Thursday, February 28, 2013

MAN OF MARBLE (1976) and MAN OF IRON (1981)

In two films director Andrzej Wajda runs the cinematic gamut from arthouse classicism to guerilla filmmaking in a race with accelerating history. Together, the films form a two-generation saga of disillusionment and resistance in Communist Poland. They're parallel stories of a father and son and two chroniclers. In Man of Marble (Czlowiek z Marmuru) we follow student documentarian Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) in the footsteps of Citizen Kane as she watches old newsreels and interviews survivors to learn whatever happened to a once-famous hero of Polish labor. Her subject is Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), once idolized for setting a record for bricklaying during the construction of the city of Nowa Huta. Birkut is the title character, supposedly immortalized in stone but soon to become an unperson, denounced as a foreign agent and saboteur. As Agnieszka penetrates the veil between film and reality, Wajda shows us some scenes twice. We first see Birkut's bricklaying feat as it was shown on in black and white in theaters: an exemplary story of heroic labor to build the new Poland. The reality, as remembered by living witnesses, is almost Fellini-esque in its absurdity as an audience gathers, a band plays constantly, and an announcer keeps score during the spectacle of bricklaying. The director's also careful to show us Birkut's moments of barely-suppressed annoyance as the newsreel camera gets in his face. Still, Birkut starts as an idealist truly committed to spreading a more efficient method of bricklaying, but everything goes downhill after an odd incident when his hands are burned by a superheated brick during one of his personal appearances. At the lowest point, he shows up during a show trial, in raw footage never shown until Agnieszka screens it, to implicate himself in the incident. Even the authorities find that too ridiculous to believe.

Man of Marble chronicles the sordid demise of whatever socialist idealism actually existed in Poland. The country never seems to have become the totalitarian dystopia of the typical American imagination -- the film, though partly censored, was actually released there -- but something has clearly gone terribly wrong, and may have been wrong from the beginning. If there was an idealism during Birkut's salad days, it was based on some belief that through propaganda people could be made to believe in a Communist future. By Agnieszka's time, you get the impression that nobody really bothers trying to convince anybody. By the time of Man of Iron (Czelowiek z Zelaza), which eventually picks up where Marble left off, it's as if Johnny Friendly's union from On the Waterfront runs the country. It's government by bullying control over jobs and favors rather than the totalitarian brainwashing of Orwellian nightmares. When the authorities decide that Agnieszka can't finish her Birkut documentary, she's reminded that the state paid her way through film school and provided for her in every way, and told that she owes the state loyalty in return, or else they'll make sure she never makes another movie. That's the logic that makes dependence a dirty word in political discourse: if you owe someone something, you can't question them. It shouldn't be so, but people in power tend to think differently. Agnieszka is ruined and eventually jailed.

 Before Wajda re-introduces us to Agnieszka he opens Man of Iron with the misadventures of  Winkel (Marian Opania). Winkel is pretty much Agneiszka's opposite: sloppy, alcoholic, cowardly. He is tasked by his superiors with researching the background of Maciej Tomczak (Radziwilowicz again), a Solidarity leader in Gdansk, for a hatchet-job TV documentary. Winkel is one of cinema's wretches, so abject in his alcoholism (Gdansk has gone dry during the 1980 shipyard strike) that he soaks paper towels with the booze from a broken bottle and squeezes the liquor into a glass to drink. He has no integrity but seems too cowardly to actually betray the independent union. As he conducts his interviews, we're reminded, since we first met Tomczak late in Man of Marble, that the agitator is Birkut's son. We now learn of Birkut's tragic last years. Still recognized as a workers' leader in the shipyard, he refused to lead the workers out in support of student protesters, including his son, during the global tumult of 1968. Two years later it was the workers' turn and Birkut died during a street melee. The government allows his family to bury the body, only to exhume and vanish it later. In protest, Tomczak erects a cross and lights a candle on the site near a bridge where his father fell.

Later, Winkel is snuck into prison to interview Agnieszka, who relates what happened to her since Man of Marble. She'd fallen in love with Tomczak and married him, with no less a personage than Lech Walesa the Solidarity leader (playing himself) as a witness. There's something exhilirating yet almost unseemly about the way Wajda embeds himself and his film in history as it happens. Man of Iron is one part Medium Cool, another part one of those old Mack Sennett one-reelers where he'd set Fatty, Mabel et al loose at some public event. The climax of all this comes when Tomczak is reunited with a liberated Agnieszka at the moment when the government recognizes Solidarity as a legitimate workers' representative. The reunion of the lovers seems to be shot as the historic speech is actually happening. Wajda's apparent freedom of movement is amazing, even considering that 1981 was another moment of dramatic liberalization in Poland until the martial-law declaration of December put Walesa in prison and drove Wajda into exile in western Europe (where he made Danton and other films). Wajda was careful enough not to close Man of Iron on that Capra-esque note of triumph. While the film does end with the lovers walking off together, we first see that Winkel, despite his best intentions, is not redeemed, or at least not forgiven by the victorious union. We also see a bullying party hack warn him, prophetically enough, that the agreement wouldn't stand, that the government had been under duress, etc. Winkel's last scenes strike discordant notes that serve the film well retroactively, but you do wonder why Wajda seems so unforgiving toward his creation. It may have simply been that Opania is so entertainingly wretched that you wouldn't want to change him.

Man of Marble and Man of Iron are historic films from near the front line of dissent inside the Cold War Communist bloc. While Wajda doesn't have a Wellsian pictorial imagination to match the Wellsian ambitions of the first film, both films make the most of dramatic figures in the drably epic landscapes of Gdansk and Nowa Huta. An optimistic romanticism surges to the surface by the climax of Man of Iron that almost requires the last Winkel scenes as a corrective. The contrast between Winkel and Agnieszka itself belies much of the rhetoric against totalitarian power; neither is purely a creature of state-controlled upbringing, since otherwise they'd be more alike. Character matters, in life and in art, and Wajda's commitment to character over ideology makes his diptych more richly realistic and more morally meaningful. These are anti-Communist films (capital C, please) that aren't simply arguments for free-market capitalism -- the heroes of the sequel, after all, are labor leaders. They transcend ideology in a way their audiences should emulate.

Krystyna Janda and Lech Walesa in Man of Iron;
it may have been a brush with greatness for both people.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Now Playing: FEB. 27, 1933

These pictures opened in Milwaukee between Feb. 23 and Feb. 25. This particular week gives us a partial yet revealing survey of some of the performers who managed to be popular in the Pre-Code era. They're a diverse lot, starting with the man Warner Bros. considered their biggest star -- as a matter of artistic prestige.


The King's Vacation looks like a departure from Arliss's typical biopic material. I've seen two of his pictures: 1934's Voltaire and his 1929 Oscar winner, Disraeli. The Arliss formula allowed him to orate melodramatically and play in a more conversational mode as a kindly old matchmaker for his films' romantic leads. But he seems to be a romantic lead in this John G. Adolfi film, as the trailer from the ever-reliable will testify.

Arliss was probably past his peak by 1933, but this is definitely Lee Tracy's year. For a moment, no one seemed to be hotter. Here's his latest, a Universal service comedy.


In this one Tracy is pissed off at having to serve in World War I -- retroactively, who wasn't? -- but learns the value of duty and courage when it's up to him to save another man's life.  The picture apparently gives Tracy every excuse to be pissed -- his conscription causes his mother's death, for instance -- but it looks like there's a patriotic payoff at the end. Might be worth seeing.

At the Wisconsin, you get three comedy teams for the price of one. You may recognize the pairs on the lower part of the bill, but the stars of the program may be a mystery to many today.


Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were RKO's main comedy stars for most of the 1930s, though this happens to be a Columbia picture. The act was cut short by Woolsey's death in 1938, but that may not be the only reason they haven't really stood the test of time. I've never really been impressed by them, at least, but maybe you will be by this apparent digest of the picture uploaded by atqui.

Finally,following the presumably successful run of Mystery of the Wax Museum two weeks ago, the Garden theater has two of that picture's stars in a timely piece of exploitation.

This independent picture was filmed on the Universal lot and throws Dwight Frye into the bargain. Long part of the public domain, Vampire Bat is probably one of the most-seen pictures from 1933. "Super Shocker" may be a slight exaggeration, but what else would you expect from a newspaper ad?

Monday, February 25, 2013


In 1956 the novelist Shichiro Fukuzawa published the story known here as The Ballad of Narayama. The novel was honored with a prestigious literary prize and two classic film adaptations. I first encountered the story in Shohei Imamura's 1983 movie; the Criterion Collection has just released Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 version on DVD. Narayama is the mountain where the villagers of Obasute take their parents or grandparents when the oldsters reach the age of 70. The old folks are left on the mountain to die of cold or exposure. It's the tradition of a poor people all too conscious of the number of mouths to be fed on very limited resources. Not very many get to Narayama age, one suspects, but Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka, age 48) is on the verge. Her vitality is something of a village scandal. She still has all her teeth, but that only inspires songs about her "33 demon teeth." Orin herself is rather embarrassed by that fact, and conscious of the needs and appetites of younger generations. She's reconciled to Narayama by now, but her eldest son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), isn't. He's no rebel, but he can't help feeling bad about having to carry his mother up the mountain. A widower, he's already felt loss in his life and isn't eager for more. Conscious of this, Orin arranges a marriage for him with Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a woman from another village, recently widowed herself. These are just about the only three decent people in the story. Tatsuhei's own son is one of the leaders of the songs mocking Orin. He resents his dad getting married again because he wants to get married and a stepmother means less food to go around for a growing family.  The film is the story of Tatsuhei's struggle to reconcile himself to the inevitable, with help from a new love.

In western eyes, Tatsuhei's life looks like an intolerable nightmare. Everyone wants his mother to die, including his mother, who resolves the demon-teeth scandal by breaking some of her choppers on a grindstone. The fact that he feels bad about it makes him our hero, and it also seems like the best proof of Orin's own goodness. Why doesn't he rebel? It doesn't seem to be an option. Instead, the story underscores the desperate poverty of the village, so that the old making way for the young seems like a realistic, tragic necessity. Tatsuhei is a rebel, you could argue, to the extent that he insists on treating it as a tragedy. The alternatives are the dehumanizing rules laid down for the Narayama journey, during which Orin is forbidden from speaking to her son, and the casual mockery of Orin's longevity by the villagers and her own grandchild. Tatsuhei's sensitivity is where humanity survives in the village. By comparison, Orin herself might seem like a brainwashed victim complicit in her own doom if the story didn't contrast her with another oldster, the miserable Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi). His children have abandoned him in the village in advance of the trip to Narayama, leaving him a beggar whom Orin occasionally feeds. Despite his misery, the poor old man has no intention of going up the mountain and puts up a desperate fight with his son when his time comes on the same day as Orin and Tatsuhei's journey. Mata should have our sympathy as he rages against the dying of the light, but despite the cruelty of his children he can't help seeming selfish and cowardly somehow compared to Orin. One suspects that his children's selfishness might be traced back to his own. Unlike Orin, he dies without dignity, but what's the moral of that? We can assume safely that neither the novelist Fukuzawa nor the director Kinoshita endorses death by exposure for the elderly. Neither, however, indulges in what may be a peculiarly western or American belief that we can always change our circumstances to suit us. In such circumstances, the compassion shown by Orin, Tatsuhei and Tama can redeem fatalism a little. Better to feel as bad as Tatsuhei does than not to feel at all. Then at least the trip to Narayama can be a loving farewell instead of the atrocity that befalls Mata. That this might have relevance today is suggested by Kinoshita's closing dissolve to the 20th century Obasute railway station as a train puffs past. It may only mean that Japan has advanced far beyond the wretchedness of the past, but there's also the slightest hint that something more than misery has been left behind on the mountain.

In the pre-release promotion, the Shochiku studio boasted that Kinoshita had shot Narayama almost entirely on elaborate soundstages. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing Hollywood would have boasted of then, but western cinema was not yet that far removed from the sort of celebration of the art of artifice we get from Kinoshita and still get in the U.S. occasionally from the likes of Tim Burton. Narayama isn't the sort of film in which sets are just poor substitutes for locations. Kinoshita aspires to theatricality, moving props and backdrops and manipulating colored lighting for narrative and emotional effect while a kabuki joruri contributes singing narration. Film buffs may be reminded of American experiments in artifice like William Wellman's folkloric white-on-white western Track of the Cat and, above all, of the Englishman Michael Powell's Black Narcissus, which raised new Himalayas at Pinewood Studios. Since Narayama, like Narcissus, features a climactic fight at a precipice, we can imagine that Kinoshita was conscious of Powell's example as well as any number of Japanese precedents. The Narayama sets are impressively crafted and spacious enough for long tracking shots illustrating Tatsuhei's trek up the mountain with Orin on his back. To complain that it isn't real misses the point by a country mile. Just as there's craftsmanship in the scale-model cities and suitmation of Godzilla movies so there's more obvious and (for many) impressive art in Kinoshita's soundstage mountain village. It may not be Expressionist in the familiar movie sense of the word, but it definitely expresses something along with the acting, from  Takahashi above all, and the cinematography of Hiroyuki Kusuda. Compared to Shohei Imamura's earthier, sometimes more explicit version, Kinoshita's Narayama is a grim fairy tale of pictorial and moral grandeur that may haunt any viewer with a heart for a long time.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


In The Dogs of War "everybody comes home" is the motto of Christopher Walken's mercenary hero, and he abides by that to the point of seating corpses on planes. In Andrew V. McLaglen's Wild Geese, the film that started a mercenary subgenre and arguably made Dogs of War possible, Richard Burton's mercenary hero orders the corpse of one of his men dumped from a plane to lighten its load and save fuel. That's probably the only instance in which Geese is more realistic than Dogs. In general thematic terms the pictures are similar: mostly white mercenaries get to run amok in an African dictatorship, paid by shady British business interests. In Geese retired General Allen Faulkner (Burton) is hired by a powerful businessman (Stewart Granger) to break a deposed president out of his prison. This businessman is powerful enough to persuade the British mafia to give up a vendetta against mercenary Shaun Fynn (Roger Moore), who has whacked a gangster for tricking him into becoming a drug mule. Faulkner wants Fynn on his team, along with logistics expert Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and some other dependable colleagues. Despite repeated compressions of their schedule, the operation to free President Limbani (Winston Ntshona) goes off smoothly until the plane sent to pick up the team takes off again without them. Granger has cut a deal with the current regime and has no more use for Limbani or the mercenaries, who seem doomed to destruction by the ruler's crack Simba troops. Their only way out may be to start the civil war that Granger had apparently intended to incite....


Note: the liquor bottle above is for acting purposes only -- Drink Responsibly.
Below: Roger Moore can't stand the criminal environment he finds himself stuck in.

While the synopsis sounds grim and cynical the actual movie is less grim in tone than Dogs of War. There's a "Boy's Own Adventure" air to the project that may be inescapable given the fantastical images of Burton et al waging war in Africa. It's hard to imagine them as mercenaries because it's hard to imagine them as anyone but the stars they are. Their characters are one-dimensional. Janders pines for his son off at boarding school; Fynn is arrogant; Faulkner is practically a cipher. The most character development he gets is an art-imitates-life indication that the Burton character does nothing but fight or drink. But we're meant to believe that they're all inspired by the nobility of the suffering Limbani. In fact, none is more impressed than the Afrikaaner mercenary Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), who despises "kaffirs" but spends much of the picture symbolically carrying Limbani on his back. Screenwriter Reginald (Ten Angry Men) Rose aspires to political relevance in the dialogue scenes between Kruger and Ntshona, which amount to a plea for peace and reconciliation in the South Africa where the picture was shot. McGlaglen can only manage to make the scenes feel heavyhanded and superfluous. The film's pretensions of relevance also show glaringly in Maurice Binder's title sequence, scored by Joan Armatrading's ponderous theme song. Binder is the man who did the title bits in the old James Bond films, and while no naked women cavort across the map of Africa here, there's something about his style and the reminders of Bond in the song-and-symbols combination that gives a bad taste to this opening earnestness. In any event, you'll probably have forgotten about suffering Africa after the second act's tedious service-comedy training sequences. Also part of this alleged comedy are the mincing mannerisms of a homosexual medic (Kenneth Griffith), but to be fair this character gets a heroic death scene later and his fitness for duty under fire is never questioned.


McLaglen didn't have Jack Cardiff shooting his film, so Wild Geese lacks the dark grandeur of Dogs of War's night assault scenes. Once the film becomes a pursuit of the mercs by the Simbas it develops some momentum, but McGlaglen too self-consciously inserts bits of still-modest gore (a slit throat, characters spitting up blood) to make the action seem more "adult." He only makes those bits look like exploitation in the worst sense of the word. Neither he nor Rose really do much to make the most of the master thespians in their employ. When Burton and Harris (both cold sober, reportedly) yell at one another, it only makes their characters look less professional. It makes you more appreciative of the casting of an aloof Christopher Walken in Dogs of War; his emotional self-limitation makes him more convincing as an all-business merc. The films end similarly, however, with the protagonists committing bridge-burning acts of violence, as if cinema couldn't yet accept mercenaries in their true businesslike amorality. Wild Geese may not exactly be a moral picture, but it upholds an old ideal of heroism invoked in the poster's description of the mercenaries as "Modern Musketeers." While it started something somewhat new in cinema, it's really part of an older tradition of exotic adventure movies. If it wasn't instantly dated by its attitude or its aging stars, it would soon look very dated alongside the films it inspired. But if you like the stars and, as many must have, you like the idea of people like Burton, Harris and Moore kicking ass and mowing down multitudes, Wild Geese can still be an enjoyable if also slightly campy experience.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SKYFALL (2012)

Once upon a time James Bond 007 was in Turkey fighting an assassin atop a moving train when his assistant accidentally shot him. Bond fell from a great height into the water, but he did not die. The river goddess grabbed him with her great hand and Bond was pulled through ... I guess we must call it her hole. He saw many strange things and when he emerged miraculously unhurt -- or minimally hurt -- he took to drink. He could afford to drink because he had a bank account unknown to and untrackable by MI6, his employer. While he was drinking he saw on television that someone had set off a bomb at MI6 headquarters. Now he felt bad. He came home and swore to find the bad people who did this thing. The same assistant went with him but didn't shoot him any more. Bond found the very bad man who had the bomb planted on a mysterious island that looked like Inception had been filmed there. This bad man told Bond a story about rats and shot a woman. Then he was captured. The bad man had been an agent like James Bond 007 but had been turned over to the Chinese. This hurt his feelings, and he became a supervillain. He got all Hannibal Lecter on his guards and ran away. Bond tried to catch him but the bad man dropped a subway train on top of him. Bond got away. The bad man tried to shoot the old lady who used to be his boss because she threw him to the Chinese and he had mommy issues. Bond put the old lady in an old car and drove to Scotland. He found a fat old man in his house and they got all Home Alone about the place because the bad man was coming with a lot more bad men and a helicopter....

Skyfall (that's the house as well as the title) can seem a bit phantasmagorical, thanks in part to Roger Deakins's Oscar-nominated cinematography and a trippy title sequence set to Adele's Oscar-nominated song. It's the first Bond film in 50 years to boast an Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame, who had directed star Daniel Craig previously in Road to Perdition. If that all makes the film more pictorially ambitious than its predecessors, the story remains as much a comic-book affair as others in the series. Bond's resilience and the villain Silva's resources are simply unbelievable. Yet this was supposed to be a more serious Bond film in the way Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy were more serious comic-book films. The creators have cited The Dark Knight in particular as an influence on their project, Nolan's blockbuster enabling them to make Skyfall "darker" and more relevant while remaining essentially a fantasy. There's a convergence at work, since Nolan's most recent films show plenty of Bond influences, from the ski-slope firefights of Inception to Bane as an amalgam of Goldfinger and Oddjob in one person. Both Nolan and the Skyfall team partake of a modern (or postmodern) rejection of the normalization of genre heroism. Nolan's films could not simply be three adventures of Batman, but had to be a sequence of life-changing events culminating in Bruce Wayne's apparently permanent retirement from crimefighting. Likewise, before Mendes came along the first Craig Bond film, Casino Royale, was basically "Bond Begins," a reboot and origin story for the storied franchise, and the first sequel, Quantum of Solace, picked up immediately where Casino Royale left off. It's not enough now, it seems, to show us a hero and what he does, with the understanding that he'll always do it. You might think the scale of production might have something to do with it, but you see the same or related phenomena in other media. Long gone is the lone hero who visits a place, meets some people, does his thing and moves on. That doesn't satisfy in our age of "shipping." We want to see relationships and we expect them to evolve constantly. Obviously you can argue that something is gained but something else is lost. To a certain extent that something is story or, more correctly, plot. 

Plot matters less, and writers need less creative ingenuity, when their stories are basically about the hero(es) and his/their relationships, and this brings us to how hackneyed an affair Skyfall's story is. Mendes has basically invited us to see the disgruntled Silva as Bond's Joker, and in Javier (Anton Chigurh) Bardem he had an actor apparently up for the challenge that entailed. But I found him dull, and Bardem's almost whimsical performance set the wrong tone immediately. Silva is one of those villains who have no real motive except to make a point to the hero, his having something to do with the treachery of their common "mommy," Judi Dench's M, and their own shared identity as cannibalistic rats. I'm not the biggest Bond expert, but have the stakes in a Bond movie ever been lower? The plot of the picture is that Silva has acquired one of those fatally compromising lists of undercover field agents that spy agencies are always compiling and putting into dangerously portable form, and is going to publicize the names on YouTube until M thinks on her sins. So some spies we'll never know are going to get killed, while Silva probably does more collateral damage in his desperate attempts to get M. We're supposed to believe he's a criminal mastermind, the evidence being, as is often the case, that he allows himself to be captured so he can strike from nearer the heart of the enemy. But while I invoked Dr. Lecter above in discussing Silva's escape we never see how he does it -- there must be a deleted scene somewhere having to do with his dentures -- and we never see Silva get into a proper fight scene with Bond. His demise is particularly, pathetically lame, though Bardem does well enacting his character's (and the actor's own?) annoyance at how easily he goes down. Silva's best scene is the most traditionally Bondian, on an urban island he evacuated with a contamination hoax, when he forces a shaky Bond to play William Tell with one of this film's Bond Girls. Apart from that, Bardem is this film' s biggest disappointment.

But if Skyfall doesn't live to its portentous hype, it really isn't that bad a Bond film. It has some extraordinary spectacle, from Silva's island to a sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper to that opening railroad chase. Some of the action on the train might earn the filmmakers a tip of Buster Keaton's porkpie hat. The acting is nothing great, with Craig somewhat more wooden than before -- though some of this is a principled refusal to be as indignant as Silva wants Bond to be -- and Dench no longer plausible as a powerful bureaucrat. Naomie Harris as that hapless field agent who shoots but later saves Bond steals plenty of scenes, and her own final revelation is a cute moment fitting this film's commemorative aspect. In the end, Skyfall has it both ways rather like The Dark Knight did, giving the hero a life-changing event but really leaving the legend in what we might recognize as a timeless default state. A counterpart to The Dark Knight Rises really isn't an option for the franchise, so where Eon Productions goes from here should be interesting. That leaves Skyfall as a Bond film for our cultural moment, and as long as you don't expect too much from the bad guy, a fairly diverting one as well.

Monday, February 18, 2013

DVR Diary: NORMA RAE (1979)

Note the innocuous poster image of Sally Field in her first Academy Award winning role. She has her arms up like she should be holding her iconic "UNION" sign, but the poster really gives no idea of the content of Martin Ritt's movie. Maybe the studio wanted to mask the serious content of the picture, which were it remade now might be perceived, in some quarters, as a more radical film than the actual film seemed to be in 1979. On the poster, Field is not the drab yet defiant creature of the movie, a character based on a real person on the winning side of a real struggle to unionize a southern textile plant. The poster image is more like the spiritual essence of Norma Rae Webster, whom the film finds a single mother of three, each child having a different father. Once a waitress, according to an opening-credits image, she's now working at the O.P. Henley mill, in a South then seen as the last bastion of resistance to the righteous tide of organized labor. Into town comes Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), a union organizer from Noo Yawk embarking on the latest campaign to unionize Henley. Early in the action Norma Rae gets a promotion to the spot check department, meaning a precious extra $1.50 an hour. But she knows that it'll make her unpopular with her fellow workers, and the first time she gets called a fink and blamed for someone getting canned she demotes herself back to the ranks. Something matters more than money and security to her, despite her struggle to reassert her independence from her father and co-worker (Pat Hingle). Before long she's getting married to fun-loving Sonny (Beau Bridges) and taking a more active role in Ruben's union campaign. Norma wants autonomy and commitment -- solidarity rather than dependence both at home and at work. Her struggle endangers her job and to a lesser extent her marriage as the bosses scheme to turn the races against each other and Sonny complains about chores left undone.

It all turns around in the film's famous Capra-esque (yet based on fact) moment when, on the brink of being fired and arrested for copying out an inflammatory office posting, she climbs a table and holds her sign aloft in lieu of the more customary big speech. Did that reticence earn Field her Oscar? Or was it the later scene, after she's arrested and bailed out of jail, when she breaks down and cries in Reuben's car? Hers is a layered performance building on her innate spunk with virtues and flaws, loyalties and grudges. Norma Rae is an imperfect heroine and once what one might have called a loose woman. All the makings of an ad hominem argument are there, but the film's point is that they have nothing to do with the struggle for the union; they're not the main thing to judge Norma by.  Some people may still think differently, and the sad thing is that there may be more of them than there were in 1979, when the justice of the union cause may well have gone unquestioned in most theaters. You also can't help wondering what became of the O.P. Henley mill, of Norma Rae and all her friends, over the subsequent thirtysome years. The place probably closed, but did Norma get to retire first? Inevitably, Norma Rae is now a period piece, worth watching for its authentic location work as well as for Field's performance, but it's probably even more a period piece than the filmmakers ever intended. Its committed optimism about solidarity and struggle dates it and lends it some unwanted retroactive pathos. It's hard to imagine the film inspiring people to refight the old battles when someone's probably sold the battlefield and built a strip mall there.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Now Playing: FEB. 16-17, 1933

They lived in interesting times 80 years ago. Hitler had just taken power in Germany and there was that whole Great Depression thing, and there was this:


Note: In 1933 if someone says "I hate government" it means he's an anarchist, not a Republican. And for the record, FDR was still the President-elect at this point and would not take office, under the old constitutional schedule, until March.

It was a tempestuous time in Hollywood, too --at least for some people.

Check out my review of The Story of Temple Drake and see if you can guess which part Raft had been assigned but had refused. And while Paramount figures out how to cast that controversial picture, let's see what's opening in Milwaukee this weekend.

During our journey through 1962 we learned that Tennessee Williams was then the most bankable writer in America. His counterpart in 1933 is Noel Coward. Two adaptations of his work are opening this weekend. At the Palace:

The better known of the two opens at the Strand.

Cavalcade went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1933, and probably remains the most obscure of Oscar winning features. I know I haven't seen it; has anyone?

More people today have probably seen this one, playing at the Warner:

It is awesome stuff, the purest blend of first-generation classic horror and the Warner Bros. house style thanks to studio stalwarts Farrell and McHugh. Highly recommended.

If Wax Museum is a definitive Pre-Code horror film, here's a definitive Pre-Code performer in her latest picture.

Not a bad week's moviegoing, overall.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Christopher Walken won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor of 1978 for his role in The Deer Hunter. As if often the case when a fresh face wins such an award, an attempt was made to make him a true movie star, if not a leading man. Having made his name as a Vietnam vet in Deer Hunter, he was ideally positioned to take part in the new fad for films about mercenaries following the international success of The Wild Geese. Walken was made the Americanized hero of John Irvin's adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's bestselling novel. The screenplay by Gary DeVore and George Malko strives to turn Forsyth's merc procedural into a late Seventies picture, emphasizing the working-class alienation of Walken's character, Jamie Shannon. Master cinematographer Jack Cardiff maximizes the visual contrasts between the exotic locations where Shannon plies his lethal trade and the drab domestic locations where Shannon lives or looks up a lost love between missions. Irvin aims for some sort of pathos in depicting Shannon's loneliness and his befriending of a black street kid, but there's no real payoff to it. When Shannon, having failed to reconcile with his wife, makes the kid his insurance beneficiary before taking on a new mission, you expect a grim fate that might at least give the kid a future, but our hero makes it through the picture alive.


The plot deals with a conspiracy to overthrow the dictatorship of the fictional African nation of Zangaro. The country once had a troika of independence leaders, but one was imprisoned, one fled into exile, and the last man standing, General Kimba, is a despot with a cult of personality. British business interests want to replace him with Col. Bobi, the exile, who'll sign over mineral rights to them. They want Shannon to scout out the country and judge the prospects for an overthrow. His reconnaissance is slightly sloppy and he ends up beaten and imprisoned. In stir, he befriends the imprisoned leader Dr. Okoye. Released, he decides to make that last try with his wife and start a new life. When that fails, he takes on the task of organizing a small force to topple Kimba and clear the way for Bobi to take power.


The climactic storming of Kimba's garrison should impress viewers more recently captivated by the raid on Osama bin Laden's home in Zero Dark Thirty. Irvin and Cardiff paint the scene in explosive chiaroscuro and the action has that visceral CGI-free vitality that's so refreshing in older films. They frame everything so effectively that you might believe there's more to the picture than there actually is. Actually, the problem isn't so much what's lacking but the extraneous expectations created by what the writers put into the story. The emphasis they give to Shannon's personal character arc seems to point to an inevitable death. Yet Shannon lives to fight another day, though an unexpected action he takes at the end should throw his future as a mercenary into question. This ending apparently follows the novel, but the novel does bring Shannon's career to an end while the movie leaves him locked in life's longest, lousiest commute, less a soldier than a simple working stiff with a license to kill and a target on his back.

What to make of Walken? It's shocking to remember how smooth or almost baby-faced he was back then, the eternally dead eyes notwithstanding. He conveys Shannon's alienation effortlessly, but whether his is the alienation of the perpetual (or periodic) soldier or whether his alienation itself seeks such a trade remains an open question. We never really know the character well enough to recognize his alienation as much more than a cliche of the period. Walken's scenes with JoBeth Williams as his wife seem more perfunctory in retrospect, once you lose the feeling that that was his absolutely final chance with her. For all you know, had there been a sequel he might have tried yet again with her. Instead of a tragic or heroic finish the hero seems stuck in some cycle, and a point might have been made more definitely about his perpetual hopelessness if the film didn't seem to just stop at a point.

Dogs of War is less dated than it could have been. Wisely, the filmmakers did away with much of the novel's Cold War trappings. The events could have happened yesterday, one suspects, instead of more than thirty years ago, and Irvin's happy reliance -- admittedly, he had no alternative -- on reality adds to the action's enduring immediacy. In our age of limitless CGI fantasy it can be thrilling simply to see a real plane taking off amid real explosions on the landing strip. If that's how you feel then regardless of any dramatic flaws The Dogs of War is a film for you.