Sunday, June 29, 2014

Arturo Ripstein | El Colonel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel)

The great Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez died on April 17 of this year. The importance of García Márquez’s fictions determined that I must write something about him in 2014 memoirs, and in preparation for an essay, I began rereading his work, Love in the Time Cholera. My own “disease,—if you can call arthritis a disease—intervened as I was hospitalized for knee replacement. Those few days, which interrupted my reading patterns, along with other review assignments I received from the magazine Nth Position, distracted me from continuing. And, as much as I originally loved his absolutely exemplary novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read the year it was first published, in 1967, I simply didn’t have the “one hundred years” of energy it seemed to require on revisting that masterpiece.

     To be honest, despite my recognition of this author’s significance to 20th century writing, I feel his works exemplify a kind of world construct of hierarchical values embedded in the notion of realism, even in its “magical” variations, to which I am no longer thoroughly attracted.  García Márquez is an ultimate storyteller, but his stories do not always represent a reality which I can completely swallow.

      Recently, however, I have been attending to the films of Mexican film director Arturo Ripstein, and when I realized that he had created a cinematic version of the Columbian’s novella, No One Writes to the Colonel, I was immediately convinced that writing on that work might better serve as my appreciation of great writer, particular since this tale had few of the qualities of “magical realism,” suggesting a somewhat more genuine—to my way thinking at least—observation of human behavior.     


everything is as it was

by Douglas Messerli

Paz Alicia Garciadiego (based on the novella by Gabriel García Márquez), Arturo Ripstein (director) El Colonel no tiene quein le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) / 1999

Almost from the very beginning of Arturo Ripstein’s highly moving film version of Gabriel Garcła Márquez’s No One Writes to the Colonel, we perceive the small, sleepy town in which Colonel (Fernando Luján) lives lies in near stasis. Certainly the lives of the Colonel and his wife, Lola (Marisa Paredes), have lived in the world of the past since the murder of their beloved son, Agustin. Even their clock throughout the early part of the work is broken, and after it is repaired, they are forced to sell it. Having put his house into mortgage in order to pay for a proper burial for his son, the Colonel and his wife, moreover, have survived with practically nothing to eat, both of them lying to each other about having already eaten or being unable to consume anything, in the wife’s case, due to asthma.

     The Colonel, moreover, lives still in the world of his youth, during which he fought, along with the Communists, in the Cristeros War (La Cristiada), the 1917 Mexican battles waged against the clerics by then Mexican President Plutarco Elłas Calles in his struggle to help peasants to gain property rights, a revolution which the Catholic Church had opposed. Thousands were killed in the 10 year persecution of Church and its believers.

     By the time we meet the Colonel in the 1940s, the war and its results are a thing of the past, with the clerics returned to power and, much to the Colonel’s dismay, allowed openly to pray and to bless their parishioners publically. In the smuggled, evidently illegal, newspapers that the town’s openly gay doctor (Odiseo Bichir) passes on to the Colonel, the old man has read that all former soldiers will be paid a pension consisting of a percentage of their former wages— money, quite obviously, which he and Lola are desperate to obtain. But over the 21-year period since this declaration, despite the Colonel having written the central government, no money has arrived.  The title proclaims the reality that the Colonel, in his weekly strolls to dock to wait the arrival of the mail-boat, does not truly want to admit—although the whole town painfully witnesses his increasingly desperate disappointment. Reading the news from the city, the Colonel admits a kind of defeat in his recognition that “Everything is as it was.”

Although his loving wife certainly knows that the money will never arrive, she, in a kind of tacit compact with her husband and his ideals, keeps hoping for a miracle, hiding the fact that the debtors are soon to evict them if their mortgage remains unpaid. The wonder of this work is that, unlike so many of García Márquez’s writings, there is no “magic” at work in their lives. The only thing of value they hold—other than each other’s sometimes begrudging love—is “Blondie,” a fighting cock once owned by their son, and the cause, so they are told, of his murder by a local carnival worker, Nogales (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who also shared with Agustin the love of the local prostitute, Julia (Selma Hayek).

There are figures who, knowing of the Colonel and his wife’s situation, try to help, including the owner of a local market (who kindness is defied by her daughter’s insistence that Lola pay for anything she would like) and even the prostitute Julia, who buys a few provisions just to help Lola and her husband survive. But the destitute couple is too proud to even accept these insignificant provisions. We know from the outset, alas, that this elderly couple cannot survive, and much as in Michael Haneke’s 2012 Amour, they have only their love to temporarily sustain them. And knowing that, we see their brave attempts to survive a bit longer—the Coronel’s painful sale of “Blondie” to his corrupt former comrade in battle, Don Sabas (Ernesto Yáñez), Lola’s sale of her wedding ring to the local priest whose major community activity seems to be attending the weekly movies, and their symbolic sale to a German of time itself, in their temporarily restored clock—hardly matter; even the director and his writer, at times, seem to forget the results of these demands and sacrifices (Did the sale of her ring pay for the mortgage? Did the agents back off their attempts to evict the couple?), particularly given the fact that the Colonel, missing the fighting cock, buys it back with the intent to put it into competition.

      In a sense, it doesn’t truly matter, for the important thing is that this couple stands, in their steady love, against almost everyone else in their community—including the kindly figures of Julia, who claims that she cannot feel love, and the doctor, who leaves wife at home in his search for sexual satisfaction with local young men. In two instances, moreover, the Colonel proves that if the world around him has not changed, his knowledge and actions represent a moral shift that some few (particularly Julia and the village children) witness. Although everyone believes that Agustin has died for the love of a woman, stabbed to death in a fighting-cock ring, the Colonel gradually comes to comprehend that a banned underground newspaper his son had hidden beneath his shirt has become transferred to his skin through the moisture always present in this forever rainy village and the sweat of the event; revealed as a political radical, Agustin, accordingly, has been executed by Nogales not because of Julia but because of his political views. To most, this shift of causation may seem like a minor detail in what is described by his fellow citizens merely as “destiny.” But given the Colonel’s strong moral code, the realization of the “truth” is everything.

      The Colonel reveals that moral certitude once more when, after his Blondie has been stolen from his house by locals (beating Lola in the process) who wish to pit him against Nogales’ cock, the Colonel refuses to allow the fight to continue—despite the fact that Nogales, in league with the corrupt current government, offers the Colonel money and the payment of his overlooked pension if he will allow the fight to continue. The Colonel may be a dreamer and even a fool of sorts throughout Ripstein’s beautifully crafted movie, but in his utter rejection of Nogales’ and the community’s meaningless promises, he alters everything. Nothing after can ever again be as it was, even if the town’s citizens might pretend things will go on as before. The Colonel may hate the Church, but he is a believer of moral values stronger than any other citizen of his Mexican coastal outpost, including the so-called religious believers.

      The film ends, as we knew it must, with a dream of hope even within the reality of despair. Convinced his rooster will win in the upcoming fight 45 days away, he sits as if about to wait out the time in proud anticipation of the day when they can pay all their debts. When his wife asks what they eat in the meantime, he answers, “shit,” a word which ends this sad film. Like inverted cannibals, they now have no choice but to consume themselves—bodies which, at least spiritually, are rich and sustaining.


Los Angeles, June 28, 2014

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Andrzej Munk | Eroica (Heroism)

home to the brave
by Douglas Messerli

Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (screenplay), Andrzej Munk (director) Eroica (Heroism) / 1958

Last Tuesday I caught the last presentation of the Martin Scorese curated “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema,” Andrzej Munk’s two-part World War II-based work, Eroica. (Heroism). Originally filmed as a three part work, the last, “The Nun” (subtitled “Con bravura”), was cut from the final work, in part because it simply seemed “less important” than the other two sections.

     Both consider the issue of how we, or, more particularly, the Poles might describe  heroism. As the flier to the film asks: “Why was the subject so sensitive and painful [to Poles]?”

First take into consideration the particular history of Poland, its many
defenses against invasions, the loss of its statehood for 150 years during
a period marked by numerous patriotic insurrections, the retrieval of
its independence. Next, factor in the defeat it suffered in 1939, only to
be followed by renewed resistance and struggle. Consider that national-
ism, patriotism, and heroic suffering played roles in all these epochs. hen
remember the valiant struggle of the Home Army, the largest resistance
group, was presented falsely, libeled, and those who took part in that
were even victimized during the Stalinist period, and it is no wonder that
many people waited for some satisfaction to their sensibilities, waited for
compensation, as it were. Some justice came finally. Politicians made
gestures of appreciation, mostly reluctantly, more to bring reconciliation
than to give credit. (Bolesław Michałek and Frank Turaj)

 In short, hated as they were by both the Germans and their would-be liberators, the Polish people, even while fighting for their survival, necessarily perceived their actions with a large dose of irony. Heroism, although a romantically-longed for achievement, was understandably met with skepticism and even doubt.

      The comedy of “Scherzo Alla Pollacca” derives from the military service of Dzidziuś (Edward Dziewoński) during the Warsaw uprising. While his platoon practices its formations, a plane circles. Pointing it out the commander, the recruit is told to keep marching, only to insist upon its existence once more and it circles in for the attack. By seconds, the recruits fall out, scurrying off, with Dzidziuś facing gunfire from all directors before he, entering a Polish-held cave, discovers a man racing a bicycle in order to generate electricity. The whole event so disorients the recruit that he throws down his gun and returns home through the dangerous landscape of battle.

      Once back home, he discovers his wife, Zosia (Barbara Polomska), nearly embracing an Hungarian officer (Leon Niemczyk) who has been billeted within their home. While recognizing the sexual betrayal of his wife, he nonetheless toasts the interloper in an attempt to get him drunk. Instead, as they walk back to the Hungarian’s base, the would-be enemy (early in the War the Hungarians had joined the Axis powers) confides that his battalion would like to join the Polish forces (Hungary secretly signed a peace agreement with the US in 1944).

      Although he wants to part in the battle, Dzidziuś cannot but report this fact to the local authorities fighting nearby. The local officer demands that they take this information to the Home Army Commander in Warsaw, which, with the local officer, Dzidziuś undertakes, despite being stopped along the way several times by Nazi officers.

    Forced to take the message back to the locals, he first becomes drunk, weaving through the battlefields on his way home with a terrible headache. The voyage and his survival, in fact, might remind one a bit of the peregrinations of Buster Keaton, as he almost accidentally survives, reporting back to the local headquarters and the Hungarians that the Home Office has denied their offer. Throughout, Dzidziuś keeps demanding he that receive “credit” for his actions, awarded instead by disdain and disbelief of his acts.

      Returning home, Dzidziuś again is met by the local officer who is headed back to the front to fight. As a wartime deserter, the recruit seems determined to return to his unfaithful wife, but encountering her, turns back to join the office on his new adventure.

      If the first half of the film is basically a comic presentation of “heroism,” the second—although displaying comic moments—is basically tragic. In “Ostinato Lugubre” two recently captured Polish officers are introduced in a POW barracks where most of the officers have been imprisoned for several years, having lost nearly all sense of morale, some of them such as Zak (Józef Kostecki) having become almost insane. The only thing that seeming keeps him alive is that his best friend, Lt. Zawistowski, has apparently been able to escape from the prison, standing for all of the prisoners as symbol of heroic possibility.

     Some of the detained officers remain devoted to military protocol, ostracizing men like Zak, who with ridiculous rules and punishments (Zak is divvied out less food than the others), until, fed up with the posturing his these fellow prisoners, that he walks through the bales of barbed wire which serves as the camp retainer. Two women, however, quickly, gather him up and bring him back to the prison gates. Unable to bear the company of those around him, Zak retreats into a small cubicle made from a container sent through the Geneva Convention to the prisoners.

     One might be tempted to compare this short film to Billy Wilder’s Nazi prison tale, Stalag 17, except that Munk and his writer, Jerzy Stefan Strawiński have drained almost any humor from their tale and have refused to portray the imprisoners as buffoons. In fact, we hardly see the Nazis, since the prisoners suffer more from the pettiness and posturing of their peers than brutality of the Germans. Although, as in the Wilder film, one prisoner receives a large store of rations, rather than selling them as Sargeant Sefton might, he greedily attempts to eat them all at one sitting, becoming sick in the process.

     One of the new detainees, Kurzawa (Józef Nowak), however, accidently uncovers a completely other dimension of barrack life as, seeking a glass a water in the middle of the night,  discovers another suffering officer, Lt. Turek (Kazimiez Rudzki) removing a tile from the ceiling, whereupon he discovers that the “heroic” Zawistowski has not really escaped, but is hiding in heating and cooling ducts. Keeping the secret, Kurzawa begins to minister to the dying Zawistowski, providing him with sleeping pills and medicine for his cough.

    After another the nearly unbearable torture of watching the greedy officer stuffing his stomach as the others spur him off, Zak, weary of life, opens the door to the barracks and enters the courtyard alone in prohibition of camp rules. The slowly shot scene of his death by gunfire is nearly unbearable to watch.

      Zawistowski, Kurzawa reports, has also just died, and Turek, to whom the camp commander owes a favor, arranges for the duct to be shipped out, the non-existent hero embedded within. Who is the true hero, Munk’s profound film seems to ask, the would-be honorable Zawistowski, the weary suicidal Zak, or keeper of the secret Turek. Kurzawa, the complicit observer—like the audience itself—is left to make his own choice, just as we are.

Los Angeles, June 26, 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Elia Kazan | Baby Doll

waking up
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams (screenplay), Elia Kazan (director) Baby Doll / 1956

Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), owner of a failed cotton gin and a collapsing antebellum mansion, "Tiger Tail," is also encumbered with a wife, Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who behaves according to her name. In an early scene we are told that the next day she will turn twenty, but this sexy blonde seems, in demeanor, more like she was ten. Archie has been married to her for two years, but has still not had sex with his wife, having made a ridiculous bargain with her father that he will not touch her until she turns twenty.

     As the movie begins we see this poor loser of a man crouching down to peer through a hole in the wall where he sleeping wife lies, dressed in what is now called a "baby doll dress," the kind of dress worn by dolls, lying in a crib sucking her thumb. Frustrated with the narrowness of view he attempts to enlarge the peep hole, only to have the wall crumble, awakening the sleeping girl who immediately sets the tone for the movie-long treatment of Archie:

               Baby Doll: Archie Lee! You're a mess. Do you know what they 
                                 call such people? Peepin' Toms!
               Archie: Hey, there's no need for a woman that sleeps in a 
                            baby's crib to stay away from her husband...
               Baby Doll: No, I'm gonna plug up the hole in that wall with 
                            chewin' gum.

     The hilarity of this scene, of the situation of its characters, and, as we later perceive, the numerous absurdities of Kazan's film encourages one to break out in a hoot, which is what I certain Williams' must have done after finishing the script. What he had concocted was a highly sexually suggestive movie that involved nothing more than a kiss and a slap.

     Yet the moral enforcers of the day were outraged. The Roman Catholic Church through a sermon by Cardinal John Spellman described the movie as "revolting" and "morally repellant," concluding: " "In soliciture for the welfare of souls entrused to my care and the welfare of my count, I exhort Catholic people to refrain from patronizing this film under pain of sin" Time magazine described the work as "just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited," while at the same time, admitting "Baby Doll is an almost puritanically moral work of art." Huh?

     What Baby Doll really is perhaps depends on your own imagination or maybe lack of imagination. For in truth, while the film is forthrightly sexual, it portrays no sex, and, despite the pretense of the young virginal heroine, she has long been of marrying age. Perhaps the most perverse aspect of the film is that Baby Doll has been matrimonially joined to such a human lump.

     Malden plays Archie as a bigoted, insensitive and violent brute right out of a Faulkner novel. In fact, like Abner Snopes, Archie, angry that Sicilian business man Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) has built a modern cotton gin—taking away almost all of Archie's former business—burns down Vacarro's operation.

     It is Vacarro's retaliation for that burning (he has found the kerosene can with which Archie has started the fire) that becomes the center of the film, and that apparently leads some people she perceive the metaphorical rape as a real one.

     Perhaps the disapproving audiences of this film were convinced of the work's raw sexuality through the consummate acting of  Wallach and Baker. Like a strutting cock Wallach enters the Meighan home as if he owned it, acting the role of a southern gentleman to Baker's pouting household incompetence. If it is outrageous that a twenty year old should still behave like a baby, it is even more absurd that the Brooklyn born Wallach should have been chosen to play the Sicilian southerner, but that—along with Madden's northern-bred growls (Madden was born in Chicago to a Serbian- and Czech-born father and mother)—that grounds this film in the theater of the ridiculous. Baker, imitating another southern character type, the permanently virgin wife, and Wallach race through the now-empty mansion—the furniture having been recently repossessed—as if they were playing a children's game like "hide and seek." Except, in this case, we know the stakes for both are much higher than simply being "found." It is clear that both Wallach and Baker enjoyed their scenes, he advancing only to retreat, she running away while trying to lure him closer and closer.    

     The revelation of her and Archie's relationship—which further encourages Vacarro to move in on his prey—is one of the most humorous comic scenes of Williams' numerous comic writings:

                  Baby Doll: I told my Daddy that I wasn't ready for marriage. My
                                     Daddy told Archie Lee that I wasn't ready for it and
                                     Archie Lee promised my Daddy that he would wait
                                     till I was ready.
                  Silva: Then the marriage was postponed?
                  Baby Doll: Oh no, not the weddin', we had the weddin', my Daddy
                                     gave me away.
                  Silva: But you said Archie Lee waited?
                  Baby Doll: Yeah, after the weddin'....he waited.
                  Silva: For what?
                  Baby Doll: For me to be ready for marriage.
                  Silva: How long did he have to wait?
                  Baby Doll: Oh he's still waitin'. We had an agreement though, I
                                     mean, I told him, that on my twentieth birthday, I'd
                                     be ready.
                  Silva: That's tomorrow?
                  Baby Doll: uh-huh.
                  Silva: Then uh, will you be ready?
                  Baby Doll: Well, that all depends.
                  Silva: What on?
                  Baby Doll: Whether or not the furniture comes back—I guess...
                  Silva: Your husband sweats more than any man I know, and now
                            I understand why.

     Ultimately, dressed only in a negligee, she locks herself away in the attic, trying to "give up" the game. But Vacarro will not leave, threatening to break down the door (and, presumably, rape her) if she does not come out and sign a piece of paper that Archie was responsible for the fire. Her virginity is kept intact. And Silva, exhausted from his game of seduction, falls to sleep in her crib, Baby Doll, singing him a lullaby and stroking his hair.

      Returning home to find Silva in his house, Archie can only suspect the worst, and attempts to fight him. But Silva returns the threat by revealing that he knows Archie has been responsible for the fire, while, nonetheless, suggesting that they make an arrangement. He will send customers to Archie's gin for a percentage of the profits and regular visitations to the house; in short, he proposes a sort of three-way relationship, which he describes as "the Good Neighbor Policy."

      Baby Doll invites him to supper and three sit down to eat a pot of collard greens which Baby Doll's Aunt Rose (played with delightful lunacy by Mildred Dunnock) has forgotten to cook. In his fury Archie turns on Rose, threatening to send her away, while with obvious relish Silva and Baby Doll slurp up bites of the green mess:

                    Baby Doll: Colored folks call this pot liquor.
                    Silva: I love pot liquor...Crazy 'bout pot liquor....

Archie, also crazed by the now public seduction of his wife, hurls a piece of glass from a nearby chandelier at them, claiming that he will handle "the situation" by calling up his friends.


                     Silva: What situation? What situation do you mean?
                     Archie: Situation which I come home to find her under my
                                  roof. Oh, look her now, oh, I'm not such a marble-
                                  missin' old fool that I couldn't size it up. I sized it
                                  up the minute I seen you was still on this place
                                  and her, her—with that sly smile on her? And you
                                  with yours on you.! I know how to wipe off
                                  both those sly...

Silva denies any sexual activity, and shuts Archie up with the revelation that Baby Doll has signed a confession of Archie's guilt.

     Driven into even greater fury he slaps (off-camera) Baby Doll and sets out to find the suddenly missing Silva and shoot him. Silva has retreated to a nearby pecan tree, as Baby Doll, enraged by the slap insists it will be the last time Archie lays a hand on her, as she calls the police. As Archie storms through the house in search of Silva, Baby Doll sneaks into the pecan tree as well, while Archie, finally breaking down with remorse, calls out her name in a manner similar to Marlon Brando's scream for Stella in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Soon after, Silva drives off, promising he will be back the next day.

      The police arrive to haul Archie off, putting him into handcuffs, while he asks "...What happens tomorrow?" The policeman's ambiguous answer—"Well, the town marshall has no control over tomorrow"—is paralleled by Baby Doll's own fears for her future, saying to her aunt:

                    He's comin' back tomorrow with more cotton...We got nothin' to do
                    but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten.

 Either way it will be a strange new world into which she and her aunt are about to embark, a world which suddenly requires her to wake up as a adult.

Los Angeles, December 13, 2011