Thursday, December 31, 2015

Vincente Minnelli | Two Weeks in Another Town

roman holiday
by Douglas Messerli 
Charles Schnee (screenplay, based on a novel by Irwin Shaw),  Vincente Minnelli (director) Two
Weeks in Another Town / 1962

A year before 8 ½, Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli filmed a kind of populist prequel, Two Weeks in Another Town, to Fellini’s far more complex and visually exciting masterpiece. Based on Irwin Shaw’s potboiler fiction, it’s hard to explain even the title of this work: why Rome is described as a town and how anyone might think the fictional filmmaker Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson)—formerly considered an important director—might shoot a film in two weeks, is inexplicable. But this, after all, is Hollywood—or, better yet, Cinecitta Studios, the home to thousands of badly acted melodramas, as well as great films such as those made by the likes of Fellini and, soon after, Godard.

      Indeed, at moments, Minnelli’s Rome even looks as if it were peopled by Fellini-like grotesques, and as in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, all the beautiful people seem to be dining on streetside terraces, where everyone recognizes those who pass. Here, much as in La Dolce Vita, a jealous wife, Clara Kruger (Clarie Trevor) has been joined by the cosmopolitan beauty, Carlotta (played by Cyd Charisse, attempting a sort of Anita Eckberg imitation), along with a gentle Roman girl, Veronica (Daliah Lavi) and two has-been actors, the elderly Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), and a younger bad-boy version of him, Davie Drew (George Hamilton). We realize from early on in the film that there will be some wild parties and long nights ahead.
     The film begins with an absolutely pointless series of scenes in a mental clinic where Andrus has gone after having cracked up, quite literally, by driving a car straight into a wall after a disastrous evening with his former wife, Carlotta. By the time we first encounter him, he’s already been “cured” and is ready for release. With perfect timing his arch-enemy, Kruger, cables him to come to Rome for a small part in his new film—once again a convenience of plot which makes little logical sense. No matter, once the cast has been assembled, we’re finally in for some delights as the actors in this work, one by one, each try to prove that everyone in this world is a creative mess. 
      Indeed, if you look at Minnelli’s film from this vantage point, as a kind of study in modes of bad and over-the-top acting or as a study in talent gone sour, it almost becomes interesting, 
      Trevor as Mrs. Kruger hisses and spits out her vindictiveness, mostly to her husband, before, at the end of the film, turning her medusa-stare to Andrus. Hamilton easily proves that like his character Drew, he cannot seriously act (later proving that comedy was his real talent.) And Kruger, whom the movie represents as a man who has lost any talent he once might have possessed, wanders around the set in Robinson’s paunch body like an old man, the script finally getting rid of him through the accident of a heart attack, so that Andrus can take his place; after all Kruger has long ago taken away even Andrus’ small acting role. Lavi as Veronica does her best to be sweet, but the very idea that she has to make a romantic choice between both of the neurotic actors in the film makes her role nearly impossible.

       Despite the preposterous shifts of intention and even genre—is this a love story, a study in psychological healing, a satire of filmmaking, or just a damn silly melodrama?—Minnelli, great filmmaker that he once was, does his best to detract us from what’s going on through his richly colored images and the spot-on framing of his scenes. A few of them might even hint that he is still at the top of his form; maybe he had simply lost his judgment about the projects he undertook.
     At moments, it is apparent, Minnelli even tries to resurrect some of the fluidity and drama of screenwriter’s Charles Schnee’s 1953 similarly-themed script, The Bad and the Beautiful.  But actor Douglas, this time around, is trying to be one of the “beautiful” people, and doesn’t have enough time as a “director” to become the “bad” (but dramatically good) Jonathan Shields of that earlier work.  Almost as if Douglas cannot find a way out of the stale story in which he’s now trapped, his character, after another bender, tries once again to drive into a wall, this time with his ex-wife beside him in the car. 
      The fact that he doesn’t succeed seems to imply—without logic once again—that he has truly been “cured”; for immediately after he high-tails it out of “town” to return back to the good ‘ole healthy USA, where he intends, apparently, to convince someone of his newly acquired directing talents and, “when the time is right,” to star the slightly reformed Davie Drew in a new film. Now that I think about it, I think I prefer the circus he left behind.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alan J. Pakula | All the President's Men

the thriller you’ve already read
by Douglas Messerli 

William Goldman (screenplay, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), Alan J. Pakula (director) All the President’s Men / 1976

For Christmas this year, I bought a DVD of a movie Howard and I have seen numerous times, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Indeed, Howard presumed that we already had it in our rather large movie library, for we think of it as one of our favorites.
      Seeing it again yesterday, I felt it was nearly as fresh as the first time we saw it, although I suppose it seemed even more immediate in 1976, since we had lived in Washington, D.C. during the very years it portrayed. 

Although after living now in Los Angeles for many years, I have grown accustomed to seeing familiar buildings and sites in the cinema, at the time is was somewhat breathtaking to see that so many of the film’s locations were so very familiar to us. We knew the apartment building wherein the film’s Bob Woodward lives; I’d several times visited the news room of the Washington Post on my way to see book editor William McPherson; and, of course, I’d spent long hours in the Library of Congress; we’d attended so many theater and concert events in the behemoth Kennedy Center. Pakula uses dozens of noted governmental buildings that anyone who has even visited Washington immediately recognizes. So the film seemed to put me, and a great many viewers I am sure, on familiar ground 
      And yet, the story it was telling of high government intrigue and a series of mysteriously labyrinthine acts of deceit and conspiracy seemed to come from some other world, as if someone was telling me a nearly unbelievable story about my own family. And it this sense of displacement, the simultaneous knowing and hardly being able to recognize what I was hearing and seeing that created for me—and for many others who knew the city as well—a sense of awed horror, as if it had been hinted that my uncles and aunts had been involved some vast criminal act and were threatening the lives the entire family if we dared to tell anything we had known about it.

      On the other hand, I had never been an admirer of President Nixon, and certainly did not ever think of him as a friendly uncle; indeed I wanted him, as I believe the film intends, to get caught—just as we know from the beginning of this mystery-thriller he will be. 
     In fact, there is very little mystery about the events the film portrays. I had read The Washington Post every day that the film covers, encountering the gradual revelations that All the President’s Men shows us. Yet, every time I see this film I immediately grow tense, am impatient with Pakula’s steady, slow pace as the two young reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), work to find a chink in the wall of secrecy that greets their every question. 
      The plot sends them into the vast reading room of the Library of Congress as they flip through book requests to no avail; Bernstein flies to Miami, only to cool his heels in a waiting room ruled by the icy secretary (Polly Holliday); and time and again, doors are slammed in their faces. Even “Deep Throat” (Hal Halbrook) isn’t telling, as he merely confirms or metaphorically steers Woodward  down a different road from one he is traveling: “Follow the money trail.” 
     Throughout much of this “thriller” absolutely nothing happens. Is it any wonder that Bernstein is ready to jump to easy conclusions? I mean, we know they are right in their suspicions. In short, much of tension that this film develops is out of a sense of frustration. And I’ve noted that each time I watch it, I begin to shiver—not just out of the disgust of I feel about the nation’s leaders and their institutions, but simply in anticipation.
      Every time they find one clue, the would-be heroes must seek out yet another, a third. Or they discover the questions they’ve asked were not expressed simply enough. Almost as a joke, William Goldman’s excellent script sends them suddenly into a home where a woman who, appreciative of their writing, is completely ready to talk—only to reveal a few moments later that she is an employee in the department store, Garfinkel’s, and not the government worker they sought.

     Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Jr.) at times standing almost as a roadblock, at other times, amazingly encourages his hungry reporters to keep searching, while permitting them to move ahead with the story that, if they’d gotten it wrong, might put the entire journalistic world and the First Amendment into jeopardy. Somewhat like an overprotective father, he pushes and pulls the entity he calls Woodstein in a pattern that reiterates the rocky rhythm of their reportage: one step forward and two steps back.
      Accordingly, when Woodward and Bernstein finally get the goods on Nixon’s administration, no matter what the viewer’s political values, there is such great relief that the truth has finally been outed that he has little choice but to cheer or break out in tears.
     The subject of this film, accordingly, is not at all what it pretends to be: who was behind the Watergate break-in to the offices of the National Democratic Party. Rather, the real object of this film’s intense investigation is not so much political as it is a search for truth, for a reality that within those long governmental halls seems seldom to exist.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

László Nemes | Saul fia (Son of Saul)

by Douglas Messerli

László Nemes and Clara Royer (writers), László Nemes (director) Saul fia (Son of Saul) / 2015

     The Jewish Holocaust of the 20th century is perhaps something better to be talked about than shown. Most of the films which have tried to actually recreate scenes within the concentration camps (such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties or Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) quickly turn into sentimental or, given the absurdity of  events, even comical depictions that diminish the actual horror and depravity of the real experiences of those who suffered it. Yet, by simply reporting it, instead of actually showing us those monstrous acts against humankind, might we turn what we should never allow ourselves to forget into simply a list of statistics and gatherings of personal remembrances?
     In his very first film, Hungarian filmmaker, László Nemes, has chosen to put his camera in the very face of a slightly mad prisoner, Saul (Géza Röhrig), who has been chosen by the Nazis to become a Sonderkommando, Jews given special status and larger rations, who were put to work leading their fellow prisoners to the gas chambers, searching their clothing for anything of value, taking away and burning their bodies, and even disposing of their ashes.
     If these selected few might be seen as  somewhat frightening accomplices to the Nazis, they also were tortured more than their fellow prisoners with the knowledge of the evil being perpetuated and the realization that they too would soon be murdered; the Germans would never allow them to survive as witnesses of such atrocities.
       Nemes’ Son of Saul dares to begin with a horrifyingly close-up view of victims being told to undress and shower, at the very same moment they are told that they would soon find positions in the camp as craftsmen and skilled workers. In other words, the action begins with the prisoners are being lied at the very instant of their death, a second where hope is purposely obliterated.
     A moment later the Sonderkommandos, Saul among them, begin going through pockets of the hanging garments, while the walls of the showers suddenly turn into a thundering drum of terror as those within begin to gasp their last breaths.
     Nazi soldiers quickly command the Sonderkommandos pick up the “pieces,” as they describe the bodies of the dead. Within the heap of corpses they suddenly they spot one young boy still breathing. We watch the handsome young man be quickly whisked away and suffocated before being taken away for an autopsy, presumably to determine why he had survived.     Saul unpredictably follows the body, pleading with the doctor to hand over the body after he has finished. It is, he believes, his own son.
      We are never certain that the resurrected boy is Saul’s actual son—several of his fellow prisoners remind him that he had no children—but it doesn’t truly matter, since Saul is convinced or deluded into believing the boy is his, and is determined that he get a proper burial.
       So begins a nightmarish tour of the camp, as Saul, his back marked with a huge red X to signify his position, stumbles through the debris of human beings in search of a Rabbi.
       As if we were actually with him, the details of this world, its very reality, is revealed in nods and whispers in virtual Babel of languages (Hungarian, German, Yiddish, and Polish) as he and his fellow workers, pausing only for periods, burn bodies, shovel piles of ashes, and clean the Nazi’s dinner tables.
       Saul both meanders and is pushed through this claustrophobic world of human debris equally by his own insistence to see his “son” buried and by the Nazi’s demands—as well as the secret plots of his fellow prisoners, who, realizing that they may soon be chosen to join the dead, attempt to obtain guns and other materials to escape. Although they include and involve Saul in their plans, his insistence on burying his son often gets in their way.
      Indeed, at moments, things shift so quickly, it is hard to know who is in command and what precisely is happening. The director has purposely turned this world into an unknowable chaos wherein the Sonderkommandos are somewhat free to move about as long as they function to help in the deaths of the multitudes of new prisoners that, in these last days of war, are being hourly shipped in from Hungary and elsewhere. The camp is not so much a prison as it is a vast killing machine.
        At one point, after accosting a fellow worker he believes is a Greek rabbi, the man throws his shovel and himself into the nearby river, an act of suicide, since it will soon assure he will be shot.
       So filled are the gas chambers, that, when a new group of prisoners are shipped in, they are forced to undress and marched into a nearby pit where they are shot and torched in a matter of moments, the conflagration of screams and flames creating a vision of Hell worthy of Dante. Saul wanders through this crowd in search of a Rabbi, almost losing his own life in the process.
       The Rabbi he finds, we soon learn, is probably a fraud, a man who has been saved through Saul’s forcing him to wear his own jacket. In his small corner of the barracks he now has the boy’s body and the new prisoner, whose beard he cuts away with somewhat ritualistic carefulness, perhaps to protect the newcomer from looking out of place.
        Indeed, in this hectic world, we cannot be sure of anything. Like the people who inhabit it, we must interpret it each in our own way; there is no “reality” from which one might deduce the truth or any set of facts. Moment to moment, in this world, everything is turned upside down. In the very midst of finally digging a grave for his designated son, his fellow Sonderkommandos begin their escape, and Saul, carrying the corpse around his neck, is forced to run with them if he is to survive.
        Chased into the river with the others, Saul nearly drowns, losing the body of his son to the currents; he is saved, ironically, by his fraudulent Rabbi. The men gather in a forest shed to rest for a few moments, where a neighborhood boy spots them. Only Saul seems to see the young boy, and as he watches him looking in upon them, for the first time, a smile crosses Saul’s lips.
        It is difficult to know what that smile means.. Has the entire series of his obsessive acts finally come to signify something, is he joyful simply in the possibly of communicating again with the world outside, or is smiling in recognition that the boy will surely tell someone of their existence in the forest, which will assure their deaths? Is this living boy, in his deranged mind, also is son?
      As the boy moves off, the Nazis move in, having already spotted the escapees. From the distance the camera has moved with the boy, we hear the shots which assure us that the escapees have finally been put to death.
      A few hours after seeing Son of Saul, I attended a party at which I met a young student film director who had recently seen the picture. After I shared with him some of my questions about the movie, he commented: “I know this may be seem like a pointless question, but do you think the film was about Saul or the concentration camp?”
     For a few seconds, the question stymied me, but I quickly perceived what he had really asked.
     “Oh, I think the movie was about the camp, about the Holocaust, not about Saul. Saul was simply representative of one man in that camp’s existence, and his madly obsessive movements, while perhaps different from any of the others, represents those of the others as well. It doesn’t really matter that the boy is or is not his real son; he has chosen to believe it is, he has chosen to believe, to believe in something rather than the nothing with which he is surrounded—just as the others have chosen to believe in the possibility of escape.