Friday, December 31, 2010

Wendigo Meets TWINS OF EVIL (1971)

Hammer followed the success of Roy Ward Baker's The Vampire Lovers with Jimmy Sangster's Lust For a Vampire, a film my friend Wendigo has seen but once. Once was enough: the lead actress, though quite a looker, was no Ingrid Pitt when it came to talent or personality. Nothing about Lust impressed him, and to have the vampire woman lusting for a man violated the Carmilla concept. Whatever its original audience thought, Hammer persevered and put John Hough to work directing a third "Karnstein" film. This time, though, the British studio brought some extra exploitation inspiration to the project, merging their signature vampire product with the then-hot topic of witch-hunting. The result is a conceptually dynamic film that I prefer to Vampire Lovers, while Wendigo himself has some justified reservations.

The Collinson twins differentiate themselves gradually over the course of the film.

For most of the picture, the titular twins (played by pioneer twin Playmates Mary and Madelaine Collinson) take a back seat to a war of wills waged by witch-hunter Gustave Weil (Peter Cushing), the head of a torchbearing Brotherhood, and the decadent Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas). The Count routinely has his way with local women, doing who knows what in his castle, but the bourgeois Brotherhood can't touch him because, as an aristocrat, Karnstein enjoys the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. The war of wills is a class war fueled by Weil's resentment of Karnstein's privileges -- and his sexual prowess, we can assume -- and Karnstein's libertine contempt for Weil's intolerant moralizing. In their first encounter, Karnstein looks more like a hero, since we've already grown suspicious that the Brotherhood is burning innocent women. We're inclined to think that Karnstein has Weil well pegged as the real villain of the piece. However, amid the witch-burning there's this nagging business of a vampire. Someone's in the woods biting necks. Who could that be?

Both Gustave Veil (Peter Cushing, above) and Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas, seated below) have sins to answer for, but is that poor schmuck with the bite on his neck (bottom) one of them?

Count Karnstein, perhaps? The answer seems to be no, at least at first. We see the Count become a vampire by performing a blood sacrifice to summon the spirit of his ancestress Mircalla/Carmilla for a round of necro-incest prior to the necessary bite, but that begs the question of who was biting folks before. Wendigo thinks it a major weakness of the picture that this question is never really answered. We may be meant to assume that Karnsteins are running around all over the place, but since we see no other vampires before the Count summons Mircalla, we can't draw any conclusions about the early vampire attacks with any certainty.

The Ghost of Vampires Past approaches Count Karnstein. Below, director John Hough makes the most of mirrors and mirror-related effects, including the Count's loss of his reflection as he becomes a vampire.

In any event, the battle between bourgeois morality and aristocratic depravity is played out in miniature between the newly-arrived Gellhorn twins. Maria (Mary) is the good girl, while Frieda (Madeline) is the wild child. Only Anton (David Warbeck), the choral instructor of the local Hammer Academy for Highly-Developed Young Ladies, senses the moral difference between the twins, and can thus tell them apart reliably when no one else can. Frieda resents the discipline imposed by Uncle Gustave and is attracted by the Count's decadent reputation. Maria isn't exactly happy with her uncle, but doesn't feel the same temptation to transgress out of spite that Frieda feels. Maria's too good for her own good. When Frieda runs off to spend a night with Karnstein and is turned into a vampire, Maria covers for her, convincing Gustave that she's Frieda and that Maria had run off for the night. For her trouble, Gustave beats "Frieda" with a belt and is sure to beat Maria in the morning to punish her. The real Frieda doesn't care.

Anton has been studying vampire lore, and tries to explain to Gustave that the local problem is vampires rather than witches, and that burning suspects will do no good. You get a sense that, on some level, Anton is simply trying to discourage Gustave from burning women. But when his sister turns up dead by neckbite (and not necessarily by Karnstein or Frieda) he makes vampire fighting a serious vocation. Gustave gets wise when he catches Frieda in the act, but convinces the Brotherhood to behave themselves and hold the vampiress in prison for a time. That gives Karnstein time to kidnap Maria and do the switcheroo, so that Maria is brought to the brink of burning before Anton convinces Gustave to give her the crucifix test again. A now quite repentant Gustave rallies the Brotherhood to join Anton in an assault on Karnstein castle to destroy the aristocrat and his evil acolytes once and for all. Normally Peter Cushing vs. vampires has a foregone conclusion, but this time around he may have too much to answer for....

Twins may not have as much nudity as one might hope for, but the final reel has plenty of gore to keep up Hammer's street cred.

Wendigo acknowledges that Twins has a lot going for it. It has a strong male cast, Cushing, Damien Thomas and Peter Warbeck all giving good performances grounded in the film's social and cultural context. The film is admirably ambiguous in making Cushing a virtual villain motivated by obvious jealousies and resentments who only gradually evolves into an antihero. Count Karnstein also evolves, or devolves, from a mere libertine skeptic who initially scoffs at a purported sacrifice to Satan into someone who embraces absolute evil as almost an aristocratic imperative. He looks like he'll be the antihero at first in that early confrontation with Gustave, but his aristocratic prejudices seem to doom him to wickedness. Amid the confusion, Anton emerges as the least ambiguous hero -- though I initially suspected him of being the original vampire. Wendigo also likes the way the conflict between the twins echoes that of Weil and Karnstein, with the sisters taking opposite extremes of fatal selfishness and almost-fatal selflessness. After stumbling with the first sequel, scripter Tudor Gates, who worked on all three Karnsteins, was really back on his game this time. Technically, Twins is a knockout, richly envisioned by Hough and usually realized evocatively by cinematographer Dick Bush and art director Roy Stannard. Interiors and exteriors are often quite striking, and Twins overall looks richer and more striking (whatever the difference in budget) than Vampire Lovers.

Wendigo wants to stress again how irritated he was by the film's failure to identify the original vampire. For him it's a major, almost crippling flaw of the story. If anything, the whole vampire angle is a weakness of this ostensible vampire movie. That's because he feels that both Frieda and Count Karnstein became less interesting once they became conventional vampire villains. He also feels that Hough bungles one major scene, the bedroom tussle between Anton and Frieda disguised as Maria. Shot with a handheld camera and a fisheye lens, it was probably meant to express immediacy, but in Wendigo's opinion it only looked amateurish and made Madelaine Collinson -- in her one nude scene -- look silly. Meanwhile, the business with Joachim, Karnstein's mute black servant, having to pantomime that the Brotherhood is advancing on the castle, looks goofy to say the least if not a little racist. Joachim gets his own back later with an impressive cleaver-to-the-head attack on a Brother. Finally, Harry Robinson's music is probably inappropriate in its own right, sounding more like a swashbuckler soundtrack, but his main theme now sounds alarming like the opening music for the Justice League cartoon series of a few years back. That's not Robinson's fault, but anyone who "recognizes" the music may have a hard time taking the film as seriously as it deserves.

While I've stated my preference for Twins over Lovers, Wendigo is reluctant to name a favorite of the two. The original film retains the overwhelming asset of Ingrid Pitt, while the stunt-cast Collinsons don't impress him as actors. Also, like Lust, Twins is almost lesbian-free, which is simply wrong, in Wendigo's opinion, for material derived from Carmilla. It also has less nudity in general, a fact that surprised and disappointed Wendigo somewhat. While this makes it look like he leans toward Lovers, he feels that the comparison is like apples vs. oranges. I'll accept that because Twins really took the Karnstein concept in a new direction and practically into a new genre. What keeps them together in a trilogy, beside the Karnstein name, is a concern with vampirism as an analog for sexual deviance, whether Lovers' obvious lesbianism or Twins' implicit libertinage. In the end, Wendigo likes both films for different reasons, flaws and all. Throw out the middle film and you have an admirable diptych of late Hammer nearly at its best.

Here's a British trailer uploaded to YouTube by flotzcore.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

THE MAGICIAN (Ansiktet, 1958)

For someone dedicated to exploring the wild world of cinema I've been shamefully neglectful of the work of Ingmar Bergman. Maybe I've never thought him wild enough. I think of the Swedish writer-director as a cinematic chamber artist when my ideal of cinema is spectacle. His concerns often didn't strike me as necessarily cinematic, and indeed, Bergman seemed to do just as well on television and the stage. I freely admit to speaking from ignorance here, but these were my impressions of Bergman based on his reputation as an austere student of human psychology. Since starting this blog two years ago, I've occasionally promised to get around to Bergman, but only now, with Criterion's release of Ansiktet, have I taken the plunge.

I remember having plenty of opportunities to see The Magician on TV back in the early days of cable. It seemed to be on pretty frequently on one of the arts-and-entertainment channels (though not necessarily the lamented A&E itself) that proliferated in the innocent Eighties, but I never felt motivated to give it a look back then. A sense of regret helped compel me to summon the DVD fron Netflix, but I was also inspired by what Tino Balio had written about Bergman in The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1975. Balio devotes an entire chapter to Janus Film's brilliant marketing of Bergman in the late 1950s, which climaxed in 1959, when five of the director's films, including Ansiktet, were playing in New York art houses and the Bergman "brand" had been identified with cutting-edge cinema. Balio sees the Janus buildup as a high-toned alternative to the exploitative ballyhoo with which, like many European films, Bergman's earlier work had been promoted in the U.S. Yet the superior sexual frankness of European film remained a strong part of its appeal throughout the "renaissance," and it remained an exploitable element of Bergman's work. The affinity between art and exploitation on the common ground of "frankness" is best illustrated by the well-known influence Bergman's Virgin Spring had on the creation of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, but Ansiktet has a bit of exploitation flavor as well. Janus helped things along by calling it The Magician rather than translating the title literally as The Face. While Bergman's title is more meaningful once you see the movie, The Magician doesn't exactly do the film a disservice.

Somewhere in Sweden in 1846, Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater arrives in town. On the way the troupe has found an alky actor dying of exposure by the side of the road. Satisfied that he's expired, Vogler and Co. move on. They have to apply for a permit to perform in the community. To win it, they must give a command performance for the local notables: the consul and his wife, the chief of police and his wife, and Dr. Vergerus. Among the elite, skepticism seems to prevail. Chief Starbeck seems inclined to dismiss the mute Vogler (Max Von Sydow) as a crank, while the empiricist Vergerus wants to see the performance and draw his own conclusions. The consul's wife is haunted by the recent loss of a child and has greater hope for Vogler's supernatural powers. "You're here to explain why my child died," she confides in the Christ-like magician.

The Magician (Max von Sydow, right, with "apprentice" Ingrid Thulin) and the Skeptics (below)

The troupe is allowed to stay overnight at the consul's residence before the command performance, but they must dine and board with the servants. And can you blame the consul? Vogler's is a motley bunch: the weirdly intense mute himself; his apprentice "Mr. Aman" (Ingrid Thulin is fooling no one); the mountebank mouthpiece Tubal; Granny Vogler the herbalist and potions dealer; and their coachman Simson.

"Read my palm!" Bibi Andersson demands. It's definitely worth a closer look.

The servants prove a more credulous, appreciative audience, especially the maid Sara (Bibi Andersson) who falls almost instantly for Simson. Some of the servants come in for a scare when an all-too-real apparition invades the estate. It's the old actor from the road, who has failed to die and still craves drink. Though he's not dead yet, he boasts to Vogler that he's already better as a ghost than he was as an actor. When he finally passes out again, Vogler puts him in a box, as if for future reference.

Bengt Ekerot played Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal. In Ansiktet he plays Death Warmed Over.

Later in the evening, Vergerus finds Aman, a.k.a. Manda, out of costume in her true identity as Mrs. Vogler. She admits that Vogler can talk and is a fugitive, and Vergerus makes a vague proposition to her while noticing Vogler in the doorway. The magician throws the doctor out, tears off his fake hair and beard and utters his first words of the film, "I hate them!"

The next day's performance starts badly when the wirework behind Vogler's levitation trick is revealed behind a curtain. Tubal assures the audience that all the obvious trickery was done on purpose, as a joke to preface displays of Vogler's real power. The magician is a student of Mesmer's principles of animal magnetism, which he demonstrates by mesmerizing Chief Starbeck's wife, who promptly tells embarrassing tales about her husband but claims to remember nothing afterward. For his next trick, Vogler will bind the consul's thuggish coachman in the "Invisible Chains," applied in pantomime by Aman. The coachman sells it like a madman, thrashing about in an increasingly desperate effort to free himself. Finally he falls on Vogler and throttles him before bolting out of the room. Vogler is declared dead, but the skeptical Vergerus decides to perform an immediate autopsy on the magician, though his objectivity is shaken when he finds himself locked in an attic with a "corpse" whose behavior proves unpredictable....

Ansiktet finds Bergman working in the same mode as in his most famous movie, The Seventh Seal. The characters are types and archetypes, and they exist so Bergman can make points about high and low class, science and superstition. This isn't the sort of intense psychological study that the Swedish director became known for in his creative maturity. Instead, The Magician is a classical spookshow that wouldn't necessarily look out of place in Val Lewton's roster of RKO horror programmers. It has crisp, eerie black and white cinematography by Gunnar Fischer that really rises to the occasion when Bergman wants to scare us but also impresses on location as the Vogler coach rolls through the forest.

In The Magician Bergman explores a continuum of skepticism, superstition and cynicism. Granny Vogler unashamedly exploits the credulity of simple folk. Temporarily short on love potion, she tells Tubal to give a customer a bunion cure, since "what matters is how the bottle looks and how the potion tastes." On at least one level she's right; appearances help make the sale. But belief in the power of love potions also seems to prove their power, though that may only mean that the desire for a love potion proves that love already exists. Magic is only our attempt to make tangible those things that really do haunt us, like the dead child of the consul's wife, or those powers that seem to make us fall in love. Faith in magic can make it real despite the mercenary cynicism of those who'd exploit that faith. Skepticism, meanwhile, isn't invulnerable. Vergerus should have reason to expect that Vogler is trying to fake him out in some way. He should probably expect the supposed corpse to come to life if he assumes Vogler is faking. But he feels fear anyway, because he knows Vogler is an enemy who has already been violent with him. That fear may give Vogler a real power over the skeptic. That power might not be magic, but it's still something real. Magic (or "animal magnetism") is just a label that mystifies reality.

The Swedish title refers to the false face that Vogler wears, one that obviously inspired George Stevens to cast von Sydow as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Stevens was on to something, since I'm sure Bergman meant Vogler's marks to be inspired or awed by the magician's Christlike visage and his somewhat otherworldly manner. Max's own clean-shaven, close-cropped mug is shocking by comparison in its plainness, a blank to be filled in by his own imposture just as people invest the stage figure of Vogler with their dreams and fears of supernatural power. There's something abject in his blankness, and once the show is finally, truly over he comes across as a pathetic beggar, even as he's appeared to demonstrate real power. But was it his power or was it all in the minds of his audience, believers and antagonists alike? That's a question that Bergman doesn't need to answer; it's yours to take home with you.

Ansiktet is the sort of story that requires people in close quarters to fall in love or feel strong emotions; it's a fable with a point to make. In that sense it's too neat, too blatant by certain standards, but there are definitely times and places for such stories. With its genre trappings and melodramatic story, The Magician might make a good starter Bergman for the curious, though I don't know how much it prepares you for his major works of the Sixties and Seventies. On its own terms it's pretty entertaining and proves Bergman as much a showman as an artist. He has a forbidding reputation, but Ansiktet is quite accessible and even a little hokey. Genre fans will leave it believing, if only for a moment, that Bergman was one of us after all.

National Film Registry Class of 2010

The Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board has announced the latest annual additions to its National Film Registry of historically valuable cinema. As always, the Board's criteria are broad and diverse, allowing for the inclusion of culturally significant popular movies, documentaries, art films and so on. Probably the most high-profile addition to the canon this year is The Exorcist, followed by Saturday Night Fever and The Empire Strikes Back. The first two are pop-culture landmarks, whatever you think of them as films. The global influence of the Travolta movie in particular was confirmed recently by the Chilean feature Tony Manero, in which a Seventies psycho obsesses over the disco hero. The class of 2010 has a sentimental quality to it. People impressed by TCM's use of Airplane! clips during its annual Remembers short to mark the deaths of Peter Graves, Barbara Billingsley and Leslie Nielsen may nod approvingly at the elevation of the film itself into the canon, while Blake Edwards is remembered by the inclusion of The Pink Panther and Irving Kershner is honored by The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas, meanwhile, is honored not only by "Episode 5" but by the canonization of his original THX-1138 short film.

I was pleased to see Lewis Milestone's 1931 version of The Front Page make the Class of 2010. The film is a hurricane of hard-boiled fast talk and rapid-fire editing that marked the maturity of talking pictures and secured the sound career of one of my favorite classic character actors, Adolphe Menjou. I also applaud the elevation of It's A Gift, the definitive W. C. Fields vehicle for many people, or at least the definitive expression of the comedian's harassed family-man mode. Also worth a shout-out is Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a great revisionist western and a representative exercise in the director's inimitable style. Meanwhile, there are a lot of films I haven't heard of, but that's a good thing. One of the objects of the annual selection is to educate us about the importance of movies we don't know about. They prove that commercial popularity isn't the only criterion of greatness, and their inclusion alongside the greatest hits reminds us of how much, exactly, movies are capable of.

Monday, December 27, 2010

On the Big Screen: TRUE GRIT (2010); or, The Dude of Death

The most famous moment in Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version of the Charles Portis novel True Grit is one of those moments of cultural transgression that could only take place at that time. In his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne declares his intention to kill or capture the Ned Pepper gang. As Pepper, Robert Duvall says those are big words coming from "a one-eyed fat man." Wayne, the self-conscious symbol of traditional American manly conduct and right living, replies: "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" Those are Charles Portis's words, presumably. Jeff Bridges says them in the Coen Bros.' new version of the story, but the effect cannot be the same. So what if he cusses? It isn't like he's never done it before.

The moment doesn't seem different enough to justify re-doing it; yet the scene has to be there. It isn't meant to be the biggest moment in the new movie, anyway. The Hathaway film was an event in the career in John Wayne, a movie made to win him the Oscar. Bridges has his already, finally, and has nothing to prove here except that, on this occasion, he can fill Wayne's big boots. On this occasion, he certainly can, but the Coen film isn't about him the same way the Hathaway is about Wayne. The Coens' Cogburn is less hero, though hero he is, than a classical curmudgeon; in some mad alternate universe, I could imagine W. C. Fields playing the role and having a blast insulting the stuck-up Texas Ranger played previously by Glen Campbell and now by Matt Damon. Some of my favorite parts of the new film are the dialogues of Bridges and Damon, which dig up details about the characters neglected in the original film, if I recall right. Of the main actors, Damon impressed me the most, unrecognizable as he nearly was with his moustache and hat. He's clearly the biggest improvement on his predecessor. Bridges sometimes seems sealed within his alienating accent, though his work grows on you, while the infant phenomenon Hailee Steinfeld actually seems a bit mechanical in her admirable but uninflected doggedness as Mattie Ross. There's a certain strangeness in Kim Darby's performance, however overaged she was, that I missed from the new girl. Whether Steinfeld's interpretation is more authentic I can't say. She grew on me, too, but I think she's being overrated just a little. As her enemy Tom Chaney, Josh Brolin is underused, but considering what we see of him, that might have been for the best. The normally reliable actor blusters a bit too much in the little time he has, and the part is really beneath him -- though those who saw Jonah Hex may think differently.

Meanwhile, I notice some disappointment that True Grit hasn't panned out as a Coen Bros. statement on the Western, or even a satire on the genre. Had they wanted to make a statement, I suspect, they would have written an original story. Nevertheless, they have their fun. I'm not the first to suspect that the Coens are biting a hand that fed them a bit, the hand being Cormac McCarthy's and the movie seeming sometimes like an affectionate parody of the No Country for Old Men novelist's Blood Meridian mode. I might be the first to call them out on an elaborate in-joke at the expense of executive producer Steven Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan as Matt Damon (Pvt. Ryan himself) utters a prayer while drawing a bead on Barry Pepper (quite good as Ned Pepper, by the way), who played the prayerful sharpshooter in the Spielberg film. At the same time, whether the effect was intended or not, I found myself reminded of Unforgiven often. Seeing True Grit redone may simply have made the novel's influence on the Eastwood film, or the latter's grimly satiric echoes of the former, more apparent for me. The Coens have made a playful film, albeit with a sting at the end for those who know True Grit only by the first movie. I enjoyed its eccentricities most, from the mock-formal dialogue to the weird sequence of events involving a corpse hanging from a tall tree branch. Maybe the most playful thing is Carter Burwell's prominent inclusion of a hymn in the soundtrack that has all the movie buffs babbling about The Night of the Hunter. I suspect it's just the Coens jerking the critics' chains, though I wonder whether Burwell was parodying the Ken Burns style soundtrack on purpose at points or simply came too close to the TV documentary mode for comfort.

If the new film is a statement about anything, it's a confirmation of the durability of Portis's novel. While I found myself wondering at times whether there was much point to remaking True Grit, I realized finally that the point was to give another generation of actors an opportunity to do roles that should prove perennial. Jeff Bridges proves that Rooster Cogburn is a great character and a great role, not just a symbol for one actor for all time. There's no reason why someone forty years from now shouldn't let Rooster strut his stuff yet again, if a director has an actor to fill the character's boots. The Coen Bros. have not so much supplanted Henry Hathaway as they've restored Charles Portis's True Grit as a text that stands apart from any single movie translation. It may be a modest achievement, but it's still a good deed.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Critic Critiqued: Mick LaSalle on GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

I haven't seen the new film version of Gulliver's Travels with Jack Black in the title role, and I have no plan to see it. I have no doubt that it's as weak as Mick LaSalle says it is. LaSalle is one of the leading syndicated movie reviewers, but as a book reviewer he may leave something to be desired. He indicts the new Gulliver movie as a degradation of Jonathan Swift's source material, citing one scene in particular as evidence.

Gulliver is known as 'The Beast' and is kept in chains until a fire rages and he's able to save the day by putting it out. Not with a hose, exactly. He has to improvise...Are we on the same page here? The sound you're hearing is Jonathan Swift trying to claw his way out of the grave, just so he can kill himself.

I don't hear anything, but Swift may be on his way to Mick LaSalle's office with a copy of Gulliver's Travels in hand, open to the following:

However, it was not long before I had an opportunity of doing his Majesty, at least as I then thought, a most signal service. I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awakened, I was in some kind of terror. I heard the word Burglum repeated incessantly; several of the emperor's court, making their way through the crowd, entreated me to come immediately to the palace, where her imperial majesty's apartment was on fire,...I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance. These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good. I might easily have stifled it with my coat, which I unfortunately left behind me in my haste, and came away only in my leathern jerkin. The case seemed wholly desperate and deplorable; and the whole magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient. I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a wine called glimgrim ... which is very diuretic. By the luckiest chance of the world I had not discharged myself of any part of it. The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by endeavoring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

Swift was all about confronting allegedly refined readers with the reality of bodily functions, a fact drilled into my head during an undergraduate English course. I'm sure that Swift would find some reason to deplore the current interpretation of his story, but he'd probably welcome the moment LaSalle describes as sacrilege as a refreshing moment of near-fidelity to his original vision. The reviewer has never impressed me as the most incisive critic, and now he impresses me even less. Yet how many people depend on him or peers like Christy Lemire to learn whether a film is worth seeing or not? They might all be better off trusting their own instincts, and newspapers might be better off hiring writers who watch films and consult source materials more carefully.

Friday, December 24, 2010

MEET JOHN DOE (1941) - The Secular Apocalypse of Frank R. Capra

It's Christmas. Let's call it Christmas 1940, with a presidential campaign settled and FDR safely re-elected for a third term after a third-party scare that proved more ephemeral than most. This one self-destructed on the launch pad of Wrigley Field as a national radio audience listened, but there's one loose end that nags at people this holiday season. The blasphemy of it sticks in some minds. Christmas is a celebration of birth and a promise of new birth for everybody, but the third-party movement, despite its rhetoric of neighborliness and good will toward men, was founded on a promise of suicide -- on this of all days. Most people now believe there was no such promise, or certainly not a sincere one, but we all saw it in print, and if you see it in the Bulletin it must be so. The man we thought had made the promise has been missing since the summer. Since most folks consider him a con man who did it all for the money, the fact that he remains on the loose, despite being briefly one of the most famous faces in the country, is troubling only because he ought to be in jail. But those who know the truth about what happened at the Chicago convention know that, like Jesus, "John Doe" was traveling the path of prophecy, and this year's Christmas prophecy is one easily fulfilled. With that knowledge it's hard to be soothed by carolers. You won't sleep easily until you've saved the life of the man you destroyed, so he'll stay destroyed. That man, meanwhile, has his holidays backward. He's playing out a Passion in the desperate hope that sacrifice will effect a resurrection. If a broken-down ballplayer dies tonight, John Doe might live again....

The two most ambitious American films of 1941 share an interest in the power of the media. It was a natural subject both for Orson Welles and Frank Capra, for it was their power. Both men had shaken the nation, Welles with his War of the Worlds hoax broadcast, Capra with his borderline sacrilegious Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which had been criticized by some people in 1939 for besmirching American democracy before a hostile world. More so than Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe is the director's troubled meditation on his own power. On another level, I think, it's also about Orson Welles. Capra was the one established Hollywood director in a position to answer the challenge of the wonder-boy newcomer from New York -- the top dog in his own mind, the "name above the title" man who had already established to his satisfaction that a film should reflect the will of the director more than anyone else. Some of the Doe advertising took the director-as-star principle so far as to include Capra's face alongside those of the stars or the picture. While others presumably sulked enviously over Welles's incredible deal with RKO, Capra made a deal of his own with Warner Bros, breaking loose from Columbia Pictures. It was arguably a better deal than Welles's because Frank Capra Productions would own Doe. On the other hand, Capra was playing with his own money, while Welles was not. In any event, I assume that Capra's objective, in part, was to top whatever Welles was working on.

Both productions were top-secret, Capra's title evolving from an original "Life of John Doe" to the more ominous "Life and Death of John Doe" before reaching its final form without the public or the publicists learning much about the story. The advertising remained vague throughout the original release. I've read one 1941 article that paired Doe and Kane as the most anticipated films of the year and noted that Doe was the bigger mystery of the two. Did Capra and Welles know more about each other's projects? I don't know, but I'd be surprised if Capra didn't see himself in competition with Welles. That both men made films about the media may be a coincidence, but probably wasn't an accident. And the plainest proof that Welles was on Capra's mind all the while may be the fact that Meet John Doe is all about a hoax.

In the 21st century we regard media moguls like Rupert Murdoch with suspicion and distrust, but those feelings were arguably stronger in 1940, when men like William Randolph Hearst had a record of actively pursuing political power. Today, media moguls like Silvio Berlusconi have held power elsewhere, but his American counterparts don't seem likely to imitate him. If anything, in the future politicians may make themselves media stars as an essential step toward power. In 1940, when both Capra and Welles were filming, it seemed all too plausible that people who manipulated public opinion for a living would use their power to make themselves rulers of men. Capra's film addresses that threat more directly, while Welles and Herman Mankiewicz are more concerned with getting inside the head of their crypto-Hearst. Capra and Robert Riskin are less interested in what makes D. B. Norton tick. Their villain is a cypher compared to Kane, with no apparent psychological motivation for seeking political power. He has no compulsion to act as the people's protector or benefactor. Instead, after keeping him cryptic for most of the film, Capra reveals Norton as an outright fascist who hopes to exercise power with an iron hand.

Edward Arnold as D. B. Norton gets a huge buildup as a man of mysterious menace before putting in his first appearance at the 28 minute mark while reviewing the D. B. Norton Motor Corps.

Casting counts. Meet John Doe is often described as the third film of a Capra trilogy that also includes Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, all three being tales of naive "cinderella men" getting crushed by the establishment but bouncing back again. I'd agree that Doe concludes a trilogy, but the first film of the set isn't Deeds, but You Can't Take It With You, the film immediately preceding Smith. This trilogy is defined by the recurring figure of Edward Arnold as the antagonist. In each film he grows more powerful and intractable. In You Can't he's just a grumpy businessman who finally loosens up for a happy ending. In Smith he's a state political boss who ends the film at bay due to Senator Smith's persistence and Senator Paine's dramatic confession. In Doe he's building a national media empire understood by everyone as his gateway to greater political influence. At the climax, D. B. Norton is dared to destroy the Doe movement, and defied by a hero who thinks he can't do it. He can. I think that Capra was working something out in his mind by reusing Arnold and making him more powerful in each film. He may simply have been making the most of a great character actor, but the recurrence and resurgence of the Arnold villain may also illustrate Capra's questioning of his own patented "Capracorn" scenarios.

While Citizen Kane expresses Welles's narcissism by presenting multiple perspectives of his own title character, Meet John Doe expresses Capra's narcissism by making its main characters partial reflections of his own creative personality. It takes the cinderella-man formula to the ultimate level as embittered columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) creates her cinderella man ex nihilo as a spiteful practical joke on the new editor who's just fired her. She makes her word flesh by recruiting the starving has-been pitcher "Long John" Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who had come to the newspaper office seeking a job, to be the public face of her suicidal malcontent persona.

The screen darkens ominously as Ann (Barbara Stanwyck) invents John Doe. Below, things go dark for Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) after he's recruited to play Doe.

A turning point comes when Ann, on her mother's advice, abandons negativity and invests the Doe character with her dead father's optimistic spirit just as Willoughby must speak publicly as Doe for the first time. But as Norton discovers a potential in the message that Willoughby himself doesn't yet appreciate, he seeks to remake Doe in his own image. It's like the making of an American antichrist by an unholy trinity of the ambitious Mitchell, the initially venal but guileless Willoughby and the ultimately sinister Norton, with the spectre of the dead father offering the only hope of redemption. Ann, reimagining Doe as her father, claims to have fallen in love with her creation, easily confused with its incarnation as Willoughby. Crushing on Ann almost from the start, Willoughby begins to identify with her father to an alarming extent revealed as he recounts a dream in which he is both himself ("The real me, John Doe -- that is, Long John Willoughby") and her father, and both are "whacking" away at an Ann grown from child to bride through dream logic. Long John experiences a euphoric breakdown in order to be remade as John Doe. He resists at first, agreeing to rat out Ann and the Bulletin on live radio for $5,000 from a rival paper, only to renege and read Ann's speech in order to impress her -- only to be embarrassed and disgusted with himself afterwards. He thinks he made a fool of himself, even though or especially because he got into the reading at points, despite some well-acted awkwardness and mike fright by Cooper. He runs away because he feels like a sap, assuming that the speech was a disaster and knowing not what he wrought.

Above, "John Doe" poses with representative "Little People" before his debut speech.

Capra knew that the media sent mixed messages, some unintentional. We know that he knew this because he demonstrated the malleability of message in his next released film, the War Department documentary Prelude to War, much of which was a dramatic detournement of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. What Riefenstahl meant to be inspiring, Capra made alarming and appalling. What she portrayed as volk solidarity he presented as dehumanized regimentation. In Meet John Doe, Willoughby's over-enthusiastic, sometimes inept reading of Ann's speech miraculously galvanizes a grass-roots movement into existence. The message got through in spite of the messenger, though Willoughby's lack of polish may have worked in its favor by making him seem sincere. In any event, Capra and Riskin would probably argue that the real message came from Ann's father, channeled through her and Willoughby, and as the film would say with desperate urgency later, "the idea is still good."

Would it still be good if Norton got his way? Would the John Doe message change substantially once it was dedicated to putting him in power? That bit is actually unclear, and that's a flaw of the film. From the beginning, everyone assumes that Norton has bought the Bulletin to advance a political agenda. For most of the picture, however, he holds his ideological cards close to his vest. As far as we know, the John Doe philosophy up to the debacle in Chicago is whatever Ann says it is. Not even her hard-boiled editor Connell (James Gleason), who seems to set the Bulletin's agenda more than Norton does initially, appears to have input in her columns. Connell was hired when Norton bought the paper. One would presume some sort of intellectual affinity between the two, and that Ann's Doe pieces should be consistent with overall editorial policy. Yet Connell abruptly turns on Norton after his question about his boss's political ambitions is rebuffed, and on no more evidence than that, as far as we see, the editor denounces Norton to Willoughby as a "Fifth Columnist." He's proven right, of course, but before that the most fascistic thing about Norton was his sponsorship of a potentially paramilitary motorcycle club. The only other thing we know about him is that his money comes from oil. But would such a would-be fascist simply have let the Doe movement evolve as Ann alone willed it until he decided to order her to endorse him? Is the Doe message the ideal foundation for the election of someone like Norton?

Is the John Doe message itself implicitly fascist? I don't think so, but Capra and Riskin may have been worried. They portray the Doe philosophy as a pretty simplistic, populistic form of neighborliness. It's an appeal to empathy that transforms Willoughby as he transforms his audiences. Willoughby himself has had bad influences, most notably his traveling companion of the last few years, "the Colonel" (Walter Brennan). His title is either imaginary or ironic, since it's impossible to imagine this character giving or taking orders. The Colonel is one of the earliest manifestations of a character type that became more common later in American film: a paranoid loner. While ultimately a sympathetic character by virtue of his loyalty to Willoughby, the Colonel also represents a wrong path for Americans of isolation and distrust. He so completely lacks any sense of entitlement that he feels better off owning nothing. He equates absolute poverty with serenity, since the helots ("a lot of heels") don't bother you if you don't have money. Since other people are such a hell for him, you have to wonder why he sticks with Willoughby, but I leave that for others to speculate about. In any event, it's one of Walter Brennan's greatest performances (and you can say that down the line for the entire lead cast), in which he taps deeply into the dark side of his folksiness for once. While his loyalty to Willoughby may redeem the Colonel, Willoughby himself is set on the road to redemption simply by having the hots for Ann. Despite himself and the suspicions the Colonel probably taught him, Willoughby wants to make good as Doe to impress Ann. More importantly, because he makes a personal connection with her, her words and ideas, which she herself dismisses as platitudes, become newly meaningful for him. In turn, he somehow conveys that meaningfulness to the John Does who see and hear him, and they respond by "tearing down all the fences," metaphorically speaking, and bonding with one another.

In the end, however, for all that Capra hints that the John Doe movement will live again whether Willoughby dies or not, the movie implicitly repudiates that populism that we identify with Capra's own work. Following the familiar Capra archetype, Willoughby is publicly humiliated, and his defeat seems complete. Unlike other Capra heroes, Willoughby is damned by the truth, though he insists that the idea is still good.

The convention scene is a suspenseful demonstration of Willoughby's failure to master the media that made him. Here, with time running out before Norton arrives to denounce him, Long John is stuck waiting, after having to stand through an anthem, for an well-meaning but oblivious minister to call a moment of silence for the "John Does of the world." By the time the moment is over, so is the John Doe movement.

To redeem the idea, he resolves to fulfill the promise that Ann never intended her fictional creation to fulfill. Norton has suspected this and brings men to the skyscraper to thwart Willoughby or erase any evidence of his suicide. Willoughby thinks he has Norton checkmated by making copies of a new suicide note, but Ann intervenes to argue that he doesn't have to die. Here we come to the great controversy about the film's ending. Capra admitted to filming several alternate finishes, and the actual finish was altered after the film opened. According to one contemporary newspaper account, the premiere version included an implausible renunciation by Norton of his evil ways, while I've also read accounts of an epilogue with Long John, Ann and the Colonel starting some kind of charity house. Whatever the alternatives were, Capra himself remained dissatisfied with the finish, and posterity took its cues from him. He felt he had painted himself into a corner by having "Saint George and the dragon" effectively destroy each other at the convention, leaving him no right way to resolve the suicide question.

Audiences have been unconvinced by Ann's citation of Jesus as "the first John Doe" whose death makes Willoughby's unnecessary, or by the apologetic reappearance of the small-town Does we've followed since the middle of the picture. I don't think the film would have been improved by anyone going off the roof, and I think the final ending works consistently with the rest of the movie. First of all, neither we nor Willoughby need to be persuaded by Ann's babble about Jesus. Let's not confuse the rhetoric with the message. Long John isn't dissuaded from jumping because he realizes that Jesus is his savior, but because he realizes finally that Ann loves the real John -- Willoughby, not Doe. Secondly, whether or not you believe that Jesus was the first John Doe, the operative point -- the one that repudiates populism -- is that John Willoughby doesn't have to be John Doe to do good in the world, nor does anyone else. The whole exercise of inventing John Doe to represent public discontent was only asking someone like Norton to fill a vessel that was inevitably going to be partially empty with the malignancy of power. The ironic flaw of the movement was that, for all its empowerment of multitudes at the grass roots, everyone still looked to John Doe for leadership and inspiration. Take John Doe out of the equation, Capra suggests, and the idea is still good. Ann may be over-optimistic about her and Long John becoming leaders of a revived movement, but as long as the people reclaim the idea, Connell's mighty closing challenge still stands: "The people, Norton! Try and lick that!"

Meet John Doe's problematic nature is a mark of Capra's ambition at a turning point in his career. If not his masterpiece, it is certainly his epic, and as such it's a major though underrated American film. I can't bring myself to call it a better film than Citizen Kane, but I like it better for its more expansive political consciousness and its more thoughtful exploitation of the two films' common media-mogul subject matter. Doe doesn't advance the narrative art of film the way Kane does, but with Capra still at the peak of his power and with Slavko Vorkapich montages, his film is state of the pre-Kane art. The two films complement each other quite nicely, though they're rarely seen as peer works. Welles's more humanistic approach has helped Kane stand the test of time better even though the films share many common concerns of their time. But I won't be the first to note in the era of Tea Parties and alleged "astroturfing" of grass-roots movements that Meet John Doe might be more relevant now than it's been in a long time. Just right now, however, it's relevant because it's Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In Brief: AGORA (2009)

Alejandro Amenabar's latest film is an intellectual peplum, an old-school costume epic on the old theme of intolerance and the struggle of faith against free inquiry, a film almost guaranteed to fail at the American box office and one to make the blood boil. It's the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the ancient world's exceptional female philosophers, and her doomed struggle against the rising tide of Christianity. I wouldn't be surprised if some folks who caught it during its short stay in U.S. theaters took it as an anti-Christian film. By the time it was done I was in a mood to burn a church myself, but Amenabar is actually quite careful, especially during the first half of his story, to establish, small comfort though it may be to Christians, that religion itself, and in particular the temptation of blind faith, was the problem in Hypatia's time. In the first act, the Serapis-worshippers who run Alexandria's famous library, where Hypatia teaches, are just as eager for a fight as the Christians are, just as bigoted toward the once-persecuted, now flourishing faith as its adherents are toward the pagans.

Serapian: Where's your carpenter god now, Christians?
Christian: Making coffins for you pagan scum!

This charming exchange takes place the morning after a bloody battle in the agora, the marketplace that serves as the focus of public life in Alexandria. The Serapians tried to avenge an insult, found themselves outnumbered, and fought their way back to their fortified temple, while the enraged Christians settled down for a siege. In a sign of the changing times, the Roman authorities reach a settlement that'll spare the pagans, but forces them to abandon the temple and the library to the wrath of the Christian mob. Their triumph closes the first act of the movie.

The story picks up "some years later" and catches up with Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and two erstwhile students: Orestes, once a disappointed suitor and now the Roman prefect, and Davus, once a slave with a crush on his mistress, now a Christian and part of the taliban-style street patrols who make life miserable for non-Christians, including an influx of Jews. In this case, too, both sides prove equally capable of atrocity. Tired of attacks and insults, a gang of Jews lures some Christian goons into a deathtrap, turning it into a stoning gallery. History, however, is overwhelmingly on the Christians' side as Bishop Cyril threatens to grow more powerful than Orestes and uses the prefect's continued loyalty to the "witch" Hypatia against him. Orestes has become a Christian himself, but will not kneel before Cyril when the bishop wields the Bible (an epistle of Paul specifically) as proof that the "witch" should be silenced. Orestes and another former student who has become a neighboring bishop urge Hypatia to at least go through the motions of Christian conversion, if only to save her life, but her classical integrity won't allow it. In a scenario imagined by the screenwriters, Hypatia is on the brink of discovering the elliptical orbit of the Earth centuries ahead of schedule when the reckoning finally comes. When it comes, it's Davus, once resentful of her for treating him like the slave he was, who has the only chance to spare her death by torture, though he doesn't have much to offer besides....

The Hypatia-Davus storyline serves to show that not even our heroine is perfect -- or even necessarily a heroine by 21st century standards. For all her enlightenment and commitment to reason, she never questions the institution of slavery. Davus's resentment also represents in miniature the resentments of the poor and oppressed that betrayed Christianity's call to peace. Agora strives to show that its Christians are driven by conflicting impulses. Ammonius, a kind of fakir who proves his faith by walking across fire, appears sincerely dedicated to helping the poor. He's also a vicious bully who achieves "martyrdom" by hitting Orestes in the head with a rock. The film consciously and provocatively invites viewers to equate the worst 4th century Christians with the worst 21st century Muslims. The Christians are the swarthier, dirtier, bearded ones, the ones in turbans, the ones with semitic accents, the quickest to anger when their god is insulted, compared to the more Euro or Anglo-style pagans. For some viewers, the message will be lost, since it will prove to them only that today's Muslims are about 1600 years behind Christendom in temperament and tolerance. How many will perceive a deeper message, one that suggests that inequality and oppression are the real causes of the violent resentments that find expression in intolerant religion, the provocations that make some people want to make everyone else kneel or bow or prostrate themselves, if only to prove that no one is better than anyone else? Not enough, I fear.

Agora is a beautiful film done the old way with real sets where and when it counts and a modest degree of CGI enhancement. It's story structure is awkwardly split in half, with a leap in time between two acts, but a handful of primary characters hold the story together. Some judicious telescoping of events may have made things flow more smoothly; as it is, Amenabar admits on the DVD that he mucked with history to keep one character alive past his time for the story's sake. The cast is good with the arguable exception of the star. Rachel Weisz isn't a bad actress, but she comes across too much like a Victorian bluestocking rather than the intellectual amazon Hypatia should seem to be. Her performance is constrained by the dispassionate character the screenplay gives her. The story (and the modern audience) needs a more fiery personality to express our outrage at the injustices playing out on screen. We're meant to celebrate her triumphs of reason and experimentation achieved despite mortal peril, but those scenes make her seem indifferent if not oblivious to the danger she's in. I don't know if the real Hypatia was a Stoic, but the film could have benefited from a Stoic perspective from which we could see that her approach was correct and her indifference to death admirable. Weisz might still win viewers over, however, if only more people gave Agora a chance. When I was a kid I always enjoyed watching "Bible" movies during the Christmas season. Agora probably doesn't count as a "Bible" film, but it's close enough for me this December.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Grigory Efimovich Rasputin is one of those 20th century personalities who ascended from history to myth. He might have been remembered only for being the archetypal "mad monk" and for his mysterious influence over the decadent Romanov nobility as Russia descended into war and revolution. The sensational circumstances of his death, as reported by the man who claimed to have killed him and confirmed by autopsy results, transformed him into a kind of real-life monster, his alarming resilience being proof, if not of supernatural power, than at least of superhuman evil. It only added to his appeal as a cinematic subject, whether played as a creepy old man by Lionel Barrymore, as a brutal bumpkin by Christopher Lee, as an ironically genuine visionary by Tom Baker, and so on. In Mike Mignola's Hellboy continuity, Rasputin is a truly satanic figure of arcane might and malignancy. The Rasputin legend echoes on through popular culture, whether in movie villains' generic ability to get up from fatal blows or in more abstract, attenuated form -- as I might argue is the case in There Will Be Blood, in which Eli Sunday plays a kind of Rasputin to Daniel Plainview's tsar and meets a comparably absurd end.

Here and below, Alexei Petrenko as Rasputin

Strangely enough, the Soviet Union seems to have had a hard time figuring out what to make of Rasputin. Either the government, its state-run film industry or director Elem Klimov did, since Agoniya, Klimov's Rasputin film, sat on the Soviet shelf for close to a decade, appearing only on the eve of Gorbachevian glasnost after occasional screenings in the west. Having just watched the film, I have to assume that there were errors of omission in Klimov's account, unless Soviet censors were simply prudes, since I saw nothing I could call even implicitly anti-Soviet in the story, though I did see a few bare breasts. Some people have suggested that Klimov made Nicholas II too sympathetic, even though the film clearly portrays him as an ineffectual wretch who isn't even master of his own household. Others speculate that the director didn't emphasize enough that Lenin and other Bolsheviks were leading the scenes of working-class unrest that are illustrated with newsreel and stock-footage imagery. Nobody can accuse Klimov of neglecting to teach a lesson, since the film is thick with expository narrative and contextualizing history lessons. Of these, the most interesting was the gallery of mad monks, mountebanks, etc who infested late imperial Russia. Rasputin had rivals in his own time, most notably in the film a Tibetan herbalist who teaches breathing exercises to infirm nobles and clearly hopes for greater proximity to the throne.

Perhaps, in an officially atheist country, the Soviets hoped Klimov would clarify Rasputin's role as a representative of religion or proof of its falsehood. Instead, Agoniya is very ambiguous about its subject's sincerity, though that may be because it portrays him pretty clearly as a classic antinomian, someone whose personal relationship with Bog places him beyond conventional morality. Father Grigory is unrepentantly self-indulgent, and the way he impulsively throws himself at women almost qualifies him as an honorary Marx Brother. It certainly made me wonder whether the historical Rasputin wasn't an influence on Groucho's misruling authority figures. While Klimov's Rasputin is clearly cynical with politicians who hope to use him to advance their causes with the tsarina, it also seems unlikely that he's an outright self-conscious charlatan. If Klimov meant to knock religion in general, he did a better job in the scene when a grotesque gaggle of Orthodox clergy ambush and apparently attempt to exorcise Rasputin than he did with the man himself.

I assume that the "Agony" title refers to the death throes of the Romanov dynasty in 1916 rather than any internal torment suffered by Rasputin. The fatal year is portrayed as an ordeal for him, however, with as many individuals or factions gunning for him as were seeking his favor. The mad monk isn't shown as the master of events, but as someone with a target on his back through the whole picture. Klimov's point may have been to say that no one was master in 1916, "agony" being one with chaos. If so, that may have offended Soviet censors who would rather have had Russians believe that Lenin and his pals were already at work behind the scenes to bring things under control. Marxists-Leninists believed in historical inevitability, after all, so Klimov's chaotic scenario may have been a bit too messy for them.

Klimov's Rasputin is a plaything of history rather than a demonic villain, and Alexei Petrenko's performance runs a wider behavioral range than we've seen in Anglo-American portrayals. Because he's never in as much control as folklore would claim, Petrenko's vulnerable, sometimes desperate Rasputin seems less focused than the versions of Barrymore or Lee. On the other hand, he gets opportunities to go wild that were denied to his western counterparts, especially in a family reuinion scene in Rasputin's home village, during which Petrenko gets to go full hillbilly, climaxing dinner by swinging and hurling a live piglet at a guest who calls him a thief but begging forgiveness from everyone afterward. That's one of the best illustrations of the conflicting impulses animating the mad monk, and it shows Petrekno making the best of his acting opportunity. His death scene isn't quite as epic as you might want -- he gets one comeback, not counting his resistance to poison, -- but the scene itself is redeemed by the panicky antics of the actors playing Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators.

Agoniya works as what I think Klimov meant it to be -- a portrait of a regime and culture on the brink, with Rasputin as a symptom rather than a cause of catastrophe. It's more spectacle than character study, but Rasputin is inevitably a spectacle of a character. I doubt whether it would have hindered fulfillment of the current Five-Year Plan or encouraged unwelcome analogies between the Romanovs and the Brezhnev government. But governments are never more arbitrary than in their dealings with artists, as the fate of Iranian director Jafar Panahi reminds us this very week. Klimov got a kind of revenge by becoming head of the Soviet film board under Gorbachev and releasing many more suppressed films, but it's a shame, on the strength of this film, that he didn't get more opportunities to do his own thing.