Monday, March 2, 2015


KLUTE            A                    
USA  (114 mi)  1971  ‘Scope  d:  Alan J. Pakula

Alan J. Pakula, a Yale drama graduate, is one of the leading proponents of richly textured, character-driven dramas, where he helped guide eight different actors to Oscar-nominated performances, including Academy Award winners relatively early in the careers of both Jane Fonda (age 34) in KLUTE (1971) and Meryl Streep (age 33, another Yale grad) in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982).  In much the same vein as Roman Polanski, Pakula excels in smart, sophisticated thrillers, known for creating tension through oppressive, tightly constricted screen space, with a fascination for sleek, modern exteriors that lend a timelessness to his films.  The 70’s may be the greatest era of American cinema, where the once-powerful Hollywood Studios sold off many of their assets temporarily reducing their power and influence, leaving an opening for directors to have an impact on films like never before, producing the likes of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and BARRY LYNDON (1975), Altman’s MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973),  California Split (1974), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER Pt. II (1974), THE CONVERSATION (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979), but also American independent films like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), along with a decade of films from movie maverick John Cassavetes, Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977).  Almost forgotten in this firestorm of powerful dramas are the carefully orchestrated paranoid thrillers of Alan J. Pakula, who specializes in suspense thrillers layered in subtlety, plot secrets, and deception.  The first of what would become known as the “paranoia trilogy,” along with THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), these were films made in response to the looming fears that gripped the nation coming on the heels of 60’s assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, where television images flooded the nation reinforcing a government that had lost control, where behind the scenes secret and often nefarious powers vied for the power vacuum, where instead of the massive participatory demonstrations of the protest movements of the 60’s, suddenly ordinary citizens felt powerless to effect their destiny.  

The paranoia thriller exemplified impotence in the face of danger, simultaneously ushering in an era of 70’s disaster films like AIRPORT (1970), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), EARTHQUAKE (1974), THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and JAWS (1975), with revenge films to follow in the 80’s, vividly portraying a breakdown of community cohesiveness leaving the individual feeling isolated, hopelessly trapped and alone, exuding a strange and mysterious passivity bordering on defeatism, represented by Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975).  What’s lacking in these films is a conquering hero to eradicate the pervasive threat, like Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY (1971) or Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (1974), as the mythical era of the western hero has passed, replaced by ineffectual real-life political leaders disgraced by unethical abuse of power and rampant corruption, where Pakula in particular emphasized the empty spaciousness of the surroundings, where the individual is dwarfed by the seemingly mammoth skyscraper reflections of power and modernity, barraged by interior fears, often of unknown origin, while the idea of security or personal well-being has all but vanished, left with a feeling of impending doom creeping into the moral fabric of society.  Ironically, Pakula himself lost his life in a freak auto accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1998 when another car hit a lead pipe on the road that flew through his windshield, killing him instantly.  KLUTE was the director’s first major commercial success, significant for the exhaustive research done by both the director and lead actress in exploring the lurid, behind-the-scenes lives of Manhattan’s call girls, including meticulous production values that included fashionable haute couture outfits from Fonda’s own personal wardrobe that made such a splash onscreen.  Despite Pakula’s considerable talents, this is largely remembered as a Jane Fonda movie, having lost the Oscar earlier to British actress Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969), despite being the odds-on favorite for her amazing performance in Sydney Pollack’s THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969), suspected to be due to her unpopular (in Hollywood) “Hanoi Jane” activism against the war in Vietnam at the time.  But in KLUTE Fonda is quite simply brilliant in a career-defining performance, blowing away the all-British competition to win the Best Actress Award, the last of her “sexy” performances playing a high-priced call girl in this interesting dual exploration of sex and capitalism as seen through the lens of the burgeoning feminist movement.  Written by Dave and Andy Lewis, almost exclusively known as television writers, Fonda’s character is uncommonly rich and fully realized, a complex composite of a prostitute and film noir femme fatale, much of it developed improvisationally by Fonda herself, especially the therapy sessions, exhibiting mood shifts that are often beautiful and ugly in the same scene, where her surface level wit and everpresent sarcasm is her chief defense mechanism hiding a more scarred and wounded interior soul. 
KLUTE is an unusually intelligent film that balances mood and atmosphere with personality and vulnerability, which is what we remember afterwards in Fonda’s character of Bree Daniels.  Dressed in mini-skirts and high boots, wearing tight sweaters without a bra, with a shag haircut accentuating her bangs designed by a hairdresser in New York’s Lower East Side, Bree is a modern woman that always looks like a million bucks.  An aspiring model and actress, seemingly in control of her own career path, she is a part-time call-girl making quick cash in order to pay for the lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, living alone, drinking wine and smoking an occasional joint upon returning home at night to relax and wind down.  Mixing themes of surveillance and voyeurism, over the opening credits the audience is introduced to an audio tape recording where Bree can be heard reassuring one of her customers to relax, have fun, and basically “let it all hang out,” which serves as a kind of code for the sexual revolution of the 60’s that went awry when certain factions turned violent, basically spoiling the party for the free love generation.  Meanwhile, somewhere in the heartland of Tuscarora, Pennsylvania, a family man and business executive Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) disappears during a business trip to the city, where his boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), feels somewhat responsible, so he hires Gruneman’s best friend, Donald Sutherland as John Klute, a Pennsylvania-based private detective to search for his missing friend.  According to the police, they reached a dead end after six month’s, as the only evidence obtained is an obscene typewritten letter found in Gruneman’s office addressed to call-girl Bree Daniels in New York, who reports receiving several letters and phone calls from Gruneman, though she can’t recall meeting him, while she also has a feeling she’s being stalked.  Renting an apartment in the basement of her building, Klute taps the phone of Ms. Daniels while also following her as she turns tricks.  While she exudes confidence and a sense of personal liberation by always being in control of her male customers, seen faking an orgasm while looking at her watch, we’re also privy to a different side, seen in a series of visits to her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), where she reveals the sex work is more a compulsion than a necessity, though it pays well, but it’s hardly fulfilling, leaving behind an interior void in her life, where she’s been trying to get out of “the life” with little success.  When Klute finally talks to Bree, after her initial reluctance, she reveals she was seriously beaten by a psychopathic customer several years earlier who “was serious” about beating women, though she can’t connect the photo of Gruneman to that man. 

Klute discovers Bree is his only connection to a lurid world of women-for-hire in a city that he is already excluded from, so he needs her help, delving more deeply into her personal associates, including ex-boyfriend Frankie Ligourin (Roy Scheider), her former pimp and protector, a slick con man with underworld connections who is the picture of male arrogance and pride, always seen with a beautiful girl on his arm, making sure Klute gets the company message, “I want to make something clear:  You know, I don’t go to a woman.  A woman comes to me.  *Her* choice.”  Frankie reveals it was one of his other girls that passed on the abusive client to Bree and another girl, Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan).  While that girl is now dead from a suicide, Page has become a drug addict and completely dropped out of sight, where she could be anywhere.  Despite dealing with a sophisticated call-girl who speaks freely and openly about sex, Klute remains an honorable man, who comes from a small town and retains his core values of conservatism and good will, offering his protection, which is something Bree takes advantage of, “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue.  I sort of knew you would.  Everybody always does.”  However, their relationship deepens, developing into a sexual romance (as it did in real life between the two leads), where one of the best scenes in the film is walking the streets of New York together where they stop and pick up fruit at an outdoor market, where she is just eying the guy, as if for the first time, afterwards seen telling her therapist that she’s afraid of losing control, that this man is good and decent to her, who’s seen her look fabulous, but also completely horrid, where trusting a man is not easy, suggesting she wishes sometimes she could go back to “just feeling numb.”  Throughout the film, she is frequently shown alone in her apartment from the vantage point of a stalker across the street who is watching her.  At one point Klute realizes he’s on the roof, but his search proves futile.  The uninhibited freedom of her lifestyle is constantly under threat, reflective of the early stages of a feminist era that was continually under attack as well, where it’s interesting that early feminist critics lauded the film as a realistic portrayal of a woman’s personal conflict, only to later reverse course, as her attempt to accept a man in her life for stability or balance is paramount to endorsing patriarchy.  This reflects, however, the complexity of the role, as it appeals to a cross-section of viewpoints, even after the passage of time, retaining a unique blend of modernity and film noir, pitting hardboiled cynicism against the romanticism of a possible relationship.     

Movies and Methods: An Anthology  Pt. 1, by Bill Nichols, 1976 (pdf format)

More than a classical thriller, a “film noir,” or a contemporary reworking of the “private eye” movie — as some critics have seen it — Klute seems closer to the psychological suspense thriller, with most of the action going on inside the central character’s head.  Klute is told from a highly subjective viewpoint, and the other characters, while “real,” can be seen as projections of the heroine’s psyche.  The film functions on both levels, as a straight suspense story and as a dramatization of intense inner conflict, but it is from its second level that it derives its power. 

Critic Diane Giddis in her essay The Divided Woman:  Bree Daniels in Klute, taken from her book Women and Film, 1973, suggests women should completely disregard the conventional film noir conventions and reclaim the film on the basis of its sexual politics alone, where Bree becomes a stand-in for the feminist cause.  But the film offers an equally compelling narrative about the male psyche, where the private eye genre is a vehicle commonly used for strong individual male characters, where the stalker element in a tense paranoia film adds a disturbing element of potential male violence directed towards women.  Offering an openly cinéma vérité style of viewing the streets of New York, the interior shots, by contrast, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Gordon Willis, create a visual claustrophobia that explores the male fears about women.  While championing Bree’s interior psychological world, where asking what a woman wants becomes such a significant aspect of her character, the film simultaneously delves into a world of male apprehension, where a liberated woman, as reflected by the repeated tape recording loop heard at the opening, somehow opens the floodgates of a demented male psychopath whose masculinity is threatened by these open sexual freedoms, where his only response is criminally inappropriate.  This unfortunately reflects the existing reality where rape remains a systematically entrenched violent form of criminal male domination over women that continues to plague all sections of the globe, including the American armed forces, but is especially prevalent in war ravaged regions.  The distinctively eerie musical soundtrack by Michael Small, so effective in the film, is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s memorable synth score in HALLOWEEN (1978), where it’s hard to believe Carpenter wasn’t hugely influenced by this film, as much of this has the same creepy feel as a slasher movie, where something is always approaching Bree, with the camera continuing to follow her wherever she goes (as it does Jamie Lee Curtis), at times literally becoming the eyes of the stalker.  Pakula does an extraordinary job creating a feeling of pathological disassociation, of being outside societal boundaries and literally over the edge, especially the view of a man seething in his own disgust with himself, alone in the darkness of a penthouse skyscraper office with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing an utterly spectacular vantage point of the city of New York.  But in fairness, the film also offers another more balanced male view, that of the titular character Klute, who may as well be a stand-in for the audience.  Sutherland is terrific in a performance defined by quietly subtle restraint, where his impassive stoicism is laudable, making no judgments about her former life as a Manhattan prostitute, recognizing that she needs total acceptance as a woman to really be free of her past.  He appreciates her even when she doesn’t appreciate herself, but in a subversion of the testosterone-laden film noir detective genre, he’s not the featured central character.  While she freely exposes her inner domain both sexually and through repeated visits with a therapist, his more closed, inner psyche remains hidden and largely unknown, as it’s uncertain where this will all lead and whether they even have a future together.  Ahead of its time both then and now, the film’s true insight is the revelation that feelings of love alter the sexual and psychic dynamic, as the normally self-reliant Bree feels increasingly overwhelmed and disempowered by a sudden surge of feelings she can’t control, as it’s no longer all about her, where learning to share the uniqueness and fragility of her own inner world with a significant other remains one of the mysterious challenges of anyone’s life.    

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Conformist (Il Conformista)

Dominique Sanda on the set of The Conformist (1970) with director Bernardo Bertolucci

THE CONFORMIST (Il Conformista)             A                    
Italy  France  Germany  (107 mi)  1970  d:  Bernardo Bertolucci           
restored in 1995 to (111 mi)

A marriage of direction and cinematography, this is one of the more sumptuously beautiful films in all of cinema, an extraordinarily stylized mix of sexualization and politics that become fused in a cinematic explosion, a candidate for one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps the singlemost influential movie of our times, without which we would not have Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), with the director insisting upon the same cinematographer after having seen this film, or THE GODFATHER (1971, 1974, 1990) saga, which utilizes the same luxurious richness of color along with similar attention to costumes and art design.  Along the lines of CITIZEN KANE (1941), Bertolucci’s film is a monumental collaboration of artistic expression on a grand scale, utilizing the breathtaking photography of Vittorio Storaro, the exquisite elegance of art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and the sublime 1930’s-era French costume designs by Gitt Magrini, not to mention a musical score from Georges Delerue.  One of the memorable central scenes of the film was even recreated in a Soprano’s (1999 – 2007) third season episode entitled Pine Barrens directed by Steve Buscemi.  Adapting a 1947 novel by Italian writer Albert Moravia, who also wrote the novel that inspired Godard’s CONTEMPT (1963), the author is known for his psychological realism and open treatment of sexuality that reflect the anxieties of contemporary times.  Moravia’s novel was inspired by the 1937 assassination of two of his cousins in Paris who had been working for the French resistance movement.  Opening in 1938 in Rome, the story concerns a central protagonist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who identifies with the prevailing political group in power and tries to normalize himself behind a mask of fascist aristocracy, who is petrified at the idea he is a homosexual, making him feel different, like he has something to hide from the world.  While the reasons aren’t initially clear, we learn through flashbacks that he’s been traumatized by a childhood incident where he was sexually abused by a family chauffeur, Pasqualino “Lino” Seminara, Pierre Clémenti from BELLE DE JOUR (1967), where Clerici accidentally shot him with his own gun, continually thinking of himself afterwards as a killer and an assassin. 

The restless inner workings underneath the narrative continually altering the time structure hold an essential key to understanding what is a remarkable character study.  Tormented by memories of his childhood, history intrudes into Clerici’s real life, where the often repressed subconscious rises out of its hibernation with a powerful impact.  While the actual structure of the film may not have been determined until the editing room, Bertolucci adopts a complicated flashback technique, constantly shifting backwards and forwards in time, reflecting Clerici’s anxiety-ridden state of mind, as the director’s love for extended sequences are constantly interrupted by informative childhood flashback sequences that comment upon the present, where his family life was also marked by equally decadent and mentally unstable parents.  These experiences have left him feeling uneasy and uncomfortable in his own skin, where Clerici’s response to his clearly dysfunctional childhood is to hide from it by acting as normal as possible.  To this end, Clerici embraces Italian fascism and joins the Secret Service, where to be a conformist is to be a fascist.  It is not enough, however to join the ranks of the organization, as instead his role is to seek out anti-fascists, where he is assigned the job to assassinate his former teacher, leftist Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has fled to Paris in exile where his powerful voice constantly railing against Mussolini must be silenced.  In contrast to the claustrophobic look of Italy, Paris is expressed as the city of freedom and openness, a veritable fashion center of the world suddenly bursting with a surreal use of color, an altered sense of reality, perfectly represented by the professor’s wife, Dominique Sanda as Anna, the French wife of an intellectual with lesbian tendencies, who represents glamor and beauty, everything Clerici refuses to be, as she is the exact opposite of the wife he chooses.  Stefania Sandrelli is Giulia, equally beautiful but a thoughtless, conventional-minded woman who avoids asking questions about his career, the most perfectly content middle class wife for Clerici who craves a traditional marriage, one whose entire background is grounded in family, church, position, and moral values.  Clerici uses his own honeymoon in Paris as the time and place to carry out his assignment, where the newlyweds take a train ride to Paris with the sunlight bursting through the window, accompanied by fellow Italian agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) who follows his every move throughout, handing him a gun with a silencer at the Italian-French border.     

Trintignant is such a perfect choice, immersing himself in the role, as he’s an actor who specializes in being an everyman who can pass through the streets unnoticed, yet exudes intelligence, remaining quietly thoughtful and reflective.  As Clerici he’s something of a ghost of a human being, carrying around his hidden secrets inside him that churn around in his anxious and unsettled frame of mind, like his secret attraction to Anna, who is introduced earlier in brief sequences, once in the fascist ministry and again in an Italian brothel, where she exists almost as a fantasy, an ideal woman who exists in a mystery.  Bertolucci’s recreation of Paris in the 30’s shows his love for such a grand period of cinema, reflected in the sensuality of the women’s costumes and their indulgence into Parisian glamor, where not everything is seen in a conscious way, but the continual brilliance of the atmospheric mood intercedes into reality.  In this vein, one of the strangest scenes in the film is Clerici’s Italian wedding party, called the “dance of the blind” sequence, which was initially cut in the Italian release, but was actually shot in an underground basement location where you can see the feet of people walking by through the street-level windows, a graphic representation of the subconscious.  In addition, it includes a large group of blind people in sunglasses, friends of Italo (José Quaglio), Clerici’s blind friend, a fascist that runs a radio station, a reflection of the blind populace that voted for Mussolini, yet the banquet scene is shot in an exotic party atmosphere with streamers and different colored hanging Chinese lanterns.  Clerici visits his parents before he leaves for Paris, where his mother is a morphine addict living in a decaying villa surrounded by unswept leaves blowing in the wind while his father is confined to an insane asylum, shown in an outdoor scene at the Palazzo dei Congressi, originally constructed for the 1942 world’s fair, but cancelled due to Italy’s involvement in the war.  Bertolucci utilizes the surviving architecture and décor of the period, where this EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district in Rome is a remnant of the architectural dream of Mussolini, as it was built to celebrate twenty years of fascism. 

Armond White from The New York Press, Before The Devolution | Manhattan, New York ... - NY Press      

Three geniuses teamed up to create The Conformist: director Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Their 1970 collaboration was as momentous as the work of Welles & company on Citizen Kane, showing a new generation how to look at movies. This was quite a feat after the many high-art film innovations of the 50s and 60s. BSS synthesized it all—playing with edited time, color, space, form—and then upped the stakes: taking modern cinema back to the arch romanticism of the silent era. In 1970 no one had ever seen a color movie that was as much a visual phenomenon. And it’s still a knock-out. This week’s rerelease at Film Forum proves that The Conformist has been the single most influential movie of the past 35 years.

It came before the de-volution. Bertolucci, Storaro and Scarfiotti worked with the belief (now gradually eroding in the digitial-video age) that cinema was, foremost, a visual art form; that its richest meanings and distinctive impact were the result of images. Images designed to amaze, ideas expressed through illustration, emotion conveyed through the tonalities of light. All that is now taken for granted through today’s barbaric video practices where indie films look like home movies. Watching The Conformist is, more than ever, like being a starving man widening his eyes at a king’s feast. The mist-shrouded view of the Eiffel Tower, the stroboscopic train ride, the high-contrast scenes in a radio studio and many other memorable sequences reawaken one’s senses. You seem to taste “cinema” for the first time.

By the time Clerici contacts the professor in Paris, cineastes will appreciate that the professor’s address and phone number actually belonged to none other than French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.  While he’s immediately attracted to the professor’s wife, she’s more interested in spending time with Giulia, seen pampering her on a Parisian shopping spree throughout the afternoon while Clerici has his private meeting with the professor, reminding him of his college thesis on the myth of Plato’s cave (Allegory of the Cave), shifting the light in the room, becoming a standing shadow himself, beautifully visualizing a metaphor while commenting on the illusions of politics and sexual desire.  In the myth, enchained prisoners see reflections of themselves on the walls of a cave illuminated by a burning fire, mistaking their shadows for reality.  It’s a unique separation of light and darkness, between the divine and a human being, where light is a form of consciousness, while darkness reveals the unknown, something that must remain hidden.  Clerici’s privately repressed lust for Anna is revealed through peep-hole sequences, where he’s seen spying on her in various states of undress, where both she and the professor are aware of Clerici’s fascist sympathies and the danger he represents, where Anna’s pursuit of Giulia may largely be for the benefit of Clerici’s roving male eyes.  Both women dress extravagantly for an evening dinner and dance engagement, where the virtuosity of Bertolucci’s gliding camera style is especially evident in the operatic dance sequence bathed in a sensuous texture as the two women are entwined in a feverish, erotically charged dance that unleashes itself in an orgiastic frenzy.  This leads to a scene in the snowy woods the following day, exhibiting some of the most exquisite use of light and shadow in a motion picture, where the assassination attempt is eloquently photographed as cinematic art — glorious, powerful, and dramatically effective.  With sunlight streaming through the trees, the set-up itself is breathtaking to behold, where time literally stops when the optimum moment is at hand.  In the lingering stillness, the psychological intrigue accelerates through the agitated inner workings of the killer’s mind, with the viewer wondering where his sympathies lie, but the seemingly peaceful calm is broken by the decisive brutality of the events, turning into one of the more stunning scenes of the film. 

While the entire film is shot in a dizzying array of crisscrossing angles that parallel the freely moving flashback technique, it’s a fairly simplistic story told in a beguilingly complex manner, delving into all manner of Freudian psychosexual issues concerning a confused and cowardly man who has for years tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, vowing to “build a normal life” for himself, yet his very soul hinges on the thought of sexual panic.  The extreme aesthetic, with an elaborate color scheme, exotic use of light, and the grandeur of nature on display seem to taunt Clerici’s narrowly skewed interests, where the moral turmoil of his political and sexual confusion eventually become overwhelming, especially as time jumps ahead to the fascist defeat, which completely undercuts his fabricated life and everything he’s stood for, exposing his failures, along with others like him whose unquestioned following of a brutal regime allowed fascism to flourish.  In the aftermath of Mussolini’s death, when he suddenly sees the man on the street that he thought he had killed earlier in his life, Lino the chauffeur, still alive and trying to seduce another young man, he becomes unhinged, as if he has an internal explosion, publicly denouncing all his former friends as traitors, homosexuals, and murderous accomplices.  While the film is an indictment of hypocrisy and fascism, not to mention conformism as a means of finding a safe haven, it is also a tragic psychosexual descent into utter futility, as all his life Clerici’s constant desire to sacrifice his values and surround himself in a normal life of anonymity was based on the idea that he was different, that he was molested and abused, little more than damaged goods in an otherwise decent and moral society.  Liberation has always been conformity’s constant enemy, and now suddenly he finds himself alone in a world that makes no sense, where he’s a stranger literally to himself, unaccepted by the new prevailing order, refusing to identify with the collaborating enemy within, shaking his feeble, weak-willed spirit to the core, where his biggest fear rises to the surface and once again looms mysteriously over his life, powerless to turn away, lost in an ambiguous fog of illusion, paralyzed, helpless and impotent.