Monday, September 30, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock | Mr. & Mrs. Smith

across borders
by Douglas Messerli
Norman Krasna (screenplay), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Mr. & Mrs. Smith / 1941

Early in Alfred Hitchcock’s only “pure” comedy, we learn of a strange mix-up, a not totally explicable error, wherein a small town on the Nevada-Idaho border which has mistakenly married several individuals whose license was from the wrong state. The nearly always arguing couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, accordingly, were illegally married, and their current license—despite their three years of having lived together—is invalid.

      Of course, in 1941, when this film was made, living together without being married meant a great many other things than it does today, and it sets into motion a series comic crises in the Smith’s—or now Mr. Smith’s and Miss Krausheimer’s—particularly since Mr. Smith does not immediately announce the situation to his “wife,” and has just that morning answered her question honestly:

                            Ann: If you had it all to do over again, would you still have
                                     married me?
                            David: Honestly, no.

In part, in a scene where he have seen the relationship at work, his feelings surely arise from his wife’s imperious imposition on their marriage a series of rules and regulations, one demanding that neither of them can leave the bedroom after a fight until they make up, a dictate that has, more than once, meant that David (Robert Montgomery) has missed several days of work—in part because of his wife’s stubborn refusal to make up.

     The willful former Ann Krasheimer (the heavenly Carole Lombard), we are told, once “chased a dogcatcher half a mile with a baseball bat,” and being both stubborn and regulation-borne, we realize that her lawyer husband is surely in for it, particularly given the scandalized reaction of Ann’s mother (Esther Dale) if David does not immediately legally remarry. What he does not know is that the same man—and old family friend of Ann’s family—who has reported the license problem to David, has also stopped by to greet his old friends, spilling the same news to Ann and her mother.

      When David does not immediately tell her of the news, nor rushes to remarry his wife, accordingly, we know we are in for an hour or more of a bumpy marital comedy that, metaphorically speaking, crosses several “borders.” Despite the movie’s success at the box office, critics of the day did not know what to make of Hitchcock’s only comedy. But then Hitchcock, I would argue, has always been, even at his most suspenseful, a comedian at heart. If a man can make you laugh at death and horror, then surely he can direct a “normal” screwball comedy, particularly since he and Lombard were good friends.

      I think the great director achieved his goal splendidly, but this work has fewer of the superficial romantic tropes than do most of the works in this genre. Like a great comedy such as Bringing Up Baby, Krasna’s work crosses the boundaries of sexual preference several times, but the handsome, but more menacing psychic of Montgomery cannot match the openly dashing profile of Cary Grant; and in this film, moreover, Lombard seems far more “lucid” and head-strung than—as she was in My Man, Godfrey—dizzily confused. Throwing former husband David out of his house, Ann seems determined to allow him to return to his bachelor days and ways, which, just under the surface, is what he may have wanted all along. Despite his constant attempts to return and even forcefully re-impose himself upon the woman he claims to love, there is something, in Hitchcock’s direction, that is half-hearted about the attempt; and even if he seems slightly at odds on his own, he also keeps meeting up with an old friend, Chuck Benson (Jack Carson) in the Turkish bath of his local club.    

     When Ann takes up, professionally and socially, with David’s partner-in-law and former college friend, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond), we can only further wonder about David’s sexual preferences, particularly since, as Ann herself puts it, he is everything that David is not: instead of leaning toward, he leans away. A mama’s boy, prone to colds and fevers, he has smartly decorated his own apartment on his own. After a comic rainstorm (wherein the two suffer the weather in a broken-down parachute ride), when he excuses himself to change into something more comfortable, he returns not in pajamas or bathrobe, but in a tux! Jefferson does not even drink, perhaps the most obvious sign that, even if not sexually, this man is indeed queer.

      For all these years, however, David and Jefferson have survived in what seems as a lucrative partnership. It becomes harder and harder, accordingly, for us to truly perceive that David is actively pursuing his wife, even though, in the plot, he temporarily hires a taxi, pretending to be a detective. And the only being we do truly detect in David’s travels about the city, is Hitchcock himself briskly walking down the street.

     In short, Hitchcock doesn’t quite seem to have his heart into the chase, forcing Lombard to continue to up-the-ante. Only near the end of the film—as the story takes a strange twist by leaping into a ski vacation at Lake Placid—does David become determined to deceive Ann into admitting her love for him. Pretending to fall into a drunken-induced coma, he depends on her nursing instincts to, so to speak, to “bring back him back to life and into the picture.” But even here, the comic sexual gags appear to point into the wrong direction: as Ann shaves him, he feverishly mutters comments on Jefferson’s feminine apparel—“I will never forget you in that little blue dress.”—and holds his hand out for what Ann interprets is a desire for a manicure. Ann encourages Jefferson to hold his hand, which David not only accepts but holds in a deep grip.  

     We all know, of course, that sexual order must be restored! But even when it is, as the couple are trapped miles from the main lodge, with no transportation or communication available until morning, she is held in place by pair of upright skis, which would seem to make it nearly impossible for the couple of have “normal” sex. And Hitchcock closes his tale with no truly authoritative reconfirmation of sexual order. The couple will least remain unmarried for another night.

      I think it is precisely Hitchcock’s lack of definite borders, however, that makes this work so brilliant—and so different from most of the screwball comedies of the era. Once more, Hitchcock has ended his story less with the marital restrictions with which it began than with a strong dose of sexual suspense. What will happen to this obviously loving but persistently “border crossing” pair? Obviously, like the crossed skis in which Ann is trapped, their desires are at crossed purposes. And unlike those hundreds of the normalized endings of American comedies, Hitchcock and Krasna have let them merrily get away with it!

Los Angeles, September 30, 2013

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Michael Haneke | Caché (Hidden)

who’s watching?
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke (screenwriter and director) Caché (Hidden) / 2005

For much of the early part of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film Caché (Hidden) the viewers are shown an almost still front shot of the comfortable, book-lined home of television literary host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his book-publishing wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche). At first it almost seems like the director is attempting to test our endurance; but there is just enough movement and light, an occasional bicyclist, passing cars, and, eventually, human figures, that we realize this intense scrutiny of the building in the Laurent’s life is an attempt to create tension. And we soon are introduced into their about-to-be frightening world when a tape arrives on their doorstep—a tape very much like the one we have just observed on the movie screen. But as the couple reviews the video on their television set we suddenly watch anew as what at first appeared as an objective, nearly eventless portrait is transformed into a subjectively terrorizing enactment as they attempt to “read” what we have previously simply witnessed. Who has sent the tape, and why?   

    Soon after, a second and third tape arrives, these wrapped in paper with a crudely drawn cartoon-like pictures of a child with a long red tongue and a chicken with a bloody neck, these cassettes showing Georges’ childhood home, a street scene and the hall of a lower class apartment building. Again, the frightened couple can only wonder who is sending video tapes of aspects of their private life. Is it an attempt at blackmail, an act of voyeurism, or some coded message of events to come? The very presence of the tapes begins to take its toll on their usually placid lives. The police, who have no evidence of wrongdoing, refuse to be involved. And suddenly, Georges begins to have suspicions of the perpetrator that he will not share with his wife. Receiving the third tape, he attempts to hide it from his wife and the friends they are entertaining, but she announces to the group what has been happening, creating further divisions between them.

     Is Georges hiding something? What does he know about these cryptic messages that he cannot trust telling his loving wife?

As Georges travels back to his mother’s home, it becomes apparent that a great deal that has previously seemed peaceful is secretly disturbing, surviving in a kind of hidden life within Georges’ quiet and thoughtful outward personae. How can he not know, for example, that his mother’s health has severely deteriorated, and that she cannot now even leave her house? Has he been so long of touch with his apparently loving mother (Annie Girardot)? And why is Georges suddenly having nightmares about a young Algerian boy who his father and mother once had hoped to adopt after the boy’s parents had died? And what happened to that boy, Majid (Maurice Bénichou)?

      A street sign in one of the tapes leads Georges to a nearby town where he finds the hallway like the one in the video; knocking on number 47 he encounters a man about his age, at first unrecognizable, but soon, it is apparent, perceived as the Majid of Georges’ childhood memories. Although he accuses Majid of having sent the tapes, the now elderly man denies any knowledge of tapes or drawings, and, as Roger Ebert has proposed, we believe him, in part because of the gentle acting skills of Bénichou, who, in fact, seems to be at first pleased that Georges has even come to see him. The encounter, however, ends with Georges threatening the former friend.

     Another mailed tape shows that encounter, and the pained tears of Majid in its aftermath. How has that very interchange been filmed without Georges having been aware of it?

      When Georges and Anne’s son Pierrot goes missing for a night, his parents are convinced he has been kidnapped. With the police Georges returns to Majid’s door, where Majid and his son, (Walid Afkir) are arrested before being released. Pierrot returns home, unharmed, having spent the night with an unknown friend, now angry with his mother for what he has misinterpreted as a love affair with a mutual friend, Pierre, who has simply been physically reassuring Anne as she, in a restaurant, reported Georges’ silences.

     When Georges revisits Majid, the suffering childhood friend slits his throat before the bewildered visitor, and Georges rushes from the room without calling the police. Later, visiting Georges the son also denies—and again we believe him in his firm denial—involvement in filming or mailing messages.

     Little by little, accordingly, the director has seemed to build up the plot of a potential thriller which seems might be solved only through our perception or gradual discovery of who is sending the tapes? Yet when Georges, like a guilty boy, is finally forced to tell Anne why he had suspected Majid of the tapes, we discover a deeper, psychological drama centered upon guilt and the refusal to face it.    

     As a selfish six-year-old, not wishing to share his parent’s love with the young Algerian intruder, Georges has told lies about the boy, first concerning the boy throwing up blood, and later, insisting that, as Majid cuts the head of a hen with an axe at Georges’ behest, that he has been threatened. We see the scene as Majid is forced from the house, trying to escape before he taken away to an orphanage instead.

     Georges may rightfully explain his acts as that of an unknowing child; all children, he argues, are selfish beings. But we know that his behavior is part and parcel of something which the French culture has hidden as a whole: the shocking murders of Paris police, who brutally killed over 200 Algerian protestors (Majid’s parents included), throwing their bodies into the Seine.

     Surely Georges’ and Anne’s son, Pierrot, despite his angry reaction to Anne, has not been behind such complex actions, and surely he could not know of his father’s “hidden” past.

     Gradually it begins to dawn on us what we might have perceived all along: that the scenes the director has been showing us and the tapes the actors have been viewing are one and the same. In a truly postmodern twist, the director has sent his own actors the tapes, has used his own voyeuristic skills to trigger their guilt and its consequences into motion. Ebert hints at this same conclusion in his astute review of Caché and critic Anoine Doinel restates the theory in a highly convincing, if a bit flat-footed way, in the essay “(Un)hidden Camera: The ‘Real” Sender of the Tapes.”

The idea came to be much more directly, when it became apparent that Haneke was far less focused on revealing who had sent the tapes than he was on revealing the seemingly “forgotten” event in French culture and the effects that guilt might have created for all future generations. Ultimately, the film’s audience asking “who’s watching” has to answer with the obvious truth: we are—through the insistence of the director.

     As if to point up that question and test the audience once more, the film’s credits are played out across the entry of Pierrot’s school. Amidst the faces of dozens of student extras standing about and leaving the space, in the far left corner of a frontal shot—very much like that of the Laurents’ home early in the movie—we  glimpse Pierrot and Majid’s son standing together in an unheard conversation. What is he telling Pierrot, we can only ask? And will the implications of any revelation he makes to Pierrot (Georges’ son, but also, we recall, the stock sad-sack figure of French pantomime) effect his future? The truth revealed can save or destroy us, salve the mind or hit us over the head with its painfully blunt realities.

     Although, in the end, Caché, is a powerful film, particularly in its moral consciousness, it is also a highly manipulative one, which I believe weakens Haneke’s art by putting him in a morally elevated position in relation to the bourgeois liars he has just depicted. And as much as I admire Haneke’s filmmaking, I think this “hidden” or even “unhidden” (at one point we do glimpse the camera as a shadow across the wall, lit up by a passing car) trick of a tale, seriously diminishes Caché as a work of art.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jiři Menzel | Ostre Sledované Viaky (Closely Watched Trains)

a comedy of death
by Douglas Messerli
Jiři Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal (screenplay, based on Hrabal’s fiction),  Jiři Menzel (director) Ostre Sledované Viaky (Closely Watched Trains) / 1966 / the screening I viewed was at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on September 23rd 2013

Jiři Menzel’s 1966 film, Closely Watched Trains was one of the major Czech New Wave films, winning the Academy’s Oscar that year for the Best Foreign Film. I recall seeing it in the theater in 1966, but could not have described any of its scenes until reviewing it last evening. When we are young (I must remind myself I was only 19, about the age of the major figure of the film, when it first premiered) we often perceive events at a far more literal level, and comic scenes remain just that without us comprehending the deeper implications of what the comic truly signifies.

     The film centers on a young man, Miloš Hrma (wonderfully performed by Václav Neckář), who shares in his ancestor’s ambition to do as little as possible in life, an early relative having been a professional hypnotist, who when the German tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop them in their tracks through hypnotism. They rolled over him. The boy’s father has retired in his late forties to spend his life on the couch, living on a small pension.

      Clearly a kind of “mamma’s boy,” revealed through his mother’s loving attention to the uniform she has made for him as a stationmaster’s assistant, Miloš, living in a small backwater town, sets off into the world with a job, mostly, of slowing down and speeding up trains, saluting them as they pass.
The young man is a true innocent, who has clearly never had sex with a girl (the director describes himself as an “abstinent bachelor”), the slightly clumsy figure who looks somewhat like a child dressed up for a new job, seems to fit in nicely to the laid-back atmosphere of the train station, where the elderly stationmaster, living upstairs, raises pigeons while screaming out oaths (“Sodom and Gomorrah”) to his sexually busy Train Dispatcher, Hubička (Josef Somr), who seduces nearly every woman who comes into view, including, later in the film, the office telegrapher, whose legs and ass he stamps with various of the rubber impressions, used to officiate legal documents, that sit upon his desk.

      Shy, painfully uncomfortable around his train-riding girlfriend (a “nice girl” he reassures his colleague), Miloš looks up to Hubička with a kind of grudging admiration. When he, himself, attempts to have sex with the willing girl, he fails, presumably because of his sexual inexperience. So far, the film has revealed itself, accordingly, as a comedy, with Miloš serving as a kind Buster Keaton figure, while the rest of the eccentric gathering underline Menzel’s sly Eastern European wit.

      Throughout the film, however, the director as subtly demonstrated a kind of rustic cruelty in the Sationmaster’s pigeon-shit covered clothing, the killing of a rabbit right after we’ve watched coupling with another rabbitt, and the obvious fear these simple villages must daily face for living in a wartime region controlled by the Nazis. When Miloš awakens from his night of interrupted love, a bomb suddenly goes off, tearing away a part of the house in which he has slept. And soon after, the ungainly young man checks into a brothel, sans partner, to cut his wrists. Discovered just in time, the boy is taken to a nearby clinic, where an eager young doctor (played by Menzel himself) convinces him that the problem is “premature ejaculation”—something which, he admits, he himself suffers from. While there is no outward evidence that that is the problem, the doctor’s advice, which the gullible boy takes literally, is probably for the better: “Find an older woman who can take you through the process.

      Thus, has Menzel introduced into this, at first, seemingly comic work, a series of surrealist acts representing the utter chaos and brutality of war, and the desperateness of young people facing the broader world of social relationships and sexual activity. Although treated comically—the bombing scene, in particular, calls up Keaton in works such as Steamboat Bill Jr.—the following episodes take us closer and closer to the true violence lying just below the everyday events of this small Czech village.

       Approaching the Stationmaster’s wife, who sits with, what my World Film Directors volume describes as “an ailing” goose between her legs, Miloš indicates that he would like her to help him with his sexual afflictions. In itself it is simply another visual comic gag, a sort “Leda and the Swan” nudge into surreality. But, in fact, the woman is not stroking the goose’s neck to nurse it, but is force-feeding the poor animal so that its liver might eventually be converted into foie gras. Once more, comedy and cruelty are conjoined in Menzel’s and Hrabal’s tale.

       So too does the sexual release that Miloš seeks come with a price. The Czech resistance sends Victoria Freie with a bomb so that Hubička might blow up an ammunition train soon to pass through the station. Exhausted from her trip, the beautiful older woman retreats to the station’s back room, therein embracing the young Miloš in her arms and introducing him to the bliss of sexual fulfillment.

      Hubička has taken his young assistant into his confidence, asking the young man to slow down the train just enough so that he might drop the bomb onto its roof. But just a few moments before the train is scheduled to arrive, the local Councilor shows up with railroad authorities and the telegrapher’s angry mother to question Hubička about his sexual activities with the girl. Miloš must take the bomb without his superior (even in front of the Nazi Councilor and his associates, climb a train stanchion, and drop it into a passing railway car.
He successfully completes his act, but unexpectedly, a guard on the train witnesses his actions and shoots him dead. The train moves on down the tracks, a few minutes later blowing up in a whirlwind of debris that reaches back to the station, returning the poor boy’s hat. The film ends with Hubička’s empty laughter, in delight for having achieved his ends, but certainly without the knowledge that it has destroyed his young assistant’s life. Ironically, the young man who wanted an uneventful life has become an unidentified hero.

      In a somewhat uncomfortable interview with Mendel after the film, screenwriter Philip Kaufman attempted to ask a question about whether or not the boy really had a problem with premature ejaculation or whether the doctor had diagnosed it merely because he had suffered it himself. Perhaps misunderstanding the query in translation (and having played the doctor himself), Menzel blushed brightly, something his biographers describe him doing often when approached with the subject of sex. While clearly completely embracing open sexuality, Mendel is apparently, like his hero, somewhat awkward about his own body.

                               Menzel is said to be spectacularly accident-prone, liable
                               to half-blind himself while sweeping the floor, and to
                               break ribs when he tries to fix the television aerial.
                               (World Film Directors, Volume 2)

There is something endearing about an artist who is so aware of his own bodily movements and the carnal actions of the body in space which of themselves may result in serious accident or, as we see in this gentle movie, suicide and death. The marvel of Keaton or Chaplin, for example, is that even walking across the room might result, at any moment, in a kind of impossibility. Movement forward for figures such as these comedians, among whom I would count Menzel as well as Samuel Beckett’s characters, is like a tightrope walk (Menzel, indeed, played tightrope walkers in his films Capricious Summer and Crime in the Nightclub), a miracle of survival even if always on the verge of disaster.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Luchino Visconti | La caduta degli dei (The Damned)

a world where anything is possible
by Douglas Messerli
Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, and Nicola Badalucco (screenplay), Luchino Visconti (director) La  caduta degli dei (Die Verdammten) (The Damned) / 1969

It may be tempting to read Luchino Visconti’s important 1969 film The Damned as an historical take on the German, Essen-based Krupp family and their collaboration with the Nazi’s, and, to a certain extent, one can track the fall of that family—from the historical events of the burning of the Reichstag, through the rise of the German SA, The Night of the Long Knives executed by the SS, and other nightmarish Third Reich events—but in the end, these and other situations are presented from such an operatic perspective in Visconti’s film that their veracity must be called into question. Visconti has always been a master of melodrama, often working with large, operatic gestures (his Senso, in fact begins with an opera), and The Damned, with its numerous early singspiels and cabaret performances (particularly the memorable drag number of actor Helmut Berger [as Martin Essenbeck] impersonating Marlene Dietrich) are often outrageously theatrical. Seen through the lens of realism, in fact, The Damned might seem quite laughable, but as slightly camp family drama set against the truly ludicrous would of war time Germany, where, as both the Nazi SS cousin of the Essenbeck and Sophie Essenbeck declare “anything can happen,” the work ultimately succeeds in making us realize that, in the most terrifying way, “everything goes.”  

      As the family of steel industrialist Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck gathers to celebrate his birthday, the Reichstag is set on fire, an event to which various members of the family react differently: Herbert Thalmann, the firm’s vice president, a virulent anti-Nazi, sees it as a ploy to destroy any of Hitler’s opponents, particularly those of the left. Others, such as the Nazi Ashenbach (Helmut Griem), perceive it as a signal that the left must be crushed. The Baron, although detesting Hitler, argues that in order to save the firm he must make closer ties with the Nazis, passing the company on to the control of the totally unscrupulous SA officer Konstantin. Meanwhile Friedrich Bruckmann, the company foreman (Dirk Bogarde) has fallen in love with Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), the widow of the Baron’s only son, who died in World War I. In a pact with Sophie to himself gain control of the company, he kills the Baron, blaming the murder on Herbert, who escapes the Gestapo forces responding to the family’s calls.

     In that very first scene we also encounter Sophie’s beloved son, Martin, as he performs the Dietrich piece in drag, and the serious cello playing Günter (Renaud Verley), Konstantin’s university-educated son. All of them, except perhaps Herbert, are born killers, each agreeing to manipulate and torture one another in order to gain power and allow their personal perversions.

     For Sophie, perversions include her passion for Bruckmann and her oedipal love for Martin—and like her father, desperately desiring power itself. Although we might suspect Martin as having a gay relationship, in fact, his tawdry affair is with a kind of model (she describes her job as posing), and, more horribly, he has pedophile obsessions for the Thalmann’s young daughter and an even younger Jewish girl who lives in the apartment next to his girlfriend. His relationship with the child ends in her suicide by hanging.

     Although Thalmann, perhaps the only truly moral figure of the film, escapes, his wife Elizabeth and her two children are left behind, as she tries to get permission to leave the country. Sophie finally relents, allowing her to leave, after a dramatic aria-like speech which demonstrates her delusional vision:

                   Don’t fool yourself, however, Elizabeth. Don’t dream of coming back
                   one day to find a Germany which was so dear to your heart. It’s finished,
                   that Germany, forever. There will be no other Germany but this one,
                   and you will not be able to escape it, for it will spread before you
                   know it all over Europe and everywhere!

Although Sophie pretends to arrange for Elizabeth’s escape, the latter is stopped mid-voyage and she and her children sent to Dachau concentration camp, where Elizabeth is killed.

Sophie’s lover, Bruckmann, meanwhile, is manipulated by her and the SS officer Aschenbach to murder Konstantin and take over the company. In a long and languorously, filmed scene, Visconti plays out a day of the young SA boys near a lovely lake as they frolic, first in canoes and boats, swimming like healthy young scouts, activities which gradually, as the beer and German dancing is served up, turn darker and darker, until finally the seeming “good day in the sun” degenerates into a drunkenly lazy homosexual orgy, the boys singing and performing in drag before bedding down with each other and their elderly charges. While some critics such as New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby have complained of the disproportionate length of this series of events, I would argue that it is central as a mythological explanation of the whole fall and decline of the German empire which Visconti is attempting to encapsulate. The horrible massacre of the Sturmabteilung (SA) brownshirts in a gangster-style murder ends in dozens of bloody bodies of the young men by the Schutzstaffel (the SS, German defense corps) with whom Bruckmann has joined in order to destroy Konstantin, is emblematic of the notion expressed in the early scenes, that in Germany “anything is possible.” Perhaps never before or since, have more beautiful virile male bodies been sprawled as corpses across the screen!*

       Of all the destroyers in this work, only Bruckmann—a family outsider—has any conscience about his acts:

                    I accepted a ruthless logic, and I can never get away from it!

      Somewhat like Pasolini’s horrific meditation on Italian Fascism, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Visconti’s film functions in terms of circles, moving vertically closer and closer to the family’s final hell. After dismissing Bruckmann as a weak Nazi supporter, Aschenbach makes a bargain with Martin to give him control of the industrial giant. But when Martin confronts Sophie, he cannot overcome her sexual domination of him, and in retaliation he rapes his own his own mother, which results in her becoming psychologically unhinged, remaining an almost catatonic being for the rest of her brief life.

      Defeated by his wife’s death and his daughter’s incarceration, Herbert Thalmann now returns home to turn himself over the Gestapo in order save his two children. At the ruthless tableside, over which Visconti’s camera has time and again panned across the faces of these brutal beasts, Günther—previously the quiet and introspective one—suddenly spits out his hatred of the whole bunch, a hate so overwhelming that Aschenbach immediately takes him under his wing as an ally to destroy the last remnants of the Von Essenbeck estate.

      Now a member of the SS, Martin sadistically gathers together a group of fellow deviants to celebrate Friedrich Bruckmann’s marriage to his mother. Finally, becoming a Von Essenbeck, Bruckmann with Sophie retires to their room where her son has handed them poison so that they might commit suicide. The final image of the film is a gruesome picture of the two, dead upon their wedding couch. Only the most sexually twisted and hateful of the family members remain, beings so totally perverted that they have lost all control. The State can take over the once proud family-controlled plants.

      Thalmann previously expressed to Günther what has become obvious: the family is not simply a symbol of Germany, but is Germany itself:

                      It’s all over, Günther. It was everyone’s fault, even mine. It does
                      no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save
                      your soul. The fear of a proletariat revolution, which would’ve
                      thrown the entire country to the left…was too great, and now we
                      can’t defend it any longer! Nazism, Günther, is our creation. It
                      was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

 A world where anything is possible is an impossible place, an unendurable hell.

Los Angeles, September 22, 2013
*In actuality, the attack of the SS and Gestapo upon SA brownshirts was a far more complex issue, arising from the increasing power of Hitler’s early supporters, basically street thugs and unemployed individuals who were willing to help him to his rise. As Hitler became more and more ensconced in German political systems, however, the SA supporters, challenging both the traditional German Reichswehr, the German military, and the SS, the rising “Protection Squad,” on which Hitler had increasingly become dependent for support. Along with the Gestapo, these forces increasingly pushed Hitler to do something about the unruly and growing force, headed by the homosexual and quite rebellious Ernst Röhm. As Hitler grew in power, more and more of his conservative allies—including his Mussolini—railed against the moral behavior of Röhm and his soldiers.
      Finally, on the morning of June 30, 1934 Hitler and his associates flew to Munich the night after another Brownshirt gathering in the streets. Employing SS soldiers and others, Hitler attacked Hotel Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and numerous of his followers were spending the night. There they found SA leader Edmund Heines in bed with an eighteen year-old SA senior troop leader, shooting them both on the spot. Röhm was arrested, and later killed. But the raids of the SA followers also allowed Hitler and others to destroy a great many of their critics and others for whom they no longer had any need. In short, “The Night of the Long Knives” was not confined to a single event or even a single enemy, but included a large slaughter of seemingly dispensable supporters and former critics.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Roman Polanski | Rosemary's Baby

happy house
by Douglas Messerli
Roman Polanski (writer, based on the novel by Ira Levin, and director) Rosemary’s Baby / 1968

I saw Polanski’s horror-genre film, Rosemary’s Baby when it was first released in 1968, and then again in 1970, I believe, with my companion Howard, in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the Paramount Theater (no longer in existence), during which a real bat soared over the screen. Yesterday, seeing the film on DVD after all these years, Howard and I both concurred that it seemed to be a different movie from the one of our memories.

     I remember Rosemary’s Baby as a horrifyingly tense work about great evil, in which a young innocent woman, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is introduced to a satanic coven, with whom apparently her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), has joined to better his career, determining to impregnate is wife with a child that will become Satan himself.

     Given the hundreds of movies that have made through the years (The Omen [1976] and the more recent The House of the Devil [2009] being just two examples), Howard and I wondered at the fact that, although Christ was born into the human world just once, Satan must apparently be reborn again and again, a product of depraved Satanic worshipers and accidental dates (such as the one in this movie, June 28, 1966 or 666) and lunar eclipses. And that very question, perhaps, forced me to recognize just how formulaic aspects of this movie were.

      Similarly, what appeared in my memories as a very dark movie, was closer to what Renata Adler described it upon its premiere: “The movie—although it is pleasant—doesn’t seem to work on any of its dark or powerful terms.” While early reviews, moreover, often compared Polanski’s directing style to Alfred Hitchcock’s, this time round both Howard and I perceived Polanski’s more leisurely, at times almost limpid, pacing as a far cry from master’s always taut and pre-determined approach. Frankly, this works for Rosemary’s Baby precisely for the opposite reasons than one might suspect.

      For, although the plot—closely following the story of Levin’s popular horror tale—seems to be nearly entirely focused on the evil surrounding Rosemary as she slowly comes to perceive what is happening to her through her own suddenly strange dreams (particularly her impregnation in a Satanic ritual), in her food cravings (Farrow actually ate raw liver to lend credulity to the part), through the pains of her early pregnancy, and through the warnings of her friends such as Hutch (Maurice Evans) and several party-going women acquaintances, the style of Polanski’s work is actually presented more as a comedy. Two scenes—Rosemary’s phone booth attempt to call her previous Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) to make an appointment, and a scene where, completely disoriented, she walks into incoming mid-town traffic—create tensions worthy of the horror genre. But the rest of the film puts all of Rosemary’s growing fears into a kind of loony perspective. For the real stars of this film are not the somewhat sleazy Guy nor even the utterly terrified Rosemary, but the somewhat doughty neighbors, Minnie Castevet (the hilarious Ruth Gordon, who won an Academy Award for this role) and her husband Roman, a.k.a. Steven Marcato (Sidney Blackmer), son of a famed murderer who once lived in the same apartment house. These busybody neighbors of the Woodhouse’s, she dressed in an outrageous 1960s flowered fabrics and he in slightly outdated tweeds  topped by bow-ties and cravats, irresistibly intrude upon the young couple, bringing them mousses, herbs, and advice, changing doctors for young pregnant woman, and generally causing havoc for the would-be lovers.

      It is their bizarre extravagances, more than anything else, that begin to unhinge the clearly susceptible Rosemary, and gradually transformation from her basically realist, slightly religious (she was raised Catholic) perspective to a slightly absurd inner certainty that her neighbors and husband are attempting to take her child and sacrifice it to Satan himself.

     Carefully, Polanski stacks the deck in favor of her obsessions by killing off (through suicide) a young woman living with the Castevet’s, the sudden blindness of an actor which allows Rosemary’s husband to take on the dramatic role, the horrific nightmare I already described, and the sudden illness of her friend Hutch (whom Guy describes as a “professional crepe-hanger”) who leaves Rosemary two volumes of works on witchcraft that mentions the “tannis root” (the “Devil’s Pepper”) with which the neighbors have plied her. Along with those “intentional coincidences,” Polanski slides his camera through the vast rooms and spaces of the luxury apartment building (the exteriors being those of the grand west side New York Dakota Condominium) like a suspicious snake, while focusing on minute objects such as the necklace of tannis given to Rosemary, and the expected placement of a large chifforobe by the previous tenant against a closet—presumably in an attempt to keep the neighbors out! These and numerous other “clues” seem to give credence to Rosemary’s fears.

      But we have equal evidence that they her troubles may be delusional. When she visits her previous doctor, for example, he calls her current doctor, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) and Rosemary’s husband, apparently worried about her mental health. And even though, after the child’s birth, her husband lies to her about the baby’s survival, it may, after all, be only a way to protect her and the child. For, even though Rosemary, at first sight of the baby, is convinced they have done something to it, Polanski stubbornly keeps the camera out of the cradle (producer William Castle has insisted they show the possible devil-child) as Rosemary’s maternal instincts kick in, with the Castevets and their equally ridiculous friends approvingly looking on.     

     As in Polanski’s Repulsion, in the end we are not quite certain whether Rosemary has been justifiably terrified or simply delusional, having temporarily, at least, gone mad. And we are never sure whether the film is a kind of dark comedy—somewhat like the 1963 play by Ronald Alexander Nobody Loves an Albatross (starring Robert Preston as a con man) in which Guy has, we are told several times, appeared as an actor—or a dense epic, such as the religious-irreligious (depending upon your point of view) drama such as John Osborne’s 1961 Luther, in which Guy, apparently, has also acted.

     Each viewer may draw his or her own conclusions about what is the truth, but there can never be, the way it is filmed, one definitive answer. Although clearly drawn to such subject matter from the very beginning his career, Polish director Polanski would soon after suffer evils that were even more satanically-grounded in the “Helter-Skelter” murders of his wife Sharon Tate and others by the Manson cult; and the creators of that song, the Beatles, would lose one of their own members, John Lennon, as a shooting victim outside the very building, the Dakota, that stood-in in this film for the fictional Bramford (a building which Hutch, at one point, sarcastically describes as “Happy House”). The real satanic horrors, one might argue, lay outside the frame of this film rather than within its more ambivalent boundaries.

Los Angeles, September 16, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lee Daniels | The Butler (Lee Daniels' The Butler)

what the butler didn’t see
by Douglas Messerli

Danny Strong (screenplay, based on Wil Haygood’s A Butler Well Served by This Election), Lee Daniels (director) The Butler (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) / 2013

I must begin by admitting that, after seeing the trailers and reading several pieces about Lee Daniels’ new film The Butler, I was reluctant to actually view and/or review this movie. I attempt not to be terribly influenced by the media before I myself write about it. But, I do read other reviews, and, in this case, with nearly every talk show raving about Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Gloria Gaines, the Butler, Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) wife, it was difficult not to make some prejudiced conclusions about the work.

      First of all, I sensed—and I was correct—that Daniels’ movie was a very old-fashioned Hollywood epic, taking us by the hand through historical events of American Blacks, from early days of slavery, through the turmoil of racial protests and riots, major changes in laws and cultural behavior from the Eisenhower years of the 1950s straight through to Obama’s election in the first decade of the new millennium. I have never been a fan of what I might describe as the “Forrest Gump” approach to history, films that take a chronological view of their heroes’ lives as their move through political and cultural events. True, Cecil Gaines—a real life White House butler—worked at the epicenter of these shifts, but clearly, as the film emphasizes, that does not necessarily mean he was fully or, sometimes, even partially aware of the significance of the presidential and congressional decisions going on around him.    

     As the perfect butler, he, like the butler in James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, is encouraged and advised, as well as self-determined to ignore any knowledge or even possibility of hearing what is going on around him. Rather, as a perfect servant, he was there simply to serve, to exquisitely and elegantly foretell his master’s needs, bringing a drink at the precisely right moment, holding out silver trays of delicacies while impassively standing at attention without truly attending to anything but the needs of the president, his staff, and guests. Like the central character of Ivory’s work, the evil goings-on, even the significant reforms and break-throughs in governmental policy did not register on Gaines’ face, and, if this movie is to be believed (and at many moments, it is not to be believed) failed to register in his inner mind.    

      Fortunately, Daniels’ film, despite its structural spine of all those years of standing just a few feet from the most influential people in American history, focuses not on the White House, but on Gaines’ home life, and it is in that warm and often troubled world, filled with the love of Gaines, his wife, and their two boys—at least in the early years—which spiritually grounds this work and brings the Black characters some dimension. We can forgive Daniels, I suppose, after thousands and thousands of Hollywood films who have treated Blacks as mere figureheads, if Daniels treats nearly all of the white figures of his film in the same manner. Perhaps in an attempt to seemingly puff-up his cardboard white creations, the director chose some of the major actors in the business, including Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams (as Eisenhower), James Mardsen (Kennedy), John Cusak (Nixon), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Reagan), and Jane Fonda (Mrs. Reagan) to briefly inhabit these noted beings.

     Yet all of them are mere cameos compared to the far deeper acting skills of Cuba Gooding, Lenny Kravitz, and, in particular, Whitaker and Winfrey. Since Gaines, however, is not allowed political reaction—a role, strangely enough, he maintains in his home life—the writer and director expanded the real Gaines’ only son, into two, the youngest serving and dying, like millions of other young Black men, in Viet Nam, and the other becoming involved in nearly every Black political movement of the time, from the original Woolworth sit-in and the Freedom Bus riders, to involvements with Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers. In truth, so I have read, Gaines’ son was not particularly politically involved, but in a movie dedicated to recounting most of Black history of the period, the writer needed someone to portray what Cecil and his wife were nearly blind to, encompassing it in the fine acting of David Oyelowo.

       The more involved Cecil’s son Louis is in political activities, the more the father isolates himself from his son and the significance of those events, as if facing them might have made it impossible to look the figures he daily serves in the eyes. And the rupture between the two seems to be so palpable (if improbable) that you almost feel the son is justified in describing his hard-working father as an Uncle Tom. This butler, like Ivory’s British gentleman, at the close of his life seems to be left with very little, despite daily rubbing elbows with such powerful men and women: all he has left is a tie Jackie Kennedy has given him upon John Kennedy’s death, a tie clip tossed to him by Johnson and a couple of other trinkets. And in his long absences Gloria has turned to alcohol and even, momentarily, to their male neighbor.     

     It is not the American situation, but the South African apartheid, which Reagan refuses to oppose, that finally begins to insinuate the issues of race into Gaines thoughts (predictably, in the constant attempt these days to redeem Reagan’s heritage, there was a public outcry against this film’s portrayal of him, arguing that he did oppose apartheid, but was afraid South African might turn to Communism—although I see it as part and parcel of the same issue in Regan’s thinking). And it is only when Gaines actually is invited by Nancy Reagan to a White House dinner, not as a servant, but as a guest with his wife, that he, for the first time, really perceives his outsider status. Somewhat unconvincingly, he finally begins to perceive how, for so many years, he has been blind to the very history he has witnessed and he becomes suddenly desperate to recover his inner passion. Resigning from his position, Gaines finds his son speaking to protestors nearby about apartheid, and willingly joins him, being arrested along with Louis for his activities.

      Now that its central character has spiritually “come to life,” the film quickly fast forwards to the Obama election, spinning into a sentimental closing, by showing the agèd couple about to attend what appears to be an Obama gathering. While awaiting their son, now an elected official, to take them to the event, Gloria dies, and Louis suddenly is truly left with the few “remains of the day.” Obama’s election, however, signifies that despite all of his silent suffering, he—at least as a stand-in for all Blacks—has now won back his pride. Putting on the few treasures he has from all those years of quietude, he visits Obama, who has called him to the great white home in-the-sky, which he knows, perhaps, better than any of its temporary inhabitants.

     In short, although the film often creaks along in its shopping-list-like recounting of Black history through the years of this exceptional butler’s employment, it also presents a healthy antidote to so much of American film-making in its dramatic presentation of a real-life Black family living out their lives in the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., after all, is a city, one must remember, where the true life-time inhabitants are not the thousands of whites who temporarily take over its wealthy neighborhoods as politicians and parties rise to power and fall, but the Blacks of several lovely middle class and south Anacostia poor neighborhoods. It is the men and women in power who “come and go,” while the administrators, butlers, maids, and others stand firm in their grounded roles.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (October 2013).

Jacques Tourneur | Out of the Past

in the frame
by Douglas Messerli
Daniel Mainwaring (screenplay, based on the novel, Build My Gallows High by James M. Cain, with uncredited writing by Cain and Frank Fenton), Jacques Tourneur (director) Out of the Past / 1947

It’s interesting that in the vast majority of American film noirs, it is the women who betray the heroes, usually world-weary gumshoes or seedy punks who are taken advantage of by wealthy crooks or society figures; the women surrounding them lie and murder, leaving the male figures very much “framed” and in the lurch. Never has this fact been made more apparent than in Jacques Tourneur’s masterful 1947 film Out of the Past.

      The “hero” of the film, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has, in fact, attempted to escape his shady past with a move to the small paradisiacal town of Bridgeport, California, where he now runs a gas station, fishes in the nearby pristine creeks and rivers with a young boy who can neither hear nor speak (Dickie Moore)—the perfect fishing partner, one might argue—and has fallen in love with a local girl, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). In this prelapserian world, he has almost able to create a new life; but before the film can even begin, we are introduced to the hulking figure of Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), a well-dressed stranger on the prowl for Jeff, whose past, we quickly perceive, has suddenly caught up.

      The rest of the film is swallowed up in the story of that past and its continuing consequences, which, as in nearly all such films, ends, through the fewer and fewer choices available to its central figures, in death. A great part of Jeff’s (whose last name, as he tells Ann, is really Markham) story is presented as a kind of confession to Ann, revealing how he was hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down his girlfriend, after attempting to kill him (shooting him four times) and stealing $40,000 of his money.

      Not really wanting the job, but unable to turn down such a large payment, detective Markham tracks down Sterling’s girl, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Acapulco, where, under a more brutal sunlit landscape, Jeff is forced to spend his days drinking as he waits to encounter Whit’s woman friend. When he does finally track her down, it is almost love at first sight—at least for him—as Kathie slowly tells her side of the story, insisting that although she had tried to kill Whit, she has stolen no money:

                               Kathie: But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t Jeff. Don’t
                                            you believe me?
                                Jeff: Baby, I don’t care.

      Together, the two plan escape back to the States, but at the same moment Jeff encounters Whit and his henchman in Acapulco, checking up on him. Again, Jeff asks to be released from the case, but Whit refuses. Insisting that Kathie has slipped past him on a steamer heading south, he hurries off with Kathie to San Francisco.

      The San Francisco in which this couple hides out, is not the brightly lit city of Northern California but a dark, hidden world, was the two attempt to escape notice. When they temporarily let their guard down, they are spotted at a race track by Jeff’s old detective partner, Fisher, who was to share 50% of whatever Jeff got for bringing by Kathie. The two break up, taking different routes to a rural cabin in order to get Fisher off their track. But when Jeff turns up to the cabin wherein Kathie waits, Fisher is already there. As the two men begin a fistfight, Kathie picks up a gun and shoots Fisher dead, and Jeff suddenly realizes that she has not only lied to him about stealing Whit’s money but has now framed himself for Fisher’s death.     

      So Ann and Jeff arrive, back in the “present,” to the dark grille of Whit’s country estate, the grille itself reminding one of the long act of confession we have just experienced. At Whit’s house, Jeff finds, unexpectedly, Kathie once again living with her former boyfriend. She has made the convenient choice once again.

      This time Whit is in trouble with the Federal government for failing to report taxes, and his crooked lawyer, Leonard Eels, is blackmailing Whit for more money. Again Jeff attempts to escape his fate, but realizes that if he does not help he will be accused for having killed Fisher.

      This time the world-weary Jeff perceives it as another frame-up, and back in an even darker San Francisco tries to warn Eels of the danger he is in. Another woman, Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) is involved this time around. Like Kathie, she is willing to kill her boyfriend, and does, as Jeff slips back into Eel’s apartment to find him dead. Hiding the body, he slips into a nightclub where Whit’s documents are kept—along with an affidavit that Kathie has signed insisting that Jeff has killed Fisher.

      Again on the run, Jeff returns to the nearby Bridgeport streams, joined by his friend, the Kid. But unknowingly to him, Kathie has ordered Stephanos to trail the kid, who leads him to the river where Jeff is fishing. Stephanos, about to shoot Jeff, is spotted by the Kid, who send the tackle and hook of his fishing rod up to the rock where Stephanos stands, about to shoot, causing Kathie’s henchman to fall to his death.

     Back at Whit’s, Jeff attempts to convince Whit of Kathie’s double cross, trying to convince him of her murder of Fisher. But when he returns again to Whit’s Lake Tahoe house, he discovers that Kathie has killed Whit, and that she is now in charge. Either Jeff joins her or she will accuse him of all three murders! Finally, Jeff has no escape left—except to secretly call the police and warn them of their route.

      Suddenly observing the roadblock ahead, Kathie realizes that she has been betrayed, and shoots Jeff dead. The police kill her, beside her a large cache of money has fallen from her purse.

      After Jeff’s funeral, Ann attempts to make sense of events, while her boyhood lover, Jim, tries to convince her to now to turn her attentions back to him. Asking the deaf boy whether Jeff was truly running away with Kathie at the time of his death, Ann eagerly awaits his response. The Kid sheepishly nods his head “yes,” and she turns back to the town and her ordinary life there. The Kid looks up at the gas station sign declaring Jeff’s name—the same sign that drew Stephanos there in the first place—and salutes it, as if, in his act, he has done Jeff’s bidding in allowing Ann to go on in a life removed of regret and grief.

      The plot of Out of the Past, if not exactly opaque or clear, at least makes reasonable sense, especially when compared with works such as The Big Sleep or Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. But the important structures of this dark work are the film’s movement from light, to a more oppressive light, and into the black of the final last scenes of this film. For the haunted characters, moreover, the work functions almost as a puzzle-box in which door after door closes for each of them, until they are all trapped within each other’s fates. If even one of them had been able to say “no,” or to truly escape—as Jeff has so nobly attempted—all or at least some of them might have been saved. But the events of the past, in this film, are like steel bonds of fate, drawing them again and again closer to each other until they destroy every individual in their claustrophobic circle. Only with the Kid’s final gesture is the past finally over and done with, freeing Ann to remain out its grasp, even while it dooms the true hero to a kind of eternal damnation in the minds of those remaining in the still unfallen world. The only link between those worlds is a young boy who cannot and will not speak the truth. Yet in receiving and hearing Jeff’s confession, Ann has, unknowingly, forgiven him, even if she cannot save him from his past acts, as so too, in attending to this sad tale, has the viewer.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2013