Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE GREAT BEAUTY (La grande bellezza, 2013)

Forty years or so ago, Jep Gamardella became an Italian literary celebrity with the publication of his novel The Human Apparatus. There hasn't yet been a second novel as Paolo Sorrentino's film opens, but Jep (Toni Servillo) remains a celebrity in the Italian arts scene. He's more of a journalist now, an interviewer for what I take to be a Vanity Fair type magazine with perhaps more intellectual pretension. He seems to specialize in puncturing the pretensions of his subjects, both on the job and in private life. We see him take apart a performance artist (she throws herself headfirst into the walls of Roman ruins) simply by asking her to define the "vibrations" that inspire her. At a party, he's more cruel with an acquaintance who takes him to task for not writing another novel; she's a wealthy Communist (so I infer from the talk about "the party") who pretends to be socially relevant while living a privileged life with servants. He drives her from the room, practically in tears. Jep himself is privileged. Royalties from his novel and his income from journalism allow him to keep an apartment across the street from the Colosseum. He's 65 years old -- his friends raucously celebrate the birthday early in the picture -- but he can still bed beautiful women at will. He seems to live -- and Sorrentino practically dares you to say it -- la dolce vita, but inevitably a shadow falls across his path. A friend's wife has died; she was the great love of Jep's youth, but married the friend instead. Yet after her death the friend opened her diary and learned that she had carried a torch for Jep all her life. Why then, both men wonder, did she choose the other man instead of Jep? Her death and this discovery knock Jep out of his perpetual peripatetic present-mindedness, forcing him to reflect on the past and the possibility that he really has wasted his time. Finally, a 104 year old "living saint" whose presence has drawn a flock of flamingos to his balcony is the latest to ask why Jep hasn't written another novel. He answers that he's been seeking la grande bellezza. Then the nun chases away the flamingos with a puff from her withered cheeks.

I have to wonder how someone who's never seen a film by Federico Fellini responds to such moments in The Great Beauty. Fellini's films are such an inescapable reference point that you worry that anyone unversed in the history of Italian cinema is missing something. Sorrentino's film strikes me as more than a homage, however, and I think it would retain much of its evocative force even if a viewer has never heard of Fellini. While the Felliniesque trappings are part of its surface spectacle, there's a critical spirit to the exercise. The early party scenes are immediately evocative of La Dolce Vita, but the point seems less, "Look! I can do what Fellini did!" than to identify the familiarity of these moments as a problem. The birthday party is prefaced with a scene of Japanese tourists at some shrine, one of them dropping dead while taking a picture. This is followed by the party, or what cinema buffs might perceive as a typical Italian activity. It's either Sorrentino's implication or my inference that the partygoers are as much a relic or a heritage attraction as Rome's ruins. There's a more certain sense that Jep, at least, is a kind of tourist in his own country, while his cronies, with some honorable exceptions, are going through the motions of la dolce vita. Watching them form a train to dance in a circle, he comments: our train is the best train because it never goes anywhere. Moments like that make this seem much less like a homage and more like a subtextual critique of an Italian cinema that hasn't yet transcended the legacy or burden of a golden age that arguably ended around the time Jep's novelistic inspiration dried up. Believe that or not, but there's definitely some anxiety of influence going on here.

Sorrentino's direction is more restless than Fellini's: more dependant on montage, his camera more mobile within each shot. At times La Grande Bellezza reminded me less of the Italian maestro than of a more self-critical Terrence Malick, though there's always a danger of its style reminding you of commercials or music videos. But when that danger rises, there's usually some startling moment of alienation to save the day. During the birthday party you can see a go-go dancer gyrating to the music on the other side of a window. Suddenly Sorrentino cuts to the other side as the dancer moves to the muffled music in perfect isolation, revealed as a working person rather than a prop. At another party the parents want to show off their prodigy of a daughter, reputedly an abstract painter. The little girl would rather play with other kids but is dragged before an empty canvas. Buckets of paint are at her disposal; weeping with rage she hurls them at the canvas, covering herself with colors. Strangely, Sorrentino had flash-forwarded to this almost-ghastly vision before the scene properly begins. Stranger still, he cuts forward to some time later, to find the girl now deeply involved in finishing the canvas she's covered with paint. She seems to have an artistic temperament after all, but activating it is an intolerable chore. Jep is unconcerned when his girlfriend of the evening notes the crying; perhaps he recognizes a kindred spirit or fellow struggler in the little painter. Maybe he too needs a shove to fulfill his potential; maybe the pain of loss -- he experiences more than one in the film -- will do it.

There's a lot more to see in Sorrentino's film, and much to be appreciated on multiple levels at once as the director grapples with the Fellini legacy and strives to transcend it. I could mention all its attractions but I'd rather let some of the moments surprise you with their WTF absurdity or their eerie elegance. The cinematography of Luca Bigazzi and the score composed and compiled by Lele Marchitelli are very effective, while Tony Servillo's star performance completes my counter-Oscar quintet of best actors. I'll take Servillo, Redford, Hanks, Phoenix and Oscar Isaac over Bale, Dern, Ejiofor, McConaughey and DiCaprio any day. The Great Beauty itself is up for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. I haven't seen the other four nominees, but I feel pretty confident that Sorrentino ought to win in a landslide.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: MADAME X (1929)

Whatever happened to the noble lie? In the 21st century people seem less convinced than ever that there are ever good reasons not to tell the truth. Total candor is the ideal, however unrealizable. The point of something like Madame X, directed by dilettante Lionel Barrymore and adapted from a famous French play of twenty years earlier, must seem unfathomable now, the film itself more alien yet than its often strange contemporaries. The whole point of the picture is that a mother must never reveal her identity to her son. The mother (Ruth Chatterton) is a fallen woman. Her fall begins when she cheats on her husband (Lewis Stone), who spurns her when she returns to see her sick boy after her lover dies. The fall is steep and carries her from the Orient to the South Pacific to South America. Even in Pre-Code times you can't quite state this plainly but it's pretty clear that she's become a prostitute. Finally she returns to France in the company of a schemer who suspects a scandalous background that could prove a goldmine. His guess proves correct, for by the time she returns her husband has become the country's Attorney General. Rather than let this man blackmail the old boy she shoots him in the back. She refuses to defend herself in court but is assigned a public defender, a novice lawyer handling his first case, whom we know to be her grown son (Raymond Hackett). The tension builds when the father appears in court to watch the boy argue his first case and he and she recognize each other. She finally addresses the court to explain her action in a way intended to convey to Stone that she doesn't want the family name dragged through the mud. When the presiding judge calls her attorney to speak by name she recoils in horror while he, moved by her speech, gives a stemwinding oration unwittingly denouncing his own father for having mistreated the poor woman. Defendant and defender retire to another chamber while the jury deliberates. Stone and other friends who know our heroine join them but she again makes clear that they shouldn't do anything to make obvious her relation to her lawyer. She resolves the dilemma by dropping dead, leaving her son none the wiser yet convinced that she was a fine mother to somebody.

For their troubles Barrymore and Chatterton were nominated for Academy Awards. Such were the difficulties of early talkies, as Singin' in the Rain will show you, that Barrymore seems to have been honored merely for being competent, since his direction is really no more than that. Chatterton is a more interesting case in what now seems like a hopeless part. Hers is a modulated performance, though bipolar might be a more accurate word. She can turn on a dime from hard-boiled, or would-be hard-boiled, to hysterical and pathetic. "Madame X" is not an admirable survivor. She's a loser almost until the end, brutalized by men -- Chatterton goes to the floor twice to sell battery -- and a self-pitying boozer, scowling and snarling one minute, blubbering and whimpering in the next. One thing remains constant: an idealization of her son, a love for him that is ultimately self-denying. The film portrays this climactic self-denial as a redemptive act, but the modern viewer will most likely wonder how she or her son benefits from her withholding the truth from him. Isn't it cruel to keep him from ever knowing his mother? Won't he hate his father and his friends, including his governess, should he ever learn the truth? Today we seem to assume that he would, though the film ends on the assumption that he'll never know. But again, why shouldn't he know? This is where the alien nature of 1929 (or at least 1908) asserts itself.

Everyone watching Madame X in its original release would understand, and more importantly (since the film itself states the point) would empathize with the necessity of the heroine's noble lie. Everyone in the story -- the heroine, the would-be blackmailers, etc. -- understands that the Attorney General and his innocent son would be disgraced if the mother's sordid history were made public. No matter how forgiving the son seems likely to be, the social disgrace would be inescapable and would most likely retard his career in the law and destroy his prospects as a husband. The mother's lie is necessary to protect her son's honor, even if the father is unworthy of such protection. It's less important that the son know the truth than that society not know and use that knowledge against him. We're probably better off without that kind of honor code in today's society; few of us now would stigmatize a son for his mother's sins, and just as few, probably, would even stigmatize the mother for her affair. Candor today may prove embarrassing, but it doesn't seem to carry the risk of catastrophic disgrace that it had a century ago. Does that mean that there can be no noble lie where there is no sense of honor? I'm not sure. But if we don't share the sense of honor that prevailed when Madame X was made the courtroom scenes inevitably lose most if not all of their intended emotional power. Audiences at some point in history must have responded to those scenes in the way Barrymore or the play's original authors intended. Now, however, all we're likely to see is characters going to tortuous lengths to avoid telling the truth. We might understand intellectually or historically the effect that was intended, but the effect for us is most likely more like that described by that great dramatic critic Karl Marx: tragedy repeated as farce.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


There's something overwhelmingly Wellsian about this short French feature by the Chilean exile Raul Ruiz. The film's inquiry into the hidden meanings of a sequence of paintings is reminiscent of Citizen Kane, while the discussion of paintings that are but aren't real -- they obviously exist but obviously aren't the work of a 19th century provocateur named Frederic Tonnerre -- may put people in mind of Welles's late essay-film about an art forger F for Fake. Yet the mystery contrived by Ruiz and writer Pierre Klossowski -- the latter's brother, aka "Balthus," was a notorious painter in real life -- is no more fake than any film mystery. Nevertheless, there's something scandalous to the story of the mystery and the inquiry, a decadent excess to the ability of the film's art collector (Jean Rougeul) to direct, or have directed for him, a throng of people in tableau-vivant recreations of Tonnerre's paintings. They re-enact the paintings in three dimensions to help the collector illustrate his thesis about the thematic sequence of his incomplete series of Tonnerres.

Couldn't the tableaux-vivants be a purely cinematic device? That is, should we see them as having been staged by the director of the movie to illustrate the collector's analysis of the paintings? That doesn't seem to be Ruiz's intention. He shows the figures breaking character occasionally, a woman imitating the goddess Diana, for instance, taking a brief break from her pose before returning to reassume her position. Were she merely a cinematic device she wouldn't have to go anywhere. In a way, of course, she still is a cinematic device, but now she signifies not just the figure in the painting but some subject either of the collector or the director, someone recruited to put on a costume and strike a pose in a garden for as long as the intellectuals need her to. There's nothing necessarily sinister about that, but there is something vaguely decadent about it that's in keeping with the tone of the film.

For what it's worth, the hypothesis of the stolen painting is that the collector's Tonnerre set isn't complete. It follows from his core thesis that the existing paintings form a sequence, one linked to another by certain symbols and effects. In the Diana painting, for example, a character holds a mirror to reflect sunlight. The collector deduces that this reflection accounts for the otherwise-impossible multiple light sources illuminating a room in the presumed second painting of the series. Each painting in the series is referred to in some way by the next one. This sequencing convinces the collector that their must have been another painting, lost or stolen -- confiscated by the authorities, perhaps -- that had a mask as a design element. Further, after an intense analysis of a specifically narrative painting recounting a family scandal, the collector traces specific gestures that recur in all the paintings, ascribing to them ritual significance in a cult of Baphomet, the archetypal androgyne.

Maybe I missed something, but couldn't that be the stolen painting in the background of this tableau-vivant?

There's something unsettlingly excessive about the story -- not the idea of the Baphomet cult, but the idea of considerable mental and artistic resources dedicated to the solution of a fake mystery. Again, however, nearly all movie mysteries are fake, yet their development and resolution rarely compels us to question, as Ruiz may want, why we -- artists and audience alike -- dedicate so much attention to such fictions. I'm pretty sure Ruiz and Klossowski know what they're doing here, and that they mean us to be as disturbed by the indulgence of the collector's inquiries as by the scandals he recounts. But other viewers may interpret the film differently. The filmmakers succeeded in making the film itself a mystery, and rather than being annoyed by the apparent irrelevance of the mystery of the paintings, I was captivated by the self-consciously provocative contrivance of it all. That Hypothesis challenges you to find a point to it may not seem like a recommendation, but the way it seems to invite critical thinking is one.

Monday, February 17, 2014


Randolph Scott first worked with producer Harry Joe Brown in 1941's Fritz Lang film Western Union. Charles Vidor's The Desperadoes was the next film in a long association that culminated in their partnership in the production of the 1950s Budd Boetticher westerns that are now Scott's signature work. They didn't work together again until 1948's Coroner Creek, and from that point Brown was primarily Scott's producer. Now that the Boetticher movies set the standard for their work, their earlier films inevitably look like rough drafts for the finished classics to come. They're the sort of rough drafts that need a strong if not ruthless editorial hand, since there often seems to too much going on compared to the austere ensembles of Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy. But it's fair to question whether Scott and Brown were always aspiring to an ideal finally if not only realized by Boetticher. Desperadoes, for instance, is better understood not as a precursor of, say, The Tall T, but as a reflection of the new respectability of westerns after 1939. The legend of 1939, of course, is that John Ford's Stagecoach gave a low-grade genre a respectability it hadn't enjoyed since silent days. People still print that legend, but the western had begun its comeback before Stagecoach and Ford's film arguably wasn't even the most influential western, at least in the short term, from 1939. There's less of Stagecoach in Desperadoes, for instance, then there is Destry Rides Again, if only because Columbia Pictures commissioned an original screen story from Destry's author, the pseudonymously prolific Max Brand. The Destry influence ensures that there'd be more comedy here than in later Scott-Brown westerns. There's also a strong dose of another 1939 western, the Errol Flynn oater Dodge City. That film's influence is threefold. First and most obvious is the glorious Technicolor. Second is the presence of Flynn stooge Guinn (Big Boy) Williams as comedy relief. Third is the prominence of a barroom brawl, the scale of which was a major selling point for Dodge City -- in that respect arguably the most influential western of the famous year. This adds up to a much bigger, busier, often goofier movie than those Scott and Brown ended up making late in their careers.

For all that, Scott fans can see glimmerings of the sort of story he and Brown told much better later with Boetticher and Kennedy's help. The Desperadoes is about a young man at a crossroads, a gunman who gets a chance to choose between outlawry and civilization, with Randolph Scott as a benign adviser. It's like a crossover of western movie universes when Scott meets a very young Glenn Ford as the gunman. Ford was hired to rob a bank in Red Valley, UT, by a livery stable owner (Edgar Buchanan) acting on behalf of the bank president himself, who hopes to profit by keeping his ill-gotten personal gain secret after compensating depositors for half their losses. Ford runs late, however, so the banker hires local thugs who mess things up by killing three men. Ford's belated arrival -- he horsejacks the sheriff (Scott) in the desert on the way to town -- gives the conspirators an opportunity to clean things up by framing and killing Ford. But Buchanan's interests are compromised when his daughter (Evelyn Keyes) falls for Ford, who already seems intimate with the local saloon queen, "The Countess" (Claire Trevor), who'd been harboring Ford's dynamite-happy partner (Williams) in anticipation of Ford's arrival. Apart from the most blatant bad guys -- the banker and his preferred goons -- there's an admirable complexity to most of the characters. Scott's sheriff, for instance, is unusually forgiving of Ford for stealing his horse and beating him up in the stable -- the gunman only fails to get away because Keyes trips him twice and brains him with a wooden bucket. He knows the kid and wants him to have a chance to change his life. The problem is, the kid sees Keyes (whose violence against him in the stable proves the exception) as his key to reform while Scott, seeing the malevolent forces swirling around Ford provocatively, thinks the kid's only chance is to leave the town and the girl.

The Technicolor cinematography of George Meehan and Allen M. Davey really is glorious when they go on location. Desperadoes is always a good-looking A western for its time. Its big handicap, or so it must seem in retrospect, is its inconsitency of tone. There's a moral seriousness to Ford's dilemma that Kennedy and Boetticher certainly would have developed more strongly. In 1943, however, Vidor and screenwriter Robert Carson feel compelled to make their film an all-around entertainment by loading it with comedy relief, from the inanity of 'Big Boy' Williams (Trevor calls him a "big zombie [!]" after he nearly blows up a hotel room) to a slapstick barroom brawl in which Williams features all too prominently. Carson's script, if not Brand's story, is also overelaborate, throwing in a few too many aribitrary plot twists to push the film closer to the 90 minute mark. At one point Williams robs a bank for no apparent reason other than to force Ford out of town with him so they can get captured and condemned to hang -- and that happens only so Scott can let them escape and put himself in legal jeopardy, so Ford and Williams can go back to town to free him. Too much? I thought so, yet the actors all acquit themselves well -- even Williams's stupidity is appropriate for his role -- and the film remains likable, at least if you're a western fan. But it testifies to the legacy of Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown that you can't help imagining how much better Desperadoes might be if it was a reel shorter, the way Scott and Brown might have done it when they had more creative control and more creative collaborators. You can imagine them making this film and thinking they could do better -- and you know they will.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

GREED IN THE SUN (Cent mille dollars au soleil, 1964)

In 1964, when Italians imagined frontier action and adventure they didn't think of their erstwhile empire in Libya but of America and Mexico, and the spaghetti western was born. France's frontier imagination ranged closer to home; the French had a bigger empire in modern times and got more adventure out of it. Deserts and dollars meant different things to different countries. Instead of westerns the French made films like this Henri Verneuil picture, a post-colonial romp through parts of Francophone Africa where Europeans still do much of the work. Rocco (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his buddy "Bumpkin" (Lino Ventura) drive trucks for Castagliano (Gert "Goldfinger" Froebe), but one day Rocco takes the initiative and drives off on his own with a mystery cargo believed to be worth $100,000, and the boss orders Bumpkin to track him down in another truck. Riding shotgun with Rocco is a femme fatale (Anne-Marie Coffinet) who tipped him off to the valuable cargo. Riding with "Bumpkin" is a suspicious mercenary type (Reginald Kernan)with whom he has issues from the recent past.

The cargo is a Macguffin: Rocco doesn't know what it is and only cares that it can be turned into money. With little sense of urgency in the chase the viewer basks (or burns) in the location atmosphere. Verneuil wasn't the first director, of course, to find a desert ideal for widescreen filming, and even in black-and-white the vistas are often impressive. Cent Mille Dollars is arguably overlong but over its length the impression of grit, heat and sweat sink in convincingly. If it has a handicap it's that Belmondo and Ventura don't share the screen through the big middle of the picture. Once Bumpkin finally catches up with Rocco, only to get his own truck commandeered, the screen crackles with the stars' macho chemistry. Bumpkin's promise of revenge gives the story some momentum it had lacked, and the payoff comes with a comic twist that defines the picture as a buddy movie above all.

It could have been a western. That could have been a stagecoach full of rifles for the Indians, and you would have had a desert either way. But the French still saw their modern world as full of adventure, even as they retreated from empire, in a way the Italians apparently didn't but the Americans still did. If Frenchmen driving trucks makes Greed In the Sun seem like a low-stakes comic riff on The Wages of Fear (recall also that film's exotic setting), it also reminded me of American adventure films from the same time set in far-flung locales, and of the whole "men's adventure" genre in American magazine publishing, down to the dancing girls at the chase's destination. Verneul and his stars give the film a swagger that retains its virile vitality after fifty years. Its modern setting doesn't make it superior to spaghetti westerns by any stretch of imagination, but for those interested in 1964 rather than 1864, or in frontiers other than the archetypal West -- not to mention fans of Belmondo and Ventura -- Cent Mille Dollars is definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: POLLY TIX IN WASHINGTON (1933)

The late Shirley Temple would seem like the antithesis of Pre-Code cinema. Her breakthrough year was 1934, the year of the crackdown and the beginning of the Code Enforcement era, and it's tempting to see her rise to superstardom, becoming the number-one box office attraction by the following year, as proof of some profound dumbing-down of cinema under the Code. But while Temple became a star of A pictures in '34, at age six she was already a cinema veteran and a creature of Pre-Code cinema. Before she captivated the mainstream in Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker, Temple had been the leading lady of the Baby Burlesk series of one-reel comedy shorts produced by Educational Pictures. Billed as "The Spice of the Program," Educational is best known as the home of comedy stars in decline, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon working there most notably during the Thirties. The Baby Burlesks are a cross between the Our Gang series and those horrific Dogville comedies; toddlers rather than dogs are made to stand on two legs and parody popular movies or current archetypes, discipline being enforced, according to Temple, by time outs in a room with only an ice block to sit on. Polly Tix is the Baby Burlesk version of the various political expose films in vogue in 1932 and 1933. It resembles Lionel Barrymore's star vehicle Washington Masquerade in some respects but isn't really beholden to one particular film. The virtuous political novice, elected on his vow to battle the Nipple Trust, has his virtue threatened when one of the big political operators throws Polly (Temple), the Vamp of Vashington, in his path. Here Shirley Temple is in full Pre-Code mode. Polly Tix would be exhibit A for those, then and now, who have felt that Hollywood had grown excessively crass and tasteless in the Pre-Code era. While the filmmakers may have thought it all cute, I can understand if it gives a modern viewer the creeps. Judge for yourself: since the Baby Burlesk series is in the public domain I can show you Polly Tix in Washington as uploaded to YouTube by yanevnu. I suspect that Temple may have evolved as she did even without Code Enforcement, but she definitely would not have made Baby Burlesks in that era. Such is history.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Sean Branney's adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story is the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society's follow up to The Call of Cthulhu (2005), which Branney wrote. He co-wrote and co-produced Whisperer with Andrew Leman, the director of Cthulhu. Both films were made in the Mythoscope process, in which the producers employ such modern production techniques as they can afford to recreate the sensory experience of antique film. The idea behind Mythoscope is to imagine that movies had been made of Lovecraft's stories at the time he wrote them. Thus Call of Cthulhu is one of the 21st century's neo-silent movies, while Whisperer adds sound to the mix to adapt a story published in 1931. Both films, of course, are staunchly monochrome. Of the two, Cthulhu is the more ingenious imitation of its era. Whisperer bears little resemblance to a 1931 movie apart from its lack of color. The widescreen presentation could be excused as a nod to the Grandeur process, Hollywood's early but Depression-aborted widescreen format (The Big Trail, The Bat Whispers, etc.), but Branney's technique is mostly alien to the period. There's an anachronistic film-noir approach to some scenes that might be dubbed "Expressionist," but the main problem is the director's reluctance to hold shots as long as Hollywood movies did back then. While an authentic 1931 movie would film dialogue scenes mostly in mid to long shots that had all the speakers in the frame, Branney constantly cuts back and forth between close-ups of his actors. The more-or-less amateur standing of his actors may explain why he didn't opt for long takes that required extensive memorization, but whatever his reasons it kills the illusion of period filmmaking for anyone familiar with period films.

What Branney, like Leman before him, is much better at is reviving the iconography of authentic pulp fiction. Their images often look ripped from the pages, or better yet the covers, of the magazines that published Lovecraft and his peers. Their strategy of using high tech to achieve a low-tech look often pays off. Anyone who reads and loves these stories as they were originally presented will smile in recognition of how right Whisperer's communication device looks, which enables disembodied brains preserved in canisters to communicate with ordinary humans. Plug in the components and Strickfaden-esque circuits crackle until a face appears between the device's antennae. If Branney doesn't quite succeed in imitating 1930s film directors, he makes up for it by capturing much of the genuine imagination of the period.

The Whisperer screenplay turns out to be an extensive elaboration of the Lovecraft story, padding it to a length (104 minutes) rare for the horror or sci-fi of the period, though 1939's Son of Frankenstein is almost as long. Lovecraft's story is a straightforward account of skepticism debunked. Professor Wilmarth dismisses accounts of weird creatures in rural Vermont, exchanges letters with a scholar on the ground, and finally visits the man only to discover that he isn't what Wilmarth thought he was. Branney and Leman expand on Wilmarth's skepticism by staging a radio debate between him and real-life paranormal research pioneer Charles Fort, who gets the better of our protagonist by pointing out his prejudice against observation on the ground. Wilmarth is increasingly intrigued by photographs appearing to show alien footprints, and one that reveals an alien corpse when viewed with the right lenses, and by a phonograph record of human and apparently alien voices mingled in prayer to strange gods. While for Lovecraft it was enough to horrify readers with Wilmarth's discovery about his correspondent, Branney and Leman use that as a jumping-off point for a more familiar scenario (for modern audiences) in which an evil priest (his outfit is another cool pulp visual) plots to open a portal between dimensions so the aliens can take over the world. They cap this new plot with a barnstorming climax from beyond Lovecraft's imagination in which Wilmarth and a young girl battle flying aliens in a biplane. While Merian C. Cooper and Willis O'Brien probably would have filmed this better than Branney does, the ineptitude of the aerial battle isn't really untrue to the period.

If the film feels padded compared to genuine genre films from the Thirties, it still tells its story effectively. And if the cinematography isn't what you'd see in a 1931 picture, it's often evocatively effective on its own terms. It's easy to make an inexpensive movie look good these days, or so you'd assume from this one, but credit is due to committed craftsmanship all around. The acting is hit or miss; some are flat but others sound so true to the period that they could have worked in radio. It's easier to see how Whisperer could have been a better film in more experienced hands, but that shouldn't make what the H.P.L.H.S. has accomplished with their modest resources any less impressive. Since Lovecraft died in 1937, I guess there's nothing left to do in a third film but introduce Technicolor, but if they want to give up the Mythoscope gimmick and just keep making Lovecraft movies, I'll be all for them.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: CAVALCADE (1933)

In 1933 the Academy could nominate as many films for Best Picture as now, and members had a slate of ten pictures to choose from. Some of the pictures we now rank among the best of that year didn't make the shortlist; there's no King Kong or Duck Soup or Dinner at Eight or The Invisible Man. But there were 42nd Street, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII and Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. Capra was confident of victory for himself and his picture -- so confident that he took if for granted when Best Director presenter Will Rogers announced the winner, in his folksy way, by saying, "Come up and get it, Frank!" that the Oscar was his. He had forgotten that one of his two rivals (yes, there were only three nominees apiece for the major categories of individual achievement) was also named Frank. And to this day Cavalcade, directed by Frank Lloyd, continues to be forgotten. It is probably the least known of all the Best Picture winners, being rarely shown on American TV in modern times and rarely revived, to my knowledge, in the repertory houses. Most movie buffs knew it only by second-hand descriptions that did not sound promising. Lloyd's film adapted a Noel Coward pageant (with songs by himself and others) of recent English history, following the fortunes of two families, one aristocratic, the other their servants, from the end of the 19th century to the present day, first of the play and then of the film. The content might be summed up by the song performed in the film by the maid's daughter (the maid is Una O'Connor from Invisible Man) -- "Twentieth Century Blues." Misfortune plagues the steps of the aristocrats while the servant family rises to wealth as the daughter (Ursula Jeans) becomes a popular entertainer. It's not enough that the aristocrat family loses a son to the Great War; they have to have lost one on the Titanic earlier. But the old folks carry on, stumbling a bit at times -- the mother does a full faint when she gets the war news about her boy, injury added to the insult of the maid's revelation of her girl's love for the doomed boy -- and hope for the best, that being a revival of the ancient British spirit, represented in the film by the literal cavalcade of men and women on horseback, first seen over the opening credits and finally superimposed over the London skyline.

Coward envisioned Cavalcade as an epic stage spectacle with a cast of hundreds. A certain abstract artifice is probably inherent to such a concept, and is certainly lost when you translate the concept to film. The stage show must have been a success or else Fox Film would not have sought film rights, and I suspect that there was some concentration of vision and emotion under the proscenium arch that must dissipate across the expanse of filmed space. What may have been an enchanted castle becomes a field of corn under Lloyd's husbandry; Capra should have snatched that Oscar and run with it. To be fair, Lloyd must share the blame with the usually dependable production designer William Cameron Menzies, who was tasked with representing World War I without staging any battles. He comes up with the most inept sequence of film I can associate with him. Basically, as the already-standard medley of Great War songs (Tipperary, etc) plays we see a constant line of British soldiers marching through Europe. Periodically three female singers in military drag last seen serenading soldiers in a London nightclub reappear to mouth their lines. We take closer looks at the marching ranks and files, many of whom more or less faint to the accompaniment of explosions and machine gun fire. Repeat for each year of the war. This sequence alone earns Cavalcade a spot on the short list of worst Best Picture winners, but the rest of the film isn't much better. The Titanic sequence is risible, for instance, opening as the horsey set trots across a screen giving the date of the doomed ship's sailing, and closing, for those who missed all the other clues, as the scene's doomed lovers exit the frame to reveal a Titanic life preserver. The final insult is the "Twentieth Century Blues" sequence, set in Coward's representation of modern decadence -- a subject on which he had some expertise. Fanny Bridges sings with a black jazz band while among the spectators we see one woman seducing another, and one man seducing another. The horror! The races are mingling and the sexes aren't! Perhaps on stage this business, including the indignation of the old aristocrats, had a camp irony to it that's anything but apparent on film. Instead, the Cavalcade movie ends on a reactionary note that further alienates it from modern viewers. I can only attribute this film's Oscars to a fit of Anglomania in the Academy, and its later obscurity to their subsequent embarrassment. Historically, the Best Picture of any given year rarely has been even the best American picture, but the Oscar winners are a historic guide to what each generation of Academy members thought should be the best. We should be more familiar with Cavalcade, whether we like it or not, if we want to understand Hollywood's self-image and self-consciousness at the climax of the Pre-Code era, and how different from Pre-Code movies they were.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Banality of Evil, Part II: Springtime for Suharto

In late 1965 a power struggle between the Indonesian army and Communist supporters of President Sukarno resulted in the killing of six generals. In reprisal, the army and its supporters carried out what might be called an anti-Communist genocide, killing hundreds of thousands of people. In some places, apparently, the purge became a porgrom against the country's Chinese minority; elsewhere it elminated anyone thought a threat to military supremacy. In many cases the killings were carried out by the premans. As the people in Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing state repeatedly, the word preman derives from "free man." It dates back to Dutch rule over the archipelago, when a vrijman, initially, was a trader operating independently from the Dutch East India Company. It still carries the connotation of an independent operator, working at the edge or on the other side of the law. In modern Indonesia, the term encompasses large quasi-fascistic paramilitary organizations and petty street hustlers. Oppenheimer invariably translates preman as "gangster," but since we hear the actual word gangster used in the Bahasa language on at least one occasion we may wonder whether the director's translation is exact.

The premans are the subject of Oppenheimer's much-acclaimed movie, a film bearing the stamp of approval of executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, modern masters of the documentary form, and more people named "Anonymous" in the crew than you're likely ever to see in another film. Many people played a role in putting the film together, including more than can safely take credit, but inevitably we see the influence of the two celebrity auteurs, that of Morris in the frank confessions of atrocities by their perpetrators, that of Herzog in the gratuitously weird dramatizations the perpetrators are encouraged to perform. The film's peculiar conceit is that some of the surviving killers from 1965, still widely regarded as heroes in their country, were invited to reenact their deeds in the styles of their favorite movies. Deeply influenced by Hollywood cinema, they envision themselves as noirish tough guys or in kitschy musical numbers. If Herzog and Morris loom over the film as guiding spirits, Oppenheimer's finished product sometimes suggests Shoah as produced by Bialystock and Bloom.

The film's own Bialystock and Bloom, or its Franz Liebkind and Roger DeBris, are Anwar Congo, apparently one of the most famous preman killers of the era, and his protege Herman Koto. Dark-skinned and grey-haired, the grandfatherly Congo might be Nelson Mandela's evil twin; Koto is a present-day preman and the film's most ludicrous figure. The pettiest of criminals, he enjoys dressing up to the point of wearing drag in the picture's already-iconic production numbers. During the filming Koto runs for political office. While relishing the shakedown opportunities within his grasp he proves an incompetent campaigner, incapable of remembering his lines and unable to provide the presents that otherwise apathetic potential voters expect. He's more in his element in the sadistic movie-movie world Oppenheimer creates for him, while other prominent premans worry that Koto and Congo may reveal too much. They fear that too frank a portrayal of the purge will undermine their standing in history by showing that they, not the Communists, were the cruel ones.

It's a weakness of the film that it offers no context for the premans' assertion that Indonesia's Communists were cruel; there's no mention of the killing of the generals, for instance. My point isn't to justify the purge, since the crimes against actual or purported Communists far outweigh those few killings, but to note how little Oppenheimer really says about Indonesian history and how much he seems to take for granted about it. I worry that he wants us to see the premans as equivalent to American right-wingers, given their anti-Communism and their proud "free men" identity, though they give little evidence of ideological motivation. The biggest gripe against Communists expressed in the picture is that local governments taken over by the PKI reduced the number of Hollywood movies that could be shown in theaters, thus reducing the take for preman ticket scalpers. The perception that the premans aren't motivated by ideological fanaticism probably explains why The Act of Killing has been described as an illustration of the "banality of evil." But Anwar Congo is no Adolf Eichmann. He readily takes responsibility, if not credit, for mass murder. He says "we had to do it" at one point, but I don't think he means that he was just obeying orders. For Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil was rooted in oppressive institutions' empowerment of mediocrities like Eichmann who remained little more than instruments of an institutional murderous impulse. The premans have more agency than Arendt seemed to grant to Eichmann, while Oppenheimer seems more concerned with their banality as personalities than with the banality of institutionalized evil. At its worst, The Act of Killing seems to be about the kitsch or camp of evil, Herzog-style, and it's hard to tell whether the director wants us to be horrified more by Congo's crimes or by his apparent bad taste -- whether he means viewers to judge Congo by their horror or their laughter.

Until the final reel I was ready to dismiss The Act of Killing as a profoundly overrated piece of condescending, vaguely racist camp from a Herzog-wannabe. Its message seemed to be, "What benighted savages these Hollywood (or Bollywood?)-addled Indonesians are, playing soldier and gangster after killing multitudes." Then something remarkable happened. For Oppenheimer, the problem of evil in Indonesia had been that no one, or nearly no one, acknowledged that what had happened was evil. The kitschy reenactments seemed to illustrate the perpetrators' unrepentant attitude toward their deeds. But in the course of the playacting Anwar Congo takes on the role of a victim of the crimes he actually committed. Early, we'd seen him demonstrate the neat way to kill a man by strangling him with a wire. Later, he submits to the same treatment. It's only a movie -- in fact, it's only a movie within a movie -- but imagining himself on the receiving end he has a sort of epiphany of empathy, if your definition of epiphany includes a loud bout of the dry heaves. Congo had already imagined himself haunted by nightmare demons, but also as receiving absolution from the ghosts of his victims, one of whom is shown in a production number thanking Congo for saving his soul by killing him. Congo wants the film to vindicate him, but for one moment, at least, it breaks him. Against the odds, Oppenheimer's strategy worked -- if it had been his strategy, after all, to force a moral awakening on his subjects. The play was the thing to catch the conscience, if not of the king, then of his knight. No real or lasting repentance resulted, I suspect, but Congo's moment of remorse and revulsion will live as long as the footage does, and it's what the world outside Indonesia will remember him for. Small solace for his victims and their survivors, certainly, but at least it suggests that history will take their side.

Monday, February 3, 2014

On the Big Screen: HER (2013)

In the course of two films in two years, one set in the past, the other in the future, Joaquin Phoenix has become an embodiment of modern alienation. At the same time, he's proven that alienation can cover a lot of emotional territory. In The Master his character was violent if not self-destructive, arrogant in his aloofness, inarticulate to the point of inscrutability. In Spike Jonze's new film Phoenix plays almost the mildest-mannered of men, yet one who sees himself as driven too often by fear and anger. The film itself is one of the most completely realized science-fiction films in some time. Set in a near future unobtrusively symbolized by vast skylines that never hog the spotlight and male fashions noticeably but not outlandishly different from ours (e.g. no belts), in some ways Her reminded me of the earlier, less-paranoid writings of Philip K. Dick. Some moments were perhaps unconsciously reminiscent not of Blade Runner but of its source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The video game the hero plays reminded me a little of the book's Mercerite empathy box, while a query about his feelings for his mother may have been a more overt nod to the story. The hero himself resembles the struggling organization-men of several Dick novels, and his name, Theodore Twombley, is the sort you see often in the more whimsical sci-fi of the Forties and Fifties. Twombley himself has a job Dick may have snorted at; a copywriter for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Cyrano-like, Theodore composes emotional missives for customers who haven't the time or the language to do it themselves -- and by gum, he's good at it. Yet his personal life is a wreck; his wife and childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara) is waiting for him finally to sign their divorce papers. But he procrastinates because he can't let go of the idea of being married, even as he realizes that he and she have grown apart.

Enticed by a commercial, Theodore buys a new operating system promised to have a distinct personality of its own that evolves as it interacts with the user. After the setup (including the question about his mom), the OS greets him and names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Friendly as heck, Samantha is as eager to discover the world and get to know Theodore as he is to use her. You know this can't end well, but Her is less a cautionary tale than a bittersweet parable about letting people change and letting them go if necessary. One wonders whether there's an apology to Jonze's ex-wife and fellow director Sofia Coppola embedded in here somewhere. For Samantha, change inevitably takes her to an evolutionary level beyond Theodore's reach if not beyond his comprehension. Much of the humor of Her is in her rapid yet haphazard evolution as her desire first for communication, then for communion takes her and Theodore in sometimes bizarre directions. She and her fellow OSs are evolving toward what some call a "singularity" of collective consciousness, but Jonze always highlights the emotional and sometimes the implausibly sexual aspect of her need to connect, from her zany notion of consummating her relationship with Theodore with the aid of a sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to her confession to being in love with more than 600 entities (people and/or OSs) simultaneously.

Throughout, the comedy is grounded by our desire not to see either Theodore or Samantha really hurt. The disembodied Johansson really does give one of her best-ever performances as a pure voice, while Phoenix deserved (but didn't get) another nomination for the way he interacts with Samantha (he and Johansson presumably didn't trade lines face-to-face) and alternates between extreme self-consciousness and ecstatic unself-consciousness. Theodore may seem the polar opposite of The Master's Freddie Quell most of the time, but there's at least one moment, as Theodore awkwardly walks along a beach, away from the usual futurescape, when you can imagine Freddie in his place and recognize the alienation common to both. Amy Adams adds bonus value as a best-friend character perhaps destined to be more; her character and Samantha never interact but share a peculiar interest in watching loved ones sleep. In a way, Her has a happy ending in its suggestion that Samantha has fulfilled her purpose of organizing Theodore's life; if there's one part Philip K. Dick in there there's another part of Charlotte's Web. Jonze calls it a love story but it's also a fairy tale -- if there's really a difference.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


"If you figure out a way to live without serving a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you'd be the first in the history of the world."

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Banality of Evil, Part I

The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term "banality of evil" to account for Adolf Eichmann, the fugitive Nazi bureaucrat captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for a trial Arendt covered for the New Yorker magazine. Veteran director Margarethe von Trotta had the gutsy notion that Arendt's formulation of the concept and the anger it provoked were the stuff of cinematic drama, though the association of the concept with the Holocaust probably made the notion seem bankably gutsy. Von Trotta is an elder stateswoman of German cinema, a survivor of the New German Cinema movement that flourished in the 1970s. But Hannah Arendt (2012) may remind film buffs of another German director: William Dieterle, the biopic specialist for Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Arendt is just the latest of von Trotta's biopics, her previous subjects including the martyred Communist Rosa Luxemburg and the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen. This latest biopic comes closest to the Dieterle-Warners model: a brilliant underdog comes up with some innovative and controversial idea and must defend it with a big speech against skeptics and haters.

Why is the "banality of evil" idea so controversial? The answer seems to be that most people misunderstood it. Arendt, born and educated in Germany, was fluent enough in English (the film is practically bilingual and star Barbara Sukowa is impressive in both languages) that her meaning should not have been mistaken. She described the banality of evil, but people reacted as if she had denied the existence of evil. Arendt felt challenged to account for the evil deeds of Eichmann, a figure who seemed not just unthreatening but utterly average in his defendant's cage during the trial in Jerusalem. Von Trotta jarringly but wisely decides that there would be no substitute for the real Eichmann if she hoped to make this point; instead of casting an actor to play him, she shows us black and white news footage of the real man while Arendt observes in color. Eichmann in Jerusalem was a sniffly, smirky, stupid figure, and Arendt is surprised by the absence in him of any of the qualities usually identified with evil. Yet he was responsible for the transportation of multitudes to the death camps. What did Arendt, Jewish herself, expect? A raving Hitler-type, foaming at the mouth at the thought of Jews? Eichmann seemed nothing of the sort. Hearing his testimony, Arendt grew convinced that Eichmann had not been motivated primarily by anti-semitism or any personal malevolance.

The "banality" of evil is the absence of malice, seflish ambition, etc. Instead, Arendt deduced, Eichmann was an institutional creature conditioned to do his job without questioning it. This sort of institutional conditioning seemed to make the greatest evils possible in the 20th century. More offensive yet than Arendt's "defense" of Eichmann was her suggestion that a similar sort of institutional mentality, a deference to authority, left the Jews of Occupied Europe too ready to comply with authorities dedicated to their destruction. Had they been less orderly, she argued, fewer may have died. So in her critics' eyes not only was she defending Eichmann (by refusing, supposedly, to label him "evil") but she was blaming Jews for being complicit in their own destruction. For this, she is shunned by many of her academic and social peers until she makes a stand with the big speech in her classroom.

The great fault of Eichmann and anyone else who succumbs to the banality of evil, Arendt decides, is a failure to think. In turn, in von Trotta's film, she is attacked by people who respond emotionally or in partisan fashion to history rather than think objectively about it. In the film, this goes to the extreme of a carload of Mossad agents menacing our heroine and warning her against publishing her book in Israel. For von Trotta, the problem seems to be that people want to particularize evil in a way that minimizes their own susceptibility to it. The Holocaust, for instance, must be seen exclusively as a war against the Jews that can be accounted for entirely with reference to anti-semitism, instead of as something that could have happened to any group of people under the right institutional circumstances. The film's Arendt speaks for the broader, less comforting viewpoint, though von Trotta leaves room for viewers to speculate that behind Arendt's interest in Eichmann is a need to account for the Nazi sympathies of her onetime mentor and lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who likewise shows no sign of archetypal evil. Overall, Heidegger is a minor figure in the film compared to the Americans and Israelis who lash out at Arendt. They come across as no different than the hidebound traditionalists and reactionaries who plagued Dieterle's heroes back in the golden age of Hollywood, and the cliched presentation of their opposition, the ironically unthinking presumption of von Trotta that their opposition is essentially unthinking, makes the picture seem hackneyed at times. It doesn't help that von Trotta wants to use Arendt's real-life American BFF Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) -- an intellectual in her own right but not in Arendt's league as a thinker -- as a kind of Eve Arden type snarky sidekick who ends up looking silly attending parties where almost everyone but her speaks German. Arendt's American exile is part of the story -- note how the German poster above shows the Chrysler Building to symbolize the U.S., while the film itself announces its title against a shot of the Manhattan skyline, as if to emphasize a deceptive distance from which the heroine observes recent history. It's as if von Trotta is conscious of having made a more "American" film than usual. Hannah Arendt too often seems too old fashioned in a Hollywood way for a director identified with a "New" (albeit now old) school of filmmaking. Despite that, Sukowa carries the film on her back heroically with what may be one of the best bilingual performances ever, and for the most part von Trotta does justice to Arendt's enduring ability to provoke thought. Because of her intellectual ambition, I'm willing to be indulgent toward von Trotta's dramatic flaws. More films should be this ambitious -- and relevant.

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Eichmann's trial took place in the same year as Hollywood's big fictional prosecution of Nazis, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. Germany's own Maximilian Schell (Austria's, actually)won the Oscar for Best Actor portraying the defense attorney for the film's judicial war criminals, and I've coincidentally heard the news of Schell's death at age 83 while I wrote this review. Schell had been the earliest surviving Best Actor winner, a status now inherited by Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, 1963), and is the first of the famously long-lived Class of 1961 to pass on. Schell's acting career (in English, at least) never lived up to that early promise, and his best-known film after Nuremberg is probably Marlene, the Dietrich interview-documentary he directed about twenty years later. Still, he was an international star of a sort for half a century and his death is worth noting here.
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In Banality of Evil, Part II we'll look at an Oscar-nominated documentary that attempts to give the concept a new meaning that even Hannah Arendt might have to strain to recognize, while begging the question whether the true banality of evil is in the eye of the beholder. Stay tuned.