Monday, June 25, 2018

Mario Monicelli | I compagni (The Organizer)

by Douglas Messerli

Mario Monicelli, Age & Scarpelli (writers), Mario Monicelli (director) I compagni (The Organizer) / 1963, USA 1964

Italian director Mario Monicelli’s I compagni (The Comrades, translated into English as The Organizer) is a fairly realist fantasy that is beautiful to watch, at times comic and heart-warming and at other times painfully touching. Yet ultimately this film is utterly frustrating, for at its heart it is a portrait of stasis. Nothing truly changes in this work despite all the hoopla of its beautifully portrayed characters. If the film begins with a young teenage boy, Omero (Franco Ciolli) forced to abandon his bed at 5:00 a.m. in order to join the others of this Turin community in their daily trek to the giant textile plant where nearly all of these poor men and women work from 5:30 to 8:30 each evening, 14-hour days with only a short break for lunch or “requested” bathroom breaks, the film ends with the same trudge to work, after Omero’s death from a police shooting to quell the workers’ protest, with his younger brother—whom Omero has become determined to protect and help him get an education so that we would be free from such brutal employment—now at the rear. His family needs his employment if they are to survive.
     Soon after Monicelli’s camera follows this 19th century workers to their factory, we see them briefly enjoying their lunch before being called back into their endless labor. By the end of the day they have all become so exhausted that one of their fellow workers nearly falls to sleep, mauling his hand in a machine. 
     A group of workers, the heavyweight Pautasso (Folco Lulli), Martinetti (Bernard Blier), and the tough woman worker Cesarini (Elvira Tonelli) form a committee to argue against their 14-hour work day, only to be entirely ignored with the Dickensian-like management force who not only ignore their protests but hurry off to their own leisurely lunches.
       Later, a bit as in the later earlier American musical The Pajama Game they plan a walk-out an hour earlier that their normal quitting time. One of their group sneaks away to set off the whistle, while the others prepare to leave the moment they hear it. But a stray dog betrays him, and despite having released the call to quit work, factory owners not only pull him out of hiding, but threaten their employees who might leave with firing; they remain until the regular closing hour.
     The point, of course, is that these mostly illiterate and disorganized workers will never succeed given their inability to work out logical alternatives; all they can comprehend is they have feed their families and themselves. Even their attempts to educated themselves in afterwork school lessons they are too tired to take in their lessons. At one point, asked to tally up a vote, Omero himself admits that he cannot read. Others have given their vote only with an X.
       Into this comic-tragedy Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), evidently a labor agitator on the run from police in Milan, suddenly appears. Unlike the experienced labor leader Reuben Warshosky of the 1979 drama, Norma Rae, Sinigaglia is more like a Fellinesque-like clown, a man, as J. Hoberman describes him, like: “a hobo in a battered hat and a greasy, threadbare cloak, a stooped fugitive on the run from the police in Milan. In a movie where neither Karl Marx nor any of Italy’s working-class heroes are ever mentioned, Mastroianni’s professor is a stunningly perverse embodiment of revolutionary hope.”
      He is also hungry, in every sense of that word. Sharing a bed on the floor of the local teacher's hovel, he awakens to wake up the workers as well, using his skills as a rhetorician to convince them that they have made all of the wrong decisions. But when they leave for the night, one worker forgetting his sandwich, the would-be “organizer” eyes the sandwich, grabbing it up with a desire other films might have expressed for a beautiful leading-lady (that comes later). When the worker returns to reclaim his trophy, Sinigaglia woefully gives it up, truly becoming another version of Chaplin’s Tramp. Later, he eyes the window of a local chocolatier and restauranteur. He’s clearly starved, even more than these poor provincials, for food and companionship.
      Nonetheless, he engages the community through words, convincing them to go on strike, but first buying up food and supplies on credit for the long period he knows it will take. Of course, in doing so, these peasants, are quite literally selling away their lives. To survive the long period, some of their group highjack a coal car of a train, tossing the precious commodity up to the waiting women and men, who scoop them up in order to warm their cottages. Even when a local man is killed, Sinigaglia claims it has only helped their cause, that their case is now national news. As if taken from today’s papers, when the company attempts to hire outsiders from another city to replace their workers, the “comrades” threaten them and force them to disperse, although some actually do make it into the textile mill.

Finally, when Sinigaglia attempts to reenergize his base by encouraging them to march in protest, they are, this time, met by the police, when the young boy Omero is killed. As if we are hit by a sudden jolt of reality, the viewer can now only see the total futility of this series of events, both comic and dramatic. We can only recognize La commedia è finita!
      Hoberman argues that “although the movie closes with a long shot of the defeated workers reentering their factory prison, including a child forced to take his older brother’s place at the machines, the mood is not exactly unhappy. The gates close, yet minds have been opened. The Organizer is a historical comedy that demonstrates a very Gramscian [Antonio Gransci was the founder of the Italian Communist Party] formulation (pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will) and a very popular one, to take another Monicelli title: Viva Italia!”
       I wish I could see it that way. But the fact that no change has been possible, even if we know that changes in labor laws always come in small increments, and certainly did not happen overnight in Italy or even the US, I can only see the film today as confirming the gradual erasement of labor rights across the world. Italy may well be alive today (I love the country) but can only perceive at how the Right now controls it. Just as in the US, immigrant workers are daily being turned away. Gradual change has seemed to be replaced by endless reversals. Perhaps the honestly of this film is precisely Monicelli’s achievement. Things in 1963 were perhaps not that completely different from the Risorgimento-era this movie presents or are not so totally different from today in the US. And we all know what has become of the Turin—auto workers struck the Fiat plants in that city the year before this film—which soon after the events in this film grew into Italy’s version of Detroit, and what happened to America’s own city of that name. People are still very hungry, even if our government does not wish to truly investigate that fact, despite the United Nations’ demands that we do; and they will steal even from those poorer than them in order to survive.  

Los Angeles, June 25, 2018

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jean Luc-Godard | Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her)

night and day
by Douglas Messerli

Catherine Vimenet and Jean-Luc Godard (writers), Jean-Luc Godard (director) Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) / 1967, USA 1968

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, appeared during a period when his films were not only moving to more political concerns and, despite his love of all things American earlier his career, a time in which Godard was shifting to a strong anti-American sentiment.
       These are very much the issues of this film, which is not a typical film narrative as much as it is a kind of essay on the condition of all things French in relationship to the seemingly endless involvement in Viet Nam, which I think it is important to remember, began with the French political and social involvement with that country years earlier.
      It’s clear that Godard is highly disturbed throughout not only by the appropriation of American values on French culture, but the culture’s own appropriation of itself; one of the central scenes takes place in a bookstore where a writer and his assistant quote passages randomly out of piles of nearby books, presumably creating a collage of narrative fiction, perhaps not so far different from Godard's own work.
       One might also describe this work as a critique of a world, so influenced by US values, that “she (France),” too has turned into a kind of consumer world, in which even the bourgeois housewife at the center of this work, Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady) turns herself into a commodity, loaning out her body to loveless encounters each day to earn a little extra cash in order to purchase the new dresses, washing machines, and other products she also daily shops for.
     Underneath her everyday movements of shopping, housework, and child-rearing, the voice of Godard himself, kept to a near whisper, speaks of the attempt by the French government, in their attempts to build major new communities on the edge of Paris, critiquing the current politics, and attacking the US involvement in Viet Nam. These seemingly ordinary events accordingly are connected with global governmental forces who, the voice argues, are working to make all of us into mindless consumers—not only of products, but events, and even emotional relationships.
       At one point, Juliette visits the garage where her husband works to get the car washed, her best friend, also a day-time prostitute, having joined her. Her apparently near sexless husband greets her simply as if she were another customer, simply briefly conversing with her, before sending her on her way.
      How different is Juliette’s day-time sexual activities from that of the central character of Buñuel’s heroine in Belle de Jour, a film made the very same year, and released a couple of months later. Séverine Serizy, married to a handsome doctor, is obsessed by the sexual secrecies of being a day-time prostitute, excited by her new encounters, particularly with a handsome young thug, Marcel—who ultimately turns her everyday life into a role of being a kind of nurse to her husband.
      The sexual activities of Juliette, on the other hand, are absolutely banal and as aesthetically boring as the dresses and products she purchases. Her dresses are clearly mass-produced pieces, usually in stripes, whereas Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour wore dresses designed by St-Laurent. If Séverine lives with a handsome man, who clearly loves her, Juliette lives with a mechanic who believes life consists of working, eating, and sleeping; along with a constantly crying young boy, she does not live in a stylish Paris apartment, but in the bland high-rise that government has built to house its poorer citizens.

     Séverine works in a discrete apartment complex, whereas Juliette encounters her men in dreary hotel rooms or, even when she and her friend actually encounter an American in an expensive hotel, want to play games more than actually have sensual sexual encounters. The American, named by Godard as John Bogus (Raoul Lévy) dressed in an ugly T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag—himself a former American advisor for the Viet Nam War—asks Juliette and her friend to cover their faces with air-line shopping bags while he films them. Juliette passively opts out of any later activities in which her “friend” participates.
       In fact, the “her” of this film is not simply the mindless female protagonist, but is, given the French feminine endings of so many words in the language, many other things, a thing that stands in for all those “others.” As the promotional film poster argued, “her” is the subject of :

HER, the cruelty of neo-capitalism
HER, prostitution
HER, the Paris region
HER, the bathroom that 70% of the French don't have
HER, the terrible law of huge building complexes
HER, the physical side of love
HER, the life of today
HER, the war in Vietnam
HER, the modern call-girl
HER, the death of modern beauty
HER, the circulation of ideas
HER, the gestapo of structures

      Yet, ironically, as the title of Godard’s film admits, he only knows 2 or 3 things about “her,” or evidently about all these other issues. This film is not, after all, not a listing of endless grievances, but a kind of playful discussion about the problems of mid-20th century life in Paris, given the world which surrounds it. If that world has become a bit tawdry with all of, particularly its American influences, it is still a kind of charming fantasy. As the Caterpillar tractors remake the very nature of the outlying regions of the city, they also churn up the ugliness of the former concrete and asphalt 
landscape, bringing, if nothing else, new life to the region. This neo-capitalism may, as Godard seems to be arguing, break up also the charm and former structures of French life, but the habitants of these new spaces, like Juliette, seem happily enchanted by their lives, the rhythm of which seems to be, drop the kid off at the daycare center, go shopping for a new dress, have a little sex on the side, meet up with friends or even flirt with local coffee-shop customers, get groceries, pick up the child, go home and cook your husband a good dinner.
      If Godard is clearly mocking mid-century French life, the people who suffer it seem placid as sheep walking into the slaughter-house. And like a neighborly gossip, the 2 or 3 things that the director whispers into our ears, ultimately don’t add up to much. His goal, it appears, is simply to get us thinking about a much longer list.

Los Angeles, June 20, 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

George Cukor | The Women

fool’s paradise
by Douglas Messerli

Anita Loos and Jane Murfin (screenplay, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce), George Cukor (director) The Women / 1939

It had been many years since I last George Cukor’s The Women, and I can’t say that it has entirely aged well. At many points, Clare Boothe Luce’s witty language (spruced up to fit into the Film Production Code by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin) the film is still fun in a truly “bitchy” manner, particularly through gossipy chatter of Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) and Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah) and others of Mary Haines’ (Norma Shearer) supposed friends. Sylvia has gotten news from a manicurist that Mary’s husband Stephen has been having an affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford)—and within hours she and her friends have passed it on to one another, even gathering a kind of small scouting party to check the counter-clerk out.
      At moments their comments, especially those of the lesbian-like writer, Nancy Blake (Florence Nash), are brilliant, presenting a much different view of New York house-wives that any film after far into the 1960s presented. These women are not only quite independent, but—at least two of them, Mary and Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine)—are pleased with their companions. If you might have ignored Cukor’s credits, wherein he equates each of these figures with animals, you might even think that these smart women are proto-feminists. They’re certainly not stupid or passive.

Sylvia Fowler: Well, heaven be praised, I'm on to my husband, I wouldn't trust him on Alcatraz, the mouse.
Peggy Day: Sylvia, you oughtn't talk about him like that! Why, I think it's disloyal!
Sylvia Fowler: Oh now, listen Peggy, do we know how the men talk about us when we're not around?
Nancy Blake: I've heard rumours.
Sylvia Fowler: Exactly... And uh... While we're on the subject, have either of you wondered whether the master of this maison might not be straying?
Nancy Blake: I haven't.
Sylvia Fowler: Well, for all you know Mary Haines may be living in a fool's paradise.
Nancy Blake: You're so resourceful darling. I ought to go to you for plots.
Sylvia Fowler: You ought to go to “someone.”

      Yet, we soon perceive that, like the women of whom Elaine Stritch sings in the musical Company, these are “the ladies who lunch.” When they’re not busily gossiping or, metaphorically speaking, stabbing one another in the back, they shop, attend fashion shows, and, yes, lunch. Indeed, I 
had never before seen the long center of this movie, a scene in the middle of this black-and-white film that, like The Wizard of Oz (a film that appeared in the same year), was shot by Cukor in color: a long fashion parade that might almost have been stolen right out of a Ziegfeld Follies routine. Many of outrageous costumes by Adrian, in fact, appear to have been inspired by the Emerald City.
      Certainly, there are witches here by the dozens. Not only, as Mary’s intelligent mother tries to tell her, are these “friends” eager to dish the dirt, but almost force Mary to confront her bedroom competitor and seek a divorce from the husband she still loves. And if their mean behavior were not enough, Cukor drags in a real “witch” in the form of Hedda Hopper (playing Dolly Dupuyster) who takes the affair to new levels by plastering the news all over the daily papers. Like the character Mrs. Lord (Mary Nash) of the The Philadelphia Story—a film that was released the following year—Mrs. Morehead (Lucile Watson) advises her daughter to simply wait out her husband’s current obsession, just as she did in her own long marriage. (Two of the actors in The Women also appeared in The Philadelphia Story, Ruth Hussey, and Virginia Weidler, the latter playing Mary’s daughter.)
      If the film is sometimes fun in its satire of female gossip, it turns very sad, however, on the train to Reno, particularly since two of the Reno ranch tenants, Mary and Peggy, really don’t want their 
divorces. The script and Cukor try to keep up the spirits of the clever play by introducing the hilarious, serial divorcee, The Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) and the ranch owner, Lucy (Marjorie Main). Peggy, who finds herself pregnant, returns to her husband; but when Mary attempts to call him with hopes of a reconciliation, he calls her, instead, to let her know, since the door has now gone through, about his own marriage to Crystal.
      Even if, a bit like All About Eve, everything does work out in the end—particularly since the nasty Crystal has now taken up with The Countess’ most recent husband, a Reno cowboy turned, through her money, radio broadcaster—there’s something more than sad about the horrible behaviors of all, male and female, involved. And we know by film’s end, that the lovely mother that Mary portrays at the beginning of The Women will never quite be restored. She may be the “owl,” which her mother represents, but she will never again be the loving wife and mother the work’s first scenes.
      In a sense, The Women is a kind of playing out of the Garden of Eden myth, but from the perspective only of Eve, as if Adam didn’t truly matter. In such a world, as one character suggests early on, there is no forward movement, no possibility for a new world: “everything is going in circles.”   

Los Angeles, June 15, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel)

by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel) / 1953

I was absolutely delighted yesterday after watching Ingmar Bergman’s early (1953) film, Sawdust and Tinsel, a film that in my estimation is quite related to his 1955 masterpiece, Smiles of a Summer Night, even if at least one critic has argued it was that this film had more in common with The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. True, there is something desperate about the dying circus company at the center of this story, and its wagons do visually wind up-hill in a manner that can only call up the ghoulish dancers of death in the medieval-set The Seventh Seal. But Sawdust’s heart is set on love instead of death, and its very mortal characters have aspirations and dreams that are far more open and hopeful than the other darker films. This work, like Smiles and Wild Strawberries belongs clearly with his gentle ruminations of love and aging as opposed to his symbolic-laden discussions of moral values and existential meaning.
      Moreover, the early Bergman work seems to have far more of a relationship to Fellini and even Chaplin that any of his other films. And it is a rather profound questioning of theatrical values that was later posed in both Smiles and the much later Fanny and Alexander: what is art? Can a circus be an artform; is theater superior; is film better yet? Of course, to the bourgeois townsfolk in which this film is played out there are definite hierarchies. These intruding circus folk are simply carnies, no better than gypsies suddenly intruding upon the upright townspeople’s well-maintained lives.

      Even the circus head, Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg) and his current young wife, Anne (Harriet Andersson) seem to want out of their endless wanderings, particularly since Albert’s tent world is on its last legs, with most of their costumes sold in order to survive, and with few animals other than a starving bear and highly overworked horses, some of which are confiscated by the local authorities when the group attempts to perform a circus parade in the manner of America’s celebrations (recreated in films such as Show Boat and Jumbo). Charles Ives even composed a song about such circus parades.
     But this Swedish rag-tag company is on its very last legs, as they arrive in this outlying community in the rain, every last one of them, men and women, struggling against the elements just to raise their tent. They cannot even imagine how they can perform without costumes, without animals, without any true spirit left.
     Silently suffering their complaints, the ringmaster suddenly has a burst of inspiration: he and Anne will go to the nearby theater where a famous director is featuring what appears to be an absolutely mediocre play, titled Betrayal.

   Albert is clearly terrified of the encounter, but Anne dresses up in her only remaining formal dress and wows the aging theater-director, who goes along with the circus-owner’s suggestion they might borrow costumes from the theater’s wardrobe in return for a huge party after the circus event, which, of course, the high-bred theatrical folk will also attend.
     At this meeting, the handsome matinee idol, Frans (Hasse Ekman), also catches a glimpse of the beautiful Anne, and with whom, so he declares, he immediately falls in love. Surely, Anne is allured by the beautiful man, and why shouldn’t she be? He’s closer to her age, he’s—a least superficially—well spoken, a true romantic being. At one point later, he even gently advises her on make-up, suggesting she apply far less of it in order to expose her beautiful face. Who wouldn’t be pleased to have a handsome make-up artist ask you to share his bed—variations of this theme have been played out in nearly every Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical.
    Yet, Anne remains loyal to her lumpy, elderly man. It’s only when she perceives that they are visiting this backwoods town so that he might visit his ex-wife and his three boys, that she rebels.
     Indeed, Albert is plotting to escape circus life by returning to his now quite well-off former wife, who freed from him, has bought several stores in town and made life for her children in a solvent and respectable upbringing. Encountering her restrictive spouse, she not only cooks a breakfast for him, but offers him financial help. But she will not, she insists, allow him to return. For her, his abandonment has made her life better; and, in fact, if you subscribe to her bourgeoise values, she is absolutely right.
     Angry with Albert’s attempt to return “home,” Anne makes her own return to the theater and into the arms of Frans, who, after locking her in and promising her a gift of what he promises is his valuable necklace (another indication that this would-be ladies’ man might also be a closeted gay), he basically rapes her. Visiting a local jeweler, she quickly discovers that the necklace is worthless, and that her attempt to raise funds for the failing circus has been pointless. Not only that, but Albert, returning “home,” watches his wife enter the jewelers, quickly perceiving what has occurred. 

     Accordingly, as one character announces, “Everything now stands still,” as we recognize that events will have to be played out in hellish circles of the circus ring.
      Perceiving Frans in the audience with yet another woman, Albert goes ballistic, particularly when Anne, who performs in an equestrian act, moves forward on her horse. Albert threatens the hierarchy and pretense of the actor. But as an older man—like the clown Frost (Anders Ek) in an earlier scene—Albert is beaten and nearly destroyed in the process of protecting his honor.
      Although Frans has temporarily won this bout, however, we now know that Albert and his ilk are beings of honor, representing a kind of mutual caring and respectability that none of the theater folk nor the town’s church-going folks can ever match. And we know that, without or without makeup, the pretty boy Frans will very soon no longer be able to lure women into his bed, while Albert, who forgives Anne, still has a beautiful and loving woman at his side for, presumably, the rest of his life.
Los Angeles, June 13, 2018

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Jean-Marie Straub | Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules)

violence does not stop violence
by Douglas Messerli

Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (screenplay, from Heinrich Böll’s novel Billard’s at Half-Past Nine), Jean-Marie Straub (director) Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules) / 1965

Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s 1965 film Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules is a fairly close adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s 1959 novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. As in the book, Straub and Huillet tell the story the from the beginning of the century through the two major wars of the Cologne-based Fähmel family, from Heinrich (Heinrich Hargesheimer) an architect who has built one of the city’s major cathedrals, his son Joseph (Joachim Weiler), and Heinrich’s 
grandson, Robert, a demolition expert who has blown up his own grandfather’s cathedral during World War II. They meet after the war, re-living their long history in a single visit, although Straub presents these memories in such discrete entities that a first-time viewer might have difficulty in piecing them together and even in recognizing how these family members and their individual histories are inter-related.
    As film critic David Heslin wrote of this film in 2017, the movie, with its varying rhythms of leisurely scenes and quick shifts in time and space feels “like a film that is simultaneously fast and slow,” seemingly alternating, at moments, as I would describe it, with an almost epic-like narrative within a series of tightly aesthetic cuts that reveal continuities and shifts within and outside of this family who lived through two of most dreadful wars of the last century, mostly as “lambs” or pacifists—although Robert’s involvement in the Nazi period is somewhat ambiguous—as opposed to the surrounding “buffaloes” such as the Robert’s former schoolmates: Schrella (Ulrich von Thüla), a left-wing activist; and Nettlinger (Heiner Braun), a ruthless Nazi enforcer of authority.
     Yet neither the director nor Böll draw distinct lines, for the lambs, it is clear, have helped the buffaloes to survive, living amongst them for all these years, in their pacifism refusing to properly speak out against what has in German culture been happening since the very beginning of the century continuing into the post-War period in which they now exist.
      As this film’s title suggests, even as the post-War politicians try to bring together the right and the left, there is yet to be a full “reconciliation.” Even though the terrible Nettlinger has attempted to arrange for his childhood enemy Schrella to be pardoned for his assignation plot, Schrella stalks out of the restaurant in contempt, refusing to help relieve Nettlinger’s guilt for his war-time behavior.
     The most shocking moment is when Robert’s well-dressed mother, Johanna (Martha Ständner), politely asks the family maid whether the gardener is working that day. When told he is not, she quietly but forcefully walks into the garden shed, opening a drawer where, evidently, the gardener keeps a pistol. Taking it with her, she leaves, enters the balcony of her home, and calmly shoots at a neighboring politician breakfasting on own balcony nearby. Just as Schrella’s assignation attempt resulted in only a few injuries, so too does her shot miss its target, suggesting either that such acts of violence are meaningless or within such a truly militaristic society have utterly no effect. If nothing else, we are forced to perceive that Brecht (from whom the subtitle has been appropriated) violence does not help rid us of violence. Guns do not stop guns.
      What we see in this mid-1960s film—during a period in which very few German-based film directors were bringing these issues to the forefront (Heslin mentions Alexander Kluge as an exception), these two French-born figures were tackling the difficult issues which later would be the subject matter of the New German Cinema makers such as Wenders, Schlöndorff, and, of course, Fassbinder, whose great The Marriage of Maria Braun, of a decade later, deals with some of these very concerns.
       If nothing else, this Huillet/Straub film made me go out to buy a copy of the Böll fiction, which I had never previously read, and I again appreciated his early post-war perceptions—far more than Grass’ more fantastical and sanctimonious ones. And I will also be attending to more of Huillet and Straub’s films in the future.

Los Angeles, June 9, 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Béla Tarr | Kárhozat (Damnation)

dancing in the rain
by Douglas Messerli

László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr (screenplay), Béla Tarr (director) Kárhozat (Damnation) / 1988

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, if I recall correctly, my poet-friend Dennis Phillips and his then-wife Robin Polanker visited both Prague and Budapest. Prague, just like Kafka expressed it, was frightening and most unpleasant, they argued, while Budapest was an absolutely beautiful city with lively crowds and bustling shoppers. The Czechs were unfriendly, so they argued, while the Hungarians were gregarious and seemingly forward-looking.
         A few years later, in 1999, before attending the Frankfurt Bookfair, I visited Prague, where I fell in love with the city, its restaurants, bars, and people. Perhaps I was simply fortunate to have as a guide, translator and publisher Milos Sovak, who personally took me on a long walking tour of Prague and introduced me to several other publishers, as well as recounting the history of the both the language and the country, then known simply as Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, having grown up near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city with a large population of Czech immigrants, maybe I was just more sympathetic to what is now the Czech Republic than Dennis and Robin had been. And, of course, there’s absolutely no reason that one need even “compare” these neighboring nations—although both cities were once crown jewels in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (see My Year 2017).
      Moreover, I’ve never visited what I know to be the lovely and cosmopolitan city of Budapest (although I certainly have seen pictures). But now, having watched five or six films of the great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and having read four fictions by his close collaborator László Krasznahorkai, as well as several fictions by compatriots such as Péter Nádas (born in Budapest but now a pig farmer in the inner recesses of the country), I have a much darker view of Hungarian culture than I do of the Czechs, and I feel, particularly given the rise of Viktor Orbán, who now leads Hungary as its Prime Minister, with his social conservatism heading what he himself describes as an “illiberal state”—which numerous observers and political commentaries have detailed as an authoritarian and autocratic rule—that I now have just the opposite view from Dennis and Robin; although perhaps they have changed their own views over the years.
      I mention all of this not because I am not fond of the filmmaking and fiction of the Hungarian writers I have mentioned; like Susan Sontag, I strongly recommend them anyone interested in film or literature. But it’s the darkness of their view that I find so fascinating, as opposed to the lightness and beautiful colors of the Prague landscape, despite Kafka’s representation of that city’s often meaningless and absurd restrictions.
      In Tarr’s early 1988 film, Damnation, for example (released perhaps the very year went my friends visited the city in which Tarr grew up), we see a world which comes to truly define the director’s landscape, rural Hungary, where, in this case, workers—evidently at a steel mill, although we’re never quite certain what the local factory produces—but in other films, farmers and fisherman, eke out paltry livings while enduring endless days of hard work and tortuous weather. In Tarr’s films it seems to be always raining or, at least in his last film, The Turin Horse, endlessly blowing up cyclones of dust. If there were ever potent example of what life might soon be given the changes of our climate, this director has already depicted them.
     Like its title suggests, this small factory town is already damned, its citizens forced to view through their windows endless metal baskets, endlessly coming and going, in a circular parade. We never see what is in those large containers (coal, the products they produce, we don’t know), but even this work’s so-called hero, Karrer (Miklos B. Szekely) counts them on insomniac nights.
      This depressed figure is desperately in love with a local bar singer, a kind of less-talented and far less beautiful, Marlene Dietrich-like figure (Vali Kerekes), who performs at the sad-sack bar, the Titanik, truly a shipwreck of a place, where the men all sit alone, all but crying into their scotch and bitter ales. And why shouldn’t they? Tarr, one of the most mannered but also greatest of cinematographers in the world, shows us their world through his endlessly lateral and static takes—filmed in a manner that one might almost describe as Japanese, since it so resembles the sliding bamboo doors of rural Japanese houses: what your first see through one window you soon see again from the next.
     When the citizens of this hellish village do dare to enter the outside, they are faced with the nearly always inclement weather, feral dogs running about in packs, and, in Karrer’s case, a heavily smoke-infused busybody/hat check who lectures him, restating Biblical passages from Revelations describing the time when his city will become a “city of violence,” paralyzed,” by the entire world having become a “ruthless place” wherein everyone has gone mad. In truth, one might argue this small village has already accomplished her vision, and she is simply trying to warn him, observing him each morning waiting for the lover’s husband, Sebastyen (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), to leave for work.
      The endlessly long takes of Tarr’s films—later, in his masterwork, Sátántangó, the opening shot of a collective farm where the cows slowly meander out the barn as the sun begins rise is a very long 8 minutes (seemingly more like an hour), while the movie itself runs for 7 hours—help us to comprehend not only the ordinariness and boredom of these provincial lives, but help to create an inordinate tension that explains their desperate attempts to couple and create something other than what they daily face.
     Many of my friends have dismissed his directing precisely because of these endless shots; but, I would argue, they force you to understand his subjects, to explore them, to truly ponder their desires, if nothing else, to really look into their faces. Tarr, I think, recognized in 2011—and I was there at the AFI Festival when he announced his retirement from making further films—that given our quick-moving messaging words and images, he was a true dinosaur. So sad, since we lost one of our very greatest image-makers in the process. Patience was required—and rewarded.
      The singer has already told Karrer that she wants to break off their relationship in the very earliest scene, but when he returns she still allows him entry, their sex—so different from what the French might have ever imagined—is slow and deliberate, a coupling in which the figures, just like Tarr’s camera, appear almost resistant to movement. And there are so many distractions; a child cries in the background.
      Indeed, although it appears at moments that the camera might be on the move, the true action occurs only when characters approach one another to speak or argue. The camera remains a kind of stationary witness, moving left to right, panning at times, entering at moments into the character’s lives only to disappear just as quickly.  
     As the dancers, near the end of this Dantesque work gather, they perform a group version of what later will become the drunken tango of Tarr’s masterpiece, circling, male and female, male and male, female and female, into a large horizontal version of a dispirited kind of lateral “Conga,” a kind of group meandering around what might be a huge furnace that these damned men and women are forced in their society to forever face.
      Critic Ela Bittencourt, writing in Bright Lights Film Journal, brilliantly describes one of the last scenes of this truly painful work:

The camera pans, revealing the tableau of local residents, staring off into space. They stand frozen, grim but comic, like grotesques. Accordion notes resound in the background. [Outside] Karrer enacts a parody of dancing, his feet thumping in a puddle, his clothes and face soaked from the rain.

      It is almost as if Tarr were parodying the great Hollywood musical Singing in the Rain, with instead of Gene Kelly’s imperviousness to the rain in his seemingly waterproof red shoes, the always totally wet Karrer—his overcoat is soaked throughout the film—spins off into his own insane version of what might have symbolized pleasure. Yet, we know it is precisely that, an insanity, and when he 
suddenly meets a growling feral dog, he himself gets down on all fours, howling equally into the dog’s face until the beast, having met his match, runs off. The damned have indeed become unhuman, as the cracks in the fabric of this society—represented by Tarr’s constant presentation of peeling walls and falling mortar—have finally given way to its collapse.
     This Hungary can only make you cry.

Los Angeles, June 7, 2018

Friday, June 1, 2018

Toshio Matsumoto | Bara no sôretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses)

parade of the blind
by Douglas Messerli

Toshio Matsumoto (writer and director) Bara no sôretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses) / 1969, USA 1970

I had heard of Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto’s outrageous melodrama of 1969 earlier, but had almost forgotten about it until my Facebook friend Joe Amato reported, coincidentally on my birthday, that he had just seen “Funeral Parade of Roses,” and asked several others as well had we ever seen it? I had not, but fortunately another friend, Aldon Nielsen soon after posted a link where we might watch it for free, which led me to seek it out as an odd birthday activity.
         Funeral Parade of Roses is surely the kind of film many might wish to avoid, let alone view it on a special holiday. With influences from Godard, Resnais, Jonas Mekas, and Jack Smith—and influence upon, so critics argue, Stanley Kubrick—Matsumoto’s film is not so much a “narrative” as it is a sort of slow-motioned testimony to Japanese outsiderness.
     Eddie (Pîtâ) a transsexual “gay” (today seeming contradictory terms, which are nonetheless appropriate to the time in which movie was made when those who engaged in homosexual behavior of any kind were described as “roses” in Japanese culture) is in bed with Jimi (Yoshiji Jo). The two, a bit as in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour and Smith’s Flaming Creatures, are engaged in deep, lustful sex, their bodies becoming almost inseparable. If Eddie later seems a bit unsure of her/his sexuality, it is clear she loves Jimi, and is willing to do almost anything to keep him near.
     In fact, they spend much of the rest of the movie driving around while trying to avoid the inevitable encounter with Jimi’s other lover, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), a mean-spirited owner of the local bar and intensely jealous transsexual.
       The voyage of these two, Eddie and Jimi—accompanied by various pop songs, contemporary and classical—take us through Tokyo’s underground world, filled with other transsexuals and “roses”—as I’ve hinted, the sexual lines are not clearly drawn—as they talk about their sexuality without being able successfully to explain it even to themselves. And accordingly, we might describe these travels as a kind of “parade,” each of them desiring to be seen while also hiding within their own sexual confusions and, given the level of Japanese fascination with yet homophobia of the day, necessarily somewhat secretive.
     At the same time, we are also privy to momentary flashbacks to Eddie’s childhood, which seems to suggest that he was not only molested but perhaps witness to a murder, which calls up another brilliantly outré Japanese film, Susumu Hani’s Hatsukoi: Jigoku-hen (Nanami: The Inferno of First Love), a film which combines a first heterosexual love with child abuse and pedophilia.
     Yet Matsumoto’s film attempts to accomplish, despite its rather forbidden characters, a movie that is also about filmmaking. If this work’s various characters are all about identity (or lack of identity), so too are they attempting to discover (or rediscover themselves) through the outsized figures they are portraying on screen. One might easily argue that Matsumoto’s “roses” stand in for the strongly heterosexual figures of Godard’s Contempt and Pierrot le Fou, as the director here keeps calling “cut,” which forces us to see this parade of identities as an truly artificial thing such as the film shoots of Contempt—in fact, that first scene is, in some senses a reenactment of the first scene of Godard’s film—while at the same time presenting us a wide-range of cinematic genres as in Pierrot le Fou with its actors constantly looking in the rear-view mirror or turning to the backseat as if to seek our approval.
     From a love story, Matsumoto’s drifts into a road film, a documentary, a satire of self-satisfied artists and other filmmakers—as critic Simon Abrams notes, “Some of them, like pontificating stoner beardo Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), solemnly quote their favorite artists.”—a kind of existential drama of selfhood that cannot quite be properly linguistically expressed, a horror film of childhood memories, a kind of “rose bowl” parade, and, finally, a revenge tragedy that ends in a violent “Oedipus Rex”-like blinding. Far more ambitious than any Hollywood film, Matsumoto’s “funeral parade” may not be as gloriously slick as many a great movie, but its mind and heart is so deeply involved that, finally, this becomes a film we simply cannot ignore. We have to watch these “drag-queens,” transsexuals, “roses,” whatever you want to call them, play out their imagined lives and destinies. And to any open-minded individual they utterly enchant and amaze us along the way.

Los Angeles, June 1, 2018