Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Much TV: WACO (2018)

Religious cults and their leaders scandalize the American mind more, perhaps, than they do any other culture. Cults may be the ultimate abuse of the sacred American prerogatives of freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly, wasting both on voluntary submission to leaders who are undeserving almost by definition. Liberal culture distrusts the religious visionary just as it distrusts most polticial visionaries,  on the assumption that such people are out for themselves, interested more in receiving the submission of the gullible than in anything else, unless they happen to be authentically insane, when they might be even more dangerous. The Dowdle brothers' six-part miniseries about the fatal 1993 government siege of the Branch Davidian community in Texas may scandalize audiences most through its efforts to humanize Davidian leader David Koresh. As played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch,  Koresh is often quite a mundane figure, seen early going out for a jog with his son and playing with a rock band in a bar. It's only when discussing religion that a certain madness emerges; David believes that he's the lamb of God who will open the seven seals of Revelation, after which his children shall be judges over the earth. With great responsibility comes great privilege: David claims the right -- he sees it as his duty -- to take multiple wives while the other Davidian men remain celibate. For all that, things don't seem so awful at his compound, apart maybe from the stockpiling of weapons that attracts the attention of the ATF. 

According to the miniseries it's only under pressure from the government, once he believes that he has only a short time to complete his prophetic work, does David become something like the demonic figure the feds took him to be all along, holding dozens of innocents hostage to his ambition. The immolation of the compound thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a liberal government that fears the implicit tyranny of cults,  but even then Waco, based partly on a survivor's memoir, takes pains to show that Koresh wasn't directly responsible for his followers' deaths, except insofar as he blundered by trapping them in a bunker without realizing how easily a tear-gas assault can turn into an inferno.

From the other side, Waco follows the account of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon in a rare good-guy role), who came to Texas after bringing the Ruby Ridge siege to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Noesner's main concern is saving lives, which infuriates his colleague Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), whose own concern for the children in the compound is eclipsed by his impatient contempt for Koresh.  Mitch becomes the real bad guy of the piece, but in a way that implicates an audience likely to share his impatience with Noesner's seeming  coddling (at taxpayers' expense) of a despicable villain's stall tactics. He gets a sort of moral comeuppance at the end when, after the final assault goes to hell, he makes an agonized single-handed effort to rescue Rachel Koresh  (Melissa "Supergirl" Benoist) from a compacted escape hatch. The scene sums up the tragedy of Waco, at least as the Dowdles see it, by underscoring Mitch's sincere desire to rescue innocents (however complicit Rachel may have been as David's primary wife) while showing how his own bullying tactics sabotaged his best impulses.

The show as a whole will no doubt please those who see the Waco siege as Exhibit A of big-government intrusiveness against people's right to live as they please, but by now I don't think anyone doubts that the government went too far there, nor do I think that saying so implies any endorsement of religious cults. Some may wonder whether Waco goes too far in portraying Koresh as a tragic antihero as late in the game as the end of episode five when, defying Mitch's psy-op tactics, David performs an impromptu rock concert, but that's inevitably a matter of subjective perception. The miniseries for all its virtues doesn't change my view that the Waco story was a double tragedy, most obviously in the way it ended, but also because cults like Koresh's are a human tragedy in the first place.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931)

Before making a real name for himself as a comic character actor, Lloyd Corrigan was the auteur of a trilogy of Fu Manchu movies for Paramount Pictures, writing all three and directing the last. Corrigan's films are very loosely based on Sax Rohmer's devil doctor, giving Fu Manchu a backstory that reduced his motive to revenge against the family of an English officer whose men had killed the once-benevolent doctor's family during the Boxer Rebellion. Corrigan's Fu Manchu was Warner Oland, whose vaguely Asiatic features won him many a yellow-peril part before he atoned, in retrospectively thankless fashion, by playing the belovedly benign Charlie Chan until his death. In Daughter of the Dragon, Corrigan retcons that backstory to exploit Rohmer's latest novel, Daughter of Fu Manchu. We learn that Fu Manchu, who has been playing dead for the last twenty years since the previous picture, had a living daughter who was raised in secret by one of his European loyalists (Nicholas Soussanin) and trained as a dancer who, as the story begins, is the toast of London vaudeville as Princess Ling Moy. In a big twist, Fu Manchu's daughter is played by an actual Chinese woman -- though to be more correct Anna May Wong was Chinese-American by birth. Daughter was Wong's Hollywood talkie debut after spending the 1920s lauded for her beauty but limited in opportunities by her ethnicity. She returned with fresh plaudits after stealing a late British silent, Picadilly and proving her voice, refined by her London sojourn, by starring in a Broadway play. Hollywood may have had little idea of what to do with her, but they knew she was some sort of star, acknowledging it by giving her top billing for her title role, Oland having little more than a cameo. Fu Manchu shows up in London to personally take out the latest generations of Petries, hypnotising one into falling down a flight of stairs but taking a mortal gunshot wound while throwing a knife at the Petrie heir (Bramwell "the mummy went for a little walk!" Fletcher), who we saw earlier making a admiring but also patronizing visit to Princess Ling Moy's dressing room. The Princess herself is presented to her dying father, who laments his lack of a son to continue his great work, only to be promised by Ling Moy, "I will be your son!" With Scotland Yard hot on his trail, the old man convinces her to play his victim, allowing himself to be shot down definitively while appearing to assault the popular dancer. This will allow her within the confidences of the surviving Petries so she can carry out her father's mission of vengeance.

Inevitably there are complications. For one thing, Ling Moy is sort of attracted to Ronald Petrie, and can't bring herself to knife him during a golden opportunity. For another, she has another suitor, the Chinese detective Ah Kee who took out Fu Manchu and now has a crush on the girl he rescued from the devil doctor. Daughter of the Dragon has far more historic than aesthetic value because Corrigan brings together the most successful Asian-American actress of early Hollywood and the most successful Asian actor of the studio era. Ah Kee is played by Sessue Hayakawa, best remembered now as the increasingly perplexed prison commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai but long before that a legit sex symbol if not an all-purpose ethnic star following his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. Daughter was a Hollywood comeback attempt for the 42 year old Hayakawa, who like Wong had gone to Europe seeking a wider variety of roles and was well received for his efforts. Unfortunately, unlike for Wong, English was a second language for Hayakawa and it shows. He makes a heroic effort, but his accent is almost impenetrably thick sometimes. Worse, he's been cast as a Chinese detective when, for those who know the difference, few men look and sound more obviously Japanese than Sessue Hayakawa without wearing samurai armor. No doubt Paramount Pictures expected few people of 1931 to know the difference or call Corrigan out on his caricature of Chinese culture. There's a scene where Ling Moy, trying to string Ah Kee along, performs a traditional Chinese song for him. I don't claim to be an expert on Chinese music but I think I've heard enough to recognize Wong's singing for the laughable imposture it most likely was. You could believe that she had no more clue about Chinese music, or music in general, than Corrigan did. It's like when American actors try to speak some Native American language like they're reciting Shakespeare, with no apparent awareness of how Natives actually talk. But I digress. Miscast as Hayakawa is by modern standards -- though it wasn't so long ago that Zhang Ziyi starred in Memoirs of a Geisha -- the fact that counts is that Ah Kee is the hero of this picture: a competent detective who's good with a gun and capable of breaking out some jiu-jitsu moves, or whatever people would have called it back then when a Chinese man did them.

Ah Kee is also a tragic hero in that Ling Moy really wants Petrie more than him. She finally goes off the deep end after being haunted by her father's voice after her first failure to kill the Englishman and seeing how Ronald reacts when the film's bland blonde (Frances Dade) is imperiled. That puts her into full Oriental torture mode, threatening to disfigure her rival before finishing Petrie off. In the meantime, her goons have temporarily taken Ah Kee out of action, tying him to a chair near an upper-story window where he can watch Petrie's friends, including the film's comedy-relief servant, blunder into danger. Our hero tosses himself out the window and crashes to earth to get their attention, and he's still got enough juice left after that to shoot down his beloved, finishing the "House of Fu," when she takes a last stab at poor Petrie. Corrigan can't help but play for pathos as poor Ah Kee lays himself down to die beside Ling Moy, but I'd like to think that even 1931 audiences had to wonder why the detective needed to die at all. In a better world, Ah Kee, accent and all, would have gone on to star in his own series of B movies, playing the yellow peril to the yellow peril -- just as I always say that the way to bring back Fu Manchu today is to make him a fugitive from the People's Republic and make a Chinese agent prominent in pursuit of him. Ah Kee could have been a Charlie Chan who kicked ass, but that could only have been in an alternate reality. In fact, Hayakawa was soon back in Europe, where he remained through World War II before Hollywood caught up with him again, while Anna May Wong had a minor apotheosis in her next, infinitely better picture, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, where she gets to kill Warner Oland. Ironic, no? Daughter of the Dragon may be a uniquely historic Hollywood effort, but it's a good thing that no one involved is best remembered for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

DVR Diary: WINGS (1927)

On the day of the latest Academy Awards ceremony I rewatched the first ever Best Picture, William Wellman's World War I flying epic. Wings was one of two "best pictures" that year, officially recognized as the "outstanding production" of 1927-8 while F. W. Murnau's Sunrise received the first and only award for "unique and artistic" effort. Film buffs today regard the Murnau as the superior film and I'd most likely agree with them, but the distance between the two pictures really isn't as great as some may think. Both films are spectacles showing silent film at its peak of technical virtuosity, and both have plenty of corny moments. If Sunrise showed what a proven expressionist master could do with a Hollywood budget, Wings is arguably more of a revelation because Wellman really hadn't done anything distinguished before. Finally matched with the right subject, the young director went at it with every trick in the book and achieved unprecedented and arguably unmatched effects. While it flaunts supremely mobile late-silent camerawork and attacks the air war from almost every possible angle, Wings is above all the ultimate statement of silent cinema's primitive authenticity. Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers literally take to the air for the film's dogfights, and even jaded modern audiences are likely to be captivated if not awestruck by the unmistakable reality of it.

Arlen and Rogers are the leads in the film's tragic bromance of frenemies. They're from the same town, where David Armstrong (Arlen) is a privileged rich boy and Jack Powell (Rogers) is a car enthusiast. Both pine for rich girl Sylvia Lewis (Harold Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston), but Jack does so almost as a matter of one-upmanship with David, and in spite of the obsessive attention paid him by his neighbor Mary, his neglect of her all the more inexplicable by the fact that Mary is played by top-billed "It" girl and legendary sex symbol Clara Bow. Maybe Mary comes on too strong, as Bow often does in her films. She does score a point with Jack by naming his homemade race car "the Shooting Star" and creating a logo he'll also use on his fighter plane.

The audience will be all for Bow because Mary also enlists, joining the motor corps as an ambulance driver. There's a scene nearly midway through the film that may remind today's moviegoers of Wonder Woman's exploits in a French village, down to the climactic destruction of a church steeple. Of course, all Mary can do is cower under her truck as that steeple crashes down point first almost on top of her, provoking what probably was some salty language from our star, though my lip-reading isn't good enough to verify it. As an aside, there's at least one "Son of a bitch!" during a dogfight scene that absolutely no one will miss. In any event, Mary's really big adventure takes place in Paris (some actual second-unit shooting was done there), where she's tasked with dragging a sozzled Jack from a bar because his leave's been cancelled. This is part of the scene that includes a famous tracking shot including two lesbians at a table, for what that's worth to you. On one hand, this is one of the film's dumbest scenes, sinking to the level of idiot comedy as Jack becomes obsessed with champagne bubbles and begins hallucinating them everywhere in special-effect form. On the other, the whole bubble business has a brilliant payoff when Mary, having changed from her chic uniform into a sequined cocktail gown to get Jack's attention, shimmies a blizzard of bubbles at him that finally wins him away from a predatory French woman. Of course, he's so stinking drunk that he never recognizes her through the whole experience, finally passing out in a hotel room just before some MPs show up to arrest Mary in mid-change back into her uniform. Her war ends with the grim irony of dismissal for immoral conduct, and when Jack reads about her "resignation" in a hometown paper, still none the wiser about Paris, he remarks that Mary didn't seem like the quitting type.

It's remarkable that Wings made Buddy Rogers a star when Jack is such an obnoxious character. Not only does he treat Mary like dirt, only to win her at the very end of the picture, and not only does he delude himself about Sylvia when she really loves David (as Ralston did Arlen), but on top of everything else he kills David. Not intentionally, mind you, or not in the "I want to kill David" sense, but because, believing David dead behind enemy lines, he goes on a berserker rage during the big American push, breaking from his formation to go on a solo rampage against any German plane he can find. So of course David has survived, and of course he steals a German plane in a desperate effort to get back to his own lines, and of course Jack isn't going to realize that it's his buddy in a German plane flying toward the American lines. This is all a big tragedy, of course, but Wellman takes it beyond tragedy to outright horror, milking David's hopeless helplessness for all it's worth as he knows exactly who's after him from the shooting star logo on the pursuing plane. This isn't a moment of valorous resignation but a sustained fit of despairing terror, and Arlen makes the most of it. Sure, the boys reconcile before David finally expires, after he's shot down and crashes into a house, but while Wellman strives to restore a sentimental tone -- the symbolic cut to a plane's propellers slowing to a halt outside a military ceremony is a nice touch echoed in the epilogue by Sylvia's mournful stillness in the swing she and  David used to swing on -- that play for pathos can't erase the memory of one of the most terrifying moments in all silent film, all the more terrifying, of course, for knowing that Arlen is up in the clouds, theoretically as helplessly vulnerable as the character he plays.

It's quite an achievement by both Wellman and Arlen that that scene of one man in peril is so memorable after some massively detailed scenes of land and air battle, nearly as definitive as the trench warfare scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Wings is more of a patchwork than that film, with wider variance in tone than Sunrise, to return to the original 1927 comparison, in an effort to please every part of the audience. Somehow it's a film that elevated everyone involved, including Gary Cooper in his famous few minutes as a doomed trainee pilot. Wellman knew star power when he saw it, and while Cooper doesn't have quite the godlike emergence here that James Cagney gets in Wellman's Other Men's Women, you can tell from the way the director dissolves to a closer shot of Cooper as he prepares to leave his tent for the last time that the young actor would make an indelible impression. But hell, this film even elevated El Brendel. Brendel really became a big deal in talkies, when his Swedish accent was judged inherently hilarious, if nothing else about him was. What on earth did he have to offer in silent film? Apparently Wellman found his face funny, having used him in an earlier picture, and in the meantime silence freed the presumptive comedian from the confines of his own shtick, so that here he can play a German-American, Herman Schwimpf, who has to fend off disdain for his enemy ethnicity by displaying an American flag tattoo on his bicep. Apart from that, he gets beat up during an aggressive demonstration of hand-to-hand combat and is forgotten about for most of the rest of the picture until he turns up firing an anti-aircraft gun before the climactic battle. He was there for someone's benefit, I guess, though I'd wonder about anyone who found him the highlight of the film. He's what you get when you try to have something for everyone in a movie, and that just goes to prove that Wings is more -- far more -- than the sum of its parts. Parts of this film are probably still the best air-war movie ever made.

Monday, March 5, 2018

#oscarsowhat 2018

The Academy will be forgiven, presumably, for failing to bestow Oscars on actors of color this year, since they went progressive behind the camera. By now there's nothing new about naming a Mexican as Best Direction, of course, since Guillermo del Toro is the third such person to win the vote in the last five years, but his The Shape of Water, which also won Best Picture, is some sort of milestone depending on whether you count it as a fantasy, horror or monster movie, and its message was no doubt suitably inclusive for Academy voters. Another horror movie, Get Out, earned Jordan Peele a historic  first original screenplay Oscar to a black writer, while veteran scribe James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame overcame ageism, if you will, when his adapted screenplay for the gay-themed Call Me By Your Name made him the oldest-ever competitive Oscar winner. On the acting front the Academy fell back into old habits, not so much by honoring whites only but by honoring half of them for biopics, including Gary Oldman for his (to judge by advertising only) preposterous turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Apart from applauding del Toro while insisting that Shape of Water isn't really his best stuff, I can only make superficial judgments because I didn't watch as much Oscar bait as I probably should have. No doubt I waste too much time on superhero films, but I sometimes think that I learn more about cinematic storytelling, good and bad, from those films than from those whose virtues are more strictly literary. I don't think any of 2017's comic book films belonged on stage last night, but I don't take it for granted that yesterday's honorees really were the year's best films, either. I do have a better idea of what to look at now before making up my own mind.

Saturday, March 3, 2018


There had been Hollywood films set in Vietnam before, but Samuel Fuller's China Gate is arguably the first "Vietnam movie" to involve an American protagonist in the effort to prevent a Communist takeover of French Indochina. Fuller opens his picture with a prologue history of Indochina up to the Viet Minh uprising against French colonial rule, but he seems a little unclear on what Vietnam is. For one thing, he doesn't really use that name. For another, he writes as if the people of Indochina are "Chinese." On the other hand, China Gate takes an interesting attitude toward ethnicity in general. The Asian characters are written mostly in an entirely unstereotyped way, with none of the stilted conventions of Hollywood or pulp writing. The Viet Minh soldiers we see -- the time is early 1954, before the decisive siege of Dienbienphu -- talk and pretty much act like dogfaces anywhere: happy to see a dame, especially if she's brought alcohol. Meanwhile, singer Nat "King" Cole has a big supporting role as an American fighting with the French Foreign Legion, and his blackness is never remarked upon. His role probably wasn't written for a black actor, and strange to say, Cole's craggy features and raspy speaking voice arguably make his character, identified as a veteran of the "Big Red One" during World War II, even more of a surrogate for Fuller himself. The singer actually gives a credible performance as a tough soldier (he survives a booby-trap spike through his foot without crying out) marred only by a probably-obligatory performance of the rather bleak title song, and even that isn't inconsistent with Fuller's use of song in the same year's Forty Guns.

Where Fuller probably won't pass muster with many modern viewers is his casting of white actors in two crucial "half-caste" roles. Angie Dickinson gets the romantic lead playing Lia, a lithe lush better known as "Lucky Legs" or "Lucky" for short. Everyone remarks on how Lucky can pass for white, but her son is not so Lucky. Although the boy's no more than one-quarter Asian -- his father is American -- he looks so entirely Asian that the father, Sgt. Brock of the Legion (Gene Barry) freaks out and runs out on wife and child. That fact makes him a heel to everyone else in his unit, and it definitely complicates his mission to penetrate enemy lines to find the Communist weapons depot beyond the China Gate, with Lucky, a fixer who travels often between the lines, as their guide and shield.

Fuller quickly establishes his anti-communist credentials -- many of the Legionnaires are Korean War veterans who went to Vietnam so they could keep killing commies -- and that gives him cover from which he attacks his real target, American racism. By comparison, we never really encounter a dogmatic communist. As noted, the Viet Minh grunts we meet are simply grunts, no better or worse than other soldiers.  When we get to the final boss, Major Cham, he's shown to be no more than an opportunist who had formerly hated communism, as Lucky notes in an embarrassing moment in front of Cham's masseuse, but now sees it as the wave of the future and his surest path to success. On the evidence of China Gate, communists are bad guys mainly by virtue of being more ruthless and indiscriminate, for some reason or other, in their violence.

It's probably for the best that Fuller didn't try to make any ideological statement when his main commie villain, the other half-caste in the story, is played by Lee Van Cleef. While the actor's name actually resembles a Vietnamese name, the resemblance pretty much ends there, which makes it unintentionally preposterous when Cham tells Lucky that he gets along better with the Reds because he looks more "Chinese" than she does. Cleef actually tries hard here to pull off a character who has actual feelings for Lucky, apparently his sometime lover, and for her son, whom he'd like to give a chance at advancement by getting him educated in Moscow. I have a feeling, however, that the naturalistic, non-stereotyped dialogue Fuller gave him made him even more damningly unconvincing as an Asian in the eyes of contemporary audiences, so that what actually looks now like a halfway decent performance probably looked like the worst in 1957.

By modern standards, given China Gate's anti-racist line, any ending that falls short of a happy ending for Lucky, Brock and their son probably will look like a cop-out. Does it undercut Fuller's message that Lucky sacrifices her life, after tossing Cham off a balcony, to blow up the ammo dump, even if the ending makes clear that Brock will take his Asiatic boy home with him after all? Some people are bound to think so, but let's remember that Fuller comes from an older tradition that values pathos and aims for bittersweet effects. If anything, you can argue that Lucky's death will only remind Brock even more of the wrong he did her earlier and the debt he owes their child. Tragedy was more commonplace in pop culture back then, especially when the one-and-done format of TV drama meant that heroes and heroines often loved and lost in a single hour. The same format also encouraged people to shrug off tragedy rather than wallow in it, and something like China Gate probably should be taken in the same spirit. It's not really a Fuller masterwork but it has a lot of interesting stuff going on, including the best performance I've ever seen from Gene Barry. The guilt trip he takes in this picture breaks down that typical smugness that makes his Bat Masterson so insufferable and suggests that he could have done more with his career if wanted to or was goaded into it. Cole also shows potential he got very little chance to develop further beyond his W. C. Handy biopic of the following year. I doubt anyone accepts Angie Dickinson as even partially Asian but she gives the right kind of charismatic performance for the familiar type of pulp heroine she plays. Overall China Gate is the typical "primitive" Fuller mix of impressive tracking shots, intense action, mostly decent art direction, badly integrated stock footage, etc. The film won't really tell you anything about Vietnam, but it's a diverting yarn on its own terms.