Monday, November 12, 2007
11/12: A Canterbury Tale; Beware of a Holy Whore; Act of Violence
In A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted a magical and haunting film from the simplest of premises, spinning out a rather uncomplicated yarn into a magical fable of the English countryside and its way of life. The set-up is simple: two soldiers on furlough, one American and one British, arrive in a small country town at the same time as a young woman who's seeking employment on a local farm. The setting is World War II era Britain, but the war seems very distant indeed from this idyllic country setting. The only, rather mild, indication of the war's effect is the periodic rumbling of military jeeps through the otherwise undisturbed and tranquil countryside. But this small town, situated along the same Pilgrim's Road that once led the travelers of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to their destination, has a darker undercurrent which these new travelers encounter almost at once. While the two soldiers lead the girl, Alison (Sheila Sim), into town, she is suddenly attacked by a mysterious figure who pours glue in her hair and then runs away. For anyone giggling at that already, yes, the seminal subtext is patently obvious, and yes, she does yell out, "Oh, there's sticky stuff in my hair!" One can easily picture an audience of Freudians going into raptures.
Needless to say, the trio become embroiled in an investigation to solve this mystery and capture the "Glue Man," who has struck 10 times before and whose activities seem to be of curiously little interest to most people in the village. But while this is the film's nominal plot, it's kept almost completely to the background, the better for Powell and Pressburger to focus their attention on the beauty of country life. By fifteen minutes after it's happened, the glue incident has already been nearly forgotten, as the characters begin to explore the town in earnest, and the audience begins to meet these sweet, innocent characters. The American GI is Bob Johnson (real-life Sergeant John Sweet), a fresh-faced Oregon boy who's wondering why his sweetheart back home has stopped writing. His earnest, wide-eyed manner and gentle good manners are instantly endearing, and Sweet is the perfect choice as a representation of good-old American values abroad. If this is what the British thought of us during WW2, then it only makes our current world image even sadder. Along with the similarly appealing Alison, Bob explores the village and the duo tries to figure out if the kind but strangely sinister local magistrate, Colpeper (Eric Portman), is the Glue Man or not. The third member of their trio, the British sergeant Peter (Dennis Price), is stationed at a nearby camp, and he joins in on the mystery when he's off from his duties.
What's most interesting about this scenario is that the filmmakers themselves seem to be most clearly aligned with Colpeper, who is an avid historian of the area around Canterbury and its rich history. Colpeper, even in his most sinister moments and there are many, since the film begins dropping hints about him early on is oddly appealing in his enthusiasm for local lore. He seems to be in a deep spiritual communion with the land around him, a connection to its religious past that he wishes to spread to others through his lectures and teaching. He seems, by today's standards, to be a figure of conservative morality, expressing a desire for the younger generations to get in touch with their more spiritual and innocent pasts. And certainly the Glue Man is an instrument of this backward-looking morality, since his sexualized crimes are intended to punish and discourage the local girls from going out with the soldiers stationed nearby. Despite all this, Colpeper is hardly an irredeemable villain, and the filmmakers clearly have great respect for his motivations and ideas, even if they stop slightly short of endorsing his actions.
In fact, the film is so much in sympathy with Colpeper that in many ways it seems to be his vision of the countryside that we're seeing on screen throughout the film. It's a strange and mystical place, where the past is sometimes so close that Alison, standing on a windy hilltop in an eerie stillness, can hear the music of the old Canterbury pilgrims from 600 years earlier. This connection to the past is established in the film's unforgettable first sequence, which begins in the time of Chaucer's tales. The pilgrims make their way along the road, and one of them, astride a horse, releases a falcon, which goes soaring off into the sky. In a stunning edit, the filmmakers then cut to an image of a modern fighter plane, similarly diving and swooping through the sky; the pilgrim has been replaced, down on the ground, by a wistfully smiling soldier. The whole film is subtly influenced by the texture of this non-diegetic introduction, which links all the film's modern events to the long-ago pilgrims who once passed through this region. These images have such a haunting and quietly beautiful quality that one can't help but believe Colpeper when he waxes ecstatic about the region's qualities. His words are bolstered by the weight of Powell and Pressburger's imagery, an odd situation in which the filmmakers seem to be conspiring with their villain.
All of this comes to a head in the film's ambiguous, elegiac denouement, in which the characters fulfill their connection to the past by themselves becoming pilgrims to Canterbury. All go for their own mundane reasons, but they all find something much different and greater than they expected something mystical, spiritual, even miraculous flows through this final part of the film. By now, the mystery plot has drifted away and nearly been forgotten, nominally solved but not really resolved, its threads left hanging and ambiguous at the ending. It's a wonderful, entrancing end to a film that truly defies description, the kind of film whose charm and beauty are nearly impossible to resist.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore is, essentially, one big in-joke, a feature-length parody of his own filmmaking process, in which he casts almost his entire stock company. It's a very nasty, acerbically funny film, with Fassbinder fearlessly turning his sharp tongue on his own image and the sexual complications that constantly surrounded him. Fassbinder steps back from himself in one respect, giving the part of the dictatorial director Jeff to Lou Castel, while he plays Jeff's assistant Sascha. Jeff is an angry, diva-ish tyrant, and a sexual manipulator who seems to constantly crave some attention of any kind. He's most infatuated by the boyish Ricky (Marquad Bohm), but he willfully sleeps his way through most of the cast and crew, male and female, and is frustrated when he fails to consummate things with the actress Hanna (Hanna Schygulla, vamping in an indescribably sexy channeling of Marilyn Monroe). She's more interested in the film's star, the craggy-faced Eddie Constantine, who's there because Jeff is making a new Lemmy Caution picture. Meanwhile, Ricky competes with assistant director David (Hannes Fuchs) for Jeff's attentions, while simultaneously seducing some of the women on the set. And the chronically depressive set designer, Fred (a typically histrionic Kurt Raab), breaks down and cries over seemingly anything.
This exaggerated cast of characters fight, sleep around, exchange partners, scream and yell, and consume massive quantities of alcohol and all this before having completed even a single frame of film. Fassbinder's satire of his own emotionally draining filming process, made right after Whity and directly inspired by its torturous shoot, pulls no punches, either for himself or anyone else. These are a bunch of neurotic, hopeless, desperate people, and none of them more so than the Fassbinder stand-in Jeff, who even wears Fassbinder's trademark black leather jacket just in case there's any confusion about the connection. And yet the film is subtly hilarious, in its own bitchy way, for those who are open to its black charms. The histrionics and rage are played totally straight, even deadpan, but at the same time it's all so ridiculous that the film's straight face becomes difficult to uphold.
In one scene, staged at an almost excruciating length, most of the cast is gathered in the central room at the villa they're shooting in. Some are drinking at the bar, while others are paired off making out or dancing, and over the course of the scene these pairs constantly shift and rotate as the characters all play off each other's feelings, manipulating and jilting each other with only casual interest in what's going on. While all this is happening, those at the bar sink deeper and deeper into drink and begin heaving their glasses behind them over their shoulders, or throwing them at the far wall, prompting the dutiful bartender to appear with his broom and dustpan. Meanwhile, Jeff's fiancée Irm (Magdalena Montezuma) throws a fit at his disinterest and is promptly ejected from the set, following a harrowing speech which Fassbinder allows her to deliver in close-up. The scene as a whole is sustained for incredibly long, with most of it held at arm's length in long shots except for periodic close-ups like this one, which draw us closer to particular moments of emotional collapse. The distance which Fassbinder mostly keeps from the action allows him to ratchet up the tension without ever losing its comic edge. He wants us to feel the emotional anguish of these characters while simultaneously recognizing the ludicrous nature of the situation. The scene is both intense drama and absurd slapstick, with one feeding off the other and leading into the other. The screaming, the breaking glass, the Leonard Cohen music with couples slow-dancing and fornicating in the background, it all accumulates into a fever pitch of ridiculous tension.
Fassbinder presents many scenes in this way towards the beginning of the film, keeping the characters locked into a single space together and letting the sparks fly as their complex relationships and ever-shifting objects of "love" collide. The individual scenes feel disconnected from each other, having little to do with each other besides the same basic cast of characters and the same theme of searching for love and affection. Each scene is a new take on the film's central theme, a new set piece in which Fassbinder sets his characters free to hurt and play off one another. This feeling becomes even more pronounced as the film goes along, and towards the end, Fassbinder drastically shortens the scene length, increasing the tempo of his editing so that many different scenes breeze by. Whether the scenes are held at great length or last barely a minute, the idea is the same: they are "takes," different perspectives on the same set of emotional dilemmas. Fassbinder's coldly critical and blackly humorous look at his own filmmaking persona stands as yet another dark-hued masterpiece in his fertile career.
In Act of Violence, Robert Ryan does an excellent job playing the initially threatening crippled GI Joe Parkson, who is an unrelenting mission to murder his former commanding officer, Frank Enley (Van Heflin). But of course all is not as it seems in this masterfully crafted film noir from director Fred Zinnemann. For the first half of the film, Parkson is a terror stalking Enley's pleasant, succesful suburban life. Enley is married, to the innocent and cheery Edith (Janet Leigh), and a well-respected local businessman, but the sudden appearance of Parkson clearly terrifies him, and Zinnemann keeps the audience squarely on Enley's side. The gun-toting Parkson is initially kept at a distance, a single-minded killer who can hardly wait to kill his prey; he stalks him mercilessly and with great haste, as though he's eager to kill him as soon as possible. Even Parkson's limp is turned into an instrument of fear. In one memorable scene, Frank and Edith are locked up in their house, hiding from Parkson, as the killer stalks around outside, trying all the doors. The scared couple can track his progress by following the dragging shuffle of his limping gait, the only sound in the otherwise eerily quiet scene.
That the film is then able to transform this jaded killer into a much more complex and morally ambiguous character is one of the film's central conceits. The second half of the film, when Parkson's motivations become known, reveals the complicated morality at the heart of the film, which encompasses war crimes and the question of whether some deeds are so heinous they just can't be forgotten. While Enley flees from Parkson and stumbles around for a way out, the film humanizes both men, making it clear that the violent link between them is only being continued in the current events. In the finale, both men have a chance to redeem themselves, with a resolution that of course allows Parkson to retain his humanity (Robert Ryan could never really play a cold-blooded killer), and for Enley to atone for his own violent past.
Act of Violence is a solid, well-made noir with a complex moral core to back up its gorgeous high contrast blacks and whites. As with many of the best noirs, the imagery may trade in one or the other, but the script recognizes that morality more often exists in shades of gray.