Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain)

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE      A                 
aka:  La Maman et la Putain
France  (219 mi)  1973  d:  Jean Eustache

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, one of my all time favorite films, without which I never would have learned to appreciate the unique genius of John Cassavetes.  Eustache, like Cassavetes, created a completely improvisational drama while carefully scripting each and every word.  One of the mysteries of motion cinema is simply allowing the camera to capture the essence of human emotion, its best and its worst, in this case raw and unedited, filling the screen with imperfect people allowed to reveal their imperfections in full bloom.  Mistakes are made.  Attention must be paid.  People must learn to tend to the business of being people.  And it is films like this that help us do so. This is not a happy film, as it comically slithers and slides through infantile silliness and pretension before plunging us though the depths of self-pity and despair.  I always thought of this as a film about adolescence, the end of a youthful innocence.  Leave it to film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to find a political message attached to that.

Eustache carefully uses the length of the film to disassemble the persona of these blighted lovers, using confessional dialogue that exposes their raw internal distress and desperation that in this drama becomes an emotional marathon.  Though it has the appearance of improvisation, the entire dialogue came from the director's own life and was scripted entirely from conversations Eustache had or had heard, and Françoise Lebrun, who had never acted in a film before, reenacts, as Veronika, a part she played in life as Eustache's lover.  Filmed on 16 mm high contrast black and white, the force of the film is its focus on the subjects, entirely without pretense, rigorously observant, terribly funny, deeply sad, the film is a searing confessional masterpiece that unfurls in exhausting, exhilarating detail, a beautiful gut-wrenching choreography of fallible human beings, the force of which is its elegant simplicity.  According to the director, "I wrote this script because I loved a woman who left me. I wanted her to act in a film I had written. I never had the occasion, during the years that we spent together, to have her act in my films, because at that time I didn't make fiction films and it didn't even occur to me that she could act. I wrote this film for her and for Léaud; if they refused to play in it, I wouldn't have written it."  The film is dedicated to the real-life person for whom the part of Marie was written, who wound up killing herself, as did Eustache in 1981 at the age of 42.

Paraphrasing a wonderfully written review Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert at his best in 1999, where his words cry out to be used and repeated here, the film stars Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose best film performance was his first, Truffaut’s 1959 film THE 400 BLOWS, playing a fierce young 13-year old roaming the streets of Paris, idolizing Balzac, and escaping into books and trouble as a way of dealing with his parent’s unhappy marriage.  His adult performances have all been an extension of that character, grown up.  Here he plays Alexandre, who smokes and talks incessantly about himself in the cafés of Paris, Les Deux Magots and La Coupole, literally performing his life theatrically for women, wearing a dark coat with a long scarf around his neck sweeping to his knees.  His best friend dresses the same way.  He spends his days in cafés, holding, but not reading, Proust.  “Look, there’s Sartre – the drunk,” he says one day in Café Flore, Eustache supplies a quick shot of several people at a table, one of whom may or may not be Sartre.  Alexandre talks about Sartre staggering out after his long intellectual chats in the café and speculates that the great man’s philosophy may just be alcoholic musings.

Alexandre lives with Marie, Bernadette Lafont, who earlier starred in Truffaut’s film short THE MISCHIEF MAKERS (1958), also Chabrol’s BEAU SERGE (1958) and LES BONNES FEMMES (1960), playing a beautiful boutique owner who supports him.  He’s just broken up with Gilberte, Isabelle Weingarten, who was introduced in the Robert Bresson film Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur... (1972), who rejected his proposal of marriage, and his way of dealing with this despair is to date the first woman he sees that looks like her, Veronika, Francoise Lebrun, a nurse from Poland, subjecting her to a great many of his thoughts and would be thoughts.  Much of her initial screen time consists of closeups of her listening to one of Alexandre’s endless monologues, his eyes always following the progress of other women in view.  One of the wonders of the film is the way women can let a man like Alexandre talk endlessly about himself while they regard him like a specimen of aberrant behavior.  Women keep a man like Alexandre around out of curiosity about what new idiocy he will next exhibit.  Of course, Alexandre is cheating on both women, but his style is to play with relationships, even bringing both to bed at the same time just to find out where it will all lead.  In this case, it leads to the emotional devastation of both women.  While Marie mostly weeps in silence or plays her favorite records, Veronika is frank about herself, sleeping around because she likes sex, as it takes her out of her low self-esteem.  She has a passionate monologue near the end of the film, a torrent of self-pity describing her sexual needs and her resentment that women aren’t supposed to admit their feelings, describing the miseries of loveless sex, confessing in front of Alexandre and Marie that she loves him and she loves having sex with him, so why should she be shamed of that?  It is the lower class, working girl Veronika who throws the pretense of people like Alexandre and Marie to the wind, literally exposing the middle class as one big lie, a blown up dream, “The Working Class Goes to Paradise,” people who have the economic good fortune to be able to comfortably hide behind their world of illusions and deceptions without having to pay the price that others unfortunately must pay for their mistakes.  Alexandre accompanies her back to her room, where she rejects him in disgust, explaining she may be pregnant with his child.  He leaves, but then runs back and proposes marriage which she accepts while vomiting into a wash basin, and Alexandre collapses on the floor against the refrigerator, shivering in agony.

A friend Barry Goetsch made an interesting observation about the title.  By all accounts, Veronika is considered the whore, as she willingly calls herself one, but by the end of the film when we learn she is the mother carrying Alexandre’s child, we discover it is Alexandre who is the whore.  The difference of each gender in approaching sex is the theme that runs throughout the film.  Men can have sex with anyone with no complications, even marriage can be proposed frivolously, as Alexandre does twice in this film, in the beginning and at the end.  Only women can bear children, which carries an enormous commitment that men simply cannot overlook, always and forever, ironically, a phrase men use to express their commitment of love to women.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum says this is the film that slammed the door on the French New Wave and is one of the strongest statements about the aftermath of the failed French revolution of May 1968, literally a definitive expression of the closing in of Western culture after the end of an era of hope and optimism about a changing future known as the 60’s.  Innocence lost?  He suggests the director’s suicide confirms the film’s painting such a bleak portrait, a terminal collapse of will and hope, that it accurately describes “not just where we are today but of who we are,” that Alexandre’s expression of hopelessness about social change and human possibilities is in fact an expression of defeat, and accurately reflects the defeatist times we’re currently living through.  Some of Alexandre’s expressions:  “To speak the words of others, that’s what freedom must be,” or “My only dignity is my cowardice,” or “Nausea is a noble sentiment.  The world will be saved by children, soldiers, and madmen,” to which Veronika replies, “I don’t know if you make them up or not, but you say some very beautiful things.  In a bad film it’d be called the message.”

Eustache links the dreams of May 1968 to the memories of the Nazi occupation.  Alexandre’s unnamed friend has a fetish for Nazi paraphernalia and carries a book entitled SS and the Gestapo – The Reign of Terror, also plays a record of Zarah Leander songs Zarah Leander: Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh'n ... YouTube (3:36), which prompts Alexandre to lament being born after the time when girls swooned over soldiers in uniforms, that now “business has replaced the uniform, young professionals in sports cars.”  One of the climactic shots focuses on a bereft Marie drowning her sorrows by repeatedly listening to a 1948 recording of Edith Piaf singing “Les Amants de Paris” YouTube - La maman et la putain YouTube (3:05).  Eustache’s choice of actors cannot be separated from their link to the New Wave and its aftermath.  When Alexandre reproaches Gilberte for forgetting their love and resigning herself to “mediocrity,” he says, “After crises one must forget everything quickly.  Erase everything, like France after the occupation, like France after May 1968.  You recover like France after May ’68,” later recalling a time, “There was the Cultural revolution, May ’68, the Rolling Stones, long hair, the Black Panthers, the Palestinians, the underground.  And for the last two or three years, nothing anymore.”  And still later, he describes with envy, “In May ’68 I went to a café, everyone was crying.  It was beautiful.  A tear-gas bomb had exploded, a crack in reality opened up.  I’m afraid it will all be gone.”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore (J'entends plus la guitare)

J’ENTENDS PLUS LA GUITARE           A               
aka:  I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore  d:  Philippe Garrel
France  (98 mi)  1991

One doesn’t get a chance to see films like this very often, a premiere in Chicago 17 years after it was released, opening with little or no fanfare, no special announcements or critical appraise, little to alert the public of a special event, playing in a near empty theater where only those few who have heard about it by word of mouth are there.  Garrel’s more appreciative work was his most recent film, REGULAR LOVERS (2005), a mammoth 3-hour work that looks behind the scenes at the student demonstrations in Paris during the late 60’s which played the festival circuit and was widely acclaimed, starring Garrel’s own son Louis who may as well be the poster child for French films.  To my knowledge, that is the only film that had a run here in the United States.  Garrel’s other 25+ films have only been talked about, perhaps a few have been screened across the country in recent retrospectives, but most have never been seen.  This is a magnificent looking film, one that takes full advantage of the utilization of space, usually from close to medium range shots where the emptiness of the unfilled space between characters becomes one of the themes of the film.  Cinematographer Caroline Champetier makes it all look effortless with an extremely fluid camera style that at times resembles choreography, particularly the way she changes the focus between characters by following the pace of their body movement.  This is an extremely naturalistic film, one of the quietest seen, much of it shot in interior rooms conveying a maximum amount of silence where even natural sound appears to be muted, where quiet, near inaudible conversations appear to be taking place in a vacuum, as if the outside world is not allowed to protrude.   This mood is perfectly accentuated in brief glimpses by outstanding original music by Faton Cahen, which features a piano and a few ascending jazz riffs on a sax, an eloquent testament to a narcotic induced haze.  

While this nearly non-narrative, highly impressionistic film is certainly not for everybody, as it’s clearly downbeat and utterly sad, an unglamorous view without artifice of what might be described as the cinema of no emotion, but what it does offer is an artistic appreciation for realism with a nervy intelligence.  With no particularly likeable characters, this is an extremely personalized, understated, autobiographical film, a fictionalized recreation, opening in bed with a couple awakening from sleep on the sunny Italian Riviera, Gérard, Benoît Régent, a stand-in for the director, and Marianne, Johanna ter Steege, brilliant as a stand-in for his real-life girlfriend Nico (Christa Päffgen), from the Velvet Underground, with whom he spent ten years of his life and made 7 trippy films together in the 70’s.  While discussing the ramifications of love, it’s apparent they are questioning every word, every syllable, in attempting to break down anything phony in their commitment to one another.  Marianne especially finds Gérard’s words to be a kind of empty articulation that feels learned and ingrained, hardly spontaneous revelations “of the moment.”  Régent offers an unusual style of being completely noncommittal, almost as if he’s not even there, as we never learn his profession, what money he lives on or anything about his background, instead he remains hidden behind a cloud of mystery, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY (1997).  Marianne on the other hand, whose every movement is followed by the camera, has her own sensual style with a playfully inquisitive mind, very direct and to the point, but never forcing the issue, simply asserting her views openly.  They share their time with another couple, Gérard’s friend Martin (Yann Collette), a painter who has lost an eye and his girlfriend Lola (Mireille Perrier), with whom Gérard may have at one time been intimate.  Anouk Grinberg as Adrienne plays yet another outside interest.  Together they express a free wheeling, somewhat indulgent philosophical style that represents a lofty, grandiose view of themselves. 

Moving back to Paris, the interior mood has darkened considerably, as has their increased drug use, introducing heroin into their relationship.  It’s interesting to see how one’s obsessed notion of “need” can become an illusion, used frequently as a romantic expression between lovers, yet with narcotics it’s a foregone conclusion who (or what) becomes the real need.  Humans become completely irrelevant.  Marianne quickly disappears without a trace, presumably with another man, though perhaps out of self preservation, which leaves Gérard nearly immobile and alone.  Like an answered prayer, a woman appears at his door, announces she’s a friend of Marianne named Aline (Brigitte Sy, Garrel’s former real life wife and mother to Louis), who proceeds in grand style to nurse Gérard back to the living, which includes getting married and having his baby, all of which is realized in a single shot.  Compared to everything else we’ve experienced, usually seen through oblique, intensely personal conversations, a dinner sequence with her family and the newborn baby has a tinge of the ridiculous, yet it’s perhaps the most normal scene in the film.  When Marianne returns, Gérard is torn between separate lives, his old and his new, and hasn’t a clue how to make it right, as it’s clear his earlier high-minded ideals and confessed promises to Marianne are coming back to haunt him.  The internal damage this causes each of them after supposedly cleaning up their lives, is devastating, perhaps best represented in a scene between Marianne and Aline, which appears to be something of a peace offering but soon deteriorates into a strange personal confession by Marianne describing her life with Gérard, which evolves from an existential meaninglessness to greater transcendent heights, all of which is meant to casually dismiss Aline’s world to the near-irrelevant, but it perhaps drives a stake through her own heart instead. 

This film is gorgeous, intelligent, and surprisingly tender, offering little if any emotion emanating from the screen, but that is the Bressonian mold which forces the viewer to supply their own emotional perspective.  Partly that is what makes this film so unique, as it doesn't follow convention any more than the characters do, as when moving in a single shot from the day he meets Aline to a subsequent day when they are married and already have a child.  That type of economy is, to say the least, unusual.  Also, of interest, the filmmaker spares no one, especially himself, revealing his own inadequacies in nearly every shot, especially the last one.  This kind of ruthless critique of one’s own behavior deserves some recognition.  The spared down version of how he tells the story of his life is unique, yet due to the way he films it, where so much detail permeates specific periods, it's as if we've read a book, as we feel intimately familiar with the lives of the central characters.  Marc Cholodenko is credited with the stunning dialogue, much of which owes a debt to Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), as the unsparing confessional tone is mixed with a raw internal dysfunction, where the physical quality of the peeling paint on the walls literally takes on a life force of its own, where people’s lives start to resemble the worn out, dilapidated buildings that they casually inhabit all their lives, never giving it a second thought.  Yet by the end, it’s clear that Gérard was never honest with himself throughout the entire film, a realization that haunts him and taints his memories of Marianne, clearly the singlemost significant relationship in his life.  What stands out is the amount of time wasted in this director’s life where so much is lost on drugs and personal missteps, where only after Nico’s death does Garrel come to realize how much he loved her and that she was in fact the love of his life.  With this film, the haze has cleared and Garrel finally has the opportunity to tell the unvarnished truth.  The film is dedicated to Nico who died three years before its release.     

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Burning Hot Summer (Un été brûlant)

A BURNING HOT SUMMER (Un été brûlant)           B-                   
France  Italy  Switzerland  (95 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Philippe Garrel

For whatever reason, Philippe Garrel films rarely play in the United States, where in the last two decades only 2 of the director’s 8 films had an official release here, where I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore (J'entends plus la... (1991) was released in the USA in 2008, 17 years after it played in Europe, following the successful release of his critically acclaimed REGULAR LOVERS (2005).  Others films, like this one, which will be available to the public on View On Demand beginning the 29th, have made their way to various art houses, but are virtually unseen by the viewing public.  Garrel is an acquired taste and is not for everyone, but he’s a throwback to a different era of cinema where film had to matter, using an autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness Proustian style of personal confession, something along the lines of Jean Eustache, whose wrenching drama The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973) remains a seminal work in a radical and provocative style of cinema that challenges the viewer, a searing confessional masterpiece that unfurls in exhausting, exhilarating detail.  Garrel’s characters writhe in the agony of their own despairing souls, where the only life worth paying attention to is one that recognizes how intertwined life and death really are, as life doesn’t exist without human tragedy.  Marc Cholodenko has co-written all of Garrel’s films in the past 20 years with the director, where their style is to convey complexity through completely unsentimentalized emotional directness.  Perhaps this family might be comparable to America’s John Huston, whose father Walter acted in over 50 films, and whose children Angelica and Danny have both built successful careers in motion pictures and television.  Philippe’s father Maurice acted in over a hundred French films, while his son Louis first appeared onscreen at age 6 and has gone on to replace Jean-Pierre Léaud (who happens to be his godfather) as the next generation’s heart throb in French films.

In typical Garrel style, the film opens with a suicide, as the bleary-eyed Louis Garrel speeds his luxury BMW into a tree, becoming an image of death and stillness, where his last thought was a naked image of his wife (Monica Bellucci).  The rest of the film is a flashback narrated by his best friend Paul (Jérôme Robart), a relatively nondescript kind of guy who sells revolutionary political papers on the street while working part-time as a movie extra.  Paul’s girlfriend is Élisabeth (Céline Sallette), a cute girl he meets on the movie set, becoming lifelong partners.  Frédéric (Louis Garrel) is a painter living in a gorgeous villa in Italy with his voluptuous older wife Angèle (Bellucci), something of a sexpot movie star, where he invites them both to come spend the summer together in Italy, as he’s having difficulty painting, “All that dead beauty is so uninspiring.”  Frédéric and Paul spend all their time together discussing revolutionary politics, among other things, where Paul believes it’s a question of the police, as they inevitably support the Fascist state, where you have to actively live a life that defies the need for police, suggesting “Fidelity is an outdated, petit-bourgeois concept.”  Frédéric, on the other hand, believes in art and love, tolerant of all political views so long as he’s allowed to live his life.  Élisabeth starts feeling left out as Paul is constantly at Frédéric’s side, where he’s not ashamed to admit he enjoys admiring his wife, which is a roundabout way of belittling Élisabeth.  When Angèle receives rave reviews for her latest role, they celebrate and throw a party, where Angèle creates something of a scandal on the dance floor to Dirty Pretty Things - Truth Begins - YouTube (5:23), creating a sense of sexually uninhibited euphoria Dancing in Philippe Garrel's "A Burning Hot Summer" - YouTube (4:32), which ends badly with Frédéric, where things are never quite the same between the two of them, mired in the complacency of a personal malaise that may have political roots.  It should be stated that Maurice Garrel was a resistance fighter against the Nazi’s in the 40’s, while Philippe was a leftist student activist in Paris, May 1968, helping to organize the largest nationwide strike in history, involving 22% of the entire French population over the course of two weeks.  Louis, on the other hand, is the product of a French generation without a war or a cause to rally behind, becoming ambivalent about politics, emblematic of the nation’s complacency which led to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, President of a right-wing party, soon to become the most divisive conservative politician in France.  During Angèle’s lifetime, Italy has been rocked by the self-serving antics of billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the longest serving postwar Prime Minister of Italy, a term plagued by corruption and scandal and personal indiscretion.   

Louis Garrel is always the most indulgent and annoyingly self-centered person in the room, a guy that thinks only of himself, who couldn’t possibly take the time to understand others, as he’s completely enraptured with himself.  But in Monica Bellucci, she’s more indulgent than he is, as she has to be the center of attention where she can be adored all the time.  If people aren’t paying attention to her, she feels something’s wrong.  So of course, she runs off and has an affair with her next filmmaker, Roland (Vladislav Galard), falling madly in love, as he gives her all the attention she needs.  Both Frédéric and Angèle are pleasure gluttons, where they simply can’t get enough of themselves, making them rather empty headed and vapid characters, most of the time feeling superficial at best.  When things go wrong between them, as they inevitably do, they never talk to each other or try to work things out, as other than sex, they’re not used to communicating anything.  So long as the sex was great, everything else just fell into place, but when people started feeling left out or distant, they didn’t know how to reconnect.  Élisabeth doesn’t really understand what is happening between them, but she intrinsically takes the woman’s side, knowing this could one day be happening to her.  When Angèle runs off with the filmmaker, Frédéric falls apart, becoming an emotional wreck.   When Paul tries to console his friend, Élisabeth has had enough of being left out.  This film is defined by unlikable characters that don’t know how to talk to one another, that create distances and empty spaces, and then are surprised to feel alienated.  The quality of the filmmaking is excellent, told exclusively as a series of lived in fragments or vignettes, though strangely the narrator himself is rarely a featured character, where Willy Kurant’s cinematography remains intimately focused, and the music by John Cale has a way of accentuating something unexpressed.  Everything about the film works except the lead couple, where there’s no sizzle, and while the film may attempt to be more, as it’s largely a film about two male friends, it gets bogged down by the couple’s emotional limitations, as both of whom couldn’t be more full of themselves, making it hard for the audience to care about a loathsome pair who could care less about anybody else.  All the crocodile tears that Frédéric feels are just missed opportunities where no one’s paying any attention to him—could anything in life be worse?  There’s an interesting appearance at the end of the film from Maurice Garrel, the last role he appeared in before he died just months before the film’s release.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

House of Bamboo

HOUSE OF BAMBOO           B                     
USA  (102 mi)  1955  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Fuller

The first postwar American film to be shot completely in Japan, while Bogart’s TOKYO JOE (1949) was the first to film there, creating newsreel shots while most of Bogart’s film was actually completed in the studio.  Opening with a daring train heist taking place under a Mount Fuji backdrop, where a man is killed and another seriously shot, Fuller makes terrific use of colorful Tokyo locations.  Playing out like a B-movie, there’s a major contrast between the colorful Japanese costumes of bright kimonos seen on the streets and the mandatory trench coats and fedora hats of film noir, where much of the dialogue has that gruff American gangster style, which in this overly polite and ultra conformist Asian world is strange, to say the least.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting take on Japan attempting to establish a new postwar identity and America trying to find its rightful place in the postwar reconstruction.  It plays out like a travelogue, but also, due to the obvious culture shock, is filled with a continued series of unfortunate misconceptions that are overly stereotypical to the point of being crude and offensive, much like how American GI’s impose their own shallow, Ugly American manners and customs on any foreign nation where they happen to be sent, which usually includes their predominate need for a heavy dose of alcohol and prostitutes.  Interestingly, what happens here is Americans bring their criminal mentality of gangsters and hoods into what is otherwise a pacified nation with little to no crime, where few individuals outside the police even have access to guns.  Adapted from a Harry Kleiner play that was originally featured in the William Keighley movie THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948), a rousingly patriotic FBI tribute that’s also a suspenseful noir, where the near documentary, on-location scenes in Washington, D.C. and the FBI training facilities in Quantico, Virginia have been transported to gritty locations in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan in 1954, shot in ‘Scope where Fuller uses the same cinematographer, Joe MacDonald.  This successful blend of a Hollywood melodrama set within the actual settings of an exotic Asian locale was used again in Richard Quine’s THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), where an American artist reluctantly finds love with a local prostitute among exquisite Hong Kong locations.  In each, the semi-documentary setting is so visually pronounced that whatever story there is hardly matters, becoming time capsules of a specific place in time.  Akira Kurosawa was much more successful capturing an authentic postwar look of Japan, especially his ability to capture unforgettable street scenes in DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948), STRAY DOG (1949), and IKIRU (1952).

When an American GI dies from the train robbery before naming his crime boss, U.S. Army intelligence working in cooperation with Japanese police authorities determine he was secretly married to a Japanese woman, a secret he covered up, believing if others knew it could cost her life.  Enter the wooden-faced Robert Stack as Eddie Spanier, a man with few words, a trench coated American hood with a tendency to barge into situations and demand someone in charge who speaks English, chastising anyone who can’t speak the language, rousting some of the local gambling dens, asking for protection money, bringing the whole attitude of film noir into what are otherwise dazzling, color saturated street scenes.  Searching for the girl, he walks through a kabuki theater dress rehearsal, basically pushing them out of his way, also an elaborate labyrinth of boats and wooden walkways at the pier, basically an excuse to film at such a beautifully authentic seaside locale.  After a brief search, he finds the girl, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), pretending he was her husband’s army buddy, acting surprised to learn he’s dead.  His nosing around brings him straight to the crime boss, Robert Ryan as Sandy Dawson, who is curious who’s still walking around Tokyo using such outmoded collection methods.  Dawson and his den of thieves live in an elaborately decorated abandoned temple, with manicured gardens and a view of Mount Fuji, where Spanier’s no nonsense approach appeals to Dawson, as he’s a guy that won’t ask any questions, he’ll simply carry out his assignment, like he’s been doing all his life.  The twist here is that Spanier is really an Army intelligence officer infiltrating the crime syndicate, hoping his information can trace the gun that shot the American at the train heist.  All goes according to plan, except Dawson wants to know the Mariko angle and why he’s mixed up with her, eventually settling on the made up explanation that she’s Spanier’s “kimono girl,” a bought and paid for prostitute.  What’s interesting is Fuller’s spin on her profession, where neighbors aren’t ashamed that she’s a prostitute, but that she’s serving an American, a foreigner, something considered beneath their dignity, as that brings dishonor and disgrace to the neighborhood.        

While the American and Japanese love interest is conveyed in an artificalized, over-the-top melodrama with a syrupy musical soundtrack, this stands in stark contrast to their undercover roles, both assuming false identities, as through their eyes is an unsentimentalized glimpse into a gritty, surprisingly violent criminal underworld that Dawson, a former GI himself, runs like a military operation, where what they’re discovering is the corrupt influence of the American occupation of Japan.  Fuller tries to get inside the head of the gang culture itself, which has a ranking system of favoritism, where Eddie quickly rises to the top of Dawson’s trust, which doesn’t sit well with some of the others, especially the way Dawson lavishes praise and attention with a chummy homoerotic intimacy, undercutting the group’s morale.  But when he’s informed by a reporter that Eddie is an inside plant from military intelligence, Dawson vows to get his revenge, angry that he’s misjudged him, taking his betrayal personally, mapping out a job where he’s sure to get killed.  As events spiral out of control, what seems clear is other than death, there’s no measure of justice among thieves, where this sinister portrait of underworld amorality undermines the Japanese reconstruction effort, where America is supposed to be helping reconstruct a postwar moral order.  Using lush colors and fluid camera movements, the surface look of Japan couldn’t be brighter, but like Cagney in WHITE HEAT (1949), Dawson gets trapped evading the police, ironically stuck in a children’s amusement park filled with mothers and tiny children, where’s he’s seen wandering around with a gun in his hand with families screaming in panic.  As police try to clear everyone away, there is utter pandemonium, like a GODZILLA (1954) disaster movie, where Fuller stages a momentous scene with Dawson herded up to an elevated revolving globe, like a Disneyland attraction.  From this height, Dawson unleashes ferocious firepower, seemingly never running out of bullets, continually spraying the grounds, keeping police at bay.  Eddie arrives and tries to track him down, initially with no success, but while there’s plenty of bullets in the air, this is a dramatically staged shoot out in such a memorable location.  A mix of color and pulp style, where Fuller attempts to interject Japanese street scenes and culture throughout, the film survives as a highly entertaining piece of Americana set in a fragile period of Japanese history. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Take This Waltz

director Sarah Polley

 TAKE THIS WALTZ              B+                     
Canada  Japan  Spain  (116 mi)  2011  d:  Sarah Polley            Official site

And I'll dance with you in Vienna
I'll be wearing a river's disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
My mouth on the dew of your thighs…

Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It's yours now, it's all that there is 

—Take This Waltz, by Leonard Cohen, take this waltz leonard cohen - YouTube (5:37)

The Queen of Existential Melancholy makes a film after her own heart, improving radically over the previously acclaimed Blue Valentine (2010), also starring Michelle Williams, another married couple on the rocks film, which despite the superb performances and heralded reviews was something of an empty disappointment, especially considering the talent in the film, featuring poorly matched characters going nowhere.  This is another break up film by a better director, one that avoids clichés without a hint of sentimentality and without the intensely uncomfortable nagging arguments of one character blaming the other, where the writer/director/producer shows the same effect without the manipulation, where despite the happy moments and continual pledges of love, there is a decided accumulation of disinterest through marital attrition, where a near anonymous character states the theme of the film in a communal female shower sequence after a pool aerobics workout, where the shower lady says “Everything that’s new gets old.”  From the outset, a somewhat comical visit to a historical re-enactment at the fortress and lighthouse of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, we see Margot (Williams) develop an amusingly intimate rapport with a fellow traveler, Luke Kirby as Daniel, flirting on the plane and sharing a cab when they return home to Toronto, turning this into a kind of adulterous love fantasia when she discovers the guy lives right across the street from her home, where she’s supposedly happily married to Lou, Seth Rogen, a guy who writes cookbooks on the various ways to cook chicken, which he cooks night after night, leaving her wanting more.  But it’s the kind of love that has to be repeatedly reinforced, inventing a playful game where they try to outdo the other in depicting the most gruesome way to maim or disfigure the other, suggesting they love the other person that much.  Clearly they have an on-again and off-again relationship, lost in a fog of melancholia, where she likely married too young, falling for a guy she’s barely attracted to anymore, where both seem to have intimacy issues where they don’t like people touching them or getting too close.      

What’s apparent is what a middle of the road couple this is, as neither express their feelings well, where their days consist of awkward moments where Margot tries to get suggestive, putting her arms around her husband while he’s cooking, but he’s oblivious, more concerned about the chicken than her intent, which goes unnoticed.  While they’re still in their twenties, only married five years, they have surprisingly little to say to one another, as Lou simply avoids any discussion about children.  Into this void walks Daniel, who greets her walking down the street, offering to get coffee, where they discover both are early risers, and they familiarize themselves with each other’s routines, as Daniel walks to the beach every morning, where they meet from time to time.  Their conversations are engagingly playful, where it’s obvious there’s a certain spark that doesn’t exist at home.  Nevertheless, she refuses to cross the line, something she makes inherently clear, but always returns to meeting Daniel, who responds in kind, such as sitting in the balcony of her all women swimming aerobics class at the gym, creating something of a fuss, as these mostly married women aren’t used to having someone, especially other than their husbands, paying attention to them.  In the shower scene afterwards, Polley shows women’s bodies, young and old, where they’re free to carry on personal conversations while stark naked in the shower and no one gets judgmental, as nobody cares.  It’s here that Margot is reminded that everything runs its course and eventually the novelty wears off, but she’s not ready for that to happen yet, instead spending an entire day at an amusement park with Daniel, where they go to Center Island, a fifteen minute ferry ride from Toronto, where like little kids they ride a roller coaster to the music of the Buggles Take This Waltz - Video Killed the Radio Star - YouTube (2:05), re-igniting a sexual chemistry that exists between them which they still choose to ignore. 

Margot continues to offer suggestive signs to Lou, which he continually ignores, but on their anniversary dinner, when she points out they have nothing to say to each other, he’s not at all surprised, which she finds all too baffling.  While neither one of these characters is particularly complex, what is evident is the closer she gets to Daniel, the unhappier she is at home with Lou, so eventually she flat out tells him, but not until Daniel has made a quick exit from the neighborhood, surprising and confusing Margot, who clearly has to make a choice.  Unfortunately for Lou, she runs to the beach to find Daniel.  Their new life together is a series of fast forward or freeze frame images that have a provocatively suggestive quality about them, occasionally adding a threesome partner, but all of this is wordlessly shown, using snippets of Canadian indie songs throughout, almost like a sexual pastiche of wish fulfillment dreams, where her new life takes on a heightened quality about it, but there’s no actual reality shown, as it remains brand new rather than an accumulated understanding.  While Polley clearly creates an adulterous fantasia, it’s not without consequences, as when she returns to the old neighborhood to see family and friends, and Lou, the old gang is a supportive and close-knit group, where she is seen as a betraying vixen, something of a heartbreaker, as Lou is continually seen as a sweet natured guy that wouldn’t hurt anyone, including Margot, so in their eyes, the fault lies with her, as she’s broken up the gang.

Continuing this existential dilemma, there is a price you pay for freedom of choice, and in this case, it may mean dumping the old and acquiring an entirely new set of friends, a practice common among recovering substance abusers or former gang members.  In the end, it's a big question mark what she's getting herself into, where the idealized new guy could end up worse than what she's leaving in the first place, so you never know when you make that leap of faith into the void, as all that really seems to matter is it’s the first time in her life when she’s been able to choose what pleases her, and ultimately, according to this film, that’s what matters the most—cue the 1970’s women’s liberation anthem, Helen Reddy: "I Am Woman", from "The Midnight Special", 1975 ... YouTube (3:11).  No, not really, excuse the viewer flashback, more likely something grounded in a kind of cowboy sense of alienation:  Doug Paisley - Wide Open Plain - YouTube (5:35), as the film is about filling that empty sense of loneliness in our lives, even in supposedly stable marriages.  The reality of the film is the inner world of Michelle Williams as she experiences the various steps, as the entire film is seen through her eyes.  It's entirely a character development film, where what’s to like here is Polley's attention to the internal world of Williams.  She is always an ordinary person, as is her husband, but she dreams of more.  With choice comes responsibility, and to get what you want, you're going to have to hurt people.  While it’s an expression of female individuality and personal independence, it’s interesting that Polley does include the emotional cost involved, which remains a heavy weight on her back even as she feels light as a feather.      

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


ELENA            B                    
Russia  (109 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Andrei Zvyagintsev

Somewhat slight compared to his earlier efforts, THE RETURN (2003) and THE BANISHMENT (2007), this is a subtle film that delves into the heart of the Russian conscience, where a wordless ten–minute opening into the empty expanse of a meticulously clean, thoroughly modern and luxurious yet seemingly cold and sterile Moscow condominium sets the scene for an unsparing examination of class consciousness.  Something of a generational morality tale where the future looks hopeless and overly bleak, this is a slow moving character exposé, almost a theater piece, where what’s most significant is the developing interior worlds of the characters, given a very novelesque structure of what turns out to be a modern day variation on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Centered around two main characters, a retired couple, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in separate bedrooms, each with their own television sets, where every morning she opens the curtains and wakes him up, where her role is carefully defined around the subordinate position of serving him, like a nursemaid, where it’s a portrait of two entirely separate worlds.  Extending further is the world of their children, each through previous marriages, where Vladimir’s mostly unseen and distant daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), seems to live a hedonistic and carefree existence, accustomed to being taken care of all her life by the support of her father, while Elena’s aloof teenage son lives in a state of abject poverty with his perpetually idle father and nagging mother in a tenement housing project sitting adjacent to 3 nuclear power smokestacks.  The dismal picture of their blighted lives says it all, where Elena is constantly hounded for money, but Vladimir is unyielding when it comes to offering help, wondering why he should support a family whose own father won’t get off his unemployed ass and get a job to help support his own family?  When Elena tries to compare her son’s situation with his daughter, Vladimir refuses to hear any more on the subject, claiming even though his sarcastically hostile daughter is no great prize, he’s at least fulfilling his fatherly obligation.  What to do about their future is the subject of the film’s moral center, told through alternating characters, one living under the protection of supreme comfort, while the other can be seen traipsing through the graffiti-laden slums to visit her son and grandson. 

Having met late in life, their lives were already structured, as Elena was the nurse in the hospital several years ago when they met, and has continued serving that same role in marriage.  Something of a control freak, Vladimir is particular about having things exactly his way, where there isn’t an ounce of recognition or awareness of how he’s treating his wife, while she dutifully submits to each and every one of his commands, never expressing any sign of resentment.  Under the surface, however, she is boiling at her husband’s refusal to take her family seriously.  For all practical purposes, this is the set up, with no other background information provided other than the acute visual detail captured by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who worked on the director’s earlier films as well, and the splendid intermittent use of the 3rd Movement of Phillip Glass’s Symphony #3, a tense and pulsating use of throbbing strings that effectively becomes the voice of the subconscious.  Vladimir’s sense of control can be see in this wordless car driving sequence that expresses a rather sophisticated sense of choice, Elena (2011) - Car driving scene - YouTube (2:46), where the haunting Glass music comes in at the end.  Shortly afterwards, he suffers a heart attack at the gym, literally forcing him to confront his mortality.  One of the best scenes in the film is the hospital visit by his daughter, the simply brilliant Elena Lyadova, who is haughty and cynical, just like her father, but surprisingly eloquent, Elena 2011 - YouTube  (5:16), where the cameraman can’t take his gaze off her fascinating performance.  This visit seems to solidify his view that he needs to write a will, informing Elena that she will receive a generous monthly stipend, but his daughter will inherit everything else.  This sends Elena into a state of flux, her hopes for her son dashed, as she sees Katerina as a spoiled and ungrateful child, someone who couldn’t be less appreciative of her father, only using him for money.  With few spoken words between the two of them, Elena has to wordlessly convey the plaguing guilt of the young Raskolnikov, as she wonders if righting a wrong by committing an unthinkable mortal sin is permissible if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose, where her transformation is chilling.   

Like the novel, the film barely touches upon the crime, but lingers instead on the unintended interior consequences of the punishment, where Elena skillfully covers up the tracks of her foul deed, where earlier in the film Katrina understood her well, claiming she played the part well of a mournful and grieving wife, where in the hospital her words to her father haunt the final moments of the film, like a Macbethian witch’s prophecy: “It’s irresponsible to produce offspring that you know are going to be sick and doomed, since the parents are just as sick and doomed.”  If Zvyaguintsev films produce anything, they brilliantly foreshadow a bleak future, where Elena struggles with a Mephistophelian choice to prevent a gloomy future for her grandson Sasha, where his parents are elated when she suddenly has available cash to bribe his way into college, rescuing her grandson from the inevitable fate of being forced to join the army, seen as a fate worse than prison.  He barely acknowledges her actions however, much like Elena feared Katerina would react, when the director then shows us the real face of the Russian future.  As the electricity goes out in the tenement housing projects turning the apartment dark, Sasha goes outside and joins a gang of others waiting for him that get liquored up, and in an exquisite example of the best uses of a hand-held camera, follow the group as they hastily approach a clearing in front of the nuclear power smokestacks with the precision of a military strike, where in a riveting sequence they attack a group of outsiders huddling next to a fire, savagely kicking and beating them all to within an inch of their lives, a senseless act of ultraviolence that’s right out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a stormtrooping, boot-kicking, neo-Nazi vision of disillusioned youth that’s becoming all too common an occurrence these days, almost always alcohol fueled.  Like the wordless emptiness of the opening sequence, the final sequence is eerily similar, with the tenement dwellers now inhabiting the luxurious condo, bringing with them their learned habits of drunken idleness and shirking responsibility, soulless creatures who are literally pretenders to the human race.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kiss Me, Stupid

KISS ME, STUPID         A-               
USA  (126 mi)  1964  ‘Scope  d:  Billy Wilder

Utter tastelessness was never funnier, where this film opens with Dean Martin at the Sands Resort doing his closing night shtick at Las Vegas, singing “S’Wonderful” in between statuesque showgirls and a host of bad jokes, which, if truth be told, are the mainstay of comedy.  How else could the nation survive Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Andy Griffith Show, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, Gilligan's Island, or Flipper, all among the most watched TV shows of the era when this film was made.  Nonetheless, the film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency (perhaps the biggest joke of all, especially looking back from the present era where the Catholic Church is embroiled in their own *indecent* sex scandal, covering up decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, effectively eliminating any new order of priests coming out of the United States) and dismissed as too lewd and crude by most critics over the Christmas holiday release.  While adultery could be tolerated by the public in The Apartment (1961), winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture largely because the immoral offender was portrayed as such a sleazeball, it’s harder to justify adultery from a happily married couple in small town America, even if that’s part of the joke, as the film is really a bedroom farce about fidelity in love and marriage.  In comedy timing is everything, and this film was released just a year after the JFK Kennedy assassination, with a nation obsessed and still reeling from the larger implications of what happened, who’s behind it, and who’s running the country?  As a result, this film tends to get lost in the Billy Wilder pantheon of great movies, though it has to be one of his funniest films, where the double and triple entendre quality of the jokes ranks with the Marx Brothers.  Wilder's film treats vulgarity with the same in-your-face brashness as One, Two, Three  (1961), something few other directors could have even attempted, hardly immoral or smutty, where this is really fairly benign and no worse than other pictures.  Vastly underrated, what is perhaps most surprising, and may have been lost on initial audiences, is Wilder attempted to write a genuine sex comedy about a mainstream, small town marriage that was more about what held the couple together in marriage than what kept them apart, brilliantly using a spoof on Dean Martin as a Rat Pack swinger (Dean Martin And The Rat Pack) in an attempt to expose America’s love of celebrity as little more than sexual hypocrisy, meant to heighten the suspense and raise the salacious level of comic expectations, but then throws in a heavy dose of reality like a cold shower, where the couple’s real feelings are exposed by actually downplaying the adulterous sex angle.  Underneath it all, filled with a musical stream of Gershwin tunes, the film has a heart. 

Martin’s lecherous lounge act is clearly a parody of his celebrity, always seen with a drink in his hand, suggesting young showgirls are all clamoring to sleep with him, where keeping up with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in the Rat Pack is one long unending party of drinks and wild girls, where what Martin does really well is throw out WC Fields style one-liners written by professional joke writers, giving his character a sense of suave sophistication.  Wilder simply uses what he does in his act and places it in a completely off-the-wall and absurd setting, placing Dino away from the bright lights and applause of Vegas, instead plagued with car trouble, driving his own rare 1957 Dual Ghia convertible (only 100 were built) that gets stuck in the tiny town of Climax, Nevada, where not much of anything ever happens.  What’s a swinger to do?  But really he’s been tricked by a couple of locals, piano instructor Orville J. Spooner, everyman Ray Walston from My Favorite Martian, a replacement for Peter Sellers who suffered a heart attack during the first few weeks of shooting, and a somewhat oafish but overeager car mechanic Barney, Cliff Osmond.  The two write songs in their spare time, sending them away to various singers and publishers, but hear nothing back.  Wilder wanted the songs to be awful, so awful they would be hilarious, so he asked Ira Gershwin if he and his brother George had ever written any real clunkers?  Out of the files of shame come the unheard of Gershwin standards, “I’m a Poached Egg,” or “I’m Taking Mom to the Junior Prom Because She’s a Better Twister Than My Sister.”  Dino’s arrival to Barney’s gas station appears heaven sent, so he hatches a plot to remove the fuel valve from his car to give the impression of serious car trouble, explaining it’s an overnight fix, but he can conveniently stay with Orville across the street, who has the entire evening to push their songs, hoping this is a surefire way to get rich quick.  But because of his reputation as a womanizer, the obsessively jealous Orville doesn’t want Dino around his wife Zelda, Felicia Farr, so he intentionally picks a fight to get her out of the house, forcing her to spend the night with her mother while Barney picks up a girl from the Belly-Button Club just outside of town, where the neon sign outside reads “Drop In and Get Lost.”  But not just any girl, it turns out to be Polly the Pistol, Kim Novak, who literally steals the show, a part-time hooker who has a trailer behind the club.  Her job for the evening is to pretend to be Mrs. Orville Spooner and keep Dino and his constantly prowling fingers entertained, hoping he’ll buy a few songs along the way. 

The plot thickens.  While we get a taste of Orville playing “Sophia” at the piano, where the chorus returns over and over again like a bad dream, Dino is positively smitten with Polly and the so-called “Western hospitality” where over dinner with Chianti, Orville all but pushes her in Dino’s direction—anything to show him a good time.  Delighted with the turn of events, drinking Chianti out of her shoes, Dino has his hands full.  But refusing to be pawed, Polly shows unexpected outrage, “What right has he got to treat your wife like that?”  Polly is no fool and is really touched by the romance sentiment in Orville’s songs, where she urges him to keep playing, completely changing the movie’s implications, as the hooker with the heart of gold is more interested in the long-term interests of the husband than the raunchy needs of the customer.  Meanwhile, in what feels like a parallel world, poor Zelda has to face her mother, who is nothing more than a sour-pussed old hag (Doro Merande) who can think of nothing but non-stop criticism of her no good husband and her destroyed marriage.  This verbal assault is hilariously cringe worthy, as she resembles the tyrannical ravings of the Wicked Witch of the East, which quickly sends her daughter back out the door in a return to her husband, where she sees through the window a lively and simply extraordinarily intimate dance between her husband and Polly (choreographed by Gene Kelly, who was just passing by the studio one afternoon), where they clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves, so what could she do?  The night of sex and sin has a way of overshadowing Wilder’s real intent, establishing sex as a business, where sex and commerce are interchangeable, but things go awry when Orville starts seeing Polly as a person, not a commodity, so when Dino actually likes one of the more romantic ballads, like “All the Livelong Day,” Orville refuses to sell it, standing up for his pretend wife in this ridiculously fast paced sex farce, suddenly taking all the fun out of it, where Orville instead turns on Dino as a cad for making inappropriate, lurid advancements on his wife.  “Whatever happened to Western hospitality?” he pleads as he’s being thrown out on his ass.  But not to worry, the film follows Zelda instead, who turns out to be more than a handful, getting plastered at the local watering hole, ending up in Polly’s trailer just to sleep it off, where Dino arrives shortly afterwards, steered by the bartender to the trailer where all the “action” is.  Having exchanged places with Polly, Zelda realizes what’s up and asks Dino to serenade her with a few choruses of her husband’s “Sophia.”  Adultery within the marriage has a redemptive quality here, as being with an “other” only reminds each one of who they’re really missing.  Love and romance wins out in the end, overshadowing all sins of the flesh, taking us all by storm with this wild little ride in the desert concocted by Billy Wilder.   

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora)

PANDORA’S BOX (Die Büchse der Pandora)            A                    
Germany  (133 mi)  1928  d:  G. W. Pabst

You'll have to kill me to get rid of me.               —Lulu (Louise Brooks)

A timeless Silent film that represents the hedonistic decadence of amorality and debauchery in the Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933) of 1920’s Berlin, so prevalent in films like Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927), von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1930), or even Pabst’s own THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931), an extraordinary period of artistic freedom and sexual experimentation that gave rise not only to the birth of German Expressionism, the Bauhaus modern art movement, and a new international style of architecture, but also a notoriously vibrant nightlife of underground theaters, cinema, café’s and bars that stretched the boundaries of sexuality.  Born out of Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, it was a period of war reparations and an imposed economic devaluation that led to chaos, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political upheaval.  Out of this moral decline, however, came a burgeoning sex industry and internationally renowned cabaret performances, featuring a financially independent “new woman” in Weimar German society.  Discarded American actress Louise Brooks set the world on fire in this German film with her shortly cropped, bobbed hairstyle, also a decidedly relaxed wardrobe of form fitting *barely there* clothing that struck a note of individuality and emancipation, representative of *new age* women that were both celebrated and cursed by an older generation who feared their individualism and selfishness, coming from a more oppressive tradition.  As this film suggests, it was the mere audacity to dare to be different and everything associated with the idea of a *new woman* that was eventually blamed for the frenzied immorality that led to the downfall of Weimar culture and society, giving rise to the Third Reich where the Nazi’s quickly shut down the clubs and banned what was considered culturally decadent, also anything reflecting an outside potentially Jewish influence, labeling it degenerate art.

A composite of two well-known German plays by Frank Wedekind, known as the “Lulu” plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), his work criticizes bourgeois sexual attitudes through the exploration of a sexually liberated character, Lulu (Brooks), a victim of the time in which she lived, seen as a sexual temptress whose carefree innocence and naiveté is part of her allure, as her frank eroticism inspires lust and violence in others, where she ends up ruining the lives of everyone around her.  Lulu has been dancing in the bars and nightclubs of Berlin since she was a child, leading a sexually active life, often supported by the patronage of influential or wealthy men, and while Brooks is indeed sexually enticing throughout, there is no explicit sex or nudity, as instead everything is suggested largely from the close ups on her naturally expressive face, as she latches onto the arm of every available man she sees, seemingly oblivious to the effect this would have on anyone else, but simply loves being adored, where men become obsessed with a kind of fatal attraction towards her and lavish her with expensive gifts, where she is constantly the center of attention.  For better or for worse, this is simply the life she’s used to, where her beauty, natural openness and expressed vulnerability inspires a group of hangers-on, which includes a widowed newspaper publisher Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner), his son Alwa (Francis Lederer), an old friend, perhaps her father, old enough to be her grandfather, but more likely her pimp, a mysterious controlling force that continually takes advantage of her, Schigolch (Carl Goetz), and even an interested lesbian (Alice Roberts), the Countess Anna Geschwitz, a group that seems to follow her around wherever she goes, an odd sort of collective of societal misfits that is strange in itself.  Pabst was criticized in the press at the time for casting a foreigner in a role that was considered so definitively German, so it’s ironic the film is largely remembered for Brooks’s legendary performance, where she provides such a powerful sexual presence.  American critics had problems as well, claiming her unwholesome lifestyle was not suitable for the screen, cutting out large portions of the American release. Of interest, the plays are also inspiration for a modernist opera called Lulu, Lulu (opera), written by Alban Berg in 1937, which was seen here in Chicago during the 2008-09 season, Opera Today : Berg's Lulu at Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the definitively bleak works in the opera repertoire.  The work was, appropriately, banned by the Nazi’s, as were the original plays, where Lulu’s sexual freedom, femininity, and daring experimentation were deemed problematic. 

Suggesting we all have a dark side, the film is presented as the rise and fall of a free spirit, mired in an aura of extreme pessimism, where people get what they want sexually out of Lulu, but she never asks for anything.  Using distinctly expressionistic theatrical settings, the film opens in Lulu’s nicely furnished bourgeois apartment paid for by Dr. Schön, as she’s been his longtime mistress, but she doesn’t take it well when Schön announces his plans to marry a wealthy socialite, the daughter of the Minister of the Interior.  Not going away easily, Lulu tells him “You'll have to kill me to get rid of me.”  Alwa, who also has designs on her, decides to star Lulu in one of his theatrical productions, but Lulu refuses to perform in front of Schön’s new fiancée, pulling a giant sized tantrum of epic proportions in front of all the players in full costume where she ends up seducing him just as the fiancée walks in on them, forcing the poor bastard to marry her instead, even after telling his son that “one does not marry” a woman like her.  Despite cavorting with everyone at the wedding except the groom, causing a minor scandal dancing with the Countess, Schön has had enough and in a jealous rage, attempts to convince Lulu to kill herself right then and there, as there’s no other solution.  In the ensuing struggle, he’s killed when the gun goes off.  Despite Alwa testifying on her behalf at the trial that it was an accident, she is found guilty, where the prosecutor links her to the fatalistic evil of Pandora.  In the chaotic mayhem after the verdict, she escapes with Alwa and Schigolch first to Cairo, where she is bought, sold, and nearly deceived into sexual slavery, eventually taking refuge in London, having lost all their money.  On Christmas Eve, penniless and starving, Lulu decides to streetwalk the foggy streets of London, discovering none other than Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl), who initially puts his knife away due to her inherent kindness, but finding another nearby is just too much temptation and fate, quickly putting an end to it all, though it’s more a mercy killing, as for all practical purposes she’s already dead, while the hangers-on fade into oblivion as a Salvation Army parade marches by.  Pandora figures prominently into Greek mythology, where Zeus, unhappy with Prometheus for stealing fire from the heavens and giving it to humans on earth, significantly improving the quality of life for humans, presents Pandora, along with a beautiful container, to Prometheus’s brother, instructing her not to open the box under any circumstances.  Of course, impelled by curiosity, she opens the box and evil is spread all over the world before she could close the container.  Everything escapes from the box except one thing lying at the bottom which remains, the spirit of hope.  The film is noted for its interesting blend of German Expressionism and Victorian atmosphere, where Pabst has a meticulous eye for background detail, objects, facial expressions, and brief glimpses of light, but with such a modernistic understanding of blending image and attitude, it’s the spontaneous and seemingly effortless performance of Louise Brooks that continues to captivate audiences.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Foreign Correspondent

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT        B+                  
USA  (120 mi)  1940  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

I fought for my country in my heart in a very difficult way, because sometimes it’s harder to fight dishonorably than nobly in the open
—Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall)

An often neglected but gripping spy thriller story about sending a new fresh American reporter to London to cover a European war that hadn’t truly gotten started yet sounds like the ideal perspective for Alfred Hitchcock, a British citizen newly arrived in America, with this only his second Hollywood film following REBECCA (1940), which won the Academy Award as Best Picture, both released in the same year.  It’s something of a rousing patriotic effort supporting the British war effort, a daring gesture considering America’s official position at the time remained neutral, but many British nationals felt uneasy about living and working in Hollywood while their country was on the brink of war.  By the time the film finished shooting, the war still hadn’t begun, but when it did shortly afterwards, Hitchcock added the final scene written by Ben Hecht.  While this is a complicated and convoluted story, written by a committee of writers, it’s basically a harrowing, behind-the-scenes thriller of political intrigue and espionage that involves kidnapping and murder in an attempt to obtain government secrets.  In many ways it foreshadows the exposed traitorous activities of NOTORIOUS (1946), but also the way ordinary men can become drawn into matters of international concern, like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), where in each there’s an accompanying romantic angle.  Initially seeking Gary Cooper, he turned down his chance to work with Hitchcock, claiming it was just “a thriller,” a narrative genre not yet in favor with the public, but one whose reputation was enhanced considerably by this director.  What’s perhaps most notable about this film is there are no proven stars, no one to carry the picture, so the often confusing, labrynthian puzzle aspects of the story carry the suspense.   

Joel McCrea is the everyman reporter Johnny Jones sent to cover what was *not* being reported in the newspapers in America, where the newspaper editor Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) takes an interest when first hearing about him, “Hmmm, beat up a policeman, eh? Sounds ideal for Europe,” but not before changing his name (from his secret files of names) to one more befitting the sound of a foreign correspondent, giving him the ridiculous byline Huntley Haverstock.  Sent to cover a peace movement organization led by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), which newspapermen cynically think is the work of well wishing amateurs that have little hope of stopping a battle trained army sent on a mission of nation destruction and obliteration, he quickly discovers that the only views he’s really interested in are from the candid and straight-talking daughter of the leader, Laraine Day as Carol Fisher, where screwball comedy perhaps best describes their rapid-fire dialogue that almost completely advances the love interest.  But they continually get interrupted and separated by quckly developing events on the ground, as Johnny witnesses the assassination of Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), an important Dutch diplomat, in a tribute to a similar scene where a man gets shot in the eye in front of a large crowd on the Odessa Steps of Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), where here the gunman is disguised as a photographer and escapes in the rain underneath a crowd of umbrellas with Johnny in hot pursuit, ending in a extended car chase sequence out into the windmills of Holland, where the car they are chasing simply disappears.  One of the best sequences of the film is Johnny’s internal search of one of those windmills where he finds the car stashed, where the geometric structures are so fully utilized, using a heavily stylized interior set design by Alexander Golitzen and cinematography by Rudolph Maté, where he hides in the tight corners and vertical stairways, evading a large operational gear system that suggests Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES (1936), where he actually loses his coat in the gears and has to follow the circular motion to grab it back, where he witnesses a meeting of the kidnapping team, accidentally stumbling onto Van Meer who was supposedly shot, as a double was used to make the world think he was dead, where he has instead been drugged and continually interrogated for secret information. 

Of interest, the Nazi’s are never named or identified as the enemy, nor are there references to Germany’s military advances in Eastern Europe, but the extensive network of criminals all speak German and continually look suspicious.  The intense action apparently brings together the two would-be lovers, who finally succumb in each others arms with instant plans for marriage, where written into the script is Hitchcock’s own eccentric marriage proposal to Alma Reville, his wife for over 50 years.  Of course, by the time Johnny gets police to the crime scene, they have all but disappeared, leaving many to question his version of events.  Their plans to announce their engagement to her father get thwarted when Johnny sees one of the kidnappers working for Fisher, which she identifies as a loyal family employee, which certainly takes some of the steam out of the marriage and ratchets up the intrigue, as Fisher attempts to construct an unsuspecting net around Johnny to maintain his silence, while he seems to be the one behind the dastardly assassination and kidnapping plot, continuing to hide behind his cover as a credible peace movement activist.  Meanwhile, Johnny hasn’t filed a single report of what he’s uncovered since the day he arrived, stymied by his affection for Carol, where in his view, “I'm in love with a girl, and I'm going to help hang her father.”  This moral dilemma pales in contrast to the political events of the hour, as Britain is rapidly advancing into war against Germany.  The source material for the film is Vincent Sheean’s own autobiographical account, Personal History, of when he got his start as a reporter covering the growing political turmoil in Europe.  The complexity of the historical era is beautifully portrayed as a series of government lies, deceits, and betrayals, where the actual studio settings resemble the crowded London subway station, Westminister tower, or Holland’s flat plains, and the many action sequences are a marvel of detail and construction, which continue throughout the film, right down to the last few scenes where Hitchcock films a particularly enthralling TITANIC (1997) disaster-at-sea special effects sequence, enhanced by none other than William Cameron Menzies.  The final added-on scene of Johnny reporting the news in Europe back to America on radio broadcasts while bombs are falling behind him extends the screaming intensity of the madness of war, where the love aspect also recalls Michael Powell’s divinely romantic postwar film, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946), where a British air force pilot deliriously falls madly in love with the voice of an American WAC air traffic controller after his plane’s been shot down and he’s heading rapidly to the ground in his last few seconds of life.  Now that’s a war romance.            

Note—Hitchcock is seen early in the movie walking in front of Johnny Jones reading a newspaper.