaps an “act of God,” “Heaven’s will…done.”  Now filled with love for one another, the four await the new day that is tomorrow, the yesterday that is today. As the film’s end announces, “The trouble with Harry is over.”

Los Angeles, January 7, 2003    

Stephen Frears | The Queen

the queen bows
by Douglas Messerli
Peter Morgan (writer), Stephen Frears (director), The Queen / 2006

Stephen Frears’ 2006 film, The Queen, with a script by Peter Morgan, is in essence a comedy (a work in which the characters triumph over adversity, ending in a happy conclusion) and, in many senses, a one-liner at that: The Queen, caught in the trappings of the late 19th century, is suddenly forced to come to terms with the late 20th century if the monarchy is to survive.

      For all the simplicity of the movie’s subject, however, The Queen succeeds in providing a substantive entertainment, in part because its heroes are world figures of our own time, and, however inconsequential to the real events each of us is, we feel as an audience both within and outside of the theater, that we had a vicarious role in the events portrayed. And then, of course, there is the voyeuristic joy of being invited into Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral Castle as well as into 10 Downing Street!

     In response to the shocking news of Princess Diana’s death, delivered with utter discretion by the Queen’s personal advisor, Robin Janvrin, Elizabeth can barely hide her dislike of her former daughter-in-law. Her comment to her son, “Charles, isn’t this awful,” seems to express more of her feelings about a new scandale than it does about a beautiful, young ex-princess’s death in a horrible accident. She clearly is determined to have little to do with the whole event, passively awaiting the Spencers’ decision concerning the funeral, while Charles awkwardly scuttles to Paris to bring back the body.

     Enter the hero to save the day, the newly-appointed Prime Minister, only too ready to play the touchy-feely “teddy” Blair the British public evidently seeks. “She is the people’s princess,” he declares—a phrase that endears him to the public, but one also that linguistically pits the people against the royals. Blair’s wife, indeed, is presented as a virulent anti-royalist, mocking even the early vague attempts her husband makes in order to save the addled-brained “nutters” from themselves.

      There is no question that the death of a princess, clearly tortured by the disdain and outright hatred of the royal family, a woman hounded by the press, who—despite the drunkenness of her car’s chauffeur—still played a role in the crash of her automobile, was a sad and perhaps tragic event. I still recall going to bed on the west coast of the US with the belief that she had survived the accident, only to discover later the next day (our morning paper often arrives after I leave the house) the sad news that she had died.

     Yet as the public adulation (in the US and as well as in Britain) rose seemingly by the hour, and the comparisons of Diana with Mother Theresa and other saintly figures grew, I felt perhaps a bit of the royals’ confusion. Had this woman been so naïve upon her marriage to Charles, that she had expected her life to be lived in privacy? Had it never occurred to her before her marriage that the royal family would not permit easy assimilation? Hadn’t the princess sought out much of the press attention, using the press to her advantage, both within her marriage and since? If Charles had shown himself to be a whimpering, cheating spouse, hadn’t she also, in her own extra-marital affairs—replete with letters and telephone calls—shown herself to be, to put it nicely, a horribly failed being. As for all her supposedly wonderful charitable acts, wasn’t that a role played by the entire royal family?

     Clearly her public saw Diana through a lens as strangely distorted as the Queen saw her own people. “I think the less attention we draw to it, the better,” declares her Majesty of the death, completely out of touch with her countrymen. No flag is flown at half-mast over the Royal Palace since the Queen is away—away in more senses than one; and as the floral tributes to Diana quickly grow from a trickle of the public’s affection into an absolute avalanche of grief-filled expression, the Queen retreats further and further into the behavioral ideals of the past.
     If one had doubts about the sanctity of dear Diana, one must also wonder about the royal family’s bunker-like mentality. Just four years previous even the Queen had had to admit an Annus horribilis in describing the year in which her second son, the Duke of York, divorced his wife Sarah (who, later that year, was pictured by the tabloids in a topless bikini kissing her friend, John Bryan); the Princess Royal divorced her husband Captain Mark Philips; Windsor Castle was badly burned in a fire; and Diana and the Prince of Wales separated. Hadn’t that impossible year taught her that you can’t hide from the press, that to do nothing was to admit everything? Certainly by this time, she might have discovered the values of the day were no longer those of her youth.

     Morgan’s script, perversely, focuses on Elizabeth’s insistence upon silence against the hordes who, as Prince Philip puts it, sleep in the streets, “pulling out their hair for someone they never knew.” Lunacy clearly has won the day.

     Thank heaven, accordingly, for Helen Mirren, who portrays this out-of-touch monarch with true dignity and respect—performing alternately with reserve and imperious disdain. Against this near-perfect interpretation, Michael Sheen almost impishly interprets that most common of commoners, the slightly bumpkinish Blair, as a man of the hour, a figure who, if he didn’t exist, might have been created by the tabloids; accordingly, Blair is quite able to manipulate the press in his favor. At first, indeed, he almost seems to get a perverse joy out the Queen’s refusal to publicly express her grief. But almost as quickly, he perceives as a politician that it is crucial to save this great shadowy monarchy—if only to cast it as a backdrop against his shining light.

        After several failed attempts to grasp the situation, the Queen struggles to comprehend her free-fall from grace. In the film, her vision comes in the form of a great stag she accidentally encounters after her car stalls mid-river; Prince Philip has taken Charles’ sons to seek out and kill the stag, but as that animal now appears before the Queen, she recognizes in the majesty of this beast something akin to her own position, that that remarkable survivor must be saved, and she quickly shews it away for its own protection. When the Queen finally bows, agreeing to leave Balmoral to return to the Palace, she first pays homage to the carcass of the stag, shot not by her own family, but by a visiting American tourist

The hate she discovers embedded in the mountain of floral tributes outside her London residence is terrifying, and, as she turns, offering to place the flowers a young child holds in her hands upon that sacrificial heap, for an instant Mirren registers even greater pain in response to the young girl’s negative reply. In fact, the flowers are meant for Elizabeth herself. It is her presence, she and we both come to understand, which the masses truly seek.

So, too, some time after Diana’s funeral, does Blair seek out that presence—it is, after all, his job to consult with the Queen. But it is apparent that he also seeks some tribute, some recognition for having saved the monarchy—if nothing else, a pat on his obedient head. Elizabeth gives no such bone to her faithful dog. If she has been forced to bow to her public, as Mirren portrays her, the Queen now stands again at full height, reminding her Prime Minister that it is to her he must bow, and the film ends in the hilarious pan of the camera as she, “a walker,” quickly moves forward, he trotting after.

If this film is not particularly profound, it does raise several interesting questions, most notably how the monarchy can remain out of necessity aloof and separate while performing the tightrope walk of empathizing and communicating with its subjects. There is always the problem that in bowing to the public’s desire for the Queen to share their grief, fears…etc., her Majesty will be transformed from a sovereign figure into simply a person of great wealth. In the particular instance of Diana’s death, moreover, the Queen seemed unable to perceive that Diana had been created by the royal family themselves, that through her marriage to Charles this young woman had been elevated to royal status, and that no matter how much the Queen detested Diana and her behavior, as a member of the royal family, Diana had married them (even if divorced the year before from the Queen’s son) until death do them part. Accordingly, the Frankenstein the royals had created and loosed upon the public could not simply be ignored or disavowed. The public, moreover, saw Diana less as a Frankenstein (or less as a Windsor or Mountbatten—more ghoulish perhaps even than a Frankenstein!) than as a loveable monster, a beautiful, spoiled girl, nearly destroyed by her creators. Like the monster of Mary Shelley’s mythic tale, Diana perhaps had no choice but through her life-style to seek out her own destruction; whatever happened in the Alma tunnel of Paris that dreadful night seems almost inevitable in hindsight.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2006
October 29, 2006
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (November 2006)
and My Year 2006: Serving (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kiyoshi Kurosawa | A New Beginning

A New Beginning
by Douglas Messerli
Sachiko Tanaka (screenplay), based on work by Max Mannix, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director) Tokyo Sonata / 2008, released in the USA in March 2009

 Early in Tokyo Sonata we witness a rainstorm, the breeze blowing the raindrops into the modest Tokyo home of Megumi and Ryuhei Sasaki. Megumi rushes to close the window and wipe up the water that has fallen to her floor, but in the very midst of the act, she pauses, momentarily opening the door once more. We recognize her immediately as a woman pondering the dangers that lay outside her seemingly tranquil life.

 At his office, Ryuhei works as an executive director of a department that suddenly has hired a new Chinese woman—willing to work for considerably less than most of the other employees—and before the day is done, Ryuhei is fired. Startled by his new situation, and completely unprepared for it, he briefly wanders the streets before returning home.

 Communication between family members is failing. The oldest son, Takashi, a college student, rarely returns home, and when he does he says little; Ryuhei describes him as “hopeless.” Kenji, the youngest, increasingly realizes that communication with all adults is a dangerous business. Caught in the classroom passing on a book of sexually explicit manga drawings, he is punished by the teacher. Feeling the punishment to be unfair, he reports in front of the class that he has seen the teacher viewing anime on his way to school, challenging the man’s authority. Accordingly, at home he eats silently, while his father broods. When Kenji surprisingly asks if he might take piano lessons, Ryuhei explodes, adamantly refusing to even consider it.

 Only Megumi seems to be able to speak civilly to her husband and children.

 Pretending to leave for work the next morning, Ryuhei spends the day on a park bench, lunching on free food set up for the unemployed and poor. After facing long lines to the unemployment office, he has been told that he might be able to obtain a job as a manager of a food store, but rejects it as too menial. Discovering an old college friend in the same food line, Ryuhei learns how to make use of the local library and other places where the two wait out their imaginary work day.

Having given up on trying to communicate his desires, Kenji secretly signs on for piano lessons in a nearby home, using the money given to him by his mother for the month’s lunches at school. We see an increasingly frustrated Takashi, unable to find any suitable career. Ryuhei, meanwhile, begins a long descent into a world of secrets and lies. Indeed this very normal-seeming family has nearly fallen silent, terrifying Megumi and creating a tension between themselves that is ominous to say the least. As the overly-wise daughter of Ryuhei’s friend observes of Sasaki, “You’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

Takashi’s decision to join the American military as an alien worker further plunges the Sasaki family into anger, as the father refuses to sign the permission, and Takashi leaves their home permanently. Although Takashi survives Iraq, he determines to stay in the USA as a potential terrorist in response to the acts he has witnessed.

Kenji, meanwhile, has discovered that he has a natural gift for music and is told that his playing shows signs of genius; when his mother discovers a small broken keyboard in his room and receives a letter inviting their son to apply to music school, she is both troubled by his deceit and delighted by his talent; but Ryuhei, once again, grows angry in his inability to control his family and his own life, pushing the son from the staircase to the floor below; fortunately, Kenji survives the slight concussion.

 The vortex of fear and anger spirals even further out of control as Ryuhei hears that his friend and wife have committed suicide, and, determining to take any job available, secretly begins work as a janitor in a local shopping center. If thus far Toyko Sonata seems best understood as a kind of psychological soap-opera of events which are easily recognizable in the context of today’s global economy, Kurosawa pushes his film into another dimension as Megumi encounters her husband working in the red garb of a cleaning man in a shopping center.

 Suddenly, the movie shifts from its realist perspective, skipping back into a time a few hours earlier, where we witness Megumi being taped and bound in her home by a would-be thief. Discovering that she has no money, the thief prepares to leave, removing the covering that has hidden his face. The sound of a police siren, sends him back into the house, and too late, he realizes he will now be recognized by his victim. He forces her into a stolen car, and the two race away to...well that is the problem, both the incompetent thief and victim have nowhere to go.

From here on the movie pitches into a kind of tragi-comic opera, as Megumi demands they stop by the local shopping mall for the toilet and to pick up a few provisions for her new journey. There she repeats the encounter with her husband we have witnessed earlier. Ryuhei rushes away, declaring “It’s not what it seems.”

 Meanwhile, Megumi surprisingly returns to the car and the astonished thief. Without a destination the two drive to the ocean, where they camp out in a small shed and share with each another tales of their failed lives. The sexual encounter that follows lies somewhere between an act of passion and rape. Megumi determines she cannot go home, and lies upon the beach preparing to wait out her fate. As Megumi has told the thief in their conversation, she feels that she is trapped with no options for a future, but wishes that there could be a way to simply “start over,” to be born again. Yet we know Megumi has too much sense of purpose to completely give up her present life, and when she awakens we discover her back in the shed, the thief having apparently driven the car into his watery grave.

 Ryuhei has attempted to run so far from the reality of his life that he is now seen stumbling and falling upon the rubble of Tokyo overpasses and streets. At this point, he is so delirious that he races out in front of a car and, so it seems, is hit. The driver pulls him away from the car’s grille and deposits him by the roadside, apparently leaving him for dead.

 Kenji attempts to sneak a ride in the baggage section of a bus on its way to another city, and after being caught by the driver, is arrested and imprisoned for the night, refusing to answer any of the police’s questions.

With the rising of the sun and the disappearance of her captor, Megumi has little choice but to return home. But this time, unlike all the comings and goings we have seen before, the house lies empty. Without her presence, it is as if none of the others can return either. The increasing silences of the household members has transformed it into a house of death. However, in that reality, and through each of their symbolic deaths, they are now freed. Kenji’s cell is opened; the case has been dropped. Miraculously Ryuhei awakens, slightly battered but able to walk. As, one by one, they slowly come through the door, there is a sense that life may “start over” after all.

 The final scene depicts Kenji’s piano audition, to which Ryuhei and Megumi arrive just before their son plays. Kurosawa ends his meditation of family life with a complete performance, brilliantly played by Kenji, of “Claire de Lune,” Claude Debussy’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s poem in which dead dancers perform in the moonlight, an appropriate piece since it signals the family’s recovery from lunacy and death.

At times a bit lugubrious and, at other times, lacking in believability, Tokyo Sonata nonetheless is an engaging portrait of the dilemmas and strengths faced by contemporary families.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (April 2009).

Friday, December 28, 2012

Konrad Wolf | Ich war neunzehn (I Was Nineteen)

goethe and auschwitz
by Douglas Messerli
Wolfgang Kohlhasse and Konrad Wolf (screenplay based on Wolf’s War Diaries), Konrad Wolf (director) Ich war neunzehn (I Was Nineteen) / 1968

It is mid-April 1945 in which Wolf’s fascinating film begins. From the viewpoint of the Russian troops near Berlin, we hear a young man with a P.A. system speaking in German to Nazi soldiers who have not yet surrendered. They are told not only of the hopelessness of their cause, but that if they surrender they will be protected, saved from certain death. There is no one visible on the scene, a forlorn-looking lake, except for a small boat upon which a gallows has been constructed, a body hanging from it with a sign around its neck: “DESERTEUR Ich bin ein russen knecht,” “Deserter! I am a Russian lackey.”

      Indeed the young man speaking on that P.A. system, Lieutenant Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwartz) might almost see himself in the dead man’s visage, for Hecker, whose family escaped at the beginning of the war to Moscow, now fighting with the Red Army, is of German heritage, a nineteen-year-old boy who was born, much like director himself, in Cologne. His German background and his ability to speak German is why he has been assigned this role, and probably why he is traveling, like a human mascot, sleeping against the shoulder of Wadim (a Russian teacher turned soldier) (Vasilil Livanov), and sitting, at other times, next to the music-loving Sasha (Alexej Ejboshenko), Gregor’s easy-going superior.
     By the very next scene, as the soldiers reach the city of Berneu, near Berlin, Gregor is called for by the troop’s Commander, he is suddenly transformed into a Commandant, ordered to take over the city, transforming the few remaining residents into law-abiding citizens of the new Soviet order. The immensity of his sudden rise in power is brilliantly realized visually by Wolf, as the young man stands in the middle of the street in utter confusion as reads, time and again, the written proclamation in disbelief.

      Throughout all of these early scenes Wolf creates tension simply by throwing his major figure into a series of vast responsibilities that nearly overwhelm the nineteen-year-old—and any sympathetic audience. Berneu, at first, appears almost like a ghost town, with only a young, frightened girl (Jenny Gröllmann) left. She has just witnessed the dead body of the woman she has lived with, a suicide victim, and is terrified of what may lay ahead for her in a city of occupation troops.

      Well she should have been when one realizes, that, in fact, thousands of German women were raped by the Soviet occupiers, their fathers and husbands shipped out and lost in Russian Gulags. The closest Wolf’s film comes to this truth is the immense hostility with a Soviet woman soldier (Galina Polskich) greets the young girl when she comes to beg a place to stay near Gregor—certainly comprehensible when we realize he is the only German-speaking male left.  Terrifying the child, the Red Army woman gloats, “now, she too, is frightened.”

     Gregor is sympathetic, but also clearly confused. What is his relationship with the German girl, with the German language he speaks, and the German people of whom he is now in charge? If he is now rules a kind of a “ghost-town,” he is also clearly haunted by its ghosts.

      Due to Soviet cinematic restrictions—previous films by Wolf had been delayed or confiscated—the director does not honestly pursue any Soviet misconduct save the unnecessary murder of one discovered ex-Nazi. Here the Soviets, typified by Gregor, Wadim and Sascha, are presented as heroes attempting to find a way to save the Germans more suffering and to help them build a new country out of the horrors of the old. We might well describe this film, accordingly, as utter propaganda, were it not that one might imagine the East German audience of 1968 could read between the lines.

     And those important gaps in the film’s story do not diminish the questions it does address: how to rebuild a nation of individuals who have been so perversely hateful, sadistic, destructive? To give Wolf credit, I Was Nineteen does explore some of the events of the concentration camps, presenting them through a kind of pseudo-documentary of the gas-chamber showers and descriptions of concentration camp life between cuts of the young Gregor showering, surely in an attempt to wash his own association with his German roots away. A later characters explanation the rise of Nazism as the German’s endless history of obedience to all leaders, and an declaration by one concentration camp survivor of the war as being a product of the manipulation of industrialists and corporations, however, is clearly inadequate. What Wolf makes clear is that Germany, East or West, can never free itself for rest of its history from the World War II events. If Germany might be associated with Bach, Goethe and other great artists and thinkers, it will also now be associated forever with Auschwitz. Any attempt to explain what happened to students of the future cannot escape the inevitability of speaking about both:

                 Goethe and Auschwitz. Two German names. Two German names in every

      Through the character of Gregor, Wolf continues throughout this film to explore the tears of sensibility between the Germans and the Soviets—less in political terms than in very personal emotions, the pull of his roots and his detestation of his countrymen’s actions. Throughout this film, we encounter various types of Germans, including the honor-bound soldiers of a garrison about to be captured. Sent to try to convince the Nazi enclave to surrender, Wadim and Gregor nearly lose their lives. But ultimately, the Germans are necessarily convinced to abandon their impossible position. Logic, even in this absurd world, wins out.
     In another scene, as their truck once again overheats, Gregor walks a short distance to a stream of water, suddenly discovering a lone German soldier, now blind, waiting in his overturned vehicle, certain that Gregor is one of his returned comrades. The painful confusion of this misled and certainly dying soldier, can only, once again, reflect Gregor’s own pulls between his native language and his role in life. Only the taste of a cigarette he hands the lost soldier reveals his origins: the tobacco is from the Caucasus mountains. But even then, the blind survivor presumes he has been serving as a German there. Finally, Gregor, no longer able to speak, walks off.
     At a final outpost, where Gregor has been once again enlisted to broadcast to straggling German soldiers to give themselves up, we witness a similar standoff. This time reason again prevails, as dozens of Nazis surrender and are brought into protection at the farm where the Soviets have holed up. But, at the last moment, SS troops speed up in trucks, shooting down and killing their own men in order to prevent them from turning themselves in. In the shootout, Sascha is also killed.


      Confused and passive for much of the film, Gregor suddenly accepting his own German background, also declares his allegiance not just to Soviet forces but to a kind international determination to track them all down, to destroy any Nazis still ready to destroy those who do not embrace their blind fury.

      Throughout Wolf’s film, no matter how one might feel about its cultural forgetfulness, we are moved by his sensitive attention to the human beings caught up in this tragic battle: focusing on simple everyday acts, people simply speaking to one another and participating in the necessary activities of drinking and eating, singing, listening to music, washing, reading. Food is particularly important. In nearly every scene in the film, characters, Russians and Germans, eat, sometimes serving up simple meals, at other times, as in the grand Russian celebration, cooking up prodigious amounts of food. No matter how divided Wolf’s figures are politically, he presents them as human beings simply trying to survive. It is through that nobility of human expression that Wolf’s cinematic art ultimately becomes something more than a propagandistic tract.

Los Angeles, December 28, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

F. W. Murnau | Tabu: A Story of the South Seas

love is death
by Douglas Messerli
F. W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty (screenplay), Edgar G. Ulmer (uncredited writer),  F. W. Murnau (director) Tabu: A Story of the South Seas / 1931

Watching the great German-American director F. W. Murnau’s last film yesterday, I suddenly perceived that—despite its exotic locale of Bora Bora and the fact that numerous film critics note time and again just how different this film, with its use of natural scenery and real-life constructions, is from his highly stylized and theatricalized pairings of costumes and sets of films such as Nosferatu, Faust, and Sunrise—shares his basic German sensibility so evident in someone like Wagner: love is death.

       For Murnau—an outsider homosexual, forced to leave Germany because of the strict laws against his sexuality—his predilections for handsome young men, in fact, were dangerous. Shortly after filming Tabu and before its theatrical release, the director died in a fiery car crash driven by a young Filipino, chosen, so the story goes, because of his beauty more than his driving skills. Some legends have it that Murnau died while committing fellatio on his young charge. Love was certainly death for Murnau himself.
      But so too, at least spiritually speaking, is it in almost all his films. In Nosferatu, for example, Orlok, clearly attracted by the handsome Hutter, spares him to stalk, instead, Hutter’s wife Ellen, who gives up her life to keep the monster near her until a beam of sunlight turns him to dust; Gretchen, similarly, must give up her life for the sexual debauchery of Faust; although the protagonists of Sunrise both survive, they both first symbolically die, as the husband plots his wife’s death and, ironically, when he abandons his plans, seemingly drowns.

      Yes, Tabu in its use of natural space and amateur Tahitian actors (Matahi and Anne Chevalier) as the young lovers, The Boy and The Girl, is superficially different from these earlier works, but underlying these cinematic shifts is a similar story. The film, much like Nosferatu descends upon the neck of Hutter, spends much of its early frames in homoerotic voyeurism of the young native boys at play, the directors’ camera almost languishing over the shirtless and semi-pantless Matahi as he spears fish, before wetting all the male characters down in the surges of the surrounding sea and slides in the flow of a nearby waterfall, the focus particularly attending to their wet buttocks. It may be some of the most sensuously sexual filmmaking outside of the porn industry. It is no surprise that Robert J. Flaherty, more interested in anthropologic specificity, would come to abandon this project.

     Yet Murnau knows his audiences, and soon steers his story into an intense romance between Matahi and a naive girl, Reri, who is as beautifully feminine and Matahi is masculine. The arrival of outsiders, carrying the aged warrior Hitu, destroys their joyful innocence, however, as the old man accepts the young virgin to replace the now-dead ceremonial figure as a bride in Tabu, a kind of goddess that demands she is free of all touching, longing, and lustful gazes—precisely what she and her young man have just enjoyed.

     The ceremonial dances performed for her leaving them represent, perhaps, some of the steamiest dancing ever brought to the wide screen, as the young bare-chested maidens surround Reri while oggling the young men in grass skirts provocatively swaying their hips. Even in his complete despair, Matahi cannot resist joining the other boys, drawing the new goddess into an intense dance that might be seen to break the Tabu even before she departs.

      The young lovers determine to leave their island paradise that very night, moving on in their small boats for several days until they reach a distant, seemingly more civilized island, where Matahi becomes a pearl-diver, the couple living in a simple hut upon the beach. With his natural athletic skills the boy is a natural, and soon returns with a pearl, celebrated in wild abandonment at a local bar—without the couple even perceiving that they have footed the bill.

      Time passes as the two fall ever deeper in love, but we perceive the consequences of their illegal rapture. Reri receives a message from Hitu, demanding that she leave the island and return to him within three days. When the couple attempt to book passage on another ship that might save their lives, they discover themselves to be deeply in debt that they cannot afford to travel. If this is a safer place, it is far less “civilized” than their original paradise.

       Throughout the torturous night, they hold one another in terror, Matahi secretly determining to dive in that next morning in another arena of Tabu, a deep cove where the pearls are protected, so the natives believe, by a giant shark. Many men have been killed in their attempts to dive there.

      That morning Matahi sneaks out to dive into the Tabu region, and in a stunningly filmed sequence in which we glimpse, only momentarily, his body against the shimmering reflections of water, he returns with what is apparently a black pearl; he has survived. In his absence the shadow of Hitu, like Nosferatu’s shadow hovering over the innocent Ellen, has come to claim Reri. She is taken to his boat. When Matahi discovers the fact he bravely attempts to swim after, but almost reaching the rope that might help him recapture his bride, we observe a knife in the hand of Hitu cutting the connecting line. The boy swims for a short while longer before finally disappearing into the surrounding waters. Death has taken love one more time.

     In short, even if this film might be recognized as a transformative shift that might have occurred in Murnau’s great filmmaking, it remains, at least structurally, apiece with his previous works—all films that, as Alexandre Astruc has described as a “fatality hidden behind the most harmless elements of the frame.” Even the paradisiacal sunlit world of Bora Bora contains dark shadows that sever the lover from the object of his or her love. It is almost as if Murnau, at a time when he might have most enjoyed the fruits of his brilliant career, foresaw that love—or at least sex—would inevitably lead to self-destruction.

Los Angeles, December 19, 2012