Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Herschell Gordon Lewis's prophecy

"If you live long enough you become legitimate," Herschell Gordon Lewis said sometime in the 21st century. By then Lewis, who died this week at age 90, had been canonized, after a fashion, as a cult film director whose pioneering, primitive gore movies from the 1960s had only grown more camp over the years. Lewis was in the "nudie-cutie" business until he and David F. Friedman realized there was less risk in over-the-top violence filmed in "blood color." In his heyday as a showman Lewis reveled in the establishment's contempt, though he felt some contempt himself toward his own amateurish auteurism. Yet he had, arguably, made history, inventing a subgenre of horror film in which the display of blood and fake dismemberment were ends unto themselves, while everything else about the show was open to contempt. History only embraced him with the advent of home video, long after he had quit movies to become a direct-marketing specialist. Inevitably, he could not ignore history and returned to filmmaking in the new millennium without really adding to his legacy. Many people consider his best film -- best being very much a relative term -- to be Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), a redneck parody of Brigadoon in which the South rises again to avenge itself on the Yankee, a mocking promise of the eternal recurrence of the nation's congenital evil and an almost pitiless portrait of our cluelessness about the threat -- all without really bringing race into it. This film presaged yet another subgenre, that of the reclusive, murderous redneck, that in turn has shaped (or distorted) perceptions of the South and rural folk in general. For our purposes, let this preview, uploaded to YouTube by our old friends at Something Weird Video, serve as Lewis's monument, and a preview of a perpetual American attraction.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Eight: WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS

The Spider lay unconscious between two closing electrified gates as Chapter Seven ended. As Chapter Eight begins he effects a clever escape by waking up, standing up and stepping out of the way.  He may have been embarrassed by getting kayoed by one of The Octopus's goons, but he counts the night a victory because he prevented the gangsters from breaking into the vault. Fair enough.

In his civilian identity, criminologist Richard Wentworth is convinced that The Octopus is receiving information from the inner circle of business leaders with whom Wentworth and Police commissioner Kirk regularly consult. To test the hypothesis, he has Kirk invite the men to a dinner at which Wentworth will announce new tools and tactics in the war against The Octopus. Once he relates that a demonstration will take place at the airport, the Octopus's man (we don't see his face) rather blatantly punches holes in a dinner role and has a waiter take it away. The roll is conveyed to a driver outside who recognizes the punch patter as a coded signal directing the Octopus gang to the airport -- where the police are waiting for them. Updated by radio, Wentworth informs the diners that the airport has already been attacked, in vain, but neither he nor Kirk noticed the business with the roll. Still, their task becomes much easier now. Kirk can put tails on all the business leaders rather than flail all over town looking for leads.

The Octopus makes another attempt to draw The Spider into the open, spreading a rumor that his top henchman Steve Harmon (Marc Lawrence) has defected and is on the run. As Blinky McQuade, Wentworth learns where Harmon is holed up. As The Spider, he calls Harmon and negotiates a meeting. Mutual distrust realistically prevails, but each man is willing to take a chance on a meeting in the park. Each also hedges his bets. Wentworth plants a dummy Spider on a bench for Harmon to shoot, while Harmon has men in hiding for when the real Spider shows up -- in a tree. The encounter proves inconclusive as Harmon shoots his way free. Harmon's pretty smart for a serial goon but he doesn't use his head after all this to investigate how The Spider got his number.

Meanwhile, Kirk recruits Nita Van Sloan, Wentworth's girlfriend and The Spider's henchwoman, to help shadow the business leaders, since she has innate society connections to their circle. The Octopus strikes preemptively, driving Kirk's car off the road and snatching the dazed commissioner. Nita jumps free before the wreck and witnesses the kidnapping. She hops on the running board of the kidnap vehicle, and that's the last we see of her this chapter.

Despite the debacle in the park, the Spider still wants to bring in Harmon, and The Octopus orders the doubtful Harmon to arrange another meeting, albeit with plenty of backup. Harmon is now to meet The Spider on a double-decker bus in broad daylight. In one of the serial's most ambitious stunts. The Spider makes the meeting by swinging from the roof of a fairly tall building onto the open top of the bus. Unfortunately, from there we cut to Marc Lawrence and a stuntman fighting on an immobile bus against a process shot. It's a fairly elaborate set-up that involves a car driving alongside the bus, into which The Spider tosses Harmon before diving on board himself. Harmon fights for control of the car but only manages to drive himself, The Spider and the hapless driver into the ocean, ending an eventful chapter that has more than one cliffhanger if you also count what's become of Kirk and Nita. The Spider will survive, of course, but come back next time to see if this was Steve Harmon's last stand.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A WAR (Krigen, 2015)

The team of writer-director Tobias Lindholm and star Pilou Asbaek resume the war on terror in their follow-up to 2012's Kapringen (A Hijacking). Denmark has been part of the coalition occupying Afghanistan and training anti-Taliban forces since 2001. A Danish officer, Claus (Asbaek) tries to maintain ties with his family at home while dealing with the stresses of war. When his men give first aid to an Afghan child, the girl's family is targeted by the Taliban as collaborators. Claus refuses to shelter the family in the Danish base overnight, promising them that his unit will secure them and their community the following day. The troops arrive to find the family massacred in their beds. Moments later they come under attack themselves. With one man wounded badly in the neck Claus needs to neutralize the threat before a medevac can arrive. He has a rough idea where the fire is coming from, but the rules of engagement require visual confirmation before an air strike can be ordered. Even though he can't see a gun or gunmen, he affirms that he has "PID" and the attackers are blown away. The medevac arrives and the wounded, temporarily mute trooper survives to communicate Don't Look Back style with his buddies from a British hospital.

Claus soon learns that there were 11 civilians in the building that was bombed. His troops carry recording devices, one of which caught him telling his radio man to say he had PID. The recording appears to implicate Claus in a war crime if a panel interprets it -- as would be correct -- to mean the radio man should lie. He's recalled to Denmark for the hearing and a family reunion, his wife urging him to perjure himself to spare himself (and his family) four years in prison. The most he can bring himself to do is fudge his testimony, telling the prosecutor that he can't recall exactly when he got the crucial PID. Fortunately (I suppose), one of his men steps up and commits the necessary perjury, testifying (to the prosecutor's furious dismay) that he provided the PID by seeing a muzzle flash from the doomed building. It's pretty transparent perjury; the prosecutor rightly asks why it never occurred to this soldier to mention this exculpatory detail for months before the trial. But it gives everyone else what they seem to want: an excuse to acquit Claus. Claus, however, doesn't feel particularly excused. Asbaek and Lindholm make us feel his shame at having to be saved by lies without having him express it. There's a laconic quality to Krigen that makes it easy to imagine an American remake directed by Clint Eastwood, especially since it resembles a kind of cross between American Sniper and Sully. While audiences clearly will empathize with Claus, considering his action in Afghanistan perfectly justified -- the shooting stops once the bombs drop, after all -- but that same empathy complicates the conclusion once we understand that our hero doesn't share any sense we have of his vindication. Instead, he's haunted by the sight of his youngest son's bare feet peeping out from under a blanket, mirroring the dead feet of that Afghan boy whose fate he sealed by refusing his family shelter. The rules of engagement may say one thing about his responsibility for lives lost, and public opinion may say something else, but it looks like Claus may be his own harshest judge. His future is left to our imagination, but our ability to imagine it plausibly is a tribute to an actor and auteur who have become a team to watch whenever they get together.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter 7: Shadows of the Night

After an inexcusable delay we return to the cinematic exploits of Richard Wentworth, Norvell Page's epic pulp crimefighter better known as The Spider. Regular and patient readers will recall that this Columbia serial pits Wentworth against The Octopus, a masked supercriminal with a possibly fake limp who seeks control of the nation's utilities through terrorist means. We last saw Wentworth in costume brawling in an open car with minions of The Octopus until the car plowed into an electrified transformer fence. What you didn't see last time was Wentworth diving out of the car to avoid electrocution. Before leaving the scene, The Spider makes sure to leave his brand on one of the corpses in the car.

The gangsters want to kill Johnny, the newsboy introduced last episode who can identify one of the gang believed dead. They create a traffic distraction while three of them head for Johnny's apartment. Seeing this, Wentworth quick-changes in his car and prepares to go into masked action in broad daylight. Questioned on this by Ram Singh, Wentworth explains: "Warrior, when immediate action is necessary the police are too handicapped by rules and regulations; therefore The Spider must strike at once." He goes up a fire escape, frightening one of Johnny's neighbors, and comes in through the window to surprise the would-be kidnappers. He shoots one and grabs another while the third flees without Johnny. A cop alerted by the neighbors screams comes up the fire escape to get The Spider. Our hero was going to interrogate the gangster he captured, but the wrongdoer is more useful now as a human shield, soaking up the cop's bullets. The Spider dashes away, quickly doffs cape and mask, and in mufti bursts in on the cop begging for protection from the pursuing Spider. The cops shove him out of the way, not noticing the suspicious bundle of clothes he's carrying. Wentworth might have mentioned to Ram Singh that The Spider's services are necessary because cops are dumb, but perhaps that would have been belaboring the obvious.

Soon afterward, Wentworth and Ram go back to the garage they know to be an Octopus base and walk into an impromptu trap set by the star henchman (Marc Lawrence). I'd given this guy credit for quick-thinking earlier but I take it all back now. He has Wentworth and Ram Singh in his power and orders them into a car for delivery to The Octopus. He searches Ram Singh and claims one of the Sikh's throwing knives, but doesn't bother searching Wentworth. He sends them into the car, but our heroes promptly go out the other door, giving themselves cover as Wentworth pulls out his pistol and opens fire on the gang. Jackson, another of Wentworth's assistants, moves in and puts the gangsters in a crossfire. They take out one of them and get some info on maps and banks out of him before he expires.

It might have been better not to tell The Octopus about this debacle, but someone did and now the big man is ticked off. He chooses to blame the people he assigned to watch Wentworth, who lost him before he went to the garage. He singles out a specific whining gangster for death by belly gun before moving out with his new plan.

The good guys know that The Octopus wants to rob a bank, but there are a lot of banks in town. Where to start looking? Fortunately, the villain makes things easier for the crimefighters by having his minions go crazy in the streets, smashing fire hydrants with their cars all over town. By process of elimination, Wentworth deduces that they'll hit a bank in a district where they haven't been wrecking hydrants. It then becomes easy to single out the targeted bank and rewire its alarm system. The Octopus apparently has sent his men to rob a bank owned by another supervillain. Its alarm system includes a battery of clearly labeled tear-gas bombs installed in the ceiling, and an electrified gate.

The situation deteriorates rapidly for the robbers, and on top of that The Spider shows up with guns blazing. Inevitably, though, our hero gets clumsy and lets a gangster bop him in the back of the head. Down he goes as the would-be robbers make their getaway, just as the electrified gate is about to close on the helpless Spider. And as usual Columbia throws all suspense off the cliff by telling us what Wentworth will be up to in the next chapter. I'll save those details for next time, if you don't mind.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: BEYOND VICTORY (1931)

A troubled production from the last days of the Pathe studio, before its merger with RKO Pictures, John S. Robertson's Beyond Victory is noteworthy for its precocious penchant for flashbacks and a cynical attitude toward World War I that was actually fairly typical of its time. The nearest thing the film may have to an auteur is James Gleason. Now known primarily as a character actor, Gleason was a playwright and sometime scriptwriter who collaborated with Horace Jackson on this project, which went through major edits after Robertson finished principal photography. Is Gleason responsible for the comic tone that redeems the picture? Possibly. Is he responsible for his son Russell being cast alongside him as an American soldier? Perhaps more likely. Was the film's flashback format his idea or Jackson's? I dunno, but whoever came up with it, it's what makes the movie distinctive. We follow a group of American doughboys into battle in 1918, and as they come under fire, some of them taking mortal wounds, we go back in time to see why each went to war. For the youngest of the group (Russell Gleason), enlisting was a form of rebellion against his mother, but it gets him killed. Wealthy Lew Kavanaugh (Lew Cody) tricked himself into signing up. Juggling two women, he tries to blow one off over the phone by telling her he's enlisted, but the other woman is in the room eavesdropping. Now Lew has to live up to his lie and his lover's pride, but it gets him killed. Jim Mobley (James Gleason), introduced early as something of a comic-relief dolt, joined to get out from under his overbearing wife, a vaudeville knife-thrower (ZaSu Pitts). He survives. Bill Thatcher (William "not Stage" Boyd) goes to war even though he loves a German girl (Lissi Arna). He not only survives but gets the girl, who finds him in a German Red Cross hospital when the Armistice comes.

Interestingly, our two survivors have the worst reasons for fighting, as far as the film is concerned. While the boy has understandable psychological motives, and there's a sort of farcical logic to Lew's decision, Jim and Bill seem simply to have been brainwashed by American propaganda. In one of the scenes that most likely bears Gleason's particular stamp, he tries to explain his motives to an ignorant but instinctively skeptical ZaSu Pitts, who lowers her voice somewhat from her usual Olive Oyl whine to express a more aggressive personality and is actually made to look almost pretty from certain angles. Her ignorance of current affairs only serves to expose the Gleason character's more dangerous ignorance: his uncritical parroting of pro-war, anti-German propaganda. While Bill Thatcher is  our top-billed hero, his ignorance comes across as even more pig-headed and sinister. His lover, the German girl, opposes war; she supports neither Germany nor the Allies. But whenever she speaks against war, Bill snaps at her that to oppose war is to be pro-German. In the present, on the battleground of a ravaged town, Bill has been redeemed by losing his illusions. He tells Jim that he stopped believing in war propaganda after failing to find any little girls' severed arms in Belgium, that being a detail of anti-German "black" propaganda. In short Beyond Victory pretty much tells American movie audiences that World War I was a big con. To go beyond victory is to transcend artificial enmity, as when Bill and the German girl reunite and reconcile. That sort of reconciliation will be harder for some people than others, as Gleason shows in another standout scene in which Jim seems ready to pick a fight with all the wounded Germans in the Red Cross hospital -- and gets a knife thrown at him for his trouble, just like at home. The film ends flatly, aiming at a more comic than tragic tone as the German girl chides Bill and Jim for killing her countrymen as if the two Americans were mere naughty boys. But Beyond Victory definitely gets its point across, and it reminds us that the salaciousness of Pre-Code cinema wasn't the only thing that Hollywood would eventually have to suppress.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of a great generation of Iranian directors, some of whom have found filmmaking difficult in the Islamic Republic, which predictably has failed to recognize that its filmmakers are its best ambassadors to the world. Makhmalbaf has been an expatriate for years now, and 2014 found him in the Republic of Georgia filming The President, an international co-production and a fable aspiring to global relevance. Often brilliant, it flounders at the very end, uncertain both of how to end its story and of what moral to draw from it.

The President of an unidentified nation where the people speak Georgian (Misha Gomiashvili) is, in fact, a dictator whose spoiled, diabetic grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) addresses him as "Your Majesty." The President is raising the boy because his own son, the boy's father, was killed by terrorists some time ago. To distract the boy from his unhealthy desire for ice cream, the President shows him the kind of power he'll inherit. With one phone call, he can have all the lights in his capital city turned off, then turned back on. He lets the boy try. The lights go out, then come back on. Cool! He orders them out again, but this time they stay out. The President reclaims the phone and gives the order, but he's left in the dark, except for the feeble glow of explosions throughout the city.

I don't know what color it is, or whether it's spring or some other season, but we have ourselves a revolution. The President evacuates the rest of his family as he prepares to fight, but his grandson refuses to leave. He wants to stay in the palace with his playmate and dance partner Maria. The situation deteriorates rapidly in a bravura sequence that belies any notion that the Iranian filmmakers are dull. The President's limo is chased through the streets by mobs as his loyalists gradually desert him, until its finally just him and the boy against an angry nation.

While the boy is terribly spoiled and utterly unprepared for the ordeal to come, the old man is a cunning, ruthless survivor who quickly cops a disguise by robbing a poor barber at gunpoint. Picking up a guitar elsewhere, he passes himself off as a minstrel, the boy becoming like an organ grinder's monkey. The old man becomes a master of hiding in plain sight, even pulling off a gag as old as the movies by disguising himself as a scarecrow in a field with his back to a revolutionary militia desperately seeking a million-dollar bounty. For a while it looks like the story is going to be about the old man's changing relationship with the boy, who must now call him "Grandpa" instead of "Your Majesty" for safety's sake, and who must learn to be practical and at least minimally tough, though he doesn't really seem to have it in him. Interestingly, the boy gets flashbacks but the old man doesn't.

While the old man and the boy arguably do become more like a real family, The President grows more concerned with the title character's long-delayed awakening of empathy for ordinary people. It soon becomes obvious that the revolutionaries are hardly better than the old regime. That should be no surprise, since most of the personnel are the same. In one horrific scene, guards at a military checkpoint rob a bunch of carpooling refugees, including the incognito fugitives, then turn their attentions to a bridal party. The commanding officer claims the droit de seigneur, while the bride, disgusted by the complete failure of family and friends to defend her, asks to be honor-killed, and is obliged. Later, briefly infiltrating a town, the old man looks up a prostitute he once loved -- he explains to the boy that she's his Maria -- only to be spurned because he never answered a multitude of letters she sent him imploring him for aid or mercy. He answers, with plausibility and complete honesty as far as we can tell, that he never saw any of the letters. During his odyssey -- he hopes to reach the coast, where loyalists are to pick him up in a boat -- he discovers many things he never imagined or considered. In a way, it's as much a learning experience for him as it is for the boy.

Later still, he falls in with some escaped (or liberated) political prisoners, many of whom can't walk because beating their bare feet was routine torture in the President's prisons. The old man comes alarmingly close to growing Christlike -- the ever-growing price on his head has already made him a parody of a folkloric outlaw hero -- as he washes their bloody, infected feet and carries one of his own victims on his back. It becomes his turn to forgive, albeit quietly, when he learns that one of the prisoners was involved in the conspiracy that killed his son and daughter-and-law. He fantasizes sacrificing his safety to take revenge on the man, but the fact is that a forgiving attitude is a practical survival skill in our protagonist's situation. So he delivers the man to his home, where his beloved is waiting -- except she didn't wait, so the man kills himself with a pitchfork to the throat. The burden the old man took upon himself was a futile one.

Finally, despite the scarecrow ruse, the old man and the boy are caught, pulled from a hidey-hole on the beach. Makhmalbaf clearly has the fates of Saddam and Khadafi in mind as a mob drags the President around, trying to make up its collective mind on how to kill him while one of the political prisoners desperately tries to distract the boy from the horror that seems inevitable. Another former prisoner makes a passionate speech against the planned lynching, making the predictable liberal point about the mob being no better than the man they'd punish. The old President is stoic, or resigned, throughout, waiting patiently as Makhmalbaf struggles to figure out what to do with him. We're left with the suggestion that the appropriate punishment is simply to make him dance for democracy, but we see the boy dance once more instead, as he has loved to do. This seems flat and unsatisfactory, but ask yourself what would have been more satisfying and you may find it hard to answer. The President has painted itself into a corner, or more literally it has forced itself to the water's edge with no option of retreat. There's no ultimate sense of a lesson learned, nor much of a political moral. Until that final flop it's a film well worth seeing, vividly envisioned by the director and cinematographer Konstantin Mindia Esadze, and commandingly performed by Gomiashvili. And if Makhmalbaf doesn't come up with a good answer for what to do with his President and tyrants like him, it's not as if the rest of us have come up with anything better.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

On the Big Screen: SULLY (2016)

It might have taken Frank Capra to do full justice to Chesley Sullenberger's saga as imagined by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Tom Komarnicki. Eastwood, however, is too laconic a filmmaker to cultivate the necessary Capracorn, and so at 96 minutes Sully seems more padded than films of nearly twice its length. What's Capraesque about the Sullenberger story is how the pilot behind the January 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" becomes a persecuted cinderella man. The Sully filmmakers might have thought they'd fought most of their battle by figuring out an ingenious way to problematize a familiar story. The drama of Sully isn't really his forced water landing without fatalities, but Sullenberger's (Tom Hanks) subjection afterward to a NTSB inquiry that threatens his career and his pension. Any audience would be outraged instantly by this bureaucratic second-guessing of a self-evident hero, but from the NTSB standpoint Sullenberger wrecked a plane when computer models and some evidence seem to indicate that he could have piloted his crippled plane to an airport for a proper landing. This inquisition is inherently dramatic, but that inherent drama can only take the movie so far. Since impersonal bureaucratic thinking is at fault, rather than malice toward Sully or any sort of greed, we're left with a board of impersonal antagonists when the film really needs the sort of villain that Eastwood and Komarnicki are too scrupulous to imagine. For the libertarian Eastwood it may be enough to pit Sully against a mindless by-the-book system that can't account for or appreciate the sort of heroism he embodies: improvisation grounded in lived experience computer models can't anticipate. But the fact that Sully thrashes about in non-linear fashion through fits of flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations should have warned the director that his drama had a feeble heart.

Inevitably Komarnicki has to make stuff up to make a movie rather than a documentary, but he lacks the guts to fictionalize recent events in a manner that would really heighten the drama. In Capra films villains find ways to turn public opinion against the cinderella man, but since we know that never happened with Sullenberger the filmmakers don't dare pretend that it did. They're more intrigued by the irony of Sully facing career ruin at the same time that the public and media lionize him. The problem with that approach is that it takes the pressure off Sully whenever he isn't confronting the inquiry board. When they do fictionalize, it's purely for padding by making personalities (or attempting to) out of a handful of passengers. It's nothing but padding since we still know they won't die, whereas Capra's writers presumably would have had these subplots pay off by having these passengers appear as character witnesses for Sully, or simply to chastise the NTSB. Here they simply occupy space, as much of Sully does.  At this point, however, we probably should credit Eastwood for keeping this obviously padded picture to 96 minutes, since it's possible that many other directors would drag it out beyond two hours. At its worst Sully is still competently directed and acted, though only Hanks has enough character development to be credited with a performance. It is, to no one's surprise, a very good performance, while Eastwood's direction is at its best in the lengthy rescue sequence involving an impromptu flotilla of dayliners and one foolhardy passenger who feels obliged to start swimming for shore on his own. He's more of a character than those who get more buildup. The rest of Sully's crew, including Aaron Eckhart's co-pilot and the flight attendants whose "Brace, brace, brace! Heads down, stay down!" chant is easily the most memorable part of the film, would have been better served with a more linear structure. After all, many movies manage to make well-known events suspenseful, so maybe Eastwood and Komarnicki gave up too soon on that idea. If they trusted the events to retain their inherent drama, and then hit audiences with their inquisitorial twist, they might have had a brilliant movie on their hands. On the evidence from the screening I attended, they've at least made a crowd-pleasing picture, but I suspect that the applause is more for the real Sullenberger, as unambiguous a hero as we have in America today, than for the picture that merely reminded them of his heroism.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

BASKIN (2015)

Apparently the Republic of Turkey is not yet so far gone in Islamic fundamentalism that it won't tolerate a film like Baskin, though writer-director Can Evrenol says he worried sometimes about authorities possibly taking offense at what his crew was shooting. Still, his film received a modest release in its homeland earlier this year after working the festival circuits around the world. It's a derivative movie, almost inevitably, but it's an interesting mix of influences. It's too bad it doesn't entirely follow through on the potential, but it's still a bit of dark fun.

Your high concept here is what if a bunch of tough, ball-busting -- in fact Scorsesean cops have to deal with demonic horrors and torture in a haunted house. Our five police protagonists are so Scorsesean that they do a variation of the "You're a funny guy!" scene from Goodfellas in a diner, taunting a waiter who dared laugh at the dirty jokes they tell each other. Conservative Muslims might well flinch at their humor, including one cop's assertion that 70% of Turkish men have their first sexual encounter with an animal, but my impression is that there are still plenty of secular Turks who would laugh at this claim.

Anyway, the cops are called to some podunk place called Inceagac, where the people are strange and the frogs are on the march. Some of their buddies were called earlier to an old Ottoman-era police station where, more or less literally, all hell has broken loose. Some sort of cult of filthy fetishistic degenerates hold rituals there with human victims. They worship some pretentious dwarf called Baba who encourages the quickly-captured cops to open their hearts and embrace the horrors they see. For example, one officer is urged to hump some apparently-willing hag wearing a cattle skull, but Baba can tell the man isn't really feeling it. If you can't open your heart, then you have to be disemboweled or have your throat cut. This culling process leaves a Final Cop who has had visions and flashbacks throughout the picture. Now, as his last buddy is getting his throat slit, he has a vision in which that buddy invites him to fetch the key to survival -- an actual key that fits a keyhole in Baba's head -- out of his slit throat. Cue a final cathartic bloodbath as our surviving hero avenges his buddies, but victory in horror films is often short-lived, and our hero soon has reason to suspect that rejecting Baba's offer of transcendence cost him his only chance at escaping a vicious circle hinted at earlier in the picture.

What disappointed me about Baskin was the failure to maintain that Scorsesean attitude, to at least talk the talk, through the entire movie. Once confronted with the horrors in the haunted house, the film's cops are pretty much reduced to screaming and whimpering, but for all I know that may have been the point of the exercise, or a point, for Evrenol: the humbling of thuggish men by an immeasurably higher order of thuggery. Where Baskin really excels is its portrait of human degeneration. Whether or not Baba's domain is Hell itself, as is widely assumed, it reaches a repulsively sensual level of abject dehumanization without a lot of makeup or any CGI that's more horrific than any special effect can be. You don't really see a lot of faces here. which suggests a disturbing loss of individuality in this rutting host that craves nothing more than Baba's fleeting touch. Confronted with evil on this scale, the cops look not only petty, as they were in the diner, but puny, which may have been the truth behind their pettiness. That juxtaposition keeps Baskin interesting even when you can't entirely follow the implicit metaphysics of the cops' ordeal. I'm not sure whether there's anything distinctively Turkish, much less Muslim, about it, but I still appreciate seeing such an outbreak of grotesque horror in an unexpected quarter of the wild world of cinema.

Monday, September 5, 2016


It's been argued that the advent of Code Enforcement in 1934 liberated women in Hollywood movies. because they could no longer use sex as such a blatant survival tool, they gained the freedom to be romantic, whimsical, less carnal or crass. I suppose Ray Enright's Traveling Saleslady could serve as proof for that proposition. Here are Warner Bros.' "Gimme Girls," Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, together again, but while the advertising would make you think this is another gold-digging adventure for the dynamic dames, they're anything but gold diggers in this picture, nor are they a team. Blondell is an heiress, the only child of toothpaste magnate Rufus Twitchell (Grant Mitchell). She wants to be Dad's heir and helper in business like the son he never had would have been, but the old man is conservative in more ways than one. Unwilling to try new things, he thinks women unfit for business. Angela Twitchell is determined to prove him wrong. Sympathizing with a dotty scientist who has waited in vain for three months to see the old man (Hugh Herbert, confusingly participating in a screenplay co-written by his near-doppelganger, F. Hugh Herbert), she decides to take a chance on his invention: flavored toothpaste. She buys into the scientist's insane notion that you can market toothpaste to adults by making it in alcoholic flavors -- one must hope the stuff is odorless -- and it tells you something about the time this film was made that the idea is a tremendous hit with the public.

Angela becomes a covert competitor to her father. Not having the capital to start her own company, she leases the rights to "Cocktail Toothpaste" to Twitchell's biggest competitor, on the condition that she be hired under an assumed name to sell the stuff to drugstores. This makes her a direct rival to Twitchell's biggest salesman, Pat O'Connor (William Gargan). Ironically, it's Pat who uses sex (so we presume) as a career-advancement tool. He runs up a big expense account entertaining potential clients, and one of the biggest clients is the Ruggles drug store chain. Angela, aka "M. Smith," tries to pitch flavored toothpaste to company president C. Ruggles, and there's a magic moment when she confronts Claudette Ruggles (Farrell). Each is so exceptional as an entrepreneurial female that neither expects the other to be a woman. There's no such thing as gender solidarity in the toothpaste business, however, and Ruggles gives Angela the brush off, mainly because Pat O'Connor is her boyfriend. Farrell is second billed, since she and Blondell were recognized as a team, but she's really the fourth most important character, at best, after Pat and the scientist. The main story is saleslady vs. salesman, not Blondell vs. Farrell, as Angela learns the cut-throat ropes of the business with streamlined quickness while flirting with her antagonist. Despite his business loyalty to Ruggles, Pat can't help falling in love with "Smith," and if anything this is the most implausible part of the picture. The budding romantic feelings are mutual, you see, but these two are dedicated to destroying one another professionally, and Angela is winning. Her victories are parricidal as well as betrayals of a potential lover, for as she drives up her company's market share, Twitchell is forced to lay people off. Fortunately -- and I don't know if this is a Code requirement or not -- we're told that every single person laid off by Twitchell is hired by Angela's employer.

The final showdown comes at the big drug store sales convention in Chicago. Angela gets the early plane there and humiliates O'Connor and Ruggles by setting them up to be flown there by a skywriter advertising for Cocktail Toothpaste. Pat and Claudette hope to schmooze the other buyers by holding a big party with free eats in Pat's hotel suite, but Angela cheats by putting a "Rehearsal in Progress" sign over his door -- which really should have been open to begin with -- and redirecting everyone to her pitchroom. The results are devastating for Twitchell; the company meets only 10% of its sales goal and is forced to the wall. Angela even succeeds in breaking up Pat and Claudette, and there's another magic moment when Claudette, conned by Angela, declares herself through with men after discovering Pat's apparent betrayal. "GIGOLO!" they shout together in the ultimate role-reversal from the old gold-digging days.  After all this, it seems too good to be true when Angela saves her father's company by reminding her boss that the one-year lease is up and the rights to Cocktail Toothpaste have returned to her, to be leased anew on the condition that the rival companies merge on terms favorable to her old man. This act of filial piety apparently is enough to make Pat O'Connor forget all the defeats and humiliations meted out to him by Angela -- whose true identity he's just learning now -- and agree to a merger of a different sort. I think we know who'll wear the pants in that household.

In a way, Traveling Saleslady is a vindication if not apotheosis of Blondell and Farrell, since the same mercenary determination they showed in the gold-digging films makes them mistresses of the universe here. It's just a shame that the writers never considered having Angela try to win Claudette over after the first rebuff, since you'd like to see Glenda Farrell use her brain rather than some other organ for this important business decision -- though if Claudette Ruggles found booze-flavored toothpaste a hopelessly ridiculous idea I couldn't really blame her.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

OUT 1 (1971)

The media has at last caught up with Jacques Rivette. His 773 minute magnum opus is now more readily available to more people on Earth than it ever was in the director's lifetime. Rivette died in January 2016 at age 87. In April, "Season One" of  Out 1 hit Netflix. Before then, and before its recent DVD release, the complete work was little seen compared to Rivette's four-hour condensation, known as Out 1: Spectre. The full-length Out 1 (sometimes subtitled Noli Me Tangere or "Don't Touch") does seem ideally designed for modern binge-watching, so long as people can get past the alienating first episode. The thing runs in eight parts, each running sometime between 70 and 105 minutes. It requires patient immersion, since it begins by introducing characters, individually or in groups, with no more than thematic relationships with each other at first. As connections are established or revealed in subsequent episodes, the thing emerges as a small-scale conspiracy movie, and at the same time a satire of cinematic conspiracy mongering in its ultimate pointlessness. To me it seems like a story in a great French tradition that encompasses Fantomas and the works of Jean Rollin, but in a radically mundane Nouvelle Vague setting in which the struggle to create collaboratively becomes a symbol for all the efforts underway at the time to rethink or rework society, as seen from a largely apolitical perspective.

Episode One introduces two troupes of actors, each preparing a production of an Aeschylus play. We're shown to sharply contrasted approaches, neither of which has much to do with the text of the play. The Seven Against Thebes company, whom we see first, is directed by Lili (Michele Moretti) with a lot of attention to sound; the actors' pitch seems as important to Lili as whatever they say. As we'll see, Lili is dedicated to routine, if not ritual: her troupe always warms up with some dancersize set to a tribal beat that becomes the theme music of the entire series, played over each subsequent episode's recap montage. If Lili is obsessed with technical detail, Thomas (future Bond villain Michael Lonsdale), the director of Prometheus Bound, believes in spontaneous improvisation. His troupe's exercises seem far less relevant to their play than Lili's; they seem designed more toward building group cohesion and cooperation as ends unto itself. In fact, Thomas will often mention how bored he's grown with Prometheus. Described by one intimate as a big baby, Thomas emerges as an almost bullying emotional manipulator, not physically threatening at all but clearly determined to be the center of everyone's universe. These companies' efforts are intercut with the activities of an apparent loner, Colin (New Wave poster boy Jean-Pierre Leaud). Mute, he invades cafes distributing envelopes promising little bits of worldly wisdom, then subjecting diners to his shrieking harmonica until they give him money or he gives up. Inside the envelopes are random pages torn from Colin's book collection. Colin's counterpart is Frederique (Juliet Berto), an aspiring extortionist at the fringes of the underworld who playacts gunfights with herself while dreaming of a big grift. Early on, you get the impression that Out 1 is essentially about performance, Colin and Frederique being actors just as much as the thespians in the Aeschylus companies. Perhaps Rivette means that life is performance, or else a perpetual rehearsal for performances that will never take place.

Out 1 quickly becomes more than that. The crucial event is Colin's receipt from a stranger of a cryptic message in the form of a poem. Being quite literate, Colin recognizes the poem's mention of a "Thirteen" as a reference to Honore de Balzac's History of the Thirteen, part of the nineteenth century novelist's immense "Human Comedy" series. For the rest of the series he'll become obsessed with interpreting the poem and tracking down leads pointing toward the existence of a modern-day counterpart to Balzac's band of manipulators, eventually coming into contact with actors from both Aeschylus troupes, some of whom actually are part of a conspiratorial group of some sort. Late in the third episode he confirms most people's suspicions about him by beginning to speak. Meanwhile, when Frederique robs an apartment she discovers letters that should make ideal blackmail fodder, because they, too, seem to point to a secret society exposure of which could embarrass prominent people. Frederique stays at more of a remove from the actors but it's ultimately all connected. And for what it's worth, the five actors in Seven Against Thebes + the six in Prometheus Bound + Colin + Frederique = 13.

Moving right along, each acting troupe is disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer. For Seven Against Thebes it's Renaud (Alain Libolt), who simply crashes a rehearsal one day and erupts with novel staging ideas that alienate control-freak Lili. For Prometheus Bound it's Sarah (Bernadette Lafont), an old lover/collaborator of Thomas' whom he brings to Paris in the hope of sparking something. It's not clear whether that something is a creative breakthrough with the play or a threesome including Thomas's current girlfriend Beatrice (Edwine Moatti). Sarah's ideas only fouls up the Prometheus team's routine -- if you can call it that, -- while Renaud seems only to have been biding his time, perhaps presuming that someone in the Seven company must have money to rent the rehearsal space. As it turns out, one of Lili's actors wins a million francs at the race track, and Renaud wastes no time in stealing it. Their play is pretty much abandoned as the actors turn their attention to a futile-seeming manhunt. Their efforts to get Metro goers to recognize Renaud from a random photo lull us into a false sense of absurdity, for as we'll learn in another context, Lili is no one to trifle with. And while it seems impossible for the actors to track Renaud down, whom should he hook up with but Frederique, whose blackmailing efforts have been mixed to say the least. She'll learn the hard way that Renaud is no one to trifle with, either.

In fact, if you've been waiting for something to happen in Out 1, rest assured that shit gets real to a modest extent over the last third of the series. Rivette manages to generate real tension in some of the late encounters, especially two threatening scenes with Sarah, who terrifies Colin into ending his investigations. Being able to talk backwards will do that. Colin's quest has taken him repeatedly to a radical bookstore/head shop, where he grows infatuated with Pauline (Bulle Ogier), a secret-society member who ends up with blood on her hands. After scaring Colin away from Pauline aka Emilie, Sarah has an even more frightening encounter with Emilie back at her seaside home. Their repetitive exchanges (Emilie: "Stop looking at me like that!" Sarah: "I'm looking at you normally.") and Sarah's repeated invitations to Emilie to go to sleep may convince you that Emilie's life is on the line at that moment. But Out 1 doesn't really aspire to the sort of climax such scenes point toward; that neither the secret society nor the theater troupes' efforts really go anywhere really is the main point here. Appropriately, the whole thing closes -- to the extent that Rivette allows closure -- with Thomas, the man most dedicated to manipulating people for his own entertainment, being abandoned by his last hangers-on after one last stupid stunt.

Watching Out 1 is like reading a long novel. I often have to force my way through the first few dozen pages of the longer ones before I really get into it. Sometimes it takes that long to set things up, and in the better novels your patience is rewarded. I feel my patience with Out 1 was rewarded, but I wasn't really ever tempted to quit. Rivette has a solid ensemble of actors to hold our attention and his quasi-documentary approach to the rehearsals (especially with the more experimental Prometheus troupe) becomes fascinating. You wait for something to happen until you realize that this is the happening and there's a point to its pointlessness. These scenes remind me of the consciousness-raising exercises and dubious group dynamics of different kinds of radicals contemporary with Out 1's actors and conspirators, and I think Rivette really taps into a similar radicalism. Those perpetual rehearsals arguably serve as mild versions of other groups' struggle sessions, all aimed at the same vague goal of collective transformation into new social forms. At least that's what I see, or part of it. The virtue of something like Out 1 is that different people can see different things in it, and Rivette could probably answer all of us with "I meant to do that."