Wednesday, July 31, 2019

John Sayles | Sunshine State

nature on a leash
by Douglas Messerli

John Sayles (writer and director) Sunshine State / 2002

If there were ever a question of independent director John Sayles’ ability to gain a wider popular following, certainly his 2002 comedy-drama Sunshine State should push away all doubt. While Sayles’ film, in its focus on several different families in the small Florida town of Delrona Beach and environs, is rather convoluted, but its characters (all excellent actors) draw you into a world that is gradually being wiped away by developers, while whose leftover denizens are fighting the impossible battle of maintaining a status quo.
      The film begins with a group of wealthy retiree golfers, led by comedian Alan King, who, like a Greek chorus, cynically tell of the changes happening to the area (filmed mostly on Amelia Island, Florida), luring in just their kind. As King or another of his group describes it, the developers are putting “nature on a leash,” taming the wild growth and animal life of this outlier paradise, into a place where the well-to-do can finally feel comfortable. It is a familiar theme in contemporary life: big business against small. Japanese director Kurosawa could have made a different version of this film.

     Yet the beach’s founders and survivors are also tough; after all they have been forced to be living a community so small that everyone judges one another, and public survival is expressed in ridiculous celebrations such as the current mayor, Francine Pinkney (the wonderful Mary Steenburgen) attempts to create in her annual Buccaneer Day Parade. One of the earliest events of the film, in fact, is the burning of one of that parade’s floats, set afire by a young, likely-to-be arsonist named Terrell Wilkins (Alex Lewis), obviously unimpressed by Ms. Pinkney’s annual celebrations—and perhaps rightfully resentful of them, particularly since she represents mainly the white folks who have settled this community. Pinkney, when later we actually see her “celebrating” her made-up event, looks so pained in the process of awarding to Wisconsin folks the treasure chest of jewelry and gift cards that we are forced to perceive the community charade. A bit like the stereotypical southern “bitch,” she smiles constantly while carefully revealing her detestation of the visitors she is supposedly celebrating.

    Although this film is very centered on the difficulties of the present, however, it is even more grounded in the past. Not only are most of its figures the original inhabitants (in modern times) of this island, but they are trapped by their commitment to the world they created. The central figure of this movie, Desiree Stokes Perry (Angela Bassett) returns to her mother, Eunice (Mary Alice)—now the caretaker for the problem-boy Terrell in the nearby black community of Lincoln Beach)—after years of living in the north and now having married a handsome man, Reggie (James McDaniel), an anesthesiologist—in a not-so-very-subtle reference to his gift of putting people to sleep, or, in Desiree’s case, at least making one feel at rest in the turbulent world from which she has escaped.
     Desiree, as a young girl, we discover, was one of the high-school football player (now Heisman Trophy winner) Lee "Flash" Phillips’ (Tom Wright) lovers, who, when she got pregnant, was sent away by her mother to Georgia to have the baby which died in birth. The resentment and fury of that expulsion is written on her face, even as she attempts to make amends to her mother for her long refusal to return. Reggie, a gentle being, gains the approval of the cultural fossil of well-meaning Eunice; yet we recognize the mother as an incredibly loving woman who simply could not face the community disavowal or their notions about how blacks behaved. To engage her new-charge in something creative, she demands a wooden coffin be built—a bit like Addie in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; yet, although to her daughter she may appear as a kind vulture, she is not preying on her child as much as the society has preyed on her.
     Desiree soon re-encounters her youthful lover, discovering that he is now working, on the side, for the business interests who intend to gentrify the island. Eunice is not interested in selling her house.
     At the other end of the island, Delrona Beach, a vital young woman, Marly Temple (Edie Falco) is locked into a just-as-smothering relationship with her parents, her elderly, nearly-blind father, Furman (Ralph Waite), who, after the death of her two-twin brothers in an accident, has unintentionally imprisoned her as the caretaker of his bar/restaurant, forcing her to abandon her dreams of being a marine biologist. The closest she gets to her dreams is portraying a mermaid in a local male voyeur bar. She married a no-good husband and is currently in a relationship with a would-be golfer-pro, who we quickly perceive as another future failure. Is it any wonder that she finds one of the landscape designers for the property developers, Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), to be a man of interest, even though she is extremely wary of his intentions?
       Marly might have been saved a bit from her circumstances if it weren’t that her mother (the always amazing Jane Alexander) weren’t so self-involved (others might describe her as community-centered), who runs a local non-profit theater in which she stars in roles such as Electra and other major female heroines.
       At least Desiree has supposedly escaped, but Marly has no route out, working herself to death as a bartender/manager who has so many desires to be fulfilled that she might as well be in that cage of water, performing as a mermaid, without a breath of air.

      She is finally ready to throw in the towel, so to speak, accepting the proposition to sell the bar, despite her father’s resistance. She consults her absentee mother, who is perfectly happy to talk about the sale, but who proposes so many qualifications that such a deal would be impossible. As she blithely tells her daughter, “How to you think I’ve been able to run a non-profit company for all these years?” I almost applauded and would have had I not been home alone watching this film on a Netflix loan.
       In the end, the past goes deeper and darker, as the tractors, attempting to dig up the “wild” land of the island, suddenly uncover sculls, those of the most ancient of the areas’ citizens, original American Indians, whose sudden appearance turn the entire area into a space of national significance. Golfers beware! You have no right to play through this hallowed ground.
       Finally, it seems a little bit simplistic to simply have the issue resolved by history itself. Yet that has been the subject of the entire film. History, the past, memories, investment in the culture are the subjects of this work. The strong women, all the film’s characters, have been fighting all their life to make a meaning in a world apart from the mainland, which attempted to attract visitors with ditties such as the Irving Berlin song which closes this movie:

Everybody sings of the sunny South
That's the song that clings to the singer's mouth
They ragtime it and boost the climate
Way up to the sky
Never cared a lot for the Swanee shore
There's another spot that I'm rooting for
I've been there and I must declare
It can't be praised too high

If I had my way, I'd always stay
In Florida among the palms
With its peaceful air of "I don't care"
And lazy atmosphere that calms
My one favorite haunt
Is a palm tree, and all I want
Is someone just to rest in my arms
I'd love to live among the bamboo huts, the cocoanuts
There's something in the climate that charms
Heaven's corridor is sunny Florida
Home of the shelt'ring palms

Los Angeles, July 31, 2019
Reprinted from World Film Review (July 2019)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Asghar Farhadi | Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows)

nobody knows anything
by Douglas Messerli

Asghar Farhadi (writer and director) Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows) / 2018, USA 2019

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s most recent film, Everybody Knows, begins a bit like Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, with so many family members and guests arriving simultaneously at a location that it is nearly impossible for the viewer to sort them out. In fact, in both cases, that is the purposeful effect. Like unknowing guests we arrive on the scene in which everyone else seems to know “everything,” and we are blinded almost through the first third of this beautifully-filmed work by our imperceptions. Perhaps that initial sense of confusion caused critics at the Cannes Film Festival and upon the American release in 2019, to keep their distance from this Farhadi masterwork, or perhaps it was simply fact that the arthouse director, in this case, was working in a language not his own, within a far popular genre, a thriller-mystery.
      The reviews seemed generally polite, but to my way of thinking, did not do justice to this complexly stimulating work.
      Those early scenes are obviously overwhelming. Who are all these people? And why are they gathering with their wives, husbands, and children in this small Madrid suburban town? We soon recognize that Laura (Penélope Cruz) has traveled the furthest, without her husband, but with her two children, Irene (Carla Campra), and the younger son Diego (Iván Chavero), from Argentina, evidentially the for one of the first times since she left the small community with her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín).
       We soon recognize Laura’s sisters Mariana (Elvira Mínguez)—who reveals that she and her husband are in the process of divorce—and her younger sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta) who is about to marry Joan (Roger Casamajor). And we are just a quickly introduced to the father of this clan, the widowed and stubbornly independent-minded Antonio (Ramón Barea), so advanced in age that we might almost imagine this could become a kind comic work about dying. Altman might have turned it into that.
       It’s not. At least not literally. The family is, in fact, not the real focus of this work, although they certainly capture the majority of the frames early on. For the real relationships in this work exist not in the present, with the marriage of Ana and Joan, but in the past and in the future, the last of which quickly slaps this film into motion as the carefree teenager Irene suddenly encounters a young local boy, Felipe (Sergio Castellanos), with who, almost as suddenly as they arrive, she goes on a wild motorcycle ride through country roads, she at the helm. We almost perceive immediately that the film is truly about her and fears for the dangers which she may encounter.

      Yet Farhadi, as always, is a sly story-teller, slowly enveloping the entire community into this tale about love past and present. As the young couple wind their way up the staircase of the local church—naughtily opting out of the wedding of the couple just below—Irene discovers that the walls of the past contain the legendary loves of the time, mostly just with the initials Americans might have carved in the roots of trees. One of them reveals an L and a P, which Felipe reveals stands for Laura and a now-local wine grower, Paco (Javier Bardem), who is his uncle. Suddenly, we perceive that the interwoven texture of those early scenes represent the entire natural image of this community, each vine inter-weaving with the others, sustaining and choking out the past those vines represent.
       I read a recent article about how trees interconnect with one another through their roots: and this is a literal rendering of that. These individuals all know each other far too well, and far better than any outsider might ever be able to. We, the audience, are simply the visitors to the wedding and its after-events, far too slow to comprehend the love, bitterness, and hate that the village itself has nourished. As Paco tells his workers very early in the film, you have to keep the newly picked grapes away from the others if you intend to create a great wine.
       But we know, even as outsiders, that the problem is that in such a community the past can never separated from the present. When Laura’s daughter Irene suddenly goes missing, the kidnapper(s) leave a terrible message in the form of newspaper clippings from another past kidnapping, in which evidently the young girl had been killed. The kidnappers reassure her that if she goes to the police, Irene too will be murdered.
       By now, of course, we have entered the domain of Alfred Hitchcock, and the desperation of family members, all of whom have their own theories, reaches to the heights of The Man Who Knew Too Much—except in this film everybody knows too much, or, at least, think they do. For a more reasoned logic, Laura must turn to her youthful lover, Paco, who advises her to pretend that she is attempting to raise the money the kidnappers demand—despite the fact, she is forced to admit, despite the village perceptions, her husband and she have no money, he having been unemployed for the past two years?
       Like an onion being pealed, bit by bit, we discover what even we’re not sure are truths. Is Irene actually Paco’s child, as Laura ultimately claims. Did she sell the estate which Paco has turned into a profitable enterprise at an enormous loss, simply to escape the town or the need to run on with her current lover? And why are the kidnappers now sending messages to Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie) as well?
      When she finally summons her husband, Alejandro, to return, he too seems almost like a suspect, although an unwitting and rather naïve version of such a figure.
      Although “everybody knows everything” in this community no one seems to know anything really. Was it someone close to the family, a group of angry workers from Paco’s fields, even Paco himself—particularly if he knew of the paternity of Irene? These are the questions the film keeps demanding that we consider.
       Perhaps simply out of guilt or playing bluff, Paco offers his estate for sale, never imagining, one must presume, that such a sale would have to take place in order to bring back Irene.
       The truth, in this world, is almost too difficult to reveal, and, as Farhadi himself has suggested, the real truths, despite what we finally hear, exist out of the film’s frame. Did Laura herself arrange for the kidnapping in order to punish her childhood lover, to find money in order to survive with her current husband? You need to see the movie and make your own conclusions. Yet however you might interpret it, there are no longer any easy answers.
       Nobody knows truly what made these figures act the way they did. Perhaps not even them. The film ends with Laura gently unwrapping Irene’s legs and bringing her back into family love. We can only suspect that, in fact, she has introduced her into another generation of secrets of love and hate.

Los Angeles, July 21, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Satyajit Ray | সীমাবদ্ধ Shimabôddho (Seemabaddha) (Company Limited)

the company way
by Douglas Messerli

Satyajit Ray (writer, based on a novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, and director) সীমাবদ্ধ Shimabôddho (Seemabaddha) (Company Limited) / 1971

Although Ray has long made films that deal with the social and political conditions of his native India, Seemabaddha seems a bit different simply because of its comic treatments of those issues, seldom spoken about in the reviews that I’ve read. At least my favorite guidebook, the Time Out Film Guide recognizes it as a satire.
      The film begins, in fact, with a parody of a quite ridiculous advertising promo for the fan-making company—playing with notions of “hot” and “cool”—for whom the film’s ambitious but quite guileless sales manager, Shyamal (Barun Chanda), works. Coming from a small provincial town, where he had studied with his wife Dolan’s (Paromita Chowdhury) father, Shyamal has moved up quickly in the small company’s ranks, and he now even aspires to one day be the company’s director. This is after all the growing metropolis of post-colonial Calcutta, where, while most live in total poverty, an increasing number are attaining significant wealth.
     Shyamal and Dolan live in a stylish company-owned apartment which they delighted to be able  to reveal to Dolan’s visiting sister, Tutal (Sharmila Tagore) along with their attendance at stylist restaurants and parties, their purchases in the very best stores and hair parlors, and their regular visits to the horse races. They have proudly become the new “colonialists” and are determined to take advantage of Shyamal’s savvy and eagerness to achieve their new life.
     Having retained her far more provincial upbringing, the lovely Tutal feigns disinterest and even some apparent disproval of their new lives. Yet, Ray cleverly reveals that beneath her outer surface, Tutal is not only impressed with but envious of her sister and brother-in-law’s sophisticated world. As even Shyamal admits, perhaps he should have married his wife’s sister.
     Quietly, and without event, we see the sister and brother-in-law warming up to one another. And even the audience perceives this company man, somewhat akin to the central figure of Frank Loesser’s Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying of 4 years earlier, as a highly likeable anti-hero. This Calcutta new-comer, moreover, does indeed know his new business and is trying desperately to succeed.

    He’s just procured, moreover, a very large order of the company’s fans to Iran on the condition that they are delivered on time.
     Ray’s movie takes a long time to actually jump into the inevitable nosedive that all such wide-eyed idealists must face, and the film spends a great deal of time in building up Shyamal and Dolan’s fall. But suddenly the moment comes when he is told that the numerous fans about to shipped are all defective. A small painting job has rendered them unusable.
     A bit like the J. Pierrepont Finch hero of the musical, everything quickly turns dark, as Shyamal must suddenly cook-up a new story to protect the company’s and his image. It appears that the only way out of the contractual clause is if there is a political or social upheaval, which the sales manager and his cronies stage, bringing the company’s workers to strike and nearly killing a night-watchman.
     The company is shut down, giving the employees time to re-touch the fans and successfully ship off their order, allowing Shyamal to maintain his position.
      But we can only ask: “at what cost?” He and Dolan may be able to maintain their new lifestyle, but we realize that the budding relationship with his sister-in-law is over, and any true love he might have found will return to the provinces. And, finally, we perceive that despite all of Shyamal’s clever strategies he probably does not have a great future in that fan company. Too many people now know about events, and he will never rise among their ranks to become to company’s leader. Indeed, he is locked into a pleasantly meaningless life of hair-dressing salons for his wife and outings together at the horse tracks.
      In a sense, the benefits he has reaped have locked him into a place where he cannot deny them but perhaps no longer enjoys the sweetness they once offered. In the musical, Finch went on to become the head of the board, but we only must wonder how long he and his wife Rosemary enjoyed the company’s spacious apartment, so far from the simpler life of New Rochelle housewife she had imagined for herself. And living in Calcutta, Ray’s couple must everyday face the disparity that separates them, through lies and manipulation, from the rest of the city’s population. Yes, Shyamal did marry the wrong sister, a woman who might have helped to take his youthful energy in a very different direction.
     Like so much of satire, in the end Ray’s deft work leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.  

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Fernando de Fuentes | El prisionero 13 (Prisoner 13)

arriving where you began
by Douglas Messerli

Miguel Ruiz and Fernando de Fuentes (writers), Fernando de Fuentes (director) El prisionero 13 (Prisoner 13) / 1933

Fernando de Fuentes’ Prisoner 13, one of a trilogy of his films devoted to the Mexican Revolution, is often cited as one of the best of the first generation of Mexican filmmaking. And there is most certainly a great deal to like about this movie.
      The “hero,” if one can describe him as such, is a drunken womanizer and generally bad-tempered district military leader, Colonel Julián Carrasco (Alfredo del Diestro), who almost before the film establishes his character loses his wife Marta (Adela Siqueiro) who tired of his abuse leaves him, taking his young son, Juan, with her. Marta and son “disappear” so that Carrasco cannot find them, and the child grows up to be a handsome and obedient young man (Arturo Campoamor) who courts his girlfriend sweetly through her metal-barred window.
      Yet as the revolution progresses, Marta is understandably worried for him, particularly when he goes out at night to woo his lover. Bad things are happening, and soon after we see a military sweep and arrestment of the revolutionary leaders, some of them in the very neighborhood of Juan’s girlfriend, Lola (Alicia Bolaños), ordered by the governor and carried out by Carrasco’s thugs.
      Locked away in a room, these men know their fates—they will soon be shot—most of them bravely standing up to that fact and others terrified by the prospect. Although we get too few scenes and very little knowledge of their guilt or innocence (all seem to accept their guilt), some of these scenes are the most touching of this film. A father reassures his son, their leader sits alone pondering his fate, others urgently whisper conspiratorially. Outside crowds discuss the arrests, quickly escalating the numbers from a dozen to hundreds. Fuentes shows us the terror that all feel in the city and the horror of those who attempt to make change.
      Yet there is another aspect to this movie that, at moments, is almost comic. First, Carrasco is a bumbling fiend, his desk holding, at all times, a bottle of whiskey or rum and a large humidor that looks like a giant dildo, as if to certify Carrasco’s own uncertainness about his macho behavior. Secondly, even though the military leader refuses to see any visitors, his now closed chambers are easily intruded upon by his wealthy drinking buddy, Signor Zertuche (Luis G. Berreiro) who has been approached by a wealthy woman, Señora Martinez and her beautiful daughter who together offer money and, through the daughter’s flirtatiousness, possible sex in return for the release of their son and brother, one of those arrested, Felipe Martinez.
     Zertuche not only takes their bribe but, after contacting Carrasco, convinces him to release the prisoner, take in a large sum of money—which, in order to raise, the Martinez’ must sell their ranch to the bank for a fraction of the price it is worth—and contemplate a continued friendship with the boy’s sister. Unsurprisingly, he will rake in another 4%.

    Yet, since he has already sent the list of those to be executed to the governor, Carrasco is terrified that his act will be uncovered. Clever Zertuche suggests he simply arrest another man who looks like Felipe and execute him in his stead.
      This 1933 film is, obviously, a somewhat preposterous melodrama, so that when we discover the anonymous man the military arrests is Carrasco’s missing son, Juan, we are not completely surprised. And the last third of the film is quite dramatic and heartbreaking as we watch the young innocent, now surrounded by the suspicious revolutionaries, attempting to sort out the reality of his sudden new fate, a transition as in all great drama from love to death, having been transformed into Prisoner 13.  Is he truly different from the others?
      When Marta discovers what has happened to her son, she, like the Martinez women before, joins forces with Juan’s girlfriend, Lola, attempting to visit her former husband—without much success since Carrasco has retired for the night, and his guards not only disbelieve Marta’s claim of marriage but are terrified of waking the beast for whom they work.
     By daybreak, the military brigade have already gathered the prisoners in the courtyard, and have sorted them into groups, to be shot.

   Marta spends far too much time talking about other things before she finally is able to explain that Juan is now among the revolutionaries about to be executed. And we are near certain that, despite Carrasco’s made rush through his own executioners, to save his son, he will not make it in time to save the boy. In the distance, we can hear the guns go off.
     Had Fuentes left it there, the irony and tragedy of events—or perhaps even the righteousness of it, comparable to God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac to demonstrate his belief—this piece may have stood as a masterwork of its time.
      Yet the film doesn’t end there, but with the utterly preposterous notion that the drunken Carrasco has dreamt the entire action, in a continuation of the first scene of the film. Finally, as his friend has long suggested, he decides to lay-off the booze, throwing the bottle to the floor.
       All one can imagine is that whatever was in that liquor sent the would-be villain into a mind-bending trip into the future—or, and unfortunately, more likely, our director was a coward, still terrified several years after the revolution, that he might be himself arrested for his visionary statements. But in doing so, a moving drama has been turned into a story like those of O. Henry. And a potentially great work of cinematography converted into a kind of campy and, yes, comic, satire. The trip may have been good, but I simply didn’t like the destination.  

Los Angeles, July 18, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Danny Boyle | Yesterday

an existential cry about the forgotten
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Curtis (screenplay, based on a story by Curtis and Jack Barth), Danny Boyle (director) Yesterday / 2019

Of the three Beatles movies of which I write, the most recent, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is certainly the most fantastical. In a sense Boyle’s film, with a script by noted screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill). As The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane argued, Curtis’ film writing has always been about the possibility of people who love and need each other not “coming together,” or coming together too late for their effective collaboration to make sense.
       In Yesterday, the coming together did actually happen, but is inexplicably wiped away (along with a few other events, the Harry Potter books, for example) in a twelve-second global blackout, during which our unlikely hero, Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), whose bike is hit by a bus and is sent hurtling through the air.
       Up until this moment Jack has been a mediocre Suffolk musician whose concerts are attended primarily by a straggling group of four or so friends. Even desite his manager's love of him and support, he is convinced his career is ended.  His guitar-based compositions just don’t have the magic necessary to allow him a career. “It would take a miracle,” for his dreams to become reality, he declares.
      But waking up in a hospital bed results in just such a miracle, particularly when he discovers that no one around him any longer remembers the Beatles. A Google search results in nothing but pictures and information on bugs. The songs of the fab four no longer exist and no one on earth, apparently, has ever heard them.
      Jack urgently attempts to put their songs back together, recalling the Beatles’ music, sometimes with great difficulty—his parents and family friends, for example, keep interrupting his piano rendition of “Let It Be,” suggesting that he change the title to “Leave It Be”; at a later point record executives suggest he change the song “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude”—as resurrects their repertoire and begins to performs it with great success. They are after all, amazing songs—and to give him his due Patel, performs them quite brilliantly.
      Indeed the casting of a Britisher whose parents were of south Indian origin (his mother lived for a while in Zambia and his father in Kenya), is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of this film. You don’t have to go across the universe to appreciate the Beatles, their songs breathe everywhere they exist. And Patel’s renditions of “Yesterday” and “Back in the U.S.S.R” are among the best. But the very audacity of this kind of everyday man becoming the sole repository of the Beatles’ albums is more than a little touching. No mop-headed boy/man is often scruffy-bearded Jack.
      As Malick becomes popular he is soon approached by the noted singer Ed Sheeran (playing a fictional version of himself) who invites him to be the opening act at one of his concerts.

     Curtis’ films are all about impossible dreams come true, so you know that Malick will soon become famous and be tempted by fame and big money, in this case by the absolutely brilliantly acted wicked-witch of an agent (“You make the money and we take most of it”), Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), whose entire face reveals her every evil fancy that crosses her empty mind.
      All this is great fun, that is until Malick is trailed by two others who somehow also survived the “blackout” and know that he is a plagiarist. They explain that they don’t care as long as he continues to keep the Beatles’ music alive. They even pass on a secret address, which Malick visits, encountering a totally happy John Lennon, who, with his wife, makes art (shades of what might have been his life with Yuko Ono had he not been tracked down near the Dakota by his murderer Mark David Chapman).
      Yet Malick is also is being tracked down by his own conscience and is being trailed by his ex-manager girlfriend, who needs to know just how committed he is to the money and the fame he has already achieved.
       Patel’s rendition of the Beatles’ song “Help” in the midst of this crisis is so intense and poignant that I heard that pop tune in a new way for the first time in my life. The Beatles sang it as a kind lark, a staged trauma that one might imagine them feeling, surrounded by their thousands of girl-admirers and their endless commitments. For Malick it becomes an existential statement:

Help! I need somebody
Help! Not just anybody
Help! You know I need someone


Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being ’round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?

In his singing, this is a truly angst-driven song, a desperate plea for someway out of the world in which his has found himself and cannot easily escape without destroying his own life, those of others, and the lovely music he has brought back into being.
      I almost wish the movie could have ended there, in a complete lack of resolution. Once you tell so many lies, perhaps there is no way out. And it would have represented a brave statement of irresolution that most movies are missing these days.
    But Boyle’s film is also a fantasy. And Malick, shocking everyone, admits his plagiarism and returns to the love of his life in a literal rather than metaphorical (as in Across the Universe) rendition of the ditty “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” life, apparently, just going on.

Los Angeles, July 16, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Julie Taymor | Across the Universe

nothing changes
by Douglas Messerli

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (screenplay, based on a story by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Julie Taymor), Julie Taymor (director) Across the Universe / 2008

I have to admit, even before I begin this review, I am not a great fan of Julie Taymor. As beautiful as her giraffes, lions, and other animals might have been in The Lion King, it’s simply not my kind of theater. Her Broadway Spider Man was an absolute disaster, and her more recently presented revival of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly did not last very long.
      Her 2008 film, Across the Universe—despite the apparent approval of Paul McCartney and Yuko Ono—was my least favorite film of that year (an exaggeration of course!). Howard, my companion, loved it; I hated its ridiculous narrative circling around 34 songs of the Beatles. Seeing it for the third time again the other day, I still stand by my original assessment of it being the worst movie possible with the best score imaginable. I’m not fond of jukebox movies and stage musicals, especially when you weave a totally unbelievable tale around absolutely glorious music.
      I can’t even begin to find a way to describe the absolutely ridiculous plot of this tale. Besides it doesn’t matter. Let’s just agree that it involves a Liverpool shipyard worker, Jude (Jim Sturgess), who leaves his English girlfriend, by enlisting in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in New Jersey to find his unknown G.I. American father before settling down in a New York City East Village enclave with a midwestern refugee, Lucy Carrigan (Evan Rachel Wood), a tough living, hopeful singer landlord, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a slightly waspy but rebellious Max (Joe Anderson) and others, including the Detroit refugee Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), whose young brother was killed in the Detroit riots. Max becomes a taxi driver, Jude an artist, and Jo-Jo a player in Sadie’s would-be band. They’re all quite good as singers and performers, and Taymor’s photography is quite lovely.
      But the story is so improbable that, even with the Beatles’ lovely songs, the entire endeavor becomes ridiculous. Bill Irwin, Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and Selma Hayek all make cameo appearances, along with many others. But it’s all hokum. And the film can’t even bring together its frayed fringes.

     At moments the film tries to be a statement about the Vietnam War, at other moments a kind of Rent-like embracement of the Hippie movement. At still other times it’s pure nostalgia concerning a loss of roots, which finally gets the immigrant Jude kicked out of the country. One thing that Taymor makes crystal-clear, somewhat sadly, is just how unpolitical the Beatles’ songs essentially were.
     The emphatic singing by Jude of “Nothing’s Going to Change My World” as his beloved Lucy gets more and more involved in the political issues of the time, particularly at Columbia University, makes it quite apparent that the Beatles’ were about love and psychological interchange rather than political challenges, despite Lennon’s sweet plea (not in this film) for “imagining a better world.”
     The real issue here, as ridiculous as the story presents it, is simply “love” (“All There Is Is Love") and the film ends in a giddy rendition of  “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" instead of any sense of political conscience.

     Jude is simply a lover, not an intelligent being involved in what, at least in Taymor’s fragile imagination, are the intense political issues of the day, simply attempting to win the hand of his girl.
      Sadie and Jo-Jo entertain the entire community with their rooftop performance which the mean-tempered police try to close down. But music and love survive the day in Taymor’s confection. Pretty to imagine. Pretty to see. But absolutely empty.
      I happen to feel that this truly amazing pop band might have had far deeper convictions thatn anything this director conveys. At least I hope so. If not, bring on the giraffes! Which Taymor almost does.
      Poor Lucy “in the sky” doesn’t need her diamonds to make us realize how flimsy this film truly is.

Los Angeles, July 15, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

Friday, July 12, 2019

Christopher Münch | The Hours and Times

giving allowances
by Douglas Messerli

Christopher Münch (writer and director) The Hours and Times / 1991, USA 1992

Christopher Münch's 1991 black-and-white film about a weekend vacation to Barcelona with John Lennon and The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein is, like the other two “The Beatles without Beatles’”
I review, a fantasy. Yet this one has a special poignancy, because it truly might have happened even in a slightly different form.

     Epstein (David Angus), a sophisticated, culturally acclimated gay man traveled with the gum-chewing Liverpoolean Lennon (Ian Hart) to Spain in 1963 for a few days, presumably to allow Lennon to get some rest and, just maybe, become a bit more worldly, since together, and least in this telling, they did visit several Gaudi buildings, museums, and films.
      In The Hours and Times the director toys with the possibility that the street-smart singer might have been somewhat curious, despite his own heterosexual marriage to Cynthia, about gay life. It wouldn’t be the first time that heterosexual men have toyed with and even explored the LGBTQ world. And Münch presents Lennon as a highly intelligent, if a bit course and uneducated man, who’s a tart wit, at times, and is most certainly curious about the world around him, even if he expresses utterly no interest in seeing Barcelona; for him it could have been any city in any country.
     The fact that he trailed along after the ascot-wearing Epstein into strange territory is highly intriguing, and Münch subtly steers his queer-friendly film around the possibilities, while makes no claim to suggest that anything sexual between the two ever occurred.
     In fact that is precisely what makes this such an insightful work. The director saw it as a kind of exercise in thought, never expecting that such a movie would get any distribution or even receive permission to be shown. Rather amazingly, it won the Special Jury Recognition award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
     During the flight to Barcelona Lennon flirts with a more-than-attentive stewardess, Marianne (Stephanie Pack) inviting her—despite Epstein’s discouragement—to visit him in his hotel when she returns to Barcelona two days later. After all, Lennon proclaims to his knowing management, you have to give me “allowances,” to which Epstein grumbles that is always what he always does.
     Yet when the two travelers actually do reach their hotel destination, Lennon brings up the subject of gay sex—Epstein’s sexuality being a open secret— suggesting that he sometimes thinks about trying gay sex but imagines it would be too painful.
     To diffuse the tension, Epstein suggests they play cards, and Lennon returns to his own room alone, receiving a call from his wife, whom he appears to treat quite badly despite her insistence that she misses him. Lennon seems to miss only his son, Julian, and hangs mid-sentence.
     The next day Lennon actually suggests that Epstein take him to a gay bar. The bar, more a “gentleman’s club” than what we might today describe as a gay bar, is almost empty at the hour, except for Quinones (Robin McDonald), a gay man who is married, a fact which Lennon finds intriguing. Quinones, clearly interested in Lennon, takes them back to his hotel room, but they soon leave, Epstein furious with Lennon’s flirtation, describing the man as a fascist and an anti-Semite, subtly apparent in the stranger’s questions and demeanor.
     Frustrated, Epstein goes to bed, but not before casually asking the hotel boy Miguel if he might perform oral sex. But when the boy queries him, Epstein proclaims he was just joking. Like Lennon, he receives a call from a domineering woman: his mother.
     During a tour through the city, Epstein encourages his protégé to speak about his relationship with Cynthia, but it is clear that Lennon is uncomfortable discussing such things.

    Returning to their rooms, Lennon is determined to take a bath while playing his harmonica. The manager enters the room, sitting on the edge of the tub before the musician asks him to scrub his back. As Epstein does so, Lennon unexpectedly begins to kiss him, and Epstein, totally encouraged by event, undresses and joins the Beatle performer in the tub. The kiss continues for a few moments before Lennon stands up and bolts.
      Lennon is what we call in the gay world a “come on,” a flirtatious being who will not/cannot carry through—the most frustrating of all people. Yet Lennon takes this even further, receiving a phone call from the returned Marianne, whom Lennon immediately invites up to his room, leaving Epstein to suffer alone again in bed.
     Yet even Marianne, amazingly intelligent and spunky, does not necessarily offer herself up to an easy “rape,” making that possibility political: “Our country rapes another country.” She also describes the musician as tormenting his manager.
     Yet she has brought a present for Lennon, a Little Richard record, a singer who Epstein had asked to lead for a Beatles’ concert the year before these events. Given Little Richard’s effeminate exaggerations, his choice of wearing make-up and other feminine clothing, and his fascination with voyeurism, it is another subtle reminder to Lennon that his macho behavior may not get him very far in this world. His evening with Marianne ends with a quiet dance to that record.
      The following day the singer and his manager turn the discussion to Epstein’s own life, who explains he was sent by his mother to Barcelona as a young man after he’d been robbed and blackmailed by a man he’d encountered in sex. And here the film seems to shift slightly as Epstein almost appears to ask for a date—even if it’s far into the future, 10 years from now, “no matter what you are doing.” Lennon agrees to thank about it. It’s a little bit like the top of the Empire Building date in An Affair to Remember, and this fictitious Epstein even seems to hint of it when he later takes Lennon to his favorite roof-top place, revealing that he has loved their time together.
      In the very next scene we see Lennon sleeping next to him in bed. Münch is not so much suggesting that the two have sexually “come together” so to speak, but that they have come to a kind of arrangement, a comprehension of their differences and desires. It is strange that, as they plan, on their final day to attend a bull fight, it is Epstein who is worried about whether or not Lennon might be too squeamish to watch, suggesting perhaps that the gentle soul here is Lennon not Epstein, who is a hearty man experienced in the pleasures and terrors of the universe.
      The above might simply sound like a recounting of the plot. But this film is about its details, in the negotiations such different people, who still admired and loved one another, make with one another in order to get on. And it is almost a study in the torments of the sexual frames we put around ourselves and each other. In this case, both were seeking a kind of fluidity, even if they might never find it.
     Accordingly of the three fantasias on which I focus—The Hours and Times, Across the Universe, and Yesterday—this film is perhaps most honest, and the closest the The Beatles’ real world, however unknowable and insane that might have been.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2019
Reprinted from World  Cinema Review (July 2019).