Monday, April 29, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: HOLD YOUR MAN (1933)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer may not have made the grittiest Pre-Code pictures, but theirs are some of the earthiest. In Clark Gable and Jean Harlow they had two of the most unapologetically sexy performers of the period. There's a carnality to them that sometimes makes the Warner Bros. crew of gangsters and gold diggers look merely cartoonish by comparison. After Victor Fleming's Red Dust Metro knew they had a combination that clicked. Sam Wood reunited them, with Harlow billed on top, for Hold Your Man, a grifters' love story. Gable's a clean-shaven con man fleeing the cops; he seeks refuge in Harlow's apartment, walking in on her bath as he searches the place. She screams but adapts quickly, like sympathizing with like. When the cops arrive and she answers the door Gable has settled into her tub and lathered his face so they won't recognize him. He only had time to take his shirt off and his pants are soaked. She has men's pants to spare and a photo of Stuart Erwin on her bureau. For those unfamiliar with Erwin, just read "schlub" or "loser." Harlow's out to drain him of everything she can get; we see her with him on a dinner date dumping her handbag in the ladies' room and whining that she must have lost it on the street -- with her rent money inside. Erwin hands the same amount over just as a washroom attendant returns the handbag. Erwin's a forgiving soul and a good guy at heart -- too good for her, Harlow will eventually decide. He's simply no competition for Gable. Harlow and Gable are soon working a con together, she enticing men to the apartment, he bursting in, in the role of her brother, to shake the mark down. Except that Gable starts jumping the gun and getting too rough with the marks. He can't stand to see them laying hands or lips on Harlow for even a moment. After punching the last mark through a doorway, he storms out with Harlow to get a marriage license. They leave the man laying and he stays laying.

In fact, Gable has killed the man, the mark having bashed his brains against a corner wall. By the time our lovebirds come back home there's a crowd outside and cops crawling through it. Once they figure out what's up they flee and are separated. Harlow is caught, tried and sentenced to a reformatory without ratting out Gable. There are all kinds of interesting people at a reformatory. It's a politically and ethnically diverse environment. There's a house socialist expounding on the class struggle to anyone who'll listen; Harlow makes the mistake of asking what the difference is between socialism and communism and comes to regret it. Theresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck's maid and sidekick in Baby Face) plays Lilly Mae, a preachers' daughter gone bad whose race is no barrier to mingling freely with the white cons. There's also Gypsy, Gable's ex-girlfriend and Harlow's enemy. They've tangled before and they tangle now. Gypsy's a slapper and Harlow's a puncher; that's how you tell the real women of Pre-Code Hollywood. Harlow may be able to wipe the floor with all of them, but somehow she isn't happy. She misses her man at the worst possible time; as the picture takes its time saying outright, but makes clear early enough, she's carrying Gable's child. Erwin shows up for a visit, learns of the trouble, and offers to do the stand-up thing, but Harlow drives him away, only to break down and cry. Gypsy finally gets to gloat when her time is up first. She threatens to take Gable back and when she learns of Harlow's plight she gives her the horselaugh. But something happens offscreen to get a happy ending started. Somehow Gypsy returns as a visitor to facilitate a meeting between Gable, still a fugitive, and Harlow. It so happens that Lilly Mae's father is coming to visit that same day, and it also so happens that Gable still has that marriage license. It's all very tearjerking at the close, if not also transgressive in true Pre-Code style for the lovers to be united in the sacred bonds of wedlock by a black man. Too weepy in the end, perhaps, with Gable and Harlow promising to reform, but I guess that's the price you pay for the good stuff in the first hour. It's a fun film overall, a star vehicle carried along by the lead couple's charisma and some nice touches from the director. It has more honest erotic energy than most contemporary films and certainly helped cinch Gable's claim to the Hollywood He-Man throne. He wouldn't be second-billed for much longer, and he had Harlow, among others, to thank for that.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

THE CYCLIST (Bicycleran, 1987)

Introducing the great Nasim! The name means a breeze but he comes on like a storm! He's the man who stopped a train in India by staring at it! Who picked up two bulls in Pakistan with one finger! Actually, as Mohsem Makhmalbaf explains, he's a poor Afghan refugee in Iran desperate to raise money for his sick wife's hospital treatment. In his position there aren't many options. Makhmalbaf claims that the man's stunt -- seven days riding a bicycle non-stop in a public square hastily transformed into a mini-circus -- is based on a real event he saw as a youth. He also openly acknowledges his debt to the American movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, showing a dubbed clip from the picture on a local TV set. There may also be a less obvious debt to Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, given that Nasim's earlier attempt to raise money is a kind of suicide bluff. He's seen an old beggar put himself under the wheels of an idle truck, expecting to be noticed before it starts. The bum takes a bit of a beating but also gets some money for his trouble. Nasim just gets the beating. A more promising inspiration is the motorcycle stuntman who entertains crowds daily riding the walls of his dugout velodrome. In one of the movie's most impressive shots we see a spectator holding out paper money as the motorcyle man races around the walls, parallel to the ground, trying at every lap to snatch the money. He manages it but wipes out soon afterward. Nasim does nothing so dangerous, but his is a taxing endurance test, and one confused observer asks at his venue whether this is the place where someone's going to kill himself.

There's something half-neorealist, half-Capraesque about Bicycleran as Nasim's stunt becomes an international controversy calling attention to the plight of jobless Afghan refugees in Iran. Different forces exert pressure to stop the stunt or draw crowds away -- employment agencies raise the daily wage offered to Afghan laborers from day to day -- while shadier characters wager on whether Nasim will finish and try to influence the result with firecrackers, nails under his tires, drugs, etc. In fact, he doesn't quite finish -- he collapses one night while the official observer is dozing off and an hooded ally takes his place for a while -- and finally doesn't quite know when to finish. In a bleak finish, the race seems to have obliterated Nasim's personality, while his original motive for the stunt has been rendered moot.

Bicycleran is most Capraesque in its melodramatic episodes when villains try to sabotage the stunt and in its elevation of Nasim into an Afghan-Iranian cinderella man, and is perhaps more evocatively than actually neorealist, insofar as neorealism as a cinematic movement had much to do with poor people and bicycles. But in a land where dance contests are probably illegal, Makhmalbaf has succeeded, for what it's worth, in translating the mock-epic despair of They Shoot Horses into an Iranian idiom. He also succeeded in making an often visually striking picture on an obviously limited budget. All the laps around tracks succeed as spectacle and symbol, and while this isn't exactly one of the great Iranian character studies, Makhmalbaf again proves that Iran's filmmakers, however disrespected by the clerico-political elite, are the country's best ambassadors, simply by portraying it, warts and all, as a modern nation of human beings.

Friday, April 26, 2013

DVR Diary: AS LONG AS YOU'VE GOT YOUR HEALTH (Tant qu'on a la sante, 1961-71)

Pierre Etaix's third feature hardly counts as one. It's a collection of short subjects, though for a comedian working in the classic slapstick tradition there's nothing wrong with that. Despite the prestige of feature films, it might be argued that the short subject remains the perfect form for slapstick. Chaplin and Keaton's features may be better films than their shorts, but are they funnier? Whatever your answer, suffice it to say that, especially given how little market there was for shorts by the Sixties, Etaix was within his artistic rights to throw together an anthology. This one is actually twice-thrown, Etaix having rearranged things between the initial release in 1966 and a 1971 re-release. Added for that version was Etaix's first short, the shelved 1961 effort Insomnia. He should have kept it on the shelf. It can barely be called a one-joke movie. Basically, Pierre (in color) keeps himself awake reading a vampire novel, visualizing the story in classic black and white. The vampire bits are at least competent pastiche, and Etaix has the interesting idea that a vampire, when destroyed, turns back into a bat before decomposing into dust. But there was nothing funny about the vampire scenes, not even when Etaix feebly attempts to joke them up. The most he can do is have Pierre's clumsiness alter our perspective on the story. Having put the book down, he picks it up and starts reading it upside down. So we see the story upside down until Pierre realizes his error. At another point, the camera starts trembling because Pierre's reading has frightened him. That's about it, apart from a closing gag that should not come as a surprise.

The second episode will remind you of those Warner Bros. cartoons that are just collections of sight gags about people at the movies, without really improving on them. It gets better when we learn that French movie audiences were subjected to commercials between acts on the program. Somehow Pierre finds himself trapped on screen in an apartment with a family out of the commercials, all of them fanatically talking up their wonderful new consumer products, from invisible glasses to a vaguely menacing all-purpose spray. The nightmarish aspect of Pierre's predicament gives this bit a satiric edge, and you can empathize with him when, as he finally escapes, he tosses a hand grenade into the apartment. The third episode give the anthology its name; its subject is the relentlessness of modern urban life, paradoxically illustrated by traffic jams but more dramatically demonstrated by apparently unmotivated tides of people overwhelming everything in their path. Etaix seems to have been inspired by the rampaging army of brides in Keaton's Seven Chances, but manages to give his swarm scenes a distinctive flair -- Invasion of the Body Snatchers may have been another influence.

The film in its current form concludes with the episode most thoroughly and successfully in the classical slapstick tradition. Pierre is a bumbling hunter whose blunders put a pair of bourgeois picnickers on an unintended collision course with a slow-burning groundskeeper. You can see murder simmering in the man's beady eyes as he blames the picnickers for every mishap actually caused by Pierre. Etaix gets maximum laughs out of such mundane things as fence posts and a man's shoe stuck in the mud or adrift in a stream. While this episode is the most retro in spirit it also takes advantage of modern film techniques to give old jokes a fresh look. One of the film's best shots is one of the bourgeois husband hopping on one foot and chasing his floating shoe, shot from the stream with the show bobbing in the foreground. Inevitably, Tant qu'on a la sante is a mixed bag. You'll want to throw some bits away, but the best are good enough to make the whole more worth seeing than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Now Playing: APRIL 25, 1933

Gabriel Over the White House seemed to prove that there was an audience for a movie about a President who acted like a dictator. Would they come out for a movie about a real dictator?

Mussolini Speaks is a relic of a time when fascism, before Hitler had made any real impression, still had a good name in many circles for making the trains run on time and so forth. Notice how Columbia can't lay off the movie ballyhoo even for a documentary -- they can't even call it that. It's a "DRAMA" and Il Duce is not only powerful but "romantic" and "mysterious." Nothing about the love life of fascist women, however. I don't see how they missed that angle.

Speaking of romantic and mysterious...

Secrets was Mary Pickford's swan song, a very troubled production that hides its identity as a pioneer epic in the advertising. Notice that they're promoting it by association with director Frank Borzage's last picture, not Pickford's. The co-founder of United Artists would live for another 46 years without making another picture.

I'm at a loss for all the remaining pictures this week, so let's just have a look at them all.


Finally, Mussolini gets replaced by more typical Pre-Code fare:

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: LILLY TURNER (1933)

You've read it here before, but it bears repeating: William Wellman was on fire in the Pre-Code era. He has as much claim as any director on the role of cinematic bard of the Great Depression. His recognized peaks of achievement in this mode are the 1933 films Heroes For Sale, tracing the ups and more-frequent downs of a World War I veteran, and Wild Boys of the Road, chronicling the travels of vagabond teenagers. Wellman's Lilly Turner isn't in the same league as those films, but it's a lively mix of grim comedy and lurid melodrama bordering on outright horror. It was a follow-up teaming of Wellman and actress Ruth Chatterton after the hit period piece Frisco Jenny. In the title role, Chatterton plays a starstruck young woman who marries a magician, expecting him to be big time star, only to find herself assistant to a small-time carny character in more ways than one. He gets her pregnant only to leave her on the fly when he's exposed as a bigamist. Lilly's only pal, the alcoholic barker Dave Dixon (Frank McHugh), steps up and marries her to make her baby legitimate, but the child dies in the hospital. Lilly's relieved; as far as she's concerned, the kid wouldn't have stood a chance in her world.

After an unhappy stint in another carnival, aborted when Lilly and Dave quit before he can be fired for his boozing -- he needs the stuff, he claims, for chronic laryngitis -- the platonic couple end up working for Doc McGill (Guy Kibbee), who rents out storefronts for "free" lectures where he sells his quack medical tracts. While Dave brings in the crowds, Lilly appears as "the perfect example of womanhood," a product of Doc's health regimen. Her male counterpart is Fritz (Robert Barrat), a Teutonic strongman prone to headaches. Both he and Doc try to hit on Lilly -- Doc tells her she "brings out the beast in me" -- with Dave hardly the wiser. Disaster strikes the show when Fritz suffers a breakdown and has to be taken to an asylum. When a cab driver slings a drugged Fritz across his shoulders to send him to the nervous hospital, everyone realizes that they have a replacement for their strongman. Bob Chandler (George Brent, aka Mr. Ruth Chatterton) actually has a degree in civil engineering and dreams of building railroads, but during hard times people aren't even using the roads that already exist. You might not think that playing strongman in a storefront medicine show would make more money than driving a cab, but Bob's new job has the added benefit of proximity to Lilly. That makes up for any shortfall, but after a while proximity isn't enough. As Bob continues to apply for engineering jobs, he pressures Lilly to dump Dave and grows jealous when he and Lilly encounter one of her old carny boyfriends. Meanwhile, Fritz breaks out of the loony bin and, still obsessed with Lilly, tracks down the medicine show. It's up to Bob and/or Dave to stand up when their woman is in peril....

With McHugh and Kibbee on hand this is a prime showcase for the WB stock company, but Chatterton quietly dominates the picture with an understated world-weariness, plus one drunk scene. She passes the good actor's test of playing a bad actor as Lilly lifelessly recites Doc McGill's patter and fails to conceal her gum-chewing indifference to the various roles he assigns her, but still commands our attention. If any character actor could claim to steal the picture, it'd be Robert Barrat as Fritz. Wellman put Barrat through his paces in 1933, casting him as a hypocritical comedy-relief Communist inventor in Heroes For Sale and a benevolent judge in Wild Boys of the Road. For Lily Turner Barrat goes berserk and Wellman milks it for all its worth. He stands out in two horrific scenes. He escapes from his cell by disassembling his bed and using a piece as a crowbar to pry apart the bars of his window, advancing toward Wellman's camera as his face contorts with the strain. When he catches up with the medicine show he flings Bob, Dave and Lilly about like rag dolls. When Dave finally jumps on his back, hopelessly trying to force him down, Fritz pries the little man loose, holding him with one hand while raising his fist for a finishing blow. Wellman holds the moment to maximize the horror as Dave begs for mercy before Fritz punches him through a window. It makes you think Barrat really missed his calling. He could have competed with Karloff for heavy roles.

Lilly Turner is an actors' picture, but Wellman gives it much-needed atmosphere, including plenty of his signature rainfall. The film is always convincingly tawdry and seedy even if it never plunges to the sociological depths of the director's other Depression epics. It may border on camp for some observers, but Warner Bros. nearly always manages to give its Pre-Code melodramas sufficient grit to keep them interesting eighty years later, while the studio's unbeatable stock company keeps them entertaining. This isn't exactly prime Wellman, but it'll do in a pinch. Here's the usual trailer from

Monday, April 22, 2013

DVR Diary: YOYO (1965)

While most of Pierre Etaix's films had to wait until 2010 to escape from litigation entanglements, his second feature got a sneak showing at the 2007 Cannes film festival. The lawyers promptly pounced, but you can't help wondering, now that we all can see Yoyo, whether it had been let loose long enough to influence the making of The Artist. The two film's aren't too similar -- Yoyo is only silent for its first act, set in the silent era, and its main subject is the steady rise of a clown rather than the fall and rise of a romantic leading man. But seeing any neo-silent black and white film from France will probably remind you of The Artist, favorably or not. Both films are movie-history pieces, but Yoyo is more expansive, attempting a comic history of pop culture over 40 years, from 1925 to the film's present day. And as the title shows, it isn't entirely uninterested in rise and fall dynamics, but the rise and fall of a yo-yo isn't quite as melodramatic as the hero's ordeal in The Artist, and neither is Etaix's film.

Etaix takes on a double role -- not counting other little bits like a brief turn as Hitler -- as a father and son. The father is an immensely wealthy twit of the sort that Buster Keaton sometimes played, though the mustachioed, top-hatted Etaix is presumably more evocative of France's own Max Linder. Etaix the director has great fun filming at the character's massive chateau, and you sometimes expect the film to turn into a comedy version of Last Year at Marienbad. He has an eye for epic pettiness as the wealthy man takes his little dog for a walk. He rides in a limousine as it circles the courtyard, the poor animal trotting behind on a leash. He wallows indifferently in decadence as a dozen women dance the Charleston for him and wait on him hand and foot. But he's a romantic at heart. I can already identify an archetypal Etaix image of the hero seated at a writing table, mooning over a picture of his beloved. We get that here as we did when Etaix was infatuated with the singer in The Suitor, and in his short subject Rupture, which is all about the hero's disastrous attempts to write a love letter. We also get another Etaix signature in the early part of the picture: the cartoonish sound effects of squeaky shoes and squeaky doors also heard in Suitor. This gimmickry is doubly annoying because, first, it's just annoying, but also because he seems invariably to just give it up after a while. You begin to suspect that Etaix has a hard time holding a thought over an entire feature, but Yoyo proves more structurally sound than that.

The girl in the picture is an equestrienne, the star of a circus summoned to the chateau for a command performance for an audience of one. While our hero watches the show, a child clown wanders through the building. The equestrienne eventually tells our hero that this is his son, named Yoyo after the man's favorite toy. With the Depression descending over France -- we see Etaix stepping carefully down a street as stockbrokers prepare to jump from the windows above -- our hero decides to run away and join the circus. The little family becomes its own one-truck circus touring Europe. It's a pretty competitive environment -- they have to skip one town because Zampano and Gelsomina from La Strada have already been booked there -- to perform at 8 1/2 o'clock! But little Yoyo thrives in these circumstances and rises to become a star clown in a big-time circus as an adult, after a stint as a prisoner of war. Indeed, he has become Pierre Etaix, and the film becomes his story from here.

The film's yo-yo structure asserts itself as the young clown becomes freshly interested in his birthright, the chateau. He funnels all his earnings into rehabbing the place, which his father had left to decay. His rise threatens to be thwarted by the rise of television, but this is just one of Etaix's tricks playing on false expectations on first impressions. He shows a pompous figure on a tiny TV screen bloviating on how TV will transform entertainment forever. We then see a shabby Yoyo reduced to playing his violin in the street, hoping to entertain a diner into giving him money. Forget about it; that guy's a musician himself and too strict a judge of music to reward our humbled hero. But then a director calls cut and it turns out that Yoyo is filming a TV special, another triumph. At last he's ready to show off the restored chateau to high society, but at that moment he's visited by his on-off girlfriend, an acrobat, and by his parents in their old circus wagon. Etaix has given us some dazzling images in this picture, but he refuses to give us a double-exposure; the father is represented by the camera shaking its head no when Yoyo invites him to return to his old home. Indeed, at the very moment when Yoyo is poised to become his father, socially speaking, he hears the call of the circus once more....

Cinematographer Jean Boffety joins co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere on the Etaix team with this picture and helps make Yoyo a ravishingly monochrome movie. If the film has any major weakness it's that the bookend chateau scenes are so spectacular that the middle section becomes relatively forgettable. It seems more clear as we go along that Etaix lacks the satiric clarity of his mentor Jacques Tati, but makes a worthy rival in pictorial imagination. Yoyo is a charmingly good-natured film that might not be ranked among the great comedies but is certainly worth seeing just for the visual experience. Here Etaix starts to live up to the retroactive hype.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

DVR Diary: HOUSE OF WOMEN (1962)

They should have called it House of Women and Children. Nothing quite kills the buzz of a women-in-prison picture like a bunch of toddling brats, but the maternal bond is a big deal in this latter-day social-problem picture from Warner Bros., credited to Walter Doniger but mostly shot by writer Crane Wilbur. It worried me at first to see stock footage from (I believe) the pre-Code prison picture Ladies They Talk About over the opening credits, but Doniger and Wilbur were able to assemble a respectable number of she-cons for a B picture, just not as many as were available to a studio director thirty years earlier. The story here is that Erica (Shirley Knight) is doing five years as an accomplice to robbery -- we later learn that she was essentially innocent -- but arrived in the clink without the authorities knowing she was pregnant with her dead husband's baby. When the compassionate, alcoholic prison doctor (Jason Evers) discovers this, Erica expresses her hope that she'll lose the baby. Little does she known that a women's prison is practically a government-run nursery. She'll get to keep her little girl until the child turns three, and she'll be up for parole shortly after that birthday. If she plays her cards right, she should be able to keep her baby once she becomes a free woman. One factor complicates things: the male warden (an unusually mustachioed Andrew Duggan) is a misogynist who dislikes the idea of babies in prison, yet falls for Erica when she works as a maid at his home as a trustee. The warden's bitter because, back when he ran a men's prison, his wife ran off with a parolee. Not trusting Erica to be faithful, or even to think of him, once she's free, he works to deny her parole, not long after her daughter has been taken away while Erica was planning a big birthday party for her with all the convict mommies and their kiddies. Add to that somebody else's unsupervised brat taking a dive off a roof and we're gonna have ourselves a riot....

The women are all quite demure if not chic in their prison dresses, their semi-sensible shoes and their thoroughly styled and sprayed Sixties hair -- except for the token pants-wearing "butch" whose idea of harassing a straight con is defacing her photo of Troy Donahue. Action takes second place to melodrama here, which is probably for the best given the big action scenes we get. The most memorable of these is the riot that breaks up that aborted birthday party. While Erica faints to retain her innocence, her convict pals turn on the guards, throwing chairs, presents and the birthday cake at them. Whoever directed this scene breaks it down to a bunch of sight gags, whether they intended them to be funny or not, intercut with shots of crying or inert children. For this kind of picture an earnest speech is part of the camp value and we get one on the disadvantages of the parole system from one of Erica's friends (Barbara Nichols), an ex-stripper who refuses parole because it hardly qualifies as freedom when she can't associate with her friends and "can't die without asking permission." Overall there's too much playing for pathos and too many damn kids laying around for House of Women to rise to guilty pleasure level. This has to be one of the last WIP pictures before changing production standards allowed more honest sleaze, and it proves that the change was probably overdue when it came.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

DVR Diary: THE SUITOR (Le Soupirant, 1962)

For film buffs, Pierre Etaix has the glamour of a buried treasure. A protege of Jacques Tati, Etaix made four comedy features in the 1960s and won an Academy Award for one of his short subjects. He then gave up movies, with brief exceptions up to the present day, and the few films he'd made were tied up in legal tangles until 2010. Last year his canon was re-premiered in New York, and the Criterion Collection releases them on DVD and Blu-Ray next week. Turner Classic Movies got the jump on Criterion and gave the Etaix films their American television premieres on Tuesday, April 16. Along with the glamour of buried treasure there was the promise of a lost slapstick master in the classic tradition, so naturally I DVR'ed those suckers and took my first look this weekend.

Le Soupirant is a very traditional slapstick picture compared to Tati's anti-modernist satires. Etaix is the title character, a sheltered, unworldly young man with an interest in science whose parents urge him to go out and find himself a woman. He dutifully prepares himself, practicing his romantic moves with various pieces of furniture and plants while ignoring the comely but humble foreign lass who lives with the family as an au pair. But he's a classic bumbler and blunderer, and while his mishaps and mistakes are often well-staged, there's really little that seems innovative or special about them. If Etaix has any artistic signature, based on this first feature and the two early shorts I've seen, it's an occasional reliance on loud, annoying sound effects to underscore Pierre's awkwardness. He isn't consistent about this, for which you'll be grateful after a few minutes of it.

The film doesn't hit its stride until Pierre picks up more than he can handle in an aggressive, alcoholic female whom he has to take home in a state of collapse. In pure physical comedy terms Etaix can't improve on the ways Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton handled similar situations in The Strong Man and Spite Marriage, respectively, but he gets some mileage out of Pierre's repeated embarrassment at encountering people while trying to transport the unconscious woman to her apartment. Later, on an outing in the country, he spends most of his time trying to hide from her. Back at her place, however, he falls in love with Stella, a TV singer, instantly abandoning his undressing host. Now the movie strikes a modern note as Pierre becomes an obsessed fan, buying up every poster or postcard and every copy of a newspaper with her face on it, and bringing home stand-up displays from the theaters where she performs. His determination to meet Stella inspires him to infiltrate the backstage of some variety show she's headlining. None of his business in this sequence is really as memorable as the somewhat distasteful payoff of the Stella storyline. Skip the next paragraph to avoid a spoiler

*   *   *
Pierre finally makes it to Stella's dressing room and has one more attendant to get through before entering the presence. This final obstacle proves cooperative, but as soon as this full-grown young man addresses Stella as "Mom," she loses all allure for our hero. Strangely, she gets up to greet him but Etaix doesn't give us a good look at her face, which we've seen in close-up when Pierre saw her on TV. It's as if Etaix wanted either to show her age but couldn't give the actress a proper make-up job, or to show that Pierre doesn't want to look at her now that he knows her age. It's an odd climax that doesn't necessarily reflect well on the auteur or his character.
*   *   *

Soupirant is pleasant but really no more than that, but it's Etaix's first try at a feature film. I'm hoping the other three will live up to the hype. A circus clown before and after his film work, Etaix here shows obvious potential as a physical film comic, both as a performer and a director. The restored cinematography, including extensive Paris location work, looks nice, while the music by Jean Paillaud is Sixties lush, somewhere between Chaplin and Riz Ortolani. So far Etaix is not quite a hidden master but I'm still willing to give the other films a try as long as I'm not paying for the DVDs. Stay tuned for more this week.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


A man has strange adventures while riding through the city in a stretch limousine. Sound familiar? The French director Leos Carax claims no inspiration from Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis, but Carax's Holy Motors succeeds where David Cronenberg's adaptation of Cosmopolis failed in creating a cinematically alien world in which the literary language of an artistic novel might seem natural rather than stiff or affected. Since Holy Motors is mostly in French, I can't tell if Carax's dialogue is stiff the way Cronenberg's was, and to be fair literary dialogue isn't one of Carax's priorities. Some of Holy Motors' episodes are silent, and one is an outright homage to silent comedy. But Carax uses sight and sound (including music prominently) to create mood and atmosphere in a way Cronenberg, admittedly handicapped by very dry source material, couldn't manage. The two films will be linked  for a long time -- they finished one and two, Carax over Cronenberg, in Cahiers du Cinema's Best of 2012 survey -- but they're arguably fundamental opposites. Cosmopolis is introverted; the world comes to Robert Pattinson's limo while he ventures out only occasionally. Holy Motors is extroverted; Oscar (Denis Lavant) isn't on a joyride in search of a haircut but on a schedule, his driver Celine (Edith Scob) ferrying him to several "appointments" over the course of a trying day. Cosmopolis is a mordant commentary on the way we live now that probably couldn't help looking simplistically pretentious (the poor man just wants to feel something!) on film. Holy Motors quickly reveals itself as a wild fantasy that somehow still rings true in uncanny ways. In the simplest terms, Cosmopolis is a mostly failed effort (Cahiers notwithstanding) to turn a work of literary into film, while Holy Motors is a pure work of cinematic art.

Holy Motors provides limo services with amenities.
Below, Denis Lavant takes advantage of the bar
while Edith Scob keeps her eyes on the road.

More importantly, Cosmopolis is a statement while Holy Motors is a dream. It's the latest reassertion of the "dream logic" that defines much of European cinema, whether "art" or "genre." Some observers may amuse themselves wondering whose dream the film is. For a while during the film, you might take it for something bigger, more fantastical than a mere dream. I could see people speculating that Oscar is some sort of angel, as are the other people driven through Paris in the white limos based at the Holy Motors garage revealed at the end of the picture. His appointments aren't the usual meetings or chores. Oscar himself is a makeup artist, working up his transformations in the limo, turning himself into a begging bag lady, a dying old man, a dad with a teenage daughter, and a barefoot wildman character Levant has played for Carax before. Oscar could well be Andy Serkis, reporting to a film studio to shoot a motion-capture fight scene, followed by a sinuous dance with a tall, limber actress (see the poster), simulating the coupling of CGI monsters.

As the wild man Oscar is Chaplinesque and Chaneyesque at once, invading a fashion photoshoot in a cemetery (scored to Akira Ikufube's Godzilla theme!) and dragging Eva Mendes to the sewer, where he eats her money and her wig and transforms her haute couture costume into a burka before arranging her and himself into a pieta pose.

But there are strong hints of a more troubled inner life, especially a mournful encounter with a similarly-"employed" woman (Kylie Minogue) who sings "Who Were We?" (perhaps the best movie song of the year) and whose "appointment" includes jumping off a building. Oscar smokes and drinks more insistently as the day winds down, while Celine gently urges him to eat. And some things happen to him that just can't happen. As a gangster, Oscar assassinates a man, then makes the victim up to look like himself, albeit in his current mustachioed guise. Then the victim stabs Oscar in the neck and escapes as our hero bleeds out. But it's still Oscar, presumably, who attempts another assassination (a banker this time) only to get shot to hell ("Aim for the crotch!" he urges) before Celine retrieves him with apologies to bystanders for the mistake. And he's fine, apart from the coughing, smoking and drinking, by the time for the next appointment. It makes sense if he's some kind of supernatural creature, or if all these incidents are just the dreams of one night.

Once Celine delivers Oscar to his own home for his last appointment of the night you may be satisfied that it was all dreams. But Carax isn't interested in any conceptual closure. In the last few minutes he hits us with more surprises, some of which may infuriate viewers and all of which warn us that the dream isn't over, and may never end. The only one I'll spoil, since it's an almost predictable sop to movie buffs, is the moment when Edith Scob symbolically resumes her established place in movie history -- which itself might have been a signal (the character yielding to the actress) that the dream is over, except for what comes after. By the time it's over you may decide that Carax doesn't know when to quit -- the film certainly does end with a WTF moment -- but Holy Motors is the sort of film that shouldn't know when to quit. Restraint is no more a priority than coherence. The movie isn't a puzzle to solve; there needn't be an answer to what we're seeing to justify the spectacle. Holy Motors thrives on suggestion, on evocation rather than assertion. If it's narrative or nothing for you, this may be worse than nothing. But cinema is almost always spectacle, and often the image is the subconscious of the word. Carax's movie is almost exclusively subconscious, but it's also one of the funnier, more poignant and most inventive pictures I've seen from 2012, and one of that year's best films. It was Carax's first feature film in 13 years -- a fact that makes you wish he could get more busy like Terrence Malick or Manoel de Oliveira. Carax is only 52 but he's got a lot of catching up to do.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Now Playing: APRIL 16, 1933

The eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1933 hits Milwaukee this week.


Frank Lloyd's Cavalcade is one of the few Best Pictures I haven't seen -- I've seen all the films that won before it. It's adapted from a retrospective play by Noel Coward, who's usually identified with less solemn stuff. It was a legitimate hit in 1933 -- Wikipedia says it was No. 2 at the box office for the year -- and it certainly sounds like the sort of picture we've come to identify as Oscar-bait. Cavalcade has a dubious reputation as one of the worst Oscar winners but until it turns up on Fox Movie Channel or TCM it's impossible for me to confirm those dire reports.

Here are a couple I have seen.

William Wellman made six features (and part of a seventh) in 1933, and Central Airport is not the best of them. Nor is it Richard Barthelmess's finest hour of the year. Director and star would click more effectively in Heroes For Sale, while this is a thin tale of a disgraced pilot seeking redemption and competing with his brother for the love of a woman. I remember most about it a bunch of interchangeable shots of model airports, only with the city names changed. Here's a trailer, anyway, from

And here's a picture with some local appeal for Milwaukee moviegoers.

Lewis Milestone's experimental musical actually was one of "Milwaukee's Own" Harry Langdon's more high-profile roles from his later career, by which time the onetime rival of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd was doing short subjects for Educational Pictures. The big gimmick was "rhythmic dialogue," the characters speaking a kind of poetic patter between the Rodgers & Hart songs. Langdon has his standard look but plays outside his type as "Egghead," a left-wing would-be intellectual who pressures Jolson to share the wealth. The experiment was deemed a failure at the time but retains interest today.

Returning to the realm of mystery, we encountered ZaSu Pitts and Slim Summerville as a comedy team at the start of the year, and the pairing must have been working, for here they are again.

Of course, with these split bills of vaudeville and movies you never can tell what the main attraction really was.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

On the Big Screen: NO (2012)

The Chilean director Pablo Larrain has made a loose trilogy of films dealing with his country's years under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Without having seen the middle film, 2010's Post Mortem, I'd suggest tentatively that the role of the media in Chile is an important subject of the series. The first film, Tony Manero, dealt with a man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and getting on television. The latest, No, is a handheld epic about the 1988 referendum that marked the end of the Pinochet era, filmed in a deliberately ratty style as if it were a compilation of home movies (or video) of the time. The style seems appropriate for a film concerned with the power of television. Despite the particular place and time of the story, No has a strong thematic (if not ideological) resemblance to another 2012 release, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The films have in common a mildly Machiavellian attitude toward politics that has offended some idealistic observers. As American audiences know, Lincoln focused on the shady means justified by the morally indisputable end of abolishing slavery in the U.S. Spielberg and Tony Kushner's moral could be summed up as: we don't have to convince you that we're right; we just need your votes. No arguably boils down to the same argument. Its protagonist is Raul Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a onetime exile -- his father was politically active -- working in the advertising business as the story opens. He produces TV commercials and is approached by the Chilean opposition to consult their upcoming ad campaign. In response to international pressure, the Pinochet government has called a plebiscite to determine whether the general will stay in power. Many in the opposition are skeptical, assuming that the government will rig the results, but many also want to take advantage of the opportunity created by the allotment of 15 minutes of air time each night during the run-up to the vote. Since few expect to win (or be allowed to win) the vote, they want to use their nightly spots as a consciousness-raising exercise. They carry understandable grudges against the regime for its persecution of the left and dissidents in general. They think that calling people's attention to Pinochet's crimes is the most important thing. But Raul has a more radical idea: why not play to win?

The plebiscite is a simple yes-or-no vote, and Raul's idea is to make "No" an attractive product. His innovation is to bring the same techniques to political advertising he applies to commercial advertising. As a result, the No programs look much like the colorful, upbeat and utterly banal montage Raul put together as a soda commercial (the brand name is "Free") at the start of the picture. While the full-time politicians want to speak truth to power or lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive revolution, Raul insists on sticking with the core idea: No = Happiness. "Happiness is Coming" is the No slogan, illustrated with peppy music videos and skits, interlarded with the occasional pointed reminders of Pinochet's tyranny. Like something out of classic Hollywood, the No campaign catches on and the opposition now has a real chance to win. The regime goes on the defensive as Raul's boss from the ad agency turns the Si campaign from the original all-hail-great-leader extravaganza to response-attack ads against the No campaign. Meanwhile, the regime can't restrain itself from thuggery and starts an intimidation campaign against Raul, breaking into his house, defacing his car and threatening his son -- the mother, Raul's estranged wife, is an activist who's already taken some knocks herself. There's a nice irony to the story as Raul feels some pain of his own during the campaign after disparaging his clients' desire to vent their pain and rage in the No spots. And there's a healthy ambivalent note at the end when he finds himself unable to share fully in the opposition's joy when, against the odds, No wins the plebiscite. For Raul, it seems, the biggest consequence of his political intervention is how good it'll look on his résumé.

While Larrain and writer Pedro Peirano, adapting a play, clearly worked independently of Spielberg and Kushner, No and Lincoln are both concerned with the arts of persuasion in a democracy. The American film was clearly pushing against an allegedly idealist mentality that too often found itself out of options if it couldn't change the minds of opponents. The Chilean film, to me, seems less convinced of the correctness of its protagonist's approach than Lincoln is. The Spielberg film is a more triumphant vindication of cunning tactics while No is a constant struggle between the opposition's idealism and commitment to truth and Raul's seemingly-cynical approach; some downbeat material makes it into the programs over Raul's objections. There's a slight thematic echo of Tony Manero in Raul's determination to turn a historic moment into an ad campaign, to remake the world in the image of his cola commercial, even if in a good cause. And there's too much attention to Raul's lingering alienation -- like an overgrown child, he commutes by skateboard in tracking shots that belie the primitivist art direction -- for us to see the plebiscite as an unambiguous triumph of his tactics. Of course, like Lincoln, No has been criticized by idealists who prefer to see politics as the triumph of Ideas, or of The People, rather than a game of manipulating people, and the Chileans will be better judges of the facts that I can be. Neither film is as simplistic as critics portray them, and No is the more subtle, less cheerleading if not otherwise superior film of the two. It's the more interesting film visually because of the efforts by Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong to recreate 1988 in all its jittery color and the nearly-invisible art direction that makes the illusion work. Bernal isn't a barnstormer like Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, but he makes Raul as compellingly complex a character as Day-Lewis's Lincoln -- only Bernal starts from scratch. No and Lincoln really would make a great international double-feature. Each may be a historical film, but their real historical value may be as documents of the dilemmas of liberalism in 2012.

Here's the original No campaign music video as uploaded to YouTube by kntayal.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Twilight Saga: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 (2012)

My old friend Wendigo gave up on the vampire movie reviewing project some time ago, as longtime readers must have noticed, but it's his copy of the final film of the Twilight series that I watched last night. His enthusiasms have changed -- he's more a superhero guy right now -- but he's also a completist, so he had to have this last disc. I decided I might as well see it through as well. As a reminder, I agree with Wendigo's basic position that, whatever you think of the books as literature or the films as films, there's nothing wrong with the basic Twilight concept of benign vampires falling in love with mortal teenagers. Folklore is always evolving and pop culture's embrace of the noble vampire is just part of that evolution -- not necessarily progress, but change. But having said that, I found that Breaking Dawn Part 2, Bill Condon's conclusion of the series felt even less like a vampire film than all the others. As Wendigo may appreciate, it seemed more like a superhero movie, spending much of its time introducing new characters, some of whom have superpowers to show off. The bad thing about it all is that Part 2 is in such a hurry that it never really lets any of these new characters justify the buildup they get along the way. You get the sense that we got the buildup scenes because the object was to film every part of the book (or what was left of it after Part 1) that could be rendered with special effects on film. Little else seemed to matter.

Bella Cullen and Friends

In its determination to let nearly every available character take another bow, and in its cringeworthy banter, Part 2 seems like its own fanfiction. The writing is on that level ("You nicknamed my baby after the Loch Ness Monster !?!") It's more purely fantastical in its emphasis on gathering vampires from around the world -- it's still introducing new characters almost to the very end -- and its resolution of the Cullen clan's feud with the Volturii than any previous film. Whatever was attractive in the series's balancing act between Bella's world and Edward's is gone once Bella's marriage to Edward is truly consummated by her becoming a vampire. Could Part 2's power fantasy of Bella as more powerful than everyone else -- she can cast force fields and is really, really strong -- really have come from the same writer, or appealed to the same audience? In effect, the Cullens are stand-ins for the real world, for us, in their wishfully passive resistance to the mean old Volturii. These antagonists let the books and movies eat their cake and have it too, giving us the sort of prancing, pompous personalities most people identify with classic movie vampires. You can tell they're the bad guys because they parade about in capes and robes, while the good vampires are more casual or look more cool. Never mind whether vampires belong in Bella's mortal world; the Volturii don't belong in the same world as Bella's vampires and werewolves. They may be the single silliest element in the whole series, and that becomes a problem when we're expected to take them seriously as a threat to everyone we presumably care for. Whenever Michael Sheen as the head Volturii opens his mouth, you wonder whether to laugh or pity the man.

Despite that, even at its worst Part 2 is a better wrap-up to an overextended movie series than the final Harry Potter films. Despite everything, Condon manages to nurse some genuine tension out of the long confrontation in the snow between the Volturii and the Cullens et al. And when the negotiations appear to collapse, the fighting is at least more interesting to watch than people waving wands at one another. Part 2 also deserves credit for the single funniest scene (intentional category) of the entire series, the moment when guileless Jacob Black tries to introduce Bella's dad to her new reality by changing into a wolf before his eyes -- though not before stripping down in a manner that was probably more alarming to the old man than the eventual transformation. Taylor Lautner is one of cinema's good sports, exposing himself to the contempt of all the cool moviegoers yet making the most here out of a character for whom supernatural wonders are too often cause for embarrassment. As for his equally-despised co-star, Robert Pattinson is definitely more natural, comfortable, loose and likable here than he was in Cosmopolis. If anything, alas, Kristen Stewart has devolved during the series, but at least she conveys convincingly that something about Bella is dead. Conventional standards of acting never really mattered to these films, of course; the actors' overall lack of affect probably made them easier for their audiences to identify with. In the end, I can't be too hard on these movies because, as I've understood all along, they're not meant for me. They've never been very good movies, but they're not the crimes against culture that some seem to think they are. Leave them alone, I say, and in a few years it'll all be forgotten -- at least until a nostalgia wave hits sometime in the 2030s. I don't need to have vampire superpowers to see that coming.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Now Playing: APRIL 10, 1933

What better way to counterprogram against Gabriel Over the White House, a film about a fantasy President, than a film about the real President, who's been in office for just over a month?

There's something creepy and -- dare I say? -- almost un-American about such a cinematic hagiography, especially with that "Greet your Great Leader" bit. Is this America or North Korea? Nothing against FDR, but this just looks wrong.

Fortunately, there's more wholesome entertainment in Milwaukee this week. The Warner has a snazzy double bill combining Warren William in one of his most charismatically slimy roles and Joan Blondell as a Warner Bros. gangster.

The Mind Reader in particular inspired newspaper art departments across the country. The image of Warren William in a turban was impossible to resist.

Look here for my review of Mind Reader. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Blondie Johnson, but here's a trailer for the picture from

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: PRESTIGE (1932)

The title is probably wishful thinking. The advertising suggests something more prestigious, at least in the Hollywood sense of the word, than what director Tay Garnett gives us in this RKO production. His actual subject is the prestige of the white race, necessary to the maintenance of colonial rule over everyone else. The specific setting is French Indochina, where Captain Andre Verlaine (Melvyn Douglas) is assigned to take over a penal camp. He's not too eager to leave Paris for such an assignment, but at least his wife Therese (Harding) will be long eventually to join him. Until then, Andre's the only white man in his lone outpost, Indochina more or less standing in (as recreated in Sarasota County, Florida) for the entire nonwhite world. Most of the natives are Asian, understandably, but Andre's housekeeper Nham, however Asiatically garbed, is none other than Clarence Mute -- I mean Muse -- while the more attractive women have a South Sea Island look about them. Muse, the best black movie actor of the era, definitely seems out of place, but the film does its best to minimize that impression by keeping him silent, apart from one song. The role reduces Muse, who's usually able to invest his characters with some sort of intelligence or individuality, to relatively abject servility, but the actor strives mightily to convey the almost intimate concern Nham shows toward Andre, who quickly sinks into alcoholism, and later toward Therese.

Therese is escorted to the camp by Andre's friend Captain Remy (Adolphe Menjou), whose immaculate white uniform contrasts starkly with Andre's dishevelment. The men had been rivals for Therese's hand and there's a jealousy in the air when the three are together that Nham picks up on without really knowing the whites' language. The jealousy is mostly on Andre's part, in keeping with his overall disintegration. Therese writes home to her father, a powerful official, to get Andre transferred back to France, but Andre's own request in that line has been shot down. In frustration and shame he decides to send her away, and when Remy takes her to the boat to leave Nham gets the wrong idea, assuming (so I assume) that Remy is stealing his master's wife. He kills Remy, returns Therese to the camp, and surrenders for punishment. For killing a white man the penalty must be death, but in front of Andre's native troops Therese pleads for mercy, explaining what she sees as Nham's honest mistake in defense of her honor. But by speaking up and standing up to Andre Therese has cost him the last of his "face," his prestige, and now his long-disgruntled subordinate (Testsu Komai) rips up his uniform, releases the prisoners, and starts an uprising. Only Nham remains loyal, and Muse proves himself a mighty man, defending Therese by striking down numerous natives, armed only with his shackles, before a spear gets him. At last (but too late for Nham) Andre rises to the occasion, as we learn that the way to deal with murderous, mutinous natives, at least in Indochina, is to bitch-slap them into submission. Why weren't our boys shown this film when their turn came to pacify the place? It might have saved a lot of lives....

A full-page spread from the Sarasota Herald promotes the locally-filmed Prestige.

In its uncritical endorsement of the colonial rule of Europeans over others Prestige is now irredeemably politically incorrect. The idea that natives are kept in line by sheer awe of our wonderful whiteness is even more obnoxious. None of these details should keep a move fan from checking out a film that is dazzlingly directed. I didn't think Garnett had it in him, but the location shoot and the construction of the penal camp set inspired him and cinematographer Lucien Andriot to go to town with lengthy tracking shots and elaborate camera movements. It begins before we get to Indochina as the film opens floating through the streets of Paris with camera and model work to rival the better known scenes in Archie Mayo's SvangaliPrestige is a triumph of art direction capped by the penal camp, a desolate place dominated by a massive human-powered water wheel and a guillotine. Harding takes it all in in one shot that comes close to a 360 degree camera movement. Editor Joseph Kane gets into the act with some furious montage moments, the most intense coming as Andre orders the beheading of a prisoner. Garnett and Kane cut furiously through a rogue's gallery of angry, agitated and horrified faces, all of them crying and chanting in protest while Andre seems to waver. The climax is shamefully thrilling, notwithstanding the bigoted absurdity of a suddenly dried-out Andre being able to stand down a combined mutiny and prison break with nothing but a riding crop. The editing and cinematography make it indisputably dynamic. Garnett would soon be collaborating with Dr. Arnold Fanck and his protege Leni Riefenstahl on a U.S.-German co-production, S.O.S. Iceberg. Maybe he and she compared notes.

The ironic thing, given the contemporary ballyhoo, is how little the virtues of Prestige have to do with Ann Harding. You'll definitely remember Melvyn Douglas's dissolution and Clarence Muse's pantomime struggle with his most implausible role, or even the rather thankless turn by a genially doomed Menjou. But Harding, for all I know, could be any actress in a fairly generic helpmate part. If I was selling Prestige today, she'd be nearly the last thing I'd show off. While what we see now as its political incorrectness probably wasn't offensive to most of its contemporary audiences, that retroactive transgression gives the film much of its Pre-Code flavor today.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (Les cauchemars naissent la nuit, 1970)

In a flashback, the late Jess Franco's troubled heroine Anna (Diana Lorys) recounts her time working in a "second-rate" strip club in Zagreb. It's unclear whether she means merely a second-rate strip club or a second-rate club for Zagreb -- then still a Communist city -- but by any standard it's a pretty poor affair and a minimal set. The interesting thing about the flashback is Anna's recollection of her boss's advice to strippers. Stretch your act out as long as you can, he told her; if you make it last, it excites the customer more. For the boss that means the customers will buy more drinks. But presuming that you can't buy booze in European movie theaters, what's Franco's excuse?

Superficially, it sounds like a rationalization for Franco's use of the strip act as filler as he struggles to get his feature to acceptable length. But there may be a statement of artistic principle or purpose here as well, not to mention a bit of autobiographical confession. As Lorys went through her motions, watched by and watching Cynthia, the film's femme fatale (Colette Jacobine), I had an vision of Jess Franco sitting in a strip club, watching just such a protracted performance, and fantasizing about the stripper. Not just about screwing her or watching her screw another man or woman, but about an entire imagined life of appropriately exotic adventures. Dancers figure so prominently in his films that something like this has to have been going on. There's a masturbatory circularity to it all if fantasizing about strippers led him to write and direct fantasies interrupted by long, sometimes seemingly pointless strip club scenes. They may have been practical to him as time fillers and necessary titillation for the audience, but pointless? Perhaps not.

Of all the strip clubs in all the Communist world, Anna has to choose this one so she can fall under Cynthia's sway. Seduced, betrayed and hypnotized, she's meant to be the fall girl after Cynthia bumps off her co-conspirators in a jewel robbery. In this film the plot is more of an annoyance than the filller. For Franco fans the real interest is the generational transition from Lorys, the heroine of The Awful Dr. Orloff, to Soledad Miranda, who has a small role as the impatient moll of one of the jewel robbers. The film's real subject, if it really can be said to have one, is Franco's fascination with the female form, draped and undraped. He can make Lorys wrapping herself into a sari one of the movie's true highlights. There's a fine line separating the tedious from the hypnotic, and at any given moment Franco can be found on either side. This picture is already a long way down from Orloff, but Franco's career was a roller coaster ride with ups as well as more downs to come. He kept on working as often as he could, hoping to make the experience last as long as possible. I can't call myself a real fan, but for those who followed him all the way, making it last seems to have worked the spell Franco wanted. It has sparked a fantasy not easily shaken off. Some may say it's the fantasy that Franco was a great filmmaker, but it really could be anything. If you can't just walk away from his movies you may never fully leave them behind.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Now Playing: APRIL 5, 1933

Gabriel Over the White House moves to the Garden, Milwaukee's leading exploitation house, for a second week while the serial version of the story continues in the Sentinel. The advertising rises to the occasion.

They sure knew how to sell a movie in those days.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Why does he do it? Not even Tod Browning himself seemed to comprehend why he put Lon Chaney Sr. through such contortions in his movies, or why Chaney did so himself for other directors. A famous anecdote has Browning offering Herman J. Mankiewicz a screenwriting credit if only he can invent a reason why Chaney should in once scene be a soulful street violinist, and in the next be revealed as an obscene vivisectionist performing transplant experiments on women and gorillas. The conversation supposedly inspired Mankiewicz to send his famous telegram to Ben Hecht inviting the latter to make millions writing movies since "your only competition is idiots." If so, that seems slightly unfair to Browning, who probably was more lunatic than idiot and was, in any event, sincerely if naively committed to depicting the unfathomable or, as another of his Chaney films puts it, the unknown. Chaney, known for his makeup skills, had some ability as a contortionist, or at least a pantomime approximation of one. Browning exploited this to the hilt yet struggled to account for it in the quasi-rational terms required by the plot mechanics of melodrama. Compared to the madness of The Unknown, in which Chaney binds his arms to his sides to perform as an armless knife thrower, then has his arms cut off because his beloved despises a man's touch, The Blackbird is almost sane. In this tale of London Chaney is the title character, a Limehouse gangster grown besotted with a French music-hall puppeteer (Renee Adoree). Dan "the Blackbird" discovers a rival in crime and romance in  West End Bertie (Owen Moore), a slick con man who lures swells to Limehouse as a tour guide to lowlife and pleads innocence to conspiracy when the swells are robbed because he's robbed too -- only he gets his stuff and everyone else's back afterward. This triangle occupies most of the film and allows Chaney to be "normal" most of the time. Dan is a genial, charismatic crook so Chaney gets to smile a lot. The Browning factor comes in when Dan wants to lay low. Limehouse believes that the Blackbird has a brother, "the Bishop." Everyone knows this gentle soul, cruelly crippled yet charitable toward all. Mostly paralyzed on one side, the Bishop hobbles around with the aid of a crutch and is often heard arguing with his criminal brother, struggling to get Dan back on the straight and narrow. But Browning isn't out to insult anyone's intelligence. He knows why the audience is here, so he confirms within a few minutes what most expect already: the Blackbird and the Bishop are one and the same. Dan has a trick where he can dislocate his right arm and contort his right leg to assume the Bishop's gnarled posture, thus hiding in plain sight and even helping the law look (in vain) for the wayward Blackbird. But wasn't there an easier way? Doesn't that hurt? Why does he do it?

The real question, no more easy for Browning or Chaney to answer, may be "why do we imagine it?" Maybe show people can't help themselves. Maybe Browning was onto something when his subconscious told him that the mask of benevolence too often was just that. Maybe he saw deformity and grotesquerie slightly differently from his peers. The typical view was that ugliness indicated bad character, that you could tell a criminal by his hard or brutish features. Yet the Bishop is more grotesque than the Blackbird, but is intended by the latter as a false embodiment of good. For Browning, I suspect, Chaney's contortions reflect the ongoing contortions of his character's soul -- not degeneracy but the constant struggle of contradictory impulses. For Chaney himself, they seemed like a necessary ordeal to elicit the right interpretation of each role. Browning would raise these questions of bodies and souls most alarmingly in Freaks, but the tone is necessarily different when your star only pretends -- physically, at least -- to be a freak

As in The Unknown, Chaney's imposture eventually becomes reality. Dan has pulled off a quick change and is hobbling out to receive investigators when one of the latter pushes his way into the Bishop's room, whacking the poor unfortunate with the door. The impact knocks Dan on his back, and that impact, given his weird posture, fractures his back. "Now I'm a real cripple!" he moans in agony to his last confidant, his former flame Limehouse Polly. At this point, O. Henry or Al Feldstein would pause, their point having been made. Browning goes further. To a point, The Blackbird has been a parody of Chaney's own attempts to milk his contortions for pathos, to make his antiheroes misunderstood misfits. The Bishop would be an object of pathos if he saintliness wasn't just the Blackbird's cynical disguise. Yet I'll be damned if they don't play for pathos at the very end after all, as Dan lies literally broken. It's nothing so hokey as Dan acquiring his alter ego's holiness, but as Polly tries to quiet his agony our hardened criminal becomes something like a pathetic child. He knows that if the coppers see the Bishop howling in pain they'll know that he ain't been crippled before. She comes up with the obvious solution: go to sleep. Easier said than done given his pain, but she exerts a kind of hypnotic power on him, calming him as he murmurs proudly about fooling the law one more time. He never wakes up. It could almost pass for a martyrdom, if only because that was Chaney's specialty. He got to play plain old tough guys sometimes, but as we remember him today the ordeal was his performance art, his method. Browning's probably weren't the only fantasies inspired by his cinematic suffering; a generation of pulp fiction, for starters, tells the tale. It's the dark side of the pathos silent cinema audiences craved so much, and sometimes more horrible than the movie horrors that followed. Chaney's films often remain disturbing because retain that incomprehensible element -- not just why he does such strange things, but why they were even imagined, much less embraced by the public. He and Browning are emissaries from a past that is our own yet may as well be an alien world in some respects. That's a little scary in its own right.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


No movie director has as much control over what people see as prose writers have. The writer's universe is made of words; the reader only sees what's written. Adapt the writing into film, into images, and inevitably the viewer sees more than the original writer or the adapter intends. That's when people start asking questions. The writer's control is a slippery thing. Each reader can imagine Eric Packer, the protagonist of Don DeLillo's novel, looking a particular way, since DeLillo isn't too particular about describing him, but how you visualize Packer doesn't compel you to question what DeLillo tells you about him. Put Packer on film, however, and have Robert Pattinson play him, and some folks will begin to wonder. How is this guy so rich and powerful? What do the other characters in the story see in him? Watch him move through the envisioned rather than the written world, even in as controlled an environment as David Cronenberg crafts for him, and you question all kinds of things readers might not have questioned in the novel. Above all, you question the words themselves.

Cosmopolis should have been a perfect novel to make into a movie. The main idea -- Packer takes a long ride through Manhattan in his armored limo, constantly detoured due to riots, funerals, outbreaks of street art, and constantly stopping to pick up consultants, cronies, wife and girlfriends, just to get a haircut at a favorite old barber shop -- sounds like something that might have been thought up during the golden age of Hollywood. If someone at the studio had thought it up, it might have been a screwball masterpiece. Cosmopolis is comic at times, but not Hollywood funny by any means -- not the way you'd expect with its picaresque, day-from-hell plot. Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is more often unintentionally funny -- though you can't go wrong with a running gag about an asymmetrical prostate -- but the problem with it isn't that Cronenberg wasn't trying for belly laughs. The problem is that the writer-director is too faithful to his source.

"A specter is haunting the world!"

The Cosmopolis movie reminds me more than anything else of Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, the adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels. Both films fairly slavishly attempt to reproduce the cadences of dialogue composed for media other than cinema. It was a bad idea in Sin City because dialogue designed to occupy one panel of many on a page doesn't translate smoothly to the flow of frames on a screen. With Cosmopolis the problem for Cronenberg is that Don DeLillo doesn't write in the realist or pop-realist tradition. His characters often talk in aphoristic statements that read more like the author's exercises in style than imitations of conversation. He can get away with that because a prose writer is master of his universe the way few film directors can be. Read Cosmopolis and you go in understanding that you're reading for style and ideas, and you judge accordingly. Watch Cosmopolis and you see people talking to each other, and that creates an expectation of realism, or the movie equivalent, that Cronenberg doesn't do enough to fulfill or dispel. Some might complain that the movie is overly stylized, but to do justice to DeLillo, to make him not look like a writer who simply can't write normal dialogue, it probably had to be more stylized than it actually is. It was up to Cronenberg to create a cinematic universe for which DeLillo's dialogue would seem like the natural language, or to make his screenplay more naturalistic, adapting rather than simply illustrating DeLillo.

Visually, Cronenberg often succeeds in conveying Packer's privileged alienation and staging the crowd scenes surging around the limo. It's too bad that he couldn't stage one of the novel's most memorable episodes, a Spencer Tunick style mass nude photo shoot, but the limo gliding slowly through an anti-poverty riot, Packer and another passenger nattering away on some abstract subject without acknowledging the mayhem banging on the car windows, is one of the film's best scenes, striking the right note of deadpan absurdity. Too often, however, the dialogue sits like lead weights in the actors' mouths. Cronenberg did poor Pattinson no favors casting him as Packer. Few will find him credible as a captain of finance, and many will blame bad acting for the artificial feel of his dialogue. But when not just Pattinson but Paul Giamatti also, playing a disgruntled employee out to kill Packer, sound like they're simply reciting it's unfair to blame any actor for the screenplay's limitations. DeLillo's dialogue lives on the page because that's its environment; putting it in people's mouths requires a different kind of life that Cronenberg can't create. His Cosmopolis is an act of admirable ambition -- he had already adapted a graphic novel to most people's satisfaction -- and there shouldn't be as much shame in its failure as some reviewers wanted to inflict. At age 70, Cronenberg should still have enough of a career left to make use of the hard lessons learned here.