Monday, February 28, 2011


Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's 19th century historical novel about a 16th century rebellion in Saxony is a relic of that strange time when Hollywood was willing to try its luck on practically anything. American producers bankrolled a German crew working in Czechoslovakia with an international cast, including some Rolling Stones hangers-on (and according to legend, Keith Richards himself as an extra) and while IMDB says it opened in the U.S. in May 1969, I can't find evidence of that initial American run, under either its original title or the alternate rubric, Man on Horseback. It received its American TV premiere as a CBS Late Movie in December 1972. Kohlhaas doesn't seem to have played theatrically in New York until 1980, after Schlondorff had earned some notoriety as the director of The Tin Drum. In a way, it's a typical film of the 1969-71 period -- idiosyncratically ambitious and an absolute commercial disaster in America.

Kleist's story may be more familiar in an altered, Americanized form as the tale of "Coalhouse Walker Jr." in E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime and the Milos Forman film. Since our setting is 16th century Germany, we're dealing with horses rather than cars, of course, and race prejudice isn't an issue. Class is, instead. Michael Kohlhaas (David Warner) is a horse breeder bringing some animals to a regional fair. To his chagrin, the local Junker, von Tronka, demands that Michael show a pass before carrying his animals through Tronka lands. Kohlhaas has never before heard of such a requirement and begs leave to get the proper paperwork on his way to the fair. The Junker demands that he leave two of the best horses as collateral, and one of Michael's men agrees to stay and look after the animals. From the regional authorities, Kohlhaas learns that he doesn't need a pass at all; the Junker had just been messing with him, because he could. Returning to von Tronka's estate, he finds his horses in a decrepit state and his man missing. The man had been beaten and driven away by Tronka's men, it turns out, who had then left Kohlhaas's horses to rot. The Junker is glad to be rid of the beasts, but Kohlhaas now insists that Tronka feed and groom the two horses at the Junker's own expense before returning them. This Tronka will not do.

Michael and his wife (Anna Karina) argue over how far to take the complaint, but Frau Kohlhaas finally decides to present a petition to the Elector of Saxony (Anton Diffring). For her trouble she is trampled by a horse during a procession, and she is brought back dying to the Kohlhaas farm. Rebuffed by nobility at every turn and given a runaround by lawyers, this is all Michael Kohlhaas can stand -- he can't stands no more. He gathers some men and burns the Tronka estate, though the Junker himself manages to escape. Michael's band soon becomes an army of brigands, gathering up army deserters, mercenaries and other misfits as he chases Tronka across Saxony. For him, this remains a matter of honor; he'd be satisfied if the stupid Junker would finally take care of his damned horses. But for Kohlhaas's new followers, the campaign is an opportunity for plunder. In time he has enough of an army to take entire towns, which become targets for sack and rape. He himself refuses to play the role of bandit king. When he learns that one of his lieutenants had raped a woman trapped in a pillory, who subsequently died when a burning roof fell on her, Kohlhaas has the man hanged.

Michael is willing to negotiate an end to the uprising if only Tronka can see reason. With no less a personage than Martin Luther acting as intermediary, Kohlhaas surrenders his arms to the Elector, who's preoccupied with a Polish invasion. While he stews in effective house arrest, and Tronka continues to stall, the mercenary starts a new rampage, calling himself Kohlhaas. While the real Michael has an airtight alibi -- he's under constant guard, after all -- the authorities hold him responsible for the mercenary's depredations and deem him in breach of the truce. At the final hearing, Tronka finally produces Kohlhaas's horses, good as new. But after he's sentenced to be broken on the wheel for taking the law into his own hands, Michael sets the animals free.

Like Julian Buchs' A Bullet for Sandoval, this ostensibly more prestigious production is a story in which a righteous man's revenge far exceeds his original grievance. Unlike the more stylized spaghetti western, Kohlhaas is a stark, grimy history play in the manner of the Czech directors on whose territory much of it was shot, as well as Schlondorff's "New German Cinema" movement. The two films have in common a generic continental concern of the period with the cruelty and injustice of history, the injustice in either case guaranteeing an excess of cruelty when victims finally lash out. In Kohlhaas the excesses of rebellion take Schlondorff close to spaghetti territory, especially in the town-sacking scene, during which Stanley Meyers' score is suddenly enhanced by dissonantly anachronistic electric guitars while Michael's less reputable men run amok. This turn of the rebellion toward viciousness and outright crime probably came as a rude surprise to those original viewers who may have seen Kohlhaas's movement building into some sort of proto-hippy youth uprising after the deserter (Michael Gothard) and his doxy (Anita Pallenberg) are introduced. What looks like an idealistic feud, and remains one in Kohlhaas's own mind, is quickly corrupted. Because Michael himself remains incorruptible, it's perhaps inevitable that he ends up paying for everyone else's sins in a suggestively gruesome finale. That sort of finish sets apart the more artistically ambitious "history of cruelty" films from spaghetti westerns, which usually allow their antiheroes to go out, if they even lose, in a blaze of glory, with their boots on, etc. The history-of-cruelty films prefer to emphasize the inexorable power of Power, the inescapable embrace of injustice, even if Michael Kohlhaas is allowed the symbolic grace note of freeing the horses.

The international cast and crew can't avoid a certain stiltedness in the proceedings, but as the film grows more action-oriented this becomes less of an objection. Schlondorff's refusal to invest the story with the romantic fervor which I'll tentatively presume is in Kleist's original is sure to alienate many viewers, but it negatively invests the film with an authentic naturalist feel. I saw it on the Vutopia on-demand channel, which is available free to Time Warner Cable subscribers who carry any premium movie service. While Vutopia lists Kohlhaas under a category of "Subtitled Cinema," it's version is actually the English dub with the actual voices of Warner, Diffring and others. The fullscreen image is apparently a faithful rendering of the original film's 1.37:1 aspect ratio. I may be inclined to overrate Michael Kohlhaas because of how well it seems to fit into this little subgenre of my invention, but if that type of movie interests you as well, and you have the patience to appreciate the relatively affectless presentation, this harsh little rarity is probably worth your time.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (Los Desperados, 1969)

Perhaps we should tie spaghetti westerns generically to those Euro-historical films from the 1960s whose typical subject is the cruelty of the past, so that films like Sergio Leone's can be discussed alongside stuff like Valley of the Bees or Witchfinder General as well as alongside American westerns with which the Italian and Spanish films often have less in common thematically. I don't know enough about the history of historical films in Europe, but it looks as if by the mid-Sixties there was a major trend away from romantic, heroic or patriotic visions and toward a common concern with violence, injustice and overall backwardness. Placing spaghettis within this trend, or crediting them as progenitors of it, occurred to me this weekend while watching two films from 1969: Volker Schlondorff's Michael Kohlhaas (about which more later) and Julio Buchs's revenge western (with which VCI's DVD box requires him to share credit with an unbilled Lucio Fulci). Both films deal with presumably honorable men whose grievances escalate more or less out of his control (more in Kohlhaas, less here) into a sweeping bloodbath that destroys many arguably undeserving people. The movies share a paradoxical endorsement of revenge as the nearest substitute for justice in unjust times, yet can't help deploring the seemingly inevitable collateral damage that results.

Sandoval has one of the most utterly downtrodden heroes of spaghetti westerns. John Warner (George Hilton) is a Confederate soldier compelled to desert on the eve of battle when one of the Sandoval clan, an aristocratic Hispanic family that dominates the border country, informs him that patriarch Pedro's daughter is about to give birth to Warner's child in the midst of a cholera epidemic. With two comrades Warner absconds, escapes after recapture, and finally reaches the Sandoval estate, where a coldly furious Pedro (Ernest Borgnine) informs him that the child is alive but the girl is dead. Pedro pushes the baby into John's clueless arms and sends them both away.

Still accompanied by one of the deserters, Warner wanders from village to village, desperately seeking milk for the baby, only to be turned away everywhere from fear of the cholera. Along the way, the two Rebs earn the company of a "lay brother," aka a rogue monk, but he can do nothing but pray for the starving child and help bury it when it dies. At the little grave, Warner vows universal vengeance.

Retracing his steps, Warner raids one village by stealth to get weapons, then drowns the selfish patriarch in a bucket of milk. Armed, he soon acquires followers, the ideal number being six -- "like the bullets in a gun." They terrorize the border country while Sandoval and other local leaders call upon Confederate military assistance.

Sandoval also hopes to resolve the matter in a one-on-one showdown with Warner, but his overzealous sons make such an honorable encounter impossible. The Rebel army at least compels Warner and his crew -- with shifting personnel -- to seek refuge in Mexico, and for a while both he and Sandoval seem content with the stalemate. But when Sandoval crosses into Mexico for a religious festival (with bullfighting) Warner can't resist the opportunity to take final revenge, unaware that larger forces are closing in for the kill....

Banditry rather than gunfighting is Sandoval's subject. Buchs and/or Fulci thus avoid the conventional shootouts of spaghetti westerns, preferring to tell the story with creative editing. The director cuts away before the supreme moment of a dramatically staged showdown in the rain between Warner and one of Sandoval's sons, to show us instead how Sandoval's people get the news of the result. Earlier, when Warner's men attack a town, the director takes a minimalist approach, reducing the battle to close-ups of hands shooting guns until some of those hands loose their grips.

The film wraps with a visually striking armageddon finish in the middle of a bullring with an audience of dozens of soldiers and Warner's gang in the place of the bulls. It's more a Butch Cassidy than a Wild Bunch finish, but since all three films appeared in the same year, maybe Sandoval took its cue from Bonnie and Clyde instead. The various visual tricks and the story's stark refusal of any idea of redemption lift Sandoval above the average of spaghettis and link it, I think, to the kind of theater of historical cruelty that was playing in other European (and American) cinemas at the time.

Also helpful, need I add, are an intense performance by Hilton and an authoritative one by Borgnine. Whether he thought he was slumming or not, he's all pro here and hits most of the right notes. He's sometimes saddled, however, with hopeless expository dialogue, and the hopelessness of it derives from the film having more bandits than it knows what to do with. While the film is known as "The Four Desperados" in some markets, the U.S. really made a big deal of "six, like the bullets of a gun," even though some of Warner's gang have but the sketchiest of personalities, and the turnover in personnel makes the supporting bandits seem even more irrelevant. In short, the film could be neater in its opposition of Warner against Sandoval without superfluous characters, but that flaw doesn't compromise its overall effectiveness. You may not like it if you need to see someone win, but the Sixties and Seventies seemed more open to the nobody-wins argument, and if you feel an affinity with that generation and its movies, you should appreciate if not enjoy A Bullet for Sandoval.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Until this week, I could claim that no movie ever made me physically ill. Yet within minutes after finishing John Carpenter's John Carpenter's Vampires I began to feel cramps, then chills, and for two days afterward I was a physical wreck. After the fact, people assure me that I must have caught "that stomach bug that's going around," but my friend Wendigo, who watched the film with me, thinks differently. He was unaffected, but he has more fortitude when dealing with films like this one. While not physically sickened, he was nevertheless indignant over the whole spectacle. And why not? Here we have the director of one of the greatest horror films hitting a career bottom. Ghosts of Mars was an improvement on this. It's one of the most impersonal films a director has ever sought to claim ownership on in the title, and Carpenter's guitar-based score, one of his worst, doesn't really help individualize it. It's one of the least suspenseful and least scary movies ever to be credited to a "Master of Terror." Wendigo didn't even really want to own it, but it was in a two-for-one bargain pack with Bram Stoker's Dracula, and now he's stuck with it. What the hell happened?

To me, it's really just a crap movie. But to Wendigo, it's worse: a travesty of an above-average vampire novel, John Steakley's Vampire$. Steakley wrote a book about the toll vampire hunting might take on a person, how killing undead creatures for a living would affect how you live with yourself and other people. Vampire$ is a character study above all and a sort of speculative sociological study of the kind of people who might end up vampire hunters. Think of any number of movies about war veterans and their difficulties dealing with civilians or coping with civilian life and you'll get a sense of what Steakley wrote. The dollar sign signifies that vampire hunting is less a crusade and more a high-risk, low-satisfaction job for the characters, though all of them feel some kind of moral imperative to carry on the work.

Carpenter and screenwriter Dan Jakoby use two or three scenes and two or three characters from Steakley's novel, as well as the southwestern locale, but theirs is mostly an original story in the most technical sense of the word. They open with a Steakley-esque scene of a raid on a vampire nest, followed with a motel celebration with hookers broken up by a pissed-off party pooper of a master vampire, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith). Jack Crow (James Woods) and his crew seem like a natural Carpenter cohort, a team of Hawksian professionals who gotta do what they gotta do, but Valek promptly massacres all of them but Crow and the oafish Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). He wastes a motel full of perfectly good prostitutes except for one (Sheryl Lee) whom the smitten Montoya tends to and dotes on despite an obvious vampire bite and an inevitable turning. This mistranslates a subplot of Vampire$, Wendigo says, in which one of the hunters falls for a girl who is a thrall of a master vampire, though not one herself. The attack itself is ineptly filmed, a supposedly chaotic moment of terror portrayed through a slow-motion montage of dissolves. The lack of appropriate pacing is typical of the whole film.

Valek, who has no counterpart in the novel, is after a special cross that will facilitate the completion of the botched exorcism that resulted in his becoming the first-ever vampire back in the 1300s. Completing the ritual now won't undo his vampirism, but it will turn him into a presumably invincible daywalker. This brings up a pet peeve of Wendigo's that he blames on Anne Rice. She put it in people's minds, he claims, that the "first" vampire has to be the most interesting one, so that any number of bad movies give us the "first" as the big bad. As in the novel, Crow works for the Catholic Church. In the film, church authorites give him grief when he wants to know what Valek is up to. The root of the trouble is a treacherous cardinal (Maximillian Schell), who has no counterpart in the novel, in cahoots with Valek in exchange for immortality. Everything more or less leads up to the big ritual, which will require Jack to be burnt at the stake with a priest officiating. Meanwhile, Montoya remains stupidly determined to protect the vampirized hooker, with predictable consequences and complications for his friendship with Jack. In the end, some characters survive that don't in the novel, and true love is allowed a two-days' head start before it's hunted down and killed.

"Come on, Padre, my nuts are on fire here!" Actual dialogue from the movie.

Our challenge is to limit ourselves to the key ways in which John Carpenter's Vampires sucked. It's biggest offense, as far as Wendigo is concerned, is how it took an idiosyncratic novel and turned it into an utterly generic mid-90s vampire picture. The acting is bad all around. Sheryl Lee has a thankless, career-crippling role and Daniel Baldwin is a Baldwin. Acting with him, Wendigo says, is like talking to a hamburger. On the other hand, her body is one of the film's few real assets. James Woods seems to be making up his role as he goes alone. Carpenter and Jakoby seem to have no idea for the Jack Crow character except that he's a badass. Woods's performances ranges from mindless badass stoicism to self-righteous temper tantrums and thuggishness (unlike the more decent Crow of the novel) to Bruce Willis-like Die Hard -style fight-scene invective. Schell's performance is a disgrace for an Oscar winner; was F. Murray Abraham unavailable? Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek is a cookie-cutter villain in what Wendigo calls the "Count Chocula von Vampire" mode. If you've seen any B-movie vampire of the mid-to-late Nineties, he claims, you've seen Griffith's performance already. Actually, if you've seen any Griffith movie, you've seen this performance already.

Oh so special effects. Below, vampires brought into the sunlight die of supernatural forearm flatulence.

Wendigo remembers seeing Carpenter claim that the thing that most excited him about making John Carpenter's Vampires was the opportunity to use a cool new burning-vampire effect. That marks the film as true kin to the other consciously effects-driven vampire film of the decade, the Rodriguez-Tarantino From Dusk Til Dawn. Wendigo doesn't like that one, either, but it has an intriguing opening act before the effects showcase, until Selma Hayek finishes her snake dance. John Carpenter's Vampires makes the whole of From Dusk look like its first act. The big effect seems to consist of having little blowtorches stuck up the sleeves of shirts and blouses. By today's standards these highlights look even more pathetic. So is the direction as a whole. The only thing the film has going for it visually, Wendigo feels, is the outdoor cinematography of Gary B. Kibbe. For me, though the most memorable thing about the film is all the walking.

And we're walking....we're walking....

Carpenter apparently believed that walking is cool. Walking makes you a badass. Walking in groups makes everyone a badass. Get into that stride and a house can blow up behind you but you won't notice. You might be a vampire clawing out of the earth, but a good badass walk is like a power wash. You'll show up for your next attack scene squeaky clean. There seems to be a helluva lotta walking in this movie, but it doesn't seem to get anyone anywhere.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


In the early 1950s, Twentieth-Century Fox, the home of Cinemascope, released films from a company called Panoramic Productions, which were filmed in the old standard ratio. Fronted by Leonard Goldstein, Panoramic drew on Fox contract talent who may have felt themselves slumming against their will, if Harmon Jones's pseudo-historical quasi-epic is any indication of the run of the mill. Princess of the Nile is the sort of film nearly every studio felt obliged to make in those days: the relatively cheap programmer set in some colorful but not too well known period of history. The setting this time is not the Egypt of the Pharaohs or of Cleopatra, but the Islamic Egypt of the exact year 1249, albeit an Islamic Egypt where people still worship "Mother Isis." Egypt's ruler is a subject of the Caliph of Baghdad, but has grown dependent on Bedouin mercenaries led by a general named Rama Khan (Michael Rennie!) and a spiritual leader called "the Shaman" (Edgar Barrier). Yes, they're Mongols in all but name -- even their costumes are more Mongol than Arabic, but for the usual arbitrary Hollywood reasons they're Bedouins, and they're making life miserable for the common folk. Egypt's plight has come to the attention of Prince Haidi (Jeffrey Hunter), a typical beardless Arab prince of the era -- the 1950s, that is. More importantly, it's come more obviously to the attention of the Princess Shalimar (Debra Paget), who sets herself up Zorro style (the movie even uses Mark of Zorro music occasionally) as a fighting tribune of the people. Only, while Zorro puts on extra clothes -- a mask, a cape, a hat -- to do his righteous work, Princess Shalimar takes her off to assume the identity of Taura, the rebel dancing girl. Believe you must that such a female could rally the pious masses of medieval Egypt. If Mother Isis wills it, can you prove it didn't happen? With the help of Prince Haidi and such typical Egyptians as a low-billed Jack Elam and an unbilled Lee Van Cleef, and a dwarf, Taura does indeed inspire a revolution against Bedouin hegemony, though he pals do most of the heavy lifting for her.

Let's face it. Princess of the Nile is the sort of film a studio orders you to act in. For someone like Michael (Klaatu) Rennie, it might look like a break from benign typecasting, but he makes a bland villain despite backup from an always welcome Michael Ansara. For Jeffrey Hunter, this was dues paying of the sort Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson were doing at Universal in similar material, and it was apparently part of a studio effort to make him and Debra Paget into a romantic team. But it's Debra Paget's show; she's the only reason imaginable for anyone but a camp completist to sit through this mostly uninspired claptrap. If anyone went to this movie in the summer of 1954, it was to see her do some sexy dancing. The gossip columnists made it known that one of her scenes had to be edited after complaints from the Breen Office; what was left could be presumed to skirt the edge of acceptability. What remains does seem pretty risque for 1954. Paget could do the exotic dance bit, as she would prove again several years later in Fritz Lang's Indian Tomb. For Harmon Jones and Panoramic Productions she goes just one step beyond what she'd do for Lang. In Princess of the Nile she's the title character and nominal heroine of the picture, and for one short, wonderful, ahead-of-its-time moment she and the filmmakers live up to the potential of that role. That's when, in the middle of a brawl between Prince Haidi and some Bedouins, she picks up a sword while wearing her skimpiest costume and fights.

Princess of the Nile is currently available on-demand from the Fox Movie Channel. For those without access to that service, Northbreed1 has created a highlight reel of Paget's performance. The big dance number starts at approximately 4:23, and Taura's fight scene starts around the 7:29 mark. Harmon Jones doesn't really do the opportunity justice, and the swords are pretty ridiculous, but it's the thought -- Debra Paget, Action Hero -- that counts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

RED ANGEL (1966)

The Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis probably inflicted more misery on more people over a wider expanse of territory in a shorter time than any team of nations in history, but the impression you sometimes get from movies is that the Tripartite Pact made war sexy. The Fascist Italians, Nazi Germans and Japanese militarists violated more than borders, if you get my drift. The Japanese are credited, if that's the word, with a "Rape" of an entire city, and the term is probably not entirely figurative. All three powers seemed dedicated to cruelty as a matter of principle, and world cinema eventually sexualized the Axis's ideological sadism. The Italians notoriously deflected blame from themselves by making a genre's worth of Nazisploitation, from Salon Kitty to The Beast in Heat -- though Pier Paolo Pasolini managed to tell tales on his own people in Salo before they got him. I'm not aware of the Germans themselves exploiting their past in the same way, but there may have been laws against it. Meanwhile, the Japanese took the lead in self-criticism, laying bare such offenses as cannibalism in the ranks in such films as Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain and Kinji Fukasaku's Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. In Red Angel director Yasuzo Masumura deals with the sex angle of the war.

Red Angel is a curious film for an American to watch. Its serious-minded juxtaposition of war and sex takes it close to camp territory, but I don't know if the Japanese themselves have such a category that would make the story seem laughable in any way. As it is, Masumura and his writers have a provocative point to make about masculinity in wartime that shouldn't be dismissed by the seemingly soapy elements of their narrative.

The film is the story of Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), a Japanese military nurse who follows the troops to the Chinese front. The overall tone is set early when she's raped by hospitalized soldiers while doing her night rounds. When you think about it, stuff like that probably happened in all armies during the war, but the Japanese may be unique in addressing the subject on film. Throughout, the Japanese soldiers are characterized by sexual yearning or frustration that handfuls of captive "comfort women" can't satisfy alone. Their aggressiveness barely veils an eventual realization that war, for many the supposed proof of masculine virtue, is unmanning Japanese males. Nishi sees this in the plight of an armless patient. Doomed to isolation from the home front lest he demoralize the public, he protests that he's still a man, but can't do anything to relieve himself in any sense. An extraordinarily compassionate Nishi helps him out and shows him other kindnesses. He rewards her efforts by killing himself, knowing that no one else will ever show him the same regard. As far as Nishi's concerned that's the second soldier she's killed. The first was one of her rapists, whose death she blames on herself despite insisting on heroic measures to save him lest anyone think that she let him die to avenge herself. She'll put more deaths on her conscience before the film is over.

Nishi (Ayako Wakao) fends off one soldier's advances (above), but proves more friendly when a double amputation makes another fighter less grabby and more needy (below).

Her most charged relationship is with the troubled Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), a dedicated surgeon who cracks under the pressure of endless meatball surgery and becomes a morphine addict. Need I add that the addiction renders him impotent. Nishi makes it her special task to get Okabe off the drugs and restore his manhood, alleviating his withdrawal with lovemaking. Okabe rises to the occasion after all, but the lovers' triumph comes with a strange role reversal. Nishi appoints herself Okabe's commanding officer and puts on his officer's uniform, ordering him to put the boots on her feet. It's a fleeting fantasy, but it can't help but make a point about the power women could or should have in a situation of mass male sexual dependence. It also signifies that Nishi, in her fashion, is a better soldier in her sense of duty and the measures she'll take for the sake of her compatriots than any of the men.

Red Angel is a film of unsettling intimacy, a M*A*S*H without the laughs, sex and amputation side by side. Thank goodness it's in black and white; the monochrome cinematography helps Masumura keep his tenuous balance of tone. Even without the red stuff, it's still pretty gruesome as legs come off and limbs are dumped into a bucket. At the same time, it's a woman's war picture if there ever was one, and if that still seems strange, that may be because the emotional content and intimate concerns of women's films are artificially excluded by generic convention from most war pictures. Men remain sexual creatures, after all, and for whatever reason -- maybe one that has something to do with their use of "comfort women" during the war -- the Japanese seem more willing to address that fact than other filmmakers, or at least more willing to address it in a serious fashion compared to the Italians and other purveyors of Nazisploitation. It may still be hard for some viewers to take Red Angel entirely seriously, but it's honest enough in its portrayal of wartime brutality to justify an honest effort on our part.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On the Big Screen: THE ILLUSIONIST (L'Illusioniste, 2010)

Jacques Tati is France's greatest comedy director. He's also considered the only true heir of the great American slapstick comedy tradition, which itself was derived to some extent from the work of an earlier Frenchman, Max Linder. Tati made talking pictures, more or less; a lot of the dialogue in his features is gibberish, particularly that of his own signature character, Monsieur Hulot. Usually portrayed as an inventor or at least a tinkerer, Hulot cuts an awkward figure in a world modernizing beyond anyone's control. In time, Tati's comic vision expanded beyond the focus on Hulot as a uniquely dysfunctional bumbler. In his later features, Playtime and Trafic, modernity makes everyone look silly and Tati's social vision becomes all-encompassing. The style can be off-putting; it may even look like a lack of style, while the films can seem to be about nothing, when they're really about everything. They require and reward attentive viewing. Playtime, in particular, may be my favorite French film. But like Buster Keaton, Tati gave in to a temptation to gigantism, though his vision may have required it. Playtime lost lots of money and bankrupted Tati, and he never fully recovered. He died with a final screenplay, Confusion, unproduced.

Jacques Tati was usually rendered in caricature in the advertising for his films. Turning him into a cartoon character was probably a natural next step.

Unless someone takes up the challenge of Confusion, Tati's final screen utterance now becomes a screenplay he wrote and abandoned in 1956, as interpreted by animator Sylvain Chomet. According to biographers, Tati was apparently working out some family issues through this screenplay, which would have had him playing a character quite different from Hulot. He put it away to make another Hulot film, Mon Oncle, which became his greatest global hit. Chomet has revised the 1956 screenplay to set it in 1959, the time when the real Tati was at the peak of his fame, while his cartoon analogue, the magician Tatischeff (the comedian's real name), is near the end of his tether. Chomet even has a scene in which Tatischeff briefly blunders into a theater where Mon Oncle -- the real film, in live action -- is playing, just so he can stage an eerie moment in which the filmed Tati on the screen within a screen appears to recognize and react to the appearance of the cartoon Tatischeff in the movie house. The choice of time seems to be Chomet's comment on the contrast between the troubled Tati who wrote the original Illusionist script and the triumphant onscreen Tati of roughly the same period.

Leaving Tati's biography aside, there's a more obvious and more stark contrast here for his fans and fans of the comedy tradition in general. Assuming that Chomet's adaptation faithfully reproduces what Tati wrote, the comedian isn't just not doing Hulot; he's doing someone else. He's doing Charlie Chaplin.

Specifically, of course, Tati wrote for himself the role of a mediocre French magician (calling him Tatischeff is presumably Chomet's idea) who's wandering further and further afield in search of an audience. In Chomet's version, Tatischeff travels to Great Britain, where he suffers numerous professional humiliations. In London, he closes a bill headlined by a ludicrous rock band; by the time he takes the stage, all the teenyboppers have departed, and he performs for a bare handful of bored patrons. At some sort of prom concert, he's upstaged by a Scottish drunkard. The drunk befriends him, however, and helps arrange some gigs in his home country. In the drunk's home town, Tatischeff is upstaged by a new jukebox, but he makes a heroic impression on Alice, an adolescent ragamuffin barmaid. When Tatischeff decides to try his luck in Edinburgh, a starstruck Alice runs away to join him. A reluctant Tatischeff allows her to share an apartment with him, devoting most of his meager income, either from his act or from odd jobs he's compelled to take on, to buying her new clothes and other treats. They stay at the Little Joe Hotel, operated by two midget brothers and catering to the dregs of show business: a suicidal clown; an alcoholic ventriloquist; three inane acrobats. For Tatischeff, the dwindling opportunities to ply his craft grow more humiliating. He's finally reduced to conjuring women's accessories in a department store window, while Alice grows enamored with a promising young man, one with whom Tatischeff realizes her real future lies. But she probably won't take that route unless Tatischeff quits her life once and for all....

However much Chomet has tinkered with the script, The Illusionist inescapably reflects the influence of Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight on Tati. In Limelight Chaplin is a washed-up vaudevillian who becomes a mentor for a suicidal ballerina. The sixtysomething Chaplin flatters himself enough to imagine the girl having a crush on the old man, whose renunciation in favor of youth takes the indirect form of death on stage at a moment of redemptive triumph. Tati/Chomet strips the Limelight formula of the romance (and the mortality) while adding a City Lights inspired litany of amusing odd jobs for Tatischeff to perform for the girl's sake. Illusionist aims at Chaplinesque pathos in a way Tati never does in his Hulot movies, but achieves something closer to the bleak, self-pitying pathos of Harry Langdon, refusing to offer audiences the uplift of never-say-die perseverance on the metaphorical road of life. It ends, not with the clown-hero's apotheosis, but with utter defeat and the promise of nothing but oblivion for the protagonist. This is a comedy with the moral, "Magicians do not exist." It's so funny I forgot to laugh.

Actually, I laughed quite a bit at the slapstick parts of the picture and the moments of period parody. On top of that, I admired the audacity, impossible to imagine in America, of someone making such a soul-crushing spectacle the subject of an animated cartoon. Better still, The Illusionist is a triumph of old-school line animation, though there are several obvious CGI assists along the way. As an artist, Chomet has made a beautiful film. As an animation director, he has created a wonderful homage to Tati. The cartoon Tatischeff is hardly an exaggeration of Tati's own physical schtick. The real Tati was a tall man with storklike legs and a rocking, off-balance gait. Were he to come to a sudden stop, you'd worry that he'd fall forward on his face. Chomet nails this. The other characters seem artistically rather than generically conceived and realized, as far from Disney as you could want. Whatever Tati's intentions, Chomet turns The Illusionist into a showcase for the narrative power of animation. Because so much of the dialogue is Tati-esque gibberish, Chomet can't depend on the glib jokiness on which even the best American animation relies to keep audiences interested. What I'm getting at is, I'm not sure what people who know nothing about Jacques Tati will get out of Chomet's film -- most likely they'll find it a colossal downer, if an extremely pretty one. But as far as I'm concerned, as a technical and artistic achievement it just knocked Toy Story 3 off the throne I'd put it on. That film is still a tremendous effort in its own right, but The Illusionist is the best animated film of 2010 -- though it has about nil chance of beating the Pixar for the Oscar -- and one of that year's best movies of any kind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Lisa Cholodenko's film has been nominated for four Academy Awards. It's one of ten nominees for Best Picture, and Cholodenko is up for co-writing the screenplay, but not for direction. It strikes me as a movie that probably wouldn't have made it into the traditional five-film field, though that says less about the film than about the Academy's biases. My own biases would probably argue against a Best Picture nomination. The subject doesn't seem dramatic or momentous enough to suit my sense of cinema as spectacle. On the other hand, other people apply a single standard of compassionate humanism to all media, and a lot of such people are likely to be moved enough by The Kids Are All Right to make a case for it. Our common ground, I'd suggest, is acting. The stars make it a spectacle, though not of glamor. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have drastically de-glammed themselves to play a middle-aged lesbian couple here, though Mark Ruffalo is arguably glammed up as the laid-back sexy sperm donor who complicates the heroines' family life. Bening and Ruffalo have been nominated for Oscars, while Moore's omission suprises me. If anything, she gives the most showy performance, and gets to make a big speech of a sort, but maybe she came on too strong for some viewers.

For Your Consideration

Paul (Ruffalo) was the donor for both of Nic (Bening) and Jules's (Moore) children, each woman bearing one. The eldest, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is preparing to go to college, while Laser (Josh Hutcherson) has dubious taste in friends and a growing curiosity about where he came from. He convinces Joni to call the sperm bank and find out about their "donor," but his name can't be revealed without his permission. Paul is curious about his tangental heritage and agrees to meet the kids. He's a restaurant owner (the place is called WYSIWYG, the name being a kind of warning flag) and organic farmer, but not quite the achiever "Moms" had imagined when reading his profile way back when. Inevitably Paul meets the parents, and as inevitably complications ensue. With perhaps equal inevitability, the complications resolve themselves in time for a sort of happy ending with the family dispersed but also restored.

Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is stunned to learn he's a "donor." Below, he meets the kids.

The story asks for trouble by having Jules fall for Paul and enjoy a brief affair, but Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg insist that this isn't about gender. Sexual arousal, we're told early, is often counterintuitive. Nic and Jules, for instance, get turned on by "gay man porn," while Laser's discovery of this fact closes a farcical first act during which Moms wondered whether he was gay. For the record, we never know one way or the other. In any event, we're supposed to see Jules's attraction to Paul as more emotional than sexual, though they screw enthusiastically. He gives her something affirmative that Nic, a doctor and a sort of judgmental achiever, can't currently give her comparatively underachieving wife, who sees Paul as a kind of kindred spirit. She insists on her homosexuality all the while, taking out her guilty feelings on a haplessly nosy gardener who offers another possible moral to the story. Jules accuses him of taking drugs, but he attributes his sniffles to allergies. With such allergies, why is he a gardener? Because he loves the flowers, he says. Apply analogies as you please.

Something felt both right and wrong about the way the story wrapped up. On one hand, the reconciliation of Nic and Jules seems too predetermined, too easily sparked by the big speech about marriage as a marathon that Moore gets to make. There was no way that this film was going to end with the man breaking up a lesbian couple. On the other, I give Cholodenko credit for not giving Paul a soft landing. He falls hard for Jules, breaking up with his hot girlfriend because he wants to take the next step and finally have a family. He burns that bridge only to get Jules's door slammed in his face, albeit by Nic -- though Jules herself blows him off decisively on the phone. While Nic is probably right to think of him as an "interloper," it's hard to think of such a genuinely nice (if thoughtless) guy as a villain, and it feels genuinely sad to see him angry and frustrated, throwing his helmet at his motorcycle, in our last glimpse of him. Maybe the moral for him is that anonymous transactions, even if human beings result, should remain anonymous.

This is the first time I've seen Ruffalo, the next Incredible Hulk, since he made an indelible impression on me in David Fincher's Zodiac. Cholodenko's film gives me a better sense of his range and his ability to keep a questionable character likable. The fact that he seems implausibly like a refugee from the Seventies I blame on the writers. Of the cast, Bening is the one being pushed hardest for an Oscar, though her chances against Black Swan's Natalie Portman don't seem that good. As I hinted earlier, I was actually less impressed by Bening than by Moore. I found Nic a one-note character, a control freak and borderline drunk, though this may be so against type, if Bening can be said to have a type, that it can be seen as an acting triumph. I will give her credit for one great scene, a dinner party at Paul's place where she struggles to transcend her distrust of him by hogging the conversation, effusively praising his cooking and his record collection, all the while waving a kitchen knife to cumulatively menacing effect -- and that's before she goes to the bathroom and finds Jules's hair in his drain. It's a strong performance, but I still say Moore was better. As for the younger actors, the title of the film says it as well as I can.

I've now seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees. While none of them is the actual best picture I saw from 2010 -- that's still Oliver Assayas's Carlos -- Fincher's The Social Network leads the Oscar field in my book. I'd put The Kids fifth out of the seven I've seen, ahead of Inception and Black Swan. That may not sound like a high ranking, but it's at least an honorable mention.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

The film itself is less confident about its content than its title is. The most it'll allow is that the fellow played by Francis Lederer "might possibly be Dracula himself," but it also leaves open the possibility that he might be just another member of the undead. One thing it won't do is call him a vampire; Wendigo and I noticed the omission by the time the film was nearly over. It's odd, given how irresponsibly it brandishes the "Dracula" name, but by the time Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy were producing this Paul Landres film for United Artists, in the wake of Shock Theater's release of the Universal horror cycle to television, "Dracula" probably had more meaning for kids and drive-in audiences than "vampire." See also the contemporary Blood of Dracula for a modern vampire film with a very tenuous relation to the famous Transylvanian.

The two films we just mentioned, along with Landres' own The Vampire, were part of a short-lived American trend of modern vampire movies that was apparently aborted by the arrival on our shores of Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Wendigo feels that this promising evolution of vampire cinema was nipped in the bud by Hammer, which re-established the vampire as a gothic, period creature for another decade. What he likes about the fifties vampire films were their attempts to creatively integrate vampires in modern settings and tie them into modern concerns. In The Vampire it was the dangers of scientific experimentation. In Blood of Dracula, to an extent, it was juvenile delinquency. Wendigo likes the Hammers as much as any vampire fan, but they often fall short when it comes to thematic creativity, compared to the American efforts -- however they fare as films in their own right.

Francis Lederer is The Return of Dracula -- or maybe he isn't.

In The Return of Dracula the context, in a subtle way, is the Cold War. Its vampire, whose real name we never learn, is a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain. The film opens with a gang of five gathering at a Hungarian graveyard. Their mustachioed ringleader distributes crosses and stakes. They break into a mausoleum and take positions around a coffin, waiting for the sun to rise. As the sunlight fills the chamber, they throw the lid off the coffin, but find it empty.

Hungary is actually our best guess as to the setting of this scene, since the film itself is silent on the subject. I've found at least one contemporary newspaper review that claims that the vampire is Czech. In any event, he's on the run from a Warsaw Pact country, implicitly pursued by cross-wielding Communists, though the man with the moustache is never identified as such. Having managed to board a train, the vampire (whose face we haven't seen yet) attacks a newly boarded passenger outside a station. The victim is Bellac Gordal, an artist who's been allowed to go to America. He'll be staying with American relatives in a small California town, and his relatives at home wish him well with the assurance that now he'll be free. Since I know that Hungary allowed some people to leave the country following the 1956 uprising, this bit helps convince me that the setting is Hungary. The director confuses things, however, by having the vampire read a German newspaper (the Berliner Tageblatt) in one shot, but a Hungarian paper (the Magyar something) in the very next shot, which is supposed to be the very next moment, as the doomed painter Gordal joins him in the passenger car.

Artist at work

It's the vampire who greets the Mayberry family at the train station and sets up housekeeping in their upstairs bedroom and in a nearby cave, where he kills the Mayberry boy's nosy cat for a snack before getting down to real hunting. Because Bellac Gordal is an artist, he's indulged in his eccentricities, including an aversion to mirrors and odd sleeping habits.

Rachel, the teenage Mayberry daughter (Rachel Eberhardt) is fascinated by the exotic newcomer, but the film never quite works up the Shadow of a Doubt vibe we thought might develop. That's because the movie isn't interested in sending up the town's dull conformity as Alfred Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder were in their film. If anything, Bellac is a mockery of noncomformity, if not the American ideal of freedom for which we were supposedly waging a Cold War with the Eastern Bloc. Bellac makes a big deal of his freedom, and protests as if it had been threatened when anyone questions his habits. It almost makes you wonder who actually benefits from all this freedom.

Dracula style, Bellac chooses a weaker girl for his first real target before setting his sights on the more attractive Rachel. He attacks Jennie, a blind girl to whom Rachel reads stories at the local parish home, and turns her into one of the undead. At his summons, she can turn into a mist and drift from her crypt in the family mausoleum. At his presumed command, she can turn into a vicious white dog and kill a snooping INS agent. The government is looking up recent refugees from Hungary because a body had been thrown from that train. As we learn, it's not just the U.S. government that's interested in the refugees. The mustachioed undead-hunter from the opening, now identified as Mr. Meyerman (John Wengraf), appears in the little town bearing identification that assures him of instant cooperation from the local sheriff. Who is he, then? Who does he represent? It can't just be the Hungarian government, can it?

"Wheee, I'm a vampire!" Jennie (Virginia Vincent) romps through a graveyard (above) and pounces on a prowler (below).

As Meyerman explains his belief that an undead has escaped from his country, Bellac starts to put the moves on Rachel. He has hypnotic charisma, all in the eyes, but he's always getting interrupted by Rachel's boyfriend Tim. When he gets a chance, Bellac plies Rachel with a harsher variation on the late-Universal "strange twilight world" patter. "The only truth," he tells Rachel, "is death." Flesh is but an illusion; "the heart only beats when it is drunk with blood." It never quite works -- there are always interruptions -- but she still ends up in his cave with only a cross around her neck, and later Tim, to protect her from Bellac's power....

Norma Eberhardt didn't have much of a career, but she shows a knack for bug-eyed terror in this picture.

Wendigo considers Return of Dracula the best of the the Fifties modern-vampire films -- the best written with the best performances, and with slightly above-average production values. It has good cinematography by Jack McKenzie that emphasizes Bellac's menacing hat-and-coat silhouette amid the general darkness. The special effects (heavy on the mist) are modest but both effective and evocative. Gerald Fried's score is a little heavy on the Dies Irae sometimes, but makes more menacing use of Russian style muffled gongs as Bellac stalks the night.

That's exploitation! A sudden jolt of color marks Jennie's true demise.

Wendigo also feels that the script by Pat Fielder takes the Cold War angle a step further than the subtle satire I perceived and invites us to equate the vampire with the Communist menace as an alien infiltrator subverting small-town America and spreading his influence person by person. He does recognize a blind spot in its portrait of America: Rachel and Tim seem to be the only teenagers, not counting the invalid Jennie, in the entire picture. Rachel doesn't seem to be part of teen culture, apparently spending all of her time helping Jennie and other unfortunates at the parish house. That lack of a teen milieu may have hurt Return with contemporary audiences, but it lets us focus on the vampire.

"In Hungary, or wherever I come from, the saying is: Speak softly and carry
a sharp stick. " John Wengraf as Mr. Meyerman.

The Meyerman character adds an intriguing twist to the story. As it turns out, he belongs to a European Police Commission, a presumed counterpart to INTERPOL, but his supernatural knowledge on top of whatever official standing he has in his homeland make him a paradoxical figure. You feel like there's more to be explored about the apparent collaboration of Cold War enemies against an undead menace, and it made us wonder whether anyone's ever done a spies-vs-vampires story set in this period.

Wendigo considers Francis Lederer the film's strongest asset. Lederer was a former romantic leading man (he was Louise Brooks's love interest in Pandora's Box) and his expertise along with his accent make the plainly middle-aged Bellac a plausibly suave if not necessarily sympathetic personality. His hypnotic power is pure acting, unaided by lighting or other effects; it's all in his eyes and his voice. He comes across as a badass vampire, not because he can throw people around or fly through the air (the film's only bat effects are sound effects) but because he never freaks out at the sight of a cross -- he keeps his cool almost all the way through the picture. His nihilistic speeches are Return's closet correspondence to Joseph Cotten's dark misogynist rants in Shadow of a Doubt, and his performance brings Landres' film as close as it ever gets to the perhaps-unconscious Hitchcock model. Lederer (who would finally play Dracula by name in a Night Gallery episode) may not be highly ranked among movie vampires, but Wendigo thinks he deserves more respect, as does the film.

Here's a neat little trailer with an exclusive speech by Lederer, uploaded to YouTube by CrowTRobot1313.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

VALLEY OF THE BEES (Udoli Vcel, 1967)

The Film Society of Lincoln Center held a Frantisek Vlacil festival earlier this month, showing New Yorkers little-seen works by a little-known and thus underrated Czech director who was active from the 1960s through the 1990s. A number of the films sounded interesting, and some have been highly touted on blogs I read, but the weather being what it's been, I didn't feel like making the trek downstate to see them on the big screen. Fortunately, I consoled myself with a reminder that I had one of Vlacil's medieval movies in my Netflix queue. It arrived in my mailbox this weekend. It was worth the effort.

In Vlkov, the Bohemian valley of the bees, the lord of the manor is getting married. It's his second marriage, at least, and the bride is practically a child, not much older, it looks, than the lord's son Ondrej. The boy is, perhaps understandably, resentful of a stranger taking the place of his mother. His idea of a wedding gift to her is a basket of flowers with live bats at the bottom. The insult enrages Dad, who grabs Ondrej and throws him face first into a stone wall. He repents his rage at once, praying for his son's recovery, and promising him to one of the militant religious orders if he does recover. He does.

Ondrej is initiated into the men-only world of a crusading order. He acquires a mentor in Arnim (Jan Kacer), who strikes up an acquaintance while the boy sits contemplating the sea, in the nude. Whatever Arnim actually does, I'm sure Vlacil means us to be creeped out a bit about this. Even is he represses any physical expression of his obvious feelings for Ondrej, Arnim's longings and eventual jealousy seem obvious enough.

Grown to restless manhood, Ondrej (Petr Cepek, above) sees brothers crack under the pressures of monastic militancy. A renegade asks him to run away with him, but Ondrej sees him recaptured and put to death -- an alarmingly convincing dummy is dropped from a tower and mauled by dogs. In his turn, Ondrej cracks and runs away. Arnim pursues him, hearing reports of a sword-wielding madman wandering the countryside. He helps Ondrej slaughter a band of peasants, only to get cold-cocked while he drinks water at a nearby stream.

Arnim (Jan Kacer) figuratively worships at Ondrej's feet, only to pay for it moments later.

Ondrej returns to the valley of the bees, where his father had long since died. He sets himself up as the lord of the manor, eventually claiming his erstwhile stepmother Lenora (Vera Galatikova) as his own bride. But in a creepy echo of the opening wedding scene, Arnim appears at the gate as young Ondrej had years earlier, and Ondrej steps over the table to confront him as his father had. But he manages to defuse the situation with his new wife's help, inviting the reluctant warrior to stay the night. It's a nice gesture, but not necessarily a wise one....

Lenora and Ondrej try to cheer up Arnim, but some people are incapable of cheer. You can usually tell them by the crusader gear and the crosses on their capes.

Primal passions are in play here, despite the characters' extreme efforts to overcome them. The end products are moments of startling cruelty. Vlacil can get as violent as any of his European peers of the period, and his film is of a piece with films from all over the continent (including the Czech Witches' Hammer) that contemplate or wallow in the brutality of pre-modern life. At least it seems more tasteful in black and white. The cinematography by Frantisek Uldrich offers the starkest contrasts of earthy everyday life and the immaculate austerity aspired to be religion. Invariably, however, the film reverts to violence and moral horror, with religion exacerbating rather than alleviating the upheavals of Arnim's troubled soul.

Armin and Lenora both struggle with unnatural-seeming feelings for Ondrej. The effort doesn't work well for either of them.

For European audiences, I suppose, movies like these might have been the equivalent of hillbilly or "white trash" films in the U.S., in which twisted passions belie a community's simplistic piety. Assigning such sentiments to the backward past may have made Bees palatable to a Communist regime (albeit one in "thaw" mode at the time) that wouldn't be expected to accept the passions here displayed as permanent parts of the human condition. At the same time, church=Party equations shouldn't have been hard for viewers to make, either here or with Witches' Hammer -- though Party censors may not have recognized them as easily. Even with the violence thrown in, however, Bees doesn't feel like the sort of exploitation films I've just compared it to. The violent bits aren't presented as highlights of the show or anticipated with scary editing or music. The music overall aims for an atmospheric rather than an emotional effect, helping ground our sense of place and time rather than any sense of genre. The content may not have been out of place in a grindhouse, but the presentation is arthouse all the way.

I thought the echoing of the first wedding in the second was a bit heavy handed, and the finish was pretty predictable once Arnim was invited to stay, but in sum I was impressed by Vlacil's direction and his construction of a convincingly dingy and decadent past. I'll be willing to give him another try, and now that I know the name, I think my local library may have a copy of Adelheid, the film that followed Bees. If so, my own private Vlacil festival will go on.