Saturday, September 28, 2019

Clint Eastwood | Mystic River

that childhood car
by Douglas Messerli

Brian Helgeland (screenplay, based on the book by Dennis Lehane), Clint Eastwood (director) Mystic River / 2003

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River which, years after its original release, I saw for the first time the other day, is a complex movie based on a kind of standard trope: three young boys, close friends in a Boston neighborhood, grow up to become social and moral opponents in the lives as adults. It happens all the time, or, at least, so testosterone-driven male directors would like you to believe: not only Eastwood, but Martin Scorsese, even the melodramatist Douglas Sirk have all done variations of this theme.
     Yet this film is far more complex than most such films. After all, the young boys involved, Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle, seen playing street hockey in an early scene, behaving somewhat badly as they attempt to write their names in freshly poured sidewalk concrete, are suddenly accosted by a man pretending to be a police officer, who demands their names and home locations before pulling away, quite inexplicably, with Dave, demanding him to enter a car wherein sits a priest—the two of them abducting the boy for 4 days while continuously sexually attacking him—abuse is too kind of a word in this case of utter rape and sexual battery! That the male “tough” behaving Eastwood would even dare to take on this subject is quite amazing. But then this diehard Republican apologist has always been a rather surprising figure in the celebrity and film world.

     Pulled out of his natural social community, Dave almost immediately loses contact with the world he has known, and as an adult, (performed by Tim Robbins), he remains an outsider—a person who as the simple representation of the death of his youth is shown through the closure of a window blind—remains haunted by his abduction. Not that his childhood friend Jimmy (Sean Penn) is much better off; he, now an ex-con, runs a local popular neighborhood grocery and liquor store, where he is still close in touch with Dave. Not only that, but by marriage, the two are still related.
      Actually, the two former boyhood friends are also related by their manias and sense of violence. Jimmy is obsessed with the fact that his 19-year old daughter Katie (Emily Rossum) is dating a boy, Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry) whom he despises, for reasons that are not immediately revealed. But the very fact that he is still attempting to control a 19-year old child speaks a great deal about his macho persona. Certainly his wife,  Annabeth (Laura Linney) is not happy in their relationship.
     In fact, women in this drama are nearly deleted, including Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), Dave’s wife, who suddenly is intimidated to help her husband to “clean-up” after a mysterious event where he claims he was forced to kill someone who accosted him.
     The same night Jimmy’s daughter Katie is brutally murdered, her body left mutualized after Dave has witnessed her in a local bar with her girlfriends.
      The plot of this mystery/murder film gets even more complicated when the third childhood friend, Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a police detective becomes involved in the search for Katie’s murderer.
       In a sense, the different directions of these three boyhood friends now reveal their extreme differences, as Dave begins to suspect Jimmy’s involvement in his daughter’s death, while Sean, with careful deliberation, attempts to track down the murder (ers).

      The fact that the hot-headed Jimmy becomes increasingly convinced that Dave has destroyed his daughter, represents not only his mania but his guilt for not being the one who was enticed into the childhood car.
       It is as if all three boys were terribly abused that day so long ago, and none of them can let it go. At least Sean, with his partner, Detective Sergeant Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) work together to track down the true killers; yet Sean’s own wife, pregnant at the time, has left him, so we must recognize him as another failed lover, another destroyed member of this trio.
      Convinced of Dave’s guilt, Jimmy corners him and demands an admission of his activities. Hoping to free himself of his certain death, Dave admits to the murder—despite the fact that the man he has murdered was another child abuser, whom he had discovered in a car with a child. Yet Jimmy, convinced of his righteous revenge shoots the former friend in the head, releasing the body in the Mystic River of the title. In a sense, it is a revenge for his own lack of courage all those years earlier, a cleansing of his own guilt for not speaking out for his friend those long years ago, for not being the child the two villains chose.
      Finally, Sean reveals they have uncovered the real killers, two kids, one of whom was the son of the notorious “Just Ray” Harris,” the man who sent Jimmy to jail and the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. As I told you this was a very complex story.
      I might argue that Eastwood and his screenplay writer, Brian Helgeland, might have simplified their story, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. But, obviously, that was just the point: the interconnected stories of these young men are just part of the impossibly tortured tales of young men and women growing up in what Eastland shows as an almost sour sewer of the Mystic River flowing through Boston, which we later discover in works such as in Tim McCarthy’s Spotlight. That great Brahmin world of high ideals was never what it pretended to be.
     The children in Eastwood’s movies were just those kind of abused kids, who never quite recovered from their sudden abuses on the streets in which they were simply playing hockey and memorializing their names into the local pavement. They were innocents suddenly put into another world apart from their imaginations. Can you blame them for being failures as adults?

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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Sam Ashby | The Colour of His Hair

a refusal to forget
by Douglas Messerli

Sam Ashby The Colour of His Hair / 2018

British designer and filmmaker Sam Ashby’s 2018 film The Colour of His Hair is a montage of a drama and documentary, based on Elizabeth Montagu’s un-produced 1964 script about homosexuality in England, originally written for The Homosexual Law Reform Society, but, for financial reasons, never filmed, a work based, in part, on her half-brother Edward’s 1954 arrest and imprisonment for homosexuality, a charge he continued to deny despite the fact that the two other defendants in the trial pleaded guilty. Yet his imprisonment for the Buggery Act of 1533 led to a public outcry among both politicians and church leaders, who set up the Wolfenden Committee, whose 1957 report argued for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between to adults. Ten long years later, the British Parliament accepted their recommendation and homosexuality in Britain became legal.
      As Montagu himself wrote after that decision:

              In the cold war atmosphere of the 1950s, when witch hunts later called 
              the Lavender Scare were ruining the lives of many gay men and 
              lesbian women in the United States, the parallel political 
              atmosphere in Britain was virulently anti-homosexual. The then 
              Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised "a new drive 
              against male vice" that would" rid England of this plague." As many as 
             1,000 men were locked up in Britain's prisons every year amid 
             a widespread police clampdown on homosexual offences. 
             Undercover officers acting as "agents provocateurs" would pose 
             as gay men soliciting in public places. The prevailing mood was one 
             of barely concealed paranoia.

    Ashby, after a rather long written textual introduction to these events, takes simply one of the scenes from Elizabeth Montagu’s early script, acted by Josh O’Connor and Sean Hart, in which the couple are “rolled,” (“rolling the queers”) a process of sending threatening messages, clippings and other materials to gays that represented a half threat and half blackmail process, often resulting in police visits, which the police often simply presented as needs for advice, in this case one of the two, a doctor, being called to the police station over an apparent gay suicide.
     The director purposely uses Montagu’s two handsome white male professional figures, as he puts it, then “the only acceptable face of homosexuality,” alternating their inconclusive story against a backdrop of seemingly documentary interviews—filmed in black-and-white—and visits to the Lesbian and Gay Archive, as well as the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive, and The Hall-Carpenter collection, briefly displaying their large collections of buttons, Gay and Lesbian T-shirts, gay pornographic photographs, magazines, and clippings saved from newspapers of the era. These round out the story of the film’s two major figures so that we can contextualize their fears and horrors, as they attempt to determine who their blackmailer might me and whether or not they should take the matter to the police, all the time knowing that for government officials their was utterly no distinction between the criminal actions of the blackmailer and their own discreet sexual behavior.

    Even when I first came out in the US in the late 1960s bars were still being raided, and policemen often posed as gay figures in the wildly open bathrooms in Grand Central Station and in Central Park. I was lucky. I was never arrested, but hundreds of others were. And I might have been, although probably unlike England I would never have been long imprisoned, just fined or revealed to family and friends. Howard and I did that ourselves soon after.
     Ashby, aware that these remarkable archives were all materials that lesbian and gay individuals donated, do not quite testify to all those others who were not openly queer and, accordingly, go not, perhaps, properly represent that brutal time in British (and US) history when fear stalked every individual who did not fit the sexual norm.
     The title, based on a poet by A.E. Housman says it all:

              Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
              And what has he been after, that they groan and shake their fists?
              And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
              Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

               'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
               In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
               Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
               For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Natural hair color, of course, is not something one can permanently change, just as is sexuality.

     Ashby’s film offers no solutions to these atrocities or answers for the past, but does provide a sort of history which, in these days of some more tolerant behavior to the LBGT community, they may have begun to forget. As he has suggested:

           I see the film as an experiment in thinking through archives, and in some ways as a warning, too. I think that since the introduction of gay marriage in many western countries over the past decade, a lot of gay people started to feel that the fight had been won. But with the recent gay purge in Chechnya and the rise of Trump, it is becoming clear just how fragile this state of acceptance is. By marking this anniversary, we are saying that things have clearly improved a lot, but I want to highlight what is still to be done.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2019).

Monday, September 16, 2019

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | The Salt of the Earth

our history is a history of wars
by Douglas Messerli

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (directors) The Salt of the Earth / 2014

How to you film a documentary about a photographer? The mostly black-and-white photos of the great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, although sometimes rendered into video portraits, were, for the most part grand stills representing the grand suffering of  nonetheless proud people, many of whom were working in inhuman conditions or dying in large camps created by genocide and war.
     Working with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, German director Wim Wenders chose to project the master’s photographs onto a semi-transparent mirror in which the image and the man behind them are often superimposed, so that we constantly are aware of the creator of the horrific scenes, which display—far too beautifully some commentators such as Susan Sontag and Ingrid Sischy have argued—the photographer’s empathy for those dying and suffering individuals he caught
in the eye of his camera. We may not like the images we have of the Holocaust; after all they remove us from the years and months of suffering by the actual individuals, presenting us an unrelentingly objective picture of their inner psychological tortures, but these images make the history alive, make the sufferers come back to life in our imaginations. So too with Salgado’s almost impossible to watch images from the Serra Pelada mine, where thousands of minions must slide down cavernous slopes to dig out the gold ore below. As one critic suggests, this is a vision of mankind the Hieronymus Bosch might have created, a view of capitalism—despite the fact that most of these figures were legal and not truly enslaved, but simply desperate to become richer by uncovering the gold—that might even have shocked Karl Marx. This work, part of Salgado’s “Workers” series of  the 1980s, is truly represented in this documentary as a human inferno, worse that anything that might have come out of the San Francisco gold rush.
      Added to his wonderful recreation of the photographs themselves, Wenders embraced Juliano’s monochrome and color films of his own father, including the son’s personal reflections on his famous world-traveling father. For long periods of his life, Juliano was simply left at home, while his now exiled father—since a military junta had taken over Brazil—traveled with Doctors Without Borders to Niger, Ethiopia, and to the Congo, covering the vast genocide of the civil war in Rwanda. Each disaster is worse than the one before it, although the early vast camps of the Ethiopian crisis have images that one can never remove from one’s memory. One might describe Salgado’s passion to capture the sufferings of so many millions of individuals across the globe as a sort of brutal reckoning of the failures of humankind. As he comments, at one point, “Our history is a history of wars.”
      Finally encouraged by his illustrious father to join him on some of his voyages, Juliano was reluctant, but bonded deeply with him on travels to Siberia to the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
      And this, ultimately, becomes a kind of family drama when it is revealed that Salgado’s wife Lélia not only brought her husband the original camera, raised his son, while also managing her husband’s career. Through traveling with his father, Juliano comes to know him better than almost anyone, and now, in Wenders’ lovely tribute to the photographer, combines the German’s outsiderness with a glowing portrait of the man who was nearly destroyed by the “heart of darkness” he saw in the cruelty of mankind’s treatment of people who themselves were seen as outside the cultures in which they had grown up.

     After his volume Exodus, the photographer grew so depressed with the human condition that he could longer go on, having just witnessed in 1984, the famine in Ethiopia; in 1991, the tragedies of first Gulf war in Iraq; and in 1994, the genocide in Rwanda. Returning to Brazil he found that the forest on his own farms had been largely decimated, and his wife, developed a project to replant thousands of trees which became a model throughout the Brazilian Amazon forests—although in this year alone, the current Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro may have helped to destroy much of that work. What can you do with a human race that wants to eradicate anything different from themselves, who use our far dwindling natural resources to enslave others or to deny them from enjoying their benefits? There is no answer, of course.

      This movie, no matter how you might see Salgado’s sudden photographic intrusions into various deprived cultures, give us visions into the darkness of the world we have created. Yes, it does leave one shocked by its vision, but his images also represented these poor sufferers as true human beings worthy of our deep love and regard, and most importantly, our testimony, our memory.
       The movie won the Cannes “Un Certain Regard” film category. 
Los Angeles, September 16, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2019).

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Acht Stunden sin kein Tage (Eight Hours Don't Make a Day)

family life

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day) / a television series, 1972-1973, restored in 2016.

Almost every time I watch another Rainer Werner Fassbinder—and there are now very few I haven’t seen—I feel this one was his most brilliant. That’s a strange thing to say, I know, about a director who gave us so many difficult, not easy to assimilate dramas. But yet, as I’ve gradually moved through Fassbinder’s oeuvre, that’s how I feel, each new film giving me more pleasure than the past, without reducing any of other previous films in the least. I don’t like the idea of rating filmmakers, for me each of who present their own delights, but I have to admit that right now he is one of my very favorites, up there with Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais, and so many others whom I’ve so long admired.  
      If the television series I just watched, Eight Hours Don't Make a Day, delivered in 5 powerful episodes, is not his “best” film, it might certainly be described as a sort of map to all of his other films.
      I was fairly startled to read other critics describing this, more comedic and family-resolved film, as a break from Fassbinder’s far more serious and despairing films of the past and future. Again—and this often happens—I must ask what drug they’d been on?
      The New York Times reviewer, for example, wrote:

              Anyone familiar with the doomed fruit seller of Mr. Fassbinder’s “The Merchant of Four Seasons,” the luckless lottery winner of his “Fox and His Friends,” or the Weimar-era ne’er-do-well hero of his “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (with Mr. John as a villain as treacherous as Jochen is good-hearted) is forgiven for expecting the worst. While few characters in “Eight Hours” wind up dead or humiliated, it’s not as if Mr. Fassbinder’s bleak worldview has entirely gone away.
      According to some sources, the last two episodes that Fassbinder planned of his original 7-episode long TV film, were about to lower the boom on this mini-TV series, subtitled a “family series,” before its producer Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), suspended funding. Yes, I’d love to have seen all 7 episodes, but I do feel that, in a true sense, all of his works are at heart comical versions of life and death in the Post-War West German world.
      Actually, I’ve felt that even in his other films and many another seemingly brutal presentation of post-War German reality such as Fassbinder’s rather shocking Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? in which the husband Herr R. is gradually erased from the life of his family until he finally, like a revengeful elephant, does go “amok,” killing his wife’s absurd friend, his wife Lilith, and their son before hanging himself. This film ends tragically, but it begins comically, in fact, with the telling of three stale jokes. And I likened it, somewhat, to one of Joe Orton’s dark comedies.
     Similarly, here’s what I wrote about one of Fassbinder’s very darkest works, In a Year with 13 Moons, wherein the transgender Elvira tracks down the successful business-man Saitz, for whom she has made the sexual transformation, all to no avail:

At first it appears that, without one of the codes, Elvira will be refused entry [to his offices]. Yet she finally does make a guess, horrible reminder that it is: Bergen-Belsen, the A-pass. And she enters. When she is shown into a room with several men within, she turns to ask the now-genial chauffeur, which one is Saitz. The irony is earth-shattering; after changing his-her entire being and life for the man, she cannot now even recognize him.

When told that he is the thin man in tight tennis shorts, she is forced to watch an even more grotesquely comic manifestation of power. While a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movie, You're Never Too Young, plays upon a television, Anton forces his male staff to reenact parts of the tennis court scene, a piece filled, in the original, with a chorus of marching cheerleaders led by the singing duo. Elvira joins in. Their performance is hilarious, but also mad. There is not even evil here. Reality is too strange for that.

Tragic yes, but ridiculously comic as well. In every single movie I’ve seen, Fassbinder interweaves the comic, campy melodramatic scenes, and just pure theatrical absurdity with his often violent and tragic stories. So why were critics such Ben Kenigsberg from The New York Times so surprised that his TV series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, devoted to family life, should not have some of the same elements.

     There is, in fact, a kind of madness in this film throughout. The major figure Jochen Epp (the wonderfully evil character of Fassbinder’s greatest television work, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Gottfried John), here an affable working man, meets his soon-to-be lover and wife on a trip to an automat to buy more schnapps for his kitchen-guzzling grandmother, Oma Krüger (Luise Ulrich). Marion Andreas (the heavenly Hanna Schygulla) is also there, so furiously determined to buy a jar of pickles—kicking and pounding the machine for its inability to deliver up a jar of them that Jochen imagines that she must be pregnant, desperate for the taste.
      Marion is not, in fact, pregnant, although she is living with a successful young white-collar worker (an important distinction in this film), Peter (Ulli Lommel), basically a loving and caring partner, whom she immediately ditches for the more confused and far-less successful blue-collar worker who spends his days making inexplicable tools, whose purpose is never explained.
      And why shouldn’t he be a bit languid and confused, living as he does with a conservative argumentative father, Wolf (Wolfried Lier) and a lovely but far too-complaisant and brow-beaten mother Käthe (Anita Bucher), as well as the amazingly independent grandmother Oma, with regular visits from the even more disapproving, slightly evil aunt Klara (Christine Oesterlein), the truly obnoxious brother-in-law Harald (Kurt Raab) and Harald’s tortured wife Monika (Renate Roland) and their daughter. Harald believes in “tough” love for his children, which consists of basically torturing his child to make her stronger, a theme which is expressed again and again throughout this series. It is, as Marion later admits, a very “odd” family, one into which no one might want to marry.
      But then, Marion’s own mother (Brigitte Mira), flies into the picture, a bit like a bat-out-of-hell, curtailing any plans Jochen might have had to spend a full weekend in bed with his new girlfriend. Besides, she has a charming but somewhat intrusive brother who lives with her, who wakes them early and is perfectly willing to jump into bed with them to interrupt whatever love-making activity they may have imagined. Another odd family indeed.
      Beyond that, there are Jocken’s working brothers, who must fight the plant administration to get one of their own, Franz (Wolfgang Schenck) as their new foreman. And Marion, who works as a newspaper receiver for “personals,” including sexual correspondences, along with another conservative and disapproving woman Irmgard Erlkönig (Irm Hermann). In short, the “families” in this film grow larger and larger and more strange by the moment.
     Yet, quite amazingly, two figures stand out in their attempts to navigate these rocky relationships and to offer new possibilities to everyone: Oma and Marion, who quickly bond and are certainly of the same spirit. Oma also wants out of the tight family circle, and quite literally “picks up” the gentle and passive Gregor Mack (Werner Finck). Their search for an affordable apartment away from the argumentative battles of her son Wolf, lead to the discovery of a closing-down library, which they quietly usurp, turning it into a day school for kindergarten children, involving both Wolf’s daughter and Marion’s son. They are perfect for the task, and the second episode of this TV series, which features their illegal takeover of government property is one of the very best of the movie.
      And Oma, throughout, is the one to whom everyone turns for answers to dilemmas in their lives, and she, sometimes mistakenly, often crazily, but for the most part successful, creates solutions to impossible problems, including their housing difficulties, their impasse with the local government for taking over the library, and Monika’s divorce from Harald. Oma is the impervious optimist, determined to take over the most difficult issues in this family-friendly film.
      Oma is an older Marion, as the loving partner of Jochen proves time and again, solving union problems, helping her sister-in-law Monika in her times of need, and giving her utter support to her now-husband, Jocken, while even offering her office-mate Irmgard new possibilities in her life.
      Perhaps the most lovely scene of this film—a work unimaginable on US television sets even today—is Fassbinder’s filming of Jocken and Marion’s wedding scene, which, with hand-held camera takes us through a dizzying tour of white and blue collar workers, elderly and disapproving elders, and the loving and caring quartet—Oma, Jocken, Marion, and Monika—with nearly everyone totally drunk, spinning nearly out of control into a new world of possibilities.
     Except for John Waters’ more raunchy celebration in his Pecker, there has perhaps been no more wonderful party ever portrayed on screen. In this stumbling event nearly everything gets up-righted: Monika is granted by her husband a divorce and the possession of her daughter, Irmgard finds new love, Monika and the plant worker who, given his tenderness in the very first episode with her daughter, perceives that he was the right man for her all along. Oma even puts her hand in that affair later allowing the two to express their love for one other.
      I certainly can imagine the difficulties this couple might have experienced in those missing two episodes. Company openness to new ideas such as those with Jocken and Marion express can only go so far. The smoldering hatred of Wolf might eventually ignite a hostility between him and his wife and family. And Harald’s misogynistic view of the world might be expressed in new variations. The government might certainly determine to close down Oma’s and Gregor’s grand kindergarten project. And, as every male in Jocken’s factory proclaim, life after marriage isn’t the same.
      Perhaps WDR was right to pull those last two episodes—although I’d loved to have seen them.
     What this series reveals is that Fassbinder’s works were always devoted to family life, however one might define that. His views of families, lovers and friends, working partners, elderly women and their younger male lovers, secretive sexual events with sons and daughters, all are reiterated again and again in the manner in which he worked with his close-knit casts, a larger family of sorts, including his own mother, who also appears in this series, Lilo Pempeit. In that sense, Fassbinder knew well, you could kill off friends and family members in their fictional reincarnations, but they always must return to play out their lives and haunt you to the end of time.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Reivew (September 2019).

Friday, September 6, 2019

Quentin Tarantino | Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood

by Douglas Messerli

Quentin Tarantino (writer and director) Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood / 2019

My husband Howard had to do some insistent coaxing to get me to see Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood; although I’d seen a number of his films previously, I’ve never been a great admirer of his bad-boy macho heroes who spend a great deal of time on screen torturing, murdering, and quite literally torching anyone who they don’t much like.

     Yet, I am quite happy that Howard insisted, this time round, and I agreed. Once Upon a Time is also quite violent at moments, but is also a paean to the “golden” days of Hollywood, even while the “hero” of the movie, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, celebrating with her hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and the heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), all of whom, in real life, were killed by members of Charles Manson’s clan on the night in which the movie ends on August 8-9, 1969, which Tarantino hints brought an end to that golden/hippy era.
      Most of the movie attempts to recreate what it was in those days, diving into the legendary Muso and Frank Restaurant, famed drive-in movies, studio shooting sites, the popular El Coyote restaurant near where Howard and I live (one of the very worst restaurants in which I’ve even eaten), and other popular venues, such as the Playboy Mansion and the Westwood movie theater in which Tate’s absurd film, The Wrecking Crew, was showing, as well as, most importantly the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, where Dalton had previously filmed many of his sessions of his popular series Bounty Law, and which the Manson clan have now taken over, much to the stoic reaction of Cliff Booth, Dalton’s loyal stunt-double, as he challenges their right to be there, seeking out his former director friend George Spahn (Bruce Dern).
      But the true focus of this meandering film, fortunately, is not on the terrifying Manson group (showing up in one sequence in full force a bit like a terrifying clan out of a science fiction film), but upon the bromance between Dalton and his stunt-man, Cliff Booth (wonderfully performed by Brad Pitt), who drives the now declining actor Dalton throughout the magical city in a way that you can only wonder what their relationship really is, a close friendship, maybe a little less than a marriage, but clearly something which in Hollywood doesn’t much get talked about.

     The more than average well-written essay on Wikipedia declares that Booth’s and Dalton’s relationship was “inspired” by a vast array of actors who, after becoming famous for their films, quickly lost their mojo as the 60s, and moved forward into new territory: including Burt Reynolds (who would have been in this film had he not died shortly before filming), and who had a close relationship with his stunt-double, the role Cliff Booth plays. In our early days of living in Los Angeles, all of the gay producers we met proclaimed that Reynolds, who openly toyed on film with the idea of being open to male/male relationships, was dying of AIDS. He wasn’t, but I think his image of a macho man who also eyed his fellow actors for their beauty, made him open to such speculations. Other “influences” include Ty Hardin, George Maharis, Edd Byrnes, Tab Hunter, Vince Edwards, and Fabian Forte, most of these figures who were known to be gay or at least rumored to be. This is clearly no accident—there are never real “accidents” in Tarantino’s films—and the relationship between the violently macho Booth and Dalton is nearly inexplicable if there isn’t a sexual frisson between them. It is even suggested that Booth killed his wife, although we’re never given a full explanation of why and how he escaped arrest.
      But his friendship with Dalton is clearly deeper than what he might have recognized in any connubial relationships the two may have had. The two not only drive together around town, often sleep in the same rooms, and drink together, even after Dalton marries an Italian hottie, preferring his stuntman’s company to hers. If these two men never have sex, it’s quite apparent that, as somewhat mirror-images of one another, they’re in love. Fortunately Dalton’s new wife, after his last round of film-making in Italian Spaghetti Westerns, is a kind of narcoleptic figure who, even after their house is attacked by the Manson group, takes enough sleeping-pills to keep her quiet and out of the picture.
       I have now given away, of course, something that Tarantino begged critics not to reveal at his movie’s Cannes showing. Spoiler alert: Tarantino, as usual, despite his careful study of the time and events, loves to re-bend history. As in his film Inglorious Basterds this director warps time in order to reclaim the horrors of our history. Hitler is destroyed long before he actually was. And instead of  the horrific stabbing and killing of Sharon Tate and her friends at their 10500 Cielo Drive address, the confused Manson gang attempts to kill Booth and Dalton, after a night where Booth has smoked an acid-laced cigarette and Dalton is cooling out in his pool.
       Yes, there is more Tarantino violence, some of it almost unbearable to watch, but these are, after all, monsters who deserved to be destroyed, even by a huge flame-thrower towed out of Dalton’s garage. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Manson murderers’ death, or even more Hitler and his associates’ inferno in a movie-theater.
       In Tarantino’s films history is never dead, but gets replayed, re-perceived, and completely altered. He gives us an alternative history we might better endure. But, as our current President keeps shouting, it is truly false history. Even if we might love it, it “ain’t the facts jack.” And there is something dangerous in its myths. Booth, wheeled off in an ambulance, is a false hero, despite the former Viet Nam survivor he might have been, a figure only in the fictions of film mythology which Tarantino so loves. The question this director never truly confronts is the reality we all need to face.
       The Manson monsters were not stopped. They killed actually many more people. Dictators and blindly selfish leaders are not killed before their time. Trump still lives, and so too Vladimir Putin, Kim Jo-Un, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, and so many others. Tarantino’s works are wonderfully quirky myths that, alas, do not satisfy my reality.

Los Angeles, August 22, 2019

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Basil Dearden | Victim

the blackmailer’s charter

Janet Green and John McCormick (screenplay), Basil Dearden (director) Victim / 1961

Through a half-intentional coincidence I spent the weekend of international LGBTQ pride marches watching Basil Dearden’s 1961 film Victim, one of the first English-language films to actually deal with homosexuality head on. Yes, The Children’s Hour—based on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play—was released in the very same year as Dearden’s, a film hinting, winking, and nodding to a possible lesbian relationship. A couple of years before Tennessee William’s Suddenly, Last Summer played with gay child abuse and cannibalism. And in the following year, the US film Advise and Consent lamely dealt with some of the same issues. As I have shown, moreover, there have many dozens of smaller and larger films that hover around the issues, some of them rather joyfully embracing their would-be/maybe gay and lesbian figures.
      But Victim actually confronts it, and with a fairly open-minded head detective who, despite the British laws which declared homosexuality a criminal act, nonetheless seems to want to help save the many gay men who—fearing for their careers, their closeted marriages, and their terror of imprisonment—must suffer what he describes as “the blackmailer’s charter.” His assistant represents the popular view of gays as disgusting beings who all need to be rounded-up and arrested.
      The film begins not with the central character, barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde)—the character’s name alone calling up the gay American author and a sense of his distance from the society in which the barrister is now safely entrenched—but with a much younger working man, Jack “Boy” Barrett (Peter EcEnery), who upon seeing the police arrive at a construction site in which he is working, bolts, calling a friend to immediately remove a package from the back of his closet. That package evidently contains a scrapbook with articles and pictures not only of Farr, but several other respectable businessmen, a barber, a bookseller, a noted actor and others, with whom he has consorted over the years.
      If “consorted” seems a very archaic word-choice, it’s perfect here, for the picture with Farr shows them simply in a car, the lawyer’s hand around Boy, who is in tears (a photo, incidentally, that we never actually see, despite testimony of several reviewers that do see it). Evidently the husband and wife writers of this film want us to believe that Farr himself, once a gay man whose university lover (again in a non-special relationship) committed suicide, has since lived in a solid heterosexual relationship with his beloved wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms) without sexually going astray.
     Obviously, even a third-grader could read the authorial lie. As Farr later tells his wife, he feared in his “friendship” with Boy that he was almost ready to go “too far” and “wanted him.” Accordingly, when Boy calls him several times, attempting to warn Farr of the police raid, he becomes convinced that his young “would-be” love is himself trying to blackmail him and refuses to answer. We can presume that something similar must have happened with his early male lover. For now Farr is highly successful barrister, possibly about to be appointed as the Queen’s Counsel.
      Boy attempts to escape to the nearby countryside, only to again encounter the police and be arrested. Even though the police chief attempts to explain that he should explain his activities so that they might find the blackmailer—Boy has stolen £2,300 from his current employer—the young man keeps silent, as do most of the figures of this ultimately tragic work of suspense. The barber, also faced with blackmail sells his business in order to move away, but when approached by mobsters suffers a heart-attack and dies. So Boy, like so many gay men of the day, feels trapped. Sooner or later, he recognizes, the police will shake the truth out of him, and not only might he be imprisoned but many of his previous companions will be taken down as well. He, like Farr’s early lover, hangs himself.
      The film might timidly have moved on from here in the manner of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or as the early lover of the title character of E. M. Forester’s Maurice did, enwrapping its characters into hidden married existences. Farr might have faded back into his closeted life, protecting his career and the domestic placidity of his home life. But it is precisely here that Dearden’s film grows brave, as Farr determines to track down the blackmailers on his own, involving one of Boy’s friends (apparently a heterosexual), as he follows down every clue.
      Meanwhile, his wife realizes that the call she has intercepted from Boy Barrett to her husband is the same figure which the newspapers have now reported as being dead. She confronts her husband who quite honestly explains the situation (a scene, apparently, written by Bogarde himself), of which she is not convinced, determining that he has gone back on his commitment to a heterosexual life. Despite the fact that he now recognizes he may lose her and all public standing, he nonetheless moves forward, eventually with some police help revealing the blackmailers: I’ll save those details from future viewers, despite my usual propensity to reveal all the plot. It really doesn’t matter, since in those days, apparently, there were hundreds of such figures lurking behind homosexuals, looking for a way to bring in income. And, yes, the word homosexual is actually used in this film. And scrawled across Farr’s garage door is an ugly reminder of the times: FARR IS QUEER.
      Who cares, really, if Farr, encouraging his wife to leave so that she will not be involved with what will surely be an ugly court case, is later reunited with her. He, unlike so many before him, has been honest, admitted a love that was not supposed to have been named. And despite this film’s timidity, in hindsight it proves to be quite brave, facing a storm of protest the British and US censors at the time—as well as homophobic critics.
       For once, I totally agree with Pauline Kael’s comments:

The hero of the film is a man who has never given way to his homosexual impulses; he has fought them–that's part of his heroism. Maybe that's why he seems such a stuffy stock figure of a hero... The dreadful irony involved is that Dirk Bogarde looks so pained, so anguished from the self-sacrifice of repressing his homosexuality that the film seems to give rather a black eye to heterosexual life.

       After several actors (including James Mason and Stewart Granger) turned down the role, Bogarde, who was living with his business manager Anthony Forwood, suggests he may have made one the “wisest” decisions of his life, allowing him to abandon the pretty boys of the matinee idol and comic roles to which he had previously been assigned. He went on to play in Pinter and De Sica films as a conflicted, often gay-oriented figure which demonstrated his true acting abilities.

Los Angeles, July 1, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Basil Dearden | All Night Long

a night to be remembered

Nel King and Paul Jarrico (as Peter Achilles) (screenplay), Basil Dearden (director) All Night Long / 1962
by Douglas Messerli

                                                        for Sid Gold

How could you not enjoy Basil Dearden's 1962 British film which is basically a warehouse jazz session—with actual jazz greats such as Charles Mingus (Bass), Tubby Hayes (Tenor Sax and Vibes), Bert Courtley (Trumpet), Johnny Dankworth (Alto Sax), Kenny Napper (Bass), John Scott (Alto Sax and Flute), Dave Brubeck (Piano), Ray Dempsey (Guitar),  Barry Morgan (Bongos), and numerous others—that is set against a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello? Stir in illicit drugs (only marijuana in this case), lots of liquor, inter-racial relationships, and a sexy female singer, Delia Lane (Marti Stevens) who everyone attending the all-night party would like to get their hands on, most professionally but others sexually, and you have a hot mix of music and political issues that few movies of the day could have dared. I might add that along with Nel King, the writer of this remarkable film was blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico (writing under the name Peter Achilles).
       The “palace” in which this Othello, musician Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris), visits belongs to the music promoter Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough). To some of the neophyte guests it may seem, as they enter the bowels of the warehouse, like a grungy place to hold a party, but by the time they get upstairs, they enter a two-story modern apartment with all the amenities, including a catered affair with a more than full bar. And then there’s all that jazz—just to celebrate the 2nd wedding anniversary of Rex and Lane’s marriage. This Desdemona, having given up her successful singing career, argues she is quite happy giving her complete attention to Rex. Although there are rumors, just as in Shakespeare, in this case that she is planning a come-back (based perhaps on the fact that she has been rehearsing a new song to surprise Rex at this event), and that she has been visiting Rex’s band manager, Cass (Keith Mitchell) (again in relationship to her new song). Cass (Cassio), moreover, just as in Shakespeare, is Rex’s most trusted friend, a young man (also a musician), who he as rescued from a drug addiction (again, folks, just marijuana here).I suggest for a more realistic picture, viewers see Shirley Clarke’s wonderful movie based on Jack Gelber’s jazz and drug-infused film of a year earlier The Connection.
      The Iago, in this case, is the more-than-ambitious drummer, Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), who would love to lure Delia back on the stage to perform with a band he is attempting to get together. At least, in this version, Iago’s evil doings make some sort of sense, as he gradually, over the evening, plants seeds of doubt in Rex’s head about Delia’s faithfulness, lures Cass back into a marijuana smoke, and tapes both Cass and his black wife, as well as Delia, altering their words to suggest something that their own comments deny. Talk about false news!
      Cass gets drunk and behaves badly, forcing Rex to fire him. And the more that Delia attempts to intervene, the clearer to Rex that she is actually having an affair with Cass. Indeed, the joint soon is hopping with rumors, which the two visiting music managers even note as people jump up like jack-in-the-box figures in order to settle personal affairs.
       By the time Delia gets around to singing her beautiful new tune to Rex, he is so convinced of his wife’s guilt that he can hardly sit still, crawling up the well-designed staircase, used effectively throughout, convinced of his Delia’s duplicitousness.
       Finally, breaking down, just as Othello he attempts to choke her to death, but in this case is stopped by the entire gathering as they each begin to perceive how Cousin has manipulated them, one by one, his absolutely abused wife Emily (Betsy Blair) finally speaking out about her husband’s inability to tell any truth. Sound familiar?
      The party’s over, and gradually the musicians and guests stagger out, Rex storming to the street in complete embarrassment, but in this case, being chased by Delia, suggesting that, at least in this version, Desdemona and Othello may go on to live a relatively happy life ever after. Quentin Tarantino was clearly not the first to alter realities of the past. Cass, we recognize will probably even get his job back and return to his wife. Who knows, perhaps after his downfall, this Iago might even come to appreciate the honesty of the woman he married as a teenager.
      Many critics perceived Dearden’s ending as a kind of cop-out. But I like to think of it, instead, as a kind of redemption of the bi-racial relationships these couples have chosen in a rather unforgiving society. And let us hope that soon after, or even ever-after, they can come together many another “all night long” for sessions of great jazz.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2019).