Thursday, June 27, 2019

Philip Gröning : Die große Stille (Into Great Silence)


a symphony of silence: true believers
by Douglas Messerli

Philip Gröning Die große Stille (Into Great Silence) / 2005

Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary film, Into Great Silence takes us for almost 3 hours into a world we might never have known and certainly would never have heard from: the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartruse, who live under a vow of silence, dedicating their lives to prayer and music. If there seems to be a slight contradiction in this, where singing is central and speaking is restricted, that is, in a sense, what the film is really about.
      Gröning first asked the order for permission to film their activities in 1984, and it took the group 16 years to make their decision: he would be allowed if he alone did the filming and used real lighting. The result is quite remarkable.
       As anyone who has read my several volumes of writing will know, I am not entirely sympathetic with formal religion. But in this film’s evidence of the brothers’ complete commitment to their beliefs and to their community—each taking on special tasks from gardening, farming, cooking, delivering meals, singing, bell-ringing, house cleaning, barbering, clock repair, and administration—that we cannot but marvel at their simple but beautiful lives high in the French Alps.
        And then, despite its rather austere title (in German Die große Stille, “the great silence”), the film is anything but silent. Like a John Cage performance, the overwhelming noise of the order is front and center: the constant creak of the cart as its driver delivers the food, the footsteps of the brothers as they move along the gothic corridors, the hourly ringing of the bell, even the voice of the brother who feeds the cats (evidently the order allows verbal communication with animals)—all reveal that the rhythm of these monks’ lives is very much involved with noise. And then there is their endless epistolary activities that Gröning reveals through the piles of letters on the head-monk’s desk and through the daily mail that the individual monks receive.
        Nature, through rains, the melting icicles of spring, and the heavy shovel of the gardener monk used in order to reclaim his summer gardens, the water streaming down the mountains, the numerous bird-calls, an occasional jet plane overhead (more silent than the nature around them), even their antiphonal crack of their knees as, one by one, these mostly elderly men bend to the floor in their communal meetings, all create a great commotion of sound. And then there are their occasional outings in the countryside where they are permitted to talk, discussing their habits of cleanliness in relation to other orders. The whiz of the electric razors which trim their hair…everything here creates a kind of avant-garde symphony, if one is only willing to listen.
        And then there is their beautiful music, seemingly Gregorian-like chants sung in unison, so wonderfully sung and clearly so meaningful for their self-expression that one does, at moments, want to cry. These are their major verbal expressions, and we watch with awe as a young, apparently African novitiate attempts in his cell to learn them with a small key-board accompanied by his voice. It is clear he will ultimately bring this group more of what they so very much love.

      Finally, of course, there is the silence, the hours of deep prayer wherein they escape into an internal relationship with their God that none of us can truly imagine. Gröning, moreover, reveals them as individuals with his camera focusing on their various faces throughout the film, some of them looking a bit grim, others shyly smiling, all a bit uncomfortable with the camera before them, but perfectly willing to give themselves up to the intruding lens, just as they have to God.
      It took me three days to actually watch this deeply intense movie. There is only so much silence I, a truly urban dweller, can bear. But each time I watched, I found myself opening the window to more carefully hear the sounds of the doves, the hummingbirds, and other natural beings who inhabit our condominium garden before, once more, turning on the endless patter of the news which I watch every day.
      When I was in college singing in the Madison, Wisconsin Presbyterian church choir, someone in our midst arranged a trip to Chicago, where we met, for the afternoon, with members of a silent order in Chicago. They had broken their vow just for lunch and our afternoon visit. I recall how peaceful they all appeared, how delighted they were just to be able to explain their views of the world without at all attempting to convert us to their way of life. They simply demonstrated it without even attempting to evaluate their or our world. It was. Nothing more or less.
      Watching Gröning’s film, I felt that same humility. These monks were not trying to sell us anything. They were what they were: true believers. Evidently, after seeing the director’s final cut, they were all happy with the result. The peace and loving of their lives was apparent even through the frame of the camera.

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

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Andrew Haigh | Cahuenga Blvd.


the end of love
by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Haigh (writer and director) Cahuenga Blvd. / 2005

British director Andrew Haigh’s 2005 short film (only about 6 minutes in length) Cahuenga Blvd., shot in Los Angeles, reveals a great deal about his later, feature films, Weekend, 45 Years, and the most recent Lean on Pete. In each of these films love is strangely transitory—even though the couple of 45 Years have been together for that length of time, without really knowing one another—and yet deeply felt in a modest realistic manner that depends upon the actors and Haigh’s always probing yet lovingly revelatory camera.
      The tag line for his 2005 work, featuring just two characters played by Luis Patino and Isabel Sztriberny is “A one night stand in the middle of the afternoon,” and that pretty much sums it up.
      At a Cahuenga Blvd. café the two major figures encounter one another, he an American who has recently broken up with his girlfriend of some time and she an Austrian who is about to return to her homeland. In minutes they become attracted to one another (a situation repeated in his first feature film between two gay men, Weekend) and find themselves returning to his apartment to engage in a brief sexual tryst.
      As in Weekend, we immediately perceive that this couple is the perfect match, she intimately questioning him, and he feeling comfortable enough with her to explain how he has come to break up with a woman he thought he loved, suggesting something to the effect: “She wanted to see other people. Why if you love someone do you need others?” One day she simply announces it’s over.
      Asked if he still loves her, the male responds so openly honestly that it is almost painful: “I would like to know how her life is going. What has happened to her.” But obviously that is not to be.
       Haigh is able to create an easy warmth between these two figures that makes us desire that a miracle might happen, that she might delay her voyage home, and the two fall into a deeper romance. Yet this director is an utter realist, and miracles in his works never occur.
       He accompanies his temporary lover to the airport, they kiss, and she leaves him, he sadly moving to the escalator to move up and out of their brief romantic encounter.
       That gesture, repeated with variation in Weekend, might almost be said to be a metaphor for the temporary love his characters discover (even after 45 years): a recognition that love is never truly permanent, even if the couple remain together. There is always, in his films, a deep pain in loving and an even deeper one for not finding a lifetime of love.
       Haigh might almost be described as an auteur of love found and lost, of desires that are never quite fulfilled. Yet he does this with an unblinking sense of truth. Love, in all his films, slips away, disappears, or proves to be something other than the lover imagined it was. Men and women come together and pull away just as quickly, creating pain and startlement, but seldom sentimentality—even when it leaves one out of breath and in tears.

Los Angeles, June 23, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette)


a shot in the dark
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette) / 1976,  West Germany and USA 1977

Chinese Roulette is now the 28th film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder I have reviewed, and I have loved them all—perhaps with the exception of his last film Qurelle, which I still found fascinating and beautiful. Even my beloved Hitchcock can’t match that. Yet when the movie first appeared in 1976 and 1977, many otherwise intelligent critics, including the admirable Dave Kehr, disparaged it as too intellectual and being disinterested in character.

     Watching this yesterday, I felt as I seeing one of his very best works, almost as satirically dark as Satan’s Brew and having as much to say about German-international culture as works such as Katzelmacher and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Unlike the last two mentioned films, this work does not represent individuals from other countries, but given the “outsiderness” of the family daughter, Angela (Andrea Schober), crippled from a childhood illness, and her nanny Traunitz (Macha Méril), who is mute, and the fact that for the first time Fassbinder worked with two French actors, Méril and the great Godard figure Anna Karina, the film speaks of the tensions between traditional German culture and those who do not seem to quite fit into those confines.

     Indeed, in this film there are many references to the German Third Reich. Fassbinder even hints, without making it a major issue, that a friend who has recently been killed, the owner of the country manor in which the film’s events take place, Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) and his quite dastardly housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) have a shadowy past that they are hiding. (I might add, as an aside, that I even had a dream about that trio, one of whom we never meet, last night).
      If nothing else, family life at the Christ’s household is anything but Christ-like as both husband and wife begin the film by lying to each other, Gerhard insisting that he must travel to Oslo, and his wife Ariane (Margit Carstensen) responding that she must travel to Milan for her job.
      In fact, this couple both plan to escape to their slightly decaying but very grand country estate to have trysts with their lovers, Gerhard with Irene Cartis (Anna Karina) and Ariane with her husband’s assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). Gerhard and Irene spend the first few moments in the nearby woods and gardens in one of Fassbinder’s most beautifully filmed scenes of nature—and throughout this film the director spends a great deal of time revealing the beauties of nature, quite atypical except for his black-and-white masterwork, Effi Briest—before entering the mansion where they discover Kolbe and Ariane on the floor in the midst of sex.
     After a moment of horror, and Irene’s attempt to escape the situation, they all break into laughter at the ridiculousness of the event. Yet the evening dinner, cooked up by the complaining but reliable Kast, is clearly not something to be enjoyed by the two “intruders,” and is even made even more unbearable by the fact that Ariane and Gerhard spend much of the table talk recounting their adventures together throughout the world. It is almost torturous conversation that any sane couple would have avoided simply out of empathy for their lovers.
     And Fassbinder, as critic Ed Gonzalez observes, films these figures with a camera that “moves constantly in all directions as if attached to a system of pulleys. He follows characters as they walk, stop, shift alliances, and subsequently fractures his frame using the reflective devices that clutter the film’s mise-en-scène.” Fassbinder does not attempt to analyze his characters as much as he is determined to use them as soulless dolls—much like the several grotesque dolls their Christ’s daughter later brings to the party—constantly pushing against and pulling apart from each other.
     I haven’t yet mentioned Kast’s dunderhead of a son, Gabriel (Volker Spengler), a kind of blond-haired angel that might only have been dreamed up by Dante. A man of indeterminant sex, he even admits to an obviously desirous filling-station attendant, that like Lucifer, he lives in hell, existing in a kind of androgynous life that can’t allow him any pleasure. He is a voyeur, possibly even a would-be child abuser (Angela invites him into her room every time she visits the man), but mostly he is a slave to the manor, busily running errands and shining shoes, when what he really desires is to become a great writer.

    Indeed, one of the most hilarious passages of this film is when he reads to the adults from the newest pages of his tome words that remind one a bit of Nietzsche but are so discombobulated that it might bore even the dead. He is, obviously, a fool, but in this sense reminds one more of Christ than Ariane, Gerhard, and their manipulative daughter. There is certainly a shroud innocence about him, even when he pulls a large metal dildo out of Gerhard’s luggage, that makes us love him nonetheless.
     Yet these are all terribly guilty people—guilty of lying, sexual infidelity, and clearly much more. And it takes the horrifyingly truth-telling daughter, Angela, a trunk load of dolls intact, to reveal their corruptness. Insisting that the Kasts join them at the dinner table the next night, she suggests that they all play a game of Chinese Roulette, an “entertainment” in which one team asks questions and the other must reply, which often reveals their own and other’s faults without actually naming them. With her and Traunitz in control the others have no possibility but to destroy each other by insinuation.
     We already suspect that her own memory is flawed, that she sees her illness and her parent’s inability to accept it as the cause of their lies and infidelities which she has scornfully observed for years. But Kast utterly denies this. And it is apparent that her young imagination also is something grown out of perversity. In one amazing scene to which Gabriel opens the door, Angela’s nanny Traunitz is quietly dancing while embracing her charge’s crutches. In short, everything in this upside-down world is open to question.
     Ariane, Angela’s mother, has long ago revealed her hostility to her daughter—at one earlier point even aiming a pistol at her through a window—and as the Chinese Roulette game progresses, so too does she become more and more agitated. The final question brings all the film’s issues together into one: "What would this person have been in the Third Reich?"
      Many of the questioners imagine the question aimed at Kast, but Angela, in agreement with the hand-signing of her nanny, point to Ariane as a concentration camp commander. As if to prove them right, the mother takes up her husband’s pistol pointing it for a moment at her daughter before shooting Traunitz.
      While others call for an ambulance, Gerhard once more reveals his talent for self-preservation by calling his lawyer: “My wife has done a rather stupid thing….”
       Taunitz, we are told, will survive. The bullet has only grazed her forehead.
       Yet the vengeful daughter is not finished: meeting Gabriel on the staircase she tells him that she knows that every word of his would-be masterwork has been plagiarized.
       It would be hard to imagine a more spiteful child unless George and Martha’s son in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? really had existed. But, as we know, he did, and expressed that spite in the form of writing a kind of horror play about the parents who had adopted him. To me it’s possible that the film exists as a kind of template for this film.
       As Fassbinder’s camera slowly pulls out from house of horrors, we hear yet another shot coming out of the dark environs of that building. The movie ends without any answers.
       Of course, it could have meant the death of any one of those within. God knows, they all have enough guilt on their minds. But I suggest it ultimately boils down to just three obvious candidates: the suffering child Angela who has negotiated this terrible night or Ariane who has demonstrated her own special propensity to be actually a concentration camp commander. Yet these are the two most traditional of possibilities, and both are strong monsters who have learned from hate how to survive.
     I’d argue for Gabriel, shamed for his unoriginality, his lack of imagination which he so desperately desires in order to escape from the dark pit in which he exists. And he, also the messenger—a symbol of the director himself, who has woven this terrible tale of societal entanglement—finally brings the film to a stop.

Los Angeles, June 22, 2019
Reprinted in World Cinema Review (June 2019).  

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Asghar Farhadi | درباره الی‎, (Dar bāre-ye Elly) About Elly


the lies we tell ourselves and others
by Douglas Messerli

Asghar Farhadi (screenplay and director) درباره الی‎, (Dar bāre-ye Elly) About Elly / 2009, US general release 2015

On the surface Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 film About Elly may, as many reviewers and critics have observed, seem to have relationships with the great Antonioni film L’Avventura; in this film, also involving a vacation trip to a seaside location (the Caspian sea, in this case, having replaced the warmer waters of the Mediterranean) during which suddenly, without explanation, a young woman suddenly goes missing. If these figures do not precisely parallel the more wealthy celebrants of the Antonioni film, they nonetheless do represent a upper-middle class of Teheran life. And, like the Italians of L’Avventura sexuality is certainly in the air—although in Farhadi’s film there is no suggestion of any actual sexual encounters; the men and women sleep in separate rooms, even though all but of two of the would-be partyers are already married and have children who accompany them on the trip.
     Yet the comparison with the ground-breaking art-house film also immediately breaks down after those few easy associations. For Farhadi’s film, as some critics have made clear, does not have roots so much in continental/international filmmaking, despite its highly artful direction, as it does with daily Iranian life. As Godfrey Cheshire has written, this director has no intention in his films of explaining Iran to Westerners, nor even pointing out the political difficulties of living in Iran—although he certainly does subtly point to them. No, this film is comfortable in its own milieu, just as are these young couples who have known each other for years, mostly through having gone to school together, feel at home with one another.
      Indeed, at least in the beginning of the film, they speak so quickly in a Farsi argot that even with an excellent English translation it is often difficult to comprehend them. It’s not that they are so much different, but actually so much like modern young US, Mexican, European, and Canadian couples that renders them so slightly incomprehensible. Yes, the women all wear headscarves (a requirement in Iranian films) and, every once in a while, the men break down in male-on-male dances unthinkable in the West, but these contemporary citizens of Iran are almost painfully too much like us. The men immediately bond like those in so many American comedic bromances, and the women, at first, are shuffled off into another group to busily clean up the seaside apartment they have had to accept after being told that the villa they had paid for is due for a visit from its owner. Yet, husbands and wives, even allowing for the gender separations, behave much like most such group vacationers throughout the world, sometimes grousing about their assignments, but sharing in complex relationships that reveal their marital situations. This might almost have been a Hollywood-made movie demonstrating the joys and difficulties of friends recoupling in paradise such as the same year’s release Couples Retreat.

    But beyond the first frames of this work, we already begin to perceive that here something is amiss in a kind of Hitchcockian way that will alter all of our expectations. First, there is the mix-up about the rooms they thought they had rented, and then the manager’s young son—who looks like a slightly menacing Pugsley right out of The Addams Family—sourly observes the group’s actions, even as he opens the gate to their more than filthy digs. With broken-out widows, they will surely be cold at night. And then there is the continuous roar of the sea which never lets up throughout the film.
     More importantly, into their tightly-knit group they have mistakenly woven two outsiders: their former friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has just returned from living in Germany after divorcing his German wife, and one of their daughter’s school-teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), whom Sepidah (Golshifteh Farahani) has invited along with the particular intention of hooking him up with Ahmad.

    The beautiful Elly, attending to the children and shyly helping out in all the cleaning and cooking, is soon loved by all, and even the now unwedded Ahmad begins to warm up to her after the group intentionally sends them off on a car trip to pick up more supplies. Yet we can’t help but know something is wrong. In a cellphone call to her mother, Elly reassures the sickly woman that she shall be back by the next day, lying to her about where she is and contradicting the fact that the others have planned for a stay of a two days longer.
      When Elly insists that she be driven into town so that she might return home by bus, the would-be matchmaker Sepidah hides Elly’s traveling bag and refuses to allow the trip, insisting she, herself, will pick up the new needed provisions alone, demanding that Elly watch the children bathing in the sea.
       Somewhat like the more recent film Roma, the crashing waves seem to be swallowing up these children instead of allowing them to plash in their waves. And Farhadi brilliantly plays out what we might have imagined as two of the children run back to the volley-ball playing men to report that the young boy Arash has disappeared. Basically they ignore her until another child runs to them reporting the same information, sending them through a mad rush throughout the house before they realize Arash is lost a sea.
       The long sequence in which they search for him, the camera roving back and forth over the landscape and waves before they finally find the boy, bringing him in and successfully resuscitating him, is an exciting piece of cinema that reveals Farhadi’s brilliance as a director.
       But soon they discover another, maybe even more serious problem. Elly is also missing. Had she attempted to save the child and drowned? Had she simply abandoned the children to return to Teheran? Why is her bag missing? As Sepidah’s husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) begins to interrogate her, his wife reveals that she has hidden Elly’s bag, and that, in fact, Elly was engaged to another man, Alireza, and that she has pressured the young teacher to join them on their vacation trip nonetheless.
       When the men call Alireza, who breathlessly arrives at their retreat, they explain what has happened, the fiancé grows violent, attacking Ahmad, and demands to talk to Sepidah. Encouraged by Amir to not tell the whole truth, she explains, much to his distress, that Elly went willingly with them.
      Implicit, obviously, is the fact that in this male-dominated culture, her choice suggests she was willing to abandon her relationship with him. And, in this sense, the director is hinting, if of nothing else that the gender relationships available to his countrymen are very unfair and delimited.
      Yet, given that knowledge, Sepidah’s actions and her final lie are even more detestable, and she is obviously renounced through her actions by her friends, even if Amir tenders forgiveness for her acts.
      The final nail in her coffin comes when the police discover Ally’s body, which has suddenly washed up on a nearby shore. Called to the morgue by the police to identify his fiancée, Alireza breaks down, crying uncontrollably. Did Ally deliberately drown herself for her shame in having left him? Had she desired to leave him long ago? Was she, perhaps, attempting to save Arash? No answers are given. The movie doesn’t need them. What began as a loving domestic comedy has turned into a tragic outing that has forced them to all to realize the lies they have told to each other and themselves.

Los Angeles, June 20, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Henri-Georges Clouzot | L'Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21)


calling cards for murder
by Douglas Messerli

Henri-Georges Clouzot and Stanislas-André Steeman (screenplay), Henri-Georges Clouzot (director) L'Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21) / 1942

L'Assassin habite au 21, was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s first feature film, and the 4th movie he wrote for the Nazi-run studio Continental Films—a company created, in part, to replace banned American films. Fortunately, there are no obvious Nazi propagandistic elements in this work, and some critics have observed subtle satiric moments poking fun at the Germans.

      The subject here is murder described in a comic way that almost reminds one of The Thin Man series, particularly since its central characters, the police detective Wens (Pierre Fresnay) unintentionally teams up with his wife, the hilarious would-be opera singer, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair) to solve a series of city murders committed by a man or woman who leaves behind, with each killing, a card declaring it is the work of “Durand.”
       The Mayor, the Chief of Police, and others are naturally frustrated that there seem to be utterly no clues as the identity of Durand, and demand the Wens solves the case within a few days or he will be without a job.
       At a would-be opera tryout, the over-the-top Mila Malou—a woman who not only sings her songs a bit higher than they are written and who is more than a little neurotic—is told by the opera impresario that even if she were to sing well, he could not hire her because she has no “name.”
       Determined to quickly become famous, Mila determines to outdo her husband by being the first to discover Durand’s whereabouts, but her actions, driving without lights, immediately land her in jail until Wens can show up to claim her as his wife.
       Meanwhile, Wens gets a break when an ex-con, now gone straight and working as a second-hand furniture dealer, purposely gets arrested—through a hilariously put-down of a local policeman as he sits perched on a streetlight—so that he can tell Wens privately that he found newly printed cards in the drawer of a desk recently sold to him by someone living at a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot.
       Going in search to the murderer, Wens tells his wife he is traveling, leaving a sealed letter behind in case he doesn’t return.
       He arrives at the boarding house dressed as a priest and there meets a cast of lunatics that might be at home in Arsenic and Old Lace: a bird-tweeting doorman and servant, a slightly dotty landlady, a man who makes dolls with no faces, an ex-soldier who spouts his detestation of mankind and who sees Durand as a kind of hero, a magician who sleeps in a coffin and keeps making things disappear, a would be lady-writer whose manuscripts are perpetually rejected, and blind ex-boxer and his nurse who appear to be having an affair. Each of them is strange and it seems that any one of them might be Durand.
       The fun of this film, a bit like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, lies in trying to outguess Wens and—when his wife unexpectedly shows up as a new guest in the house—Mila in determining which one is the murderer. Even Wens seems, once he has settled on the mean ex-soldier, mistaken. For although the arrested man finally admits to being Durand, police are faced with another murder with Durand’s calling card hanging from the corpse’s neck.
      They arrest the dollmaker only to be served up with another body, and Wens goes on a chase to find the magician performing a new act, which still does not reveal his guilt. Indeed his life is now threatened as the 13th and perhaps final murder.
       As anyone who has read my hundreds of reviews knows, I always reveal the entire plot, so if you’ve not seen the movie and want the joy of attempting to figure the murderer out for yourself, you should stop here.

      The revelation that Durand is not one person but all three of the men in the boarding house working in tandem might suggest that it takes an army, such as the German Nazis, to kill and rob so many people. In fact these three have been covering for one another all their lives, saving each other from school expulsion and other scrapes they encountered as children. In short, they grew in a culture of deceit that might even suggest the German nation. And in the end, after having captured Wens, they each claim the right to murder him.
     Yet, this is after all a comedy, and at the last moment, the police, with Mila in the lead, rush into the warehouse where the three Durands have trapped the detective, in order to save his life. How they discovered his whereabouts is never quite explained. But it hardly matters, for Mila has saved her husband. Perhaps now she can have the baby she desires and, after performing so significantly to the boarding house audience, give up her musical aspirations.
     This charming who-done-it is a strange offering from a Nazi film company given that it so imitates British and American cinema.

Los Angeles, June 8, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dexter Fletcher | Rocketman


look what we’ve come through!
by Douglas Messerli

Lee Hall (screenplay), Dexter Fletcher (director) Rocketman / 2019

As my husband Howard argued yesterday, after we viewed Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman: “Instead of describing the film as most critics have as a “musical fantasy,” I’d call it a “fantasia” on Elton John. A fantasia is a piece of music with no fixed form, or one consisting of tunes that many people know or recognize, which is precisely how this film reveals John's early years—his childhood as a boy unloved by either his aloof jazz-loving father or his selfish sexually-flitting mother, his early musical talents and his sudden rise to fame, his short-lived affair with his callous agent, and John's own out-of-control downward vortex into drugs, alcohol, and sex. The recent film Bohemian Rhapsody—a movie I very much liked—demonstrated Freddie Mercury’s difficulties with the first two (drugs and alcohol) but just barely incorporated his gay sexual experiences, almost hinting at his homosexuality, rather than actually depicting it.
     Rocketman takes the subject head-on, even portraying a couple of joyful gay sex scenes, in which John seems utterly open to its pleasures. But then, given John's public persona, his outrageously campy costumes, and his openly sybaritic life, perhaps Fletcher’s Baz Luhrmann-like film (as The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane argued) was inevitable and necessary. As John said when Walt Disney Studios asked that he and his husband tone down their film to allow it a PG-13 rating: “I did not live a PG-13 life style.”
    What this does to the film in general, however, is to create a structure built on a retrospective of lived events and songs that work against the emotional experiences it attempts to portray. Yes, there are beautiful moments that truly bring tears to your eyes—the moment when visiting his recalcitrant father, now remarried and with two young children, Mr. Dwight gently picks up and hugs them, as John leaves, something he never did to his first born, Reggie (John's original name); his encounter with his is disgusting mother who claims that his birth caused her to lose her husband and, when he calls her to tell her that he is gay (necessary so he is told so that she might face the press about the issue), her only response is “I knew that hon” and “You will never be able to find love”; and, finally, when, stuffed with drugs and liquor, he attempts to commit suicide by diving into his swimming pool.      
     Perhaps the very most painful moment is when his very best friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jaimie Bell) temporarily leaves him as John pleads for him to return. Yet, because of its flashback-like structure we know that things will quickly change—after all John is still performing (even if it’s a self-proclaimed final tour) and, as the movie announces just before the credits, he has now been sober for 38 years, found love with his husband David Furnish, and is raising two boys. Along with his great wealth, "who could ask for anything more?" Well, John clearly did, and so might we watching this biopic.
     Fortunately, the infectious performances of the mostly singing cast, particularly Taron Egerton—who unlike Rami Malick in Bohemian Rhapsody does not lip-sync his songs—make this film a joy to behold. From the moment of John’s first big break-through at Los Angeles’ Troubadour night club, where the performer almost literally defied gravity while playing the piano and singing with rock singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Crosby, Stills & Nash (all three) and others in the attendance, anyone who loves music cannot help but enjoy the film, despite the narrative interruptions. Indeed with songs such as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Your Song,” and “Rocket Man,” who needs a back story? John’s music set to Taupin’s hot-house lyrics tells its own story of John’s desperate need for love and kindness, and his pained suffering for seldom being able to obtain either.      
      As he points out at one point in the movie, even his dearest friend abandoned him after John’s stunning Troubadour concert for a woman he picked up at Ma Cass’s party. It is clearly one thing to be celebrated on the stage, and quite another to be cared for at a party which he seems so desperately alone in the strange world of early 1970s Los Angeles.

      It is almost as if, having left the stage and when the lights have gone down, the man Elton John no longer existed, but returned to the unloved boy of his childhood. His handsome agent John Reid (Richard Madden), who temporarily lit up John’s life (the cliché is purposeful), basically used him as a money-making machine, having forced John into lifetime contracts and abusing him by demanding he perform impossibly large venues week after week. It is only when the needy boy still alive in this adult man can temporarily walk away from it all and seek psychological help that he can again move forward. As he tells to the institute counselor, he has probably tried every drug in existence, and, one might add, drunk every liquor available.
      Strangely, for all this film’s honesty about his sexuality, it does not appear that John, unlike Mercury, had sex with every man he met, perhaps saving his life. Surely, he recognized this, working thoroughly with his AIDs charity. But it is clear from this film that the now 72-year old (my age as of last week) has had to battle hard to get where he now is, stumbling like most human beings, through an obviously conflicted life to get there. His story might almost be titled what D. H. Lawrence named his book of poems, Look What We’ve Come Through!

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Liv Ullmann | Miss Julie


and…then…or
by Douglas Messerli

Liv Ullmann (screenplay, based on the drama by August Strindberg) and director Miss Julie / 2014

Liv Ullmann’s version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie begins with a young girl reading an account about her now dead mother before wandering through the estate house in which the young lives with her baronial father and escaping back into nature where she enacts a scene right out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet wherein Ophelia floats with the flowers in suicide. In fact, one almost suspects that, in this case, the young unhappy girl might attempt the same act; but we have the entire drama to go through before she actually accomplishes that act and, finally, rests on the riverbank amid flowers.
       What Ullmann makes clear is that this child is the same willful woman that we encounter in the rest of the work. Julie never truly grows up, remaining a tortured child throughout her life. Like a child, the adult Julie (Jessica Chastain) whimsically orders around her valet, John (Colin Farrell), as if he were a tin soldier with whom she was playing—a doll she loves and hates simultaneously. She simply cannot comprehend that a rather complex figure exists behind the necessarily obedient man, and when she finally comes to that recognition, after he has sexually abused this virginal child-woman, it is all too late. She has been destined to carry out her suicide from the very first scenes of the film.


      Almost inexplicably, Ullmann has shifted the location the play from her homeland of Sweden to Ireland—perhaps simply to accommodate Farrell’s homeland brogue. Certainly all the characters of this drama create an acting ensemble that is near perfect. Yet it makes little sense given that the events of the day in which John seduces her, or she seduces him, is Midsummer’s Day, a Swedish holiday that takes place when the sun never sets and, a bit like Mardi Gras, the wealthy celebrate with their servants, inviting them into their homes and embracing them in dances. Perhaps the Baron has purposely left the house so that he does not have participate. Does Ireland have such a festival day?
      Accordingly, much of this film is innately about nature, but like Strindberg’s original and the other great Miss Julie film by Alf Sjöberg, Ullmann’s characters hardly get out of the house in order to enjoy the sun; yet I’d argue that the kitchen-based drama is after all a claustrophobic work, and the brittle interchanges between them are as dark as the internal bowels of where John and the Baron’s cook, Kathleen (Samantha Morton), live.
      In all the productions I’ve seen of Miss Julie I’ve never been able to comprehend why John is engaged to the somewhat more elderly cook. But Ullmann attempts to explain it better than the others. Samantha is a loving and reliable woman of John’s class—a very central issue of this play. Yet the far more worldly John and the religiously devout cook still appear to be an odd match. And even he describes the fact that he has loved Julie from his childhood on and his had his share of young women during his life, particularly when he worked at a Lake Cuomo hotel in Switzerland, where he has also learned French.
      Ullmann opens up the role of the cook to a far more nuanced portrayal, showing us her behind-door tears and worries and demonstrating her innate morality by allowing the woman to give less poison to Julie’s dog—whom Julie wants dead simply because she has evidently bred with a stableman’s dog (a brutal expression of the horrors of the class structure in which Julie has grown up). When Kathleen admits to Miss Julie that she hasn’t administered the full poison to the dog, Julie turns the beast into a servant’s dog by handing it over to the cook. In expanding Kathleen’s role, Ullmann slightly ameliorates Strindberg’s misogynistic view of women.
      What Ullmann quite successfully accomplishes in this kitchen-bound drama is to show up the possibilities of both Julie and John’s closeted world by constantly moving her camera and characters to and through doors. Perhaps there has been no film director more aware of the power of opening and closing doors since Ernst Lubitsch. Even as they speak, characters are pushing toward doors before they retreat and return to the metaphoric boxing ring. And early on in this film, Julie taunts her foe by attempting to force him out of the kitchen by inviting him into the home’s environs, where he obviously feels uncomfortable. Of course, those large halls and rooms are her domain. He begins that interior voyage before bolting and returning to the room in which he finds more comfort in eating the kidney’s Kathleen has cooked up especially for him. In short, if she wants to seduce him, she must enter his territory. The war between them will not be fought, so he symbolically declares, on foreign territory. When he takes her virginity it will be in his bedroom, not hers.
      From the very beginning, as I previously mentioned, this is a story of the struggle of the classes as deeply felt as Karl Marx’s tract. Sex is only a camouflage, another kind of power-struggle embedded in the deeper class struggle. And Ullmann focuses on that battle more deeply than even Strindberg. Instead of the romantic love Julie might have imagined after sex, John demands that she steal her father’s money (it is fascinating that the valet knows where he hides it, obviously alluding to John’s watch-and-wait attitude all along) and join him in Switzerland in creating a hotel. The valet even suggests, at one point, that Kathleen come along to become a sort of head-cook in the imagined establishment.
      For a few moments (or seconds) each character of Ullmann’s version imagines various alternatives of “And…Then…Or,” before giving them up and returning to their old ways. Kathleen begs John to attend church with her, quickly abandoning any of her belief in any other world than the spiritual. And, although John is still enchanted with his first vision of Julie, he soon recognizes that there is no possible way out, particularly with the woman he now calls a “whore,” throwing the money at her before the Baron returns, leaving behind his knife so that she might accomplish what has been destined years earlier.
     As Ullmann seems to suggest in an interview in The Guardian, the tragedy of Miss Julie is that none of them can truly interrelate with the other, can recognize the other as a human being and admit their sorrow for their acts.

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

Monday, June 3, 2019

Guy Green | Light in the Piazza


neither circle nor square
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein (screenplay, based on the fiction by Elizabeth Spencer), Guy Green (director) Light in the Piazza / 1962

Yesterday afternoon, for the 3rd or 4th time, I again saw on the TCM television channel, Guy Green’s 1962 film, Light in the Piazza, based on the short novel by Elizabeth Spencer. One of my favorite film guides, Time Out Film, described it as “a terrible film.”
    Now having seen it several times, and having experienced the enlightened musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guttel, I’m not at all sure I’d totally agree.
    True that the late career actress Olivia de Havilland seems to be more of menace than the loving, almost over-doting mother she is supposed to be. It’s almost as if she got a bit confused and played a version of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte a couple of years before it’s premier. And Rossano Brazzi has perhaps already seduced too many American innocents such as Katherine Hepburn in Summertime and Jean Peters, before that film, in Three Coins in the Fountain. And despite his generally credible performance as a young wealthy Italian, George Hamilton, is still a bit of a stretch. And I must admit, I find it really difficult to believe the often overwrought Yvette Mimieux is truly intellectually challenged, let alone mentally retarded.
     Yet, like Hepburn’s Summertime one is seduced by the Italian (in this case Florence landscape), as are the characters. The young Clara Johnson, despite her stated role as a mentally challenged young girl of 26 is absolutely in love in life, ready to learn a new language (and far more successfully than I might have done at that age), and who falls in love, most naturally, with an equally youthful 23-year-old (and perhaps just as mentally challenged) youg Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli. There is absolutely no way to part them, even though both Meg Johnson and Signor Naccarelli at various junctures attempt to.
     These young people, as confused, bewitched, and bewildered as all young people in love, simply cannot keep their hands off of one another. And their love infuses them with a power that no matter how protective either of their families are, destined for one another; despite even a devious detour to Rome, where Meg meets up with her delinquent business husband, Noel (Barry Sullivan), determined to derail any future for his daughter—and one might argue his wife—no one, not even their over-protective parents, can stop it.
      Even Meg perceives that in a loving Italian family, where her daughter might be embedded in familial affection, ignoring her eternally young enthusiasms, she might be protected and loved. And, it appears that her would-be lover Fabrizio is just as innocent and lost in into a romantic world of which he has no knowledge of reality. But then, isn’t that what love is truly all about? Young people in love are all Claras and Fabrizios, having absolutely no idea of where are going given their own lack of mental facilities. The “mental retardancy” of which the film hints is always what love is about.
     Although this film doesn’t explore it as it should, Clara’s mother Meg is just as confused and off-kilter as her young daughter is. After all, Brazzi has always stirred up deep emotions in unloved older women (and not so older) that takes them to places they might never have imagined. Unfortunately, de Havilland doesn’t quite go there. Her stirred-up emotions goes no further than an argument with her unloving husband that it might be better to protect her daughter by giving her hand in marriage than speaking the truth about her mental inabilities.
      The truly wonderful thing about this film is that we never for a moment really believe that Clara is truly incompetent. She learns languages, she enthusiastically embraces love; what can be wrong with her? The only problem that Italians can conceive is that she is older than they thought. At 26 is she a good catch for their 20 (actually 23)-year old son?
       Even the temporarily outraged Signor Naccarelli perceives that they are destined to be together, she eternally young and innocent to receive the equally innocent love of his younger son.
       This is not a film about a mentally-retarded girl quickly married off to a wealthy Italian family, but the story about all of youthful love, of how confusing and utterly astounding love really is. No, this is not a “terrible movie,” unless you read it quite literally. This is a film about children finding their way through the maze of definitions, of strictures, wrong perceptions, and labels put upon them by the equally confused adults around them. In their love perhaps the adults might find a way to redeem their own lives.
        In the end, the piazza is neither quite a circle nor a square, but an arcaded gallery where love can find cover.

Los Angeles, June 3, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).