Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Luise Rainer (1910-2014)

Rainer was the first person to win Academy Awards for acting in two consecutive years. She did this nearly 80 years ago. One of many highly-touted imports from Europe in the 1930s, she repaid Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's investment with prestige if not popularity, earning Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth (in yellowface, albeit in black & white) in 1937. The second Oscar was the peak of her career. By 1940 she was through. It was a case, she claimed, of artistic incompatibility with Hollywood. She continued to work sporadically into the 1990s. Eventually her tremendous longevity underscored her trivial level of fame. At age 100 she basked in acclaim at a TCM film festival, but was her work or her mere endurance applauded? She was a star briefly, but never a legend, for what that's worth. But she was the earliest surviving winner of an acting Oscar at the time of her death. That honor now goes to 98 year old Olivia de Havilland (for 1946's To Each His Own and 1949's The Heiress) who is now just about the last survivor of Rainer's peers from 1930s Hollywood. Rainer's death at the end of a year that saw the passing of that decade's greatest child stars virtually relegates a generation of classic film to a more distant plataeu of history.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

IDA (2013)

Ida premiered last year in Poland but will most likely be a front-runner for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It hit the art houses highly touted and has the Holocaust factor in its favor, but Pawel Pawlikowski's picture is more about 20th century Poland as a whole than it is specifically about the slaughter of Polish Jews. Deracination in a broader sense is the film's major subject as it addresses not just genocide but the incursions on Polish national consciousness by Communism and western culture. The title character (her name's pronounced "Ee-da," not "Eye-da") is Poland in microcosm. She's a novie nun in the 1960s who's advised to meet her one surviving relative before taking her vows. She meets a disreputable seeming character -- the lady and a gentleman caller are dressing after sex when Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) arrives. After a brusque introduction, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) rushes to work, and it's a surprise to learn that she's a judge. She has a bigger surprise for Ida: the devout Catholic girl is really Jewish, rescued in infancy from her parents' fate and raised in the majority faith. This revelation sets up a road movie as Ida and Wanda roll through the countryside to find where their relatives are buried, For Wanda the trip revives a remembered traumatic past and accelerates her personal decline. For Ida it puts her whole sense of self in question, but making Wanda a model for modern secular womanhood proves unsatisfactory in some vague way.

Wanda confronts Ida with her Jewishness but that isn't Wanda's primary identity, either. Her judgeship represents a career on the skids; a decade earlier she was a state prosecutor, presumably conducting political purge trials, and she's still willing to use her office as a threat to uncooperative people. Ida, however, presumably sees Wanda as not so much Jewish or Communist as modern and secular. The climactic scenes come when Ida resolves literally to walk in Wanda's shoes and consummate an attraction to a progressive jazz musician. Ida's unburdened by Wanda's issues (guilt, alcoholism, etc.), but like Wanda, if less dramatically, she seems to opt out of modern life.

Ida chronicles a futile quest for authenticity. A reactionary reading of it might see her reversion to habit -- clothing, that is -- as a decision in favor of the Church as her true home, but the ambiguity of her Catholic identity is the starting point of the entire picture. If you accept that there's something essentially false about her faith -- so long as she didn't have a choice to embrace first her Jewish heritage and then Christianity -- you face the bleak conclusion that there is no "authentic" Polish identity anymore, or anymore than any nation could claim to have by the mid-20th century. In that context it makes more sense to see more ambiguity in the ending. Dressed in her habit again after her tryst, Ida walks briskly foward as the camera retreats. You might assume you know where she's going because of what she's wearing, but I think it's important that we don't see her destination, that the film leaves her still moving.

Pawlikowski, who has worked primarily in English, evokes the film's period with a rigorous monochrome style many viewers find reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. He works with a pre-widescreen squarish frame in which Ida is often a small figure at the bottom or in a corner. He also employs a kind of retro-modernism in the jazzier scenes amid midcentury decor. In short, the director makes it as obvious as possible that his is an arthouse film, but he and his cinematographers make their pretentiousness often quite impressive. He gets the desired guilelessness from his amateur lead actress, while Agata Kulesza easily dominates the picture whenever Wanda's on screen. Ida is the sort of picture that will be more admired than enjoyed, but in its ambition and execution it does deserve some admiration.

Monday, December 22, 2014


The greatest superhero in movies today is Rama, the martial-arts policeman played by Iko Uwais in the Raid movies directed by Gareth Evans. His fight scenes, which Uwais choreographs along with co-star Yayan Ruhian, have the sort of relentless action comic book fans have always wanted in Batman movies but haven't yet seen. Rama doesn't have any more super powers than Batman does, but Evans, Uwais and Ruhian give their hero as much ferocity, resilience and stamina -- creative editing helps, too -- as American crimefighters have in comic books, but not on film. The Raid movies -- a third is most likely in the works -- are comic book movies, regardless of their gritty urban trappings. They take place in an Indonesia -- as I wrote about the original film, this may reflect reality in the country -- where guns are apparently reserved for the criminal elite, and the foot soldiers must rely on their feet, or their hands, or blades, or whatever's at hand. Raid 2 is even more a comic book movie than its predecessor because it has more blatantly gimmicky fighters. At one point Rama has to fight a brother-sister assassination team. The sister fights Oldboy-style, with hammers, smashing with the heads, slashing with the claws. Just for the hell of it, she's a deaf-mute. Her brother has a baseball fetish, fighting at close quarters with an aluminum bat or making deadly missiles out of batted balls.

We know they'll be formidable adversaries because we've seen them cut swaths through hosts of gunless bodyguards in pursuit of their gangster quarry. In fact, they give Rama trouble for a few minutes, but they only set the stage for our hero's mano-a-mano showdown with a nameless assassin who had taken him down with abrupt ease earlier in the picture. For action filmmakers Evans and his colleagues are great at dramatic pacing, since this one-on-one fight is the true highlight of a picture that has already given us several epic-scale mass melees, including a riot in a muddy prison yard that must have been an ultimate challenge to fight choreographers. Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman are not dwarfed by the earlier spectacle; their fight is intimately epic in a Homeric way. Rama's victory may be inevitable, but Uwais earns it while allowing Rahman to shine; the bad guy gives as good as he gets down to the final seconds of the battle. The plot of the story remains to be resolved, but this fight can't help make the denouement look anticlimactic.

There's no raid in Raid 2. Instead Evans has opened his narrative up to encompass the archetypes of global crime cinema. Born out of ideas he had before making The Raid, Berandal quickly dispatches the surviving supporting cast from the first film and gives Rama a new mission. To root out corrupt cops in Jakarta, our hero must get himself sent to prison -- by beating up a politician's son -- to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of the local crimelord. In deep cover for two years, Rama becomes Uco's protector and is rewarded with a place in the organization of Uco's father, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). He sees Uco grow impatient with his position as his dad's "bill collector" and with dad's apparent kowtowing to Japanese gangsters. As Rama watches, waiting for evidence identifying cops on the take, Uco provokes a gang war and puts himself on a parricidal path. Arifin Putra's performance as Uco holds the film together, making it something more than a highlight reel of fight scenes. There's something almost poignant about Uco's frustration, his bitter recognition of the contempt with which even bar girls regard him, and his need to prove himself to his father that can only be fulfilled by killing him.

Neither Putra nor Evans entirely holds the film together. At almost 2.5 hours, Raid 2 is about a half-hour too long. To be more precise, it's too long by the time it takes to introduce a character played by Yayan Ruhian (giving him two roles in as many pictures) and eliminate him. Ruhian's storyline comes across as a gratuitous addition designed only to give him some screen time. Apart from that indulgence, the pace of the action doesn't flag and the main story is compelling enough to keep us interested between the fight scenes. Berandal carries some of the artistic risks of the quest for novelty -- the sibling killers may seem silly to some observers --  but the rewards justify those risks and compensate for any awkward moments. Aided by Uwais and Ruhian, over the course of three films (I haven't seen the earlier Merantau) Gareth Evans has become just about the best action movie director on Earth.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Given its Anglo-Filipino pedigree, a certain generic feel to Metro Manila is probably inevitable. British director and co-writer Sean Ellis certainly gives the picture plenty of local Philippine color as his family of protagonists travels from the terraced rice paddies of the hill country to the squalor and tumult of the capital city. But the story that happens in Manila could happen in a lot of places.

Metro Manila initially seems too bad to be true. Oscar (Jake Macapagal) takes his family to the big city to earn money after their buyer back home cuts his price on rice. The Ramirez family come across like the sort of guileless yokels you'd see arriving in the big city in movies from 100 years ago. On their first day Oscar blows their wad paying the first month's rent to some guy who doesn't even own the building. Oscar has a knack for finding work that doesn't pay. One day's work ends with him getting a sandwich for his trouble and getting left behind to find his way home on foot. To help make ends meet and raise money so their eldest daughter can see a dentist, Oscar's wife Mai (Althea Vega) has to go to work as a bar girl. That means letting patrons grope her, or worse, so long as they keep buying drinks. It looks like things can only get worse.

The country and the city

Then Oscar gets a lucky break. He applies for work as a security guard and one of the guards, Ong (John Arcilla) recognizes Oscar as an Army veteran by a tattoo. The military experience surprised me since I'd think it would have left Oscar a more worldly-wise person, but in any event it helps him land a more steady job. Better still, Ong helps Oscar find a decent apartment, since the security company normally won't hire people from the shantytown where the Ramirezes were squatting. Finding a place for Oscar is easy, since it's a place Ong uses for trysts with his mistress. Now things look too good to be true, and of course they are.

Jake Macapagal (left) flinches as John Arcilla fires;
below, Althea Vega is Girl No. 40 (center)

Ong has to want something, doesn't he? In flashbacks, we've learned that he lost a partner during an attempted robbery. The security company transports money in strongboxes that can only be opened with specific keys; otherwise an ink spray will destroy the money inside. It turns out that Ong has kept the strongbox from that incident while reporting it stolen. The key is kept in a special locker in an area of headquarters where drivers like Ong and Oscar don't have access -- unless they're being debriefed after a robbery. Ong's plan is to stage a robbery so that he as the senior partner will have to be debriefed. He expects Oscar to sneak in and steal the needed key from the locker. Oscar understandably balks at the idea until Ong reminds him of everything he's done for him and informs him that the strongbox is in Oscar's new apartment, which Ong rented in Oscar's name in the first place just so he could frame Oscar if the rookie doesn't cooperate.

The best thing about Metro Manila is an element of randomness that emerges when Ong's master plan falls apart almost instantly, leaving Oscar holding the box without any likely access to the locker, since now he has to do the debriefing after the debacle. The worst thing about Metro Mania arguably is how Oscar, otherwise shown as a consistent sap, suddenly proves a tactical mastermind by managing to secure the key and save his family from shame and worse -- by this point Mai is being warned that she can only keep her bar job if she recruits her 9 year old daughter for the amusement of "special" customers. While Oscar pays a high price, his ability to outmaneuver and outwit everyone finally is a little too good to be true. Ellis eats his cake and has it, too, striking a bleak note -- the key to Oscar's success is that he doesn't base his ultimate plan on the "dream" of surviving -- while giving the family an implausible if bittersweet win. Still, in choosing Manila for his setting Ellis makes an admirable stab at social realism, grounding his story at a level of poverty we hardly see in American film, that arguably hardly exists in America. The actors come across well, at least as far as I can tell from listening to their Tagalog dialogue, with Arcilla as Ong clearly the best in class. While Metro Manila is essentially a cliche in exotic dress, its relatively unflinching look at poverty and corruption and its overall craftsmanship still make it worth a look from us.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

National Film Registry Class of 2014

The Library of Congress aims for diversity when selecting 25 films each December for addition to its National Film Registry of artistically or historically significant movies for permanent preservation. How on earth, then, does this year's list include two Carmen Miranda movies? The lady in the tutti-frutti hat is featured in Down Argentine Way (1940), her Hollywood debut, and The Gang's All Here (1943), a landmark of Busby Berkeley's technicolor garishness that counts as surrealism or camp depending on the audience. This arguable sin of commission aside, the list is the typical mix of art and artifact, the latter category covering everything from actuality footage of the burial of Holocaust victims to the surviving footage of an aborted 1913 feature starring legendary black comedian Bert Williams. I'm actually surprised that Orson Welles's Too Much Johnson didn't make it in its first year of eligibility, so to speak. While one would think that older films should have a priority on preservation the Registry includes relatively recent Hollywood fare partly to avoid charges of elitism and partly to acknowledge how quickly cinema becomes folklore. Best illustrating the latter trend are new inductees Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Big Lebowski (1998), while Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) show how Hollywood transmutes literature into folklore, in each case making itself rather than the source novel the definitive version of the story for most people. Lebowski is almost the most recent Hollywood film on the list, having preceded Saving Private Ryan into theaters by a few months, but it's probably the best of the Hollywood inductees, while I'd flip a coin to choose between Pvt. Ryan and Rio Bravo (1959) as the runner-up. If any Registry inductee may be deemed overrated, I'd say it's William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933), which doesn't live up, once you see it, to its reputation as a rough draft for Citizen Kane. Speaking for myself, I've never been a fan of Bueller but I suppose the Registry is right to acknowledge its significance for one generation of moviegoers. In any event, here's the complete list so you can make your own judgments. Meanwhile, the Registry maintains a chronological list of films presumably worthy of consideration for future inductions.  I notice that for 1914 the key introductory films for Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille are still unregistred. Going only 75 years back to 1938, you'd think Angels With Dirty Faces would be in the registry by now. From 50 years ago, in 1964, a strong case can be made for Fail-Safe; it really ought to have gone in the same year Dr. Strangelove did. It's all too easy to play the "Why isn't this old classic in the Registry while some recent thing is?" game if you don't acknowledge that the Registry is as much a history of changing movie audiences as it is a history of cinema itself. It's fun to gripe, though, so feel free to do so at this time every year.

For now, this is your American film heritage: "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hate" from The Gang's All Here, as uploaded to YouTube by Gregory May.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE HOMESMAN (2014)

On the evidence of Tommy Lee Jones's film adaptation, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, Glendon Swarthout's novel The Homesman is structurally very much a distaff version of Swarthout's breakthrough novel They Came to Cordura. In Cordura a man (Gary Cooper in Robert Rossen's underrated 1959 film version) must escort three Medal of Honor candidates from a Mexican war zone back to the United States. In Homesman a woman (Hilary Swank) conducts three madwomen out of the frontier danger zone and back east across the river to civilization. In both stories, the theoretical border separating good from bad proves porous. In Cordura the Cooper character is an officer disgraced for cowardice who proves himself the better man than the three heroes who, as they near home, reveal themselves as vicious, depraved characters. In Homesman the Swank character's sanity is increasingly brought into question, though her charges remain quite as mad as initially indicated. Swarthout, whose best-known novel remains The Shootist, hints that vices become virtues, or sanity madness, depending on the environment. Once we cross certain borders, both geographic and symbolic, our values may be inverted. The scary part is that both the borders and the values are arbitrary to some extent. The thought may have scared Swarthout more as time passed. The Cordura movie ends on a redemptive note, but Jones's film of The Homesman certainly doesn't.

I haven't seen Jones's first directorial effort but The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a well-regarded modern western. Working in period this time, he reveals himself a classic stylist with a good eye for the widescreen image and an admirable narrative clarity. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto no doubt helped him a lot but the vision is certainly the director's. He also proves himself a decent actor's director, getting strong performances from an ensemble of more and less familiar names, though Meryl Streep really contributes little more than prestige in a late cameo that really doesn't require much. Jones may get top-billing but everything sets Homesman up as Hilary Swank's picture. If some stars are meteors, Swank is a comet, passing by periodically to pick up an Oscar. She probably deserves at least a nomination this time as Swarthout's heroine, a frontier woman with skills fitted to the frontier -- building up rather than killing -- who as a spinster still feels unfulfilled. Ever since she was heralded as The Next Karate Kid Swank has somehow threatened the balance of genders, and as Mary Bee Cuddy she's the one proposing marriage to men, only to be spurned for her plainness and bossiness. We see that she is bossy, and we can believe that some people on the frontier need bossing. She could be the strange girl from True Grit grown up and lonely -- while Hailee Steinfeld herself has only grown up into a barefoot hotel maid. She could be the lady to Jones's own Rooster Cogburn, but the film's main relationship ends up a cruel, cold mockery of romance. Swarthout may have intended something different for all I know -- the movie makes me want to read the novel and a more thorough survey of Swarthout (he also wrote Where the Boys Are!) may be in order -- but Jones has made not a revisionist western but an anti-western, a film that seems to regard the frontier with nothing but horror as a place that breaks everyone in some way.

Jones's own performance arguably stacks the deck. His great fault as a director may be a certain self-indulgence toward himself. This isn't vanity, since the role of George Briggs allows an actor little vanity, though it apparently allowed Jones so many variations that the character ultimately lacks a coherent personality. Briggs is a squatter or claim jumper whom Mary Bee rescues from a slow-motion hanging -- viglantes have left the man with a noose around his neck on his own reluctant horse -- in return for his service as a guide east. Jones introduces himself in abject, cartoonish fashion after his initial capture. Briggs begs and blubbers while persuading Cuddy to save him, and this makes us expect a clownish figure. He resolves himself into more of a Tommy Lee Jones badass as the journey wears on, and remains a reluctant hero throughout. He faces the classic dilemma whether to abandon the madwomen or not, but his sense of obligation to Cuddy keeps him keeping on. His ordeal appears to ennoble him just as Gary Cooper's trek in They Came to Cordura reveals his true character. But Glendon Swarthout, writing Homesman thirty years after Cordura, apparently didn't believe in redemption as strongly, and Jones definitely believes in it less than Robert Rossen did. Either way, Briggs's redemption is belied by his pryomaniacally disproportionate response to a refusal of service (admittedly at gunpoint) from hotelier James Spader, and his determination to do right by Cuddy is undercut when he learns that she paid him in bank notes from a failed bank. The bank hadn't failed when she set the money aside, but the fact of the failure still leaves him bankrupt after acts of extravagant generosity, and that drives him to drink. Jones takes his leave doing a drunken dance, punctuated by gunfire, on a boat returning him to the other side of the river, while a bit of business I cant describe without spoiling what shouldn't be spoiled cinches Homesman's spot as the feel-bad movie of the holiday season. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and overall Homesman joins the ranks of the 21st century's superior westerns, but Briggs is its weakness because he never seems consistently motivated yet doesn't quite come across, as may have been intended, as just another frontier madman. He's more a collection of cool or extreme Tommy Lee Jones moments, and while this is often and predictably entertaining it makes the movie more chaotic than anyone meant it to be. Given how good the film is as a whole, this may only indicate that Tommy Lee Jones will really prove himself as a director when he stays behind the camera.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ridicule and Reprisal: a preview of coming attractions?

Seth Rogen's The Interview is not on my holiday viewing list. The ads have made it look like just the sort of stupid slapstick comedy I'd expect from that source, though my direct experience of Rogen's work is limited and I was mildly amused by The Green Hornet. The film has received a lot of free publicity recently, whether Sony Pictures desired it or not, as the apparent provocation for a hack of Sony computer files by a group sympathetic toward or simply employed by the North Korean government. Besides making other as-yet unreleased Sony films available for file sharing, the hackers acquired Sony memos revealing creative differences over The Interview reaching to the Japanese peak of the Sony corporate empire. As everyone must know, in The Interview the characters played by Rogen and James Franco are tasked with assassinating Kim Jong Un, the ruler of North Korea, whose father was dispatched earlier by the Team America World Police. The North Koreans have reacted to the idea much as many right-wing Americans reacted a few years ago to a pseudo-documentary imagining the assassination of George W. Bush. Whatever the British filmmaker's actual intention, many Americans felt that to imagine was to advocate. The North Koreans are probably more justified in feeling that way about The Interview because Americans definitely see the Kim dynasty as monsters who deserve death. Are they (or their sympathizers) justified in expressing their anger by hacking Sony or (allegedly) threatening the company's employees? Justification is hard to measure in what's become an international incident, and to an extent it's hard to sympathize with Sony, not to mention Rogen, given how likely such a reaction was to such a project. Naturally, liberal minded people in the U.S. are far more offended by the hacking and the alleged threats than by the still largely unseen movie. Most of us would scoff at an argument that Kim Jong Un is owed any respect by liberal minded people. To the American mind, he is nearly the perfect tyrant, the last real totalitarian ruler that we know of in classic 20th century style. Even for those on the left, his hereditary claim to rulership must be an affront to everything Marx and Lenin, or even Stalin and Mao, stood for. While nations have some obligation to show a certain minimal respect for one another -- an obligation the U.S. often neglects -- people here assume an inalienable right as private citizens to express their poor opinion of the Juche monarch. They see Kim Jong Un as their grandparents saw Hitler and their great-grandparents saw the Kaiser -- as an enemy and thus a fit subject for ridicule.

If the controversy over The Interview provokes any soul-searching, the relevant question is why the Kims fascinate us in such a morbid, infuriating way. The answer was obvious sixty years ago when the first Kim had just invaded South Korea. Then, North Korea was part of the International Communist Conspiracy. Later, the persistence of oldschool Stalinism there served as a reminder beyond the demise of the USSR and the reform of China of what Communism was essentially in American eyes: the totalitarian nightmare of regimentation, indoctrination, forced festivity and so on. In the 21st century the Kims simply represent "Evil," if not an older, ultimate affront to human dignity: the man who demands to be worshiped like a god. As with previous bogeymen, Americans sometimes try to exorcise their fears by turning them into jokes, the pudgy Kims making particularly good material. Yet had we the contempt our ridicule of the Kims should imply, we could simply ignore them. If we can't ignore them now because of their weapons, that's because we weren't content to ignore them before. Far away as he is, even on this admittedly shrinking globe, Kim Jong Un embodies something not merely contemptible or ridiculous but unacceptable to Americans, something that makes it seem impossible for him to share the earth with us, and something that makes it important to Seth Rogen that he call Kim by name rather than have his characters kill a fictional tyrant. If The Interview were to address or satirize this American obsession with dictators, at a time in history when many people see Americans as dictators of the world, it might have something more than the trainwreck interest it's bound to have now, when people may even feel brave by going to see it.  On some level, North Korea's predictable reaction must give Seth Rogen satisfaction, or simply the lulz. If their reaction escalates, someone besides him will most likely take the hit. Speaking for myself, I do think it's his prerogative to mock a tyrant, but when you mock a hypersensitive, defensive foreign ruler it could be like messing with sasquatch, and since more people than Rogen could be held accountable by this particular squatch I'd be more impressed by any bravery Rogen may pretend to have if he were more exposed to the anger he's provoked.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Because I haven't seen enough war propaganda films from other countries, I have the impression that ridicule is a peculiarly Anglo-American mode of propaganda. Perhaps because the Americans for so long couldn't take any foreign power seriously as an existential threat, it seemed more natural for us to make fun of our enemies. Mack Sennett's production seems like a perfect example of ridicule as propaganda -- except that Sennett, self-styled King of Comedy, was too chicken actually to make the film during the war.

Here's how Sennett explains himself in the March 29, 1919 issue of Moving Picture World magazine.

Sennett wasn't as courageous as his erstwhile protege Charlie Chaplin, who released his war comedy Shoulder Arms while the fighting was still under way, though by October 1918 the war was almost over. Sennett's reticence echoes the feeling at the time that Chaplin was taking a big chance by making any aspect of the war a source of comedy, not to mention the feeling more prevalent in our time that comedy "trivializes" war and its atrocities. By the time the next world war rolled around Chaplin again seemed to take a risk by trivializing Hitler in The Great Dictator, but he only set the tone for the mockery of Hitler and other Nazi leaders that continued throughout the war, from Bugs Bunny's battle with Hermann Goering in Herr Meets Hare to Moe Howard's inspired casting as Hitler in Three Stooges shorts. If anything, those burlesques take their inspiration more from Yankee Doodle in Berlin than from Chaplin's films.

With their big moustaches and bombastic manner, the Kaiser and his generals were as obvious a Sennettesque subject as Hitler was Chaplinesque. The comics playing the Prussians, led by Ford Sterling as the Kaiser himself, easily steal the film from top-billed Bothwell Browne, a popular female impersonator on stage whose only movie appearance this is. Browne plays an American flying ace assigned to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. Naturally his most effective tactic is to dress as a woman and arouse the rival lusts of the imperial family and the high command. Browne doesn't really make much of an impression because he's supposed to be good at what he does. Comedy might normally derive from how obviously fake a female impersonator is. But if we're supposed to believe that Browne's disguises are effective, our focus shifts to the dupes we know are being fooled. The focus shifts further away from Browne once the top Germans become rivals for the strange woman's affections, and especially when the Kaiserin learns (from her jealous son, the gangly, rat-faced, chain-smoking Crown Prince Frederick [Mal St. Clair]) that Wilhelm is making eyes at the newcomer. Her beatdowns of her imperial husband are among the slapstick highlights of the film. She hits him with everything in her domestic arsenal, spreading collateral damage all over the face. Sennett's director F. Richard Jones sets things up nicely. Knowing he's caught and there's a storm brewing, the Kaiser orders everyone else off their lawn, for delicacy's sake, and then declares mildly to the missus, "Now we're alone." At which point the Empress utterly destroys him; it's the sort of scene that gets funnier as Jones piles on the violence beyond all reasonable expectation. Seeing the Kaiser beat down this way may have been funnier and more cathartic for the 1919 audience than when the Americans attack and drive him from power. The final scenes are pure cartoon: the Kaiser, Crown Prince and General Hindenburg (Bert Roach) run on the Sennett cyclorama, chased by a gravity-defying, horizontally traveling bomb labeled "U.S.A," while Browne's hero makes his escape by latching himself to an aeroplane.

The war might have been over when Yankee Doodle hit theaters starting in March 1919, but wartime hate endured in the film's equation of Germans with monkeys ("both from the same family"). Stereotypes predating the war abound: the Kaiserin is shown draining a huge stein of beer, while the Kaiser's big serving dish conceals a single frankfurter, because Germans love those things. There's lip service to propaganda about war aims -- the Kaiser's fall marks "the end of autocracy" -- but it's possible people had already stopped taking that seriously. There's dishonest propaganda when an Irish POW, in a virtually self-contained subplot, taunts his captors by reminding them of how the Irish beat the hell out of the Germans at the Battle of the Somme. Instead of answering, "Uh, no," the indignant Germans threaten to execute the Irishman unless he becomes a German citizen -- he takes the oath with his fingers crossed before vandalizing a painting of the Kaiser. On a more insensitive note, when the Kaiser critically scrutinizes a rather sad-looking Prussian Guard, he's informed by their commander that these same men bravely stormed and captured a Belgian convent earlier in the conflict. Sennett might not have been able to get away with some of this material a few months earlier, and in any event his caution paid off when the film, often supported by live appearances by Browne and a troupe of Bathing Beauties, became a smash hit. It gave American audiences an opportunity to express their relief, after both the strains of war and the pressures of real hardcore propaganda had passed, with raucous laughter at the threat that now seemed so ridiculous. Yankee Doodle in Berlin isn't a very good film in retrospect, but it's one of those cases where you definitely had to be there at the time

Sunday, December 7, 2014

DVR Diary: Keisuke Kinoshita's ARMY (1944)

Introducing this film on Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz was at pains to frame Army as anything but a propaganda film, even as he informed us that it was commissioned by the Japanese military. But if Army isn't wartime propaganda, then neither is an American film like Since You Went Away. After all, in that picture Claudette Colbert bawls after sending her husband off to war, and everyone is very sad when they learn that Robert Walker has been killed. Yet no American critic would dare say that those scenes make Since You Went Away a subtle anti-war movie, yet Mankiewicz, or whoever writes his intros, makes such a claim for Army, on no better basis that that Keisuke Kinoshita and his writers dared make their characters fairly rounded human beings. If Army doesn't seem like propaganda to some viewers, that only reflects a very narrow notion of what propaganda can be.

However Kinoshita himself feels about war, nothing in Army subverts the script's propaganda account of 80 years of history leading up to World War II. In short, Army tells us that Japan's WWII enemies -- the U.S., Great Britain and Russia -- have always been hostile elements interfering with Japan's rightful regional aspirations and unfairly favoring China over Japan. At the brink of the Meiji revolution in the 1860s, the English-speaking powers are poised to intervene during a civil war. After Japan whips China in the 1890s, the European powers unjustly force Japan to return a province ceded over by China. The Russo-Japanese War a decade later is portrayed as just revenge on Russia for its role in Japan's earlier "humiliation." In the 20th century, the Chinese need a new rebuke because they've been "looking down" on the Japanese. In the film's most eccentric reading of history, Army accuses China of manipulating the U.S. and U.K. into helping them conquer Japan! But whoever's manipulating whom, all these countries need a beating, and Japan's just the country to do it. Of course, this summary of recent history overlooks Japan's role in World War I, when it allied with some of these benighted nations against its eventual Axis partner, Germany, but history on film is always selective, whatever the filmmaker's intentions may be.

Army follows one family through these turbulent years. The Takagis are patriots who never quite manage to see combat, through no fault of their own. Circumstances keep them off the battlefield, and to compensate the current patriarch (Chishu Ryu) is a superpatriot, while the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) goads their eldest son to be brave and excel in all things. The lead actors are major figures in Japanese cinema, each with a lengthy and honored career that in Tanaka's case extended into direction. They help make the case against Army as propaganda by effortlessly humanizing their characters. Tanaka in particular has a closing scene that became one of the great moments in Japanese movies as she races through town trying to get a final glimpse of her boy as he finally marches off to war. Her obvious feeling of loss is supposed to belie her eagerness to see the lad become a soldier, and sympathetic viewers of Army take all such moments as subversive of the desired patriotic message. But if Hollywood could have it both ways, so could the Japanese Army. Neither sought to deny that people would feel sad about giving up their boys to war.

Yet when Army invites empathy it's presumed subversive of itself because the script has characters, including the mother, tell us that Japan's young men really belong to the Emperor, while their parents are only caretakers until the boys are ready to go where they belong. I think it's wrong to see a contradiction between that viewpoint and the sadness the mother feels upon finally giving up her son. To see a contradiction is to presume that wartime Japan was a totalitarian state, so fanatical and inhumane that its cinema would only want to show parents rejoicing to send their sons to war. Army suggests a somewhat more relaxed, empathetic attitude, even though the film reportedly was partially censored. It's a propaganda film that takes indoctrination itself as a subject for admittedly gentle satire, the way a Hollywood war film might poke fun at rationing. It can even make fun of excessive patriotism, as when two characters get into a furious argument over whether the medieval Japanese could have beaten the Mongols without the aid of the "divine wind." It's probably a mistake to presume that Kinoshita, his writers, or the Army consider one side of that argument the right one. Yet there are also moments when the film seems critical of its own empathetic impulses. In one scene, a father hears a report of a battle in which his own son was involved, growing increasingly concerned as it appears that the boy's unit suffered heavy casualties. He asks for more detail until his informant rebukes him, seeing that the father is more interested in his own son's fate than the fate of the army or the nation. Army wants its audience to take the larger view while acknowledging their natural feelings. That is only not propaganda if you expect propaganda to portray its people as supermen rather than ordinary human beings. Hollywood propaganda didn't work that way and in this case neither did the Japanese version.

Kinoshita is one of the echt Japanese directors, along with Ozu and to a lesser extent Mizoguchi, whom some critics exalt above the more popular directors like Kurosawa and to a lesser extent Kobayashi whose work is too "western" or allegedly tailored to global arthouse audiences. For certain critics the great subject of Japanese cinema is not the way of the samurai or the soldier but family life. Army is an early film by one of the reputed specialists in intimate domestic stories that is meant to keep up the country's enthusiasm for war. In that respect, it does a good job emphasizing that this particular war will be some people's one opportunity to do something great for their country, to live up to the values listed in various imperial rescripts, etc. Its enduring virtue once its original purpose became obsolete is its ability to do several things at once. While Tanaka's dash through town at the end is the obviously great cinematic moment, an even greater if less flashy moment comes earlier, at the family's last dinner together. The mother asks the son to give her one final shoulder massage, and as he gives her the treatment the younger son, in monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, goes over to the father and gives the old man's shoulders a similar if less effective pummeling. All the while, the family is taking care of last things, but the absurdity of the little boy drumming on dad's shoulders lightens the moment and softens the blow that the mother will feel more strongly later. This scene is the essence of the picture, a mirror to the Japanese people's actual experience of the war -- not counting the bombings that audiences were enduring when the film was released at the end of 1944. The irony of Army is that it might have been most effective as propaganda had it been exported, because no one could watch it without realizing that, no matter how crazy they might be about the Emperor, and no matter how biased their view of recent world history, the Japanese are first and foremost human beings like the rest of us. To say that outside Japan in 1944 would really have been subversive.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bunta Sugawara (1931-2014)

Japanese cinema has suffered two irrecoverable losses this fall, particularly for fans of crime films. Ken Takakura, who may be remembered by American moviegoers for English-language films from The Yakuza to Mr. Baseball, died last month. The news I got today from the Breakfast In The Ruins blog hit closer to home. Bunta Sugawara was Takakura's contemporary and my favorite yakuza actor. He was the star of Kinji Fukasaku's definitive five-film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74) as well as a follow-up "New Battles" series later in the 1970s and in many other Fukasaku films. He was one of the stalwarts of Toei Studios at a time when Toei was Japan's answer to Warner Bros in the 1930s as far as classic gangster films were concerned. If Sonny Chiba, working in the martial-arts genre, was Toei's Cagney, the often more stoic Bunta was their Bogart. Yet Bunta played the more literally Cagneyesque lead role in Akihisa Okamoto's White Heat-inspired Yokahama Underworld: Machine Gun Dragon, proving he could be wild as well as cool, and in Hideo Gosha's Violent Streets he exaggerated his coolness to a comical laid-back extreme in a cameo role. Unlike Takakura or Chiba, he never tried to break into Hollywood, though at least one of his films did make it to U.S. grindhouses in dubbed form, with the star re-dubbed "Bud." It took the golden age of DVD to show the world, or at least Americans like me, what Sugawara could do and had done, and I'm grateful that I didn't miss that window of opportunity. I've only written here about a fraction of his films that I've seen, but you can follow this link to learn why the wild world of cinema is in mourning this week.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ELECTRA (1962)

You could make a movie about a young actress learning tough lessons about men, and maybe acting on them in tragic fashion, as she matures from playing Electra to playing Clytemnestra. That's the path Irene Papas traveled in her films for director Michael Cacoyannis. In Electra she's the title character, the daddy's-girl daughter out for revenge on her mom Clytemnestra for the murder of her dad Agamemnon. Fifteen years later, Papas would be Clytemnestra mourning Agamemnon's sacrifice of her eldest daughter in Iphigenia. In Electra Clytemnestra (Aleka Katselli) tries to remind her angry, bloodthirsty daughter of that history, and of Agamemnon's insulting return to Argos with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his concubine, but Electra's having none of it. You were a bitch before all that, she says in effect, and the film has primed us to agree with her. Katselli's Clytemnestra is arrogant and imperious, and Electra seems to hate her guts, or at least distrust her, even before the queen has her lover Aegisthus murder the newly-returned king. We see the young Electra brush the queen's arm off her shoulder when Clytemnestra makes a show of the family greeting the husband she has already condemned. Time doesn't soften Electra's attitude, which is no surprise considering how mom has married her off to some poor (but respectful) farmer and exiled her to the sticks, where she makes something of a show of her impoverishment, going barefoot while the women of the chorus -- this adaptation is faithful to the form of Greek tragedy -- wear shoes. Reunited with her long-lost brother Orestes (Giannis Fertis), she pleads for revenge. Luring Clytemnestra to her village with a tall tale about a baby, she hopes to claim her share of revenge. But no matter what temperature you serve revenge at, it turns to ashes in the mouth when your victim is blood kin.

Does Electra explain Frank Miller? The comic-book auteur took the name for his most famous creation at Marvel Comics, the antiheroine driven by her father's murder to become a ninja assassin, while the ancient Greek setting anticipates Miller's turn to antiquity in 300. And Cacoyannis's film is in black and white, just like Sin City! One can go too far with such speculation, easily, but it just goes to show how the Greek archetypes endure. But if we think we understand the "Electra complex" and thus Electra's place in Greek culture, Cacoyannis surprises us with a sudden emotional reversal that should remind us how alien Ancient Greece is to us, how difficult it is to encompass with our modern categories or sensibilities.

The movie audience, presumably, is rooting all the way for Electra and Orestes to get their revenge. They presumably cheer when Orestes kills Aegisthus, though Cacoyannis, respecting tragic convention, keeps the fight offstage. Presumably we anticipate Clytemnestra getting what's coming to her. That, too, happens offscreen, represented for us by the chorus writhing and screaming in a frantic montage. The evil queen is dead, but now everyone's miserable. Dead, Clytemnestra is now just plain Mom again, and her own kids killed her. Now our sibling heroes are objects of horror, each wandering off into his or her private wasteland, Orestes to be tormented by furies, Electra presumably bound for oblivion. No matter what justification or provocation they had, they crossed a taboo line and know it. If this were a purely modern tragedy the kids might still mourn the mother they knew before she went evil, but before long they'd settle down and take their rightful places in power in Argos. In their own time, the enormity of their deed is not so easily shrugged off, and if we don't get that, that may be part of Cacoyannis's point in making his film.

Visually, Electra makes Cacoyannis look like the missing link between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergio Leone. The early scenes of Clytemnestra in near close-up watching Agamemnon's procession in the distance should remind film buffs of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, while his dramatic use of close-ups throughout, especially in this film's rocky settings, look forward to Leone's spaghetti westerns. Filming in black and white makes Electra look more modernist, or at least more stylized than the later, arguably superior Iphigenia. Both films (and to a lesser extent Cacoyannis's English-language Trojan Women) succeed in confronting us with a Greece we can understand yet can't identify with in any easily complacent way. They are powerful correctives to the cartoon version of Greece presented in so many Italian peplum pictures or American fantasy films, just because Cacoyannis's Greeks don't behave like our contemporaries and aren't so easily assimilated in our consciousness or dismissed from our memory.