Sunday, February 25, 2018

Andrey Zvyagintsev | Нелюбовь (Loveless)

by Douglas Messerli

Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev (writers) and Andrey Zvyagintsev (director) Нелюбовь (Loveless) / 2017

If you want to see a grim and often dreary film in which not much happens for long periods of time as the camera lingers over the openings and/or closings of various scenes, if you long for a film where 
nearly all the figures—expect for the volunteer citizens who attempt to search for missing children—are truly loveless and endlessly selfish, then Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a perfect choice. For, in this film, not only are the central characters, husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) heartless and unloving as they attempt to break up and find love in what they perceive has a primarily loveless relationship, but they take their 12 year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) down with them, openly expressing their opinions so that he can hear them behind a closed door; neither of them wants custody of him after the divorce, and they argue loudly over how to best put him in a boarding school or even an orphanage before sending him off to the Russian army.
     Is it any wonder that the child, as Zhenya describes him to total strangers who are considering purchasing their apartment, is always crying—as if somehow, she and her husband have had no hand in the boy’s sorrows?
      Indeed, just before he disappears, after hearing of his own loveless situation, we see him hiding behind the bathroom door with a look of such horror on his face that it will remind you of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, even though his is a silent scream after basically having his heart pulled out of his body by his fighting parents. By the end of the film we discover that the intemperate Zhenya has had a similarly unloving Stalinist-era mother, who has verbally abused her since childhood; and although Boris’ mother has died before the film begins, we can only suspect, given how he treats and ignores Alexey, and later attends to his new son born to his girlfriend and later wife, Masha (Marina Vasilyeva), planting the overactive child back into its crib, was probably maltreated by his family. In this film the failures of previous generations have determined the heartless world in which the current survivors exist.
     Is it any wonder, moreover, that the terrified Alyosha bolts, presumably to hide out in the basement ruins of an old resort hotel that looks like something out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which nature has almost completely taken over the former, most like greedy, operators of the building? This 
child’s world, it is apparent, is filled with just such “loveless” people as his parents. His mother has not  even checked on him for two days while running a hair salon, and hanging out with her older “lover” at nights—to whom she admits, he is the first person she has ever loved—but she seems almost momentarily relieved when she discovers from his schoolteacher that he has not been in school for two days; and the police she is forced to call—after her husband refuses to leave his job to help investigate—suggest they cannot truly begin a new case for a missing boy for some period; these runaway kids, the detective assures her, usually come back when they get tired and cold.
     In fact, knowing that his boss, a religious zealot who fires any employee who isn’t married or even gets divorced, we can hardly blame Boris for not immediately leaving the office. He is terrified of the unemployment he later seems to suffer. And, to give him credit, after a horrifying meeting at Zhenya’s monstrous mother, whom they visit with the volunteer group looking for their lost son, literally forces her to leave his car after she brutally verbally abuses him, later on taking over most of the legwork required in the attempts to find Alyosha.
     As I have suggested, if there are any real heroes in this movie, it is the volunteer group searching for the boy. Yet they too behave with a sense of cold, almost doctrinaire, unison behavior, obviously having found their role in the gap between the under-caring and under-funded police. At least they offer temporary possibilities, posting placards everywhere, calling hospitals, and questioning friends such as Alyosha’s comrade Kuznetsov, who leads them to the old, dilapidated hotel. There they do find the boy’s coat but discover no sign of the boy himself. When the  brigade hears of an unidentified dead boy, matching Alyosha’s age and hair color, who has evidently been tortured, both parents claim it is not their son—although we don’t quite know for certain, given the hysterics of Zhenya and her continued public verbal abuse of her ex-mate. Even the coordinator of the search and rescue team suggests that they should, perhaps, get a DNA test (some parents cannot digest the facts, he explains), but she so violently rejects that possibility while Boris breaks to uncontrollable tears, that we can suspect that the missing mole on the boy’s chest may simply be a ruse so that they do not have to accept the reality of their failures.
     We can never know. And director’s camera continues to look and investigate every spot along the boy’s path, but we see only other people passing the new posters the good volunteers have put up, years after.
     At film’s end, Boris seems trapped in a similarly unloving situation with his new wife, while listening to the Russian daily news which posits that the Ukraine is in complete chaos, and will not even allow in Russians to deliver new food, but simply kills everyone in sight—lies promulgated, of course, by Putin’s government.
      Zhenya, with her new husband, appears equally unhappy, listening to the same news reports, and escapes sharing it with her lover by retiring to the balcony, where she exercises on a stationery running device. The last image of her, dressed in a Russian running outfit, is one of racing toward nowhere, simply running in place, surely an image that Zvyagintsev sees as the moral condition of Russian life. As the film’s producer Alexander Rodnyansky argues, the film was envisioned as a reflection of "Russian life, Russian society and Russian anguish.” Like many Americans, Zhenya, addicted to her cell phone, has lost complete touch with life.
     Yet, despite all of this, Zvyagintsev’s film keeps searching, ending with a brilliantly beautiful scene in the woods where Alyosha visited in the movie’s very first frames. There we again see a piece of plastic that the boy had discovered in the first scene and thrown into highest branches of a tree. It waves still, almost as a banner, declaring the life of this young man gone missing, one of so many in the Russian world of missing young men. If the trees, the stream below, the ground, even the birds, seem icy and forbidding, they still remain as beautiful images in cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s filming that in them we can almost understand this forest scene as a shrine for the young life, clearly lost.
      The boy, we know, will never be found, not even if he has miraculously survived. The culture that has treated him as a discardable object has taken away his very humanity.
       That explains, at least part, why this so very sad film was not only selected for The Jury Prize at Cannes, but as a final nominee for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Los Angeles, February 25, 2018

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pier Paolo Pasolini | Porcile (Pigsty)

by Douglas Messerli

Pier Paolo Pasolini (writer and director) Porcile (Pigsty) / 1969

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film, Porcile (Pigsty), is only a little less difficult to embrace than the same director’s last film, Salò, investigating as it does the consequences and roots of Fascism. While in the latter, children are taken by wealthy Fascist supporters to a retreat in which they growingly abuse them, paralleling the moral collapse of the surrounding world, Pigsty tells two parallel tales, one of a young man wandering the landscape in an unspecified historical period around Mount Etna—a landscape used previously in his Teorama.

      The young man, simply described as the Young Cannibal (Pierre Clémenti), who by film’s end admits that he has killed his father, seems to have been ostracized by society, and is now, apparently, is starving, killing a passing soldier and consuming him, later accumulating a rather ragtag band of followers who terrorize the neighborhood. He and his group are finally captured by soldiers and sentenced to death, while the Young Cannibal strips himself naked, shouting "I killed my father, I ate human flesh and I quiver with joy" before he is killed.
     Despite this bleak story, Pasolini films the equally bleak landscape with a sense of great beauty and even dignity, keeping the audience in true suspense regarding the intentions of the handsome miscreant, although it is made clear that he has killed a man simply to dine upon his innards.
      The director alternates this sad tale with another, equally sad one, concerning a German family of the 1960s, Herr Klotz (Alberto Lionello) and his handsome young son, Julian (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Although this family lives in a beautiful mansion built by the Wirtschaftswunder (the so-called Economic Miracle) money, and Julian has a beautiful girlfriend, Ida (Anne Wiazemsky, who also 
played the memorable female hero of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar), a woman who seems, much like Fassbinder’s Economic Miracle women, very much at home in the new society, apparently has a secret love, and will not travel with her nor commit himself to marriage.
     It is only after Herr Klotz’s rival, Herdhitze (Ugo Tognazzi), suggests a business merger that we discover that Julian’s real loves consist of the pigs on his father’s estate and, a bit like American playwright/poet Rochelle Owens’ 1965 play Futz and Edward Albee’s later play of the strange ways of the heart, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, shocks us with the truth. In Pasolini’s telling these extreme individuals do indeed represent human destruction and rebellion against corrupt systems as in Owens and Albee, Julian’s ending, alas, is more similar to Tennessee Williams’ character Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, particularly when Herr Klotz’s son is eaten by the pigs he has bestialized, just as Sebastian is “eaten” by the boys he has fucked.

     While we certainly recognize that Pasolini is making some highly political commentary in comparing what appear to be ancient medieval systems with the Wirtschaftswunder and, by association, with the Third Reich--the very same connections made, more brilliantly by Fassbinder a few years later, particularly in his In a Year of Thirteen Moons--there is still something fetching and disconnected in his tales. Yes, the Young Cannibal of the lover of pits may be the natural result of their parental desires for vast power and wealth, but Pigsty doesn't really reveal that, but merely points to it, almost as if it should be self-evident.
     Any of us who were born during or shortly after World War II know that to be the case, but, although certainly using the kinds of satirical tropes that Fassbinder did, doesn’t truly take it to the surrealist perspectives of Fassbinder’s work or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, of a year later.
     Nonetheless, Pigsty is an important film in Pasolini’s career, demonstrating his historical sense of horrifying behavior resulting from the even more terrifying greed of a previous generation, the sins of the father, in this case, need to be more carefully reiterated.

Los Angeles, February 24, 2018

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ildikó Enyedi | Testről és lélekről (On Body and Soul)

by Douglas Messerli

Ildikó Enyedi (writer and director) Testről és lélekről (On Body and Soul) / 2017

Hungarian filmmaker, Ildikó Enyedi’s 2017 film, On Body and Soul—nominated for the Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards is a rather problematic film, and certainly is not a movie that I might recommend to everyone. First of all, the location of the film is in an Hungarian slaughterhouse, which although it is kept clean and appears to have careful oversight and modern techniques (one of the central figures, Mária [Alexandra Borbély] has been recently hired as a temporary quality inspector), the film nonetheless does show convincing scenes of cows being slaughtered, and comments on the fact that some of its employees, and certainly visitors (including a policeman) might find it difficult to endure.
     Secondly, its central characters are not particularly appealing. Mária, as some critics have noted, appears to be autistic and is so precise in her behavior that, at moments she appears almost to be an automaton. If nothing else, the icy blonde wants little to do with her fellow employees, eating and standing apart from them, hardly ever fraternizing.
     Her boss, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) watches his employees out of a high window almost like a voyeur and, also, is more than a little stand-offish. If María seems to be mentally crippled, Endre has quite literally loss the use of his left hand. We never discover the causes of either of their afflictions—Enyedi is careful to keep their pasts a mystery—but we do realize that they are both inordinately shy and weary of human communication.
     On top of these difficulties, this pair soon discover something that is simply inexplicable: they have been unknowingly sharing the same dreams. A robbery from a medicine cabinet, which leads to calling in a company psychologist, alerts them to the fact, as she accuses them of collaborating to undermine her techniques. Between themselves they corroborate the fact by writing down their most recent dream and handing the texts to one another: they match.
      Although beautifully filmed, the dreams are certainly not very impressive. In all of them, Endre is an antlered deer and Mária a doe, who together simply are foraging in a snowy forest, finding a few leaves on which to nibble, and drinking from a small lake and stream. The only contact between them occurs as they touch noses or briefly interlock their heads. There is no mating, no sudden movements, and no violence—so different from the world in which they work.
      Obviously, their interlocking dreams brings them together, particularly since it appears as an almost mystical-like experience not able to be explained (in fact, to the psychologist they admit they have collaborating, just to quiet further speculation and observation). Yet at the same time these two have been so completely maimed by previous relationships, that they both pull away, and when they do try to get together, the places they have once inhabited are now empty and quite meaningless. Even Endre’s formerly favorite restaurant is empty and the service is similarly rudimentary. Perhaps, we later learn, he had to many women, and she loved one, unforgiving man, too much.
     In an even odder development, Mária, after seeming to reject Endre’s advances, attempts to maim herself by cutting the same arm which Endre has lost. The visual images of blood and possible suicide recall the film’s early images of the innocent beasts’ deaths. But a sudden telephone message from Endre saves her, and the film ends with the final sexual encounter that seems to have been missing from the deer dreams that both have long shared.
     Finally, there is mutual satisfaction, and the two troubled animals can simply fall to sleep, with Endre’s maimed hand firmly wrapped around Mária’s torso. The two have finally found a way to break out of the cold forest’s embrace and move into a deeper world of human love.

Los Angeles, February 21, 2018

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Stephen Cone | Princess Cyd

by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Cone (writer and director) Princess Cyd / 2017

As in most of Stephen Cone’s films, the central character of his newest film, Princess Cyd, is open—open to life and new experiences. She is young, and has the confidence of all young people, without the fears and depressions of her elders. One might almost say that such a viewpoint is at the heart of most Cone films; well some of his figures, particularly the most religious of them, seem trapped in their lives, most of his characters seem to simply not yet made up their minds of whom they like and what they believe. Like young pre-college and college students of his films are simply and openly “searching,” seeking out what most of us have forgotten: who they are, what they want to believe, and where they may be going later in their lives. There is an open freshness, accordingly to Cone’s films, wherein young people simply are allowed to explore their options without adult or even peer judgment, and, as such, his films appear almost as a tonic in a world of fictions, films, and other works that determinedly deposit specific viewpoints, however much they might attempt to hide them as open possibilities. In Cone’s films, characters move in directions you might never have imagined or even approved of. His figures don’t yet have answers, or, even if they do, as in Princess Cyd’s older aunt, they are still open to new possibilities.
       Cyd is not princess, despite her open assertion of just such a position, but a young girl, who has, perhaps, given her mother’s early death and her father’s apparent depression, been treated as a kind of princess, a blonde soccer girl, comfortable in her own body, even if she is perhaps rather intellectually lacking. As she immediately declares to her award-winning writer aunt, “I don’t read.” Fortunately, this somewhat pained aunt, who has long lost touch with her niece, fuzzily explained by the girl’s relationship with her difficult father and her mother’s death by murder years earlier, who grew up in a house where her aunt, Miranda (Rebecca Pence) still lives. There is clearly been some deep resentment between both the aunt’s and Cyd’s father, but, as in most of his films, Cone does not center his narrative on sins of the past, nor even problems that might be central to his characters. What his films do is to concentrate on the present, on the hear and now of relationships that lead not to revelations of the ugly pains of living, but the possibilities of curing in the now.

     Miranda is a liberal, even if she is clearly seeking spiritual salvation, and she simply swallows her pride in her own writing career in welcoming into her house this young, rather rambunctious sports girl, who is as equally at home in her own body and beliefs as Miranda is in her more ritualized life. Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is, in some senses, a kind of smart-aleck girl, who obviously doesn’t easily take to adult auditing. And fortunately, Miranda’s tolerant acceptance of her for a summer, works out nicely, almost too predictably, into a friendship which will help enlighten both of them.
       It’s not that Cyd doesn’t challenge her, or that Cyd’s careless behavior doesn’t make it difficult for Miranda to deal with her new young charge. Cyd is impolite, interruptive of the careful life she has cultivated. But Cone, never a director who judges his characters, gently puts the issues out before us, sometimes perhaps a bit too correctly, allowing both to work on a kind of assimilation that helps both of them and regenerates their lives. Cyd actually begins to read, Miranda questions her more conservative values, including what her spiritual search is clearly to replace any sexual encounters. Cyd challenges these, suggesting she seek out the company of a dear black friend who is part of Miranda’s literary salons. And Miranda pushes back with an explanation that sex is not everything, 
while Cyd herself explores an entirely new world, given her rather previously undeveloped friendships with males, with a trans-sexual figure, Katie (played by Malic White, an individual who has since described herself as trans-sexual), wearing a stylish Mohawk haircut, and with whom Cyd immediately falls in love.
       Yet, where most directors might present these issues as a kind of polemic, resolve perhaps with mutual growth in both the opposing figures, Cone’s characters are never really oppositional. They listen to one another, and, yes, they both grow in the process, but don’t necessarily change completely from their original selves. Rather, as in nearly all of Cone’s films, they simply adapt to one another, learning from the people around them, listening—just as we are made to listen to their different points of view.
       In this new film, Cone sometimes doesn’t quite get his generous points of view right, intruding, it seems to me, with a slightly abusive male intrusion and some rather sanctimonious scenes regarding Cyd’s and Katie’s odd relationship. We might simply say, that just like the young boy in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, Cyd is simply comfortable, like so many young people today, with experimenting with love, trying out things the previous generation were far too timid to peruse. This is not truly a “queer” movie any more than was Guadagnino’s lovely film, but both reveal a different kind of openness to sexual difference. We can only hope that what we see in these films is true, an acceptance of sexuality in a way that is so very contrary to my own generation.
      If nothing else, filmmakers like Cone and Guadagnino represent something new, graceful and charming in a way we might never have imagined. Perhaps in the near future, we can even stop characterizing films such as Princess Cyd and Call Me by Your Name as gay or lesbian. They are simply tales of young people exploring sex.

Los Angeles, February 18, 2018

Friday, February 16, 2018

Stephen Cone | The Wise Kids

different ways of loving and believing
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Cone (writer and director) The Wise Kids / 2011

Director Stephen Cone’s gentle tales, which tell of teenagers growing into maturity before the eyes of their elders, are, at heart, films of ideas; yet they don’t seem at all to preach, even though they are often located within tightly-knit religious, particularly Baptist, communities. Usually, when encountering any literary or cinematic work about true believers, the writers and directors take stands either for or against. But Cone has the grace and lightness of touch to let his characters speak for their own views, presenting a broad range of different viewpoints without demonizing and judging any of them. It is this director’s fairness (although he often does have a few very narrow-minded figures) that makes his films seem so magical. And even non-believers, such as I am, are attracted to his work.
      The other day I watched one of his early films, The Wise Kids, in two entire viewings over two days, and I realized just how subtly his “ideas” were presented. In this film three students one 
church organist and drama leader, and an older, perhaps lesbian woman, ostracized from her grandmother’s love while still living in her house, stand in for a wide range of viewpoints, while still all deeply embraced by the religious community in which they were raised.
       The most daring of them is the preacher’s daughter, Brea (Molly Kunz), who, as a senior in school, is suddenly beginning to question her religious teachings. As she puts it, to her best friend Tim (Tyler Ross), “We might have believed whatever our parents taught us.” In short, she is arguing that, in part, children are, in following their parent’s teachings, in some sense, brainwashed. And if they don’t later begin questioning those beliefs they will be again imposed on their own children as well. Clearly that is the case with their classmate, Laura (Allison Torem), an overeager believer who prays to God with words such as “fabulous” and “awesome.”
      Although Tim is less disenchanted with his beliefs than Brea, arguing that he pretty much came to his beliefs by himself, he is having his own difficulties with his religious convictions because he has discovered that he is gay.
      It’s clear that all the girls in his school, represented here only by Brea and Laura, find him cute. But a casual question from a visitor to the community, “Is he gay?” signals these young people that Tim is, indeed, homosexual, bringing Laura to the ask the question directly and to 
promise to email him a list of Bible passages that prove it is a grave sin. Tim blandly suggests she do that, making it clear, despite his own insistence that it is simply something he is trying to work it out with prayer and thought, that he is comfortable within his own skin. And it is that self-assuredness that makes this character so truly likeable. Soon after, he tells his working-class father that he is gay, a widower who accepts the fact quite affably. But when Tim’s younger brother hears of it, he is anything but accepting, and Tim, who has begun to bond with Brea, calls her, suggesting he needs to get away.
     Meanwhile, Brea, much loved by the elderly busy-body in the church, Ms. Powell, has become friendly with her granddaughter, Cheryl (Sadie Rogers)—a self-admitted non-believer, and the two take her along to a clearly mixed gay, lesbian, and freewheeling local bar in their small community. There, Brea lets her hair down by wildly dancing, Tim finds a handsome young man with who he passionately dances, and Cheryl is approached by another woman. The trio has found their true spiritual home.
      But the other major figure in this tender film, the drama coach Austin (played by the director himself) is double-locked into that closed society by his marriage, and his sincere love of Elizabeth, and the growing recognition that he, too, is gay. We recognize his emotional state by a hand left perhaps just a second too long on a student’s shoulder, a clumsily attempted kiss of Tim at a party, and his inability to have sex with the wife whom he, nonetheless, loves.
      Brea, who was preparing, like Laura, to attend a local religious college, has quietly applied to NYU and suddenly is accepted, while Tim had planned all along to attend the New School. Understandably, Laura feels rejected, but we also know she will find a local boy to settle down with who shares her religious fervor. Tim and Laura will surely face rockier but far more varied futures.
       A return home after their first semesters, brings together the young trio, who perform again in Austin’s dramatization of the Christ’s birth. And during that visit, as Austin meets with Tim, the older man admits that he is gay. In a reversal of the usual roles, the younger consoles the elder with a deep hug, knowing surely that the elder is doomed to either remain in the closet or to destroy the entire life he has made for himself. It’s clear that he will chose the former, mouthing during the performance, “I love you,” to his wife, she responding “I love you too.”
      What this director shows us, time and again, is that love can take many, many shapes, even within closed societies. There are no monsters here, just human beings attempting to live out their lives the best they can, some within greater confines than others. The kids are wiser simply because they have attempted to work out the definitions of their world while they were young. For poor Austin, we realize, it is too late, and we can only deeply sympathize with the pain and suffering he will have to embrace for the rest of his life. But then, we also know that the man performing Austin, was a “wise kid,” who made his way in a different direction than his preacher father might have wished.

Los Angeles, February 16, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

Guillermo del Toro | The Shape of Water

by Douglas Messerli

Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro (story), Guillermo del Toro (director) The Shape of Water / 2017

It is the early 1960s in Baltimore, at the time still somewhat segregated, and, like the rest of the nation, a city very much involved in the Cold War, in heavy competition with the Soviet Union in 
what authorities characterized as a battle for military and scientific superiority. These very real issues are simply the backdrop, played out in rather stereotypical terms, for Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi based fantasy, The Shape of Water. Del Toro’s film replaces the military heroes of the day who typically attempted to eradicate outsiders in sci-fi films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and well-intentioned but intruding scientists such as those in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with everyday figures—in this case an elderly gay advertising illustrator, a mute working woman, and her black cleaning-woman friend—who side with the monster and work together to undermine the power of both the military and scientific work, both now brutal forces at work to control the world.
     I also have always felt that the early 1960s represented some of the most repressive periods of 20th century history (despite even McCarthy’s terrible attempts to control thinking in the 1950s) and have written about it throughout my My Year volumes.
     Yet, I somehow resent del Toro’s presentation of suburban living of the period, particularly as represented by the villain, Colonel Richard Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) family. It’s difficult, at times, to see Strickland as the despicable villain he is meant to be—although Shannon does a remarkably credible performance—given that this man, who would literally prefer an America as a terribly “strict land,” is presented as such a stick figure of complete consumer capitalism, including his purchase of a brand-new teal-colored Cadillac.
     As a counterweight to his simplistically constructed villains, however, the director infuses his everyday heroes with deeper complexity. The mute worker, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is given a complex background as a foundling with strange markings on her neck (perhaps suggesting some sort of violence in her childhood, which has also resulted in her inability to speak). Elisa, who fortunately can still hear and communicate through sign language, lives a rather delimited life—she rises early to get to her cleaning job at a government installation somewhere near Baltimore—but enriches her hard-working life by taking care of her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who has recently lost his job as an illustrator, who shares with her a life-long love of old movie musicals. Jenkins, worried about old age and the natural decay of his body, has some of the movie’s best lines including his early advice:

Giles: Oh! God, to be young and beautiful. If I could go back.
[Elisa Nods]
Giles: to when I was 18—I didn’t anything about anything—I’d give myself a bit of advice.
Elisa: [in sign language] What would you say?
Giles: I would say: Take better care of your teeth and fuck, a lot more.
[Elisa smiles and gently nudges him]
Giles: Oh no, no, that’s very good advice.

     The third of this trio, Zelda (Olivia Spencer), is similarly, just as hard-working as Elisa, but also must cope at home with a lazy, non-working husband; she also translates for Elisa at the office and stands by her friend, holding a place in line for the check-in even when Elisa arrives late.
     Each of the figures, unlike most of the rest of the secret research staff, share empathy and kindness.
    On the day in which the film begins, Strickland has brought in a strange container which holds an aquatic monster (Doug Jones) he has discovered in the Amazon, and whom he has tortured with a 
cattle prod on their trip back to Maryland. The “monster” has gills and a beautiful and colorful coat of scales, and stands, when not swimming, on his hind feet in a human-like stance.
     Other scientists, such as Robert Hoffstetler (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) want to study the beast and discover what he might reveal about survival which could help travels in space or simply in difficult environments, Hoffstetler, particularly, because he is also a Russian spy, and hopes to reveal what he discovers to the Soviets.
      But Strickland warns that the gibberish speaking beast is not at all like a human made in the image of God and hopes to simply kill the thing the local natives see as a god, vivisecting him to discover how he is put together. A visiting general agrees.
      Meanwhile, Strickland, who continues to torture the beast, suddenly loses two fingers as the beast strikes back, and, after bleeding profusely, calls in the two women to clean up his blood. In the process, Elisa views the monster through a glass panel and becomes fascinated with him; the monster himself seems transfixed by her, and they longingly stare at one another, recognizing something neither the military or scientific men have perceived.
     Before long, the two have formed an attachment, she bringing him eggs and signing the symbol for them, he quickly learning and communicating back the image. And when she accidentally overhears a discussion of the higher-up’s plans for him, she becomes determined to kidnap and save him.
     Giles, however, attempts to dissuade her, but she will not bend, explaining her friendship with the water-living beast:

Giles: [interpreting Elisa] When he looks at me, the way he looks at me... He does not know, what I lack... Or - how - I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I - am, as I am. He's happy - to see me. Every time. Every day. Now, I can either save him... or let him die.

A still reticent Giles finally gives in, as they plan for him to drive the get-away truck. The plan nearly backfires until, seeing what they are up too, Hoffstetler steps in, killing the guard who has stopped Giles’ truck and briefly blowing a circuit board long enough for them to make a getaway. His acts will eventually cost him his life, but once again, del Toro suggests that even as a Soviet spy he too is a kind of unsung hero. Outsiders are the ones who achieve the impossible in this film.
      By this time, most of the audience perceives where this is going, as Elisa falls in love with the beast she keeps in her bathtub—at one point even flooding the bathroom in order to swim with the aquatic creature in the nude, as the two make love. It may be a bit difficult to swallow this inter-species sexual ritual, but by this time del Toro has taken his fantasy into such extravagant territory that it almost reads as a cartoon; and, after all, the Creature of the Black Lagoon had his Rita, and King Kong his miniature Fay Wray!
      Like No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, Strickland, after first dismissing the idea that the “women who wash up piss” could have possibly achieved such a miraculous kidnapping, he soon tortures a dying Hoffstetler and discovers the truth, ready to take out his revenge on Zelda before discovering through Zelda’s timid husband, where the beast is now housed.
    Warned by Zelda that Strickland is on his way, Elisa and Giles attempt to rush her beloved “friend” to the docks, which now filled with rain,” will be open to the ocean beyond.
    For once I’ll spare the reader from a complete revelation of the remaining story. Let’s just say if we’ve already gone beyond the credulity of most fantasies, we move even further into pure cartoonish bathos.
     If del Toro’s cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, beautifully captures the colors and, yes, even shapes of water throughout, costume designer Luis Sequeira deserves a special place in heaven for 
the creature’s diaphanous scales, and Alexandre Desplat’s music, as always, is a delight, I, nonetheless, am not as enthused by del Toro’s kind of fantasy as are many others. The director always seems to have one foot in the real world and the other in the fantastical, making it difficult to comprehend his notions—always at the heart of his films—of good and evil. It appears that in a typical del Toro film, the evil is always the real world (or, at least, his facsimile, equally fantastical, of the real world), while the fantasy world is inherently defined as not only “good,” but preferable and better. In del Toro’s vision, it appears, there are no simultaneities, no inscrutable realms wherein good and evil might overlay each other and in which there are simply no easy answers. The imagination is always good, while reality is always bad, which makes our lives, I would argue, as impossible to comprehend or even meaningless, unless we are dreaming.
      These comments may be strange, indeed, coming from a writer who often scoffs at realist drama. But the problem, I would argue, is that del Toro’s work, like Gabriel García Marquez’s and other magic realists, lies in a world that is never truly honest, existing as it does betwixt and between. Lovely as the fantastical stories del Toro tells, they don’t truly have much to tell us about our own much messier and complex lives. As some of my friends wrote, "I want to believe!" But then, for many years now I've not been a true believer of religion or myth. 

Los Angeles, February 12, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Kon Ichikawa | 炎上 Enjō (Conflagration)

by Douglas Messerli

Kon Ichikawa, Keiji Hasebe, and Natto Wada (writers, based on the novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima), Kon Ichikawa (director) 炎上 Enjō (Conflagration) / 1958

Young Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa), whose father has run an out-of-the-way Buddhist center, has witnessed his mother and uncle having sex shortly before his own father has died, perhaps of complications for his wife’s affairs.

     Having been convinced of his father’s continued statement that “the Golden Pavilion of the Shukaku Temple is the most beautiful thing in the world,” the young, innocent Buddhist acolyte determines to study there under Dosen Tayama (Ganjirō Nakamura).
       Although he is a true believer, there also seems to be something slightly backward about the likeable Goichi, who is not only unbelievably naïve but also a stutterer, a condition perhaps brought on by his rather abusive family life.
       The seemingly affable Dosen even offers to send him to further schooling, and, later hires Goichi’s mother who suddenly reappears in her son’s life again, to work in the kitchen. In debut now to the kindness of the Dosen, she demands that her son study hard and, ultimately, replace the Dosen 
after he finishes his studies. But things do not go well, particularly when Goichi discovers that the Buddhist leadership, although giving an outward pretense of abstinence and piety are, in fact, running the Pavilion as a tourist stop and making a great deal of personal profit in the process. The Dosen even has a geisha mistress in town.
       Ichikawa reveals his hero’s inner feelings through a careful mix of flashbacks and plot extensions, revealing Goichi’s rather fragile ego developing him into a being who has sought spiritual beliefs as a way to escape from the daily realities of post-World War II Japanese life. He, it is clear, has mistakenly perceived the shrine as a kind of Shangri-La, a world lying entirely apart from the everyday world. In short, the sad incidents of Goichi’s home life get purposely inter-fused in Ichikawa’s telling with the young boy’s illusions of paradise. And before long, it has a profound impact not only upon his studies but, particularly when he meets a young woman, concerning his sexual fears.
      We might almost describe Giochi as a religious purist or, even, an over-zealous believer—even while we still sympathize with his spiritual crisis. What Ichikawa does not focus on is that the boy, with his love and devotion to his father and his utter hatred of his mother, may also be a closeted gay man who will clearly be unable to come to terms with his sexuality. Whatever the case, it is apparent that for many viewers Goichi is not an entirely appealing figure. As The New York Times reviewer, Howard Thompson, wrote upon the film’s original US premiere: "For all Raizo Ichikawa's righteous indignation, as the painfully stuttering protagonist, he remains an extremely neurotic and naive whiner, and a dead duck from the outset." I feel more empathy for him.
      As often in Mishima’s work, whose novel provided the source to this film, such inner turmoil, especially at the crossroads of sex, familial duty, and spiritual beliefs, results in terrible violence. In Goichi’s case, it erupts by him trying to burn down the “golden temple,” him being arrested, and his committing suicide before he is to be imprisoned for his deed.
     Like so many of Ichikawa’s films, Enjō profoundly explores how Japan’s World War II imperialist pretensions effected the generations that followed. Like the warriors of Ichikawa’s early war films and the fall of the grand families of The Makioka Sisters, Goichi’s more humble family is another sacrifice made for the war effort, while also focusing on how spiritual values have been equally destroyed in the process. Enjō may not be one of Ichikawa’s greatest films, but it is very certainly worth watching.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Howard Hawks | Twentieth Century

by Douglas Messerli

Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Gene Fowler (uncredited) and Preston Sturges (uncredited) (writers, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland), Howard Hawks (director) Twentieth Century / 1934

Along with It Happened One Night, produced by the same studio, Columbia Pictures, the very same year Howard Hawks’ 1934 film, Twentieth Century (named not after the century, but the famed train from Chicago to New York) would come to define what was soon would be called “screwball comedies.”
     In Hawks’ case, the genre generally involved lovable but generally inept male figures who meet up with powerfully smart women with whom they quickly fall in love but are continually vexed, encouraging the two verbally (and sometimes physically) to duke it out. The fun, one might argue, is all in the fight, a realization Edward Albee must have perceived in his less comedic representation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet, it would be interesting to trace the relationship of the Albee play to this genre, particularly as practiced by Hawks, which some day I might attempt. In any event, it is evident that Hawks felt that if you truly loved someone, you endlessly fought.
     In this case the two boxers are Lily Garland (formerly Mildred Plotka) (Carole Lombard, surely the queen of screwball comedy) and Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore, performing here in his very last great role).
     Jaffe has just hired Garland to perform in his new play, a seemingly ridiculous Southern melodrama. The problem is, as assistant director Max Jacobs (Charles Lane) quickly perceives, Garland cannot act. In order to teach her how to properly emote, Jaffe uses chalk to chart out her movements, and a pearl-headed pin in order to teach her how to scream on cue.
      Despite what appears to be a rather insipid affair, the play is a hit, and Garland becomes a star, Jaffe quickly insinuating himself into her life and bed. Over the next few years, she stars in three more of his shows, turning them all into hits.
     But during this same period, it is evident, this hammy Svengali has utterly attempted to control Garland’s life, where she goes, and who she befriends. Finally, fed up with his controlling ways, she determines to go to party on her own. A fearful Jaffe relents, promising to be more trusting, yet secretly hires a detective to follow her who goes as far as tapping her phone. When she finally discovers his treachery, she finally leaves for Hollywood, where she continues to be a great star.
     Jaffe, meanwhile, trying to survive without his Pygmalion, produces flop after flop, and finally must escape another stage failure in Chicago by stowing away on the Twentieth Century train in disguise.
     Quite by accident (there is no explanation of why Garland is suddenly in Chicago making her way to New York, except to suggest that she is on her way to see her new director, Jaffe’s former employee, Max Jacobs) his protégé is ensconced in the train suite adjoining Jaffe’s, and when his comic stooges, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and constantly drunk Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) discover that fact, Jaffe plots to get his girl back, intruding even upon a love scene she is playing out with her new boyfriend, as the former lover hopes to get her to sign a contract for a new, as yet nonexistent play.
     Add to these hijinks the existence on board of a harmless lunatic, Mathew J. Clark (Etienne Girardot), who posts religiously-inspired “The End of the World Is Near” stickers over nearly every object and being on the train and who also passes out bogus checks, and you have the making of a true farce that, evidently, upon the film’s release was not well received, several critics arguing for a more restrained comedy. For today’s audience, however, the chaos that ensues is just about perfect, and certainly after World War II and, even more particularly, in our quite insane Trump era, makes perfect sense.
     Jaffe’s strategy, involving an exaggerated struggle with Clark and a mad quickly cooked-up plot for a drama about Mary Magdalene—which Jaffe describes as "sensual, heartless, but beautiful – running the gamut from the gutter, to glory – can you see her Lily? – the little wanton ending up in tears at the foot of the cross. I'm going to have Judas strangle himself with her hair." Of course, the ruse works, since, as we all know Garland is still in love with her Svengali, despite her protests.
     And despite the film’s box office failure at the time of its release, the movie helped make Lombard’s career, even though some critics saw it as a no more than a satisfactory performance. Perhaps they simply couldn’t see her often whining hysterics as the comic delights we see them as today.          
     The film ends with a kind of repeat of the beginning, with Jaffe’s domineering directorial commands as they rehearse the new, equally unbearable play. Yet, it too is sure to be a hit, for Garland, we recognize, is the true one in control, try what he might. In screwball comedies it is always the woman, even if she temporarily gives in to the masculine authority, who rules. And that’s the fun of this genre, the irony that the male ego doesn’t like to admit. Intelligent women rule the world, sometimes even in their apparent submission, a theme repeated again and again throughout literature. As Lombard, about to marry a surprised and nonplussed William Powell in another classic screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, commands her soon-to-be husband:

                             Stand still, Godfrey. It'll all be over in a minute.

Los Angeles, February 7, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hiroshi Shimizu | 有りがたうさん Arigatō-san (Mr. Thank You)

in circles

Hiroshi Shimizu (screenwriter, from a story by Yasunar Kawabata, and director) 有りがたんArigatō-san (Mr. Thank You) / 1936

Film critic Alexander Jacoby explains several of the reasons that the marvelous Japanese director, Hiroshi Shimizu, is not better known, not only in the US but in his home country. First, Shimizu was born in the same year as his good friend, Yasujiro Ozu, who simply received far more attention for his filmmaking, particularly in the fact that while Ozu was celebrated in Japan and Europe with full retrospectives, Shimizu received only partial tributes, the fullest of which was in a “101st birthday” celebration in Hong Kong. Secondly, Shimizu’s most popular film, not truly representative of his large and varied oeuvre, was a lightweight children’s film, Children in the Wind, a film which came to characterize his talent as lightweight, centering upon children being “simply delightful.” And finally, the most important, in fact, is the director saw himself as a kind of outsider, working, often, against traditional Japanese values and mores, while Ozu creatively worked within the tradition.
     Recently, however, critics and audiences have begun a reassessment of Shimizu’s varied career, and Criterion, for example, reissued four of his most popular films.
     Mr. Thank You—titled after its friendly and handsome bus driver (Ken Uehara), who shouts Arigatō (“Thank you”) after the numerous farmers, hikers, and others who politely move out of the way of his bus as he travels from the outlying Izu over two mountain passes to a train station connecting to Tokyo—is truly “delightful,” but it also has deeply dark tones and cultural issues at its heart. The likeable driver not only hauls his travelers the long distance of his route, but also stops by local towns and waits for passing travelers who hand him messages or ask him to bring them back trinkets from the city. He permits young boys without any other mode of transportation to ride for free by hanging on the back of his vehicle, and, at one point, even briefly waits for them to catch up when they are forced to drop away when the bus visits an outlaying stop. In his cordiality and open friendliness, he has become a popular driver for whom some wait to catch his particular bus, and it is this sense he is a kind of comic hero who symbolizes the best of the Depression-era society.      
The first of these I watched,
      But his passengers are not quite so nice. Among those on this particular “road voyage” is a rather nasty bureaucratic man with a fake mustache in a hurry to get where he’s going, a sharp tongued “modern” girl, who, at one point, even passes out liquor to most of the passengers—while refusing to serve it up to the fussy bureaucrat—and most importantly, a mother with a daughter (Mayumi Tsukiji), who are traveling to Tokyo, the daughter having been sold into prostitution since the mother is longer able to provide for her support. The mother/daughter travelers explain the trip by suggesting the daughter is going to Tokyo to stay with relatives, but few of the friends they encounter along the voyage and no one is the bus buys their lie, recognizing that the shy young girl, who at one point breaks down into miserable tears, is terrified of her future.
      Several times Mr. Thank You, invites the mother and daughter to sit closer to the front, but they are dissuaded by the lecherous advances of the mustachioed man and perhaps a bit fearful of the “modern” woman whom, we suspect, has herself suffered her own difficult time in Tokyo before returning home. As she herself suggests, she has been everywhere, and truly no longer has a “home,” and clearly she has been hardened by her difficult experiences.
     Gradually, as they move through the beautiful countryside—wonderfully captured by Shimizu’s fluid camera—we begin to perceive that the friendly bus driver, the only link with urban Japan these mountain dwellers have, is himself a kind of permanent voyager, even if it is travel that only takes him back and forth. When the driver admits to the “modern” woman that he has now saved up enough money to buy an American Chevrolet, we sense his own aspirations to move forward in space and his desire to travel into new worlds that might break out of his circular motions. And we also recognize that he is perhaps bored in his everyday travels when, along the voyage, he briefly becomes distracted by his rearview mirror, almost sending the vehicle he is driving over one of the many high cliffs he must negotiate along this trip. Even our breezy hero, in other words, has dreams that might take him out of the depressed economy of the times.

    When, after long observing his endless kind acts to all of those along the voyage, now almost at an end, the “modern” woman quietly suggests that the young girl might be saved from prostitution if he used his saved car money to help her, we also come to recognize the humanity of this previously seeming hard-hearted girl.
      The last scene of the film shows Mr. Thank You traveling back to where he has started his voyage, the mother and her daughter still seated in the back. Obviously, he has taken the other woman’s advice and saved the young girl from her ignominious fate. But in so doing, he has also, perhaps, doomed himself to a hamster like circularity, to a voyage to and from rather than breaking out into any other identity. We never learn his real name, and, in that sense, he has no real identity except through his endless acts of kindness and his beautifully open friendliness. But certainly, in those acts he has created a reality that is truly more profound than most of us will discover within ourselves.
     Arigatō, the audience might wish to shout back!

Los Angeles, February 6, 2018