Saturday, September 30, 2017

Akira Kurosawa | Donazoko (The Lower Depths)

by Douglas Messerli

Hideo Oguni (screenplay, based on the drama by Maxim Gorky), Akira Kurosawa (director) どん底 (Donzoko) (The Lower Depths) / 1957

Watching Akira Kur
osawa’s impressive 1957 film version of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths the other day, I was reminded of my first encounter with this drama on a filmed production of the play on TV, which I must have seen in the very late 1950s or, more likely, in the early 1960s. Yet, when I went to look it up on internet connections, I could find no sign of it, no matter where I looked. So much for the “golden age of TV,” which, of course, we know is long gone, but now is also evidently utterly forgotten. 

     I even wrote a Facebook note to my 3,000-some friends, asking for any confirmation of what surely cannot have been a made-up memory. I had never read the play and yet I remember it so fondly, despite its dark, dark themes and images. I suppose I might have loved any theatrical event, since in the eastern Iowa I had few other opportunities to explore the theater that I so very much loved.
     Fortunately, we have wonderful versions of this work on film, including Jean Renoir’s 1936 version and Kurosawa’s translation of Gorky’s drama into Endo (19th century Tokyo). 
      In some respects, Kurosawa’s damned, poverty-stricken untouchables are even worse off that Gorky’s poor peasants, who inhabit the denizens of the Bugrov Homeless Shelter near the Volga. In the Japanese director’s world the scum of the earth—prostitutes, drunks, gamblers, aging actors, tinkers, and others who have nowhere else to go—are gathered into a pit of what seems to have once been a grand house, hallowed out into tiny closets where they live, if the communal world of noise and violence can be described as a way of living. 
Image result for Kurosawa The Lower Depths      Indeed, one of their group, Asa (Eiko Miyoshi), the tinker, Tomekichi’s wife, is dying while he continues to hammer out a pot, causing everyone to suffer through his endless actions. Even though they seem to be a group of survivors, they all know they are also near death, to be killed at any moment like the thief, 
     Sutekichi (the always magnificent Toshiro Mifune) or the drunks who play cards while waiting around for their next drink, provided by a few pennies from a friend or benefactor like Sutekichi. 
     They also know that the society above them, the “out there” of which they constantly speak could care less about their existence, a fact which the director makes clear from the very first moments of his film, where we move down the ravine from a stand of beautiful trees where the wealthy live to a Buddhist retreat below, who readily throw their slops into the pitiful encampment of those locked away in the “in here” existence.
      But even “in here,” those on top of the society, the landlord and his truly nasty wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), attempt to recreate the societal divisions of the world “out there,” giving their love to, as she does, to Sutekichi, while continually demanding the rent of a few pennies from the rest. The structure that destroys these people on the “outside” exists “inside” as well. And it is Osugi’s machinations that determines the thin plot of this story, alternating between her jealousy of Sutekichi’s attentions to her sister, which leads to her plotting for her former lover’s downfall.
      Gorky’s drama, however, was never about narrative, in the traditional sense, but about the narrative of numerous broken and destroyed lives, lives made impossible to even live by the society at large. The fact that Sutekichi ultimately is caught in his own web of deceit and actual validation of his humanity hardly matters. It is the little gestures this downtrodden society gift to their fellow sufferers that truly separates them, “in here,” from those “out there.” 
     The candy seller, Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) offers up a small fortune of candy to the dying Asa. The actor who tragically can no longer remember his lines (Kamatari Fujiwara) plays out a dramatic role, as Keiko McDonald and Thomas Rimer have made clear, performing from the michiyuki tradition, as he walks his “lover” to her death, reveals his caring and charm. Even if he cannot recall his lines, he can relive the Kabuki gestures. 

      Sutekichi gives some of his ill-got gains to the drunkards to help them get through just another day. And, most importantly, the new guest to this hellish world, the pilgrim Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari) offers something to everyone, a dream of afterlife to Asa, a possibility of recovery and memory to the actor, and even possible redemption to Sutekichi. If some don’t have much to give, they offer, at the very least, their companionship. And even the seemingly uncaring tinker, after his wife dies, offers his suffering in her memory. In Kurosawa’s musical-comedy rendering of Gorky’s so very sad tale redeems the social world at the very bottom of the culture, and suggests that it is far more giving and even resilient than the social structures who have demanded their destruction.  
     If Kurosawa’s film reveals an ugly cancer of the society at large, within this small community of the dying sufferers, there is, at every moment, a sense of possible relief, a loving of being, the possibility of true forgiveness. And, particularly in this director’s vision, there is always a great comic possibility as the universe seemingly pushes out to destroy them: commenting on the shocking suicide of the actor, the gambler sarcastically but brilliantly comments: “It was such a great party. Then he had to go and ruin everything.” 
     Obviously this world is already in deep ruin; no sliding door can fully close, the shreds of cloth that others have used to close out the terrible noises of their hell can’t keep them safe. But their illusions are all that they have. Why go and spoil them, the realist gambler seems to be saying. Isn’t that what we all survive on—even at the top?

Los Angeles, September 30, 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Werner Herzog | Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God)

by Douglas Messerli

Werner Herzog (writer and director) Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God) / 1972, US 1977

If nothing else you have to give Werner Herzog credit for working, five times no less, with the near-mad actor Klaus Kinski, as well as discovering and featuring the difficult to deal-with actor, Bruno S. But then Herzog clearly liked the challenges of doing near-impossible movies.
      Already in his second film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, we see him filming with an isolated and fairly insane group of imprisoned little people. By the time of Aguirre, The Wrath of God he was warming-up to the even more-impossible-to-film Fitzcarraldo (also with Kinski). At least in this Amazon-based story the characters are not saddled with carrying an entire ship by land. Here, as Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) descends from the already-conquered  Incan empire to the jungle in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, at least there is enough man-power to possibly accomplish the task.
     As we know, mostly from the writings of a Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish monk ministering to the Indians and the Spanish, most of those involved never returned, and the men, women, and native Incans who Pizarro sent down river to check out the feasibility of the remaining of voyage all were either killed or went mad before they were destroyed by natural causes.
     Several critics have written about the early scenes of Herzog’s near-miraculous film; as the camera begins in a broad view of Spaniards, dressed in helmets and metal plates, who slowly make their way with a procession of chained Incans down the mountainside, women carried in gilded hand-coaches, the music by West German progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh plays an ethereal score, as if suddenly the heavens have opened up to celebrate these new gods’ trek from the high country into the verdant jungle below.
      It is only when the camera moves in on the party as it begins to reach that jungle growth that Herzog reveals how arduous is their voyage and how absolutely ridiculous the participants of this voyage are. The Spaniards, barking out German-language orders, attempt to save their  foodstuffs, their cannons, and particularly their women from the mud in which they are now engulfed. But, by the time their reach the river, they are exhausted, and the force of the Amazon is so powerful that it’s clear they must travel downstream even if they might wish to make the voyage of quickly constructed rafts. Even the vain Pizarro perceives the impossibility, holding most of his retinue back, while sending some of his strongest men ahead to check out whether such a route is possible.
      Among the raft-borne voyagers are the already mentioned monk, Carvajal (Del Negro), who in real life, never took this voyage, Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), named head of the party, and his mistress Inés de Atienza (Helena Rojo), the already slightly mad Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) and his daughter Florés (Cecilia Rivera), Perucho (Daniel Ades), a friend of Aguirre,  the only royal among them, Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling), and numerous Peruvian slaves.
      From the beginning the trip down river does not go well. One of the four rafts is soon caught up in an eddy, and cannot be moved across to join the others who have made an encampment. By morning they discover all the occupants of the raft dead, shot by local tribal Indians. Ursúa demands that others attempt to cross to bring back the bodies, but Aguirre, determined to move forward, orders Perucho to send a cannon blast to the trapped raft, spilling the bodies in the heaving river.
     By morning, the river, having risen during the night, has taken away the other three rafts. Ursúa determines that there is no way of moving forward, and orders the group to return through the jungle to Pizarro and the others to tell them the route is impassable.
      Quickly maddened by the legends he has hear, Aguirre shoots Ursúa and another supporter, and takes command, giving the title of the “King of Spain” to the fat and quite ignorant Guzmán. But even Guzmán will not order the death of the recovering Ursúa, although both he and his mistress know it is only a matter of time before Aguirre will attempt to kill him. When Inés dares to ask Carvajal why he not spoken out in the name of the Church against Aguirre’s acts, he explains that the Church has always supported the strongest, never the weak, restating a theme that will be expressed time and again in Herzog’s films. Society and religion are never to be trusted when it comes to the individuality of the human being.
     Constructing one larger raft—brazenly hand-built by Herzog and his crew for the film  itself—we sense the very real danger the characters and their actors must undergo to reach their destination—the end of the film itself. To make things worse, Kinski and Herzog grew increasingly disenchanted with one another, and film legend will never quite be rid of the notion, later denied by the director, that he threatened to shoot Kinski if he dared to leave the set. No matter, Kinski clearly took the entire company (including the local natives acting in the film) hostage in his fits of tyrannical anger. In order to get a quieter performance out of the volatile Kinski, the director would purposely anger him before shoots, allowing his temper to dissipate before moving forward, in short, detonating the fuse before its on-screen explosion.
     Aguirre’s madness, nonetheless, becomes increasingly clear, as, one by one, his fellow raft-mates are killed around him by native arrows, and he, himself, plans to marry his own daughter in order to create “the purest dynasty the world has ever seen.” Like the original Aguirre, he ultimately kills her himself, declaring his acts as the “wrath of God.” It’s hard today to not perceive metaphorical comparisons to Aguirre’s behavior in one of our major political leaders.
      The film ends in one of the most startling images ever put to screen, as Aguirre, the lone survivor, is surrounded on his “raft” kingdom as his floats wildly to sea with hundreds of squealing monkeys, as if the very project that Herzog had created had run amok. The memorable images call our attention to the actor and director more than the character: who would ever think to create such a totally mad vision of the world, we can only ask. We have our answer, of course, in the figures who have dared to make Aguirre come into being. This is a private war of madness, which, by the very end of the decade, would be revisited as a public war of madness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalyse Now. Both reveal the deepest “heart of darkness” imaginable.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2017

Friday, September 22, 2017

John Cromwell | Caged

by Douglas Messerli

Virginia Kellogg (screenplay, based on the book by Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfield), John Cromwell (director) Caged / 1950

19 year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) has been sent to prison as an accessory to a small-time botched robbery by her equally young husband, who was killed in the event. We’re not even sure whether or not she knew what her husband was up to; all she knows is that she loved him, and they were both near-starving.
      Worse yet, in the prison entry check-up, she discovers that she is pregnant, and is told that she will have to give up the baby for adoption. Even her mother refuses to take in the child.
       Although the head of the prison, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), is a stern by kind woman, within this prison for women is yet another, far darker, underworld controlled by Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who awards those who treat her well (including, one presumes, offering themselves up for sexual relations), while brutally abusing others.
       Yes, this is the “grandmother” all those dozens of “dykes in jail” movies that appeared after, itself the granddaughter of Broadway’s 1920s drama Chicago. Certainly we get enough tough talk and stark realist behavior—including the suicide of one of the prison’s denizens, Helen (Sheila MacRae) after she is rejected yet again for parole, through back into the system since the parole officer cannot find a job for her—that we might think this is yet another cheap pot-boiler B-grade movie.    

       But in John Cromwell’s Caged we get something closer to Anatole Litvak’s classier 1948 film on mental illness, The Snake Pit, with Olivia de Haviland. Like Litvak’s insider view of a terrifying institution, Cromwell’s work has a loud message on its mind. Ranging from total innocent to, by movie’s end, a hardened ex-prisoner, Parker gives a stellar, Oscar-nominated performance that takes us through the step-by-step degradations and learned lessons that turns her from a salvageable young being to a woman, who even the wise prison-head, Benton, recognizes: “She’ll be back.”
      One of the film’s greatest accusations goes to the political system itself, where monsters like Harper are given the patronage of state political hacks, while the good Benton works to reform the situation with the perpetual fear of being fired.
      But there are plenty of guilty figures that work toward the corruption of Marie Allen, including the “buster” (a professional shoplifter) such as Kitty Stark (Betty Garde) and the even higher-up gangster moll, Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) who ultimately convinces Allen that she’ll never get parole unless she accepts her patronage.
      In this turned upside-down world, breaking the law from inside is the only to get you out. Unless you play along with the evil-doers you’re doomed to the endless boredom, punishment, and tortures of prison life.
      Of course, these facts have been a staple of male prison dramas for decades. We all know that once you’re locked away behind bars, there is no way out: the system makes certain that you will survive only by recreating your crimes over and over again.
      Even in the very first scenes, most of the women entering the prison, we perceive, have been there before. Emma Barber (Ellen Corby), standing in for them all, greets the her old prison mates and prison staff members with hearty recognition, noting body changes and similarities to their former selves as if she were genuinely happy to see them again. It is only the newcomers, like Allen, who are aghast.
      And yes, as in all of these women-in-prison tales there is something campy about their female camaraderie. But then, even the wealthy women on the up-and-up, such as those in Clare Booth Luce’s The Women are not so very different—perhaps just a bit more mean and destructive. All-women movies, mostly directed by males, do not generally present a very nice picture of the female sex.

Los Angeles, September 22, 2017

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Volker Schlöndorff’ | Der Fangschuß (Coup de Grâce)

by Douglas Messerli

Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta, and Geneviève Dormann (screenplay, based on the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar), Volker Schlöndorff’ (director) Der Fangschuß (Coup de Grâce) / 1976

Volker Schlöndorff’s 1976 film Coup de Grâce is a thoughtful, visually beautiful film that is also somewhat frustrating in its refusal to present a specific viewpoint. We know what the issues are: the old military order of the defeated Prussians against the new Bolshevik revolutionaries is at the heart of this Latvian-based film. In 1919 a detachment of German Freikorps soldiers is stationed in a chateau in the town of Kratovice to fight Bolshevik guerrillas. The soldiers have set up on the estate of Konrad de Reval (Rüdiger Kirschstein) and his sister Sophie de Reval (the wonderful Margarethe von Trotta).

      In the film’s first scene we see the return home, against the background of warfare, of Reval with his dashing childhood soldier friend, Erich von Lhomond Matthias Habich). Sophie, her elderly grotesque Aunt Praskovia (Valeska Gert), and even the retainers are delighted for their return. And Sophie, who has been a long-time friend of Erich is even more delighted since she has long been in love with him.
      Despite his gallant treatment of her and her aunt, it quickly becomes apparent to anyone who knows anything about human behavior that Erich and Konrad are very much in love, Konrad insistently pounding his now battle-scarred piano as he stares in Erich’s eyes.
       Even the ghoulish old Aunt, who must be carried down to the dinner table seems to be more aware of the situations going on around her than the love-stricken Sophie, who attempts to entrap Erich in numerous ways, offering him food, coffee, poetry, and, of course, intimate situations to prove his love for her.
      The frustration for the young woman, who has had to bear many of the terrors of war simply to save her home and the soldiers within—many of whom are dying from Typhus. Rockets, launched at the estate, are a regular occurrence. Secretly, Sophie has been visiting several of the village’s Bolsheviks, most notably a local seamstress, who son is an important figure for the revolutionaries, who loans her books.

      Unlike the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, where the violence of the war (a different war in fact) remained at a distance, Schlöndorff’s film shows us the gritty ugliness and its true meaningless up close, reiterating the pointlessness of both sides of this battle. Eric seems to have no difficulty in ordering up the deaths of discovered or even suspected revolutionaries, and allowing their bodies to rot.
     As he continually evades Sophie’s attentions, she turns to other men on his watch, at first the handsome Franz (Grigori Loew), and, when he is killed, taking up with Volkmar (Mathieu Carrière). The overlaying images of a kind of cheap series of love affairs with the constant dangers of a meaningless war might almost remind one of George Bernard Shaw’s great play Heartbreak House which was first performed in the very years that this film takes place. Like that play, a great deal is made of turning off lights or, at least, covering the windows so that the enemy can’t see the target, a command that time and again Sophie refuses to obey. At one point, to prove the necessity of the action, Eric takes her outside of the house, a lamp in his hand, which results in a direct hit on the estate’s stables. His very absurd show of bravery, however, only convinces her that he truly does love her—this despite the fact that she has witnessed her brother and Erich playing in the snow like two school children who can’t keep their hands off one another.
     It is, finally, Volkmar that makes it clear to her that in their brief weekend trip to Riga, the two men finally consummated their relationship. One can only wonder what has taken them so long. And the director reiterates their “distant” manly love by discretely pulling away from nearly every scene in which Erich might demonstrate his love of Konrad, demonstrating quite clearly that Erich’s love is far more conservative and chaste than any love a normal being might experience.
     Sophie’s choice, to hint at another film that quietly rumbles through this one, is to join the revolutionary forces and, as Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis argue in their essay on this film, reassert this as another narrative alternative, an anti-patriarchal, feminist perspective, that counteracts the Prussian patriarchal values. Sophie does this even presupposing the results, her capture and eventual death from the hands of the men she once passively nursed. And her demand that Erich von Lhomond, himself, put the bullet through her head is a recognition that in his inability to love her, he had already destroyed her life long before.
      As Moeller and Lellis hint, Erich, the only survivor of this debacle, might surely later be one of the later gay Nazi Sturmabteilung brownshirts so brilliantly portrayed in Visconti’s The Damned (see My Year 2015, Volume1). But in Schlöndorff’s far more evasive work, we have no clear indication of his future. Sophie simply becomes another rotting, stinking corpse, left behind in a meaningless murder by a man who has no clear understanding of why he murders. Perhaps Erich, despite his brief love with the weak Konrad, has no heart. Or perhaps it is a heart so wounded that he can no longer feel for human beings. Was Sophie’s revenge just as meaningless? Surely, Erich has no regrets, but has himself become a cog in the ever-moving engine into the darkest centers of the human heart.

Los Angeles, September 17, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2017).

Friday, September 15, 2017

Parvez Sharma | A Jihad for Love (In the Name of Allah)

showing the face
by Douglas Messerli

Parvez Sharma (director) A Jihad for Love (In the Name of Allah) / 2007, USA 2008

Knowing nothing about this film when I elected to watch it on Filmstruck, I thought it was probably a story about a Muslim gay couple struggling to find love within a hostile community.

Yes, it is that in part, but Parvez Sharma’s documentary is so much more. Traveling with his camera through 12 countries and nine languages throughout the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Turkey, France, India, South Africa, Sharma explores a world in which gay men and lesbian women, all devout believers, have been forced to question they natural desires—some of the men even marrying women in order to quell their feelings—but who ultimately find themselves compelled by homosexual behavior.

      The film begins with the almost unthinkable, a devout Iman in South Africa who is nonetheless gay, who attempts to reinterpret the Qur'an condemnation of gays in a passage about Lot and Babylon, as being a specific attack on the male/male rapes that city practiced. Love, he posits, is a very different thing, and he argues for a “Jihad for love,” not meaning that word’s associations with religious war, but as an inner struggle, a personal battle to help people understand who they are and why they should be accepted.

      The Muslim culture, however, has not very much understanding for any of the figures the documentary focuses on. Because of fear of death and retaliation, many of the individuals who Sharma interviews have asked that he not reveal their faces, and family friends and others are shown only in blurred images.

      An Egyptian man, arrested during the infamous raid Cairo 52 raid, when 52  gay men were arrested aboard and while trying to board the gay nightclub, the Queen Boat, moored on the Nile, angrily recalls the experience. After months of incarceration he was sentenced to three years in jail before being released. Now in England, he speaks of the horrors of his imprisonment and fears still for his family his friends back in Egypt.

      One of the most arresting and charming of the film’s scenes has to do with a group of Iranian gay men who, together threatened with arrestment, escaped to  Turkey seeking UN protection and replacement to Canada. Fearful and confused in the new environment, these men still practice their religious observances, while helping and teasing each other while nervously awaiting the international decision. The joy on their faces when most of them finally hear that they can now travel to Canada is mixed with deep pain when one of their group has still to hear about his case.

      A beautiful lesbian couple tries to balance their open love with hidden behavior, opting against rings for matching medallions, split in half, that speak of their love and religious beliefs.

      A group of drag queens in India, gather for a dance. Terrified gay individuals consult advisors and Imans, while praying for a “cure,” or, at the very least, an explanation by God why he created them with such desires. It is one thing, for those of us in the US who suffered as social outcasts, but a very different thing to face not only the hatred of the religion in which one was nurtured as well entire culture and government of one’s country—with possible long imprisonment and even death.  

      Sharma’s film is not a cheerful one, but it is, nonetheless, hopeful, as the young men and women it attends to have all personally struggled and won in that battle to become who they truly are, homosexual and Muslims both. Even the Iman, rejected at the beginning of this film by his congregation, is invited back to speak, arguing against some of the Muslim elders that homosexuality is not specifically targeted in the Qur'an. Little by little, one hopes, both Muslim and Christian fundamentalists may be led to someday see sexuality as a result of a god who made mankind in so many diverse ways that we have open our minds to the multitudes rather than the narrow reflections of those just like us.

      One of the true wonders in this moving film is the decision among some of these brave individuals to show their faces. Rather than hiding in burkas, behind silhouetted profiles, or cinematic blurs, these human beings become real humans who demonstrate the beauty of their own smiles, frowns, and facial worries. Suddenly they become one of us.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2017