Saturday, July 30, 2011

THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971)

In the Philippines, during the 1970s, it was against the law to be beautiful -- or at least that's the impression you might get from Jack Hill's seminal genre film, directed for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Hill redefined the women-in-prison genre while giving Pam Grier her first big break and giving Corman's new company a blockbuster drive-in hit. His direction of Don Spencer's screenplay synthesized film traditions dating back to Pre-Code times with the sweaty sensibility of men's-adventure magazines to produce potent pulp symbolism for the sexual-revolution era. The Big Doll House is a trash masterpiece combining unerring exploitation instinct with the iconographic genius of a vintage magazine cover. The screencaps you see here are the tip of a volcanic iceberg of lubricious delirium, and the film as a whole is a kind of lucid dream that tells us something of the contradictory time that produced and embraced such stuff.

Like a lot of Seventies exploitation, Hill's film is a swirling mix of female degradation and empowerment. The women's prison is probably the ideal setting for such a mix, the prison itself being a symbol open to contradictory interpretations. It can be a metaphor for overall gender exploitation, or a misogynist fantasy of women as prisoners of their own insatiable sexuality, or a self-satirizing signifier of the film's own exploitation of its oft-naked actresses. Hill himself saw it as a setting for role-reversal, an idea he'd pursue further in his follow-up, The Big Bird Cage, in which the symbolic harem of the women's prison is attended by a corps of eunuchs in the form of homosexual male guards. In Doll House the guards are female and the only male on premises is an ineffectual doctor, and Hill focuses on all the ways women can exploit each other. Women are exploiters and exploited, and some of them, like "Grier," can be both at the same time, finking out fellow cons in return for favors while dominating other prisoners both physically and sexually. To an intriguing extent the women are de-sexualized by being referred to exclusively by their last names, like soldiers in a platoon. Prison changes them, as Grier tells a male visitor: "I'm not this way because I want to be. It's this place. Pretty soon a girl gets strange desires, and it creeps up on you like a disease."

Above, a rare screencap-friendly moment from the shower scene.
Below, behold the Dance of the Junky, performed by Brooke Mills.

The women's prison can serve as a symbol of women's continued subjugation and as a dystopian vision of how women might behave with the power of men. Doll House takes the inversion and role-reversal to an extreme by portraying imprisoned women as rapists of men empowered by their horniness. Sid Haig's comedy-relief contractor, who visits for regular deliveries of fruit and other commodities, seems torn between his desire to make it with the horny women and his fear that they'll "zap" him -- he spells zap "R-A-P-E." And his younger sidekick confirms his fears by getting zapped at knifepoint by a blonde prisoner, while Haig himself is clearly not the dominant partner when Grier handjobs him in a couple of different ways. Later, after forcing Haig at gunpoint to help them escape -- guess where the gun is pointed -- the main characters strip him and his sidekick to their undies and send them marching away.

Above, "Either get it up or I'll cut it off!" commands Roberta Collins.
Below, Pam Grier's "strange desire" for Sid Haig.

A key innovation of Doll House which comes with its Philippine location -- the screenplay was reportedly set originally in the U.S. -- is the offstage presence of a revolution. Whether subsequent films were set in the Philippines or in Central America, the looming revolution becomes a constant, anchored to the prison by a convict being either a leader or a key sympathizer, i.e. the male leader's lover. Whether or not revolutionaries instigate a breakout, the inevitable breakout inevitably has a revolutionary context. Is the revolution the great hope of female empowerment or overall social justice, the armageddon the entire decade seemed to anticipate, or is it exploitation in its most ironically cynical form? All of the above is the most likely answer. However insincerely, films like these perpetuated the idea of a revolution as a day of reckoning and revenge, even while bursting the bubble in patented Seventies fashion. In this film we never really encounter the revolution, and freedom for anyone proves short-lived, but the potential for revolution has at least been reasserted.

Pat Woodell is the Revolution

For all the "liberated" modernity of Doll House, and the nudity and violence made possible by the fall of the Production Code, it actually feels old-fashioned in some ways. Visually, as I suggested, Hill and cinematographer Fred Conde tap into the lurid iconography of the men's-adventure mags that succeeded the old pulps in the 1950s, not to mention the extremes of the under-the-counter "shudder pulps" of the previous generation. This film is full of campy yet uncompromisedly intense imagery of torture and other forms of pulchritude under stress, and the dread gaze of the secret masked master.


Hill and Spencer also revive the hard-boiled attitude of 1930s movies. None of the women in prison are innocents. Our point-of-view character, Collier (Judy Brown) killed her husband after becoming his rival for the sexual favors of their houseboy. If anything, Grier is closer to an innocent: though a prostitute, she was jailed because the government feared that her bureaucratic john may have told her too many secrets. But she ends up the least likable tenant of our lead cell, a bully and sexual predator who plays double games with everyone. Bodine, the revolutionary (Pat Woodell) may be the most purely sympathetic character, but she also has about the least personality of the lead cellmates, and politics play little role in the story. The downbeat ending has little of the tragic or despairing quality of typical Seventies cinema, and more of an ironic shrug worthy of a silent comedy.

In the interest of equal time: Sid Haig and Jerry Franks
I'm probably not doing Doll House justice with all this intellectualizing, but I've seen enough women-in-prison films to wonder about what they represent and why. But this is a movie best appreciated on the visceral level Hill and Corman intended. It retains the freshness of something being done for the first time, and I'm not sure anyone ever did this sort of thing better. Were there ever more beautiful women crowded into a single cell? Have there ever been more feverishly filmed scenes of floggings and snake torture with built-in voyeurism? Was anyone ever more of a machine-gun firing jungle valkyrie than Pat Woodell blasting away? Did any one movie top Doll House in all these categories? If so, I want to see that movie. For now, The Big Doll House sets the standard for a particular category of trash -- trash it remains, but trash has standards, too. When everyone involved in a trash project is clearly giving their all, and their all is this impressive, trash itself becomes a kind of art.

Here's an R-rated trailer, with vocals by Pam Grier, from Dailymotion.

The Big Doll House - Jack Hill by Blame2Workshop

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LEON MORIN, PRIEST (1961)

The Criterion Collection has done me a favor by releasing their latest acquisition from the filmography of Jean-Pierre Melville during Barnes & Noble's semi-annual half-price sale on the elite line of DVDs. The film is going to be available as a Netflix stream, but a Criterion Melville is virtually a must-own for me. This latest release does not disappoint despite being quite different in content and tone from what I've seen previously from the French master of crime and suspense. Leon Morin adapts a prize-winning novel by Beatrix Beck set during the Axis occupation of France during the late war. Melville had been there already and would go there again, but on this occasion his subject is not the French Resistance, but the impact of war and a male depopulation on the women of a small town in the southern part of the country, where the Italians were actually first to arrive.

Our protagonist is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who corrects papers for a correspondence school that relocated its headquarters for the duration. Her husband is gone and she's sent her daughter to be taken care of in the country. With most of the young men gone and with the Italians more an object of curiosity than anything else, the atmosphere isn't exactly oppressive at first. In fact, it seems fraught with transgressive potential to the Barny, who struggles with an unanticipated infatuation with her supervisor Sabine, whom she describes as an amazon and a samurai (!!!). She wants her friends to know that she's attracted to Sabine to the extent that the tall, composed woman resembles a handsome young man -- and this caveat seems sincere, considering that she soon becomes infatuated with one of the few remaining handsome young men in town, our title character (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

The odd thing is, Barny is a self-professed Communist, and she makes contact with Leon Morin initially with the purpose of teasing a priest in his confession booth with the Marxism, "Religion is the opiate of the people." Our would be she-troll is surprised, however, when Morin proves a nimble-witted debater who doesn't take offense at cheap shots. He's soon inviting her to his quarters to borrow theology books so they can continue their debates at a more informed level. A kind of merry war goes on as the Germans arrive and the Resistance intensifies until Barny seems poised to capitulate, whether on the strength of Morin's polemics or on the strength of his good looks. For one reason or another, the spiritual-counselor business is booming for the young priest, and after a while, and especially as Barny edges toward conversion, Morin seems to grow increasingly uncomfortable with it. He grows more brusque with her as the fight goes out of her, but she sees his edgy behavior as sexual tension. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but he gets literally jumpy at any hint of romance, and his postwar transfer to an interior mission in the countryside is clearly a relief. And as you may have guessed, the war ends and the occupiers leave.

I'd call what Barny and Morin share a doomed relationship if I felt more certain that it was a relationship in any real sense. They may seem like the ultimate mismatched partners superficially, but they're really closer to two of a kind. The potentiality and liminality Barny experiences during the Occupation seems to be Morin's normal state. The war shakes Barny loose from complacency, but complacency seems utterly alien to Morin. That may be strange to say of a priest, but look at the evidence. He expresses frustration with the church hierarchy on many subjects and is most interested in Barny when she's most willing to contest his views. When she succumbs to his arguments, he almost seems to grow contemptuous toward her. The tension Barny perceives is as much Morin's disappointment in losing a worthy opponent as it is any anxiety about Barny's feelings toward him. For all his apologias for religion, Morin comes across as an alienated intellectual whose faith and vocation only enable his alienation rather than transcending it. For all Barny's alleged Communism, she's really after stability and security, while Morin seems happiest in an environment of struggle and argument -- an eternal debating society. The upheaval of Occupation gives him a moment to shine, but it only seems right that he hits the road when it's all over.


Father Morin prefers resisting temptation to resisting occupation for some reason.
Leon Morin, Pretre certainly has a different atmosphere from any Melville film I've seen to date. This tale of the Occupation has a perversely idyllic feel. Barny's community is a place where the girls gush over the Italians and their feathered hats, and where Barny's little girl France (where else can a child be named after her country?) befriends a gentle German soldier. Melville makes a point of never showing the Resistance in action, though they're often heard offscreen. We hardly see the bad guys do more than parade or drill; a German hassles Barny at a checkpoint once, but lets her go with little fuss. In fact, her greatest peril comes after the Americans liberate the town; a G.I. is persuaded only with great effort by his buddy not to rape our heroine. We're dealing with people out of the loop of history, who aren't part of the heroic national narrative of Resistance but aren't collaborators either -- for the most part. Life goes on, but not quite, and disruptions like Barny's successive crushes result.

Melville gives the film an erotic charge not just during Barny's dreams of Morin, but in Barny's workplace, where Sabine (Nicole Morel) appears to at least partially reciprocate Barny's crush. Sabine isn't the only amazon on the job; Barny also has to deal with the belligerent anti-semite Christine (Irene Tunc) in the nearest thing the film has to a fight scene.



Sexual harrassment or just plain harrassment? The office is Barny's battlefield in this war.


For his part, Morin has to fend off the formidable Marion (Monique Bertho), who's reputed to have five lovers and seems to be out for a sixth. Jean-Paul Belmondo, then red-hot off of Breathless, seems like ideal casting for Morin -- I know I can't imagine Alain Delon as a priest for a second. Belmondo isn't classically handsome by any stretch but has a sensual charisma that makes the women's craze for him plausible, as well as a certain narcissic smugness that limits his potential for real emotional intimacy with anyone. Against him Melville pits the star of Hiroshima Mon Amour in an early clash of New Wave titans, and Riva holds her own pretty well. It's her movie despite the title and the billing, and she never lets it slip from her hands.

Leon Morin is proof that Melville wasn't a creature of genre but had visual and narrative gifts to bring to any story material. He makes Barny's flirtation with Morin nearly as intriguing as any of his capers or chases in his classic crime stories. I'm not ready to rank this one above his later crime epics -- except perhaps for Un Flic -- but Morin is still an impressive achievement, and one that has me impatient for Criterion to haul in the rest of the Melvilles I haven't seen. How about this time next year?

For now, how about a trailer? This one, with English subtitles, was uploaded to YouTube by ClassicMovieTrailers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

THE SUN (Solntse, 2005)

After his global arthouse triumph with his one-take phantasmagoria in the Hermitage museum, Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov resumed a project described as a series of films about the dictators of the 20th century. After treating Hitler in Moloch (1999 and coming soon to this blog) and Lenin in Taurus (2001), Sokurov's next subject may seem an unlikely one: Hirohito, the Showa emperor of Japan, and his renunciation of godhood following the surrender to the Allies in 1945. However vilified he was during the war, Hirohito is now thought of as a figurehead, though historians continue to dispute the extent to which he encouraged Japanese aggression. He doesn't come to mind as a man of power comparable to Lenin or Hitler, but that clearly isn't what Sokurov had in mind, either. While I as yet don't know what the director did with Hitler, in Solntse he plants Hirohito in a Hitlerian setting -- a bunker -- to start a cinematic riff that turns the emperor into a bridge from Hitler to...Chaplin?

The plot of The Sun is pretty simple. Japan is defeated, and Hirohito (Issei Ogata) goes through his daily routine while pondering a speech in which he would explain Japan's entry into the war and its defeat while renouncing his divine status. As if anticipating The King's Speech, Sokurov presents the emperor as a man of halting speech. Hirohito has a strange habit of mouthing silent words while others are talking -- it's so strange that I was tempted to think some dubbing disaster had been perpetrated, even though the film is largely in Japanese. The idea of a speech renouncing divinity and absolute power is also reminiscent of the finale of The Great Dictator, but in The Sun the protagonist is never shown delivering his big address. We learn, however, that the emperor's sound technician subsequently killed himself. But I get ahead of myself. The first half of the picture is a day in the life of Hirohito. He's woken and dressed by his servants and steered toward a military briefing where army and navy representatives bicker over who screwed up worse. The emperor quotes poetry at them but also warns that the price of peace may be too great to bear.



Then it's off to his favorite time of the day, doing research in his personal marine biology lab, though his impending apologia still weighs on him even here. But his hobby bleeds into his dreams during his nap time in a surreal, Toho-on-acid CGI sequence in which Tokyo is bombed by giant fish, whales and other airborne marine life. Personal time follows, during which he struggles to compose poetry in the ancient aristocratic fashion. He ends up flipping through his photo albums, one of his family (he kisses a shot of his wife and child), one of movie stars. Sokurov pauses significantly over two shots of Chaplin.






The emperor is summoned to his first audience with the Supreme Commander of the Allied occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (a Metaluna-headed and utterly inadequate Robert Dawson). Hirohito attempts to converse in English despite the protests of a Japanese interpreter that it'd be ungodly of him to do so. A preoccupied if not bored MacArthur quickly dismisses him and then wonders aloud: the emperor reminds him of someone, but who? Later, Hirohito agrees to pose for photos by the American press. At first the shutterbugs don't recognize the unassuming figure who shuffles their way, but recognition follows recognition. "Charlie! That's who he is!" one photog yells, "Charlie Chaplin!" Afterward, the emperor asks an aide if he really does look like Chaplin. The aide demurs, explaining that he doesn't go to the movies. Hirohito says the same thing, though the photo album makes his response not perfectly honest, and the question does nag at him. Something gives the next time he visits MacArthur, in a setting more sumptuous than the emperor's own quarters. Left alone for a moment, Hirohito can't resist an impulse to get up and start dancing around the room in what's obviously a directorial nod to The Great Dictator's globe dance and may also be intended as the emperor's own invocation of Chaplin.




The age of the dictators was also the age of Chaplin, a fact memorialized by The Great Dictator, in which the comedian acknowledged some affinity between himself as autocratic auteur and the arch-despot of Europe. As if exorcising some demon he saw in himself, Chaplin split himself in two for that film, playing a Tramp-like innocent as well as Adenoid Hynkel and saving for the climax the moment when the little man mounts the platform to preach to the world. With Hirohito, Sokurov seems to be attempting a re-synthesis of the two Chaplinesque figures. The Russian director is clearly intrigued by a paradox Chaplin had not imagined: the "little man" who happens to hold absolute power -- or something like it -- by right of birth. The closest the comedian came to that was the gag he created to amuse Douglas Fairbanks on the set of Robin Hood, when he had a massive drawbridge lowered across a moat so he could shuffle out and fetch the morning paper on the other side. And A King in New York is not quite the same thing as Sokurov's idea. Yet Chaplin seems to be a key to the resolution of the plot. Arguably, in being compared to Chaplin, even in mockery, Hirohito is still partaking of a kind of divine essence, one he appears to claim for himself by dancing in MacArthur's quarters. A formal renunciation of divinity is just a technicality. While Sokurov doesn't stress this point too much, the emperor will only exchange the mythological divinity of a god-king for the modern divinity of celebrity that Chaplin did much to define.




Pictorially speaking, the stunt nature of Russian Ark apparently concealed that Sokurov, on this film's evidence, isn't much of a cinematic stylist. While Hirohito's dream is an inspired moment, most of the CGI employed here to establish exteriors is much less impressive. Sokurov doesn't seem very interested in the composition of a frame, though some stagings, like the emperor's discovery of GIs on his front lawn, are nicely done. Most of the time the direction is fairly stiff, and the fact that the director is working in two foreign languages probably doesn't help things. An American viewer expects MacArthur to be a stronger, more flamboyant personality even if that doesn't fit Sokurov's scheme of things, but Robert Dawson is hopeless in what proves a thankless role. It's hard to appraise Ogata because of the tics Sokurov imposes on him, but at a minimum the actor keeps you interested in the character and earns a little pathos even as Hirohito proves something of a dunderhead or a boor. Finally, what Sokurov does well is convey ideas through images and editing in the honorable Russian tradition -- that is, if I've gotten the actual point of the film. If I have, it's an interesting enough point and one illustrated subtly enough to make The Sun stimulating viewing and prove Sokurov more than a one-hit wonder.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On the Big Screen: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Earlier this month, Marvel Comics published Captain America #1. Every so often the big comic-book publishers feel that the public gets intimidated by the high issue numbers of long-running comics. Especially when today's comic-book writers can't help telling a never-ending, infinitely convoluting story instead of the self-contained tales of the "Golden Age," a reader may well feel that there's too much information you'd have to know before you could hope to figure out what goes on in a typical monthly comic. So while at times the publishers like to boast of how long their characters have been running -- Marvel published a 70th Anniversary issue for Captain America a few months ago -- they're now increasingly willing to hide their history the better to offer a new reader a jumping-on point. Marvel hasn't "rebooted" Cap this time, but the idea is that someone possibly inspired by Joe Johnston's film to buy a Captain America comic won't feel that he'd need to have read every Cap comic published in the five or so years since Ed Brubaker started his mostly-admirable run as writer in order to figure out what goes on.

In fact, there's a kind of cruel hook for moviegoers in the latest Captain America #1. It features the funeral of Peggy Carter, a long-established figure in Steve Rogers's comic-book history and a prominent character in Johnston's film. Dead of natural causes at age 91, Peggy is survived by her niece Sharon -- who, in a twist moviegoers may find icky, is Steve Rogers's current love interest and partner in action. At her funeral is the "real" Nick Fury, a man who fought at Cap's side in World War II but somehow also attained extended youth and vitality, and an eyepatch, as the head of SHIELD. Moviegoers will recognize the red moustache and derby hat of Dum-Dum Dugan, Fury's right-hand man from the days of the Howling Commandos to the present, also unnaturally well preserved. No matter what number you slap on the cover, there's no escaping history in a Captain America comic, though you can sometimes avoid excessive continuity in getting to the heart of things. Cap is always going to be about history, and the people at Marvel Entertainment know this. That's why they set their story during Cap's glory days of World War II, except for present-day bookends and a dull thud of an ending that mars what otherwise may be the best of the "Avengers" series so far.

With The First Avenger (as the film is known in countries where "Captain America" isn't necessarily welcome on the marquee) you begin to see the cumulative benefit of Marvel's mythos-building. There's a little thrill that an old comics fan may feel more than others at seeing pieces of a puzzle connect, especially in a movie set decades prior to all the other Avengers films. The early invocation of Norse mythology makes Thor relevant to the project in a way the movie from earlier this year barely managed on its own. More significant and appealing is the large role given to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony's dad who was seen in film clips and flashbacks in Iron Man 2 and who here is the spitting image of how Tony Stark himself was drawn in the original Iron Man comics. This is an innovation of the moviemakers, since neither Howard nor Tony Stark existed in the minds of Jack Kirby or Joe Simon (the latter still living as the last major creative figure from the Golden Age) when they invented Cap in 1941. Captain America is the rug that really pulls the room full of Marvel movies together and gives the Marvel movie universe a history distinct from official Marvel history, however often rebooted, or the "Ultimate" variant that has influenced much of the movies' environment, most notably (or regrettably) in the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the insufferable Nick Fury. The First Avenger actually missed an opportunity to build more mythos by linking Jackson's Fury to a "historical" Nick Fury whom Cap should have encountered with the rest of the Howling Commandos in a Hydra prison camp.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dramatically redefine Captain America in a way that makes the super soldier more heroic and more sympathetic for modern audiences. As always, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starts as the proverbial 90-pound weakling yearning to join the military, albeit with more urgency than the original, since here he doesn't become a super soldier until after Pearl Harbor, while Simon and Kirby launched Cap in 1941 to fight Fifth Columnists and saboteurs while America prepared for a war that still might not come to this country. In a tremendous reversal of comics lore, Bucky Barnes, who in the comics was a juvenile Army mascot who became Cap's Robin-like sidekick, is here Steve Rogers's more manly pal, practically his idol, who makes it into the army when Steve can't. In the 1941 origin story Steve is his original sickly self for no more than a page or two, but in the movie he pays his dues in feeble form for nearly an hour, earning our respect for his grit, his enmity toward bullies of all types, his desperate eagerness to serve his country, his bravery (he's the first to throw himself on a grenade in a test) and his intelligence (he figures out how to capture a flag in the most practical way after fellow recruits fail to shinny up the flagpole). All these things impress emigre German scientist Dr. Erskine (a warm Stanley Tucci), who decides that Steve is most qualified to take the super soldier serum because he is not a bully like many of his fellow recruits, because despite his eagerness to enlist he can't answer Erskine's question, "Do you want to kill Nazis?" with a simple yes. Steve doesn't want to kill anyone -- but he'll do it if he has to because he won't let the bullies win.

Steve undergoes the transformation in traditional style, and after the successful experiment Dr. Erskine is killed by a Nazi agent as he was in the original comic. That episode always left me wondering why the saboteur waited until after Erskine created a super-soldier to pull his gun out. Wouldn't you want to stop that from happening? But maybe he had instructions like Moe Berg, the baseball catcher turned spy, had when he was sent to hear Werner Heisenberg lecture in a neutral country. According to legend, Berg was to kill the German scientist only if he inferred from the lecture that Heisenberg was close to solving the riddle of the atom bomb. Why take chances, I'd ask, but I suppose that's why I'm not a super hero. Anyway, in another major diversion from Golden Age lore, the Army takes the creation of a single super soldier as a failure of Erskine's project, and even after Roges makes headlines capturing the Nazi after an exhilarating chase through Brooklyn, Col. Phillips (an effortlessly entertaining Tommy Lee Jones) assigns Steve to tests in New Mexico, only to be overruled by a Senator who sends "Captain America" (so named for the first time) on a War Bonds tour. The picture suddenly becomes a delirious amalgam of Flags of Our Fathers and Tucker: The Man and His Dream as Rogers is compelled to be a musical-comedy superhero fake slugging a fake Hitler in a stage revue as chorus girls cheer him on in song. He goes over big with the civilians, but dogfaces in Europe are far less impressed when the Captain goes on a morale-boosting tour. He'll soon get a chance to change their minds.

Cap is finally in a position to confront his Nazi counterpart, the disfigured occultist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who had been Erskine's first experiment, at Hitler's command. Schmidt proved Erskine's theory that the super soldier serum makes good men great and bad men worse by becoming a bald, noseless, red-faced lunatic. In short, he becomes the Red Skull, but the writers are strangely reluctant to so label him. If I remember right, the name is used just once in the entire picture. Otherwise, and even after the Skull gives up wearing his Hugo Weaving mask, he remains "Johann Schmidt" to his enemies. I'm not complaining; I just find it a little odd. Also odd is the movie's contribution to Marvel Comics's overall dehistoricization of World War II. Schmidt is the head (and mind you, there's really just one) of Hydra, the Third Reich's special occult research unit. In Marvel Comics, Hydra was invented in the 1960s as a collective antagonist for The Avengers and SHIELD. There were always former Nazis involved with this group, but Marvel has over time retconned World War II to make Hydra a kind of power behind the Nazi throne. In their current Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon, an apparent aversion to invoking Nazism in animation results in an extreme rewriting of history in which Hydra itself is the principal aggressor in the war. Captain America doesn't go that far, but it does indulge in the whimsy that Hydra is worse than Hitler because of Schmidt's interest in marrying occult power sources to super-modern technology in a manner much inspired, I suspect, by Mike Mignola's Hellboy mythos. Schmidt soon relegates Nazism to the background as Cap and his new army buddies (including Bucky) have to stop a Hydra-initiated attack from destroying not just the major allied cities, but Berlin as well. By that point I'd imagine that Cap would get some support from the Wehrmacht and the SS, but Hitler suddenly seems to be powerless in his own land, as if the movie, like the cartoon, is uncomfortable with Nazism, or the writers are afraid that Claude Lanzmann or Jean-Luc Godard will take them to task for trivializing the Shoah or something.

So it's all action from that point on, and Johnston deserves a ton of credit for directing it with a clarity and an eye for the dramatic or iconic pulp image that eludes so many other action-spectacle directors these days. The director of The Rocketeer clearly revels in a return to an era he clearly loves, and both cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs clearly share the love. The art direction is more of a special effect than the film's modest 3D conversion, and the retro-spectacle of it all should attract movie fans who are otherwise wary of superhero films. The greatest effect of all is the by now familiar and pretty much seamless process that grafts Chris Evans's head onto Steve Rogers's original puny body. Working only with his face, Evans makes the illusion believable, and the actor really is a revelation here. Like Thor, Captain America has to sell its star as someone who can share the screen with Robert Downey next year and not be reduced to wallpaper. Chris Hemsworth more or less passed the test this spring, and Evans passes with flying colors. He is the Steve Rogers of the comics, only more so. With the ordeal of his media exploitation and humiliation following the ordeal of his years of weakness, Evans expresses a frustration with his wasted potential that everyone can identify with in some way while remaining a sensitive soul who's still inexperienced (though not cartoonishly naive) in many ways. His power fantasy comes with constant disillusionment and loss, but neither the power nor the losses compromise his goodness and idealism. It's still an open question how Evans will do alongside Downey, but now it's a question I'm interested in seeing answered -- even if that proves my only reason to see The Avengers next year.

Captain America may have the best ensemble cast of any Avengers film to date. Hayley Atwell gives a star-making turn as the kick-ass glamorous Agent Carter, and Dominic Cooper (the second actor to play Howard Stark) helps energize every scene he's in. All the battle-happy joes of the precociously multicultural Howling Commandos are engaging and likable. Toby Jones bids to be the modern Peter Lorre as Arnim Zola, the Red Skull's chief assistant who's doomed to become a TV-headed cyborg in 1970s comics. Tommy Lee Jones presumably is in this movie for the same reason Anthony Hopkins was in Thor: prestige. But if this movie proves anything, it's that Jones can't phone in a performance. While Hopkins (under a Shakespearean's direction) does little more than yell, Jones plays his lines like curmudgeonly music, and you hang on his every word. Jones may not be the greater actor (though he certainly is now), this star turn may show that he's a greater star, that a "Tommy Lee Jones" part is inherently superior to an "Anthony Hopkins" part. I suppose that if they traded parts we'd really see who's better. But Jones helps make Captain America vastly superior to Thor, as does just about everyone involved in the new film. The First Avenger arrives at a moment of talk about "superhero fatigue," but it'd be a shame if that fatigue causes people to miss one of the most exhilarating expressions of that beleaguered genre.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Die verlorene Ehre der..., 1975)

Timely viewing during the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal is this adaptation of a Heinrich Boll novel by the husband-wife team of Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe Von Trotta. Boll was a Nobel-winning novelist who found himself villified in West Germany's right wing "Springer press" for his defense of due process for members of the Red Army Faction/"Baader Meinhof Gang." Katharina Blum was his counterblast, a fictionalized expose of collaboration between news media and police. The title character (Angela Winkler) is transformed by unscrupulous reporters for "The Paper" (Die Zeitung, a barely-veiled version of the Springer tabloid Bild-Zeitung) after enjoying a one-night stand with a suspected anarchist gang member. Had sleazemonger Werner Toetges (Dieter Laser) had the technology, we can imagine he'd do exactly what News of the World did. With his limited means, he finds every way possible to violate Katharina's privacy, twisting the words of an old boyfriend into a denunciation and sneaking into the hospice where Katharina's mother lies dying. Katharina has already been humiliated by the police, led by the bullying Beizmenne (a diabolic Mario Adorf of Milano Calibro 9 fame), forced to strip at gunpoint in front of strangers in her own apartment and dumped into a cell with a vomit-stained toilet. Her employers, a wealthy lawyer's family for whom she does housekeeping, stand up for her, but few others do. With her angry snapshot plastered on Die Zeitung's front pages on a nearly daily pages, Blum is soon subject to insult and threats from strangers on the street and in the mail. The state has nothing on her, but they eventually get their man. With no apologies forthcoming, Katharina finally resolves to restore her honor the old fashioned way....


Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler, above) loses her honor -- in a more manly sense of the word -- to investigator Beizmenne (Mario Adorf, below left) and reporter Toetges (Dieter Laser, right).


Lost Honor is outright agitprop on a nearly epic scale. It's a clear tale of victims and villains, with nearly no nuance in the portrayals of the cops and the reporters. There's no disputing within the film that the Springer press or its fictional surrogate is an enemy of the people, and the point is driven home in a final funeral scene when Die Zeitung's publisher rants Hitler-like that an attack on his newspaper is an attack on all Germans. Out of context, that's an admirable sentiment on behalf of freedom of the press. In context, the publisher may as well be saying L'etat, c'est moi! As far as Boll and his adaptors are concerned, freedom of the press is no excuse for abuse of power.






Lacking in subtlety, Die verlorene Ehre is best taken as an artifact of its time, with a good helping of documentary matter like the Boll documentary included on the Criterion Collection DVD. It gives you a strong sense of the troubled times in West Germany and the state-of-siege climate in which the story grew from novel to film. Don't pick this one if you want a nuanced portrait of the era. Schlondorff and Von Trotta were out to make people angry, and on that level, and given the tale's fresh relevance, it's a two-fisted success.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CHATO'S LAND (1972)

Between 1968 and 1974, Charles Bronson occupied an ambiguous position in the movie business. In Europe and much of the world, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West had made the veteran character actor a real star. But Leone's film had flopped in the U.S., and Bronson would not really become a superstar in his homeland until Michael Winner's Death Wish appeared six years later. Nevertheless, global demand for Bronson meant work for him in Hollywood. Winner was an important part of Bronson's American build-up, directing him in The Mechanic, The Stone Killer and this Spanish-shot western before the team struck paydirt with their urban-vigilante tale. The title role in Chato's Land seems relatively thankless from an acting standpoint -- Bronson has no more than a couple of lines in English, and not many more in Apache -- but the film anticipates Death Wish in its emphasis on revenge, albeit in a manner designed to disturb rather than gratify American audiences.

Chato's Land is the story of a posse's pursuit of a half-breed who killed a racist sheriff and the breed's turning of the tables on his pursuers. Chato shot the sheriff to save himself from summary execution for the crime of drinking in a white man's saloon. As he flees the scene, Gerry Wilson's screenplay takes its time introducing us to the members of the posse. Most prominent and flamboyant, at first, is Quincey (Jack Palance), a former Confederate soldier and more recent U.S. Army scout and Indian fighter. His donning of his old Rebel coat is a sign of bad new, especially given when this movie was made, but Palance's performance is one of many ways the film defies our expectations. We expect him to play a racist fanatic leading the posse to doom, but while Quincey certainly sees the hunt for Chato as a nostalgic chance for fresh military glory, the film is very much the story of his disillusionment. Compared to many of his fellow westerners -- especially the crew led by Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland), Quincey comes across as an intelligent, moderate and ultimately weak man. The hunt evolves into a power struggle between Quincey and Jubal, in which Jubal's unrelenting hatred for Indians and the loyalty of his kinfolk give him advantages that outweigh Quincey's experience and wisdom. Along with these, the posse picks up a number of people, played by a formidable gang of character actors, who join with different degrees of enthusiasm -- many have work to do on their land -- but a common sense of communal obligation to fight Indians. One family refuses to join, their barechested patriarch chasing the posse away at gunpoint. He makes such a forceful impression that you expect to see him again, but you won't. His sole purpose in the film is to show us the only way anyone could avoid what's to come.

Chato doesn't go out of his way to kill his pursuers. In the first half of the film, he's only interested in getting them off his back. If he can do that by sabotaging their water supply or scaring off their horses, fine. He just wants to get back to his family and back to work catching wild horses. He makes it, but the posse, helped by a half-Yacqui tracker, never falls too far behind. While Chato hunts horses, the posse finds his wife. Jubal's boys are determined to rape her, while Quincey and the others who are plainly appalled by the idea find themselves powerless -- or simply lacking the will -- to stop the atrocity. A posse is not an army, Quincey concedes, and his uniform gives him no special authority over Jubal or his kin. When the rapists stake the wife out naked to insult and lure Chato into an ambush, Quincey insists on covering her with a blanket, but Jubal's crew won't have it. As it happens, Chato creates a distraction that enables him to free his wife, but his partner in the horse business is killed in the fighting. He now has two offenses to avenge, and now he fights to kill.

Along the way, Wilson and Winner have tempted us to differentiate between the real scumbags like Jubal and the men with remnants or rudiments of decency like Quincey. Viewers are likely to divide the posse into those they want to see die and those they'd rather see live. The problem is, Chato doesn't differentiate. As far as we know, he wants to see the whole posse dead, not knowing who did or didn't rape his wife. As the hunted becomes the hunter and the fiftysomething Bronson strips down to wiry, loinclothed virility, the movie becomes a stark, unsettling parable of collective responsibility. If the first half of the film was a fairly familiar Vietnam metaphor, the second half is a nightmare of revolutionary retribution, a rage and a reckoning that'll spare no one. It belies the logic of the traditional western, which is spelled out in lines lifted nearly verbatim from John Ford's The Searchers about how an Indian will only keep after something for only so long, while the American will keep at it to the bitter end. In Chato's Land it's the Indian, the breed -- the Other -- who is unrelenting, just as the posse turns upon itself. The film grows unpredictable as the confrontations we've been long expecting -- Quincey vs. Chato or Jubal vs. Chato -- are denied us, until we're left with the two most sympathetic or least offensive members of the posse, one of whom is killed with sudden bluntness, falling face-first into a fire. The film closes with one man desperately stumbling through hopeless terrain as Chato watches like an impassive, implacable pagan god.

Bronson doesn't have to do much more than be a presence here, but to be such a presence at his age, at that time, is an impressive feat. Among his antagonists, Palance clearly stands out with what may be one of his best performances, but the ensemble that includes Oakland, James Whitmore, Richard Basehart, Richard Jordan and others is uniformly interesting, each developing a distinctive personality grounded in the life he left behind. Some, like Oakland and Jordan, are over-the-top monsters, but that's necessary for the film to have its effect by making other characters more likable but no less vulnerable.

Chato's Land is an American western filmed in spaghetti territory, and maybe a director who is neither American nor Italian is ideally suited to split the difference, combining the brutality and stark landscapes of the spaghettis with the American commitment to more rounded character development and an introspective quality characteristic of the Seventies. The film may look Italian to an extent, but Jerry Fielding's score reinforces its American essence. Audiences in 1972 may have cheered Bronson on here as they would when Death Wish played, but Chato's Land is, in a sense, a more politically correct vigilante movie and a more honestly disturbing one for daring Americans to imagine themselves, to the extent that they identify with any of the posse members, as targets for a revenge that isn't fair, but might be just.

Notice how the trailer makes the posse look like complete aggressors, leaving no hint of Chato's original offense. It comes from the VideoDetective website.

Trailer provided by Video Detective

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wendigo Meets NADJA (1994)

After the high-profile big-budget vampire films of the early 1990s -- Bram Stoker's Dracula and Interview with the Vampire -- it was the indies' turn with a couple of low-profile, low-budget black-and-white films at mid-decade. Michael Almereyda's film and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction are something of a pair in some people's minds, having monochrome in common and appearing in the same year. They also have in common that my friend Wendigo, otherwise an omnivorous consumer of vampire media, missed them during their original theatrical runs, and on video until this year. As with Addiction, he pleads lack of opportunity to explain his neglect of Nadja, but he concedes that it hadn't been a high priority while building a DVD collection. But after finally seeing the Ferrara film and liking it, he and I felt that it was time to give Almereyda a chance.

Wendigo quickly pegged Nadja as having been largely inspired by Lambert Hillyer's Universal horror film Dracula's Daughter. Our title character (Elina Loewensohn) is the daughter of the famous vampire, who is represented in flashback by a clip of Bela Lugosi from the public-domain White Zombie and long shots of a caped man walking on a melancholy cliff. Nadja and her more benign and sickly twin brother Edgar (Jared Harris) were born of the Count's last-chance romance with a gypsy girl centuries ago, their mother's demise having demoralized the master vampire and set him back to his evil ways.


Dracula (above) and Daughter (Elisa Loewensohn, below)



Dracula has just been killed -- in New York City -- by the eccentric Van Helsing (Peter Fonda), "Uncle Van" to his family, who has to get bailed out of jail at the start of the film. His legal jeopardy is one of the main points of resemblance to Dracula's Daughter. Another is Nadja's initial dissatisfaction with her vampiric lot, and another still is her sapphic infatuation with Lucy (Galaxy Craze), the equally dissatisfied wife of Van's nephew Jim (Martin Donovan). Lucy soon develops enhanced strength and speed (the latter illustrated by jump cuts) and even deeper detachment from the world around her, while Jim and Van race against time to save this "apprentice in the realm of darkness" from being totally turned. Meanwhile, assisted by her faithful chauffeur Renfield, Nadja tries to extract Edgar from the care of his beloved nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis), another of Van's relatives, and get him back on the rare shark-embryo plasma treatment that keeps him healthy. Edgar resists Nadja's control and joins Van, Jim and Lucy in Transylvania, where Nadja has fled with Cassandra in the hope of a new lease on life....





The vampire test: can Martin Donovan see Galaxy Craze's reflection in Peter Fonda's mirrorshades?



Wendigo gives Nadja credit for a good thematic idea that makes the movie as much a satire of Dracula itself as a riff on Dracula's Daughter. Much as Stoker's vampire touted England's vitality to explain his interest in moving there, Nadja is first seen talking about the energy and excitement of America. But over the course of the film, it becomes clear -- if only because Cassandra finally spells it out for us -- that the vitality vampires hope to thrive on has been replaced by a level of alienation and ennui that finally compels Nadja to flee, like Dracula in the novel, back to her homeland. That may also have had something to do with the exhaustion Van Helsing claims to have seen in Dracula himself. Wendigo also likes the idea that vampirism can be inherited through heredity, but not automatically, or at least not in its full virulence. But while Wendigo can give Almereyda some intellectual credit, he feels that the cinematic realization of the idea left a lot to be desired. While he applauds the monochrome cinematography by Jim Denault and the overall production design of Kurt Ossenfort, he thinks that the story lacked dramatic coherence. Ennui is something hard to put on film in a compelling manner, and if anything the actors express it all too accurately. Elisa Loewensohn has an interesting, maybe even a "cool" look, but her performance as Nadja is so low-key that Wendigo found the character unengaging -- though he blames the director for that. She failed to draw this vampire-buff into the picture, and the other actors did even less. Peter Fonda has the impossible task of playing a crazy man in a dull way in keeping with Almereyda's overall tone. He ends up virtually confirming his stoner stereotype with a too-subdued performance in a role that probably needed Dennis Hopper instead -- though Hopper would certainly have been too intense for this movie. Martin Donovan is no better as the male lead, and while the male lead is often dull in this sort of movie, but Donovan renders Jim a spectator in his own story. The other principal females -- Galaxy Craze and Suzy Amis -- made little impression, but were hardly allowed to.





Transylvania: myth and 'reality'





Almereyda is a pretentious director aligned with David Lynch, who has a producer credit and a bit part as a security guard. The product of this union is a picture with much gratuitous pseudo-surrealism, most notably the heavily-pixeled toy-camera shots that Wendigo assumes are meant to represent the "realm of darkness" juxtaposed over our own. More examples of self-conscious absurdity include Lucy's bobble-head Dracula Christmas tree ornament and the director's representation of Transylvania with a shot of a child in Mickey Mouse ears cavorting near a smoldering trash can. These bits do little to enhance the mood or make a point; they are weirdness for its own sake, self-indulgence in the guise of art -- or comedy. The way I see it, a great director could get away with a film about ennui if he can compensate pictorially to give it the life he's denied the actors. Wendigo feels the same way but would rather put it more bluntly: no amount of artistry makes up for the lack of a strong script and good acting. Of the two vampire indies of 1994-5, The Addiction had those in abundance, while Nadja is ultimately less inspired, or at least less inspiring, than it thinks it is.


Here's a "psychic fax" from 1995 -- the theatrical trailer, uploaded to YouTube by gene9000.


Friday, July 15, 2011

MAFIA (Il giorno della civetta, 1968)

Fans of WildEast's spaghetti western and Eurocrime DVDs may be disappointed by Damiano Damiani's adaptation of Leonardo Sciascia's literary mystery novel The Day of the Owl, just as American moviegoers may have been disappointed when it hit U.S. screens under the utterly generic title Mafia in 1970. For Americans, that name carries connotations of urban crime -- indeed, of American crime -- that have nothing to do with Sciascia's story of small-town Sicily. "Eurocrime" fans, meanwhile, are unlikely to be satisfied with a story that has very little action of violence beyond its opening killing. As well, fans of Claudia Cardinale -- the star of this WildEast double-feature disc -- may be disappointed with the relatively little she has to do in a film that gives her top billing, made at the peak period of her stardom, at the same time she got top billing over Fonda, Bronson and Robards in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West. But having laid down all these caveats, I found Damiani's film modestly effective as an atmospheric mystery and a critique of systematic corruption in Italy.

The mystery is the shooting of an honest contractor in the road-construction business in a sun-baked Sicilian town. Most people's first instinct is to ignore the crime; a busload of passengers would have looked right past the corpse had a carabinieri officer not also been on board. A young detective from "the north," Bellodi (Franco Nero) is the new officer in charge in town, a position that we soon realize is a revolving door to futility. The local mafioso, Don Mariano (an unwell-looking Lee J. Cobb) has seen the authorities come and go while he remains in power. I mean that literally: Mariano's house in the center of town and carabinieri headquarters look out at each other across a little public square. Bellodi presumes Mariano to be behind the killing of a businessman who wouldn't play ball with the mafia, but he has no evidence yet. However, the killing took place in plain view of the Nicolosi house, and as it happens the man of the house has disappeared, leaving his wife Rosa (Cardinale) alone. Has he left because he was the killer, or was he removed because he saw something he shouldn't have?



It's good to be the Don; Lee J. Cobb presides over his Mafia fiefdom

Bellodi's methods are manipulative if not Macchiavellian. With further evidence unlikely to turn up, he has to resort to trickery and outright lying to get people to open up or betray themselves. He tells Rosa that her husband has been found dead -- a lie -- just to see how she'll react, who she'll instinctively blame. Later, he'll confront crooks with fake confessions, hoping that they'll tell the truth if they think their pals are tossing them under the bus. His strategy is to compel someone into thinking their only option is to finger the real killer of the contractor or reveal where Nicolosi can be found. But his adversaries are just as good at lying as he is, if not better. They want Bellodi to believe that Nicolosi killed the contractor because the victim was having an affair with Rosa. When Bellodi deduces a different story and has Mariano and his cohorts arrested, the remaining mafiosi form a united front with an indifferent criminal justice system (Mariano is on good terms with the local ruling party) to overwhelm Bellodi's case with their own perjuries. Before long there's a new sheriff in town, so to speak, but a victorious Mariano finds himself missing Bellodi, whom he could at least respect as a worthy foe. The new man, like so many others, strikes the Don as just another "quack-quack-quack" -- like his own minions who quack in amused chorus when the worst is over. Maybe the story should have been called Day of the Duck.



Franco Nero goes incognito (right) for his meetings with the informer Parrinieddu (Serge Reggiani, left)

Given the cast and the literary pedigree, Mafia is no B-movie or genre picture and doesn't strive for sensationalism. We have the one shooting, and one corpse found later, and an attempted rape of Cardinale's character that doesn't go very far. Damiani's film stands or falls on conventional dramatic terms. On the director's part, the real strength of the picture is its sense of place. The square with the police station and the Don's house at opposite ends and characters constantly going in and out of jail or paying court to Mariano, is an ideal and picturesque dramatic space. On the outskirts of town, Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography gives you a strong sense of the wide-open, sun-blasted and grungy environment of road construction, the mundane business of a small-town mafia.


The cast is a mixed bag. Cardinale maintains a sullen glare for most of the picture, though she wears it well, but her character's ultimate helplessness makes little lasting impression. Cobb operates well short of full-blast, but with that voluble character actor that can sometimes be a good thing. It's wise to underplay, too, when character actors like Serge Reggiani (as an informer), Nehemiah Persoff (as a sleazy contractor) and Gaetano Cimarosa (as a really voluble gangster) are acting up a thespian storm around you. The real weak link in the cast is Franco Nero, who strikes me as too young for his role and too lacking in authority or cunning. He spends most of the show in his carabinieri uniform looking smug. That may be how his character was written in the original novel, but in the movie it provokes a feeling of pointlessness. For its original Italian audience, the most disappointing thing about Il giorno della civetta may have been the co-starring of Nero and Cardinale with a complete lack of romance between the two superstars.

Mafia is not a great mafia movie, but it's an interesting pop-culture artifact of 1960s Italy. In a way, it may have been a necessary prelude to the tough-cop movies of 1970s Italy, since it can't help leaving audiences frustrated at the triumph of injustice and probably wishing that someone would just lash out at organized crime. Damiani's film portrays something closer to the glum reality against which cinema would react with a vengeance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the Big Screen: CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010)

If any director working today has a good old-fashioned Mondo movie in him, it's Werner Herzog. The tempestuous Teuton shares the genre's omnivorous eye for the bizarre and its often pretentiously dyspeptic temperament. He also has the classic Mondo instinct for winging it and finding excuses to throw disparate elements together. Nothing in his newest documentary shows that so well as its postscript, in which Herzog departs from the 32,000 year old Chauvet cave to visit a nearby artificial biosphere, warmed by a nuclear power plant, where albino alligators are being cultivated. Herzog closes the film with a speculation that the alligators' new environment may spread to encompass the cave, so that someday the alligators' descendants may wonder, as we do now, what the Chauvet cave paintings were all about. He goes so far as to equate modern-day humans with albino alligators in our essential incomprehension of the paintings' meaning to their painters. Herzog puts on a good show, but all his formidable bluster can't cover the fact that, once he'd heard about the alligators, he just had to have them in his movie about cave paintings, and he'd figure out a way to explain their inclusion later.

In America, Herzog is probably better known as a documentarian than for his epic features of the 1970s and 1980s. Given his cartoonish accent and his globetrotting proclivities, he's our modern-day Jacques Cousteau, or maybe a real-life Steve Zissou. But he also remains a pictorial genius and a postmodern primitive who synthesizes classical narrative cinema and the pre-Hollywood model of the cinema of attractions. He can tell stories, but his first impulse is always to show us something amazing, whether it's the Iraqi oil fields burning or Klaus Kinski dining alone. It was an inspired decision to let him have a 3D camera and enter the Chauvet cave to show us the oldest-known artwork by human beings.



Image from The New Yorker magazine website.

Discovered only in the 1990s, the cave paintings were preserved after a long-ago rockslide sealed the original entrance. To protect the precious pictures from the ravages of tourism, access is strictly limited, and those limitations are part of the genius of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog has an unparalleled opportunity to work, but he's also under extraordinary constraints. He can only bring three crewmembers down with him, they can film usually only for an hour at a time, and they cannot step off the pathways the preservationists have installed. Under these conditions the director behaves himself. Faced with the mystery of what can be seen on the other side of an overhang which features the only human representation at Chauvet (a woman's rear end), he ultimately contrives a pole which he can extend out to the other side while remaining on the walkway. Herzog is nothing if not a problem solver.

He also makes the best use of 3D that I can imagine. The technology still has its limitations; compositions in depth can still look a lot like layers of transparencies rather than figures in actual space. But Herzog plays to the technology's strengths -- he may even have discovered strengths hitherto unknown. He'll give you what you expect, directing a scholar to brandish a spear at the camera. But what he excels at is the close-up examination of texture, the interplay of light and shadow on contoured surfaces. He believes that the Chauvet painters exploited the contours of the cave walls for effects (hence the necessity of 3D) and wants to convince us that the paintings are not just the earliest human pictures but the earliest moving pictures. As he presents them, you can almost buy his argument. You can believe that the multiple legs on the creatures are meant to represent movement, and you can believe that they might have been part of a presentation in which select images were illuminated by torchlight one at a time in narrative fashion. That's really more my idea than Herzog's, but his ideas get you thinking. In any event, his close-up in-depth shots of the paintings are extraordinary, as are the panning shots that try to catch the paintings in full.

Herzog is famously disparaging toward the work of Jean-Luc Godard -- once saying that there was more pure cinema in kung-fu movies -- but Cave of Forgotten Dreams finds him expressing Godard-like skepticism about the communicative power of images. What can the Chauvet paintings really tell us about the people who painted them? Not much, really. Other evidence tells us that the cave wasn't used as a human dwelling. Did it serve some ritual role? One piece of evidence, a bear skull mounted on an altar-like rock, is suggestive but insufficient. The point Herzog returns to constantly is that we simply can't know for certain what Chauvet was all about, or what forgotten dreams inspired the painters. That radical uncertainty only seems to inspire him to peer more deeply into each image, as if to reproduce for us the effect he and the researchers claim to have experienced, the feeling that they were interrupting works still in progress. Given that some of the paintings reportedly juxtapose images created centuries or millennia apart, it could be argued that Herzog does continue the original painters' work by filming them and suggesting additional layers of meaning. New dreams can be superimposed on the old and forgotten -- but what will the albino alligators make of all this? The irony of it all, which the director probably appreciates, is that the alligators may someday commune with the cave paintings with less restraints than Herzog had, and if they have the mental means, they'll confront the paintings with fresh eyes, long after Herzog's own dreams have been more completely forgotten. For us, here and now, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a look into an abyss of history that may inspire dreams of history looking back.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

THE CHRISTIAN REVOLT (Amakusa Tokisada Shiro, 1962)

Outsiders often think of Japan as a homogeneous nation and culture, but the Japanese themselves are often quite conscious of the problems minorities face in their country. Throughout his career, the director Nagisa Oshima has shown a special concern for the mistreatment of minorities, particularly Koreans. In Amakusa Tokisada Shiro, Oshima took up the topic of the persecution of Christians under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The best known Japanese work on this subject outside Japan is probably the Catholic author Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, an adaptation of which has long been a dream project for Martin Scorsese. While Endo generously focuses on the persecution of European missionaries, Oshima looks at the suffering of Japanese Christians and their conflicted response to persecution. He also strives for a critical synthesis of Japanese and European models of artistic representation while questioning in an almost postmodern way exactly what in people's hearts can be represented pictorially at all.



Oshima's protagonist is a historical figure, Shiro Amakusa, but seems to have taken liberties with history by making a character who supposedly died while still in his teens a former samurai (Hashizo Okawa) who's regarded as a leader of his peasant community as well as a charismatic prophet. His people are being pushed to the breaking point by a rapacious nobility that blames inadequate tax revenue on Shiro's religion. The local samurai, with one noble exception, compete to devise ways to torture Christians and terrorize them into recanting their faith. One such turncoat, Emosaku (Rentaro Mikuni) has become a court painter, specializing in European-style oil painting which he claims represents a subject's actual personality better than traditional Japanese art. He balks, however, when commanded to paint Christians performing the "straw dance," -- they are wrapped in husks of straw, set on fire and set running -- and is suspected of remaining a Christian. Desperate to save himself, he rats out Christians inside the local lord's household. This undermines Shiro's long-term plan to stage an uprising within the castle to overthrow the oppressive lord, though the plan often seems like little more than a promise of redemption to his angry co-religionists.



Shiro is a conflicted hero with an uncertain understanding of his own religion, despite his mother's constant tutelage. He sends mixed messages to his people, assuring them that their persecution is not the will of God but that an enraged peasant going on a foolhardy mission of revenge was God's will. As the pressure builds for an uprising, he rationalizes it by saying that his people will fight as oppressed peasants, not as Christians in violation of the turn-the-other-cheek rule. Once the fighting is underway, it threatens to get out of his control when a charismatic ronin offers his assistance and more ronin join him. Still straddling the fence, Shiro defers to the ronin on military matters until several setbacks -- including the hostility of European military advisers to the shogun and an alleged excommunication from the Catholic Church -- forces a decisive three-way choice on the Christians. Shall they continue to fight the samurai head-on, as the ronin wants, disperse into smaller inconspicuous groups, as some others want, or fortify themselves in one place to resist a samurai assault, as Shiro wants. When Shiro is finally driven to assert himself violently in a showdown with the ronin, who has called him out as a coward, the feeling is unmistakable that there's nothing left for him to do but die -- and take thousands with him....



Oshima maintains a critical but not negative attitude toward Christianity, but constantly reminds us of the samurai cruelty that drove so many to become Christians as well as revolt against the social order. While many of the "history of cruelty" movies made in Europe focus on the atrocities perpetrated by Christians on others -- witches, heretics, etc. -- in Oshima's film the shoe is on the other foot. The effect is largely the same, however, since for the Japanese filmmaker Christians are the other made objects of empathy. His film really transcends my theoretical genre, rising from a litany of torture to the level of epic tragedy, filmed in appropriate long-take tableaux with theatrical intensity and chiaroscuro cinematography. Scenes often develop in slow-burn fashion, but the payoff, especially in the final confrontation between Shiro and the ronin, is tremendous.



Transcending his historical subject, Oshima also invites his audience to question whether his eloquently exquisite or brutal images can truly capture the spirit of the time or the personality of the players. This proposition is put forth explicitly in Emosaku's explication of the relative virtues of Japanese and European art. He tells his patron that Japanese painting is best for landscapes and "beautiful figures," while the European style is best for portraiture that evokes a subject's true self. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Oshima himself is testing these premises, switching frequently from huge close-ups designed to catch profound emotion to vast landscape long shots that reduce armies to ants against the mountains.



Cinema itself is a third thing entirely, and in one sequence of visually "rhyming" shots Oshima implicitly asks whether cinema can catch emotional truth any better than painting.






Between the subject and its representation stands the subjectivity of the artist, and that's what Emosaku really seems to stand for. Does his portrait show the truth of the lord -- the lord himself asks, "Are you trying to say I look repulsive?" -- or only Emosaku's opinion of the man. The question rises again when, after repeatedly refusing to paint a straw dance, Emosaku appears to have a real religious experience during the crucifixion of Shiro's mother and sister, along with Shiro's one samurai ally and his wife on either side of a single cross.






Oshima has illustrated Shiro's reaction, and that of the other Christians, by bathing them in floodlights and leading the camera through a lengthy tracking shot of dozens of despairing or prayerful close-ups.



The painter responds to the scene with a picture of Christ crucified amid a field of crosses as doves rise heavenward and the Virgin watches in the sky. Depending on the witness, his may have been as "true" a report of the event as Oshima's cinematography -- Shintaro Kawasaki did the brilliant actual work. In the same way, perhaps, Christianity is one thing to Shiro, another to his mother, and something else yet to someone else. All of this is a possibly pretentious way of saying that there's a lot going on in Amakusa Tokisada Shiro to make it interesting if not compelling for people without any special sympathy for Christianity. It seems to be a relatively unknown item for Americans in Oshima's filmography -- ignored even by the otherwise Oshima-rich Criterion Collection -- but its neglect is unjustified. The Christian Revolt is a dark epic that deserves wider renown.

No English subtitles on this trailer -- uploaded to YouTube by WorldCinemateque -- but it'll give you some idea of the moving images and the terrific score by Riichiro Manabe.