Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kenji Mizoguchi | Naniwa erejii (Osaka Elegy)

by Douglas Messerli
Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay), Kenji Mizoguchi (director and writer) Naniwa erejii (Osaka Elegy) / 1936

A young telephone operator in the Asai Pharmaceutical Company, Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada) is in love with a fellow colleague, Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), a love which he returns with several excuses and lies. At nights Mr. Nisimura has been accompanying the company director’s wife, Sonosuke (Benkei Shiganoya), to the theater. Ayako notices him being paid for his services, but the young man denies everything, not recognizing his own behavior as a kind of prostitution. Unhappy at home, the company head, Sumiko (Yoko Umemura)—presented from the beginning of the film as a petulant, selfish, and abusive man—attempts to involve the young Ayako in an affair, which she rejects.

     When it becomes apparent that her father, who has embezzled 300 Yen from the company for which worked, will soon be imprisoned if we cannot come up with the money, Ayako attempts to borrow the money from Nisimura, but he refuses. Although Ayako is a spirited young woman, arguing against her father for his transgressions, she finally agrees to become Asai’s mistress so that she might raise the money to save her father. Leaving home, Ayako enters a new nightmare world that might be described as the inverse of Dorothy’s Oz (The Wizard of Oz was shot in the US three years later). The old Asai, setting her up in an apartment, forces her to redo her hair in the manner of married woman so that he might appear with her in public. And much of the day she is forced to sit alone awaiting the return of her unfeeling lover.

     When Asai’s wife encounters the two of them at a puppet play, he forces another of his employees to insist that it was him who is seeing Ayako, not Asai, deceiving the incensed wife. But soon after, she perceives the real truth when Asai’s doctor mistakenly shows up at their house to care for Asai, when, in fact, he has fallen ill in Ayako’s apartment. The affair ends, abruptly, disgracing Ayako. 

     Running into Nisimura in the street, the two come together again, he asking Ayako to marry him, but embarrassed by her situation, she rushes off. Later, however, she becomes determined to seek out Nisimura, accepting his offer and admitting her past. If his love is strong enough, she will marry him, freeing herself from her disagreeable life.

     Meanwhile, Ayako discovers from her sister that her college brother has run out of tuition, and she agrees to take up with another unpleasant businessman, Fujino (Eitarō Shindō) to secretly raise money for her brother’s education. She raises the money, and attempts to fool Fujino into giving extra money so that she can marry Nisimura. But when she walks out on him, Fujino calls the police, accusing her of soliciting from him. Ayako, meanwhile, attempts to explain her past to a horrified Nisimura, but is interrupted by the police who arrest her. At police headquarters Nisimura denies any involvement with Ayako, denying any desire to marry her, and the young girl is forced to admit to a crime she had committed only in search a way to further help her family and give herself a better life.

     Released by the police, she returns home, hoping for at least some appreciation for her acts, like Dorothy, speaking the cliché “There’s no place like home”; Mizoguchi’s irony in that statement almost breaks our hearts, as reality in Osaka is shown to be the reverse of Dorothy’s Kansas homestead. Over a family meal, of which she never offered a bite, Ayako is shunned by her brother, berated by her father, and even derided by her younger sister, cast out from her home.  

      The film’s last scene shows her walking along the side of the railroad tracks, pondering what might be the “disease of delinquency” for which her family and society have condemned her. Clearly, in answer to that, she must attempt a voyage into a strange new world once more. As in so many Mizoguchu works, women—particularly strong and nonsubservient women—are abused by Japanese society, ultimately having little choice but use their bodies in order to survive. The delinquency of which Ayako, in the end, is accused, is actually a product of the delinquency of nearly all the film’s male figures, who together scheme, lie, cheat, and abuse the young girls they encounter. And, accordingly, the independent women end up as mere figures of service as if they had never left home in the first place. The only successful woman in this world (head of the Woman’s Association) is the unloving and tart tongued Mrs. Asai, and it is she, as we observe in an early scene, who sleeps with a version of Dorothy’s beloved dog; without a scarecrow, woodsman, or lion to accompany her, Ayako is completely on her own, with only her own brain, heart, and courage to help her move forward.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Josef von Sternberg / The Salvation Hunters

children of the sun
by Douglas Messerli

Josef von Sternberg (writer and director) The Salvation Hunters / 1925 / the showing I saw was part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Los Angeles Past, Present, Future” series, presented on July 19, 2013 in conjunction with The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA /  organ music was performed live by Robert Israel.

Filmmaker Josef von Sternberg’s first film, The Salvation Hunters we were told last night by his son Nicky von Sternberg, was paid for entirely by the director, clearly a leap faith into the medium by the young cinematographer. Like many of von Sternberg’s later films, in this one we recognize from the very beginning that the director is less interested in a psychologically realist presentation than he is in his Zola-like thematic. Just as I have argued previously for fiction, the early twentieth-century filmmakers had seemingly not yet determined to choose the psychological approach over the theatricality of a picture of ideas. Although von Sternberg’s world presents strong images, they are for the most part, framed and statically portrayed in order to reiterate the issues of his film. Unlike some silent filmmakers, who attempted to keep their storyboards to a minimum, von Sternberg uses the story board continuously, at times cutting to his characters and their environment only for a few seconds before returning his statements to declare, that these figures—a suffering girl (Georgia Hale), an out-of-work boy (George K. Arthur) and a homeless urchin (Bruce Guerin) who, quite accidently, come together as a kind potential family unit when a brute (Olaf Hytten) attempts to engage the girl in sex.

      So von Sternberg tells us, these three victims are creatures of the mud, “crawling close to the earth,” but seeking some way out of their situation. Von Sternberg does not at all attempt to give us their back-stories or an explanation of how that have come to this harbor, but rather defines them according the nets and ropes of the sea-going village, continually cutting across their space with the perpetual motions of the dredge, relentlessly digging up mud from the bottom of the harbor to pour it into a long boat which appears unable to hold it contents, as the mud pours back into the waters only to be dredged up once again.

     Threatened by the brute, the three flee the muddy harbor, traveling to the nearby city (presumably Los Angeles) where they appear equally out of place, with no food or money. Spotting the newcomers a man (Otto Matiesen) and gentleman (Stuart Holmes), offer the “family” temporary quarters, but it is clear that both are doing it only so that they can keep the girl nearby, using her for sex. To break down her defenses, the captors refuse to buy the family any food and they are forced, that first night, to go hungry. On the following day, the boy goes in seek of a job, but comes back to the flat empty-handed. Although the man already has a woman, who appears to be his tortured wife, he again attempts to take advantage of the girl. She seems to consider going along with his offer, particularly when he hands her some money for her services, but the child grabs up the bill and runs, bringing home provisions and temporary protecting the girl from the sex-starved stranger.

     Similarly, the man attempts to pimp the girl’s services to the gentleman, but when that too fails, he determines to attempt to romance her in the out-of-doors. They drive to what looks like a patch of weeds instead of a comfortable pastoral spot; at the entry to this world stands a real estate sign, reading: “Here Your Dreams Come True.” It is ironic commentary on the evil man’s plot, and when she fails to respond to his romancing, the child rushes to the girl’s side, attempting to protect her, the man, just as the brute before him, kicking away the child. Once more, despite his apparent lack of athletic prowess, the rushes to protect the child and girl, this time, for a change, besting the man and continuing to beat him until he falls from the real estate sign into his waiting automobile below. Together, the three, children of the sun, walk off the  sunset. We have no idea where they may be going, but they have succeeded, we are assured in altering their previous lives.

     Although this film, in hindsight, has a great many interesting qualities, it was a complete failure at its premiere. As von Sternberg has written: “The members of the cast were in the audience, which greeted my work with laughter and jeers and finally rioted. Many walked out, and so did I.” Soon after, George Arthur, arranged for Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to see the film, and reportedly, both reacted with enthusiasm. Chaplin later declares he praised it only a joke. But, in fact, the film’s subject and ending, is not so very dissimilar to Chaplin’s own films—albeit that von Sternberg’s dour film has none of the little tramp’s comic adventures beforehand. And what now seems impossibly dated, represented at the time another possible direction Hollywood films might have taken—and which it did, in fact, experiment with in the later and greater films of the imperious director.

Los Angeles, July 20, 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pedro Almodóvar | Los amantes pasajeros (I'm So Excited)

soaring obsessions
by Douglas Messerli
Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited) / 2013

 Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, which he, himself, describes as “a light, very light comedy,” is not one of his major pieces of cinema, and, at times is almost as light as a piece of peanut brittle, seemingly ready, like the plane in which his characters are trapped, to snap in half. A slight riff on everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and, perhaps, even Mel Brooks’ satire of the same, High Anxiety, Almodóvar’s work also calls up, at moments, the Zucker brothers’ Airplane! even referencing, so it seems, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

     Almodóvar’s tale has absolutely no plot, but consists of conversations among a group of obsessed passengers (the original title can be understood as either “the fleeting lovers” or “the passenger lovers,” although I’d like to translate it is as “loving passengers”) in the business class cabin of an airliner which has lost its landing gear and is, accordingly, forced to endlessly circle while authorities seek a safe place for it to land. The economy class passengers have all be given a muscle relaxant to put them to sleep. The two pilots (Antonio de la Torre and Hugo Silva) and three business-class stewards (Raúl Arévo, Carlos Areces, and Javier Cámara) are all gay—even though the co-pilot doesn’t at first perceive, as the pilot describes him, that he is “a faggot,” and the pilot, despite his having an affair with one of the stewards, defines himself as bisexual. The crew’s obsession, predictably, is simply sex. While the “loving passengers” have other obsessions: the banker Sr. Más (José Lujis Torrijo) is clearly focused on money; the famed dominatrix, Norma Boss, seeks power; the movie actor Ricardo Galán is attempting to escape his failed relationships with two women; while Bruna (Lola Dueñas) is seeking acknowledgement and fame for her skills as a clairvoyant; and the new married couple (Laya Martin and Miguel Ángel Silvestre) are seeking marital bliss, and Infante (José María Yazpik), a self-described security advisor and hit-man, is seeking out death, even though he’d like to get out of his business. The movie spends most of its energy revealing the obsessions and their effects.     

    In Spain, where the economy, much like Almodóvar’s airplane, is perpetually circling in order to find a safe place to end its bumpy journey, this work probably has more depth. I am sure that, in particular, the dominatrix’s purported files of clients from the King on down to nearly everyone in government has far more humorous resonance for the Spanish audience than it does in the US. But, even then, this is not, in any sense of the imagination, a profound or even complex work.

     Nonetheless, it seems pointless to “trash” the movie as did the usually fine and sympathetic critic Manhola Dargis, writing in The New York Times: “the journey generally drags because the spinning characters, with their tired jokes and familiar melodramas, soon feel so mechanical, like the automated parts in an Almodóvar machine”; or, even worse, Michael O’Sullivan’s ungenerous comments in The Washington Post: "I’m So Excited misfires on so many levels—tiresome plot; crude, juvenile humor; broad, stagy acting and absurd characters; claustrophobic setting; and dull art direction—that it’s hard to imagine it was all accidental.”

      True, at moments Almodóvar’s film sputters as if ready to go into a dive, but by and large, it flies by as a campy, vamped-up soap-opera in the manner of…well, Almodóvar himself, channeling someone like the great filmmaker of 1950s melodramas, Douglas Sirk. At the center of this “slight comedy,” moreover, is an absolutely charming and delightful drag-like rendition of the Pointer Sister’s energetic “I’m So Excited” that is performed so hyper-kinetically perfect by the three stewardi that I laughed through my joyful tears. Their entertainment, along with the heavily spiked drinks they have just served up, suddenly send almost every still-awake passenger and crew member into state of passionate lust, which reveals that underneath each of their obsessions what they really need is just to be loved or, at the very least, get fucked. Incidentally, I found the costumes and art direction to be near-brilliant.

      If Almodóvar’s message is a simple one—that life, in fact, is a kind of circling through space where all we can do is to admit our failures, to love one another, and help one another to get through the voyage—it, nonetheless, resonates with a certain sentimental profoundness that is paralleled in all the character’s final reconciliations with themselves and one another, a gentle love-fest that few other motion pictures this year have been able to dish up.

Los Angeles, July 15, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (August 2013).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Effi Briest

too vast a subject
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer, based on a novel by Theodor Fontane, and director) Fontane Effi Briest, order Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen (Effi Briest) / 1974, USA 1977

I have now seen Fassbinder’s film Effi Briest three times, once in the theater back in 1977, and two times within the past couple of years. Even though the events and themes of Fassbinder’s work are fairly straight-forward, based so faithfully as they are on Fontane’s turn-of-the-century narrative, I passed on reviewing it the second time round, and almost felt not up to writing about it this time, as if, as my title suggests, it was too vast a subject. And in some respects this movie is, in its social and political implications, a work that encompasses nearly all of the director’s major concerns, from the effects of sex (as opposed to love) upon the lives of individuals, the restraints of society that bind and destroy individuals, to the individual’s—once they defined by the society or self as an outsider—own self destruction, and, as Fassbinder’s subtitle suggests, their own confirmation of the brutal “ruling systems’” values. These issues, the last in particular, are heady intellectual dilemmas with which Fassbinder demands that his audience contend.

    Some critics have criticized Effi Briest as being too cold and calculated in its method and tone, and there is little doubt that Fassbinder, unlike in so many of his other works (for example the film of the same year, the emotionally-charged Fox and His Friends), does purposely take an objective viewpoint, allowing each of his central figures to reveal their own strengths and failings. But that does not mean that the director of this fascinating film is “uninvolved.” Not only does Fassbinder tell much of Fontane’s story, verbally interlinking the visual scenes, but, at times, even speaks in Effi’s voice. The vast subtitle, also a creation of the director’s, is an outright statement of how Fassbinder has read the novel, perceiving it as a work that reveals “Many who have a notion of their potential and needs, and who nevertheless in their heads accept the ruling system and thereby consolidate and downright confirm it.” The ruling system of this film is the horrifyingly rigid Prussian society of the Bismarck era, the world that ultimately brought about World War I and, in turn, generated the later Nazi thinking that would result in the holocaust and World War II.

While it is true that Fassbinder purposefully delimits any sexual and most emotionally-leaden scenes, describing them only through the narrator’s voice or having them occur off screen, that does mean that Effi Briest is without intense feelings one can experience in nearly every frame. First of all there is the very beauty and innocence of its young heroine, Effi (the remarkable Hanna Schygulla), a truly naïve woman right out of a Fragonard painting, swinging her way to the sun and stars. A true product of her fiercely bourgeois parents, her doting father (Herbert Steinmetz) and mother (Fassbinder’s own mother, Lilo Pempeit), the spoiled Effi is without moral principle but, particularly like her mother, clearly still has ambitions, as she herself admits. Although she does not even know the man, Baron Geert von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck)—whom we observe voyeuristically watching her early in the film—who asks for her hand, she is perfectly willing to marry this much older, not very handsome, but politically rising figure. She may fear that he is a bit too principled, but she ignorantly has no worries whatsoever about being taken out of the gentle community of her childhood to an isolated Baltic town, where even Instetten admits there are very few intellectuals or people of high taste.

     Accordingly, Instetten takes this innocent, like a stolen trophy, from her mirrored, somewhat narcissist paradise into an even more closed society which Fassbinder reveals not only through the hostile glares of the housekeeper Johanna (Irm Hermann)—at moments reminding one of Mrs. Danvers of Hitchcock’s melodrama, Rebecca—but through the sorry condition of the Catholic Roswitha, whom cannot find employment because of her religion, even though she admits she is “lapsed.” Highly corseted, Effi is presented at most moments behind lace veils and lace beddings almost as if she were living in a burka, a world which blurs her vision and often appears to the audience like somewhat decorative bars of a prison. If that we’re enough, her “highly-principled” husband tells her tales, described in the narrative as “An Artifice Incalculated to Instill Fear” about a dead Chinaman whose ghost supposedly roams the upper rooms of the house (a story confirmed by Johanna and servants), which absolutely terrifies the young married girl whenever Insetten leaves the house, and might serve as warning for any infidelity.

     The one woman Effi meets who is both beautiful and able to sing quite lovely songs, she is warned against. Even motherhood is denied her, the nanny doing almost all the work having to do with her new baby’s care, allowing Effi only, from time to time, to take up the child as she would a doll. Fassbinder’s presentation of this event is painfully stunning, after which the child’s caretaker, Roswitha, takes back the child, swaddling it as if, in its mother’s hands, it had been in danger.

     Is it any wonder that, mostly out of boredom and the failure of her husband to demonstrate any love, Effi takes up with the witty, unhappily married rake, Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel)? If the affair also occurs only off-camera, it is, in part, because it hardly matters. But we do recognize her emotional delight in the simple, if momentary, freedom it allows her as each day she walks to and picnics at the beach. If this is sex without love, we have already been presented, quite emotionally, what does matter in this house: the imprisonment, bodily and intellectually, of its young mistress.

      Her husband’s appointment to a Berlin ministry is the only thing that temporarily saves Effi, as she is sent off to rent an apartment, she herself determining never to come back. Like hundreds of women of the era, the young woman counterfeits rheumatism and other such maladies in order to remain bed-bound until her husband can join her in the capital. Yet, in behaving like so many others, Effi, has in fact, doomed herself to her inevitable fate. It is clear that Insetten cannot show love and that does not love him, but by remaining in such a relationship, she confirms the ethics of repressed hate, not even a repressed love. And that is the true tragedy Fassbinder’s film reveals. Had Effi found love in Crampas’ arms she might have, at least, been able to break with the values of the world to which she is bound; without even that, she is allowed nothing. When discovering her stupidly-preserved mementoes of that six year-old “romance,” Insetten ridiculously feels he has no choice but to fight a duel with Crampas, a dilemma as outrageous as that described in Schnitzler’s Lieutenant Gustl, published five years later. But whereas Gustl discovers, fortunately, that his would-be opponent has died during the night, Insetten must go through with the duel, killing his former friend and divorcing his wife. The child remains with him, and the woman he once proclaimed to love must face life alone in a boarding house.  Even her parents, in their conventionality and their fears for neighborhood gossip, refuse to take her in.

      Despite what we now perceive as the inner horrors of the outwardly ordered world wherein Effi is entrapped, she refuses or is simply unable to rise up and reject its values. She, now an outsider to society, perceives herself as just that, as one unworthy of any other treatment. It is now clear just how her own parents have conspired to keep her ignorant of any comprehension that might have saved her. Twice in this film, the father utters the cliché that to discuss such an issue is “too vast a subject.” The first time it is as he speaks with Effi, attempting, we presume, to talk about love. We might simply perceive that as a problem many parents face of being unable to talk forthrightly to their children about sex. But even after, in her isolated world Effi finally recognizes that her husband has turned her own daughter against her, and falls ill—the parents finally indulging their beloved child by allowing her to return home to die—Briest and his wife cannot admit to their involvement in the series of events, cannot admit to themselves their own guilt. Briest comments, once more, “It is too vast a subject,” refusing, in short, to give the matter any deep thought.

      If one still feels that this sad story is clinically presented, I suggest that they also are not giving this amazing work the careful attentiveness it deserves. Like so many Germans throughout that next century (and, of course, not only Germans, but people all over the world), Fassbinder suggests, refusing to independently think or to teach others to do so is the greatest of all crimes, issues which, more recently Austrian director Michael Haneke has revisited in his The White Ribbon.

Los Angeles, July 13, 2013

Friday, July 12, 2013

Max Ophüls | The Reckless Moment

saving face
by Douglas Messerli

Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson, and Robert Soderberg (screenplay, based on a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding), Max Ophüls (director) The Reckless Moment / 1949

Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment, a film I watched on television’s TCM the other afternoon, begins quickly, immediately establishing the upper middle-class suburban housewife’s, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), worries about her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks), who is seeing an  older man. Lucia’s husband is, inexplicably, away in Berlin, and she is having some difficulties in controlling her children, although her young son seems ordinary enough in his affection for all things mechanical. And although the father-in-law also lives in their comfy house, it is her maid who is Lucia’s biggest support.

      It does not take the daughter long, moreover, to realize that her lover, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), whom she clandestinely meets in the family’s boathouse, is not truly interested in her as much as he is in her money and shapely body, and in anger, she lashes out with a flashlight, hitting him over the head several times, before rushing back into the arms of her mother. The lover, surviving the attack, rises and dizzily walks toward to the door of the boathouse, but stumbles once outside, falling through a wooden railing to his death. There Lucia finds him, and, presuming that Bea has killed him, drags the body to their boat, attaching him to the anchor before taking the boat out to sea. Those “reckless moments” are the central events as the rest of this noir-like film (evocatively photographed by Burnett Guffey) focuses less on action than on the consequences of those “moments.”*

     When the body is later found, Lucia and Bea fear arrestment, but the mother, a bit like Mildred Pierce, is determined to protect her daughter, even if it means her own arrestment. Forget everything, “You are never to speak of it again,” she commands.

     Out-of-the-blue, a petty thug, Martin Donnelly (James Mason), visits them, sent by his loan-shark boss Nagel (Roy Roberts), to bribe her with the letters the daughter has written to the dead man. Despite the fact that the family is apparently well-off, Joan has difficulty in raising the required $5,000; even her pawned jewelry brings in only $800.00. In trying to buy more time, she meets again with Donnelly, he increasingly responding to her plight and admiring her fortitude and gentle pride she displays in trying to protect her loved ones.

     Without preaching, however, Ophüls makes it quite clear that her actions are not just motivated by Lucia’s attempts to save her children, but arise out of a determination to maintain the quality and values of her life, to remain in the bounds of the somewhat smug pretensions of her suburban world of Balboa. Indeed, travels into the city—visits to nearby Los Angeles, required by Lucia’s money-raising attempts—are suspicious to the family, as if in entering another domain, she has temporarily abandoned her and their paradise. Even the maid is worried for her employer, and when Donnelly shows up once more at the house, the maid asks if she might join Lucia in the conversation, an offer Lucia refuses, denying even her servant’s protection.
      Donnelly attempts to convince her that she must immediately hand over the money, insisting that not only does Nagel exist, but he is dangerous, but Lucia confesses her failures at being able to even receive a loan—perhaps a kind of subversive feminist statement, since we are sure that were Lucia’s missing husband to apply for a loan, he would most likely easily be granted it. By this time, however, the outsider to her world, Donnelly, has fallen in love with her, and attempts to help her in her plight. Nagel, however, shows up, and is determined to close the deal or kill his victim.

     The almost inevitable events, Donnelly sacrificing his life by killing Nagle, frees Lucia to escape back into the arms of her bourgeois society, without, evidently, even so much as a twinge of moral guilt. As she has commanded her daughter to do, she will, apparently, put it out of her mind, or recall it, from time to time, as a bad dream. In comparison, the dashing “outsider” Donnelly has behaved with an almost existentialist sense of moral virtue that makes Lucia’s gentle protectiveness seem sterile and meaningless. Indeed, it now hardly matters at all that her “missing” husband returns home. She, her children, and, most importantly, her manner of life have been protected to a return to “normalcy.” Most importantly, she has “saved face”—an issue that would again arise in the director’s major last films, The Earrings of Madame de….and Lola Montès.

     Early critics, such as Bosley Crowther, clearly missed the point, describing the film as presenting a “callous attitude,” wherein the heroine “gets away with folly.” But, in fact, Ophüls’ masterful film is an understated condemnation of the post-War American domestic values that will be reiterated throughout the next decade by filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk. *

Los Angeles, July 11, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (July 2013).

*I might just mention that in my standard guides, I’ve never before encountered such controversy as to what actually happens in this film. One might even ask what movie these different reviewers witnessed? The usually commendable Time Out Film Guide suggests that the daughter “accidentally killed” the villain boyfriend Ted Darby, perhaps the closest, if not exactly accurate version, of the actual film events. The Turner Classic Movies Guide describes the daughter as “murderous.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide of 1995 describes the mother, Joan Bennett, as the murderer, with which Leslie Halliwell’s earlier Film Guide concurs, summarizing the events as “a women accidentally kills her daughter’s would-be seducer.” The most confused statement appears in the usually authoritative World Film Directors, volume 1, which gets it all mixed-up:  “Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper, innocently involved in murder and threatened by blackmail, and Geraldine Brooks is her mother, who averts disaster by winning over the blackmailer.”  I thought Joan Bennett was the mother, Geraldine Brooks, her daughter! We all make mistakes, I certainly have in my own critical essays, but truly everyone seems to have their own viewpoint on this film!  I’ll stick with my own interpretation. I think it’s important that these women were both outwardly innocent of the murder, but highly involved in its cover-up nonetheless. They are guilty despite their ability to wash their hands of the actual murder. And that is just Ophüls’ point. His film shares a great deal with Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, wherein nearly everyone has been party to Harry’s death—without being the cause!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shane Black | Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

by Douglas Messerli
Shane Black (screenplay and direction) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang / 2005
Roger Ebert’s on-line review of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang describes the film genre as “Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Thriller,” which perhaps says it all about this frothy confection whipped up in a blender in order to be consumed by absolutely anyone and everyone. Ebert goes on to somewhat begrudgingly complain: “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang contains a lot of comedy and invention, but doesn’t much benefit from its clever style. The characters and plot are so promising that maybe Black should have backed off and the told the story deadpan, instead of mugging so shamelessly for laughs. It could still be a comedy, but it would always be digging its elbow into ribs. I kept wanting to add my own subtitles: ‘I get it! I get!’” And, in large part, I find myself agreeing with him.

      Yet, from its credits on, this film is so stylishly directed, wittily conceived, and well-acted—particularly by the petty, East Coast thief, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the seasoned gay detective, Gay Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer playing “Gay Paris,” get it?)—that it almost seems mean-spirited to throw a dose of cynicism into this brew, particularly since Black himself has laced his creation with a camp cynicism just so that nothing, not even the character’s youthful history played out in a Norman Rockwell-like Indiana, tastes too sweet. All right, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and is so convoluted that even an attentive reader like me, armed with a Wikipedia cheat sheet, can still not make it out. But then a film that it models itself on Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake—which Time Out Film Guide describes as a “loopy” piece—predictably, perhaps, argues that the film might intentionally make much sense. I’ve seen The Big Sleep dozens of times, but still don’t completely understand its “story.” And just like that brilliant film noir what matters here is the chemistry between its characters and their clever dialogue.

           It’s almost as if writer and director Black were betting with that devil, Pauline Kael, that he could make a movie based on the action formula that might still be highly entertaining. Even if in his attempt to do so he goes, at times, far over the top, even over the edge, I think, ultimately, he succeeds.

      It’s also, purportedly, the first time a major film action character was gay. Kilmer is not great actor, despite his own estimation of himself, but in his puffy good looks he is near perfect as the hard-core, experienced gumshoe, Perry, enlisted to give newcomer, would-be actor Harry a taste of the underworld life. “Rule number 1….This business. Real life, boring.” If nothing else, Perry knows who and what he is.

      Harry, on the other hand, who, after attempting to rob a toy store has stumbled into an audition, convincingly acting out what has just happened in “real” life (the auditioners are convinced his is a brilliant method actor), is a naïve as they come. At his first Hollywood party he attempts to protect a sleeping woman, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), challenging the would-be “intruder” to a fight, only to be severely beaten. Throughout the film, he is beaten again several times, even by women, is shot, loses a finger, and is tortured with electricity in his crotch. Convinced he is in love with Harmony—who, it turns out, in this coincidence-packed movie, is his high school sweetheart (albeit the only male in his class with whom she did not have sex)—yet even as an adult who momentarily shares her bed, he does not “score,” although, what Harmony says of another girl might equally apply to herself, “She’s been fucked more times than she’s had a hot meal.”

      Despite his seemingly heterosexual proclivities, Harry gets nowhere with the women (is even voted out of a bar by the women within), he keeps coming back and back to Gay Perry, despite Perry’s dismissal of him. And the only real kiss he gets—in this “kiss kiss” tale—is when Perry, in order to evade the police, embraces him for a long mouth to mouth munch. After he crawls into Harmony’s bed, the scene ends with him arguing with her concerning her admission that she had slept with his best high school friend—the only male, other than himself, that he thought she had not had sex!

      If Harmony and her dead sister, Jenna, along with the body of Veronica Dexter, keep showing up in his life, it is because they are needy or dead, not in love with Harry. As he himself hints, the women with whom he communes are either perverted or deceased: “I mean, it’s literally like someone took America by the East Coast and ‘shook’ it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.” Certainly, his relationships with women are not ever harmonious.

     In the end, it is only Perry who is truly honest with him, explaining not only the ways the world but revealing the painful truth that Harry has been lured to Hollywood as a ploy to get another actor. And it is Perry who perhaps perceives how things stand:
                                   Perry: Merry Christmas, sorry I fucked you over.
                                   Harry: No problem. Don’t quit your gay job.
And later:
                                    Harry: Hey, hey, hey! It’s Christmas, where’s my present,
                                    Perry: Your fucking present is you’re not in jail, fag-hag.


      Harry’s telling of the story, as the voice-over narrator of the piece, begins badly as he forgets to tell important elements of the tale, including the somewhat meaningless intrusion of an actor dressed as a robot entering Harmony’s apartment. So, it immediately becomes clear, the story we witness may not be the whole story. Certainly by film’s end, when Perry survives his apparent murder (an event which Black mocks by having all the previously killed actors of the piece, including President Lincoln, enter Harry’s hospital room, only to be hurried off by the nurse), we recognize that his notion of Harmony being “the one who got away” is a kind of hallucination, particularly when we discern that Jenna is not Harmony’s sister, but her daughter through incest—which brings us closer to Chinatown, perhaps, than Woman in the Lake or The Big Sleep.

      It should come as no surprise, accordingly, that Harry admits, at film’s closing, that he now works for Perry, with Perry, to close down the film, putting his hand over Harry’s mouth as if to shut down any possible new confessions. Perry, always the realist, even apologizes “to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said fuck so much.” But then that is truly what this film is all about, and it is nearly impossible to imagine Harry going on without his rhyming-named friend. Harmony has finally been achieved.*

Los Angeles, July 9, 2013               

*I might also mention that this film fits perfectly into the genre I have described as “Los Angeles” films, movies that take place in the city, to which outsiders are attracted, feeling themselves, a first, as outsiders before they come to recognize that, as outsiders, they completely belong.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tom Stoppard | Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

the moment to say no
by Douglas Messerli

Tom Stoppard Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (New York: Samuel French, 1967)
Tom Stoppard (writer and director) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead / 1990

 Stoppard’s brilliant 1967 play takes the two minor characters of Hamlet through an existentialist journey made up of language, a world in which these two anti-heroes, inexplicably called into being by a court messenger, can participate only through linguistic games as they try to explain their existence and purpose. The marvel of this play was its youthful wit as the two original actors, Brian Murray and John Wood, attempted to best each other with rapid-fire language games:

                      Ros: We were sent for.
                      Guil: Yes.
                      Ros: That’s why we’re here (He looks round, seems doubtful.
                                     then the explanation) Travelling
                      Guil: Yes.
                      Ros: (Dramatically) It was urgent—a matter of extreme urgency,
                                     a royal summons, his very words: official business an
                                     no questions asked—lights in the stable-yard, saddle up
                                     and off headlong and hotfoot across the land, our guides
                                     outstripped us in breakneck pursuit of our duty! Fearful
                                     lest we come too late!

                                                       (Small pause)

                      Guil: Too late for what?
                      Ros: How do I know? We haven’t got there yet.
                      Guil: Then what are we doing here, I ask myself.
                      Ros: You might well ask.
                      Guil: We better get on.

     Their “getting on,” however is harder than one might expect as they encounter, in a play within a play, a group of performing actors who attempt to play out a play very similar to the play they are living within. Once they do reach Elsinore, moreover, Hamlet himself is playing with “words, words, words,” as large groups of people come and go, vaguely ordering the pair to note Hamlet’s behavior and comments. Yet, since these minor figures have few encounters with the Danish Prince, most of what they observe is “offstage,” through the cracks of walls, leaving them more confused than ever.

      One of the great delights of Stoppard’s play is that despite this couple’s inability to know even which of them is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, what their relationship is to each other (they are simply a “couple,” although the playwright in determining that suggests perhaps something more than a deep friendship), or what their true relationship is to Hamlet; they are simply told they are old school friends.

      The irony, of course, is that the audience already knows their fate—the fate of nearly everyone within the play and everyone sitting in the audience as well, which the playwright (just in case someone may have never read Hamlet) announces in the title itself. Consequently the substance of the play depends upon their not-knowing, despite their intense cleverness, revealed, particularly, in their philosophical and scientific thinking. The great pleasure of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in short, is its Beckett-like representation of two clueless everymen who trip through the language like clowns in their attempts to comprehend their imposed reality.

     It may be a basic trope—played out in numerous characters from Bouvard and Pecuchet, Vladimir and Estragon, and even Abbott and Costello—but it works, at least on stage and page, because of its basic dialogical rhythms, which is at the heart of theater.     

     At the heart of film, however, is the image, and transforming a work of “words, words, words,” despite the fact that the playwright remained in complete control of this film, is most difficult. While the play begins immediately with the toss of a coin (reinstating the themes of game and chance), Stoppard’s movie version begins with a long ride through time and space, with an even longer vertical dip by Guildenstern to reach down for a coin he has spotted upon the ground. In these visual maneuvers, everything changes, and what once was clever and witty—what once was based on “timing”—is slowed down in narrative pace. By the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get into their dialogue, the audience has lost attention, and the characters seem leaden.

     I never saw the original production (my companion, Howard, did see it, however, at the Alvin Theater in New York), but I am certain behind the verbal gymnastics of the original actors was a great deal of joy; in the film, although Gary Oldman (as Rosencrantz) and Tim Roth (as Guildenstern) are fine actors, they seem to approach their verbal roles so diffidently that they appear more as dolts rather than swordsmen of language.

     The busy costumes and sets of the players, moreover, distract us from any comments with which the two may joust. The abused child-actor Alfred is converted into a knowledgeable drag-queen, removing some of the naughty sting of the original. And by the time the couple reaches Elsinore, with its cavernous spaces, almost any linguistic arousal has been dampened.

     Strangely, Stoppard encourages this even further by having the seemingly less intelligent Guildenstern express his intelligence in a series of visual puns surrounding various physical principles such as Newton’s cradle, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the Greek principle of steam power, and the creation of a bi-wing plane. At moments, these actions seem entertaining, but once more they slow down the language which is the essential engine of Stoppard’s play.     

      Several critics have argued that the film failed because of its attempt to bring such a high level of language to the screen. But I would argue just the opposite; it is almost as if the playwright, determining to make the work a visual manifestation of his story, pulled the plug on the very source of its energy.

       In fact, what Stoppard does is to turn the play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, inside out. Instead of allowing the obscure figures to become the focus of the play, his cinematic intrusions of time and space, refocus our attentions onto Hamlet. Richard Dreyfuss and the Lead Player, Iain Glen as Prince Hamlet, Ian Richards as Polonius, and Joanna Miles as Gertrude are such fine actors that, speaking Shakespeare’s lines, they dominate the play, and like this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we are more attracted to the action going on “onstage” (which might have been described as “offstage” in the original) than we are the shenanigans of the sparring couple. In short, the movie entirely loses the focus of the original play, ending up with in the dead center of what was once a vortex, where, as Wyndham Lewis described it, art becomes abstract.

     Accordingly, I believe the language-bound original was less abstract than Stoppard’s visualization of his work, which is far more representational than the very human rendering of complex ideas of the original.

     By comparison with the “still-lives” portrayed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the lightness of Iain Glen’s acting seems anything but morose. Even Polonius seems more light on his feet that the two actors at the center of this filmed version.

     Perhaps a “staged” film might have generated more excitement than this camera-busy “representation” of what once was a verbal delight. The death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, unfortunately, does not occur at the end of Stoppard’s film, but in its very earliest scenes, and we can only wonder, as does the comic couple of the title, whether there was a time at the beginning when they might have said “no” to their excruciating voyage.

Los Angeles, July 4, 2013

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Reading Films: My International Cinema

by Douglas Messerli

This book is now available in book form or on a PDF file from Green Integer.

Encompassing 200 international movies, Douglas Messerli's Reading Films is a highly personal but profound discussion of some of the most important cinematic achievements from the earliest of film history--including numerous silent films--to current movies in theaters at the time of this book's publication.

As Messerli reveals in his insightful essay, "Reading Films," his approach is not a mere evaluation of the films he has seen nor a passive appreciation or dismissal, but a deeper look into the structures of the works, the films' significance in society, and their directors' and actors' personal relationship to the created works. Messerli not only "sees" the movies on which he writes, but watches them over and over again, finally "reading" them as works of poetry and fiction, evaluating and comparing them in terms of other works of art.

Yet there is nothing academic about Messerli's readings, written from 2000 to the present. His short essays are filled with passionate prejudices and concerns that sometimes take him on tangents other reviewers would not have dared. The author is less concerned with audience approval or judgmental stances than he is with exploring the worlds which these vastly different filmmakers have created, elucidating the contradictions and the sometimes subtle problems these films create which might have gone unnoticed even by their creators themselves.

Writing in a lively, sometimes colloquial, occasionally idiosyncratic language, Messerli lays his heart on his sleeve, demonstrating his loves and dislikes in the art of filmmaking. Reading Films is a work any film lover--whether populist or admirer of art house fare--must read.

Noted editor and publisher Messerli is the author of eleven books of poetry, two works of fiction, and three volumes of plays (written under the pseudonym of Kier Peters). He has edited numerous collections and anthologies, most notably, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 and, with dramatist Mac Wellman, From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995. In 2000 Messerli began an annual series of cultural memoirs, My Year_____, which contain personal experiences and essays on poetry, fiction, dance, music, art, theater, performance, and film. The author is the editor of the online International Cinema Review and is a regular film critic for the British on-line magazine, Nth Position. In 2004 he was named Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.