Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ciro Guerra | El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent)

by Douglas Messerli

Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (writers), Ciro Guerra (director) El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) / 2015

Although it may sound ridiculously contradictory, Columbian director Ciro Guerra’s absolutely beautiful black-and-white feature, Embrace of the Serpent, is both a highly complex tale that covers a 
period of 31 years in the Columbian Amazon, with a rather simple plot that basically repeats the first half in its geographical territory and goal, if not character, although even there, both voyages are overseen by Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar, as the elder, and Nilbio Torres as his younger self), an Amazonian shaman who has left his tribe after seeing many of them die in a takeover of their land by rubber barons.
     Karamakate lives alone in the jungle, and is evidently the last of his tribe to know where to find the rare (fictional) plant, yakruna. The first of the white-men who seek him out, the German scientist Théo van Martius (Jan Bijvoet), has come, with his servant-friend Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos), to find a way to save himself from dying, having been told that only Karmakate can cure him.
      Furious at all whites, believing that they have completely destroyed his tribe, Karmakate refuses, only temporarily prolonging the German’s life by blasting a hallucinogenic white powder up his nose.

      Finally, convinced by the bond between the native Manduca and Théo, he agrees to go on the voyage in search of yakruna, in part, to see if, as Théo claims, members of his tribe still survive. It may seem odd to describe this hallucinatory film as a “road movie,” but that’s what it is, as the trio encounter the terrors of the river and the wonders of the jungle, including a visit to a horrifying Spanish Catholic Mission, where the native boys are regularly beaten and abused by the priest, Gaspar (Luigi Sciamanna), for their “pagan” behavior. The travelers destroy the priest’s reign, freeing the tortured boys. Yet, they never quite discover their goal, and Théo dies in the “hell-hole” he has been trying to escape, although not before uncovering many of its wonders and sending his diaries back to Germany for eventual publication.
     The second visitor, in 1940, to Karmakate is an American botanist, Evan, a far more selfish and venal being, who, having read Théo’s book, is seeking out the same drug for himself, since he claims that he cannot dream (my dear friend David Antin is the only human I know who has made this claim). We also discover later in the film that he is seeking out the drug in possible connection of securing a drug that might keep the rubber trees from disease, since US supplies from Asia has dwindled because of the Japanese occupation of World War II.
      In short, his motives are far more questionable than Théo’s, and by this time Karmakate believes himself to be a chullachaqui, a hollow spirit who is losing his memory and is merely passing through without knowledge of the world in which he lives. He only agrees to take the voyage this time because of Evan’s love of plants and because he recognizes in the book Evan has (Théo’s work), the same rock markings that he has, himself, made for many years. But this time, it is Evan who must lead, and the trip is made for Karmakate’s spiritual revival, not for Evan’s—although the botanist has no conception of that fact.
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    Again, they encounter what is left of his tribe, and revisit what is left of the Spanish mission, in which the previously beaten boys have now grown up to become self-flagellating acolytes to a man who claims he is the messiah, who only accepts the two strangers into his company when they appear to be the Biblical Magi and when Karmakate temporarily cures the messiah’s wife. By the time they escape the madness of this religious commune, the messiah is demanding that his equally mad followers “eat of his flesh”—a demand that we can’t tell whether he means “literally,” as in a call for cannibalistic behavior, or is a call for sexual intercourse. The visitors have no choice but to seek a quick escape. Yet even here Karmakate demands that Evan given up all of his earthly possessions, which the American does, except his record player, in a kind of Herzogian desire to hear the cultural joys he will probably never encounter again. And music is essential in this film.
     When the tree from which the drug is made is finally found, Karmakate determines to destroy it; however, not before allowing Evan one dose of its hallucinogenic powers, which briefly transforms this black-and-white masterpiece into color.
     We never know what happens to either of the central characters, but it doesn’t truly matter, because as in all such transformative works, it is the voyage that is the true focus, not the characters who undergo that voyage. Ulysses is only fascinating for his adventures, and upon his return to Penelope is simply a boring old man.
     Embrace of the Serpent won the Art Cinema Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and best picture at the 2017 Riviera International Film Festival, as well as being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2017

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Martin McDonagh | Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

redeeming hate

by Douglas Messerli

Martin McDonagh (writer and director) Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri / 2018

I must admit, as I move into writing about Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, that I am most definitely not a McDonagh fan. His films and plays generally have the cynicism of Coen brothers, without their stunning abilities to tell stories. Read my nearly outraged review of his In Bruges

      Both play with broad caricatures, but the Coens are clearly better in casting. But this time McDonagh has been lucky with a kind-of Coen figure, Joel Coen’s brilliant wife, Frances McDormand, who totally encompasses every figure she has ever played (I’ve seen perform her with the Wooster Group at least 4 or 5 times). In McDonagh’s new work, she plays a kind of Medusa named Mildred, whose heart has seemingly turned to stone with the death of her daughter, who was raped while dying. Along with that event and an ex-husband who has spent years abusing her, Mildred no longer has any patience for the men in her life, particularly when one of the members of the Ebbing, Missouri police force, a deputy named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is also a racist who clearly enjoys in beating up young black boys.

      The well-liked local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has almost let the search for her daughter’s killer become a cold case. It’s not that he hasn’t tried, but simply that no one locally has been a DNA match, and Mildred has been left alone to nurse her pain with utterly no one to help except her kind-hearted son, Robbie (the always charming Lucas Hedges).

     From the very start of McDonagh’s new film, he makes it clear that in the intense period since the murder was first reported, Mildred has become a kind of local volcano, ready to blow the entire community away in order to bring some necessary changes to her lovely rural village.
     But the fact is that Mildred is not only explosive, but beneath her hard stare, her rough-hewn eyes and nose, is a fiercely intelligent being who can fight it out with the best of them. She has given up her soul so that in this small bigoted and patriarchally controlled village she might survive. What she perhaps really needs is an ally or soulmate like Marge Gunderson of the Coens’ Fargo (a character also played by McDormand) But she surely won’t find one in Ebbing, particularly after she hits upon the idea of renting three billboards just out side of town upon which she places three proactive messages, dark black upon blood-red: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
     Yes, as The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis observes, this is her way of reawakening the search and, simultaneously, relieving some of her deeply felt sorrow. But it’s not a popular action in a small town that knows nearly everything about everyone, including the fact that the well-meaning Willoughby is not only a loving husband and father, a man who also, incidentally, is attempting to reign-in his equally angry assistant, Dixon, but also is dying of cancer. The townies take out their anger at Mildred by bullying behavior of her son at school, and various other modes of intimidation, including a Sadomasochist dentist, a slightly mad former soldier evidently living in Idaho, and Dixon himself, who nearly kills the young man who has rented the billboards, and who also attempts, spurned on by his evil mother, to burn down the billboards.
     Everyone in this small town seems to be just at the edge of sanity, with all of them so deeply hurt that one might even imagine this is the story of so many small American communities being destroyed by the opioid crisis and lack of jobs. Well, Midwest America has always been a paradisal world in which innocent people are tortured and destroyed. Even the urbane Truman Capote knew that; after all, he had grown up in the deeply dark American South. I spent much of my early life drawing those very connections, and they’re still there today. Small town American simply ain’t always nice.
     If McDonagh’s script is all a little pat, with even the police chief coming to her rescue to pay for the billboard’s second month, and a friendly black boy showing up at her door with a duplicate pair of the billboard messages after Dixon has burned them down. And, as Dargis makes clear, the writer-director does not always know what to cut from his own all-to-clever and convenient plot, mixing comedy and horror with equal blends, as if he were simply brewing up a new cup of coffee.
     Mildred is a horror, surely, particularly in the mind-throttling society in which she lives, but McDonagh almost turns her into a monster, allowing his character to hurtle Molotov cocktails into the police station and almost killing Dixon, who, although fired, has returned late at night to pick up a letter Willoughby has left him after killing himself.

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     Fortunately, McDormand saves the day. One scene, in particular, reveals her ability to suck in all her hate and come through as an almost charming and, at instants, as a quite visually beautiful woman. Sitting at a local steak house with a dwarf, Peter Dinklage (McDonagh seems to have a “thing” about little people, featuring a scene in his In Bruges as well), she observes her ex-husband (John Hawkes) arriving with his current 19-year old girlfriend. When her dinner, interrupted by  her former husband, turns sour, she picks up a bottle of wine and walks steadily to the banquette in the back of the restaurant; she has already showed herself as a truly violent being, and we half-expect that she is about to break the contents of that bottle over her ex’s head. His clueless and nearly brainless girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving) suddenly admits that her comment, “Hate only begets hate,” was something she had stolen from an article in an essay on “Polio,” which turns out to have been an article about “Polo.” Slowly, as the camera pulls away from this ditz of a being, McDormand carefully puts down the bottle of wine next to her insufferable ex-husband, and commands him to be nice to her, as if relinquishing any rights to her former anger about their relationship. He is now the one in hell, tied to a mindless girl that will surely allow him no satisfaction except in bed.
      Whether or not such hate as both she and Dixon share can be redeemed, McDonagh fails to answer, as the two speed off to perhaps kill a man who they believe guilty of rape, even if he has not been the one to have killed and raped Mildred’s daughter. Both have second thoughts, and we can only hope that the voyage they are taking is a kind of short road trip that will salve their mutual angers, allowing them to return home with a new acceptance of life as it is, a kind of aborted Odyssey. In the end, despite McDonagh’s constant insertion of comic elements into his work, I believe that Three Billboards is a kind of redemptive blood tragedy.

Los Angeles, December  26, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Luca Guadagino | Call Me by Your Name

by Douglas Messerli

James Ivory (screenplay, based on a fiction by André Aciman), Luca Guadagino (director) Call Me by Your Name / 2017

Certainly the most romantic film in the least romantic year of my memory, 2017, was Luca Guadagino's  gay love story, Call Me By Your Name. Yet this gay-centered film was not quite like any other coming of age films. Unlike many a “coming-out” tale, the young 17-year-old figure upon which this work centers, Elio Perlman (the absolutely stunning young actor Timothée Chalamet), is not only already “seeing” girls near the Lombardy villa in which he lives with his intellectual-inclined family, but having sex with the local Marzia (Esther Garrel). Yet in the summer of 1983, something clicks that sends him into a kind of spin—and we never quite know whether it is a permanent or only temporary shift.
     His sudden transition into sexual change and a kind of early sexual maturity has to do with the sudden introduction into his quiet family life of one of his father’s brilliant students, Oliver (the always handsome Armie Hammer). Oliver suddenly appears, usurping for six weeks the boy’s own bedroom, like one of the bronzed gods out of his father’s anthropological studies. The moment the two lock eyes on one another, fireworks nearly go off.
      Yet the attraction between the two is slow in developing in this overly languid film, scripted by the long important writer-director James Ivory (based on a fiction by André Aciman (who also plays a minor figure in the film). Despite their immediate lust for one another, both are more than precocious figures, Oliver seemingly knowing, besides his Greek and Roman history, the etymology of the languages, and even daring to contradict his professor’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) observations about root words. For his part, Elio is a bookish genius, who not only skillfully plays the piano (in real life as well as on screen), and spouts facts about the local monuments that one could hardly imagine a 17-year old could have ever been aware—in 1983, one must remember, there were no computers and cell-phones to distract young intelligence—and who, moreover, speaks fluent Italian, English, and French (which the real-life actor does as well). In many ways the two were destined to come together intellectually if not physically.
     Understandably, the 30-some Oliver is cautious around this genius boy, not wanting to introduce him into a sexual event which might harm him or simply confuse his own sexuality. And then, as we discover at film’s end, Oliver, has had a long relationship with a woman back home in the good ole USA, and perhaps he is not quite sure of his sexual identification. Oddly, and quite wonderfully, the film recognizes the sexual fluidity of most of the human race, and doesn’t judge their sudden attraction. But Oliver’s clear moral resistance also demonstrates his caring, and perhaps already his love and admiration for the younger boy.
      Much of the film, accordingly spends its energy on the flirtatious encounters between the two, subtle messages to one other, such as Oliver’s hand placed just perhaps a few too many moments on Elio’s arm, gentle looks of furtive attraction, which remind one very much of Ivory's Forester recreation, Maurice, and, most importantly long bicycle trips with one another into the countryside, along with painful attempts by Oliver to make clear that he might also be available to local women.
Image result for Call Me by Your Name      If all of this, at first, frustrates Elio, particularly Oliver’s Americanized phrase suggesting his stand-offish position, “Later,” a signature of moving on while postponing any action. And the young boy cannot seemingly abide the new intruder. But both the elder and the audience know better, as the kid begins to develop a near fetishistic relationship with the man with whom he must share a bathroom, sneaking into his room to smell his shirt and swimming suit. And, gradually, as the two continually circle around one another, and with the help of a tale his mother reads him from the German about a prince who could bring himself to speak of his love for a princess, Elio elliptically expresses his feelings to Oliver, who briefly responds with a kiss or two, but suggests that since they have done nothing to consummate their desires, they should go no further, particularly to protect his young friend.
     Fortunately, for both, the standoff finally comes to an end when Oliver invites the boy into his bedroom late at night, where the two consummate their absolute passion for one another with an emotional release with which anyone who has ever fallen in love can only sympathize.
     The previous tensions might have almost been unbearable, and still, in part, are, were it not for set designer Violante Visconti di Modrone’s total attention to details, the books, kitchen, dining room, and hearth-lit scenes that give this world it’s sensuality, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s ability to capture the lazy sunlit world of Crema and other villages in Lombardy. The scenery and internal spaces are even more romantic perhaps that the plot of the film, and give Guadagnino’s work a kind of solidity which the furtive characters cannot. It almost asks, “How can people not fall in love in such a loveable world?”
     Not that, once these two have finally been able to come together, there isn’t plenty of hot romance as both boy and man literally jump out of their pants to express the ecstasy they feel about one another’s bodies and emotional expressions. Why couldn’t we have come together earlier, Elio implores, knowing that soon his lover will have to return to the US. It’s the plea of every lover in every sensitive portrayal of love. Fortunately, Elio’s parents, who both are clearly aware of their son’s new infatuation and are totally accepting of it, suggest that the two of them go together for a couple of weeks to a northern town where Oliver plans to do research.
     We suspect that Oliver finds little time for his research, given their near-idyllic and, frankly, soap-opera add-like rush through the villages and local mountains, where they kiss and hug, and dance through the hills and streets with complete abandonment. We forgive them and even the director for their sentimentality, for they will never again have the opportunity of that rush of love again.
      And that is the true tragic lesson of this beautiful film. As Oliver stoically takes the train to go off from his very special summer, the young Elio attempting the best he possibly can to keep from utterly breaking-down we are reminded of all those films that sent lovers off in different directions—or, at least, proposed to do so: Casablanca, Love in the Afternoon (even though, at the very last moment, Hepburn is swept up into her lover’s arms), or even Deborah Kerr and Carey Grant in An Affair to Remember (does it matter that she might have left their magic voyage in a taxi or subway instead?). The seemingly balanced and wiser-than-his-years Elio, tearfully phones up his mother to come take him home. After my first love revealed he had made a choice to begin a relationship with another, I did the very same thing, standing in a no-longer existent phone booth on a New York street to call my parents for a plane ticket to take me home.
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     The most profound moment of this sad romance is when Elio’s father invites him to sit beside him and attempts to explain that instead of trying to forget his first-love experience, tamping it down to something regrettable, that he should celebrate the special love that each had shared with one another, that life itself would slowly offer choices that would steal away those very joys that his son had so wonderfully experienced. Keep those memories close, he suggests, as he hints that he too might have gone through such a transitional love, but chose instead to keep it at a distance, to move away from it, without ever re-discovering the joys it might have provided him. Such openness of heart and perception is worth every somewhat silly movie of this sort of April-August romance, which could be described of my potential relationship as well.
     A telephone call from Oliver, apparently months later, reveals to Elio that his lover will be married by the next Spring. If today that might have seemed a bit equivocal (married to whom, a man or a woman?), we know that in 1983 it was a woman to whom Oliver was now committing himself. But as painful as that news has been, Elio has already come to perceive that their relationship was over. Those few halcyon days would never exist again, no matter if he will find another woman or man to love. The long take at the end of this quite lovely film, with the camera directly placed facing the quite brilliant Timothée Chalamet, embraces his beautiful face as tears gradually well-up in his eyes and fall gradually over his chiseled cheeks, a fire crackling before him like an inferno of new possibilities or perhaps intense pains of suffering. We cannot know which. First loves merely introduce us to the rest of our sexual lives.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Harold Pinter | Butley

the day everything falls apart
by Douglas Messerli

Simon Gray (writer, based on his play), Harold Pinter (director) Butley / 1974

The 1974 film Butley, was directed by the great playwright Harold Pinter, based on Simon Gray’s play from 1971; distributed under producer Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre series, it was released in the US in 1974 and in the United Kingdom in 1976.
     This work is certainly not very cinematic; except for a scene in Butley’s house, a trip through the underground, and couple of passing automobiles outside of the college where Ben Butley teaches, the action is restricted to his unkempt college office, which he shares with his current lover, Joey Keyston (Richard O’Callagham), a former student who is now part of the faculty, and hoping for a promotion. Joey is apparently teaching Blake, while his mentor is an Eliot scholar as a peeling photograph in the corner of the room hints.

      But despite the highly theatrically-based film, it is a wonder to watch simply because of Alan Bates’ remarkable performance as he paces the room, snarling, dismissing, pouncing on his various prey—his lover, several of his students, fellow faculty members, and Joey’s friend, a publisher, Reg Nuttall (Michael Byrne), with whom Joey has just spent a long weekend and, as Butley gradually discovers, is about to leave Ben for a new relationship.
      In many respects, Butley necessarily reminds one of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a work wherein Butley alone combines the “get the guest” behavior of both Martha and George. The claustrophobic college setting, the witty and devastatingly destructive dialogue, and even Bates’ obvious joy—expressed in a wide variety of subtle and not so subtle smiles and smirks—in insinuating and terrifying his visitors and the trapped Joey (who is foiled in his plan to escape to the library, which has temporarily closed for repairs). Like that unhappy couple, Butley is clearly a heavy drinker who is attempting to recover from a dreadful hangover. Finally, however, he is far more self-destructive than even Martha and George, spewing out hate that turns on him to reveal a deep self-hatred such that, by work’s end, represents a kind of self-immolation, particularly when the wife from who he is separated, Anne (Susan Engel), shows up to announce that she intends to marry Butley’s arch-enemy whom he describes as the most boring man in England.

     He simply intimidates his students by refusing to see them for tutorials, that is all but two, a feisty new student, Miss Heasman (Georgina Hale)—who insists on meeting with him despite his several attempts to send her away—and a young man, Mr. Gardner (Simon Rouse), in whom he has taken a special interest, encouraging him to drop his course with his colleague Edna Shaft (the wonderful Jessica Tandy), who shows up at regular intervals to complain about Butley’s behavior.

     Most of the brow-beating is saved for Joey, a man he knows well enough that he can play against deep weaknesses and what he describes as a “vile toadying” behavior. At moments Joey bravely fights back; having already heard of Anne’s divorce intentions, he attempts to save his news about Reg for another day. But it appears that the only one whom Butley cannot intimidate is Reg, the “other” man in Joey’s life who Butley calls Ted who is led to believe is the son of a Leeds butcher—in fact, it turns out, Reg’s father was a math professor.
      As I mentioned, by film’s end the lacerating attacks have left him, perhaps intentionally, utterly alone, along with heavy bruises and a hacking cough that sounds like tuberculosis, his long, jet black hair, hanging from his head as if it were a crown of thorns. If in all his machinations he has attempted to flay those who might help him, he has been severely psychologically whipped, without a soul to turn to, and without even a cross on which to hang himself.
      If Gray’s script is never truly transcendent in its insights, Bates’ quite brilliant portrayal of its hero, along with Pinter’s insightful directing, lift this angry young drama into a toweringly dramatic work that stands out from others of its day.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2017

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nobuo Nakagawa | 地獄 Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell)

everyman a murderer

by Douglas Messerli

Nobuo Nakagawa and Ichirō Miyagawa (screenplay), Nobuo Nakagawa (director) 地獄 Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell) / 1960

The Japanese film, Jigoku, might be aptly described as a genre piece, in this case a horror film, that doesn’t quite behave like any other work in its category. In fact, it is more like a stunningly beautiful Dantesque voyage through the Inferno, and it has, perhaps, more religious implications than any other horror film I’ve seen, with the possible exception of one of my favorite films of the genre, The Exorcist.

      In some ways it might almost seem that the film’s hero, a theology student, Shirō (Shigeru Amachi), is not worthy of his hellacious punishment. After all, he was simply a rider in the car driven by his satanic friend, Tamura (Yōichi Numata), which hits and kills a drunken gangster. Even as Tamura flees, Shirō pleads that they go back.

   Yet, as the film’s written preface makes clear, hell is not so much the reward for guilty, as it is for those whose conscience makes them suffer their perceived guilt. And director Nobuo Nakagawa’s work, subtly suggests, as did Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer, “every man a murderer.” Poor Shirō is further made to suffer when instead of walking with his fiancée, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), to report the incident to the police, he determines to hail a taxi, which ends in an accident and her death.

    Furthermore, fate is against him, as the gangster’s mother, who has witnessed the incident, along with the Yakuza’s girlfriend plot Shirō’s moral decline and, ultimately, his and Tamura’s death, although we might reasonably imagine that Tamura is already a walking corpse, determined to capture the souls of others.

    When Shirō is called to visit his dying mother Ito (Kimie Tokudaij), in a distant retirement center, he discovers his father, Gōzō Shimizu (Hiroshi Hayashi) in the very next room making love to Kinuko, his mistress. In fact, the entire old age center seems to be inhabited by social outsiders, most of whom the vengeful mother and the gangster’s girlfriend quickly put out of their misery with poisoned alcohol.

      There’s a lot else about an alcoholic painter, working on a picture of hell, and his nurse daughter, the beautiful Sachiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya), to whom Shirō also takes a fancy—after all she is a spitting image of Yukiko—as well as great many minor figures, all of whom, it is revealed, are also murderers.

     Yet these lesser figures are not as important as the phantasmagoric scenes from Limbo, where Shirō once again encounters Yukiko, who reveals that, at the time of death, she had been carrying a baby girl she has now named "Harumi," setting her afloat on the river to the underworld, which the former theology student now enters with hopes to retrieve. The eight rings of Hell, overseen by Lord Enma, are as terrifying as any Bosch painting, a world wherein he encounters several of his other acquaintances, all tortured by being boiled alive, dismembered, beaten, and cut open only to repeat the process all over again. There he also re-encounters his dead mother, who reveals that Shirō is the old painter, Ensai’s son, with whom she had had an affair, and Sachiko is his sister by the same relationship.

     Lord Enma gives Shirō one chance only to save his baby daughter, and the sinner jumps onto the wheel of time, seemingly unable to reach her, and permit himself salvation. Yet the wheel is stopped at precisely 9:00, a time that is repeated throughout the film, a bit like the repeated moments of time in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and the very moment when the gangster’s mother has poisoned all the citizens of the old age home. At film’s end we perceive at the least the possibility of salvation, as Sachiko and Yukiko, in sublime light, call out to their brother and lover, as lotus petals, traditionally representing purity, fall to the ground around them.

       In many ways, Jigoku, with its lurid colors, impossibly complex storyline, and over-the-top events of horror, is a kind of campy hoot, which perhaps accounts for its near-cult status. Nevertheless, it is so utterly watchable and fascinating in its commitment to study guilt and punishment, that, once you have seen it, you cannot easily put out of your mind. And as brutal as its depiction of Hell is, like Dante’s Inferno it is a work that you need to re-experience. I don’t believe in Hell or Heaven, but I wonder at human depictions of both.


Los Angeles, December 8, 2016

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Carl Theodor Dreyer | Du skal ære din hustru (Master of the House)

the great tyrant
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Theodor Dreyer and Sven Rindom (writers, based on Rindom’s play), Carl Theodor Dreyer (director) Du skal ære din hustru (Master of the House) / 1925

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sly 1925 silent film, Master of the House is a story about a great tyrant, Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), who narcissistically rules over his domain with total disdain for those who live within—his wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), his children, Karen (Karin Nellemose), Dreng and Barnet and his former nanny, “Mads” (Mathilde Nielsen), who volunteers to help out his wife from time to time—until finally, in one way or another, they all are in psychological duress, the youngest crying endlessly as the “howler monkey” spits out his orders, Dreng forced to stand in the corner while the family eats their frugal supper (even butter is scraped away from their sandwiches in order to slather more of the tyrant’s bread) simply because he has dared play in the streets with friends a bit beyond his allotted time, and Karen being terrified of not meeting his strict demands. When the hard-working Ida is finally sent away to a place to rest—part of a plot that Mads has hatched with Ida’s mother, Alvilda Kryer (Clara Schønfeld), his wife has a nervous breakdown. Sound familiar?

     Unlike Ida, she forces him to participate in the daily care of house and family members, which Viktor, recalling her sometimes harsh penalties for misbehavior in his youth, reluctantly obeys. Dreyer brilliantly portrays an increasing series of daily upbraids and orders as she forces him to help with the laundry, now hanging in the kitchen where he has previously forbidden Ida to place it, to help with food preparation, and to light his own fires, fetch his own shoes, and even care for the children he is rearing. Such an exhausting schedule not only does not permit his frequent visits to a local pub, but gradually helps him to realize just how much work his wife has endured previously alone.

     “Mads” is indeed a more than a bit “mad,” but underneath it all, the director helps us realize, she does have a heart of gold, and realizes that it has become necessary to retrain her early pupil. And when he truly shows signs of breaking because he sorely misses his loving wife, she summons the girl home, forcing her to hide in a cabinet for a brief period so that she might witness Viktor’s transformations.

     If the entire shift in behavior seems a bit unlikely, and if we wonder whether it might represent a more permanent psychological change, Dreyer’s deft handling of this domestic satire is, nonetheless, entertaining and, more importantly, educational. Beware you male chauvinists, he seems to be claiming in a day when few other males had arrived at this conclusion, the day of reckoning will soon arrive! Ida’s mother even suggests a new career for the baffled tyrant, writing out a check so that he might purchase an available optometrist's shop—perhaps since he has simply come to better see how things are.
     Coming just after Dreyer’s masterful study of a homosexual behavior, Michael, and only 3 years before his significant portrait of Joan of Arc, Master of the House seems purposefully like the lighter piece it is. Yet, the Danes certainly seemed to comprehend its metaphorical implications in the manner of the nearby Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen’s earlier play, A Doll’s House. The film was well-received in Denmark, and is now recognized as a gem of silent-film productions.
      If nothing else, in its straight-forward and spare direction, much like the determinedly level-headed Mads, Dreyer’s film makes it point almost immediately. In just the first 7 minutes of the film, we, like Mads, perceive what’s truly amiss in the Frandsen household, which the rest of the film demonstrates how to solve. If most of Dreyer’s films do not have such seemingly easy solutions, shifting as they do between deep religious and personal compulsions, Master of the House, nevertheless, explores the boundaries between explicit expressions of authority and individual needs and desires, which ultimately can and do trump superficial ideas of power.

Los Angeles, December 6, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Mehmet Binay and Canner Alpert | Zenne Dancer

by Douglas Messerli

Caner Alper (writer), Mehmet Binay and Canner Alper (directors) Zenne Dancer / 2012

I wish I could report that the film I am about to write about, Zenne Dancer, by the Turkish film-makers Mehmet Binay and Caner Alper, was a total fiction; alas, it is based on a true incident that occurred to an acquittance of the directors.
      The movie recounts the inter-relationships between three figures, a beautiful male-in-drag belly dancer, Can (Kerem Can), his former gay lover, the university student Ahmet Yildiz (Erkan Avci), and a gay German photographer, Daniel (Giovanni Arvaneh) who, while in Istanbul, shifts from his war-time reporting to the delights of the city, including snapping pictures of Can, whose patronage helps him to survive in a strange world where, in an attempt to escape the military draft, he goes out only at nights to dance without pay at a gay club.
      In case it might strike you that Can is involved in a strange activity in belly-dancing with lavish costumes but often with a bare chest that reveals his beautifully chiseled torso, I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs from an article by Tara Isabella Burton in Smithsonian Magazine about the zenne dancers who participate in a popular entertainment in Turkey:

Male belly dancing is hardly a new phenomenon in Turkey. Most zenne dancers date the practice back to the Sultan’s court in the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire, when women were largely prohibited from performing onstage. Much as how boys would play women’s parts in Elizabethan Shakespeare, young men – generally ethnic Greeks, Armenians, or Romani, drawn, often unwillingly, from the Empire’s non-Muslim population – would be trained as dancers, adopt androgynous or feminine attire and makeup, and – in many cases – moonlight as paid courtesans to noblemen.
     In traditional Ottoman practice, the terminology of “gay” and “straight” was largely absence from discourse, as explained by scholar Serkan Görkemli. Sexuality was more customarily defined as a matter of status/rank and sexual role. A higher-ranking nobleman would as a matter of course define himself as an active or penetrative sexual partner, one who would under other circumstances sleep with women; a zenne dancer would be expected to take on a more so-called “feminine” sexual and social role. Regardless of whether or not sexual relations between dancers and their spectators took place, however, zenne dancing (and the watching thereof) was considered part of “mainstream” masculine culture...."

      Even though with Turkish modernization, the zenne tradition fell out of favor, it remains a staple of entertainment in many parts of Turkey.

      As a university student, Ahmet is still also very fearful of being stopped by the Turkish military police and being conscripted. In the very first scene of the film, in fact, he seeks to be hidden in Can’s dressing room, fearing that even being seen out at night, and, in particular, in a zenne bar, might draw attention, and he is particularly fearful in this case because of his traditional Muslim parents, particularly his harridan of a mother, who is perhaps the real villain of the work.
       Through Can’s agreement to be photographed by Daniel, the hirsute Akmet meets up with the equally hirsute photographer and, gradually over a period of days the two become lovers, while still both remaining friends with the more fragile and needy Can. If both Can and Akmet live basically shadow-lives out of fear for the societal forces, Daniel has the ghost of his past in his sex-wife, who is now his agent and is highly critical of his new photographic interests, wishing he might return to filming on-site battles and the children scarred by war instead of his new fondness for the picturesque oddities of the great Turkish city.
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      While Akmet’s parents are holy horrors, his sister, with whom he lives, is totally modern and seemingly accepting of his nightly wanderings—except when the gorgon of a mother comes to visit. Can’s aunt, with who he lives, is a loving and caring woman in complete acceptance of his lifestyle, even while her husband highly disapproves; and Can’s mother, living in the country, loves her son so dearly that it truly borders on incest. On a visit to her, later in the film, he can hardly pry her hands from a deep embrace to escape back to the city. The outsider Daniel, given his completely Western upbringing cannot even quite comprehend their predicaments.  
Image result for Zenne Dancer      And therein lies the rub, so to speak. As Daniel and Akmet grow closer, so too does the German, who is determined to take Akmet back to Germany with him, encourage him to speak out about to sexuality to his parents, as does the obviously utterly outed Can. Daniel is simply naïve, while Can’s motives seem somewhat sinister, since he should perhaps perceive the difficulties of declaring homosexuality in a modernized but still mostly Muslim country—but then his family has clearly adored for being “special.” Strangely, when both men are forced into interviews prior to induction, Akmet gets off for being gay (the Turkish military like to see pictures of sexual penetration to prove those who claim homosexuality, and to this day may have one of the biggest collections of gay pornography in the world), while the zenne dancer Can is accepted: we can always use a belly-dancer in our ranks cracks one military officer. But both men are destroyed by their “honesty,” although perhaps Can survived military duty to return to his love of dancing.
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      When Akmet finally does confess his sexuality to his parents, the mean-spirited mother forces her husband to take up a gun and to kill his son in a kind of reverse “honor killing,” usually reserved for women who have supposedly been immoral in sexual activity or for divorcing their husbands. In Turkey, evidently, Akmet’s father is still in hiding.
      Despite the fact that this is quite amazing and that such a movie was even permitted to be filmed in Turkey, the production values of the work are excellent, the directors working within a fairly large financial investment for such an independently produced work. My only quibbles with the film are its sometimes quite excessive production numbers representing Can’s imaginary choreography of his dances; as one critic observed, at moments the film seems undetermined whether it wants to be a serious expose about the terrible events it documents, or a comic drag film in the manner of Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert.
      In the end the film succeeds simply because of its honesty about its trio of gay heroes. And quite surprisingly, when shown in gay film festivals in Turkey, became a great hit, as it was in the gay film circuit in the US—although until its release in Netflix it has not had general US distribution. Even I, who often seek out the unusual, almost passed on this one. Belly-dancing in Turkey, I smirked. But on further exploration, I became more interested, and am happy I was. This is a tragic statement not so much about being gay, but about being different in a culture that is based on broad ethnic and cultural differences, but with individuals often trapped within the confines of those very walls of identity.

Los Angeles, December 5, 2017

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ḗric Rohmer | Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's)

the wager
by Douglas Messerli

Ḗric Rohmer (writer and director) Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s) / 1969

I suspect that most younger filmgoers who may now see Ḗric Rohmer’s 1969 film, My Night at Maud’s, saturated as they are by films that feature spectacular effects and use dialogue mostly as a bridge to scenes of action, might find this work far too static and “talky,” even as some of the critics of the day perceived it. And, in fact, the film’s unnamed “hero,” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a believer to an extent in the status quo is a rather boring person determined from outset of the film to marry a like-minded Roman Catholic, like the beautiful young blonde he has spotted at the local cathedral in the small provincial town of Clermont-Ferrand. The movie features two religious sermons. Moreover, throughout the film, the three major characters mostly do talk: of religion, morality, Marxism, marriage, and more specifically about the great French thinker, Blaise Pascal, even through scenes in which the sexy Maud (Françoise Fabian) appears to be trying to seduce our hero into her bed.

     But that is, in fact, part of the film’s point. The hero is a thinking man very carefully trying to negotiate his way through life by making careful choices that will align him with his conversion to Catholicism, and, in that sense, his decisions are more an issue of intellect over spontaneity. He and even the friend he encounters by accident in a town bar, a Marxist philosophy professor, Vidal 
(Antoine Vitez) use words as a method to maneuver themselves through life, as opposed to the agnostic free-thinking Maud who has, perhaps less-successfully, made her way through her senses. In short, the trio, who come together briefly at Maud’s apartment, where her current lover Vidal has taken his friend, represent three slightly different methods of taking chances, or as Pascal described it, making “a wager” with how one might live life.
Image result for my night at maud's     As numerous critics have observed, the film is really a kind of explication of Pascal’s ideas, Vidal arguing that “the wager” is useful even for his Marxist historical perceptions, while the morally precise hero finds taking chances to be too dangerous, despite the fact that throughout the events depicted almost everything he does depends upon chance, including the snowy night that forces him to spend the night with Maud (evidently Rohmer had determined to film the scene at precisely the right day, when the Auvergne-based town, decked out with Christmas lights, received a significant snowfall), and his encounter with the woman who he fantasizes might become his wife, Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), as well as a later encounter with Maud on the beach, a scene which ends the film.
     Rather than regurgitating Pascal’s argument, I’ll quote a rather long passage from Constantine Santas’ elegantly elucidating article on the film from Senses of Cinema:

The character in the short story refers to the “arithmetic triangle” but the Vidal of the movie bursts out in a passionate diatribe on Pascal’s famous wager, and its relevance to modern times and its particular value for a Marxist like him. He says that Pascal’s wager has a modern relevance, and, as a Marxist, he has chosen to believe that history has meaning. Like Pascal, a modern Marxist has a question before him. Pascal’s wager poses a question to those who seek belief on rational grounds: Proposition A is that God does not exist, or at least you don’t know that He exists. In that case, if you accept this proposition, you lose if you are wrong. Proposition B posits that God exists, as does immortality (or, in the Pascal lexicon, “infinity”). If you go with proposition A, you lose, without hope of redemption. If you go with proposition B – that God and immortality exist, then, even though you bet against greater odds, you still have a chance to reach infinity, a mathematical result of differential calculus. Just as a believer who sides with God and immortality by making Pascal’s wager, so a Marxist can choose to interpret history (and politics) as a progression of events with a meaningful goal. You can assume the chances are 50/50, but even if you bet 10 against 90, it would be better to bet that history has meaning, for the gain would justify your supposition. Otherwise he would have to consider history as a passing series of casual events without meaning, which would defeat the purpose of his existence. Gorky and Lenin, Vidal observes, made a bet on similar grounds: if their chances of succeeding in their ideology were one to a thousand, it would be better to take that chance than none at all. Thus, the Marxist, like the religious man, can also make a similar choice, or place a “bet” on the notion that history has meaning."

     The problem is that the hero of the film refuses to bet, or simply take a chance. Yet it is also his salvation, permitting him to claim that he has won a moral victory over his own previously immoral choices, when, in his youth, he was evidently a womanizer.
Image result for my night at maud's     But the beauty of this film is in his long, basically chaste night in Maud’s room, even momentarily entering her bed, while he reveals and confesses his values, sometimes without even knowing it. In Rohmer’s hands the long dialogue between the two seems so real and natural that we feel we almost voyeurs listening in to a conversation between two people trying to get to know and adjust to one another, the way all lovers attempt to negotiate interest in one another and to explore their compatibility.  Given the acting skills of both leads, we’re never bored by their talk nor their subtle actions as they move toward and away from one another, accepting and rejecting intimacy. In the end, despite a passionate kiss and a later offer to marry her, the far wiser Maud realizes that she is not the right woman for him, that his requirements for marriage, a blonde-haired Catholic, have little to do with her essence, despite his readiness to wager that he might be able to convert her. “I prefer people who know what they want,” she declares, thus allowing him to be true to his principles and claim a kind of moral victory, even though it’s quite clear that she is still attracted to him. After all, she lost her ex-husband, who remains friends with her, to a devout Catholic woman. Maud, with a child to raise, is far more certain who she is than our justifying hero.
     By chance, as I suggested, he runs into the girl of his dreams, who also, eventually, falls in love with him. But she too has a hidden past, a failed affair with a married man. To convince her that he does not care about her past, he admits to a fling with Maud, even though nothing sexual occurred between the two.
     When, five years later, after he has married Françoise and has had a young boy, he accidentally runs into Maud, once again, on a local beach where the apparently happy family are celebrating. It is now quite clear that the central figure of the film has made his wager by choosing the safety of a conventional life, while giving up the possibility of the more exciting and adventuresome would Maud represents. The women, he surprisingly discovers, know one another, although Rohmer makes it clear there is a mysterious coldness between them. After a brief discussion with Maud, during which Françoise retreats with their son to beach, he returns to his family, ready to explain that his “fling” with her was not truly sexual, until he suddenly senses, as Françoise intensely fills her hands with sand and pours it out again, that it is his wife who is hiding something. An perceptive viewer can only realize that it was Françoise who broke up her marriage. For one of the first times in his life, the film’s hero acts somewhat spontaneously, hiding the innocence of his relationship with Maud, by suggesting it was simply his last “fling,” As Santas brilliantly puts it: “He shifts the burden of sinning to himself; and that little act of mercy redeems him.” Our utterly flawed hero has determined to protect his “wager” by allowing history to die.
      Anyone who can’t see the intense drama in this basically “dialogic” work perhaps will never comprehend the wonders of direct human communication, which all the cellphones and Facebook connections in the world can never replace. Perhaps all young intellects should watch this film, if only as a document of the importance of the human voice.

Los Angeles, December 12, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).

Friday, December 1, 2017

King Vidor | Cynara


by Douglas Messerli

Francis Marion and Lynn Starling (screenplay, based on the novel by Robert Gore-Browne), King Vidor (director) Cynara / 1932

The often adventuresome early 20th- century filmmaker King Vidor, adapted Robert Gore-Browne’s 1928 novel, The Imperfect Love and Gore-Browne and H. M. Harwood’s 1931 (in the US) play, as Cynara in 1932. Given Vidor’s credentials, the relative success of the play and novel, and the nearly impeccable credentials of actors Ronald Colman and Kay Francis (who play a happily married couple, Jim and Clemency Warlock), and the film’s pre-code sexual openness, one might have imagined that this movie would result in a witty romantic delight. Yet, strangely, given Warlock’s priggish attitudes toward love and marriage and the script’s plot resolution, it smells more of the 1950s comedy of possible sexual infidelity—one of my least favorite of Billy Wilder’s films, despite Marilyn Monroe’s fetching comedic talent—The Seven Year Itch. Even worse, Vidor’s film has the basic melodramatic structure of David Lean’s weepy film, Brief Encounter, the only difference being, in both these cases, that Warlock’s one-time extra-marital affair with shop-girl Emily Lea (Phyllis Barry) is something he truly enjoys almost as much as he loves his trusting wife. 

       Unlike the sexual-itchy character played by Tom Ewell, when Warlock’s wife leaves on the very eve of their 4th anniversary with the intentions of dragging her sister, with the improbable name of Gorla (Florine McKinney), away from another of her embarrassing infatuations, Warlock has no intentions of seeking out another woman—despite his judicial friend, John Tring’s (Henry Stephenson) insinuation that it is quite natural to dally while the wife’s away (or even while she’s around). As Warlock himself insists, he’s a boring man, desperately and emphatically in love with his wife.
       But Tring has other plans for him, luring him out for a dinner where they accidently meet up with Lea and her friend Milly Miles (Viva Tattersall), a coarser version of her gold-digging friend. Although Warlock insists that he must be going, Tring and the two girls lure him to a local Chaplin movie in which the audience laughs even more affectedly than the prisoners of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Even the normally restrained Coleman joins in with the hollers and hoots. And by the end of the chaste evening, he’s hooked.
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      When a week later Emily shows up at a bathing suit pageant that Tring has inexplicably arranged for the up-and-coming barrister to judge, Warlock can no longer duck the fact that he’s totally attracted to the girl, awarding her first place. The scene in which he is forced to make an off-the-cuff lecture, which mocks British moral pretensions—these girls, bathing in the waters of the swimming pool, have presumably washed their souls of evil doings—is priceless.
       And now that he has lied his head off and fallen for the girl, only the inevitable can happen. For a few weeks in his wife’s absence he enjoys bliss with the young shop-girl almost without guilt, although constantly reminding her that soon the relationship must end. She has lied from the beginning, saying when the time comes, it will be fine. But we and she know it now isn’t possible; having lost her job, she has no other way to attain a decent life, and when Warlock’s Clemency does again show up, Emily commits suicide.
      His wife catches a change in her husband’s behavior almost immediately, and queries him as he stutteringly debates how much he should tell her. But with the girl’s death and the discovery of a last letter to him, which requires his participation in the inquest of her death, he knows that his career and marriage is over; in fact, the movie has already established that fact, having in its very first scenes made it clear that Warlock, with bags packed, is leaving his wife to begin anew in South Africa. This entire film is one long flashback, a cinematic device of which I am generally not fond.
Image result for Cynara film 1932     As her name suggests, his wife gives him one more chance before he goes to fully explain the situation, which the stiff-lipped Warlock has not even revealed in court, refusing to say anything negative about the young girl with whom he had the affair, and taking on the responsibility of his acts without implicating his quite badly behaving friend.
     Yet, after Warlock leaves, Thring does show up, convincing the wife not to let the man she truly loves escape, and, quite miraculously, Clemency suddenly appears on the ship’s deck before it pulls away from port, reuniting the loving couple, she apparently pulling out a last-minute Hillary Clinton pardon for his unfaithfulness.
     In other words, the status quo is not only maintained in this tale of sexual waywardness, but glorified. In some ways, it’s probably a far better solution to the situation than closing the lens on a morally staid, unforgiving wife, staring down the camera in her womanly rage. But how desperately we might wish that, instead of simply forgiving him and living a life of further doubts, Clemency might have been able to announce, as her sister can, “O, darling, I too had affair in Venice. Couldn’t you have even imagined that?” Cynara, unfortunately, is embalmed in good intentions and guilt.

Los Angeles, December 1, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).