Friday, January 31, 2014

Emir Kusturica | Sjećaš li se Doli Bel? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?)

fresh summer
by Douglas Messerli
Abdulah Sidran and Emir Kusturica (screenplay), Emir Kusturica (director) Sjećaš li se Doli Bel? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?) / 1981, USA 1986

Emir Kusturica’s first film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, primarily takes place in a Sarajevo cultural club and in the poor home of its central character, Dino (Slavko Štimac), a teenager with many of the concerns of teenage boys everywhere (talking about girls, covertly smoking, watching movies, and bragging) and a special interest in what he perceives as acts of magic, particularly hypnosis, which he believes will help him to take hold of a life over which he has little control.
      His father (Slobodan Aligrudić), who dreams of universal Communism, attends Marxist meetings, returning home drunk to hold late-night family assemblies where each of his four children are asked to admit (a bit like Roman Catholic confession) his daily sins, as Dino’s younger brother, takes notes. Misquoting and clearly misinterpreting Marx, the elder criticizes Dino’s obsession with hypnosis and his fascination with the Italian movies shown at the club.
       Dino, meanwhile, is basically a good boy who, in his romantic infatuations—particularly with the movie-star stripper, Dolly Bell—does not separate film and fiction from life, hanging out with equally confused boys and making friends with a local pimp. Since school is closed for the summer, the boys have little else to do.
       But the adults in this tale are little more than children themselves. At a luncheon at his uncle and aunts house, his father and uncle argue over politics, while the boys, Dino and his older brother, wrestle in the background. The picnic ends suddenly as the youngest son accidently overtips the table with a bicycle and the rain, which these figures proclaim is always on the Sarajevo horizon, sends them inside. Only the father stubbornly remains, as if reminding himself of his everyday fate. Soon after, his discovers he is dying from lung cancer, and near the end of this film, dies. When the women, in Muslim tradition move his body from the bed to the floor, posting his head in the direction of Mecca, the uncle orders him to be returned to the bed: “He was a Communist!” he shouts!
      Indeed, although the characters of the world live, at times, rich and warm lives, they also are all thwarted through poverty and Bosnian-Serbian life. The newspapers are filled with disinformation, and absurdly unsound environmental proclamations which argue for a purposeful melting of the polar caps and a complete elimination of the Indian Ocean, resulting, they argue, in an eternally “fresh summer.” Is it any wonder that Dino repeats, again and again, his magic phrase “Every day, in every way I’m getting better and better,” as if in its repetition his life might be suddenly improved?
      Two things happen, however, in this summer of 1960 that truly do change his life, transforming it into something close to art. The authorities at the cultural club become determined to create a band, buying instruments and attempting to engage the help of Dino and his friends, while Dino’s pimp “friend,” asks him to hide a prostitute (Ljiljana Blagojević, whom, after the Italian film, the pimp has named Dolly Bell) in their barn.
      The band takes shape slowly, while the relationship between Dino and the young woman develops quite quickly, as the knowledgeable beauty encourages the young boy’s attentions. After some tame rough-housing—both poor pitchers of water over one another’s head, symbolizing, presumably, a kind of baptism and purification—begin to engage in sex, only to have the pimp return, punishing his “property” by forcing all of Dino’s friends to have sex with her as well, again (like his father) leaving Dino alone out in the rain with tears pouring from his eyes. Later, Dino, dressing in a bright, white suit coat, takes in Dolly’s show, paying the fee for a true sexual encounter with her. Again the pimp returns, but this time Dino fights back, losing the battle, of course, but proud of his bruises, having now something truly to brag about.
     By film’s end, the band has finally taken shape, singing one the only songs they know, Adriano Celentano's "24 Mila Baci,” the large audience dancing in the cultural club. Love and art have finally won out over the bleak daily blows of Communist life.
      Yes, there is something predictable and sentimental at times about Kusturica’s wry film, but through its many images of the family just eating, sleeping, smoking, and arguing, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? fondly calls up a richly treasured past in a city that would later become a vicious killing ground.

Los Angeles, January 31, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Hirokazu Kore-eda | Shoshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son)

the sleeping father

Hirokazu Kore-eda (writer and director) Shoshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son) / 2013, USA 2014

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2013 film, Like Father, Like Son, seems, at first to be suggesting a deep resemblance between the film’s central “father,” Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his 6-year old son, Keita. Indeed in the very first scene, the wide-eyed child—New York Times critic Manohla Dargis described him as having “enormous, startled-looking eyes”—placed squarely between Ryota and Keita’s mother Midorino (Machiko Ono), appears, in his black, loosely chopped hair and serious attentiveness, to be a piece with both parents, as he is intensely queried by a series of adults in what we later grasp is an interview for entrance to a wealthy private school. The child, coached by his “cram” teacher, states that his father takes him camping in the summer.    
   But as we, soon after, enter the Nonomiya household, a beautiful apartment in a high-rise Toyko building, we quickly perceive that Ryota’s closeness to his son is a lie. The well-to-do architect is unsuccessful as a family man, and his relationship to Keita consists, primarily, of forcing the child to study hard, to learn to play the piano, and other cultural activities that give the boy little time to imagine or play with toys. The love Keita receives comes mostly from his doting mother.
     Although Kore-eda’s work slowly builds up to the reasons for Ryota’s distance, the plot of his film shifts suddenly and radically early on when the couple suddenly receive a visit from hospital authorities, where their child was born. Requesting that the couple receive a DNA scan, the insensitive hospital representatives suggest that there may have been error at the time of Keita’s birth, and that he has been mixed up with another child born the same day, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). Indeed tests confirm their suspicions, and suddenly the seemingly happy, but already tense family is forced to consider an exchange with the other family, Yukari (Yoko Maki) and Yudai (Lily Franky). The Saiki family could not be more different than the Nonomiyas, the former of which live in small quarters shared with their not very successful appliance store. The father of three children, Saiki clearly prefers parenting to working, and spends long hours with his children, his wife reaffirming his somewhat childlike philosophy. Unlike the cautious, worried Kieta, Ryusei is a rambunctious kid who loves his little brother and sister, flies kites with his father, and spends long hours with his toys, which Saiki magically repairs when they break.
       With great tension, the two couples meet on several occasions, the boys getting along remarkably well, “like they were brothers,” while the parents eye one another suspiciously. As well they should, since it quickly becomes apparent that to save them all from a Solomonic decision, that the wealthier off Ryota hopes to take both boys into his family. The loving Saikis are understandably outraged by his presumptions that they might give up their beloved son.
       A court trial reveals that a nurse, vaguely responding to a grudge with her own husband and children, has purposely switched the two children, which creates even greater rancor for the two sets of parents. On this subject the film is intentionally unclear, and we never do quite comprehend the nurse’s motives, but the facts merely throw salt into the parents’ wounds.
       Gradually, the two mothers, both terrified of the prospect of giving up the children they have nurtured for so many years, bond, while the men, reiterating their differences, continue to try to find a way to manipulate one another. Ryota attempts to negotiate the slippery slope between nature (the ties of blood) and nurturing, while Saiki outwardly criticizes Ryota for not spending more time with his family. All of this becomes even more fraught, as they attempt to “trade” children during the weekends, testing both the parents’ and the childrens’ abilities to accommodate the new realities. At first the boys take to the experiments as a kind of adventure, although Ryota, once again, describing the exchange as a “mission” to his son, has taken away some of the fun. Certainly, it might be said that Keita has more “fun” at the Saiki house than at home. Ryusei, on the other hand, is scolded for the way in which he holds his chopsticks, and is forced to “the study” the problem by picking up plastic letters with the chopstick as he baths.
       The hospital representatives have argued that, generally, when such situations occurred, the parents decided to “exchange” children. And after a visit to Ryota’s own father, who argues that as time passes each of the children will grow to look more and more like their birth-parents, suddenly convinces Ryota, despite his wife’s protests, that a permanent exchange is the best decision.
      Meanwhile, both mothers become tormented with the losses in their life. The relationship between Ryota and Midorino becomes increasingly more tense, as he, so she feels, blames her for not recognizing that Keita was not their son at birth, and blames himself for not having perceived the “obvious,” suggesting that Keita has lived up to the father’s own abilities. The visit to his father also begins to confirm to us that Ryota hated his own father, and that the film’s title is not, necessarily, about him and Keita, but Ryota and his selfish dad.
       As I suggested earlier, all of these feelings of guilt and frustration work themselves out, particularly in Ryota’s case, very slowly, with the director allowing no simple resolutions to his character’s situations. We cannot precisely know what Ryota is thinking, but we clearly see his anguish, as he, once again, attempts to escape his house, even temporarily abandoning his work. And, more than anything else, he sleeps. If he has never truly been at home in his house, he is now like a depressed being, unable to even try to explain to Keita anything about the momentous change in his life that will soon take place. Once again, he breaks the news to the boy by aligning it with responsibility, a “mission.”
      Although both sets of parents attempt to welcome and love their switched children, neither boy is entirely happy with the results. Keita at least has a family who play and even bathe together, and his new father and mother lovingly try draw him out of his lonely anger with games. Ryusei, on the other hand, like Keita before, is mostly left alone to try to comprehend the vast changes in his environment. When Ryota demands that he call him and Midorino mother and father, the child can only ask, over and over, “why,” their inexplicable logic bringing the same question to his lips in something close to terror. When his toy ray-man breaks, Ryota cannot fix it, only commanding him to ask Midorino to buy him a new one.
       Slowly Ryota, comprehending his own failures, tries to awaken himself from his slumbers, constructing a tent with the boy’s bedroom, the three of them pretending to camp out under the stars. For the first time in their lives, they actually “play” with their child, rushing about the apartment to shoot each other dead. But that is just the problem, the love the boy has known is “dead.” As Ryota again sleeps, Ryusei makes an escape, the small child taking a train to his family so that he might once more fly a kite.
       Ryota returns to the Saiki house to pick up his “new” son, Keita hiding from the man, who as Midorino finally expresses it, has “betrayed” him. The increasing hostility between Ryota and his wife, as well as his own growing perceptions, brings him finally to tears when he accidently discovers a series of photographs Keita has unknowingly taken of him—all of them while the father was asleep. His photographs reveal an abiding love, almost an obsession, of a man-in-missing. Not only has he betrayed his son, he has seldom been there for him as a loving father. Like Ryota’s own father, he has been a selfish, unlovable man.     
   The film ends with the rightful restoration of the boys to the families who have raised them, not who have simply “blood ties.” But before they can restore that order, Keita bolts, unable to accept the love a father who has sent him on the ridiculous “mission.” Ryota runs after, the two walking along a parallel path, separated by a row of trees. Stubbornly, Keita trudges forward, his small legs moving him away from the man whom he once so trusted. Only when Ryota admits the error of his ways, admits that he too had stopped taking piano lessons as a child, that he also had run away from home, and declares “the mission” to have ended, are the two able to join each other once again. Of course, in life, such situations do not always end with such amicable revelations, and Kore-eda’s movie relies, too much perhaps, on its sentimental conclusion. But the implications of that situation are far more profound. Family is not about blood as much as it is about caring and love.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2014
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (February 2014).

Sunday, January 26, 2014

François Truffaut | Tirez sur le pianist (Shoot the Piano Player)

by Douglas Messerli

François Truffaut (writer and director, based loosely on a novel by David Goodis) Tirez sur le pianist (Shoot the Piano Player) / 1960, USA 1964

François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player is so many things that it is difficult to know where to begin in describing it. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) is a down-and-out wreck of a human being, playing a kind of hurdy-gurdy sounding jazz piano in a French dive, where prostitutes flirt with customers as they dance. One of the local prostitutes, Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), also a neighbor, offers her services to the sad-sack Charlie for free. Charlie’s true love, however, is the bar’s waitress, Léna (Marie DuBois), with whom he soon shyly develops a relationship. Accordingly, it appears, on the surface at least, that the film is a kind of sad love story.       

    But in the very first scenes, Truffaut’s film, we realize, is also something else: a man races down streets, trying to outrun a car in which sits two mobsters out to kill him. The man, Chico (Albert Rémy), the name reminding us of Chico Marx, is Charlie’s brother, a small-time gangster who works with another of Charlie’s siblings, Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian). Chico escapes his pursuers only to collide with a streetlamp. He is helped up by a passing stranger as the two briefly discuss women and marriage.

      When Chico appears at the bar where Charlie works, the piano-player is suddenly involved in the so-called “family business,” and is also threatened by the chasing mobsters; and so too, through their association with Charlie, are Léna and Charlie’s younger brother, Fido, who lives with him. Much of the rest of the movie plays out as a gangster story.
       On top of this, Truffaut also layers another genre, introducing a comic singer in the bar, Bobby Lapointe, whose bawdy lyrics are sung so quickly that they become hard to understand in French, that Truffaut comically reproduced them in writing replete with a bouncing ball. Later, when the mobsters kidnap Fido, the boy outwits their antic Keystone Kops behavior, reminding one almost of the O. Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief.” And throughout this film, the director stirs up his Mulligan Stew with large doses of farce.
       Truffaut salts these elements with long and shorter disquisitions on the nature of women, both by the course-minded mobsters and Charlie himself: “Once you have met one you have met them all,” as well as New Wave-like discussions on other subjects, suggesting that the film might shift into the realm of a dialogue, which was so central to Godard’s Breathless of the same year.
        And if that weren’t enough, the center of this film is told in the form of a flashback where we discover that the piano-player was once a noted concert pianist by the name of Edouard Saroyan (a reference to the wistful American writer William Saroyan?) who was married to yet another waitress, Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who helped forge her husband’s career by sleeping with his impresario manager. When she admits the affair, Charlie leaves her; she leaps from their apartment window to her death. Later Charlie himself, in a fight with the owner of the bar, accidentally stabs his former employer, killing him. And in the final “shootout” with the two mobsters, his current love, Léna is shot and killed. Suicide and murder are, accordingly, added to this love/gangster/farce.
     In the end, as Charlie returns to his lowly job and another waitress is visually introduced, the attentive viewer doesn’t quite know whether to cry or laugh. Certainly, by all accounts, this strange concoction of genres should have been a mess! And many critics of the day portrayed it as one.  Variety described the script as “meandering,” and New York Times critic Bosley Crowther suggested that the film “did not hold together.” Dwight MacDonald argued the mixtures of genres “didn’t gel,” and even Truffaut’s close friend, Jacques Rivette, described Charlie as “a bastard.”
      Yet for all that, over time Shoot the Piano Player has held up as a lovingly energetic valentine of American grade B-movies. I’d go even farther by describing it as a loving tribute to American culture at large. Loosely based on a novel by American writer David Goodis, Down There, this film is a kind of là-bas (“over there” or “down-there”) view of the warring contradictions—at least from a Frenchman’s view—of US life, where “over there” is perhaps also a kind of hell—but nonetheless kinetic world that in its very diversity breaks with the bonds of the past.
     Truffaut himself saw the film as a purposeful attempt “to break the linear narrative and make a film where all the scenes would please me. I shot without any other criteria.” The result is an energetic, at times almost frenetic fantasia, a work that is a-jumble—as life often is—with comedy, tragedy, and ridiculous melodrama. Charlie’s world, like Chaplin’s world, is one in which the ordinary clown of everyday life is doomed to fall over and over, who yet, like a Beckettian figure, miraculously goes on, rising again to perform, to enact his lowly art. Yes, Charlie is a bastard, a fool, a lousy lover; but he is also a dreamer, a romancer who might have been a Casanova if he’d only had a break.
Los Angeles, January 25, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (January 2014).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Federico Fellini | La Strada (The Road)

the pebble’s purpose
by Douglas Messerli

Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano (screenplay, based on a story by Fellini and Pinelli), Federico Fellini (director) La Strada (The Road) / 1954, USA 1956

Yes, Fellini’s La Strada, at moments, is highly sentimental, using stereotypes instead of developed characters, and employing symbols to stand-in for a credible story! With this movie, moreover, Fellini declared his rupture with Italian neo-realism—at least the kind of neo-realism that demanded the ideological political and anti-religious perspectives. Indeed, along with Roberto Rossellini and, soon after, Michelangelo Antonioni, Fellini helped to destroy it! How the Marxist critics hated what they saw as Fellini’s betrayal.
     Fellini himself has described the filming of this seemingly simple story as nearly impossible, resulting near the end of the shoot in a complete nervous breakdown. Actor Anthony Quinn remembers it as a bone-wearying experience (“He drove me mercilessly, making me do scene after scene over and over again until he got what he wanted.”), but, Quinn continues “I learned more about film acting in three months with Fellini than I’d learned in all the movies I’d made before.” Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina (as Gelsomina) complained that the director was being particularly mean to her during its shoot. And there are moments, finally, when—as marvelous as she is playing the slightly retarded naïf—Masina, as Roger Ebert notes, is a shade to conscious and knowing, playing to her audience.
       Yet for all this, La Strada is simply radiant in its look, subject, and portrayal of deviant love. From the very first moment of this film, when the small-time circus performer, Zampanò (Quinn), returns to Gelsomina’s mother, reporting that the daughter he has previously bought from her, Rosa, has died, and purchases the second daughter for 10,000 lire, we know such a cruel transaction can lead to no good for the young woman. But the very thought that she might be of any value to anyone excites her, as she merrily joins the brutal strongman on what will be a voyage into death.
    Zampanò, true to his appearance, rapes, whips, and psychologically maltreats her as he leaves her waiting for his return home (a perfectly ridiculous cart hooked up to a motorcycle) from his dalliances with other women. Yet gradually Gelsomina does learn, not only to beat the drum while announcing “the Great Zampanò,” and, after the performance to pass the hat; but to play a comic in the absurdly badly acted sketch which begins by the strongman describing his rifle as a “fifle.” She even learns to play the trumpet.
       What she also learns, however, is just how painful life can be, behaving a bit like Fellini’s later high-spirited prostitute in another of his “road” movies, Nights of Cabiria. And she not only learns from Zampanò, but from a passing nun that life, even an itinerant life, can contain great joy and nobility. From the tight-rope-walking fool, Il Matto (a wonderful Richard Baseheart), she discovers that she might be a credible performer and, more importantly, that she does have a  purpose in living, even if it is the role of a pebble, in her “husband’s” life.
       The Fool, however, cannot resist taunting Zampanò, calling him “fifle,” and mocking the strongman’s greatest accomplishment: his ability, through flexing his abdominal muscles, to break a link of chains in which he has been wrapped. When Gelsomina is asked to also perform in Il Matto’s act, Zampanò grows wild, chasing the Fool with the intention of killing, an act that results with both performers in jail—Gelsomina waiting outside the prison.
       Even when she attempts to speak up for herself, arguing that her servitude to Zampanò is unconscionable, ultimately leaving him for a period, she  is still blindly attracted to another kind of a circus, in the form of a religious procession of a small town’s patron saint,  forced to join up with her brutish “husband” once again. Only when, after encountering the Fool once more on the road—this time with the result of Zampanò’s beating and accidently killing him—is Gelsomina completely transformed from a passive clown to a figure of conscience, even if her new-found moral being carries with it an aspect of insanity. Unable to cope with her insistent reminder that he is now a killer along with being a brute, Zampanò leaves her once more along the roadside as she sleeps, this time forever.
       We later discover that Gelsomina is found along a beach, eventually wasting away and dying. Hearing of the story from a woman whose father has taken Gelsomina in, Zampanò gets drunk and wanders to the nearby beach, where he breaks down in despair for having lost the woman to whom he could never acknowledge, even to himself, he loved.
      If Fellini’s work is a simple playing out of body, soul, and mind (Zampanò, Gelsomina, and Il Motto) it is also a profound statement about the Postwar world which the film portrays, a bleak landscape in which the souls and minds of the body politic have been clearly ravaged by the brute force of Italian Fascism. The tawdry circuses Fellini reveals of weak—if sometimes charming—imitations of more serious entertainments such as literature, cinema, and drama, remind us of Juvenal’s satiric statement “Two things only the people anxiously desire—bread and circuses. For Fellini, it is clear, the circus of life is a merely a coarser version of the vast mythic fantasies conjured up by the imagination—particularly his own. The very straightforward emblematic approach of La Strada is an early, provincial exploration, of the grand orgiastic entertainments he will later role out before our eyes in the Roman landscapes of La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, and Fellini Satryricon. If I prefer the later works over this gently personal remembrance, it is only that they represent elegantly deft fantasias that the characters of La Strada might never even have imagined. But then, it would hard for any of us to imagine the gifts Fellini left us when he became determined to go “full throttle.”  How can a pebble, no matter how useful, match the whole of Italian society—as Fellini portrayed it—gone berserk?

Los Angeles, January 22, 2014