Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wendigo Meets MIDNIGHT SON (2011)

Don't watch Scott Leberecht's feature-film directing debut the way we did if you can avoid doing so. Wendigo and I watched it on FearNet, and despite the fact that we pay a premium to get that station, it censors movies. Curse words grow common at a certain point but all get censored, and women's naked breasts disappear in clouds of pixilation. Despite those drawbacks, we found the film worth reviewing, and we regret that it didn't get a chance to prove itself in theaters, apart from a handful of film festivals. Back in the day, something like Midnight Son would have been booked into drive-ins and grindhouse theaters. That's not to say that it's a good film or worthy of play in a modern multiplex -- Wendigo confesses that he would have been disappointed had he shelled out ten bucks to see it -- but is that the film's fault or the fault of modern distribution or exhibition policies? Does no one know how to promote something like this anymore? But enough editorializing.

Midnight Son is a B movie with the mindset of an "independent" film. That is, Leberecht, a former special-effects art director for Industrial Light and Magic, aspires more to art than exploitation. Like many a modern vampire movie this one can be taken as a metaphor for alienation, addiction, or what have you. The protagonist, Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is a security guard first seen waking up at night and parting the curtain-like blanket that keeps the sun off his bed. He's avoided sunlight since childhood, when his arm literally caught fire in strong daylight. He's feeling kinda poorly as he approaches his 25th birthday -- as a friendly janitor (veteran character actor Tracey Walter earns an "and" and honorary red-herring status for his trouble) helpfully explains, a body finishes growing at about that time. Jacob feels weak, has fainting spells, and goes through fits of the munchies -- nothing seems to satisfy him. A doctor suspects a form of anemia, and through trial and error Jacob discovers that only raw blood can calm his rumbly tummy. He buys animal blood by the carton from the local meat market, but after a while it fails to satisfy. Suspecting the worst -- he watches Fright Night on video and handles a cross to test himself -- he grows desperate for human blood. Caught trying to get into a medical-waste dumpster outside a hospital, Jacob becomes a client of Marcus (Jo D. Jonz), a corrupt orderly who eventually starts bleeding innocent people to supply our horrified hero. His increasingly dangerous relationship with Marcus complicates his romance with Mary (Maya Parish) a coke-addict cocktail waitress whose nosebleed during sex awakens his appetite for human blood. His efforts to avoid killing for blood only embroil him in violence -- and he worries that he may have killed without realizing it as police investigate the death of a woman who worked in his building.

At a certain point, Leberecht stops teasing and makes clear that Jacob has become some sort of vampire. Worse, he's started making vampires without meaning to. In one case, the new vampire is a menace that has to be stopped. With the other, Jacob faces a choice that decides the future for both himself and the woman he wants to love....

Wendigo was encouraged initially by Leberecht's pictorial ambition. Midnight Son is a slickly made movie, and for a special-effects guy the director seemed to have a sure hand with his actors, keeping them lively but also keeping them from going over the top. Wendigo sticks with that assessment; without going overboard himself, he found the movie a modest but solid success. The lead actors proved themselves promising, and the supporting cast didn't suck. The story won't set anyone's world on fire -- it isn't really anything new and doesn't pretend to be. It works familiar B-movie ground effectively, though it did leave us asking unanswered questions about Jacob's upbringing and whether his parents knew anything about his potential. Is his vampirism a biological accident or destiny? Leberecht doesn't say. But questions like that don't reflect poorly on the film. Arguably, they reflect its success as a character study that keeps you thinking afterward.

If anything, Midnight Son is too modest in its approach, too reticent apart from some moments of sex and gore, to grab the general audience, and it's not pretentious or transgressive enough to attract arthouse attention. FearNet was probably this film's best hope for wider exposure, which comes with a price. Regrettably, it isn't original or outrageous enough to distinguish itself from the low-budget pack, and Leberecht clearly can't afford (and maybe wasn't interested in) the effects that would have made his movie more spectacular. For Wendigo, Midnight Son was a mostly enjoyable experience, but it could never deliver enough enjoyment to justify dropping multiplex money to see it. But he thinks that any real vampire-movie fan would get something out of this sincere, somewhat thoughtful and somewhat above-average effort. He hopes that Leberecht can build on it and go on to bigger and better things.
Here's a trailer created for Midnight Son's showing at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: IN OLD ARIZONA (1928)

In December 1928 Fox Film sold In Old Arizona as the latest technological breakthrough: an all-talking film shot on location. It was meant as proof that synchronized sound would not confine film to soundstages, that talkies could be more than a musical novelty. Harold Lloyd testified to its impact. Taking in a screening, he noted how audiences thrilled just to hear the sound of food frying in a pan. That experience supposedly inspired him to reshoot a completed silent comedy, Welcome Danger, and make it a talking film. In Old Arizona shows up on TV occasionally and earned a DVD release because it earned Warner Baxter the first Best Actor Oscar for a talking picture -- in a role original director Raoul Walsh intended for himself before an accident cost him an eye and curtailed his participation in the project -- and established O. Henry's Cisco Kid in the modern pop-culture canon. And here the confusion begins.

In Old Arizona is an expansive adaptation of O. Henry's 1907 short story "The Caballero's Way," which was recently reprinted in the Big Book of Adventure Stories anthology from Vintage's admirable Black Lizard imprint. Editor Otto Penzler notes the obvious, that in his original appearance the beloved Cisco Kid is a villain, and goes on to relate that In Old Arizona turned Cisco into a "hero who captures outlaws and rescues damsels in distress." Penzler may be an expert on pulp fiction, but he clearly hasn't seen this movie. Screenwriter Tom Barry's Cisco Kid does differ from the original, but the changes only shift the tone from O. Henry's grim irony to Walsh and official co-director Irving Cummings's black comedy.
In the story, a Lt. Sandridge of the Texas Rangers is tasked with tracking down the Cisco Kid, who has killed at least eighteen men. Sandridge's best chance to nab the elusive bandit is to seduce his girlfriend Tonia and convince her to betray him. The Kid himself may not even be a Mexican; one character believes his real name to be Goodall. As for whether Sandridge's stratagem succeeds, I'll explain later.

In the movie, Sandridge become Sgt. Mickey Dunn of the U.S. Army (Edmund Lowe) and gets more of a backstory, Lowe being a bigger star than Baxter. Dunn is an amiable oaf from the East of wavering loyalty to the girl he left behind, whose Coney Island gag picture he carries as a memento. Like many of the men the Cisco Kid encounters, Dunn is full of clueless bravado. The tone is set after we've been introduced to the Kid robbing a stage. TCM allows us to see him in action.

The bandit goes into town to spend his loot, and viewers share his amusement as various people brag or bluster about what they'd do to the Cisco Kid if they had a chance without realizing that their best chance is right in front of him. Dunn does most of the boasting during an extended scene in a barbershop -- the scene that goes furthest toward making the Kid a likable if not sympathetic character. The Italian barber is furious that he's lost the money he'd saved to send to his family in the old country and wishes he could cut the Kid's throat with his razor for robbing that stage. The incognito Kid plainly pities the man and promises to give him a big tip to make up for his losses -- he claims to have struck gold somewhere -- if the barber will draw him a warm bath. He finally gives the barber $100 for his trouble after a bath and friendly banter with Dunn, who knows him only as El Conecito -- the "Little Rabbit." "Are you really that fast?" Dunn asks salaciously.  It's only after they've shaken hands and Dunn has seen his new friend off that a blacksmith informs the sergeant that he's just met the Cisco Kid. This Kid is an almost benign sort of cartoon trickster, having the same sort of mild fun Bugs Bunny might have with various saps, but without having to bellow at the last moment, "By the way, confidentially -- I AM the Cisco Kid!!!"

Eventually, the plot of "The Caballero's Way" kicks in as Dunn makes his move on Tonia (Dorothy Burgess). In an interesting self-referential touch for an early talkie, and one that definitely seems to have come from Walsh, Tonia has an early cylinder-style record player. The film itself is set in 1898 -- there are references to the Spanish-American War -- and we seem almost to be in the same world as Walsh's Bowery movie. Dunn even teaches Tonia the traditional "Bowery" song. The story may have seemed closer to the present day for 1929 audiences than the original story, which doesn't date its events, may have seemed to 1907 readers. All these details certainly give In Old Arizona a nostalgic charm that conceals the sting in its tail.
People today probably still know O. Henry as the master of the twist ending, and "The Caballero's Way" has a particularly harsh one. Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably, Barry, Walsh and Cummings restructure the ending, sacrificing the shock of the twist in order to build suspense toward a finish that arguably makes the Kid an even worse heel than in the story. You'll see the difference if I break things down, first for the story, then for the film.

"The Caballero's Way"
1. Sandridge and Tonia conspire against the Kid, Tonia agreeing to send word secretly to Sandridge the next time the Kid comes to her so the Ranger will be waiting in ambush when the bandit departs. Neither one knows that the Kid is watching them.
2. The Kid returns to Tonia, pretending to be none the wiser.
3. Sandridge receives a note tipping him off that the Kid plans to leave disguised in women's clothes, wearing Tonia's own mantilla, while having Tonia wearing his clothes.
4. Sandridge intercepts the transvestite bandit and fires fatal shots.
5. He realizes to his horror that he's killed Tonia, not the Kid.
6. One of the locals explains to Sandridge, upon recognizing the handwriting, that the Cisco Kid wrote the letter.
In Old Arizona
1 and 2. As in the story.
3. We see the Kid intercept a messenger with an original letter from Tonia to Dunn.
4. We see the Kid rewrite the letter according to O.Henry's text.
5. The Kid goes back to Tonia and gives her the new mantilla.
6. Dunn shoots Tonia while the Kid rides away.

The movie has a stronger impact because we pass the last few minutes asking ourselves whether the Kid will actually carry out his terrible plan and send Tonia to her death for betraying him. The deed done, I wonder what the original audience thought of the Kid. They could believe that Tonia had it coming, but Edmund Lowe has done such a good job establishing Dunn as a likable oaf, and the directors have so successfully established a comic tone, that I have a hard time imagining the audiences desiring the finish they get, unless they accepted the Kid's neat trick and Tonia's arguably deserved demise as extensions of the established darkish comedy. But if anything, In Old Arizona closes on a note of pathos typical of the era, once more at odds with the story. O. Henry tells us that the Cisco Kid is a terrible singer, yet fond of gargling the one tune he knows -- "Don't you monkey with my Lulu girl/Or I'll tell you what I'll do." It's this he sings as he rides from the scene of the tragedy -- but in Old Arizona the song he sings is the inevitable would-be hit single attached to early talkies, the romantic but now bittersweet "My Tonia." That song, rather than any ultimate emoting from Baxter, gives us our last impression of the Cisco Kid and allows us to believe that he may have regretted what he did even as he hits the road like many a comic pilgrim in search of new adventures. But please, movie historians: this is not a good guy!

Warner Baxter eventually gave a great performance in 42nd Street, around four years later, Seeing his legendary turn in Old Arizona, I wondered why he got an Oscar for that but not for the musical. It seems like the Academy, as soon as it could honor a spoken performance, proved itself a sucker for accents. In his defense, Baxter's is a relatively restrained Mexican bandit, a cool customer rather than a stereotyped hothead. But he underplays sometimes almost to the point of muttering or mumbling, and Edmund Lowe practically steals the film from him in a much more easygoing, comfortable and funny performance. The film as a whole most likely lived up to its hype as far as original audiences were concerned; the best proof is Baxter and Lowe's reunion for a sequel in 1931. I haven't seen very many 1929 talkies -- Alibi, The Broadway Melody, The Coconuts, The Great Gabbo and Lloyd's revamped Welcome Danger come to mind -- but In Old Arizona is more pictorially proficient and smoothly told than all of them. It looks the least old-fashioned, even compared to Walsh's own The Big Trail from 1930, which was arguably hobbled by further experimentation with the widescreen Grandeur process but also aimed for an archaic epic tone that it largely realized on its own terms. Arizona's tone may also seem somewhat more modern to today's viewers, though it remains a mildly black comedy apart from its grim finish. We might not be sure what to make of its overall tone, but that's exactly what makes it interesting both as a film and a document of film history.

Now Playing: FEB. 28, 1962

Back in the day the movie fan and newspaper reader had to distinguish among degrees of sleaze. Here are some samples, starting with Daytona Beach FL.

I've read Nelson Algren's novel but haven't gotten around to Edward Dmytryk's film, which I understand adapts only a fraction of the ground covered in Algren's Depression picaresque. The novel would certainly be "adult" by contemporary standards, though I doubt the film would qualify for that label today except wherever Rick Santorum gets his votes.
Here's the famous Saul Bass opening and title song, uploaded to YouTube by poshbaby1

On to Syracuse, where the city's "most unusual theater" presents a most unusual attraction.

Writer Laurence Zeitlin gives an account of the making of Paradisio here -- It's a Immoral Mr. Teas-inspired fantasy about a guy with genuine x-ray specs, and Zeitlin's only screenwriting credit. We're in the middle of a little 3-D boomlet, best known for The Mask -- and there's more to come this year. The second big hit has a place in film history as sex symbol/mad scientist Hedy Lamarr's last movie, made back in 1958. Malcom Drew has uploaded a no-embed clip reel of highlights from Female Animal on YouTube.

Finally, from the depths of Pittsburgh:

Not to be confused with Michael and Roberta Findlay's Flesh films, this is a French film known to home audiences as Détournement de mineures, which translates to something (I guess) like "Delinquency of a minor." A synopsis from a French movie site, translated by Bing, says: "A young daughter of a modest environment and who dreams to dance falls into the claws of a network of minor diversion." This is why the old-time ballyhoo was so important. The second feature was more difficult to track down, but Passionate Sunday proves to be an alternate title for Dark Odyssey, an American movie co-directed by Radley Metzger concerning a Greek who immigrates to this country to avenge the rape of his sister. Here's a clip uploaded by 913Tripolis44.

You'll forgive me for not posting "Now Playing" tomorrow, as there was no such thing as February 29, 1962. We can't have everything.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sophia Loren in MADAME SANS-GENE (1961)

1961 was a high-water mark of the Italian invasion of American movie theaters. Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita became a breakout blockbuster, while Sophia Loren became the first performer to win an acting Oscar for a foreign-language performance, copping Best Actress for Vittorio de Sica's Two Women, and Hercules movies and related peplums played across the land. Loren personally bridged the two cinematic superpowers, having built up her English-language stardom over several years in Hollywood in the late 1950s. In 1961, as Two Women opened in the big U.S. markets and Anthony Mann's El Cid proved another international hit, Loren invaded France. She took on a beloved historical-theatrical role that had been played by Gloria Swanson in a lost silent film: Catherine "Madame Sans-Gene" ("Shameless") Lefebvre, who rose from laundress to Duchess of Danzig in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Despite the language barrier (which Loren traversed with apparent ease), the star seemed natural for a character who becomes a princess while retaining an earthy irreverence.

Catherine's main claim to fame is having been the personal laundress of Corporal Napoleon Bonaparte during his humble early days in the army of the Revolution. As early as 1792, she thinks her "little Bonaparte" (he insists on the Corsican spelling, Buonaparte) has enough clout to evict a cannon from her little courtyard near the besieged Tuileries palace, but Napoleon (Julien Bertheau) gets carried away with tactics and orders one of her gates removed to give the cannon a clearer shot. Sensitive Sgt. Francois Lefebvre (Robert Hossein) promises to repair the gate when the fighting ends. Catherine nearly gets shot by stray bullets while watching the street fighting, and never gets her gate replaced. Lefebvre marches off with his troops to fight the Austrians, while a frustrated Napoleon heads home to Corsica, promising to repay Catherine some day for washing his two white shirts.

Four years later, Bonaparte is a general and French armies are on the offensive. Catherine has become a cook for the troops and re-encounters Francois, renewing their amorous acquaintance before both are captured by the Austrians. Confined in a windmill (Francois is considered AWOL by Napoleon), the pair manage a tricky escape and blow up the enemy's ammo stores. For his heroic act, Francois is made Duke of Danzig, and once Napoleon becomes Emperor he has an even bigger role in store for Francois and Catherine.

The comedy of the story derives from the reign of parvenus spread through Europe by Napoleon. He has elevated many a man of humble background to high rank in the army while putting crowns on the heads of as many of his relatives as he can. But while nepotism comes naturally to him, he also feels that his siblings are unworthy -- or at least that it's unbecoming of them to bitch about his plans for other European thrones. His brother Jerome, for instance, resents the Emperor's plan to make the Lefebvres King and Queen of Westphalia, and his sisters hypocritically look upon Catherine in particular as trash. They conspire to make Catherine embarrass herself at her big coming-out event, and to get the scandal spread around the world.

Catherine, of course, is only dishing out straight talk about everyone's common origins, and Napoleon knows this, but the fact that English propaganda starts saying the same things infuriates him. In reprisal, he orders Francois to divorce Catherine and marry a more diplomatically suitable bride if he wants to be a king. Seeing that her husband is too intimidated to talk back to the Emperor, Catherine boldly confronts him, taking a big chance with Napoleon's temper until she reminds him of who she is -- he had forgotten about his long-ago laundress, and the revelation makes him indulgently nostalgic. When Francois finally builds up the courage to refuse Napoleon's order, the Emperor happily spares them the burdens of monarchy and dismisses them to go off together.

It's a trifling story but one amusingly told by director Christian-Jaque. Filmed on a big budget by European standards, it's a lavish production with armies of extras and authentic locations but essentially light entertainment. The best pure cinema comes early as the director builds honest tension while Catherine takes chances strains for a clearer view of the uncertain storming of the Tuileries across her neighborhood's narrow streets. More often the film works at the simpler level of widescreen spectacle. As a star vehicle for Loren it works just fine. Effortlessly sexy, she can play broad and loud without compromising her glamor, and her ethnicity relative to the mostly French cast makes the Napoleonic court's disdain for Catherine plausible. It's not as well-known an item in America (where it played as just plain Madame) as Loren's American and Italian triumphs, but her fans, and fans of colorful costume films, ought to enjoy it.

Here's how American distributors tried to sell Madame, including some English-dubbed dialogue, uploaded by Dano16 via TCM.


It may be just an accident of technological progress that W. S. Van Dyke's Trader Horn is a talking picture while his White Shadows in the South Seas is virtually a silent film -- it comes late enough in the era to have a soundtrack and some sound effects. But while the films were released less than three years apart they seem to come from two different worlds. I don't mean merely the Polynesia of White Shadows and the Africa of Trader Horn, but two starkly contrasted visions of "primitive" people and their relations with "civilized" whites. Race probably has something to do with the portrayal of one place as a remnant of paradise and the other as an eat-or-be-eaten hell, but White Shadows's idealization of an island undiscovered by whites doesn't require a critique of the whites themselves. Yet Van Dyke's film, and presumably the Frederick O'Brien novel that inspired it, are severe and fatalistic in their condemnation of the "white shadows" that fall across the innocent islands. This M-G-M idyll -- the laggard company's first sound film, a November release -- proves one of the most pessimistic pictures of the silent era, plumbing depths not touched again by Hollywood for another forty years.

It begins with an island where the white shadows have already fallen -- where the white market for pearls has deranged native ways of life. Unscrupulous traders fleece the natives, offering three dollars per pearl or a wristwatch if that sum won't suffice. Pearl diving endangers the divers' health and exposes them to jungle-like dangers in the deep vividly illustrated by remarkable if not unprecedented underwater cinematography. A cynical, self-loathing commentator on the corruption is Dr. Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), who isn't above playing the clown to cadge drinks but won't stop speaking his mind when he sees injustice. After giving a thorough tongue-lashing and thrashing to the white trader Sebastian (Robert Anderson), Lloyd is lured onto a plague ship, beaten down and tied to the wheel and set adrift on stormy seas.
Lloyd manages to free himself and attempts to steer the vessel, but he ends up shipwrecked on an uncharted island, where he finds a tribe living in primitive plenty. They take him for a "white god" by virtue of his skin and treat him to a tremendous feast of fruit and seafood. He takes a liking to pretty young Fayaway (Raquel Torres) but learns to his peril that she is a dedicated temple virgin, so that not even a god can look upon her with eyes of love unless her father revokes her status. When Matthew saves her apparently-drowned younger brother, the father consents to his daughter's union with "Matti Loa," and all seems well until our hero watches native craftsmen make fishhooks from clam shells and sees them throwing pearls away like trash.

"He was only a white man, not a god," the titles explain, and while Matthew has no desire to exploit the natives, he can't resist the thought of an easy fortune. And so the first white shadow falls on the island as he starts diving for clams and throwing away the shells to the dismay of the natives. With a cache of "pearls for the world," Lloyd lights a fire on the beach in the hope of attracting a boat, but Fayaway notices and laments that her love wants to leave her. That's all it takes to change our hero's mind. He repents his greed instantly, puts the fire out and casts the pearls into the sea. That might have been the happy ending, except that someone else did see the fire from a distance. Soon Sebastian the trader touches the shore with wristwatches and other trade goods, hoping to turn the island into another pearl factory. Knowing what Sebastian represents, Lloyd tries to rally the natives to resistance, and fails utterly. In fact, he is killed by Sebastian's men, and the film ends with Fayaway's island looking little different from the degraded site we saw at the beginning, while Fayaway herself mourns Matthew disconsolately.

As The Artist seems poised to win the Best Picture Oscar this weekend, I'm reminded of one line of critique of that pastiche-homage to the silent era that charges it with being untrue to its subject matter for lacking much sense of tragedy or pathos. I'm not sure if that criticism is valid, as Artist is basically a comedy and not in the Chaplinesque mode, but the critics could definitely use White Shadows in the South Seas as Exhibit A for the darker depth of silent cinema. Knowing little about the movie except that pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty had been involved early but quit, the ending caught me flatfooted by its abruptness, finality and misery. Here is a movie that actually had a happy ending and chose to throw it away in order to make a larger point about the inexorable corruption of the world by a uniquely "white" greed. Individuals might overcome it after considerable struggle, but that greed is portrayed here as a collective cultural force that invariably overwhelms individual resistance, destroying the individuals if necessary. Of course, it seems that Americans didn't think the same way when whites ran amok in Africa, but that brings up the question of timing again. Somehow Trader Horn seems like the fantasy on primitive themes the Depression might produce for Pre-Code audiences, while White Shadows, however bleak its finish, offers its Twenties audience a utopia of escape to plenty. The Polynesian fantasy didn't disappear with the Depression, but it may be worth noting that in King Vidor's Bird of Paradise, the standout Pre-Code variation on the theme, the native beauty is doomed to be a human sacrifice. On the other hand, Pre-Code cinema usually celebrates survival ethics, even if those weren't necessarily ethical, while silent cinema does sometimes seem to wallow in the pathos of sacrifice, renunciation and lost dreams -- often even in ostensible comedies.

Watching White Shadows after seeing Trader Horn gave me a greater sense of the technical constraints Van Dyke labored under making the talking picture. White Shadows is shot in high late-silent style with plenty of tracking shots; it's a more fluid and fluent film than Trader Horn. The two films presumably established the director as a "nature" specialist and M-G-M's natural choice to helm Tarzan the Ape Man, and they certainly make a nearly bipolar double feature. Monte Blue makes a strong impression as Matthew Lloyd that makes ironic his frequent later casting as Native Americans and various ethnic villains. White Shadows is probably his best claim on movie history. The sound is mixed; the score struck me as pre-evocative of many later films, but the sound effects and the occasional human "hello!" seemed awkwardly unnatural, reminding us of the limitations of early sound film even when actors didn't try to talk. But White Shadows's points of interest outnumber its flaws, and it's worth a look for anyone interested in movie history who can stand that downer of a finish and appreciate the point it makes.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Now Playing: FEB. 24, 1962

While I could excuse my neglect of "Now Playing: 1962" this week by pleading overwork and placing a priority on reviews, the fact is -- it's been a pretty dull week back in 50yearsagoville. There's just not a lot of interesting product opening around the country. In a lot of places, the week's big release is a re-release of Disney's Pinocchio. Otherwise, drab stuff like A Majority of One -- which sells itself as "Auntie Mame Goes Asian" and presents Alec Guinness as a Japanese, opens in mid-sized cities. But if that turgid affair is some people's idea of class, there's always an alternative. This ad from a Feb. 23 Charleston paper sets the tone.

I could comment on tastes in comedy then compared to now, but the truth is: the more things change...

People in Madison WI had it better, but I must explain that the event advertised below is a kind of ringer. It isn't a movie at all, but live theater -- and look at that cast!

Here are a couple of footnotes to history. This show in Madison is one of the last performances in the life of the great Thomas Mitchell, one of the most reliable character actors of the classic studio era and the one who seemed to appear in nearly every major film from the golden year of 1939. I don't actually exaggerate that much. Mitchell would continue touring with the show until his death later in 1962 at age 70. The other footnote is that the role he played in the play was Columbo -- this is the same story, elaborated from a one-hour TV anthology episode, that would be made into a full-length TV movie  and form the basis for Peter Falk's famous spot on the NBC Mystery Movie and beyond. The character was conceived as a much older man than Falk was when he first took the role; Bing Crosby had to turn Columbo down before Falk got his chance. But if you suggest to me Thomas Mitchell as Columbo -- yes, I can see it ... except I can't. If only someone had filmed the play with this cast in it. But you can't rewrite the past; you can only cut and paste it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

MEDEA (1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini probably doesn't get enough credit for changing the face of movies. By applying neorealist principles to historical drama, he pioneered a grungy, naturalistic vision of the past that belied the romanticized, aestheticized look of the generic period epic. His Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) set a pictorial tone that reappeared in films as diverse as The Lion in Winter, Jabberwocky and (perhaps most apropos) The Last Temptation of Christ. At the same time, Pasolini's objective was not strict historical realism. St. Matthew includes American spirituals on its soundtrack, which as a whole is an expressionist collage of music chosen for effect rather than conventional thematic fitness. In that respect he's a peer of Stanley Kubrick, and there's a certain similarity in dispassionate tone to Kubrick in this adaptation of the Euripedes tragedy and the core myth. Pasolini would go beyond Kubrick in taking that clinical approach to atrocity, culminating in his Sadean swansong Salo. Medea is a milestone in Pasolini's development; a high-culture event that gives the St. Matthew treatment to Greek mythology and takes it to a new expressionist level of cacophonous multicultural violence. It combines the movie debut of Maria Callas, the most famous opera diva of her time -- she was known to multitudes as the object of gossip, Aristotle Onassis having dumped her for Jackie Kennedy, while aficionados lauded her singing and acting -- and some extreme gore for late Sixties cinema. It isn't the Greece most movie fans thought they knew -- it's worlds away from Jason and the Argonauts -- but it's arguably a more convincing evocation of an ancient and therefore alien world.

Pasolini starts with Jason  and the revelation from his centaur mentor Chiron (Laurent Terzieff) of his royal heritage and destiny. As Jason matures, Chiron transforms from centaur to human and informs the youth that the gods don't really exist. Still, Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) must undertake his legendary mission to take the Golden Fleece from Colchis, a land more savage than his own. This is illustrated with a fertility ritual involving human sacrifice. The victim is butchered -- we see the head separated from the trunk and the scattered limbs, and the blood is shared out among the people, who use it to anoint their crops. Medea (Callas) is a priestess here, and there's a sense that the people aren't grateful for the priesthood's bloody work. She and her brother are spit on, and the brother is beaten, so it probably isn't a surprise that she falls for Jason, helps him take the Fleece, and flees with him.
The rest of the film is what Zeus has in mind in the Harryhausen Jason when he mentions that there's more in store for the hero and his lover. They have two children, but Jason grows tired of Medea, and a vision of Chiron in both centaur and human form suggests that he can set aside the barbarian woman in favor of a civilized princess. Medea, however, is the proverbial scorned woman of unsurpassed fury. She goes all Fatal Attraction on Jason, first murdering his new bride, --we see her mental rehearsal of a fiery death for the girl, then the less spectacular reality -- and driving his new father-in-law to suicide. Then she takes their kids, kills them, and turns her home into a pyre for them and herself, though not before giving Jason the tongue-lashing he deserves at a bare minimum.

As I've hinted, there's little in the way of white marble and peplums here. Pasolini accentuates the exotic if not the atavistic side of "Classical" culture, loading the soundtrack with what we call "world music" now, ranging from African sounds to the "Bulgarian voices" that were in vogue about twenty years ago to what sounds to me much like Japanese string and vocal music. Everything seems intended to overthrow our assumption that Greece must embody refined civilization. Nevertheless, there's an epic sweep to Pasolini's landscapes and an epic sense of architecture seen from the maximum distance that still allows you to see people leaping to their deaths. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri in spite of the director's resistance to glamor.

But glamor is irresistible because the film's a vehicle for Callas, who had been so acclaimed as an operatic actress that spoken-word success seems assured. Yet Pasolini uses her more as an icon, both because her Greco-American features look right for the role and because she seemed like someone who could have or should have become a real-life Medea. This isn't really an actors' movie, and while Callas isn't bad, it's not proof on its own that she would have been a successful film actress. It's a director's film above all, unmistakably a Pasolini, and despite some stiff bits and some pretentiousness about the centaur, it's worth trying as a all-around sensory experience even if you've never heard of Callas and her tragedies.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Regular readers should know the drill by now, but for the uninitiated, my friend Wendigo is a fan of the Twilight books and rejects the contention that Stephenie Meyer's use of vampires is "wrong" in any significant way. The folklore of the vampire has evolved over time and keeps evolving, and if it evolves to the point that they become often-benign fantasy creatures -- elves in our world, I say -- so be it. That being said, Wendigo's attitude toward the Twilight movies is more tempered. He feels that the series started strong, slipped in the second installment -- the story required more emotional range than Kristen Stewart had at the time, -- and recovered in the third part. He waited for the fourth film with trepidation, knowing that Summit Entertainment had cynically decided to divide the final book into two films, Harry Potter style. We saw Deathly Hollows Part 2 a few days before Breaking Dawn Part 1 and thus were well aware of the pitfalls of splitting a long novel -- the Potter series sadly staggered to its conclusion, we felt. While Wendigo thought that the novel Breaking Dawn did have a convenient dividing point, he wasn't certain that writer Melissa Rosenberg and new director Bill Condon would pick the right spot. He feared that, like Deathly Hollows Part 1, the first Breaking Dawn would feel unpleasantly incomplete.
Part 1 actually takes us about two-thirds through the novel, but Wendigo says that's where it should break if you have to break it. The final third and second film will bring a lot of new characters into the spotlight, some of whom are introduced fleetingly in Part 1 -- most notably a group of Cullen-inspired Alaskan vampires who show up for the long-awaited nuptials of Edward (you know who) and Bella Swan (ditto). In simplest terms, the first film leads up to the climactic moment of the book if not the entire series, the violent birth of Bella's hybrid baby, while the second film addresses the consequences, hinted at in a mid-credits visit to the Volturii, those nasty foreign vampires who've been spoiling for a fight with the kindly Cullen clan.  Part 1 itself divides neatly into halves, the first building up to the wedding and Brazilian honeymoon, the second playing out Bella's unexpected and increasingly nightmarish pregnancy.

Even Wendigo feels that the wedding preparation, the ceremony and the celebration dragged a bit. So if you're not all in for Twilight, the first 45 minutes or so of the picture may be unendurable. Everything is nicely shot by Condon, a proven talent, but the content, especially to the uninitiated, is on the level not even of a Lifetime but a Hallmark TV movie -- less menace than benign numbness. Wendigo stresses that the tone in the novel is less treacly; the wedding in print is a more bittersweet event, more starkly a farewell to the life and the people Bella has known, than the movie's celebratory tone suggests. For moviegoers, the wedding is a payoff, a victory lap, the audience's reward for three film's worth of patience. Few shadows are cast, the most prominent by the sulking Jacob (you know who, too), and Condon leavens the happy tone with Ed's flashback confession to his Depression-era career as a vigilante vampire and Bella's horrorshow dream of her family slaughtered by her bloodstained intended.
Above: Depression Edward eyes some action while Bride of Frankenstein plays in an homage by the director of Gods and Monsters to himself. Below...Are you entertained? Is this what you came to see?

Wendigo's big complaint about the first half is less with the wedding than with the silly reception speeches. It's meant to be funny, but he found it generic and tedious -- though I felt that Pattinson was at his most relaxed to date during Ed's slightly tipsy speech. Wendigo felt that time would have been better spent recreating the exotic mystery of the new couple's journey to their Brazilian honeymoon island. Condon pays too much attention to the swanky furnishings of the Cullen vacation house -- including their all-too fragile bed -- to evoke the location the way Meyer does. The landscapes back in Forks may be familiar by now, but that doesn't relieve Condon of an artistic obligation to make it look impressive. Part 1 was the most claustrophobic of the Twilight films so far as far as Wendigo was concerned. That said, Condon pulled off some nice visuals, even if he's more comfortable with interior than with outdoor space, and the action sequences with the superspeedy vampires and the CGI wolves were mostly well done. Condon may be the most prestigious director to take on Twilight, but in Wendigo's opinion Catherine Hardwicke still sets the standard for handling the material right.

Above, the voice of Taylor Lautner stands out from the pack.
Below, the live Lautner bows before the Cullen baby, his "imprinted" mistress.

Bella and Edward's honeymoon is cut short when the new Mrs. C. finds herself visibly pregnant after only two weks of marriage. This catches all the Cullens flatfooted -- in patriarch Carlisle's centuries of medical practice he's never heard of a vampire impregnating a human -- while it infuriates the Forks wolfpack, who regard the impending offspring as an abomination. It's not so good for Bella, either, since the baby is like a parasite, draining her vitality from within. This leads to differences of opinion -- Jacob defies his pack to protect Bella (for a film focusing on the main pair's wedding, Wendigo felt that Taylor Lautner stole it with a forceful performance), and more importantly, the Cullens are split over whether the baby should be aborted -- if possible -- or carried to term. Ultimately it's Bella's decision, and despite being well-aware of the mortal risk to her, she insists on keeping the baby and -- still more horribly -- naming it "Ejay" if it's a boy and "Renesme" if a girl. Don't ask. A political message might be inferred here, but the movie doesn't really try to make a political issue of it. Both sides of the debate have good arguments, but it probably makes sense in the overall context of Twilight for Bella to carry the baby to term.

Since we started watching the movies Wendigo and I have pondered what metaphoric meaning vampirism might have for Stephenie Meyer. By now we're fairly convinced that it stands simply for coming of age, for the rites of passage that culminate, for females, in childbirth. It seems archetypically right that Bella should finally be turned upon giving birth, on an understanding that vampirism represents the mystery of adulthood, its pains and responsibilities, from the anxious yet ardent perspective of Meyer's target readership of teenage girls. Wendigo would add that the target audience really could extend to anyone capable of empathy with those adolescent feelings. It's a pretty good overarching metaphor -- but we haven't quite figured out where the shapeshifting Indians fit into the symbolic plan.

Cullens must fight for a very good reason,
Punching out wolves like Liam Neeson. Y'heard?

Breaking Dawn Part 1 disappoints Wendigo slightly for being less explicit and graphic, in order to keep the PG-13 rating, than the book. That means we don't get to see Bella nude and we don't see the baby's birth in all its splatterpunk splendor -- Edward discreetly bites through Bella's belly and placenta offscreen, obscured by mommy's belly. It's the main moment when the book lives up to the expectation horror fans bring, rightly or not, to anything dealing with vampires. While I felt the pregnancy and birth were the strongest drama of the movie series so far, Wendigo stresses that the film's birth scene falls far, far short of the horror that might finally have reconciled gorehounds and genre buffs to these much-hated films. Readers actually feared for Bella's survival, but the film's toned-down presentation, and the obvious fact that a sequel's on the way, diminish any anxiety viewers might fear. The cliffhanger becomes not whether Bella will survive, but what kind of vampire she'll be as she wakes up red-eyed in the final shot of Part 1.

Wendigo isn't worried over whether there'll be enough material left in Breaking Dawn for one more feature film. He can't really explain without spoiling Part 2, but suffice it to say that "all sorts of stuff" happens. He's also satisfied with Part 1 as it is, though he admits to a bias in favor of the material that makes him potentially more forgiving than he was with the last two Harry Potter films. But he thinks he could say objectively that Breaking Dawn Part 1 is better than either half of Deathly Hallows. It's still well short of the standard set for him by the first film -- though his wish that Hardwicke had stayed on was dampened after seeing Red Riding Hood -- and he doesn't think it's quite as good as Eclipse was. But at least it didn't make him dread seeing the final film in the series. Despite his reservations and criticisms, he's looking forward to seeing Condon close things out.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: TRADER HORN (1931)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promoted W. S. Van Dyke's African saga as a "miracle picture." Given its troubled production, one wonders whether Trader Horn inspired the familiar movie-movie gag that imagines a studio called Miracle Pictures with the slogan, "If it's a good picture, it's a miracle." Having bought the rights to the best-selling memoir of Alfred Aloysius Horn, M-G-M got the ambitious notion in 1929 to shoot the movie in Africa. It then occurred to studio executive Irving Thalberg, halfway through production, that it ought to be a talking picture, too. Now it really was ambitious, but reshoots in Hollywood were inevitable. By the time the movie finally opened in early 1931, a few months before the actual Trader Horn died, it was attended by scandal. Edwina Booth, whose big break this was meant to be, had been sued by the wife of her co-star, future Cisco Kid Duncan Renaldo, for what they used to call "alienation of affections," and returned to America debilitated by malaria contracted on location. Though she was capable of filming two features and two serials over the next two years, Booth later sued M-G-M, claiming that the requirements of her role as a scantily-clad "white goddess" had ruined her health and her career. Contemporary accounts suggest that part of the movie's initial appeal was the challenge of figuring out how much of it was authentic, and how much fake. On top of that was the National Geographic angle: as a pre-Code feature, Trader Horn could show topless African women and excuse it as part of the movie's documentary realism. But the film's main selling point, a year before M-G-M released Van Dyke's Tarzan the Ape Man, was the concept of a distaff Tarzan who proves the opposite of a noble savage.
Long for its time at just over two hours, Trader Horn doesn't shape up as much of a story at first. Horn (legendary western star Harry Carey) is mentoring young Peru (Renaldo), the son of an old friend, on his first African safari. The first section is virtually a travelogue as the whites interact with natives, worry about the risks of "juju," and encounter animals. While some scenes show pretty clearly that Carey and Renaldo were in Africa, there's still a lot of obvious second-unit stuff filmed with doubles wearing the characters' distinctive hats. These are often impressive shots of the hunters in the same frame (albeit with their backs to us) with all kinds of African beasts, with the actors doing voiceover commentary. The artificiality of the assemblage looks obvious to us but might not have seemed that way to original viewers.

Eventually, the hunters, accompanied by bearers and Horn's longtime sidekick Ranchero (Mutiu Omoolu) encounter missionary Edith Trent, who has spent years searching for her lost daughter. Well, I've already told you how this'll turn out. Little Nina Trent has become "the Cruelest Woman in Africa," a white witch, spectacularly blond and barely covered on top, and initially quite happy to see Horn, Peru and Ranchero crucified upside down and burned alive. But Peru's smitten insistence that "white people should help each other" eventually softens the merciless beauty, who orders the trio spared and then has to escape with them. She may not have understood a word Peru had said -- Booth's is one of the great gibberish performances in cinema, but she'd be spectacular in a silent film -- but instinctual race solidarity may have mattered less to her than the fact that Peru is a hunky young guy.
Reputedly based on fact, the Trader Horn film takes place in the same cinematic fantasy land of the early M-G-M Tarzan movies, which is to say as nightmarish a place as anything Universal imagined at the same time. "That's Africa," Horn says, "You're either trying to eat or trying to avoid being eaten." It's a racist dystopia of arrested evolution and a playing field for experiments in noble savagery, Caucasian division. Conspicuously, however, while Tarzan is a very noble savage in books and film, Nina Trent is at first not merely savage but quite possibly evil. Of course, Tarzan is always understood to have been raised not by African people, as Nina apparently was, but by a peculiar breed of apes, but you have to wonder whether there's a gendered double-standard regarding white children raised in a "savage" land. To a so-called chivalric imagination the white female was presumably more susceptible if not automatically subject to "the fate worse than death," the concept that still underpins "honor killing" in some parts of the world and motivated American cinema's most famous attempted honor killing in The Searchers. Men didn't seem to be eligible for a similar fate or a similar death; they aren't defiled by savagery in the manner women were presumed to be. Of course, pop culture promptly invented noble female savages, most notably Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but hers were tales for children. But Trader Horn itself backs off from the idea of defilement, presenting Nina as a redeemable character likely to be civilized by the love of a strong, virtuous man.

The idea of a double-standard lingers, however, in the film's treatment of the relationship of Horn and Ranchero. For the most part it's a straightforward bwana-servant relationship; Horn readily praises Ranchero as "the best gunbearer in Africa" but often berates the stoic, sensible guide. For his part, Ranchero appears selflessly devoted to Horn, and the great hunter responds to this and to his guide's other self-evident virtues in a remarkable moment when they and Peru wait to be put to death by Nina's tribe. Horn is determined not to crack under torture and expects his companions to show like resolve. As he puts it, "We won't disgrace the white race -- no, none of the three of us." At the moment of truth, he elevates Ranchero to the status of an honorary white man. Ranchero repays this acknowledgment by refusing to save himself by running off with Peru and Nina while Horn offers to sacrifice himself by leading a pursuing tribe on a chase. He sticks with Horn instead and, inevitably, takes a spear intended for the hunter. Afterward, Horn's bereavement inspires a curious coda. The film has sporadically suggested that Horn is Peru's rival for Nina's affection, despite a great difference in age. At the end, Horn packs the two young people on a boat for civilization, while he stays on to start another safari, and the last we see of the old hero is him staring at the sky and seeing an image of Ranchero -- a shot that may have influenced the denouement of Gunga Din. It'd be a stretch to say there was something homoerotic between Horn and Ranchero, but the implication seems to be that virtue forms emotional bonds between the true men of Africa stronger than the conventional ties of romance. Ranchero, not Nina, is the noble savage of the picture -- to an extent, gender trumps race.

A lot of Trader Horn will look familiar to people who have never seen it. The picture provided plenty of stock footage for M-G-M's Tarzan pictures, from the crocodiles crawling into the water to the charging rhino. It also sports that snazzy, jazzy theme title music used in the early Tarzans, which you'll hear in the re-release trailer below -- for all I know it was composed for Horn. Because Trader Horn isn't as pure pulp as Tarzan, the former film doesn't quite get into the realm of wild jungle terror that the latter dwells in. Pygmies, portrayed as horrific torturers in Ape Man, prove benign in Trader Horn. While Tarzan could be seen as a knock-off of Trader Horn, in movie-history terms Trader Horn is just a rough draft for the jungle fantasies Hollywood would more regularly make. Its more of historical than aesthetic interest, I'm afraid, but it's still an essential document of the Pre-Code era.

And here's that trailer from TCM:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Buster Keaton in NEIGHBORS (1920)

While Buster Keaton's fifth self-produced and co-directed short subject represents a new high in stuntwork and overall comic timing, it also stands as Keaton's most sustained commentary on race, or at least the nearest he came to a commentary. The main storyline of the 17-minute film is the Romeo-Juliet romance of Buster and Virgina Fox, the children of hostile if not feuding slum families whose yards are divided by a board fence. The young people pass love notes through a knothole when their parents aren't looking. Virginia's dad (Joe Roberts) has sent Buster sailing on a clothesline back into his own yard, where his own dad (Joe Keaton -- his own dad) was beating a carpet before Buster replaced the carpet. Buster does a remarkable vertical spin upon taking the blow, and Dad's efforts to release him end with Buster face down in a rain barrel and head first in the mud beneath it. When Dad finally extricates him, the camera lingers on Buster's muddied face, and you get the uncomfortable feeling that Keaton wants you to laugh because the mud somehow makes Buster look black. But there's a point to this. Moments later, Buster avenges himself by bopping Roberts on the head with a broom -- except that he's mistaken a cop's helmet for Roberts's hat. The angry cop looks over the fence and sees a dark face. Buster retreats to a laundry table and quickly washes his face. The cop enters the yard and passes right by the freshly-scrubbed Buster. Exiting into an alley, the cop finds a genuine black man passing through and promptly nabs him. That's profiling, brother.

Silent comedy was politically correct in many different directions. A comic might assert, for instance, that if anyone was dumber than a colored man, it was a cop. And so the flatfoot pauses in his arrest to shoo off a group of kids shooting craps as another cop saunters into the scene. The first cop then grabs the second by the arm and resumes his march, leaving the innocent to go his way. Meanwhile, Buster's Mom blames a house painter for soiling her towel, and in the exchange a pail of paint comes down on Buster's head. Darkened once more -- was the guy painting the house brown? -- he's recognized by the cop as his original assailant and nabbed. Buster has managed to grab a towel and has wiped his face halfway clean by the time the cop reaches his call box. The black man watches this from safety and blows Buster a mocking kiss. As Buster switches profiles, now dark, now light, the cop grows hopelessly baffled. He turns around once more and Buster has vanished screen right. In the same shot, the cop runs off in search of his dark quarry, and we see that Buster has shimmied up a telephone pole. He jumps down, only to be grabbed by another cop. Dragged past a ballpark, Buster pauses to look through a knothole, telling the lawman that Babe Ruth is at bat. You should know what that means. Right on cue, a ball sails over the fence and beans the cop. But Buster isn't really scot free until he can dive into a wagon of laundry hauled by a black woman -- without a cop noticing, of course. Neighbors's digression on race ends on a sour note when Buster struggles to rise from the laundry pile and is all-too predictably mistaken by the Negress and her family as a ghost. They run away and Buster heads back home.

Speaking of digressions ... It was an old racist commonplace that blacks were more superstitious and susceptible to fright than any other ethnic group. Where the idea came from I can't say, but it had pernicious consequences in cinema when D. W. Griffith made their supposed fear of the archetypal white-sheeted ghost the basis for the Ku Klux Klan. But I wonder sometimes whether the influence flowed the other way, whether the big joke behind blacks' fear of ghosts was that they mistook the ghosts for the Klan. Every silent comic except Chaplin exploited this stereotype, though Harold Lloyd took a redeeming egalitarian approach to it in his short Haunted Spooks, where he's just as scared of ghosts as the black servants and its actually one of the servants, not Harold, who discovers that the ghosts are impostors. Cowardice is a great leveler, and it became practically obligatory (again, not for Chaplin) for comedians to undergo an ordeal by fright -- Keaton's own next short will be The Haunted House. But does Keaton's resort to the stereotype of black fear make him a racist? Only to the extent that he was a man of his time and the times were racist -- but the business leading up to the ghost bit is also a kind of acknowledgment of the unfair treatment blacks were subject to. Comics were as beset by cops on film as anyone was in life, and if black audiences empathized with the comics' plight, here was a momentary hint that the empathy was mutual.

The rest of Neighbors is pure physical comedy, some of it almost pointless -- as when Buster "invents" a levered plank that will slap anyone on the ass who goes through the door between the fences. The film's climax, an elopement following an aborted wedding, is far more inspired. Roberts has broken up the wedding because he despises Buster's five-and-dime ring as an unfit offering to his daughter -- he crushes the thing between thumb and forefinger to make the point. Virginia still loves Buster, however, and with his brothers he contrives an escape for them both. He and she are marooned on the third stories of their respective buildings. Buster's brothers appear through the back door and the second-floor window and carry him across the yards to Virginia's window. They bring a suitcase back to Buster's room and come back for Virginia -- briefly diving through three windows when Roberts appears in the yard. Detected at last, the brothers run for it, with Virigina (a dummy) over Buster's shoulders. The scene to this point has been a marvel of precision timing, but now it becomes miraculous. The brothers run through a three-story scaffold, reunite and keep on running. Then the middle brother gets caught on a clothesline; as he gets shot backward, Buster (with the dummy) lands perfectly on the bottom brother's shoulders without breaking stride. Then Buster has to hit the sidewalk running when the last brother falls through an opening. His descent finally concludes when he and Virginia (now restored to herself) slide into a coal pit where the Justice of the Peace who had tried to marry them earlier is conveniently waiting for them.

While Keaton still hasn't topped his initial release, One Week, Neighbors is his best short since then and his most accomplished work as a director to date. He (and Eddie Cline) show greater mastery of space and a willingness to keep the camera rolling and moving to expand the dimensions of a gag. One strong example of this comes during a mid-film chase when a once-clueless cop notices Keaton's shadow on the ground. He very carefully traces the line of the shadow, and now, when most other directors would have cut to the comic on top of the telephone pole, Keaton pans upward and upward until we finally appreciate how high Buster has climbed.

Moments like the human ladder have the visual inspiration of an early comic strip, but Keaton is one of the few moviemakers in 1920 with the visual skill to top the cartoonists. Many a silent short looks like a comic strip on film, but Keaton's look life comic strips come to life.