Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The House in the Woods (La Maison des Bois)

THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS (La Maison des Bois) – made for TV       A                      
7 Episodes, 53 min, 47 min, 40 min, 53 min, 53 min, 56 min, 58 min
France  (360 mi)  1971  d:  Maurice Pialat 

If I had to choose the one film that best allows the viewer to penetrate into Maurice Pialat's universe, I would unhesitatingly choose THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS. This series happily combines a profound naturalism and a strange sense of fantasy, a liberty in its tone where hidden or manifested suffering alternates with an astonishing happiness to be alive.

—Joel Magny from Cahiers du Cinéma, May/June 2004

While much admired by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Pialat was considered a problematic director, difficult to work with on a set, claiming as many detractors as fans.  “I don’t like you either,” he allegedly snarled at a Cannes Film Festival audience in 1987 when his film UNDER SATAN’S SUN was an unpopular winner.  After a failed career as a painter, Pialat dabbled in theater and documentary filmmaking, making his first notable short, L’AMOUR EXISTE, in 1960 at the age of 35.  He was 43 when he made his first feature, after the fervor of the New Wave had waned.  He appeared as a hard-nosed teacher in Jean Eustache’s 1974 film MES PETITES AMOUREUSES, a director who shared his pessimistic, dire, and bleak worldview.  He used long takes and handheld cameras to sharply reproduce the psychological tensions between characters, producing films that are unsentimental, defiant, deeply personal and sexually bold.  His honest and raw portraits of family life, sexual warfare, and emotional abandonment have had a tremendous influence on contemporary French cinema. 

A volatile realist who’s often compared to John Cassavetes, though their works have very different tones and effects, both share a tendency to observe extreme behavior with an objective, realistic eye.  According to Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones: “Where the breaks in a Cassavetes film are strictly behavior-oriented, getting at the essential unpredictability of people...Pialat’s often feel like the exquisite agony of the moment, which must always come to an end, the transience of experience, eternally invigorating and just as frustrating—few filmmakers have ever come as close to capturing it on film…Of his 11 features, three — WE WON'T GROW OLD TOGETHER (1972), À NOS AMOURS (1983), and VAN GOGH (1991) — are among the finest films made in France or any other country in the last half century, and the rest aren't far behind.” 

To which I would add this film, as easily my favorite Pialat film is this expansive six-hour film made for French television, 7 episodes of 52 minutes each, where the length of the film allows the director to meticulously detail the rhythms of small-town life in the countryside during WWI, from 1914 to 1918, completely absent any sentimentality, building interest and emotion through time and through the presentation of the smallest details, by observing ordinary family life, much like Olmi’s THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (1978), but less spiritual and more realistic, utilizing a series of vignettes to paint a large, impressionistic portrait of a community, ultimately revealing a remarkable view of humanity.  The film, written by René Wheeler, then re-written by Pialat and Arlette Langmann, who also co-edits the film, follows young, rambunctious all-male schoolchildren and the close scrutiny provided by their teacher, played by the director himself, the Catholic priest and the goings-on behind the scenes with the altar boys stealing a bit of the Father’s wine, a rotund gamekeeper (Pierre Doris) and his nurturing wife (Jacqueline Dufranne), along with their sensitive teenage son (Henri Puff) and strikingly beautiful daughter (Agathe Natanson), who take in two young Parisian boys left abandoned during the war, their fathers called up to the front, whose mothers write regularly and come to visit bearing gifts every Sunday, as well as another troubled child, Hervé (Hervé Levy), who was dropped on their doorstep, who hates the visiting mothers, as he has no family contact or visits of his own, yet his warmth and spontaneity infectiously draws us and others to him, the leading character in the film, as most of the action is seen through his eyes.

Using plenty of character development and charming personality, always utilizing humor by revealing the idiosyncrasies of everyone involved, especially among the playful and mischievous boys, whose authentic realism is simply phenomenal in this film, who curiously want to see the arrival of ambulances bringing wounded soldiers, or the aristocratic Marquis (Fernand Gravey) who lives on a gigantic estate continuing to live a life of refinement as if there is no war on, whose wife is killed early on in a suspicious roadside fatality, or a grumpy socialist barkeeper who is filled with cynical suspicions of the Marquis, or the frail postman on his bike who regularly delivers letters to the family while muttering nonsense to himself, or the visiting Parisian mothers, who may as well be tottering fools, so out of place are they in the country wearing their flamboyant, feathered hats, or a local airman and his girlfriend who befriend Hervé and even allow him up in the air to fly, not to mention pastoral picnics in the countryside filled with languid moments where time, and the war, seem to drift away entirely. 

All of this layered backdrop sets up who lives in the town so that we grow to know and care about its inhabitants.  This is especially significant by the fourth episode, which brings the war and its ramifications to the door of this sleepy country town, opening with a long line of soldiers walking slowly through the countryside, where the kids run and greet them and ask for photographs and other mementos before the young men from the town are enlisted themselves, including the gamekeeper’s son.  This is an exquisitely filmed episode, including an aerial sequence between a German and a French plane, balancing the loneliness and the quiet of the soldiers against the mothers and families hugging and kissing their young sons goodbye.  Of course, many never return.  The cost of war is shown in painfully intimate detail, not by any graphic war imagery or disfigurement, but in the mayor’s arrival at the gamekeeper’s doorstep to report the death of their son, which sets off an agonizing chain reaction which is stunning in its emotional range from screams to silence, where we can feel the weight of the world hanging on their shoulders.  When the Armistice is signed, the town weeps in a joyous celebration of flag-waving and relief as the soldiers return home.  There’s an interesting juxtaposition of the town’s quiet memorial tribute with the teacher reminding the schoolchildren of the human price paid for freedom. 

When the war is over, the children are rounded up by their families and returned to Paris, even Hervé’s father arrives with his step-mother and step-sister, leaving the gamekeeper’s residence suddenly empty and alone.  In Paris, Hervé’s new parents throw a welcome home party, where one women sings several soprano arias to the slightly off-tune piano, but eventually, the unspoken grief from the loss of their original spouses becomes painfully evident, and they fight and argue with each other.  So after hearing that the gamekeeper’s wife is seriously ill, Hervé runs away back to the countryside.  His quiet return to their home, and in particular, the unspoken emotions created by reducing the images strictly to the essentials has a profound effect, literally inducing a transforming religious experience without anyone ever mentioning the name of God, something out of the transcendent poetry of Bresson (Introduction to Bresson).  But as his family arrives to bring him back to the city, we are left with the ravishing beauty of the country home, with its life force abruptly removed once again.  The use of music, the dark voice of the soprano in Ravel’s “Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis”  3 Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis , Ravel - YouTube (3:21) is also extremely well chosen, usually opening and closing each episode in a wordless still image of haunting beauty.

Monday, April 29, 2013

We Won't Grow Old Together (Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble)

WE WON’T GROW OLD TOGETHER (Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble)   B+  
France  Italy  (107 mi)  1972  d:  Maurice Pialat

Somewhat in the vein of Jean Eustache’s bleak confessional outpourings in The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), this chilly and impersonal film is based on the director’s own autobiography, an unsparing portrait of a cad, an odious, self-absorbed, and domineering man, emblematic of the director himself, starring the dour and despondent Jean Yanne (winner of Best Actor at Cannes), wearing the same wide sideburns from Godard’s WEEKEND (1967) and Chabrol’s LE BOUCHER (1970), as well as the more energized photographic cover girl Marlène Jobert from Godard’s MASCULIN FÉMININ (1966), who also played opposite Charles Bronson in René Clément’s RIDER ON THE RAIN (1970).  She’s seen here playing the buoyant yet continually hurt mistress along with another Godard actress Macha Méril from UNE FEMME MARIÉE (1964) as the overly critical wife, that pushes and pushes us further inside a failed relationship until it’s impossible not to identify with the characters’ inner world, a film in the manner of Truffaut’s later film THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN (1977), complete with delusions of love, which is really nothing but self obsession, and once disappointed, and he’s always disappointed, he’s filled with self-loathing, which he usually takes out on Jobert with abusive, contemptuous comments designed to destroy any sense of her self-esteem. 

According to the director, this film has only 25 shots, a fact which, alone, suggests this is not an ordinary film, rather it’s a quasi-experimental film about endless breakups and makeups, much like the repetitive rhythm of Ravel’s “Bolero” - Maurice Ravel BOLERO - Wiener Philharmonic - YouTube (17:23).  Shot along the streets of Paris, told in an impersonal manner, always standing outside the action, the camera follows the predictable rhythms and routine of a loveless marriage with Françoise (Macha Méril), with whom he still lives, while Jean simultaneously pursues a long and unhappy 5-year affair with a much younger Catherine (Marlène Jobert), a poisonous relationship filled with acts of abuse, bullying, and intimidation.  The film consists of endless scenes of tortuous repetition, picking up Catherine, trying to entice her to bed, growing angry when she’s not interested, leaving or slamming the door in her face, seeing her again, starting the same process all over again, which happens so often that it eventually becomes ludicrous.  In a frustrating portrait of interdependency, the couple is together again, we have no idea how much time has passed, no explanation is necessary.  But neither one can end it. 

And when we think it’s over, it’s not, as they continue to keep seeing one another, where they over-analyze every move and thought.  Once she finally leaves him for good, only then does he get serious about finding her attractive, only when he realizes he’s lost her does he begin to treat her nicely, but it’s too late.  His visit to her parent’s house is excruciatingly uncomfortable, as they just don’t know how to politely get rid of him.  The structure of the film is a slow build up of the claustrophobic feelings where there is no escape, where one is choking on the familiarity of growing tired with one another, largely expressed (twenty years before Kiarostami) through their repeated confinement in a tiny, perpetually parked car Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble - YouTube (2:56), the picture of motionless and emotional paralysis and the basis of this comic, but lethally serious confessional examination.  The film was a particular favorite of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with a similar sadism used for the male protagonist of MARTHA (1974), where Pialat expressly forbid the actor Jean Yanne from displaying even a hint of tenderness.  The use of Haydn’s music from “The Creation” Hermann Prey - Die Schöpfung - Joseph Haydn YouTube (6:07) is enthralling at the finale, playing over flashback images of Jobert swimming alone in the choppy waves of the sea.  After the final break up, all that’s left are these memories.  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

À Nos Amours (To Our Loves)

À NOS AMOURS (TO OUR LOVES)                 A     
France  (102 mi)  1983

It’s as if my heart has run dry…                 —Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire)

Maurice Pialat is not a household name in America, though he is revered in France, instrumental in having a visible effect on the work of filmmakers such as André Téchiné, Olivier Assayas, and Arnaud Desplechin, three more internationally recognized French directors.  Despite being a contemporary of the French New Wave, he is never included with their names, though he is staunchly opposed to artificiality and convention in all forms, literally defying categorization and becoming a strict devotee of cinematic naturalism.  Following a different path to filmmaking, he studied painting and wrote a novel, the basis of his third feature We Won't Grow Old Together (Nous ne vieillirons pa... (1972), while also making several documentary and fictional shorts before making his first feature at the age of 35, reminiscent of Eric Rohmer who was nearly 40 when he made his first feature.  But in a culture dominated by cinéastes, Pialat stood out, an uncompromising and often abrasive man that seemed immune to the comfort of life’s illusions.  Making only eleven features in his lifetime, all of them are essential, as each is a testament to his own search for intelligence and gut-wrenching honesty.  Often compared to John Cassavetes, both violated the rules and rejected any needless beautification of the human condition, preferring instead to capture the messy and completely unpredictable aspects of life, always taking the most emotionally daring and risky path, allowing the emotional and psychological aspects of character to determine the rhythm and flow of their films, often appearing raw and unpolished to the uninitiated, but people with flaws intact represent a freer and truer picture of humanity.  With Pialat, he allows the use of script to evolve during shooting, especially this film where he decided at the last minute to play the role of the father himself, and then altered the plot midway through the film when that character was originally scheduled to die.  Not only does he keep him around, but he’s essential to the most unforgettable scene, reappearing out of the blue in a completely unscripted and spontaneous dinner sequence, becoming as much of a shock to the actors as the audience.  This fluid style of filmmaking defines his working method between the actors and their characters, carefully weaving between the reality of making a movie and the fiction being dramatized.  

Made after LOULOU (1980), this is another highly accomplished film which, among other things, introduces us to the radiant beauty of the incomparable Sandrine Bonnaire in her screen debut, who simply lights up the screen in a magical and electrifying performance, perhaps the best of her entire career as she is so central to the film.  Opening during a summer holiday, she is performing a classical play about the pain of betraying your beloved by placing one’s lips on another, while the ultra-dramatic, hauntingly beautiful opening theme “The Cold Song” Klaus Nomi - The Cold Song (film frag.) YouTube (1:04) from Purcell’s 300-year old opera King Arthur is magnificently performed by legendary counter tenor Klaus Nomi (who died the year of the film’s release, one of the first known artists to die of AIDS), music that sends chills down your spine, adding foundation and dramatic force to the otherwise youthful transgressions that we are about to witness.  This introduces us to a recurrent theme that will follow young Suzanne, played by a 15-year old Bonnaire, a confused and promiscuous teenager who is a man-magnet, attracting men like flies, who all seem to enjoy hovering around her and she is only too eager to accommodate their sexual appetites, using sex as a means of rebellion and escape.  Staying out late, sometimes for days on end, she constantly changes partners, leaving her family troubled.  Her father, brilliantly played by the director himself, is the real love of her life, and no one else can live up to her expectations.  In perhaps the most intimate moment in the film, the father speaks to her as she comes home late one night and remarks that she doesn’t smile as much any more before announcing very quietly that he will be moving out, that he can endure no more.  This is surprising, as the film has shown little reference for this marital split.  The flurry comes afterwards.

After the father moves out, all dysfunctional family hell breaks loose.  Her mother, the brilliant Evelyne Ker, (an actress Pialat first used 20 years earlier in his 1960 short film L’AMOUR EXISTE, and an actress who genuinely detested Bonnaire’s instant stardom, actually attacking her on the set, “And you really want to make movies?  Who do you think you are?”) pulls out the Blanche Dubois neurotic tears and grows to furiously detest Suzanne, throwing fists and insults as well as a feigned suicide attempt all in one breath.  Much of the story and its conflicts are based on the life of Arlette Langmann’s family, Pialat’s co-writer and live-in companion, where Suzanne’s overprotective older brother, the chubby Dominique Besnehard, is actually the casting director melodramatically playing the part of Langmann’s real brother, filmmaker Claude Berri, who tries to protect his mother before delivering a few fists of his own at Suzanne, turning home into a knock down, drag out slugfest, leaving her no place to go but back into the arms of another man.  “The only time I'm happy is when I'm with a guy,” she confesses, her only consolation, but she doesn’t pretend to experience love, only moments of peace.  What’s distinctive about the film is the physical and emotional cruelty inflicted by the dysfunctional family members on each other, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, where especially unique is Bonnaire’s performance, how utterly natural she feels, as it seems like she’s living her life onscreen, where none of it feels like a façade.  The revolving door of men come and go, drifting into the not so distant past, but she’s the real deal, one of the more explosive performances in recollection.  If one thinks of all her later performances where she’s older and more mature, she’s usually more reserved and intellectually calculating, where she has a habit of keeping things to herself.  Not so here, where she hides nothing, becoming as emotionally transparent as a character can get, which makes the film all the more intimately appealing and dramatically powerful.  

For reasons known only to her, perhaps thinking it will bring her peace, Suzanne actually marries a decent guy, and the family celebratory dinner is *the* sequence of the movie, as it is filled with so many spills and thrills and twisting turns that it resembles a roller-coaster ride, something akin to the legendary scenes of the last supper from VIRIDIANA (1961), or the son confronting the overbearing, incestuous father during the long, drawn-out dinner sequence of THE CELEBRATION (1998).  The dinner discussion is already a boastful dispute over art, as the various in-laws argue about the merits of Picasso and see things differently, where Suzanne departs from the more modernistic views of others and lays her claim to having a preference for the soft sensuality of Pierre Bonnard.  Add to this the now over-protective, foppish brother who sits next to Suzanne after smelling her, asking others to smell her as well, then places his odious arm around her and won’t let go with a look as if she’s carrying his incestuous child.  Enter the returning father, who incredibly enters the scene purely by accident, and starts measuring the premises with a prospective buyer. “”Don’t mind us.  You won’t even know we’re here,” he utters humorously a few moments before he sits down for dessert and challenges the pretentious nature of each and every person at the table.  Like director Mike Leigh entering his own improvisational rehearsal without any of the actor’s knowledge ahead of time, and without throwing a single blow, the table tension explodes into sparks flying fast and furious in every direction.  Pialat unflinchingly devastates his own set, laying waste to everything, clearing a dubious path for another one of his daughter’s classic exit scenes.  Her exit, like the rest of the film, is a thing of beauty.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Unmade in China

UNMADE IN CHINA            D+                  
USA  China  (87 mi)  2012  d:  Tanner King Barklow and Gil Kofman       Official site

There are much better movies about the making of a movie, where Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) remains the definitive work on the subject, but Fassbinder’s BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE (1971) also comes to mind, a fictionalized autobiographical film that exaggerates the kind of real chaos that exists on a movie set.  But those are made by filmmakers who are also great artists, unlike this film, which turns into something of a self-promotion documentary about one of the worst filmmakers on the planet, Gil Kofman, maker of the forgettable movie THE MEMORY THIEF (2007), a jumbled mess of a film, but if you heard this filmmaker describe it, no doubt it’s an undiscovered American classic.  Kofman is the kind of guy that never shuts up, where every single word and thought is about himself, where everything else in the world exists only in relation to himself.  Not that anyone invited him to, but Kofman decides to make a movie in China, financed by the Chinese Film industry, and then rails about all the bureaucratic hurdles one has to go through in China to make a film, blaming it all on the Communist system.  The thought has to cross the viewer’s mind, is the only reason this guy is making a film in China because he can’t make one here in the United States?  Having seen his earlier film, awarding it a grade of D-, where out of thousands of films seen and graded in a lifetime, there are only about 25 seen that are worse than that one, most all of them graded F.  The truth of the matter is this guy is simply an awful filmmaker and has no business working in the movie industry, where China is likely one of the few places in the world that would actually offer him the opportunity, but after seeing this film, that offer has probably been rescinded.  Kofman never really explains much about the film he wants to make, where the script must be submitted for approval by the Chinese Communist Party, where no doubt they are pleased and somewhat amused that an American would even attempt such an absurd thing, where first time feature director Tanner King Barklow, maker of the unseen 30-minute short CAMP BLOOD:  THE MUSICAL (2006), announces that “China only releases 20 foreign films each year…This is NOT one of them,” where pretty much, he just points the camera at Kofman and lets him do the rest. 

As Kofman is about the leave for China, no doubt expecting to spend a large amount of time there, his young daughter is more worried that he’ll miss her dance recital, while his wife is sitting in bed reading a book all but ignoring him.  Good riddance, she seems to be saying.  So he leaves with little fanfare, arriving in China where there is a joint Chinese-American production team, including members of the Communist Party that must approve each step of the process.  Kofman is quick to blame the Chinese whenever anything goes wrong, and why wouldn’t he expect plenty of things to go wrong, as even Chinese filmmakers have trouble getting their films made in China.  After all, it’s a country that currently boasts a population of over a trillion people (1,354,040,000 to be exact), where according to the annual list compiled by The Hollywood Reporter of the top 25 film schools in the world THR's Top 25 Film Schools List Revealed - The Hollywood Reporter, #3 is the Beijing Film Academy, yet only 20 films are released for export every year?  Just what did Kofman expect?  The Chinese Film Bureau puts their own citizens through rigorous scrutiny, where questions would have to be raised about any American’s motive, wondering if the intent is to ridicule the Chinese government, where it’s hard for the viewers not to ask the same thing.  Nonetheless, Kofman, who is nothing if not delusional, thinks everything is set, buoyed by an elaborate dinner where the American orders plenty of drinks and toasts the Communists as an act of good will, throwing in a little extra bribery cash as well to help insure approval, and is initially given the green light.  Well little does he know that this is only for the initial step of the approximately 1000 step plan that the officials have in store for him, starting with his script which they completely rewrite without asking for his opinion or approval, also a last minute change of cast members, including the female lead, and the cinematographer.  Unfortunately, what really sets him off is that he isn’t getting paid.  Isn’t it just like an American to complain about the money?  Kofman is determined to go on strike, refuses to work, and sits in his room and mopes on the bed.  More misfortune ensues.    
At least when he’s outside on the streets of China, one can admire the hustle and bustle of the activity, where there’s always a certain charm about viewing life in foreign lands.  But being stuck in a hotel room with Kofman blaming everyone but himself becomes insufferable, as the film immediately sinks into a wretched descent of self-pity and feeling sorry for himself, a hole from which it never escapes, as Kofman whines and complains about everything rather than actually meeting and talking with the appropriate people, exactly as he would do in the United States.  He prefers the fatalistic view that nothing can be done, that this is the way things are, and continually rails against the Chinese Communists, like it’s their fault.  But they’re just doing their job, and he shows little respect for their culture or film industry.  While there are plenty of incompetents on the set that are simply a waste of time, in Kofman’s view, people that never do the jobs that are assigned to them, large and small, so why is there is no attempt to fire them, or at least identify the people he’s most dissatisfied with and request an immediate change in personnel?  Any low grade professional at work would at least consider this train of thought and discuss it with the powers that be, but not Kofman, who suffers from delusions of grandeur, where the thought never occurs to him that the reason the Chinese give him such unqualified help is because the film he’s making is totally worthless, that to him it’s all just a publicity stunt.  While there are admittedly some absurd, Kafkaesque moments, the viewer rarely gets to see them happen, but unfortunately has to endure hearing everything second hand through Kofman, as it is all channeled through his nonstop chatter, never questioning his own idiotic behavior, like scheduling 4 days in the middle of the shoot where he has to suddenly return to America to witness his daughter’s graduation.  As preposterous as it is for a director to leave the set, which is only for a few short weeks, but considering this is at best a cheap, low budget B-movie, couldn’t he have made provisions for someone else to take over in advance, like the director of this documentary, as he didn’t shoot anything during this absence.  But Kofman returned and completed the shoot for a film that was never officially made, as Kofman simply gave up during the editing process, where the smartest thing he did was try to distribute bootleg copies of the film on his own, which is how many films around the world are seen.  When he discovers a Chinese version of his film in a California Chinatown, he’s perplexed and literally baffled, thinking for a moment that perhaps it was all worthwhile, never once questioning why it is that he can’t make films here in America. 

Friday, April 26, 2013


CONVOY                   C+                  
USA  Great Britain  (110 mi)  1978  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Peckinpah 

After a couple of box office failures, Peckinpah was in no position to haggle with the Hollywood executives, taking a barebones script about runaway truckers armed with CB radios, inspired by the 1975 popular hit song by C.W. McCall, Convoy 1978 movie Theme Song YouTube (4:02).  So in effect, Hollywood was attempting to use Peckinpah to cash in on a recent American CB radio craze which was a precursor to the Internet, as anyone within range could listen in on conversations or get the word out in a hurry warning other truckers of speed traps, police sightings, blocked road construction, or cheap places to eat or buy gas.  After the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo where OPEC producing nations effectively boycotted the United States, the price of oil rose substantially from $3 dollars to $12 dollars per barrel, effectively doubling the real price of crude oil at the refinery level, causing massive shortages in the United States while also generating high inflation rates that persisted until the early 1980’s, with oil prices continuing to rise until the mid 80’s.  In response to this, the U.S. government imposed a nationwide 55 mph speed limit to help reduce fuel shortages, which especially had an impact on independent truckers who were often paid by the mile, so their productivity and potential earnings took a hit, where CB radios were crucial in helping alleviate some of the other unforeseen obstacles, like the presence of corrupt police who typically shake down truckers, threatening to impound their trucks unless a fine is paid.  This opened the door for fast car action comedy hits like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, the 4th top grossing film of 1977, and The Dukes of Hazzard on TV in 1979, and this film, 12th highest grossing film of the year, making $45 million dollars, contributing to the CB radio craze that took on a life of its own, since it requires no registration fee, where all you need is the equipment to be hooked up.  While there was a small licensing fee, during the height of its popularity in the late 70’s this was routinely ignored, as people used anonymous nicknames called “handles.”  Due to lax enforcement, there was widespread disregard for regulations, allowing people to chat mindlessly with one another, often engaged in tedious exchanges, which also included highly aggressive racist and sexist views, like chat room conversations, often resulting in highly descriptive masturbation fantasies. 

Sure enough, in the opening few minutes of the film, Kris Kristofferson as 18-wheel truck driver “Rubber Duck” is involved in a cat and mouse game of leap frog with a convertible sports car driven by Ali MacGraw, a photojournalist, each passing one another until a policeman stops him for speeding.  Very cleverly, he gives the cop a story about how that female driver up ahead was driving without any panties, which certainly diverts the cop’s attention, as he heads off to arrest the woman.  A word about each of the stars, as both had worked with Peckinpah before, but this time Kristofferson had gotten himself clean and was totally sober, making it harder for the director to work with him, as without the booze and drugs there was little rapport between them, and as for MacGraw, heavily tanned and wearing what appears to be a short afro, one of her worst looks ever, this film really points out her acting deficiencies, where an exasperated Peckinpah wasted valuable time just running the camera, hoping later to find something of value.  The shoot was chaotic anyway, mostly in New Mexico, where half the time the CB radios didn’t even work, with MacGraw’s jealous husband Steve McQueen often intruding, thinking MacGraw was having an affair with someone on the set and making wild death threats, as his marriage was on the rocks, with many days where the raving and near psychotic director was so coked up that he never came out of his trailer, where the assistant director James Coburn actually shot some of the main shooting, with the film going overbudget, largely due to the difficulty lining up such massive vehicles for a second or third shot, which required substantial time and effort, where the script called for using a hundred 18-wheel trucks for a good portion of the film, doubling the initial $6 million dollars and the film went over schedule.  They actually shut down the entire production to allow Kristofferson and his band, seen in the film as the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus,” as described in the song, to complete a previously scheduled 30-day tour before resuming filming, where many of the crew simply never returned.  Even worse, the director was so disgusted with the film, shooting nearly three times the footage as The Wild Bunch (1969), where he was known to utter “I haven't done one good day’s work on this whole picture,” that he eventually abandoned the project completely, never able to get the film under three and a half hours, putting the final cut in the hands of the studios to finally complete.  Irrespective of all these problems, it was the highest grossing film in Peckinpah’s career.         

Despite the troubles on the set and the overwhelmingly negative reviews, Peckinpah immersed himself in a love affair with trucks, where more than any movie stars, they were the real stars of this show, where the film excels at glorified stunt driving sequences, including a handful of highly choreographed crashes, where often the thrill is to put the audience into the driver’s seat.  So as a purely adrenaline laced, entertainment venture featuring plenty of trucks and even muscle cars flying through the air, crashing through billboards, the film is a success.  Where it fails is in the human element, as Peckinpah’s idea was to explore the mystique of truck drivers as modern-day cowboys, as if they were the last bastion of freedom on the highways in the American West before the government all but put them out of business.  While the film attempts to build into something of a protest movement, it can never figure out what it’s trying to protest, linking independence and true freedom as outside any collaboration with politicians or a trucker’s union. While it does present the idea that a man alone is not as strong as someone with the force of 100 trucks behind him, this idea degenerates into the mass chaos of an extended wrecking sequence, where trucks simply destroy much of the local property, where instead of a hail of bullets and explosions from a prolonged gunfight, trucks annihilate everything in their path.  It certainly continues Peckinpah’s nihilist themes, but without the poetry behind it.  Only Ernest Borgnine stands out as the indefatigable, trucker-hating sheriff, as his contempt for these lawbreaking “modern cowboys” couldn’t be more devious, pulling out all stops to find a way to stop them in their tracks, where he’s really playing the constantly thwarted coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, literally rising from the dead on multiple occasions only to pull out more dirty tricks to try and trap them again, always with that gleeful look of anticipation on his face, where the audience, unfortunately for him, continually roots against him.  This kind of cartoon generates a few laughs, offers up some good ol’ boy trucker lore, sounding off on just about everything from Viet Nam to the proposed “double nickel” nationwide speed limit, where giant trucks barreling down the road are seen as an expression of rebellion and defiance of “The Law,” as represented by Borgnine, a guy who routinely shakes down truckers.  It’s a modern American parable of unnecessary government intrusion, where Uncle Sam is seen as dipping into the trucker’s pocketbooks and affecting their livelihood, or so goes the myth, as it was always more about inflation and the unstoppable price of oil from OPEC than anything having to do with the truckers.       

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Murder of Fred Hampton

THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON                      B+             
USA  (88 mi)  1971  d:  Howard Alk

I am…a revolutionary   —Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago

Working as one of the original founders of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, in fact it was Alk leaving which led to his replacement by the more comically acclaimed Alan Arkin (SCTV Guide: Feature: Days and Nights at the Second City), and also as one of the cinematographers in the Dylan film DON’T LOOK BACK (1967), director Howard Alk turns out to be the one largely responsible for shaping this film.  According to remarks at the film’s screening from the producer Mark Gray, none of the participants were particularly political minded until one event changed their lives, the City of Chicago’s police assault on peaceful demonstrators across from the Conrad Hilton hotel at the 1968 Democratic Convention, footage of which was used in Alk’s earlier 1969 film AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2.  Alk was apparently a child genius, someone who graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago at age 16 and became an active Trotskyite, and whose response after viewing the Democratic Convention footage was supposedly, “Where are the black people?”  This led to his interest in establishing ties with the newly formed Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party in August of 1968, where he met Party Chairman Fred Hampton, another young charismatic individual who displayed an amazing fearlessness and bold presence before an audience, developing quite a following at the tender age of 20.  Along with Bobby Rush, his Minister of Defense, they were the bulwark of the Chicago organization.  Alk and fellow cameraman Mike Gray followed Hampton around for 9 months filming his speeches in cramped, dimly lit rooms, where the raw quality of the footage resembled other 60’s underground films, but in the process, they gained an unusually intimate portrait of the workings of the Black Panther Party, a short-lived armed radical organization that was one of the first organized black groups to stand up to the racism and police brutality that besieged their neighborhoods.  Unfortunately the Panthers paid a high price, using as an excuse their supposed cache of weapons, making them an easy target of police raids.  They were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI watch list as public enemy number one, calling them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," infiltrated by informants, oftentimes black police officers, and eventually the entire organization nationwide was hunted down and targeted for arrest and/or death “by any means necessary,” to borrow a phrase of the Panthers organization themselves.  Bobby Hutton of the Oakland branch was killed, Eldridge Cleaver fled the country, Huey P. Newton was arrested for manslaughter, H. Rap Brown for murder, and one by one the leaders were taken out in a secret FBI spy operation against American citizens called COINTELPRO that was only uncovered years later under the Freedom of Information Act.  By 1970, 34 known Panthers were dead as a result of police raids and shoot-outs, while the rising costs of legal fees eventually ended their existence.

The film was made during a time of few renowned documentaries, perhaps WOODSTOCK (1970) was the first seen by the baby boomer generation, but also Marcel Ophuls recent 1969 film THE SORROW AND THE PITY.  The first half of this film is a profile of Hampton, including a mock trial where he puts himself in front of a fictitious trial of his peers for an alleged theft of some 70 Good Humor ice cream cones, a crime for which he was eventually sentenced to Menard penitentiary in Southern Illinois.  After his release, Hampton is seen making incendiary remarks about the police, continually using the Panther rhetoric “pigs,” justifying his use of the term, claiming anyone who could sink as low as cops who brutalize public citizens and then brazenly lie and cover it up could only be considered less than human, yet he also established ties to the community by opening free medical clinics and breakfast programs for neighborhood kids.  In one of the more interesting scenes, Hampton is seen feeling out a group of Black nationalists, seeing if they have common interests, but hesitates, as they fail to have mandatory educational programs for their members.  Hampton freely informs them that he finds common ground with many whites or Latinos, claiming blacks are held back by the repressive nature of their own people as well, and refuses to exclusively use race as a basis for unification, instead advocating socialism over nationalism.  But Hampton’s speeches are legendary, as his fury is infectious and he knew how to arouse an audience.  Despite the raw, dark and dingy quality of the footage, these are rare moments of history.

On December 4, 1969, under the authorization of State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, supposedly to serve a warrant for a weapons violation, a Chicago police raid at 4:30 am of 14 officers, 5 of whom were black, stormed Hampton’s private residence with guns blazing, killing both Hampton and another Panther member Mark Clark.  What followed afterwards was a front page exclusive by the Chicago Tribune newspaper which printed verbatim the State’s Attorney’s version of events, which was exposed later as a carefully staged public relations fantasy of the actual events, claiming officers announced their presence and were met by an onslaught of bullets, and “by the grace of God” it was a miracle that no officers were killed.  The television news broadcasts offered similar testimony.  The filmmakers were at the crime scene the next day, which was never ever declared a crime scene by the police.  They did what they did and left, never returning to gather evidence from the scene of the crime, so the filmmakers shot footage of the ransacked apartment which contradicted the police version of events and opened it up to the public to make their own conclusions.  According to a forensics report, 99 bullets were found entering the apartment from the outside, while only 1 bullet was ever fired from inside — which was itself an accident, as the Panther guarding the door, Mark Clark, dropped his gun during the initial pre-dawn police assault where he was killed instantly, his gun firing when landing on the floor — hardly the barrage reported by the police to justify their actions.  Based on contradictory allegations, this part of the film is never definitive and remains hard to understand due to the fact it took over a decade to uncover the truth of the events, long after the release of the film, as the police stuck to their version of events, sometimes word for word, and were not available for follow up interviews, while the Panther attorneys methodically went through the crime scene to counter law enforcement’s claims.  The word murder in the title is not an exaggeration, and it remains one of the legendary police cover ups in Chicago history.

In the question and answer discussion afterwards, one of the Panther attorneys was present, who indicated initially all the officers were vindicated, but only after a period of ten years were they finally held responsible for violating Hampton’s civil rights.  Over the course of time, this also led to the FBI revelations that they actually directed the State’s Attorney’s raid, based on diagrams provided by FBI informant William O’Neal, who was Hampton’s bodyguard, the man who actually provided the exact location of Fred Hampton’s bed, which was the target of the majority of the police bullets.  An autopsy also revealed that there were barbiturates found in Hampton’s stomach, who was known to be ardently drug and alcohol free, suggesting he was drugged the night before by O’Neal, who served him kool-aid and hot dogs the night before, corroborating the testimony of Hampton’s girl friend in the apartment who claimed he did not respond and remained groggy throughout the raid, only lifting his head an inch or so off the bed before he was shot and killed.  The title of the film was penned by Albert Grossman, an early agent to folk stars like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and an early contributor to the making of this film, who after seeing the advance version proclaimed this film to be about THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON, picking up on a verbal theme that is repeated several times by others in the film.  The film is a time capsule for an era that exists no more, as the Black Panthers were eliminated, all killed or jailed or run underground in one of the more inflammatory and least documented periods of American history.   

Of local Chicago interest, one of the first white officers through the door, perhaps the first to actually visually target Hampton, was later also one of the partners of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who along with officers under him ran a torture unit out of the Area 2 police station, using a variety of torture techniques - - Russian roulette, electroshock, suffocation and beatings - - to extract “confessions” during the interrogations of 200 black men from the late 60’s through the 90’s, allegedly using intimidating remarks like, “We killed Fred Hampton. You’re next.”  Burge most likely learned about electroshock while torturing Vietnamese prisoners before he was honorably discharged from the military in 1969, bringing this same method back to Chicago’s South Side.  The Commander that replaced Burge at Area 2 headquarters was current Police Chief Phil Cline, who recently submitted his resignation after videotapes exposed Chicago police officers engaged in bar brawls that they themselves initiated and then sent the arriving police squads away in order to cover up their actions.  So the line of Chicago police brutality from the days of Fred Hampton to the present is an uninterrupted straight line.