Wednesday, August 28, 2019

John Huston | Let There Be Light

vulnerable young men

John Huston (writer and director) Let There Be Light / 1946, released 1981

As a Major serving in the US Army Signal Corps, film director John Huston, was asked to focus the last of four films he did for the government on what today we describe as posttraumatic stress disorder among the soldiers returning home for World War II.

     Huston searched out locations from the West to the East coasts, but apparently determined on the largest facility on the East coast, Mason General Hospital on Brentwood, Long Island, not only because of its size but because it was closely located to the Army motion picture production center in Astoria in the Queens of New York City, and because the psychiatric doctors there were open to the idea of his filming their interactions with the soldiers, and claimed that those patients who were filmed actually fared better, not only seeing their changes in their health, but their own interchanges with others who were similarly suffering—although actually from a wide range of PTSD disorders, loss of memory, stuttering, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, etc.
      The overall appearance of this documentary, filmed in the manner of governmentally produced promotional movies, is course, as the narrator (Huston himself) nearly shouts out the problems faced by these very likeable young men, who remind me so much of the kind of soldiers discussing their fears and reservations after the War as in Gertrude Stein’s perceptive Brewsie and Willie.

     Although the psychiatrists are clearly well-meaning, their loud intonements, their quick-to-analyze language, and their simple lack of, sometimes, gentility, can only trouble us today. At times they appear to find their analysis of their patients better that the soldiers’ own struggles to deal with their psychological conditions.
     Yet they do seem to cure a young man, through hypnotism, who could not even recall his name after the trauma he encountered with the Japanese bombings on Okinawa, to remember not only the events that occurred, but his name and life before.
      A second figure receives an injection of sodium amytal, putting him also into a hypnotic state, so that he may walk again.
      An analysis of the letter “s” helps another soldier to begin to recover from his stuttering.

     If these quick doctor/patient encounters are not always convincing, their group psychotherapy sessions in which they gather to discuss their problems and the doctors’ open reassurance that anyone from home who had had to encounter what they had would have had similar problems. Yet even here, the soldiers’ testimonials of the good care they have received at Mason General seem promotional rather than truly honest.
      We do see them, however, at work as artists, musicians, and mechanics (each to their own) as they attempt to reintegrate themselves into everyday life. These interchanges with reality and daily activities do seem genuinely to improve their well-being, at least in Huston’s insistent telling.
   In short, despite the truth-telling the movie often engages in, we still recognize that this is somewhat a piece of post-war propaganda, a movie desperately attempting to tell us that these troubled men, who have suffered the deaths of those around them and the fear of their own demise can easily be reclaimed and brought back into the general society. Either such services are not successful today, or, perhaps, not as readily offered. But when we see those upon whom the movie as focused being joyfully bussed back to their homes, we also glimpse a fairly large group of others, waving them off, who apparently have not yet been able to recover from their traumas. And one cannot but help shed tears for those who are still left behind. Or even be assured that all those who have deemed to be recovered will not continue to wake up in the middle of the night in fear and terror and infect their family members and future children with some of those memories.
      Despite Huston’s basically positive picture of their traumas, however, we cannot but doubt that these PTSD survivors will suffer some of their physiological horrors for the rest of their lives. If these men have come “to see light,” they may likely continue to see the darkness as well.
      Evidently, the Army feared that as well, and refused to release this 1946 film until 1981, when it was shown at Cannes. Huston, himself, argued that the US government wanted every man who fought in World War II to be seen as “warriors” who came home even stronger than they had left—although it is apparent to everyone who sees this film and who has lived with a War survivor, it was not the truth. My own father’s basically right-wing politics and his homophobia are clear products of that war. My feeling has always been that as a handsome young air force bombardier, he had been approached by another young soldier and been terrified by the sexual complications, along with his own feelings. If, as Tom Brokaw has described these men, they represented “the greatest generation,’ they were among the most vulnerable, men who burrowed down into the society to which they returned to make life better, while sometimes never able again to ask themselves about their values, their relationships, and their own very palpable fears.
      What is most truly remarkable in Huston’s film are the words these often shocked and confused young men honestly (and we presume without prompting) to speak for themselves. Their own inabilities to comprehend why they have come through in such bad shape speak volumes in a subtle youthful babble: “I was supposed to be the front leader when my buddy died, but I was behind him”; “when I first began to stutter everyone laughed at me,” and numerous other comments reveal just how their bodies and minds have closed down after what they had witnessed—and not just the horrors of war, but the stark differences between their upbringing and the world into which they had been so suddenly thrust. Even the strongest of them must have felt utterly confused, my father, a farm boy, among them. Is it any wonder that their ties with their squadron members and close compatriots were sometimes as binding as their relationships with their own families? They grew up and died with one another. Who else could comprehend that?

Los Angeles, August 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2019).

Los Angeles, August 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2019).

Monday, August 26, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar | Hable con ella (Talk to Her)

guys and dolls
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Hable con ella (Talk to Her) / 2002

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film, Talk to Her, is a work of subterfuge, a film pretending to be about one thing while actually being about many other things. We’ll begin with the two male figures, Benigno Martín (Javier Cámara) and Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti) who first encounter one another at a performance of Pina Bausch’s dance number Café Müller, in which two women mirroring each other crash into the walls, one of them finally losing control, as she cascades into rows of chairs which a male dancer attempts to quickly move out of her way.
      In a sense it is a kind of metaphor for both the destroyed women in Almodóvar’s film with Benigno serving as the male who attempts to make things easier for the berserk female dancer. In this early scene Benigno observes the man next to him, Marco, crying with tears of empathy for the women whose lives have obviously been destroyed.

     Benigno, it turns out is a male nurse and beautician, caring for a dancer whom he has obsessively watched in her dance studio through his window while he was caring for his dying mother. By accident he is assigned the same young dancer, Alicia Roncero (Leonor Watling) after she has fallen into a coma, from which she is unlikely to come out of, since she has been hit by a car.
      It is clear that Benigno has had very little experience with women sexually, and he seems almost like a shy but curious boy who first actually meets Alicia after she drops her wallet. He retrieves it and gives it back to her, but in the process notices that she lives in an apartment building where her father is a psychiatrist, with whom he quickly makes an appointment in order to get closer to Alicia. At the first meeting with her father, he sneaks into another room, stealing a hair clip belonging to Alicia. But the two, Benigno and Alicia, do soon begin meeting, finding a mutual interest in dance and silent films.
      In caring for her in the hospital it soon becomes apparent that he is a more than excellent nurse, cleaning her, doing her hair and her nails, and most importantly, talking to her as if she were still coherent. Her father, accordingly, after asking about Benigno’s sexuality—perhaps simply to protect his job, the young man responds that he is gay—hires Benigno as her personal caretaker, a role which he lovingly embraces, often spending nights as well as daylight hours with her.
      The second male, Marco, a journalist, gets himself assigned to interview the famous female bullfighter, Lydia González (Rosario Flores); she meets with him but grows suspicious when he admits to having very little knowledge about her art, and demands he leave her off at her home. As he begins to drive away he hears her scream and stops his car. She runs to him, telling Marco that she has found a snake in her kitchen, which, open entering her house, he quickly kills.

     Despite all of her fearlessness in the ring she his terrified of snakes and refuses to even return to her house. A relationship does also rise between the two of them, and it appears that, having been left by her former boyfriend, Niño de Valencia (Adolfo Fernández), also a bullfighter, she and Marco may develop a relationship. She has something to tell him, she reports, but not until she has finished the day with her bulls.
      During one of the fights, a bull suddenly gores her, and she also falls into a coma, from which the doctor suggests it is unlikely she will awaken.
      It is here, at the hospital, that Benigno again encounters Marco, he attempting to help the bereaved male deal with Lydia’s condition; he needs to “talk to her,” he assures him.
      So it appears two straight men are caring for woman they hardly know, obsessed with them, and, as critic Robert Ebert perceptively adds: “Almodóvar treads a very delicate path here. He accepts the obsessions of the two men, and respects them, but as a director whose films have always revealed a familiarity with the stranger possibilities of human sexual expression, he hints, too, that there is something a little creepy about their devotion.” Clearly these two men are not only obsessed but are treating these unaware women to the male gaze, to voyeurism, and possibly even sexual abuse, a situation we have to deal with when it becomes apparent that Alicia misses her period and is found to be pregnant.
      Yet this is not simply a kind of soap opera concerning another series of incidents of patronymic behavior. For these two empathetic males, although in control of the situation, are actually under the thrall of these two females. I would argue that in real life, both are slightly terrified of women, and in that sense, despite their lack of recognition, they are gay. Women are only available for them when they no longer exist as living, acting beings, as sexual toys, in a sense, who can no longer speak back to them, challenge them, question their male sexuality.
      Despite the critical agreement that this is the director’s most sexually normative film, I’d argue it one of his most explorative films into what sexuality truly amounts to.
       These two men are brothers not just in their fears and inexperience with women, but they play the traditionally feminine roles, while their would-be lovers are the dominating forces in their lives. Benigno is clearly a mamma’s boy who doesn’t quite even comprehend what a woman is about. Alicia is no more than an inflatable sex doll for him, not a true woman. He is the caretaker here, the one who can make women beautiful out of some idealized vision of them. Marco is a fragile male who is attracted more to Lydia’s masculine characteristics, her ability to fiercely stare down running bulls, than to her feminity.
       What Almadóvar is suggesting, of course, is that all of our cultural notions of what males and females are utterly pointless. These are not straight males or women for that matter (Alicia, for example, has been carefully taken under the wing of her teacher, Katerina Bilova (Geraldine Chaplin), hinting at a possible lesbian relationship, while Lydia has taken up the most macho role in Spanish culture; the only thing she fears are snakes. Freud might easily be able to tell us why.
       Benigno is sent to jail for his presumed perversity, and ultimately commits suicide, perhaps at the very moment when Alicia comes out of her coma when she produces a stillborn. With Lydia’s death Marco no longer has a subject about whom he might write—except perhaps for his strange friendship with Benigno.

Los Angeles, August 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2019).

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Akira Kurosawa | 白痴 (Hakuchi) (The Idiot)

a world with hearts of ice
by Douglas Messerli

Akira Kurosawa (writer, based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky) and director 白痴 (Hakuchi) (The Idiot) / 1951

I almost have to admit that while watching Akira Kurosawa’s film The Idiot the other day, I was so overwhelmed with its images that I almost forgot its plot. I will attempt to reconstruct some of that, but it is truly not what this film, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, is about.

    Yes, the idiot, Kinji Kameda (based on Prince Myshkin) (Masayuki Mori) does return home to Sapporo (similar to the cold icy world of the original), and meets Denkichi Akama (based on Rogózhin) (the always wonderful Toshiro Mifune), and the two women with the lecherous men surrounding them appear, each of them a bit startled by Kameda, described as an idiot simply because—after escaping death as a traitor—becomes determined to never again hate any man or woman. He, like Erasmus’ Christ and the totally innocent character brilliantly played by Peter Sellars in Being There, is a kind of holy fool, a seeming simpleton, who perceives a truth far beyond what others can.
      Akama is returning home to his receive his inheritance and to his youthful love, Takeo Nasu (Stesuko Hara), who in his absence has been subjected by the abusive Tohata (Eijirō Yanagi), who has basically taken her as a lover from the age of 14 (echoing these days a Japanese version of the American monster Jeffrey Epstein). Afraid that his behavior will bring him down, Tohata is willing to provide a dowry of Y600,000 to Mutsuo Kayama (Minoru Chiaki), the man to whom she is now engaged, but the intruding youthful admirer Akama offers Kayama Y1,000,000 not to marry her. Taeko, perceiving herself a completely fallen woman, is confused until the visiting idiot, Kameda looks into her face to find the truth of her inner being: stating that she is a good woman, still untarnished despite her childhood and current sexual abuse; as he puts it “You’re not that kind of person.”

      He even invites her to stay with him, even offering marriage, but she refuses, in part because she recognizes his purity and does not wish to abase him, dangling out the idea of a possible marriage with Akama.
       And, yes, there is another woman whom Kameda has transformed, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), a young girl who is now interested in marrying him, but only after a visit with the woman she perceives as a potential rival. As the Criterion commentary puts it, with great understatement, “the meeting does not go very well.” Nasu falls to the floor and is killed by the jilted Akama.
       Plot, in this case, says nothing. And in Kurosawa’s film is almost just an operatic gesture. What really makes this film so significant, one of this director’s most important films I’d argue, are the numerous icy landscapes, which reveal the inner characters of those who, in Sapporo have learned how not to love. And the ice carnival scene in which the skating figures are masked in terrifying costumes—so reminiscent of the later Susumu Hani images of child abuse in his 1968 film, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love—is a horrifying scene of terror that laying behind the actions of the entire community. In that scene alone we come to perceive that the abuse Nasu has suffered, the attempted murder of the “wise fool” Kameda, and the final murder of the beautiful Nasu, are not just incidental events, but something in which the entire ethos of the community secretly supports. This is a world with hearts of ice.
       It probably should not be a surprise, given what I’ve just described, that this film was a failure in the theaters and almost ended Kurosawa’s career. The studio insisted upon a cut of almost 100 minutes from the original 3-hour release, and that version has apparently now been lost. The cut I saw, the best available these days, is the only version, still amazingly powerful. But what might we have discovered about this great Japanese director’s vision from the full original?
       This is a nearly obsessive film, and you can perceive in every one of its frames just how effected Kurosawa had been by Dostoyevsky’s original fiction. Abuse, love, envy, and the endless results of those obsessions are at the heart of the film and drive it passionately forward in a way that later in his career, warrior figures, battling out their hates in vast fields of struggle, would replace with the inner psychological struggles of these characters. If Ingmar Bergman had been Japanese, he might have created just such a film.
Los Angeles, August 21, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2019).

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska | Honeyland

hatidze’s bees
by Douglas Messerli

Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska (directors) Honeyland / 2018, USA 2019

As one reviewer commented it is almost hard to believe that the new documentary Honeyland, set in a almost totally unpopulated Macedonian territory, is not a scripted film art-film. But when you realize that the filmmakers Ljubomir Stefany and Tamara Kotevska spent three years with their subjects, working in a hut without any indoor lighting in the house of a middle-aged women (Hatidze Muratova, who looks alas far older than her years) and her dying mother, Nazife, you begin to perceive that the golden tones you are witnessing are those of firelight, of natural lighting, and the landscape itself.

      Much of the goldenness of this film has to do with the major activity of Hatidze, beekeeping. She attends to bees, always in natural locations (a hidden beehive high in a mountain pass, another in a local tree), the buzzing hives members almost seeming to recognize her gentle relationship with them: she takes, always, only half of their honey, leaving the rest for them to survive. Although she has a bit of smoke to protect herself, they never seem to bite her. Indeed, she, in her ochre blouse and deep green scarf, seems to take on all challenges with great aplomb, including the caregiving to her 85-year old mother, who can no larger even sit up. As her mother, herself, realizes: “I’m not dying, I’m just making your life misery.”
       When she acquires enough of the precious honey, Hatidze bottles it, traveling by train to Skopje to sell the precious amber liquid, at a high enough price, evidently, that she and her mother can purchase what they need to survive on for several more months. Winter, when the bees grow dormant, represents a clearly difficult period for the couple, but during the spring, summer, and fall, this is truly a kind of honeyed-land.
        And it may have remained a land of “milk and honey” until the caravan of Turkish neighbors suddenly arrive, setting up camp next to her and her mother’s hut, with a passel of hungry children, a trailer truck, and an entire herd of scrawny cows.
        You might have thought that the quiet and secluded Hatidze might have met their sudden intrusion with fury, but instead she greets them with friendship, even taking one of the neighbor Hussein’s young son into her confidence, explaining how to be an expert beekeeper by taking only half of everything they produce so that that they can survive as a colony. He is entranced by her gentle explanations and is almost ready to become the son she has never had.
        But his inattentive father soon brings in dozens of beehive containers, delighted when he suddenly finds, after selling some of the honey, that he can now properly feed his voracious family. But soon after, egged-on by a city speculator, he becomes determined to produce an almost impossible amount of honey, obviously saving none for the bees themselves who bite him and several of his children, quickly moving on to kill Hatidze’s bees.
       At one point, her new neighbor even cuts into a tree in which the bees have long inhabited, stealing some of the honey upon which Hatidze and her mother have counted to help support their meager lives. Without even having to speak, the film makes the dangers of inattention to nature and the greed of intruders in such a natural environment. I suspect that these filmmakers had not even imagined that their original movie about a sort of sacred creed with the natural world would turn into a moral lesson for those who have no respect for that world.
      Although the Turk’s cows begin to calve, most of them die, which Hussein claims is due to the inattention of his wife but is more likely a problem of the lack of sufficient corn and other foods with which he feeds them.

     Meanwhile, Hatidze and her mother, without their major source of living, are forced to eat the Macedonian version of gruel, which Nazife refuses to swallow, throwing her bowl to the floor, which their dog happily laps up, while Hatidze, herself now near starvation, attempts to sweep up the remainder onto her own plate.
       With the death of the neighbor’s cows, Hussein and his family quickly pack up and move on. But as winter settles into this outpost, Nazife also dies, and Hatidze is forced to bury her mother while, without obviously saying so, she is left with very little to eat. At one point we see her scooping up the snow for something to drink.
        As spring slowly returns, we see Hatidze return to the high mountain retreat with which the movie begins. Her bees have come to life again, as she carefully removing only one honeycomb, while leaving the rest. She eats half, sharing the other with her pet dog. She will survive, we comprehend, better off alone, or at least without her uncaring neighbors.
        This Macedonian film is clearly an unattended metaphor for our lives here in the US as well, except that it’s not the “outsiders” who threaten us as much as it is from those within our country. Bees are now dying throughout the world, and it is not only their honey that we are missing, but the flowers and other plants they pollinate.  

Los Angeles, August 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2019).

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg | Joan Rivers : A Piece of Work

Daring the Mirror to Reveal Someone Else

Steve Kemsley (director) Joan Rivers: (Still A) Live at the London Palladium / 2005
Ricki Stern (writer), Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (director) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work / 2010

Can we talk? Let me began by asserting that—however wonderfully kind, supportive, loving, groundbreaking and whatever other attribution you might use to use to describe the comedian Joan Rivers as a mother, friend, acquaintance, and performer—Rivers’ later career on stage and television was marked by an embracement of the crassest, most outré, and outrightly bigoted of American values. Surely Rivers felt she could represent herself as the outspoken supporter for all anti-correct-thinking attitudes, in part, because of her almost giddy acceptance of a somewhat absurdist Jonathan Swift-like position which she honed, with her rapier-sharp commentary, on  not only whatever her audiences thought was  beyond the limits of good taste, but outside any one’s definition of what most might imagine to be subjects of humor.

     In her 2005 performance at London’s Palladium, for example, Rivers tackled a wide range of inconceivable topics from death, suicide (both animal and human), murder, cannibalism, racial and sexual prejudice, extreme extensions of human body parts (including breasts, testicles and vaginas), bodily smells (most specifically farts), Queen Elizabeth II’s crotch, Liza Minnelli’s marriage to a gay man, her “friend” Julie Andrews’ throat damage, Helen Keller’s deafness and blindness, the 9/11 bombings, and, by implication, even the Holocaust! Where can you go from there? Perhaps it isn’t an accident that at one point Rivers stretched her body out flat upon the stage floor.

     While one might suggest that Rivers’ frenetic hate fest incorporating most of these jokes (she “hates, absolutely hates old people”; she’s convinced that all Philippinos consume their dogs and that every actor in Hollywood has had facial surgery; Anne Frank, she argues, was a “whiner” in need of a nose job; her own mother-in-law could only complain when Rivers attempted to cremate her—alive!) is a kind of black humor that has its roots in Kafka, Beckett or even Sade--even more troubling, I would argue, are the things that the fictitious persona of Rivers absolutely loves, which includes nearly every bourgeois element of what used to be described as the American dream. Rivers’ persona mostly admires beauty and money, and everything that comes with that: marriage (no matter how meaningless; an unmarried woman who lives with a man is automatically an “absolute slut!”), financial well-being, a grandiose house filled with possessions, a fashionable life (beautiful clothes, glittering jewels, and elaborate (even if time-worn furs) and, finally, as the natural apotheosis of all of these qualities and things, celebrity.

    Arguably these “desirable” things are simply the mirror-opposites of those dark forces of which the comedian makes fun, thus incorporating a gigantic satiric portrait of American life. But Rivers herself, in her own numerous admitted attempts to beautify herself through countless “nips-and-tucks” of the plastic surgeon’s knife (“I was the ugliest girl in the little town of Larchmont”), her life-time predilection for wearing beautiful gowns, jewelry, and furs, and her clear infatuation with celebrities and her own celebrity-status creates a severe problem if we might wish to credit her humor with any irony.

     When she reports that her daughter, Melissa, “stupidly” turned down an offer to be a Playboy model, berating her child and herself for refusing to do something with which she felt uncomfortable when she might have otherwise earned a great deal of money, it is somewhat difficult to know whether the joke she is telling is based on Swiftian overstatement or a real, gut emotional response. When my English students, long ago, were confused by Swift’s insistence that it may be useful for the British to eat Irish children, I could always try to point to the language itself to make his “real” values more apparent; but in the case of Rivers, it is nearly impossible, at times, to separate the artifact from the fact that she has almost become everything that she claims to value; and one wonders, accordingly, whether or not she truly hates or at least devalues all those things she claims to so honestly to speak out against.

      Her distasteful jokes and her ridiculous values are only laughable, it seems to me, if we can inherently imagine that Rivers, as a real person, is simply presenting a shtick, a series of bizarre one-liners that, at heart, represent values that she actually disavows. Yes, Sophie Tucker, may have been a coarse figure, slyly insinuating sexual fables that shocked some in her audience, but no one truly believed that Tucker was actually spending her days enacting her reports. Even the would-be femme fatale Mae West, anyone with even a little bit of perception knew, was probably more beloved by the gay boys whom she eventually incorporated into her act, than by any significantly endowed heterosexual man. Lucille Ball may have played a loud-mouthed, lying ditz, but we also recognized that she was a beautifully smart lady of great cleverness. Phyllis Diller (who, at moments, Rivers—at least in her commentaries on her married life—seems to imitate) may have dressed the part of a badly clothes-coordinated street lady, but we knew, or at least guessed, that behind her façade of self-demeaning put-downs, she was a grand beauty. The sometimes seemingly potty-mouthed “tramp” through which Bette Middler vamps, we all know is a cover-up for the sweet, slightly sentimental, gal she is at heart. As I have noted earlier in this volume, anyone with a stitch of brains realized that if Elaine Stritch was a tough broad, she was also a permanently naïve lover of life.

     Rivers celebrated none of these obviously deviously comic personae. Rivers did, in fact, look quite lovely, was well-dressed, her hair professionally retouched and cut. She looked like a lady, but spoke as if she had lived in the sewer for most of a life that she had spent scratching to get up and out.

     When onstage The Palladium she seems disappointed with the size of the purposeless orchestra (for which she claims, she had to pay for herself), we can’t imagine that she’s lying to us. She wants, she claims time and again, everything that money can buy. Her outrage for getting six and a mirror for the 12 players she ordered up—even if they perform briefly only upon her entry and exit—seems utterly genuine. Although she may perform anywhere and everywhere just for the love of an audience—several of whose members she demeans throughout her skits—we truly believe she would like the stage to be filled, as were some corners of the Palladium, with flowers and plants. A great part of her personae, in fact, depends on our belief that she is utterly honest—which is why her audiences let her escape with the numerous expressions of intolerance and hate; in a sense, she’s asked for and gained our permission to dish out the worst before she serves up what she proclaims in the best of life.

      But what if the audience, such as the English one at the Palladium, doesn’t want or even comprehend all that American straightforwardness that advertises its own ultimate ugliness of moral values and convictions? What if her audience doesn’t know who Paris Hilton or the countless other irrelevant “celebrities” Rivers mentions are? In several instances, the poor camerawoman of her Palladium performance seems to have had almost jump over seats with camera in hand to show us a few laughing youths to create any sense of response.

     If nothing else, you have to give Rivers credit for walking that tightrope between who she pretended to be and who she just might been night after night. At times like the ugly Queen in Snow White, Rivers dared the mirror reflect back someone else.

     The above comments were in reaction to watching the Joan Rivers video of her performance at the London Palladium, which I watched after the news of her death last week, after she suddenly stopped breathing during minor surgery. For the same reason I also took time out to view the 2010 documentary about Rivers made by directors Annie Guldberg and Ricki Stern.

     That film, both directly and indirectly, brought up many of the same issues I discussed above. On one the level the film portrayed an absolutely level-headed and smart business woman struggling to keep her career going long after the age (75) at which most comedians and actors have given up any hope of performing. There is something endearing about a woman who cannot imagine retirement, and who clearly is a fanatic about her ability to continue doing what she loves most, to stand upon as stage (“The only time I am truly happy”).

    Despite admittedly difficult times with her daughter, Melissa, moreover, the documentary makes clear that Rivers deeply loves her and, despite the career—which Melissa argues stood always as another “being” in her mother’s life—worked hard with her husband Edgar to give her a “normal” life.

   Certainly, Rivers admittedly plays the Diva (even if the Diva is often lonely), but she is also absolutely humble in her willingness to take on almost any job offered her, including ads for Depends adult diapers and gigs in small towns such as the one we witness of her performing in Wisconsin. As she makes it clear, given the fact that she must pay not only for her only quite lavish penthouse life, but helps with education and support of several relatives, she needs money. But money seems almost secondary compared to her need to be “loved” as someone who daily makes people laugh.

   If on stage Rivers “hates” the old, children, and even those who suffer, every Thanksgiving morning she delivers (this year with her young grandson) meals to those who, ill and dying, cannot get out of their apartments. In the afternoon, Rivers invites relatives, friends, neighbors, and even a few homeless people to dine with her.

     Even if Rivers comes off as psychotically insecure and needy, in short, she is also presented as a savvy and loving individual who comprehends precisely the outsider comedic vein she is mining. When, during her Wisconsin performance, an audience member virulently reacts to one of her jokes about the deaf (he has, so he announces, a deaf son), Rivers abuses him right back, insisting upon her right to use anything to make human beings chuckle; but later she admits that he comprehends his hurt. She has, after all, made her career, as she puts it, “going into places you shouldn’t go.”

     And despite the shell of toughness she near-perpetually projects, we also glimpse throughout A Piece of Work, the difficult times—Johnny Carson’s refusal to ever speak to her again after she took on a show on Fox Network, the suicide of her husband Edgar, and the overall ups and downs of her career—which has helped, as she admits, to make her “furious about everything” that is not right and just in the world. As an agent reports, Rivers is stoic in her insistence about “standing out in the rain” to wait for the lightning to once again strike.

    Yet watching this sensitive film, one is also struck with just how perverse Rivers’ personal values are. Her penthouse may represent great wealth, but in its faux Marie Antoinette French interiors it represents a kitsch ginger-bread conception of great wealth (“Marie Antoinette would have lived here if she could have afforded it?). The gold leaf upon its walls, it short, may really be gold-leaf, but the whole concoction represents no one’s personal taste as much as it does a taste acquired by someone who has leafed through too many lavish decorators’ catalogues. In her own home, we recognize, Rivers lives in a kind of stage-set—even if all the objects in it represent the “real” thing—as Henry James might have joked.

     In fact, beyond the obsession to recreate her own body, Rivers, an astute observer easily perceives, never lived in a “real” world. Everything in her life was an image of an image; language for this comedian was never something that actually might create reality but merely something that stood in, like a metaphor, for some reality lying always just outside her grasp.

    Perhaps the most telling moment of this sometimes brutally honest deconstruction of the Rivers “semi”-legend comes when she begins to describe her love of acting. I always wanted to be an actor, she claims. “I got into comedy only as a way to make money so that I could act.”
     In short, Rivers herself is a work of “art,” is not a real being, but something she has herself created. Her career, she insists, is an actress’ career, and “I play a comedian.” We must admit that as a comedian-performer she certainly gave her all, literally “dancing as fast as she [could].” But sadly she interpreted her audience’s laughter—and no one’s jokes better fit Henri Bergson’s definition of laughter being intertwined with hostility or even hate—as showering her with acceptance and love.

     Sadly, it becomes apparent, when Rivers looked into the mirror there was, most often, absolutely no one there!

Los Angeles, September 17-18, 2014

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Chris Marker | L'ambassade (The Embassy)

the turn

Chris Marker (writer and director) L’ambassade (The Embassy) / 1973

Chris Marker’s short film The Embassy of 1973 begins with a few intellects fleeing to an Embassy for protection. Others soon follow, and in this pseudo-documentary, the grim and worried asylum seekers realize that they have been saved from what appears to be wholesale slaughter simply because they lived nearer to the embassy than did the workers.     
     At first, despite their fears, the group bands together. The Ambassador of the unknown country to whose embassy they have fled, not only finds rooms for them and is graciously willing to feed them, but joins in on everyday tasks such as vacuuming their rooms, demonstrating a deep sense of commitment to their cause and for their protection.
      But gradually, the unknown cameraman who films their gathering, begins to note the group’s dissatisfaction and, we perceive, some of these presumably leftist allies break up into smaller parties, arguing with each other. These students, intellectuals, artists, and politicians react differently to the radio reports they hear.
      Group games, played to pass the time, grow into conversations that turn into serious political debates, some arguing for more involvement, others for less; some criticizing the others for their political actions, others praising themselves for their positions. And soon they all begin to perceive that, in some senses, they have been part of the problem.
      Gradually, through the jerky cinéma-vérité scenes portrayed in the film, we begin to realize that, perhaps, it is the very fact that these leftist refugees have not worked together in the past that has enabled the right to take over, killing so many of their countrymen.
     As critic Dennis Grunes observes, the situation becomes similar to “the sixties U.S. Twilight Zone episode in which Agnes Moorehead wars with tiny alien invaders, who it turns out are the U.S. military.” The would-be heroes are, in fact, the “enemies” through the very fact that their inability to agree has allowed the fascists to come to power.
      Marker brilliantly tricks us in other ways as well. Since we do not know who these people really are or in what country they live or at what embassy they have sought refuge, we can only speculate on the situation. Marker himself, in his personal life and films spent a great deal of time with the Chilean refugees in Paris after the 1973 coup, resulting in his 1975 film The Spiral. Accordingly, we might not be mistaken in imagining that this may be the French Embassy in Chile, particularly since the refugees continue to express their shock that the city has turned silent, that news has disappeared, that even what they can see from their windows reveals no signs of human life. Clearly, we must be in an internationally lesser known capital city.
      Yet, here again, the director shifts the reality, as, when the refugees are permitted to be spirited out of the city, it appears that they are really in France, and that, in this fiction, it is Paris itself which is the location of the coup. The smugness of the left—to which I see myself aligned—is yet another “turn” or “spiral,” to use Marker’s title of his 1975 film, which has allowed its own destruction.
      Seeing this film during a year in which the American right had taken over, attempting to destroy all progressive Democratic advances achieved by President Obama, I could not help but shutter a bit when seeing Marker’s political parable. Surely, we (those of us who argue, often bitterly against one another, for liberal policies) had helped to allow the barbarians to take over our cities and to rule our estate—even despite our majority.

Los Angeles, August 2, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2017).

Monday, August 12, 2019

Creeley film "For Will"

Creeley film.

Paul Wendkos | Gidget

gidget goes yiddish

Frederick Kohner Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 1957)
Gabrielle Upton (writer, based on the novel by Frederick Kohner), Paul Wendkos (director) Gidget / 1959

My editorial assistant, Pablo Capra, grew up in Malibu near Topanga Canyon, so it might have been natural for him, I imagine, to grow up as a surfer; in truth, he tells me, he discovered one of his passions only in at the age of 20, after he had returned to the U.S. from a lengthy stay in Austria, the homeland of his father. His small press, Brass Tacks, primarily publishes works about and by Malibu figures, and one of his best-selling titles is a book on the surfing culture. It figured, accordingly, that among his friends was the model for the popular book and movie Gidget and all the Gidget Goes—fill in the blanks—that followed. Pablo often encounters her when he attends surfing events.
     For several years now, I have been aware of the fact without thinking much of it. But just recently he mentioned to me something that took me a bit aback. Having read my piece about my early friendship with Isaac B. Singer, Pablo casually mentioned one day that Gidget—whose real name is Kathy—had also met Singer and cooked him a vegetarian meal. Her husband, Marvin Zuckerman, so Pablo told me, was a professor, a scholar of Yiddish, and had translated, with a friend, an older collection of somewhat raunchy Yiddish sayings, which they titled Yiddish Sayings Mamma Never Taught You. They’d already gotten a quote for the book’s cover by Henry Miller, and wanted one, as well, from Singer, since he was one of most well-known and last of the great Yiddish writers. Seeing that Singer had been invited to speak at a Ojai summer camp for Conservative Jewish college-age women, Zuckerman went to the leaders of the camp and got himself invited to the weekend events, where he chaired a panel on Yiddish poetry.
      In Ojai he met Singer, gave him a copy of his Yiddish Sayings, and offered to drive the writer back to Los Angeles to the airport, on the way inviting him to lunch at the Zuckermans’ Pacific Palisades home. He called his wife, Kathy, who invited her own and Marvin’s parents to join them as well.
      The event, so I have since read, was a joyful one, if not terribly eventful; but it did lead to Singer composing a short comment for the cover of their book and resulted in the elderly author reading the Gidget novel, writing back that he thought it was a far better novel than Nabokov’s Lolita.
     But before I even read about their encounter in an article by Zuckerman, I was astounded by the very idea of Singer meeting the original Gidget, a kind of absurdist collision, it appeared to me, of high and low culture, of old world wisdom crashing against the rocks of American pop. Of course, I had not really bothered to reckon with the fact that Gidget was no longer a boy-loving teenager but was now a handsome woman, a few years older than me. Amused by my reaction, Pablo brought me a copy of the original novel, signed “Surf On! Love Kathy Gidget Kohner,” the cover announcing not only that the book was written by Kathy’s father, Frederick Kohner, but that it now contained a forward by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman. The back cover described the story as being about “a girl’s coming-of-age in the summer of 1957” (one of my very favorite childhood years) and suggested that Gidget (named Franzie in the novel) was “part Holden Caulfield, part Lolita.” I now had to read it.
     So between studying the two tomes on the monstrous Holocaust murderer, Adolf Eichmann, discussed in “Opposing Banality” in this year’s volume, I quickly devoured the rather charming, semi-biographical story of young Kathy falling in love with surfing and the boys who somewhat reluctantly taught her. Frederick Kohner, a screenwriter, is no J. D. Salinger, just as his Gidget is no Holden Caulfield. Although told in a vernacular first person, Gidget’s tale reveals that as much as she may have felt like an outsider, she nevertheless wanted very much to be part of the culture around her, one slightly less worldly than the life of her own parents, Jewish Czech émigrés, represented. Even less happens in the novel—at least until the last scene—than in the movie, perhaps, in part, because her father wasn’t able to successfully describe the process of learning how to surf, a central feature of the Gidget franchise. Franzie tells terrible whoppers to her parents in order to sneak out each day to the beach, gets “lousy tonsillitis,”  falls “desperately” in love with Moondoggie (who in real life, it turns out, was our artist friend, Billy Al Bengston), and, in an attempt to make Moondoggie jealous, hangs out in the older “great Kahoona’s” hut. Uninvited, Gidget nonetheless attends an evening celebration described by some of her friends as an “orgy”—a word she doesn’t know the meaning of—which goes awry when several of the celebrants take torches in hand for a midnight surf and accidently start a canyon fire that threatens disaster akin to the Malibu fires of 1956 and 1958 (there were also big fires in 1970 and 1982, and in the worst fire of 1993, my friend Jerome Lawrence, who lived a short distance from the beach on Las Flores canyon, lost his beautiful canyon home and all his theatrical memorabilia). The day is saved in the fiction by a miraculous downpour of rain that immediately puts out the flames! The novel ends, accordingly, with Gidget almost becoming involved in a calamity and, later, being the cause of an intense fight between the great Kahoona and Moondoggie. Either event might have landed her and others in jail. 1957, however, was a far different time than the one in which we now exist. Despite her scrapes with danger, Gidget remains as virtuous and innocent as the “nice” tom-girl portrayed by Sandra Dee a short while later.

    The movie script by Gabrielle Upton (Gillian Houghton) understandably ditches the heavy drama of the fire, focusing instead on Francie’s (the name the movie gives to Sandra Dee) attempts to make Moondoggie (James Darren) jealous, with the younger surfer fighting the Kahoona, while simultaneously becoming aware that his hero is not someone who truly deserves to be admired. Ironically, the two teenagers later meet up through parental connections, and fall in love all over again, while discovering that Kahoona is a kind of fraud, who now will work in the off-season as a pilot instead of traveling off to Hawaii or Peru as his legend has it. Cliff Robertson as the Kahoona, in fact, saves this film from its juvenile sentimentality by hinting at far darker aspects of life. A loner who parades as a hero before teenage boys, the “big” Kahoona (he is no longer referred to as “great” in the film version) obviously gets his kicks out of serving as friend-cum-father to these surfers who obviously feel out-of-sync with the rest of their lives.

     The movie, moreover, unlike the book, actually attempts to explain surfing by showing the rush Gidget gets from the sport. The long shots (with veteran surfers such as Miki Dora and Mickey Munoz) of the surfers against the waves—as opposed to the cheesy closeups in which the cast is required to pose in silly grins with arms spread out pretending to balance against a backscreen—truly do reveal the art of the sport played out in the natural beauty of its arena. There are moments when the ocean of Southern California really does look like the paradise it always promised visitors to become.
     In the novel, the fire required the Kahoona to forever abandon his hut; and in real life, the publication of the novel and opening of the motion picture made the sport so popular that today, so I am told by Pablo, the year-round surfers openly resent the hundreds of their fellow kind, somewhat nostalgically imagining the pre-Gidget days. By the time you read this, I will have likely lived up to my promise to spend a few hours at the beach to watch Pablo “shoot the curl.”
     As I read this short novel, moreover, I also quickly began to perceive that Kathy Kohner, growing up as the “girl midget,” was also a member of Hollywood royalty. Her father had received an Oscar nomination for his 1938 screenplay of Mad About Music, and wrote several other screenplays, including an adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s fiction Victoria (which would surely have interested Singer). Her uncle, Paul, worked in the 1930s as head of the Universal Studios European division, and in 1938 founded one of the most important Hollywood agencies, representing figures such as Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Greta Garbo, David Niven, Ingmar Bergman, Maurice Chevalier, and Lana Turner. My dear friend, Ken Sherman, worked for Kohner until the great man’s death in 1988, when Sherman founded his own organization, representing Woody Allen and others. Paul Kohner’s daughter, Kathy’s cousin Susan, acted—preposterously as a light-skinned Black girl—in Douglas Sirk’s famed Lana Turner vehicle Imitation of Life. Susan’s sons, Chris and Paul Weitz, in turn, produced American Pie and About a Boy, and acted together in one of my favorites, Chuck & Buck. Paul also wrote and directed In Good Company, American Dreamz, and other works. I write of Imitation of Life and Paul Weitz’s interview of his mother at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in My Year 2009.
     It gradually became clear that it wasn’t at all so strange that Singer and Gidget had met. My own friendship with him, as the result of a course at the University of Wisconsin, was far more odd, even though I had read most of his writing at the time of the course and we shared a deep admiration for the writing of Knut Hamsun (despite the abhorrence of Hamsun’s political views).