Saturday, April 27, 2019

Michael Powell | The 49th Parallel



the day the nazis came to hudson bay
by Douglas Messerli

Emeric Pressburger (screenplay, based on a scenario by Rodney Ackland and Pressburger), Michael Powell (director) 49th Parallel / 1941, 1942 USA

Yesterday for the first time I saw Michael Powell’s 1941 war propaganda film, 49th Parallel, a work aimed at encouraging the then neutral United States to enter World War II. Oddly, the German attack that Powell and screenplay writer Emeric Pressburger imagine is not on US soil, but on our neighbor to the north, Canada.
      It’s more than a little ironic—given our current president’s mania about walls between countries—that their film begins with a statement describing the US-Canada border as the “only undefended frontier in the world,” establishing from the beginning that if a small band of German “invaders” (the movie was titled The Invaders when it was released in the US) are willing to attack Canada, they might certainly choose to do the same to its neighbor to the south.

     Although this small band of Hitler’s henchmen, led by Kommandant Bernsdorff (Richard George) and Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), kill plenty of civilians (11 in all) and wreak havoc wherever they go, Powell and Pressburger also turn them into a kind of comic team, determined to take control of a small outpost on the Hudson Bay, where they are attacked by indigenous Eskimos and the harsh weather; and, even more absurdly—in the instance of the youngest of their party, Jahner (Basil Appleby)—are sexually lured with a couple of winks by Johnny, the Trapper (marvelously portrayed by the real-life bisexual Laurence Olivier), who has just returned to the outpost after months of isolation. Is it any wonder he is one of the first shot and spends most of the rest of his role in the film dying in bed holding a rosary?
     After a shoot-out with the native Eskimos, these U-Boat travelers attempt to highjack a small water plane, which they cannot get into the air, being forced to jettison most of their weapons and one of their men, who as he tosses away the rifles is shot by a member of the Inuit. Another of their leaders Lieutenant Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell) is killed when the small bi-plane runs out of fuel and crashes into a Manitoba lake.

    The remaining few stumble across a Canadian Hutterite colony, a group of Anabaptist believers, many of whom had migrated to Canada and the upper US from the Tyrol in Germany. Accordingly, the remaining four, Hirth, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), Lohrmann (John Chandos) and Kranz (Peter Moore), reveal their identities, frantically attempting to convert the religious followers to fight for Hitler. After their impassioned pleas, however, the leader of the community and several others all reject them and demand that they leave.
     Vogel, meanwhile, reveals that before the war he was a baker, and is immediately attracted to both the community’s kitchen and a young girl working there, Anna (Glynis Johns); since their current baker is not good with bread, Vogel becomes a big hit, and determines to stay with the community doing what he loves best. After a brief trial by Hirth, Vogel is executed for desertion.
     Now down to only three, they attempt to make their way to Vancouver, from there to escape to Japan. But in Banf, Alberta, Kranz is spotted by a member of the Canadian Mounties and arrested.

    The remaining two men attempt to cross the Canadian Rockies with little food and no clear sense of direction. We have already seen them earlier with a badly outdated map created by a Nazi priest.
     Once more, as at the Hutterite community, they are greeted kindly as tourists who have lost their way, this time at a camp where a writer named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) is staying, revealing that he owns a Matisse and Picasso painting.
     The now desperate thugs turn on him, destroying his paintings and the manuscript on which he has been working before shooting him. Impossibly, Scott, a bit like Johnny, the Trapper, survives and goes in pursuit of the final survivor, Lohrmann, who has himself rebelled against Hirth’s leadership, who has holed up in a cave where Scott tracks him down, beating him to death.
     All of this played out to music compose by Ralph Vaughan Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. David Lean edited.
     It just goes to show you how even propagandistic work can be a lot of fun. And since there is no possible way to take much of this very seriously, Powell’s third film can be now recognized as a kind of marvelous fantasy not very different from his later great works such as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman, and Peeping Tom.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Martin Scorsese | The Age of Innocence


checks and balances
by Douglas Messerli

Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese (writers, based on the novel by Edith Wharton), Martin Scorsese (director) The Age of Innocence / 1993

When I originally saw this 1993 film, directed by Martin Scorsese, it somehow irritated me for its continual interruption of the action with long narrational voice-overs spoken by Joanne Woodward, and the bland passivity of two of the central characters Newland Archer (Daniel-Day Lewis) and May Welland (Winona Ryder).
     My feelings, if I recall, were somewhat similar to those of critic Marc Savlov, who wrote in the Austin Chronicle:

At two hours and 13 minutes, Scorsese has allowed
himself enough time to follow Wharton's book to the
letter, and also enough time to include long stretches of
painfully wearisome society functions and banter. As
a period piece, it's a joy to behold, but with such an
indecisive little newt of a protagonist, it's just hard to
give a damn what happens.

Actually all three of the work’s major characters, including the intriguing Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who after all seems to be leading Newland on before she rushes off to live in Paris, might be described as “indecisive little newts.”
      Perhaps the problem is that in Edith Wharton’s grand New York societal satire, no one gets what they truly want. Good manners and cultural pretensions in New York’s 1870s high society demand constant checks and balances. And for a street-smart director like Scorsese, whose characters generally push right past all rigid boundaries, the result in The Age of Innocence is a kind a claustrophobic tamping down of the director’s usually raucous energies.
     Only Mrs. Mingott (the hilarious Miriam Margolyes), surrounded by her beloved dogs, seems to have any fun. Archer’s son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), moreover, seems to the only honest one, insisting his father, in his old age, pay a final visit to Ellen Olenska.
     But this watching the movie, I allowed myself the opportunity to simply sit back and enjoy the film’s not inconsiderable pleasures: the beautiful opening credits by Elaine and Saul Bass, the lovely film score by Elmer Bernstein, and the picture-perfect sets by Dante Ferretti, Robert J. Franko, and Amy Marshall.
      Day-Lewis, nearly always an excellent actor, even holding in obeyance his theatrical talents, still makes for a handsome and likeable Newland, and the beautiful Pfeiffer gets, this time round, to be a little wicked and sassy. Ryder makes for a perfectly pretty if boring May, although the scene in which she announces her first pregnancy to Archer is excellent: after he has threatened to wonder off to Europe she drops the news, realizing that she has finally netted and trapped him—perhaps the cause for the confession to her son Ted on her death bed that she had asked him to give up what we loved most, and that he had for her sake. It’s the one clue that perhaps she wasn’t so very innocent after all.

    Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography (he’s worked several times Scorsese and in Germany with Fassbinder) was nominated for awards—and should have won. Gabriella Pescucci won an Academy Award for his costumes.
     Yet, for all its picture-pleasing moments, this film still seems staid, a bit like a fragile glass snow cone ornament, the kind that used to hang from Christmas trees. And I’d take Scorsese’s raunchy version of The Wizard of Oz, After Hours (with cinematography also by Ballhaus) over this film any day.

Los Angeles, April 25, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).   

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Agnès Varda | Oncle Yanco (Uncle Yanco)


redemptions of matter
by Douglas Messerli

Agnès Varda (writer and director) Oncle Yanco (Uncle Yanco) / 1967

During Agnès Varda’s and Jacques Demy’s time in California, Varda made several films, but the first of them, Uncle Yanco, a documentary on her artist first cousin, Jean Varda, is one of the most  charming, while not the most profound. In a sense it’s simply a kind of love letter to her distant relative, a first cousin, then living in the Sausalito boat community of the late 1960s—a group of boat-dwellers who had rejected the increasingly heavy rents of the San Francisco Bay community in preference to the rocking rhythms of the water over more solid brick and mortar homes and apartments.
       Varda had never met “Uncle Yanco,” a title she gave him given their vast differences in age; and she evidently first came to know of his existence through her fried Tom Luddy. With her crew and daughter, costume designer Rosalie, Agnès determines to visit her long lost Greek-French relative on his re-designed ferryboat in the San Francisco Bay.

      
Varda’s film is a picture of an eccentric collage artist, a good cook, a man of many maxims and seemingly wise sayings (“The world is too transparent.” “Life is steeped in death” “How do we know that life isn’t death and that death isn’t life?”), and a kind of elderly guru to the large Bay-area hippie community, who each weekend he invites in a kind of flotilla of younger neighbors to cavort on his somewhat ridiculously decorated former ferry.
       One might almost describe her brief documentary as a kind of celebration to the old man’s love of life. Certainly, given the Uncle Yanco buttons she and her crew wear and the plastic heart overlays she imposes over the camera as she films him, Varda quickly became immensely fond of her relative. And the movie, overall, is a sort of love-poem to the slightly curmudgeonly satyr-like cousin, who dislikes his art pieces as being described as works of collage, preferring to describe them as “redemptions of matter.”
  
     It all makes for great fun, and her work is primarily a celebration of life—one of her many such pieces.
       Yet, how much richer this work might have been had she done a little research and given us a bit more context about the man she has just discovered. After all, this Varda, was not simply an old man in love with the California sun and the plashes of the Pacific Ocean. As a young man in Athens he was considered a kind of art prodigy, abandoning traditional art at the age of 19 when he moved to Paris.
       During World War I he moved to London, becoming a ballet dancer and actor and making friends there with most of the British avant garde.
        But after the war he returned to Paris, where he befriended Picasso, Braque, Derain, Ernst, and many others. He held regular salons, and became, through his glass-colored mosaics, a rather sought-after artist.
      In the 1920s he spent much of his time Cassis, in southern France, sharing artist Roland Penrose’s home, the Villa les Mimosas, where together they celebrated noted artists and other guests.
       In the 1940s he moved to Big Sur, California and later to Monterey, where in 1943 he persuaded Henry Miller to join him. Again, he opened his home to regular salons, at one of which Miller met Anaïs Nin, whose novel Collages portrayed Varda fictionally.
       In the late 1940s Varda taught a summer institute course at Black Mountain College and, later, at the California Institute of Arts.
       For years Jean Varda lived on his jerrybuilt floating home with artist Gordon Onslow Ford before Zen Buddhist popularizer Alan Watts took over his studio.
       So, our dear “oncle” was a rather remarkable figure and perhaps deserves a somewhat more historical perspective. But if nothing else we see this fun-loving being through the eyes of his younger cousin enjoying him simply through her unknowing eyes.

Los Angeles, April 15, 2019

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Asghar Farhadi | جدایی نادر از سیمین‎ Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation)


out of the circle, out of the square
by Douglas Messerli

Asghar Farhadi (writer and director) جدایی نادر از سیمین Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation) / 2011

Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film, A Separation has so very much on its mind that it’s somewhat difficult to know where to begin in describing it. In many respects it is a cultural statement of the oppositions and strains of contemporary Iranian life.
 
     After all, the central conceit of the film is that a forward-looking wife Simin (Leila Hatami), displeased with the situation in Iran, wants to immigrate with her daughter, Termah (Sarina Farhadi) and husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) in order to escape the increasingly harsh restrictions her world imposes. One of those very restrictions is that husbands, by law, have rule over their wives, and since he refuses to leave, Simin must file a divorce decree in order to proceed. It’s not that she doesn’t love her husband, but simply that she desires a better life for her teenager daughter.
      Yet, since Nader refuses, the Iranian judge cannot allow her to gain custody over her daughter, which negates even her logic for the separation. In short, the inequality of the sexes in this culture reifies her desires quite early in this film.
      Nader’s reason for his inability to leave is, outwardly, a seemingly logical one: his father (played by Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has advanced Alzheimer’s desire, and he refuses to abandon him.
Although Farhadi makes it quite apparent that Nader is totally devoted to his father, however, it is also a rather false excuse, since he works all day and is seldom there to actually care for the man to whom he is so devoted.
     Indeed, once Simin leaves Nader to move in with her mother—when the separation is actually effected—the couple are forced to hire a worker to care for the elderly man. The woman they choose, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who must travel a long distance each day from a poor suburb, could not have been a worse candidate. First, she is deeply religious, which makes it difficult to even touch, let alone clean up a man who has lost the control of his bowels. Furthermore, she has not received the permission, a requirement of her beliefs, from her hot-headed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who currently is without a job and temporary incarcerated. Razieh must take her young daughter with her to work. Most importantly, she is not only unequipped to cope with her new responsibilities, but she is pregnant, and in her condition unable to care for a man who falls, needs cannisters of oxygen in order to breath, and cannot even eat by himself.
     At one point Razieh enters his room to discover that he has escaped the apartment and is forced to run after him in the streets, almost—or perhaps actually being—hit by a passing automobile.
     The very first day of her service as a nurse, after her patient has pissed his pants, she must call a phone hot-line just to determine whether it is permissible for her to clean him up. We see, accordingly, exactly why Simin wants to remove herself and daughter from such an environment without her having to say a word. When a culture is not even allowed to fulfill their duties, to help others in great need, and to live out their desires, we recognize that something is terribly amiss. Who wouldn’t want to escape such a world?
 
    And it gets even worse, when one day, returning home early, Nader finds his father almost comatose, one of his hands tied to the bed. We discover later that Razieh has needed to visit the doctor and was simply attempting to prevent another escape of man for whom she was caring. When Nader also discovers that some of his money is missing, he blames the nurse, along with declaring her abuse of his father.
     We don’t truly see whether he pushes her literally out the door as he fires her; Farhadi is too subtle a director to show the actual actions; yet that is what Hodjat and his lawyers claim has caused his wife’s miscarriage. Did Nadet not know of her pregnancy?
      No one in this drama gets spared from the cruelties of the draconian system. If found guilty Nader will be imprisoned for years. Even the absent Simin, separated from the events, must return to protect her husband, whom it appears did know that Razieh was expecting (he admits as much to his daughter), but who also rightfully questions whether his hired nurse might have been abused by her husband. She even hints that perhaps the automobile incident might have been the cause of her miscarriage. In this society blame is heaped upon nearly everyone involved. It was Simin, we later perceive, who took the money to help pay moving expenses, not Nader’s new hire.
      In such a patriarchal world, perhaps a “separation” is the only choice women can make, and ultimately Termah, the couple’s daughter is asked to make the same choice: does she wish to go with her father or mother? We never hear her final decision. She asks that both her parents leave the courtroom so that she might reveal her choice to the judge alone. And, given her father’s confessions, we cannot be sure whether or not she will be able to choose rightly. Both of her parents have selected intractable routes, which lead in entirely opposite directions.
     Yet, Farhadi does reveal a truly essential fact: as difficult as it is, Simin has chosen to move ahead into the future, while Nader has preferred to turn to the past to care for a man who no longer even knows his name or who he is. At the expense of his current family, Nader has clung to the memory of his childhood to care of the incognizant man who nurtured and cared for him. No one, of course, should be forced to decide between these alternatives. Yet, we can be sure, that these impossible choices are not limited to Iran. In this film, the director simply heightens the tensions and pulls that many individuals and couples around the world are subject to. And that, in turn, helps to lift this wonderful film out of a cultural battle of religious beliefs in Iran to a film of universal value.
     As I grow into role of an elderly man—without having any of the family protections that even Nader’s father had—I fear, obviously, what might happen to me if I might fall into dementia or Alzheimer’s. Both my mother and her sister suffered, in the end, these diseases. But I can assure you that I would hope no young person should have to choose to alter their lives, their movement forward or away, in order to nurse me. As painful as it is to say this: Nader and Simin should have simply moved off—particularly in the world in which they were entrapped—to leave the unknowing old man behind to die. Perhaps this entire society (I do not mean simply the Iranian world) that has entrenched itself in the past for far too long in order to allow its younger participants no room to breathe. I can only hope that Termah suddenly comes to perceive that her mother’s choice was the only viable one.

Los Angeles, April 13, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Satyajit Ray | নায়ক Nayak (The Hero)


tearing up the script
by Douglas Messerli

Satyajit Ray (writer and director) নায়ক Nayak (The Hero) / 1966, USA 1974

Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film, Nayak, is one of his oddest works. Unlike the long narrative arcs of the Apu trilogy or the moral urgency of films such as The Stranger or An Enemy of the People, or even the historical ennui of The Music Room, Nayak is basically a talk-piece spoken to a somewhat inexperienced journalist by an insecure Bollywood actor as the two speed through the countryside on a train headed to Delhi.
      Although there is something touching about actor Arindam Mukherjee’s (Uttam Kumar) self-revelations and, perhaps, something uplifting in Aditi Segupta’s (Sharmila Tagore) patience and determination, finally, not to publish the somewhat tawdry history of his life he has shared with her, it doesn’t really add up to a truly significant tale.
    A bit like Hollywood fables of major film stars such as The Goddess and A Star Is Born Mukherjee’s story tells of sudden rise as a “hero” of Bollywood films—his early abandonment of theater and his mentor Shankar-da; his fears and distress with working with the haughty elderly star Mukunda Lahiri (Bireswar Sen), nicknamed “The Voice,” and later his revenge against the aging actor; and his affair with a married actress Promila Chaterjee (Sumita Sanval), with whose husband he has just the day before had an altercation in a bar, and now reported in many of the newspapers.
 
     Yet, these standard tropes of the rise of stardom don’t really add up to much. The most surreal scene in the film, and perhaps its most memorable, is Mukherjee’s dream of being swallowed up in piles of money. It’s hard to gather up much sympathy for this guilty fantasy about his success.
      It’s even more difficult to believe that this all might lead to his possible suicide, since he is on his way to receive a prestigious award. But, obviously, that is part and parcel of so many of these kinds of movies.
     Yet, Mukherjee is no Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, or even Lady Gaga. And it is difficult to even perceive why this rather chubby actor has become such a celebrity, even within the commercial Bollywood system. His interlocutor, Sengupta, who edits a woman’s magazine, is herself sarcastic about his career, and secretly plots to take notes about what, quite inexplicably, he is revealing to her. Perhaps it is the fact that she is not a sycophant, as so many of the other travelers and even people along the route are. She is smart and independent. There is no reason other than she might widen her audience for her to interview him.
     The most interesting aspect of Ray’s film is that, despite her secretive note-taking, she finally emphasizes with him and, after his suicidal suggestions, tears up her notes after returning his safely to his train cubicle.
 
     Yet, of course, Ray, who probably knew the Indian film industry better that anyone, clearly does tell Mukherjee’s—and others like him—story, so perhaps her good deeds matter very little. If she might have been presented as a kind of heroine, in the end, the director himself undoes her good deeds by revealing what she has uncovered—unless he is suggesting that we might also tear up his script.
      In short, there is a kind of missing morality in this tale that is generally always at the heart of Ray’s great films. Everyone, except perhaps for a feverish (running a fever and highly excited about sharing a room with her cinematic hero) young girl, is caught up in his or her own prejudices and fantasies; the “hero’s” fans as well as his detractors equally make it difficult to feel much for either them or for Mukherjee.
      And by the end of Ray’s work one has no sense that anyone has been transformed by the series of confessions that the actor has made. The film industry—just as Ray proves through this production—will simply go on, with light and shadows creating a world of fantasy that makes its actors rich and turns its audiences into somewhat mindless acolytes.

Los Angeles, April 11, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ryan Murphy, Nelson Cragg, Gwyneth Horder-Paton, Daniel Minaham, and Matt Bomer | The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story


drunk on dreams
by Douglas Messerli

Tom Rob Smith and Maggie Cohn (writers, based on the book, Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth), Ryan Murphy, Nelson Cragg, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Daniel Minahan, and Matt Bomer (directors) The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story / 2018

FX series, after their quite excellent American Crime Story based on the murders connected with O. J. Simpson, soon after released another fascinating season based on, not so very particularly, despite its title, on Gianni Versace’s (Édgar Ramírez) murder—but rather on the activities of his killer, the sociopathic gay man, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). And despite his terribly violent activities—which ended in the deaths of five gay men, including David Madson (Cody Fern), the man he loved and wanted, incredibly in an era in which gay marriage was not possible, to marry and raise a family—this movie, going and forth between time between nine-1-hour episodes, actually transforms Cunanan into a kind of tragic would-be Gatsby, a natural loser in a society that lionizes wealth and what used to be called the desire for “The American Dream.
      Cunanan, unfortunately, despite the advantages his family attempted to provide him with—an education in a prestigious private school, a master bed-room, and a college education at the University of California San Diego—was an outsider from the start. The son of a doting but somewhat psychotically disturbed Italian mother (Joanna P. Adler) and a smart Philippine father, Modesto (Jon Jon Briones) who bartered his way into being a stockbroker and preyed on elderly men and women, and who, finally, was tracked down by the FBI for his corruption—from the start had no possible entry into the world which he had been taught was his for the taking.
      What he never perceived, and which makes him detestable, is that the world was not his for the asking, the fact that he needed to work for it—a lesson that is reiterated again and again in this film (one of the works its obvious flaws in its repetitions) by his elderly rich male lover, Norman Blachford (Michael Nouri), by his friend, and by several others, working endlessly hard to make their lives meaningful. Andrew, who has dropped out of school, clearly wants it all without any effort; and when he demands precisely that from Blachford and is rejected by his requests, he spins out into drugs and a kind of mad terror that ends in the wealthy elderly gay Lee Miglin’s (Mike Farrell), an ex-Navy highly decorated officer, Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), and ultimately in Madson’s deaths. The spurned Cunanan cannot deal with the facts of his own life.
         As I told Howard, while watching the series, it was, as Ford Maddox Ford begins his famous novel The Good Soldier, one of the saddest stories I had even read.
           Although you can’t exactly feel sorry for Cunanan. He expects everything to simply be handed to him—wealth, love, happiness—by those around him; he even gives away any money he may receive to achieve these goals, including handing over his paltry earnings from gay prostitution in Miami to a local AID’s victim, and flying in his would-be Minneapolis lover on a first-class flight to a 4-star hotel in San Francisco. This is a man who cannot comprehend that money, however meaningless, comes from true work. As smart as he is, he cannot comprehend that knowledge is acquired from reading and study. His obsession with Versace and the fashion world is simply an indication of his cultural emptiness.
    
     Meanwhile, at the Versace palace, things are not much better. Versace might seem to have it all, a wealthy life, the love of another young male consort, in this case the handsome Antonio D'Amico (Ricky Martin), utterly hated by his sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz), who—except for  
the murderer, Cunanan—is perhaps the real villain of this series. The Versace estate denying most the reality of the work, claimed that Versace had never had AIDS. Donatella, in real life and on screen refuses to reveal her brother Gianni’s gay attractions and, even more significantly resists his attempt to admit to his having become HIV-positive. Even an interview he is determined to have with  the gay magazine The Advocate is a cause for battle.
     Her solution to her brother’s sudden loss of hearing is that he has cancer of the ear. Her hatred of Antonio is palpable, and forces Gianni to impose a pax Familia so that he might die with some calm. He tries, moreover, to bring her into the fashion world by co-designing a dress of her imagination, which is a great success at the shows, but an utter financial failure given that no one might wish a dress that expresses their feminine militant desires.
     Gay men, living with older lovers are clearly, in this film, individuals not to be loved, represented as they are as merely young men who suck the money out of their lovers. But there is clearly a difference in Tom Rob Smith’s scripts. Cunanan is all about dependence, while Antonio does truly express affection and love.
 
     Both end badly, of course, particularly given the FBI’s and police disinterest in actually seeking out and finding the true culprit. Even the local Miami detective realizes when they arrive that they are not truly interested in discovering the actual murderer. They don’t even have enough copies of Cunanan’s photo to distribute to the local gay bars. They have little strategy in how to find him. They stumble through the reality they don’t want to face, leaving hundreds of obvious clues behind.
     At one point a figure makes it clear when the killer goes missing: “Andrew is not hiding. He’s trying to be seen.” It is a tragic reality made so very obvious that you want to cry. Despite his several murders, this man has done the horrendous deeds simply to bring himself the attention he so desires.
     Cunanan’s descent, long in the making, ends in his hide-out in a temporarily abandoned house boat where he is forced, without access to the world and with no money, to eat dog food.
     As the police move in, he takes the gun which has killed many of his victims and pulls the trigger into his own mouth.
      When Antonio is told by Donatella that any of the houses he might have lived in is now the property of the Versace estate, he swallows the dozens of pills that kill him. Both have been, so unfortunately, “Drunk on Dreams.”

Los Angeles, April 9, 2019
Reprinted from World Film Review (April 2019).
     

Friday, April 5, 2019

Douglas Sirk | Written on the Wind


the good and the bad
by Douglas Messerli

George Zuckerman (screenplay, based on a novel by Robert Wilder), Douglas Sirk (director) Written on the Wind / 1956

The melodramas of Douglas Sirk are nearly always overwrought statements of human behavior with dramatically lit, color images to match. But none of his films is quite as theatrically conceived as his 1956 film Written on the Wind, which begins with Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), speeding to his mansion in an Allard J2X before angrily opening the front door, with a whirlwind of leaves sweeping into the house as he himself storms up the stairs to shoot either his wife, Lucy Moore Hadley (Laureen Bacall) or his best friend and hinted lover, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), whom Kyle believes is the father of the child with which his wife is now pregnant.
 
      A rather cheesy song, written by Sammy Cahn and Victor Young, and sung by The Four Aces
follows as the calendar pages spin backward, presumably themselves wind-driven as well, to take us into the past when Mitch first met secretary-designer Lucy and was “be-smitten” with her on first sight. If that word sounds horribly archaic, it is nonetheless appropriate for “gee-gosh” attitude with which Hudson plays his role.
      Instead of immediately rushing off with her, which any hot-blooded male such as Humphrey Bogart might do, Hudson carries her off, like a cat bringing home its prey, to his “true” love, the playboy alcoholic Kyle, who speeds away with the flummoxed good girl in a taxi. A quick plane ride raises her spirits enough that she almost immediately determines to spend the rest of her life saving this ne’er-do-well, a role the good-natured, hard-working Mitch has evidently attempted to play for most of his life. The question: is he mad that Lucy has taken Kyle away from him or that that Kyle has stolen off with Lucy?
 
     Once we meet Kyle’s even more self-destructive sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone)—an alcoholic also and nymphomaniac to boot—we realize, if he can simply allow himself to see beyond the forests of highly serious dramatic postures, the viewer realizes he’s now in for good fun in this quite evident mid-century acting out of good and evil.
      In this case the evil folk actually win. Stack as the tortured rich boy, son of oil tycoon Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith)—who clearly would have preferred Mitch as his son—does a rather excellent job of acting, and his evil sister, jealously in love with the impassive Mitch who does his best to ignore her, won an Oscar for her supporting role.
       Hudson and Bacall, the good folks, mostly attempt to ooze their goodness into Hadley’s ugly world (stuffed with oil derricks and scruffy patches of land in-between) without much success. Hudson beats up Marylee’s down-home would-be boyfriends, stands face-forward with his impressive male torso, and smiles his most toothy grin. Bacall shows off her legs and deep-throated purring’s; but neither does much good. The evil ones get all the fun, and all the alcohol, and all the lies they desire. An old grumpy doctor is even capable of convincing Kyle that he is impotent, just as Kyle’s father has convinced his son of the boy’s utter incompetence. This is pure Freudian stuff.
      I’ve always loved, and have commented elsewhere, how screenwriters—in this case, George Zuckerman based on a book by Robert Wilder—often subtly, and sometimes so subtly, work in the sexual realities of their actors, particularly in the case of Cary Grant and Rock Hudson. Zukerman provides us some absolute zingers which I am sure flew right over the heads of most of the theater-goers of the day. At one point, when old man Hadley suggests the ruggedly handsome Mitch should get married, Hudson’s character replies: “No….I have enough trouble finding oil.” He later begs 
Marylee: “Please don’t waste your life waiting for me.”
      What he seeks from his women is clearly “decency,” and when, entering the suite into which Kyle has ensconced his new love, Mitch calls out, again and again, “Lucy, are you decent?” Only to discover she is so decent that she has escaped the place.
       When the circle turns (and the merry-go-round theme is established early in this film), and we, near the end of the movie, come back to the opening scene, it is Mitch who is nursing the suffering Lucy, and it is Marylee who shoots her brother dead. Particularly after the trial redeeming Mitch from killing his dear friend, the good couple, Mitch and Lucy, are now given an open field to express what should be their love. Yet Sirk, like a silent Buddha, gives us no clue of what might happen in the future. And we can guess that Mitch may indeed speed off to Iran, which he has been threatening to do throughout the film, to discover some Arabic lover, or, at the very least, some lost male—just as Marylee has proclaimed her youthful afternoons with him as “wonderful lost afternoons”—to whom he might express his affection. Lucy is far too sexy for him. And she, having had a miscarriage, is now perhaps far too smart to start all over again, despite the circular structure of the plot.
      In Sirk’s melodrama, both remain utter innocents (as Marylee cattily proclaims early in the film, “I’ll loan some time of my towels since you seem to still be wet behind the ears.”) who haven’t a clue of how to get under the sheets without the evil ones’ attempts to bed them. Lucy will perhaps always be seeking another man to “save”—after all, as she herself recognizes, she is so very capable—and Mitch is seeking something similar, a man who needs him as a partner for life.
      If there was ever a gay drama in a sheep’s skin, Sirk’s Written on the Wind is it. No wonder Fassbinder loved this film so dearly.

Los Angeles, April 5, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).


Tuesday, April 2, 2019

André Téchiné | L'Homme qu'on aimait (In the Name of My Daughter)


the siren loses her voice
by Douglas Messerli

Cédric Anger, Jean-Charles Le Roux, and André Téchiné (screenplay, based on Une femme face à la Mafia by by Jean-Charles Le Roux and Renée Le Roux), André Téchiné (director) L'Homme qu'on aimait (In the Name of My Daughter) / 2014
 
French director André Téchiné, over the past few years, has become one of my favorite directors, and I have admired his several films with overtly, yet gentle gay and feminist themes expressed in his earlier works. Alas, in his 2014 work, L'Homme qu'on aimait (In the Name of My Daughter)—although he continues to remain interested in familial relationships—his particular slant on these plots seem much more traditional and, almost, Hollywood based.
   
   Despite the great presence of Catherine Deneuve (who plays Renée Le Roux, a wealthy Casino owner), who in the first many scenes dominates the film while utterly entrancing us, loses her presence and her plot-driven “grip” on the casino activities when her clearly diffident daughter, Agnès Le Roux, returns to Nice for reasons not completely comprehendible—perhaps simply to serve temporarily to reclaim her position on the board of her mother’s now money-losing business.
 
      Mostly she swims, isolating herself from the grips of her highly alluring mother; but it is also clear that she has long resented her mother’s dominant presence in all aspects of her life. She soon determines, using some of the money owed her from her father’s will, to open a kind of chic bookstore/gallery—not what anyone might imagine is a possible money-making venture, but simply something that allows her to escape her mother’s powerful tentacles. In her slow-moving watery encounters, she appears like a highly lethargic mermaid, hardly able to look after herself on land.
       Enter her mother’s lawyer and advisor Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), a recently-divorced man who pretends disinterest in his employer’s daughter. He is a kind of Jared Kushner-like figure, always handsomely dressed, most often in suit and tie, and seemingly an almost puritanical being, who doesn’t drink, doesn’t swim, doesn’t have any vices—except the fact that a woman with whom he is currently having an affair attempts to warn the young, and obviously inexperienced Agnès that, despite his polite, almost stand-offish demeanor, he is a significant womanizer.
       Truth be told, Agnelet is worse than that. Despite the gentle hugs his gives his young son, his real love is money, and through sex and more perverse activities he convinces the rebellious Agnès to vote against her mother so that the mafia-connected Jean-Dominique Fratoni might be able to take over Madame Le Roux’s Palais de la Méditerranée, ending her long career.
       Unfortunately, once the single-minded Agnelet has gotten his hands on the extremely passive Agnès, Téchiné’s otherwise well-directed film losses air like a balloon whose helium has suddenly been expelled, as the daughter inexplicably (or perhaps given the greedy demands of Agnelet, not so very inexplicably) disappears. Obviously, she has been killed, evidently thrown to sharks into the very waters in which previously immersed herself with such abandonment. All of her monies have been transferred to Agnelet’s accounts.
       A more agèd Deneuve attempts to restore this movie’s energy, taking on a 20-some year attempt to prove that Maurice killed her daughter. Alas, we can hardly comprehend why Madame Le Roux might even want to undertake these trials “in the name of her daughter,” given the fact that she could only bring herself to visit Agnès’ new enterprise once only, and that concerning her own business concerns.
       In any event, she loses the trial, despite the fact that the “other” woman with whom he was having an affair, testifying against him. Maurice’s son, now an adult, is evidently able to convince the court of his father’s innocence. Only a credit title card informs us that later Maurice was found guilty of Agnès’ death and is sentenced to twenty years in prison. But by that time we hardly care; the hardly likeable Agnès by this time has almost left our memories. And we only sympathize with the now frail and lost former casino operator, wishing almost nostalgically that we might be able, once more, to enter her Palais de la Méditerranée domain.
      She, we suddenly recall, dressed in beautiful golden gowns knew her customers and greeted them as true nobility. Hers was a truly a palace of impossible possibilities; and, evidently, her customers often, too often perhaps, won fortunes within her golden halls. If she might not be a great business woman, she truly was a remarkably forceable siren who drew people into her casino liar as shown in so many other French films by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, and the British director Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps Téchiné’s movie is interesting only because it represents the total decay of those grand-elegant halls of utter deception.

Los Angeles, April 2, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).