Friday, May 30, 2014

Miklós Jancsó | Szerelmem, Electra (Electra, My Love)

woman of discontent
by Douglas Messerli

Gyula Hernádi (writer, based on a play by László Gyurkó), Miklós Jancsó (director) Szerelmem, Electra / 1974

Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love (also titled Elektreia) is a film that could never be made in Hollywood—or for that matter imagined by most Western European countries. A political musical, based on the story of Orestes plays, and centering on Electra might possibly be imagined as a kind of theatrical joke, but to actually present an entire scenario, presented in 12 long photographic shots is almost inconceivable. And, as Electra (Mari Töröcsik) intrudes upon King Aegisthus’ József Madaras) celebratory day—held every year for the now for the fifteen years since her father, Agamemnon’s murder—wandering in a kind of stumbling pattern through the crowds of dancing peasants, nubile nude virgins, singers, comic dwarves, and a column of stridently brutal flagellators, as she speaks her long monologue of sentences such as: “I, Electra, who does not forget. While one person lives who doesn’t forget, no one can forget.” Despite everyone’s attempt to ameliorate and calm the “mad” woman in their midst, Electra remains, as Aegisthus describes her, “the woman of discontent.”           
   We recognize, in these theatrical cries, the roots of a fable of serious political significance, in which Electra rails again and again against all tyrants, which people such as her deter in their very statements of the tyrant’s lies. But also cannot help but wonder, at times, whether or not Jancsó is also intentionally satirizing his own metaphors; even in the most grand epic presentations of royal ceremony, such as the operatic-like marches of the masses of The Ten Commandments or Verdi’s Aida, have we encountered such over-the-top obsequious demonstrations, as the peasants, like an amateur folk-dance group, run back and forth across the Hungarian putzla amidst the posed scenes of nude women and young boys. And, in a sense, we side with Electra all the more because of our recognition of the absolute silliness of Aegisthus’ celebrations, and his bread-and-circus solutions to his culture’s woes. Even if we didn’t know that Aegisthus is a tyrant, we have to recognize him, in these often meaningless song and dance routines that he is a grand impresario in the manner of someone like Cecil De Mille or Busby Berkeley, carefully managing the masses by parading them in patterns so grand that even they cannot recognize their own beginnings ends. When the peasants are no longer asked to perform they fall to the ground, as if drained of any energy they may once have represented.

     Electra awaits only for her vengeance in the appearance of her brother Orestes, who she predicts will destroy the killer of Agamemnon; but when he does suddenly appear, out of nowhere, she no longer recognizes him and kills her brother because, as he has bragged, for killing Orestes. Taking advantage of the situation, Aegisthus declares that Electra now be punished by death. But Orestes—who stands throughout Jancsó’s mythologically-grounded fable, as an eternal force—comes alive, capturing the King and his associates, and killing his beloved aide before turning his attentions to Aegisthus himself. By this time, the very presence of such a savior has fomented a rebellion within the people themselves as they turn away from their stylized dances to the murder of their former tyrant-king.

      In Jancsó’s version of the myth, Orestes is not visited by the furies, but by his own sister who destroys him as he destroys her, each arising the next morning to repeat the acts. So, suggests the director, their familial self-destruction is necessary for regeneration, needed in order to destroy the tyrants of each generation. Jancsó uses a metaphor of the firebird (which the film comically portrays in the image of a small, red, airplane upon which Electra and Orestes decamp and return), who dies each night to be renewed each morning to reinfuse the population that they will arise with new purpose.

      Filmed originally in 1974, an era that vibrantly led up to the overthrowing of Soviet power in Hungary in 1989, Jancsó’s film represents numerous issues of that country’s politics during the period. But the somewhat Mao-like revolutionary philosophy seems to me to lie far too close to the generations of tribal warfare in the Balkans—particularly given his association of his thinking with generational battles of family vengeance. One generation’s tyrant may be the next generations savior, while each destroys the worlds (and individuals) surrounding. Caught up in these endless cycles, so we can observe, neighbors, and neighboring cultures equally terrorized until there is no end of human suffering, the firebird itself becoming the tyrant of its own good intentions. Jancsó’s curious fiction hints at, but never answers the obvious question: “Are people better off in living in a spiritual death under the tyrant or better off existing in a perceived free world of eternal death?” Neither world seems to me provide a solution to survival of the individual or the species.

Los Angeles, May 30, 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Billy Wilder | Sabrina

without an umbrella
by Douglas Messerli

Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor, and Ernest Lehman (based on the play by Samuel Taylor), directed by Billy Wilder Sabrina / 1954

Given the wry comic sensibility and polished acting of Billy Wilder’s 1954 film, Sabrina, it might be difficult to comprehend why, years later, Wilder described his experience with the film as one of his worst directorial experiences. Wilder himself was distressed with Audrey Hepburn’s acting skills. Actor Humphrey Bogart, who had wanted Lauren Bacall for the role, suggested that Hepburn was fine if you liked 20 retakes of each scene.

That actor also hated the younger figure in the film’s sexual triangle, William Holden, whom he dubbed “smiling Billy.” And, even more serious, he turned on the director, associating Wilder’s German accent and notoriously imperious decision-making as similar to working with a Nazi—surely a label of the most painful sort for an Austrian Jew who had escaped Hitler’s Holocaust.    

     Meanwhile, throughout the filming Holden and Hepburn were quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) carrying on a sexual affair, which ended soon after the filmmaking when Hepburn discovered that Holden could no longer have children. Surely their on-screen likeability when they appear in one another’s company, has much to do with that relationship. But the film’s story—based on a moderately successful stage play by Samuel Taylor with further writing by Ernest Lehman, and Wilder himself—centers upon Hepburn’s (as Sabrina Fairchild) growing love for Bogart (the serious-minded business man Linus Larrabee). Throughout her career Hepburn was paired with older men (Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant near the end of his career, Rex Harrison, and others), but it is an even further stretch to imagine a love affair between Bogart, spitting out lines between loose dentures and hearkening back to a vision of “boula-boula” days at Yale, a song of the 1930s. The movie outlines the age difference even more exaggeratedly by featuring Frank Silver’s and Harry Cohn’s 1922 song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas” as among the works in Linus Larrabee’s juvenile collection of records.  
  Despite Hepburn’s beautiful smile and stunning outfits (clothes, for the most part, designed by Givency, but for which in-house designer Edith Head won an Oscar, without even a nod to Givency), it seems nearly impossible, given the logic of the tale, to imagine Hepburn giving up her relationship with the playboy David Larrabee (Holden) for the grandfatherly Linus, a man we can well imagine might easily grow into the role of his Monopoly card look-alike figure of the Larabee brother’s father (a befuddled Walter Hampden). While the 1995 remake of the film worked hard to establish Linus as hard-working tycoon who went out of his way to do good for people, except for Bogart’s Linus’ argument that his Machiavellian mergers help the poor to find jobs, his character does not even apologize for using and abusing anyone around him—including his own brother—in order to become richer and gain a new plaque on the walls of his towering downtown business building. Although he claims not to care about money or power, he is, nonetheless, clearly obsessed by the lure of both.
Even re incredulously, we are asked to believe that David, who, as Linus accuses him, cannot even find his way to their family office building, and shows little ability—except in the arms of a woman—out of a water polo pool, suddenly awakens one morning to realize his brother is in love with the same woman with whom he claims to be infatuated, and is now miraculously willing to abandon her in favor the his former fiancée—a marriage whom the Larabee family and her father have knotted into a vast conglomeration of South American sugar cane and American plastics. Given the near-perpetual deceptions of Linus and his outright dissembling to Sabrina throughout his romantic pretense, it is nearly impossible to swallow the film’s conclusions, that all along what Linus really needed was to throw away his umbrella and raise the brim of his hat.

      Astonishingly, none of my petty pokes into the logic of Wilder’s film matter. Despite the absurdity of it all, the film spins out a story of magical love between two unlikely figures that in its comic tenderness has hardly been matched. Even if we account for the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, the director has succeeded in Sabrina perhaps more than he knew in setting up his likeable Cinderella to inherit the keys of the kingdom, which, we can only hope, she will redeem through her impetuous attempts to reach out for love. The grumbling Bogart can mumble into his whisky as much as he wishes, but, as Wilder predicted, he was a better actor in this little comedy than he thought he was. Even without an umbrella, Bogart and Wilder’s film make a gentle landing into the archives of American filmmaking, the movie selected for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2014

Monday, May 26, 2014

David Lean | Great Expectations

questions and conclusions
by Douglas Messerli

David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh (screenplay, based on the fiction by Charles Dickens). David Lean (director) Great Expectations / 1946

If, as some critics assert, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is one of his tautest, most compressed works, Lean’s film version of 1946, based on a stage version that had already been severely trimmed from the novel—in Dickensian terms, is nearly emaciated. Lean, had not read Dickens’ novel, so legend has it, before he began directing the movie. Yet, as commentators have observed, he often matches the spirit and tone of Dickens’ brilliant work.

The few scenes, in fact, present events that happen at a near break-neck speed, as the fiction’s young hero, Pip (Anthony Wager), wandering home through the local churchyard encounters the terrifying prison escapee, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who not only threatens the young boy with death, turns him upside down to release any food that might be contained in the boy’s pockets, and demands Pip return to him at dawn, bearing food and a file.

      Despite the eagle-eye and terrorizing “rampages” of Pip’s sister (Freda Jackson), with whom he lives, along with her gentle husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), Pip manages escape the house with a bottle of brandy and a savory meat pie, along with the wished-for file, delivering them up with a fair share of kindness to brutal criminal. His good acts, however, seemingly have little effect, as the police appear, recapturing Magwitch and his arch-enemy criminal friend, who has turned Magwitch in.

      We hardly have time to recover from this breathtaking series of events before Pip is summoned, quite unexpectedly, to the home of the wealthy and elderly local eccentric, Miss Haversham (Martita Hunt), an apparently well-meaning, if curt woman, whom we gradually discover to be a monster, determined through the beauty of her adopted child, Estella (Jean Simmons as a child and Valerie Hobson as an adult) to entrap boys like Pip by encouraging them in fall in love only to be jilted—just as the elderly lady was on the very day of her wedding!

      With these two fast-moving series of events, we really have the heart of the story, the rest being an unspooling of sorts of the questions and conclusions asked and made by both the film’s major character and its audience.

      Early on in the film, Pip is criticized by his older sister for asking too many questions, which she insists results in all the evils of the world. When Pip is suddenly told by a local lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has inherited money, becoming a man of “great expectations,” and will be sent to London to become a gentleman, the boy is again told that he may ask no questions about his benefactor. Jaggers advises: “Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence. There is no better rule.”

      Yet the child, like his society, cannot resist coming to his own conclusions based on appearances, presuming that his benefactor is Miss Haversham. And like the prejudiced and bigoted society around him—a society that would kill innocent children along with their guilty parents, and, as does Estella, automatically demeans anyone of “common” lineage—bases everything on superficial concerns. It is that problem which is at the heart of Pip’s many dilemmas throughout Dickens’ exciting narrative.

     Despite his growing awareness of Miss Haversham’s evil intentions, Pip still supposes her to be the source of his improved situation in life, and she, on her part, allows him to believe his own fabrication, further drawing him into her world, a universe bound together with spider-webs that knit together the emptiness of her dead life. Strangely enough, it is only Haversham’s minion Estella that tells him the truth, that she does not truly love him and that he should rid himself of any delusions about her. But here again, Pip refuses to perceive the evidence, seeing only a beautiful woman that, by societal conclusions, could not possibly be a woman of evil intentions.

      Similarly, when Magwitch suddenly appears in his (Pip now played as a adult by John Mills) and Henry Pocket’s (Alec Guinness) flat claiming that he is Pip’s benefactor, the young man is appalled, unable to believe what is now quite evident.

      Much of the latter portion of this work centers upon Pip’s punishments and willing corrections for his misconceptions and boorish social behavior, in particular his snobbish dismissal of his dear friend Joe. His attempts to help Magwitch escape back to Australia—he willing even to join him—and his struggle to repay Joe for his kindnesses when Pip, faced with debt, grows sick (events mostly excised from Lean’s cinematic version)—only emphasize that the man of “great expectations” has failed to live up to them through his embracement, instead, of societal conventions.      

     In Dickens’ work, Pip’s punishment seems also to include his loss of the beautiful Estella—a woman who, after all, has nearly trapped him in a loveless relationship equal to the one in which she has become entrapped by Bentley Drummle (Thorin Thatcher). In his first version of his novel, Pip merely spots Estella, who has been forced suffer abuse from Drummle, at a dinner party. But in the 1863 edition, Dickens’ revised the work to have his narrator report, after seeing Estella, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”—an alteration about which critics have been split for more than a century. Given the issue of “questioning and concluding or assuming” that plays such an important role in this work, I would tend to side with those who find the change to be unfortunate, myself questioning how Pip could even come to love a woman who had so obviously and rather willingly betrayed him and other men, and who, we later discover, is actually Magwitch’s legal daughter, making her—in psychological terms, at least—a spiritual sister.  

     Lean, who generally in his films plays to popular sentiment, goes even further than usual in Great Expectations, creating a dramatic version of the ending that is the weakest moment of his endeavor. Meeting again in Miss Haversham’s mansion, the two face-off, Estella—hurt by her relationship with Drummle—determined to become another Miss Haversham, to join her mentor in her obsession with the past. In anger and frustration, Pip tears open the windows, throwing the moth eaten curtains and other of the room’s leftovers to floor in order to reveal that everything of Miss Haversham’s world is dust and decay. Arguing that he has never stopped loving her, he takes Estella by the hand as the two leave the house together, she hoping that she can meet his commitment to life.

     If Dickens’ revision was somewhat sentimental, so too are many elements of his works, and his choice of a more ambiguous and even possibly positive ending, is still all of a piece with the fiction at large. Lean’s fantastical conclusion works completely against the whole logic of the original concept of Great Expectations, pandering to just those societal expectations that are created not by “evidence” but by “appearances.” One can almost hear Lean and his cowriters querying one another, “how can two such beautiful figures not come together and live happily ever after?” The result is a bit like suddenly marrying off Heathcliff to Catherine in a filmed Wuthering Heights, bannering it with a beribboned message: “And So They Lived….”

     If there is much to be applauded in Lean’s film, particularly in Guy Green’s darkly etched cinematography, there is also, as in many of Lean’s works which he seemed determined to turn into literary epics, a great deal of unnecessarily restrained passion and outright schmaltz. If Lean was a perfectionist in setting up his camera’s every shoot, it’s too bad he wasn’t a better literary thinker able to fully perceive the consequences of his tinkering with the original narratives and their plots.

Los Angeles, May 26, 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Alexsandr Dovzhenko | Арсенал (Arsenal)

where is the enemy?

by Douglas Messerli

Alexsandr Dovzhenko (screenplay and director) Арсенал (Arsenal) / 1928


Depending upon which side of the fight you stood in the early 20th century between the nationalist, Petliura-led Ukrainians, the Russian Reds who had ruled Ukraine for hundreds of years and were desperate to keep it within the Russian borders, and the new-developed Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Ukrainian workers who sought some of the values of Russian politics but also fought for an independent Ukraine. The boundaries between these three battling forces were not always clear and, the Bolshevik position, in particular—the position from which Alexsandr Dovzhenko’s important film, Arsenal seems to be arguing—was seen by the nationalists as traitorous, and in fact probably did help in weakening the nationalists and helping the Russians to overtake Petliura’s troops.

      Perhaps we should simply say that Dovzhenko tells his story of the 1918 uprising of Bolsheviks at the Kiev Arsenal features a hero, Tymish Stoyan, who seemingly supports the Bolshevik position. But the complexity of Dovzhenko’s work, particularly its use of the classical Ukrainian literary form, “the duma” (an oral lament), makes it difficult to characterize, just as in in his Earth, as a simple embracement of new Soviet values—despite the fact that the Russians themselves saw Dovzhenko’s “Historical-Epic” in that way, and, particularly in the Red-Russians’ charge across the Ukrainian landscape in Episode Six, the director tells the tale through the methods of the older tradition.

In fact, Dovzhenko makes his case for a far-more pacifist view in the very first of his seven episodes as the warring World War I troops attack an empty trench, while Tymish (Semen Svashenko), as a young soldier, arrives to find no one there, crying out as he tosses away his rifle, “Where is the enemy?”

      Half-embedded corpses are scattered throughout the landscape; in another short sequence we see a German soldier, suffering from laughing gas, slowly going insane. Despite the continued assaults, the battles we observe are already over. But before they soldiers can even assimilate that fact, new battles are being plotted as Tsar Nicholas, writing a letter in St. Petersburg, seems to have no perspective of larger issues, writing instead of a hunting expedition and the weather. So devastated are the surviving members of the populace who some simply stand in a stupor, one not even registering the sexual assaults she suffers by hands of a local official; a mother who has lost her three elder sons, beats her young boy and daughter; a seemingly docile village man beats his own horse before reclaiming it and pulling it off.

       The soldiers from the front have not even returned home before they are rounded up and forced to sign up for service in Petilura’s forces; of his peers, seemingly only Tymish refuses to sign up. Asked who he is, he describes himself as a “demolished soldier. An Arsenal worker.” When asked whether is a Ukrainian (i.e. a nationalist) or a worker (i.e. a Bolshevik), Tymish cannot comprehend separating the two. He is unable, as the insightful on-line critic Ray Uzwyshyn points out, to divide himself into two opposing beings. As Dovzhenko makes quite clear, however, the Petliura forces do not represent the workers as much as they do the Ukrainian capitalists; the director insists on bringing up the question that few loyal Ukrainian’s of the day could ask themselves: are we better off as a free nation of landowners or a free nation of workers?

       Going even further, as Uzwyshyn observes, the holy trinity of the nationalist forces are represented not only by General Petilura and a supporting “Petliurite” from the “Haidamak Kish” (dressend in a cossack’s sheepskin cap) , but also by a far more surprising, a sailor with a cap that cannot but remind one of a sailor from the Black Sea Fleet of the Battleship Potempkin as portrayed in the posters of that Eisenstein’s film, Bronenosets Potemkin by Rodchenko and Lavinskii, images that by the time of Dovzhenko’s film had become so iconic that everyone might identify them, and were certainly known by the Ukrainian director.

     In short, Dovzhenko asserts, at least subliminally, that the Ukrainian nationalist’s forces were in tandem with the Soviet-led Black Sea Fleet, which would ultimately, of course, abandon the Ukrainian cause to support the Soviet domination.

      When Tymish joins the Bolshevik strike of the Arsenal, moreover, it is with less political commitment and zealotry than out of a sense of his identity with the working class, which throughout the film, Dovzhenko dramatically represents in dichotomy to dithering, confused capitalists who throughout the film shout out unheard speeches that demand total allegiance to their blather. As most critics have observed, Arsenal is less about the actual uprising that a singular battle between Tymish, as representative of the workers. Indeed, nearly all the figures of Dovzhenko’s film are types, symbols of their positions rather than realist figures who act out deeds of psychologically-perceived values. And Dovzhenko’s style and methods are far closer to the late 20th century director, Sergei Paradjanov, who, also using traditional narrative story-telling methods, created films that relied on a series of emblems, short scenarios dependent upon the visual more than action.

       In the end of Dovzhenko’s film, as Tymish, attempting to battle the nationalist forces, finds his gun in empty, the character ceases almost entirely to be a “real” human being, and is transformed into an image that stands for all of the insane destruction which the country, and by extension, the world, has been forced to face. The attackers’ guns no longer can kill him, as he tears open his shirt, rising up—as Uzwyshyn argues—as a visual icon of Edvard Munch’s 1910 painting The Scream. Whether or not Dovzhenko was actually thinking of the painting or not, the image represents that emotion and reveals that the director perceives his “character” less as a figure who stands for a political point of view than as a symbol of the oppression such views impose upon their populaces. In the end, both the reactionary Ukrainian critics of the director’s own time, nearly all of whom damned the film, and the Soviets who saw in this director’s work a viewpoint close to their own, missed, it seems to me, the true message of Dovzhenko’s  stunning cinema-making. Making films when he did, Dovzhenko had always to carefully balance seemingly political statements with his own, often avant-garde, film-making procedures. It meant that often he could not make the films he might have desired to shoot, but it also meant that he survived the years of Stalin’s purges without completely abandoning his own values in art.

Los Angeles, May 23, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuado | Luci del varieta (Variety Lights)

a poor house of artists
by Douglas Messerli

Alberto Lattuada, Tulio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano (screenplay, based on a story by Federico Fellini), Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuado (directors) Luci del varietà (Variety Lights) / 1950, USA 1965

Although in the middle of the Federico Fellini-Alberto Lattuada directed film of 1950, Variety Lights, the central figure Cheeco Del Monte (Peppino De Felippo) suddenly encounters a world of poor artists who live on the streets of Rome or artists who spend their nights in “poor houses,” hotels where the poor sleep upright, locked into position by a wooden brace, the entire movie might be described as presenting a kind “house of poor artists”—artists who not only have little money but are poor performers, singers, dancers, and comedians showing very little talent playing night after night on the stages of small town Italian theaters before escaping, once again, the theater managers and others to whom they owe their salaries. Fellini’s film—and despite the co-direction of this movie, one would have to recognize it as a Fellini’s vision—portrays a whole world of delusional wanna-bes, figures, who have very little to offer, are convinced of their abilities to entertain and are enchanted with the flea-bitten theater companies that allow them the chance to strut their stuff.
     Like people everywhere, these individuals weigh themselves by their survival, venting jealousies, false pride, and their desires for love as if they belonged to a wealthy opera company instead of the backstreet popular venue, which even its unsophiscated audiences often mock. Fellini’s and Lattuado’s version of these rough-hewn pretenders is comic and, at times, sentimental; but one might imagine, had he simply pushed his sense of the absurd and exaggerated his types just a little further, he might have ended up with a film closer to Tod  Browning’s Freaks rather than to the darkly comic work he actually created. Characters such as Cheeco, Edison Will (Giulio Cali), some of the dancers, and even Liliana (Carla Del Poggio) may be dislikeable, but they ultimately find sympathy in the viewer’s eyes. They are not monsters, even if their behaviors might threaten to break out into violence and chaos. Checco’s new company, moreover—the one  hecreates in opposition to the tawdry side-show in which he have previously played--is peopled by far more likeable and innocent figures, particularly the quite talented American trumpet player Johnny (John Kitzmiller), the Gypsy street singer (Vanja Orico), and the gun slinging cowboy Pistolero Bill (Joseph Falleta). Even though this company fails even more than the previous company with whom he worked, there is something redeeming in their far greater-innocence, their devout poverty, and their unquestionable devotion to their arts.

     Although there are obvious connections between Variety Lights and later works such La strada and even 8 ½, I would suggest that this early film has far more in common with Fellini’s significant 1959 masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, two scenes in particular which predict the director’s satire of the Italian elite and their hangers-on. The one night that the often hungry and sleep-deprived acting troupe actually are invited to dinner and to spend the night in comfortable beds in the castle of a local Duke (Giacomo Furia) ends badly when, because they have interfered with the Duke’s sexual assault of Liliana, they are asked to leave; like the partiers at the castle of Roman aristocracy, the actors are forced to shuffle off into the sunrise like ghosts without a clear destination in their lives. Shortly after, at a upscale Roman nightclub, Fellini gives us a preview of the bacchanalian-like dancing and sexual coupling of Roman life, including the famed scene of men riding their women like animals while sitting upon their backs, featured in his later film. In many respects, Variety Lights represents a community not unlike the journalists and paparazzi of few years later—the only major difference being these poorer folk have a bit less imagination than their debauching brothers. But in that fact, in their simpleness, they are, perhaps, less destructive and more appealing that those who have reached the pinnacle of success these poor folk seek.

     The final scenes of Fellini’s and Lattuada’s concoction reveal just this reality, as the now well-dressed, fur-covered Liliana, finally able to find success with a wealthy burlesque company on their way to Milan, encounters Checco and his company traveling in the opposite direction toward a small Italian village where they will perform that night. Checco is impressed by Liliana’s beauty and attire; she has clearly attained all of her dreams—or has she? We have witnessed her new role: her breast covered with pasties, she balances what seems to be an overweight drag-queen (or one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen) singing her way down a staircase in a cheap imitation of the Follies Bergère. Frankly, I’d rather see Pistolaro Bill, the Brazilian singing gypsy, and Johnny the trumpeter any day over the kitschy burlesque routine which now pays her bills.
     And Fellini appropriately ends his film with another train trip, as we tag along with Checco’s new-found friends, and, more importantly, his return to the arms of his beloved Melina Amour (Giulietta Masina), who he has previously abandoned for Liliana. Yet, while everything has changed for the untalented Liliana, nothing has changed, except the faces, in Checco’s company, as a new girl enters their train car, flirting with Checco as he flirts right back: great actor, director, agent Checco is a self-important fool who will never learn—perhaps for his own protection—who he really is. So if Liliana is blind to reality, so too, suggests the directors, is Checco. For those devoted to theater, only the few moments they stomp the stage floor has any truth.

Los Angeles, May 21, 2014

Reprinted from International Cinema Review (May 2014).

Friday, May 16, 2014

Yasujirō Ozu | Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy)

Yasujirō Ozu (as James Maki) (story), Tado Ikeda (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) 出来ごころ, Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) / 1933, USA 2013

 By Douglas Messerli

Passing Fancy, Ozu’s 1933 silent film, like so many of his other films throughout his career, is a thoroughly enjoyable film, filled with wonderful moments, whose plot is hardly worth recounting. A poor, lazy, and slightly despicable “everyday” man, Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) lives alone with his young son, Tomio (the charming Tokkan Kozo). Next door lives Kihachi’s best friend, Jiro (Den Obinata), with whom he works at a brewery, and the restaurant where he and Jiro drink and eat almost every morning and evening, owned by another friend, Otome (Chouko Iida).
     The film begins at rōkyoku performance, a kind of variety show including readings of famed Japanese texts. But most the camera’s attention is taken up by broad comic events, as the hot and mostly undressed crowd comically explore every aspect from petty thievery (of a found wallet), the attacks of lice (it appears the entire crowd badly needs a delousing), and mockery of some of their neighbors. The whole event plays out a bit like a rowdy gathering of adult boys being boringly entertained. Many of these figures, particularly Kihachi, as we later learn, are uneducated and cannot even read. This is their most significant cultural event.

       Soon after the theater performance, Kihachi, on his way home with Jiro, his son hefted upon his back, encounters a destitute woman, Harue (Nobuko Fushimi), to whom he immediately and ridiculously—given his age difference and lack of attractive features—is attracted, and becomes determined to court. Despite his young son’s apparent embarrassment of his father’s behavior, when she asks if he know of a place where she might sleep for the night, he sets her up with his friend Otome; Jiro, perceiving the poor girl as a former prostitute, dismisses and tries to dissuade Kihachi from any involvement.

     The kindly Otome soon becomes interested in the quiet girl, hiring her as a server. And Kihachi, meanwhile, becomes even more determined to become involved with the handsome woman, asking for an advance from his brewery boss so that he might buy her a present, and, after lunch, refusing to return to work so that we can communicate with her. So begins a long series of ridiculous gestures on Kihachi’s part to flirt with a young girl who sees him as nothing but a kind of “uncle.” She is far more attracted to Jiro, but he, quite piously rejects her, attributing any her interest in him simply as another attempt to find great financial support.

      When Otome determines that Harue should get married, she visits Kihachi to discuss the issue, he hoping to be perceived as the perfect solution to the problem; but when he suggests that he is love with Harue, Otome laughs, dismissing him. Besides, she proclaims, Harue sees Kihachi only as a uncle; while she is in love with Jiro. Will Kihachi please help convince Jiro that he should marry Harue? she implores.

       So must Kihachi come to terms, perhaps for one of the first times in his life, with his own longevity, which, given his self-destructive habits, may not be as long as he imagines. Although he agrees to convince Jiro to marry Harue, the facts that Otome has forced him to face drive him to drunkenness. At the very same moment, several of Tomio’s schoolmates gang up on him, mocking him for his father’s inability to even read the newspaper and falls into a near stupor from drinking in response to Harue’s lack of sexual interest in him. The event is particularly painful to the young child since he is one of the best students at school, which seems to have given him no protection.

When his father returns home drunk, Tomio angrily mocks and scolds him for his behavior, to which the drunken father responds by beating him. Tomio, in turn, hits back, slapping his father across the face again and again and throwing his own textbooks at him. A few seconds later, however, the child breaks down into a near-torrent of tears, hugging his father to him in order to ask for forgiveness. We see him, a short while later, back at his table reading his schoolbooks once again. As a kind of make-up gift, Kihachi gives the boy 50 sen to treat himself to a treasure.

       At work the next day Kihachi is suddenly called home, someone reporting that his son is seriously ill. Rushing home, he discovers his son in a near comma, a doctor attending him. The boy, who has used the coin to buy a series of sweets—all of which he has consumed—is diagnosed with actute enteritis. Although the cause of the illness may seem comic, the illness itself is quite serious and, for a period of time, as the boy is attended by Otome, Harue, and Jiro, Kihachi is terrorized by the possibility that his son may die. Just as serious, he perceives suddenly that he has no way to pay the doctor; his method of living day by day has not allowed for any emergency or even an ordinary life.

       Perceiving the family’s dilemma, Harue suddenly speaks out, assuring Kihachi that she will raise the needed money, for which he sincerely thanks her but kindly rejects. Jiro, recognizing that she might raise such a sum only through prostitution which would not end well, approaches her alone, insisting that he will raise the needed money. And, in that same moment, revealing that he does love Harue and is ready to marry her.

       .Jiro borrows the money from the kindly barber, determining to get a temporary job in isolate Hokkaido as a laborer to pay him back. Harue, accordingly, is equally pained that at the very moment she has found happiness that it will be whisked away from her. When Kihachi hears to Jiro’s decision he tracks down Jiro, slugging him out so that he make take his place on the ship travelling north. Although the barber insists that he need not even paid back, Kihachi leaves his son in Harue’s and Otome’s hands, and goes aboard the ship.

       The ship does not even get out of port, however, before, after showing the other would-be laborers the message the school has sent his son, Kihachi suddenly realizes his mistake in abandoning his beloved son, and jumps overboard, swimming back to a peninsula which will eventually lead him back to Tokyo.

       Despite apparent emptiness of some of these comic tropes, however, Ozu’s film often becomes brilliant through minor but important cinematic techniques, the use throughout of mirrors to reveal what is often happening out of view off-screen, the often hilarious theatrical poses into which Tomio falls immediately after his bad-boy bullying of his worthless father, the linguistically absurd koan-like childish jokes of Tomio—“Why is the sea salty? Because there are so many salted salmon,”—which, with such like emphasis on language sometimes make this film seem as if it were a talkie, and the beautifully shot everyday scenes of life on the characters’ winding, backstreet.

     Finally, Ozu, as he does in several films, uses a series of subtle behavioral and cultural clues that seem almost perfect for a Roland Barthes-like reading of elements of the story. In this case, it centers upon the way in which Ozu’s male characters, Kihachi, Tomio, and, to a lesser degree Jiro, employ various stages of dressing and undressing throughout the film. The characters, as I have mentioned, seem to be dressed in their underwear for the first scene of the rōkyoku performance, but, obviously, dress up to go to work and school, shedding their clothes again when they return home. In Passing Fancy they drop these articles of pants and shirts upon the floor, the woman stopping by often to hang them up on hooks. In particular, we watch Kihachi, abandon his work clothes for more traditional Japanese attire in order to woo Harue, a quite elaborate procedure that makes him the subject of mockery to those around him, while he struts out, peacock proud. They recognize such dress, clearly, as being itself a kind of “passing fanciness? The loose white robes of the traditional clothing seem more comfortable given the high temperatures of the Tokyo summer which they all suffer. But it is that very ceremonial quality of such attire that sets him apart from all others. For the most part, the males are happy simply to shed their work clothes as quickly as they can upon returning home, becoming figures closer to naked natives than to men assimilated to publically approved attire. Even the intelligent child Tomio prefers, for the most part, to go shirtless. In a sense, all of this dressing and undressing, something in which the women do not participate, suggest their discomfort with participating in the social conventions of covering their bodies in costumes that represent position and values—in short, fashion. And in that respect, these figures are less “everymen” as they are undefined lumps of raw flesh, beings without the ability to enter the society at large. In particular, Kihachi, who pulls off his clothes with his own feet, suddenly relieved in the freedom of the act, seems as if he will never quite assimilate to the society at large. Despite his abilities, Tomio clearly needs to accommodate himself to the schoolboy jacket and pants if he is to transcend his father’s world. Jiro, the former officer, dressed at home, in a more comfortable traditional-like robe, but without the trimmings of Kihachi’s more formal attire (his robe is dark, not blindingly white), perhaps will learn to marry comfort with fashion and move into the whole of society in which he and his new wife can survive.

      If nothing else, Ozu’s early film is worth watching simply for its comic sense of humanity compared with a time, soon after, when everything will completely fall apart, and where officious costumes will be recognized as necessities, and wherein the well-educated Tomio will perhaps die in the war.

Los Angeles, May 16, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Richard Ayoade | The Double

surviving through suicide

By Douglas Messerli

 Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine (screenplay, based on Dostoevsky’s novella, The Double), Richard Ayoade (director) The Double / 2013, USA 2014

 So intertwined are the successes and failures of Richard Ayoade’s film, The Double, which I saw the other day at Landmark’s Nu-Art Theatre, that I increasingly become uncertain whether I can succulently unweave the various elements of the film in order to properly evaluate it. I guess we should say, right out—in a time when most films are so banal and adolescent that they are not even worth talking about—that a film dedicated, even at the skeletal level of Ayoade’s movie, to a Dostoevsky story ought to be celebrated. And the opportunity it gives its star(s), Jesse Eisenberg (as both Simon James and James Simon), to act out two oppositional figures, should be seen as a significant theatrical gift, particularly within the acting community. That Eisenberg’s performance, particularly early on as the nerdy, unimaginative Simon James is somewhat muddled, is perhaps to be expected; and he surely redeems himself as he slips into Simon’s polar opposite, as the likeable, sociable, and, apparently for nearly every woman he meets, sexually desirable James Simon.
      Perhaps it is also inevitable that, given the surrealist-like elements of such a story, that the youngish (37) British director would also allow himself the influences and palettes of figures such as Gogol (also an influence for Dostoevsky), Kafka, and Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. The later allows him a truly memorable excursion into an office world of sickly green lights, permanent cubicles, and noisy machines from a distant past that strangely are asked to function in a slightly futurist environment. All of this is overseen by a boorish hoot of a manipulator-office manager, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn).  
     Much like a figure straight out of Kafka, Simon James is represented as such a person of low-esteem that he gives up his seat in an otherwise empty train to a man who claims James in sitting in his seat! Arriving at his place of work, he is told that his identification has been cancelled, and, although has worked there for several years, he must sign-in as a stranger-guest each day, the imposing security guard refusing to be able to even identify him. Indeed, hardly any of his colleagues can recall James as a real human being, although many of them are quite ready to take advantage of his abilities to help themselves to get advances.
      From Gogol, the director has stolen an entirely bureaucratic world where, even though employees are “required” to attend a company party, Simon cannot gain entry since he has no current identification papers. Strangely, he is perhaps the only employee who might have something to truly offer the owner, The Colonel (James Fox): a paper outlining the inefficiency of the organization.   

      The only seemingly joy this loser has is the beauty of his neighbor, also an employee in his company, Hannah (Mia Washikowska), whom each night he watches through a telescope as she mysteriously paints figures which she cuts up and tosses into the trash bin. Simon rushes out to the  bin to retrieve the pieces, pasting them into what we later perceive as a album dedicated to her lost art.     
     One night he sees a young man, whom he immediately recognizes as a carbon copy of himself, who waves at him before jumping from a window to his death. Reporting the incident to the police, Simon suddenly enters a strange relationship with the “ghost” of his own being, a doppelgänger that in Dostoevsky leads to his mental breakdown and in Ayoade’s film ends with his near suicide.
     At first, the relationship develops as a kind of intense friendship, perhaps—as his double suggests—with a repressed element of homosexuality, as we watch Simon readily invite James to live with him, and we observe him lovingly stroking the intruder’s face. But that friendship quickly is transformed into anger and even hate as he watches his doppelgänger hired by his own company, which quickly praises James’ talents, and offers him a position far above that which, despite the several years of servitude, Simon has attained. Like others in the company, James takes advantage of Simon’s intelligence by forcing him to take the battery of tests the company requires, while admitting that he does not even know what the company does. Simon’s abilities allow James to easily pass the test and move even higher in the company structure, or, at least, in the Papadopoulos’ and the Colonel’s appreciation of him.

Seemingly out of pity, James attempts to help Simon woo the woman he loves, Hannah; but soon after Simon perceives that James has not only moved romantically in on Hannah, but has used some of Simon’s own words to describe his feelings. James has also taken Simon’s inefficiency report directly to the Colonel, garnering him further acclaim within the halls of this ambiguous business. Although none of his fellow employees seem to be able to recognize that the two men look alike, Simon and James find that not only do they share appearances, but they share, so it seems, the functions of their bodies, as Simon grows violent and attempts to destroy his double.    He quickly recognizes, however, that to do so would be to destroy himself. Fired from the company which has almost served as his home, the “simple Simon” of this tale figures out simply how to survive. Like James, Simon will wave to his doppelgänger as he leaps to his death. In the earlier scene in which he have watched Simon fall, the police have noted that had he only landed momentarily on a overhang nearly, he might have survived, severely hurt of course, but able to recover. Simon does just that and is awarded, in turn, praise from both the detective and the love of Hannah.
     What happens to James seems murky at best: is he now truly destroyed, believing Simon has died? Has Simon’s survival determined the end of opponent’s activities? Ayoade’s film does not even attempt to reveal the fictional reality it has created. And that is, indeed, the problem with much of film. What does the sickly retro landscape of this film have to do with its subjects? I suppose we can see a society that steals from an age before it in order to make over reality as being a kind of doubling. But it seems, at best, a kind of charming tick: as some reviewers simply commented, Ayoalde, like Wes Anderson, has his own private landscape in which he works.

     Although Kafka does not seem far away from the bureaucratic ridiculousness of Golyadkin Jr./ Golyadkin Sr. tale of Dostoevsky, the various intense encounters Simon has with authority throughout the film, only reiterates his own nerdish sensibilities, without particularly offering us new insights into James’ condition. Ayoade does, through at least two scenes, takes his character back into the horrific relationship he has had with his mother, but other than her being a kind gorgon who can enjoy nothing in life, she seems, living in a perverse nursing home, to be basically far-removed from his current life, and he seems to have a perspective about it that allows him to distance himself from her oppressive demands. And what are we to make, finally, about the whole sequence of life and death events between the two major figures, with its vaguely vampire-like implications?

      If Ayoade, at times, seems like a talented director, he is also a sometimes amateur one, who is still unable to make all the references that apparently so charm him cohere. There are many pleasing elements in The Double, the comic-seriousness of its tone, the slightly estranged landscape it creates, and the oppositional characters it represents; but at moments this movie seems to be pulling in too many directions at all once, forcing some of its elements into highly symbolical significance, while rendering other aspects into something like comic riffs to which the director never returns.

     So let The Double be just that, an apprenticeship-like work of a director discovering his themes and techniques. We need such movies, for they are what eventually result in great film-making. It’s clear, finally, that Ayoade, is learning quickly about what he wants to do and how to do it effectively. If The Double is not great film-making, it is surely far and away better than most of movies we must currently endure by so-called "professionals."

Los Angeles, May 14, 2014