Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe (The Duchess of Langeais)

Jacques Rivette's newest film, Don't Touch the Axe (I prefer the original French to the American retitling The Duchess of Langeais) is a sublime game by an old master at the top of his form. Games are the film's central conceit, in fact, whether they be word games, mind games, literary games, games played between appearance and feeling. The game being played at the narrative level takes place between a General (Guillaume Depardieu) and a Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) whose circumspect courtship, constricted by the rules of polite society and the oppressive etiquette that goes along with them, turns into an increasingly barbed battle of wits and stubbornness. This perennially unconsummated couple veers between flirtatiousness and withdrawal, culminating eventually in the Duchess' retreat into a convent and the General's vain attempts to rescue/kidnap her from its cloistered, heavily barred confines. In one of his earliest films, the short Le coup du berger, Rivette already viewed love as a game of chess, and this wry perspective on human relationships has apparently survived intact from then all the way into his latest feature.

But this is only one game that Rivette is toying with, and he plays an entirely different one with the audience, a game of subtle winks and sly nods that continually disrupts the placid surface of the narrative — which on its most apparent level resembles any number of more typical period pieces — with a clever humorous slant on the material, a sense that the director is looking slightly askance at these people and their bizarre rituals of love. This narrative disruption is mirrored in the way the General's story to the Duchess, about his time lost in the desert after escaping from the enemy's imprisonment, is continually interrupted, usually by the listener's short attention span and her tendency to divert the flow of the conversation just as the story is reaching a critical juncture. This results in the General's story being doled out across three successive evenings that they spend together early in their relationship. On the third night, as they settle in to continue the story, Rivette frames the Duchess in a tight closeup as she asks her would-be lover to finish the tale. At this moment, she turns a sly sidelong glance directly into the camera, maintaining eye contact with the audience, as though to include them in the game.

This game of narrative interruptus is also carried through in the way Rivette uses the text of the film's original source, a novella by Honoré de Balzac. This is a rigidly faithful adaptation, in a manner similar to Fassbinder's interpretation of Fontane's Effi Briest, with texts from the novel periodically included as intertitles to highlight certain moments or get at the characters' internal states. The titles are also used to convey the passage of time, which is parceled out in scrupulously precise measures: "one hour later," "twenty-two minutes passed," "she waited twenty-four hours." These titles often seem to abruptly cut off the action, sometimes flashing up on screen when, after a long scene of near-stasis, a character is right in the middle of completing the scene's first real movement or action (most often: leaving the room). The passage of time, like everything else in the film, is subject to Rivette's subtle humor. After the Duchess kicks her friend out of her house, a title informs us that one hour passes (a very common interlude), and surprisingly in the very next scene there's the General again, still standing in her parlor, walking around it aimlessly, looking like only five minutes has passed since she ordered him to leave. Rivette's use of these titles is obviously very sardonic and mannered, as when he uses a long series of images of the Duchess at a party as though it constituted a clause in between two dashes in a sentence: "the Duchess searched for him —" followed by the visuals and then, when the dangling phrase had almost been forgotten, "— in vain."

This idiosyncratic approach to literary adaptation dominates the film, as Rivette remains literally true to the source material while slowly worming his way underneath it in order to get at the basic absurdity of this situation. This is a period piece where all the characters look distinctly uncomfortable in their clothes, especially Balibar, who never looks glamorous in the succession of ludicrous dresses she squeezes into; she's a rather frumpy and unappealing duchess. This discomfort is part of Rivette's agenda of deconstruction, and he accentuates the ridiculousness of this all in a way that should make it impossible to look at any straight-faced period piece quite the same again. The sound design is also a crucial element. The film's characteristic onomatopoeia are the "thud" and the "clank," heavy, awkward sounds that correspond especially to the loping gait of the General, who walks with a stiff-legged limp. His heavy footsteps are only one noise in the film's orchestration of incidental sounds, in which footsteps play an especially important part — the General's thumping walk is contrasted, in one scene, against the quiet shuffling of the Duchess' maid, who walks around in socks. Rivette also calls attention to the popping of logs in a fireplace, the rapping of canes, and the creaking of wooden floors loaded with people. One scene, at a grand ball, becomes a comedy in sound as the elegant dancing and string music is accompanied by the constant squeaking of the floor whenever someone moves.

It's odd, but Don't Touch the Axe definitely functions as a comedy, despite the often melodramatic thrust of its narrative. Rivette's whimsical touch is evident everywhere, perhaps most memorably in the scene where two of the General's friends engage in some drunken and utterly inscrutable language games as the Duchess waits impatiently for him outside. These two seem to be making jokes on their own personal level, cracking each other up over variations on the usage of words like "drama" and "stunning." The repetition of these jokes, and the tension built up by Rivette's cross-cutting from this scene to the Duchess waiting outside, culminates until the duo starts to actually seem funny to the audience, rather than just themselves. This same duo provides another of the film's funniest scenes, this time a purely pantomimed one with no dialogue, in which they draw straws to figure out which of the General's friends will have to be disguised as a nun for the convent raid at the end of the film. This is not to say that Rivette disregards the seriousness of his story, and there are moments of surprising pathos, well-played by the two leads, who throughout the second half of the film practically seethe with barely suppressed emotions. Rivette understands the sturm und drang inherent in this story, but this doesn't prevent him from also seeing the humor. In a way, this humor arises because Rivette, unlike other directors of period romances, looks at the conventions and surfaces of this type of film from a distinctly modern perspective, rather than simply accepting the social mores of the time in which the story is set.

Don't Touch the Axe is a delight in every way, a film that functions on its surface level as a straightforward melodramatic romance, even as Rivette plays gleefully with the form of his storytelling in order to infuse the film with his love of gamesmanship and multi-layered constructions. He employs his actors as pieces in this game, and Balibar and Depardieu do an excellent job of delineating the rigid boundaries of their characters, both of whom oscillate between stubborn refusal and open yearning. Balibar especially gives an interesting performance, breathless and flighty, her flute-like voice bringing an otherworldly vibe to her unattainable Duchess. Depardieu is more stoic as the unflappable General, who possesses shadowy connections and nearly unlimited resources but is no less flummoxed by love. Ultimately, though, both characters are simply pawns on Rivette's meticulously arranged chessboard, playing games that have little to do with the story they're ostensibly involved in, and everything to do with the pleasures of narrative deconstruction and the director's sly sense of humor.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Husbands and Wives/Le Corbeau

Husbands and Wives is a perfect combination of the new and the old in Woody Allen's filmmaking, a film that treads very familiar thematic ground even as its style breaks with his past and opens up entirely new possibilities for his art. For Allen, it's a clear case of an old story being told in a new way, and the difference is palpable in every frame of the film. It's one of his loosest, most self-assured works, a compendium of Woody Allen plot points and character traits cast in a new light, as though looked at from an older vantage point as the fond memories of youth. This metatextual element, unusual in Allen's mostly self-contained films, is tipped off right from the very first shot, in which Woody's character, Gabe, watches a TV show about the philosopher who appeared in Crimes and Misdemeanors — in fact, he is watching what was, in the earlier film, a documentary created by the failed filmmaker Cliff Stern, also played by Woody. This moment is thus notable, besides its metafictional appeal, for its subtle note of optimism, suggesting that Cliff had actually managed to get his documentary on TV, so that he was successful after all, at least in the universe represented by this different film. It's a neat gesture, a kind of token extended to one of Woody's more miserable past incarnations, as though to imply that his signature negative outlook had mellowed out a bit and he now allowed for at least the possibility of success and happiness.

To be sure, though, this mellower Woody is otherwise not especially apparent in the film's stormy opener, in which Gabe and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) are stunned by the announcement that their friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are breaking up their long-standing marriage. The couple announces this split almost casually, smiling as they do so and expecting that their friends will simply take it in stride and they'll all go out to dinner afterwards. But Gabe and Judy are not so serene, and Judy especially seems shaken by their friends' break-up — the obvious subtext is that she's disturbed by the realization that long and seemingly stable marriages can shatter so easily and so calmly. The camerawork in these opening scenes mirrors the tension and emotional excess of this encounter, with the camera swaying frantically back and forth from one character to another, achieving the effect of the 180-degree reaction-shot cut without actually cutting. This is Woody's first film with a handheld camera, and the jittery, edgy cinematography by his longtime collaborator Carlo di Palma is perfectly suited to the film's themes of instability and change. It's a very rough film, jagged and raw both in its emotions and its style of presenting them. I commented, after seeing Jean-Luc Godard's contentious interview with Allen in Meetin' WA, that the two filmmakers have very little common ground and very different ways of thinking about movies, and yet Husbands and Wives is the first Allen film where Godard's influence can be felt, at least on a superficial level. The editing is as rough and elliptical as Breathless, with jump cuts in the middle of many scenes and a camera that hardly ever sits still. The technique is particularly used with images of Mia Farrow, whose most emotional scenes are frequently broken up by cuts and ellipses, in much the same manner as Charlotte Rampling's breakdowns were fragmented in Woody's earlier Stardust Memories.

This isn't the only way in which the film refers back to past Allen films. The central issues, of course, have been thoroughly explored in Allen's oeuvre, especially his dramas: love and fidelity, the changing nature of love over the years, the tension between the intellect and the emotions, sexual frigidity and impotence, the ways in which emotional truths can be buried for years before sudden realizations trigger their unearthing. There's also an element of past Allen films in the character of Rain (Juliette Lewis), one of Gabe's students in a creative writing class, who he thinks is a promising student and is obviously attracted to as well. Her character bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Woody's much younger girlfriend in Manhattan, played by Mariel Hemingway. Woody has always been interested in the idea of the romantic relationship as a professor/student bond, and many of his films have positioned him as the wise figure dispensing advice and philosophy to a younger or simply less experienced woman — though usually losing that woman in the end, presumably once the pupil has exceeded her master. Rain fills that role here, but the crucial difference is that Gabe seems to realize the folly of this pattern, and rather than sleepwalk through the usual routine, at the last moment he steps back and wisely says that he sees where this is going, and he'd rather save them both the heartache. It's a surprisingly mature gesture from Allen, a stark contrast to the miserable and pathetic scene he makes at the end of Manhattan when he loses Hemingway's character for good — it's as though he's recognized his own failings, as a filmmaker and a character, and has acknowledged them here. He even has Rain herself criticize his treatment of women in a novel he was writing, in a very cogent and well-stated critique that might just as easily have come from feminist writings about Woody's films and public life.

It's obvious that Woody has grown accustomed to the sense of loss and loneliness that accompanies the departure of love; with age and maturity, he's come to look at it as simply a part of life, and this film faces both love and loss with an equanimity never before present in his work. Nevertheless, he can't resist including just one sweepingly romantic moment in the film anyway, a loving depiction of the single passionate kiss between Gabe and Rain, set in a rainstorm, during a blackout at her 21st birthday party. Woody has always been fond of rain — probably why he named a character after it — and the scene where a man and a woman are caught in a storm together and bond because of it recurs throughout his filmography (there's one in this film too, when Judy and her new love interest Michael (Liam Neeson) run laughing inside from the rain). Blackouts also hold a special place for Allen, and the one in September is one of the most magical sequences he's crafted, a sepia-tinged moment of candor and warmth set in the flicker of candlelight, with Sam Waterston and Diane Wiest letting out their suppressed love for one another. The similar scene between Allen and Lewis in Husbands and Wives clearly evokes the earlier movie, a blackout in which the moody lighting and romance of the atmosphere charges the air and brings out suppressed truths, resulting in the electric moment of that one kiss, with lightning flashing in the window behind the couple. The crucial difference, of course, is that at the end of this scene the lights come on, and once out of the darkness of the moment, Woody simply steps away.

This is a complex and multi-layered character study, one in which all the characters are given a chance to develop and come to their own conclusions about love, marriage, and sexuality. The film adopts a somewhat "objective" stance towards these separate conclusions, positioning the film as a kind of psychological study, with an offscreen interviewer directly addressing the characters in private sessions, and often providing dispassionate narration for many of the film's events. The narrator even tracks down past lovers, interviewing them to provide information not otherwise known to many of the main characters. This objective distance leaves the film's denouement largely up in the air, as each of the characters strikes his or her own balance on the subjects of love, sex, and romance, finally tamping down many of the more extreme sentiments and emotions briefly allowed free rein during the course of the film and settling on more comfortable domestic arrangements. This is a witty, mordantly funny film, one that finds humor in even the darkest of romantic situations, and one that promises at least a hint of stability and comfort amidst the insanities and incompatibilities of relationships.

Le Corbeau is a fierce, dark, stridently misanthropic film — that is to say, a film entirely characteristic of its director, the notoriously bleak Henri-Georges Clouzot. Made in 1943 at the height of the German occupation of France, and thus the subject of much controversy for its director after the war, Le Corbeau certainly doesn't paint the French bourgeois in a pretty light. In fact, a light is the film's central metaphor, a swinging light bulb that represents the shifting moral boundary lines between good and evil, symbolizing both the internal conflicts within all people and the larger external battles on a societal level. This relativist morality is the festering core of a film built on ugliness, lies, and rampant corruption, as a small provincial town is torn apart by a mysterious letter-writer called the Raven, who's methodically exposing all of the townspeople's darkest secrets to one another.

The focus of much of this antipathy is local doctor Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), who attains a reputation as an abortionist, a womanizer, and possibly a crook through these letters, accusations at least partially bolstered by his obvious disdain for children and his often abrupt manner. As the center of the film, he becomes its de facto hero, but a very unlikeable hero he is, and one not entirely above suspicion either — it's not at all clear just how much of a relationship he has with the wife (Micheline Francey) of the hospital supervisor Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). The film spends much of its running time systematically raising suspicions about virtually everyone in its large cast of characters. At times, it seems like it's going to turn out that everyone in the village is sending these nasty letters to each other. The attention briefly focuses on a puritanical nun (Héléna Manson), but when she too is exonerated by the appearance of a new letter from the Raven, the town is nearly torn apart by the mutual suspicions, anger, and barely suppressed emotions.

As a portrait of the ugliness beneath the bourgeois facade, this film is nearly unmatched. Clouzot maintains the suspense and festering antagonism so well that the ultimate resolution can only come as a disappointment, and the final act sort of defuses much of the moral ambiguity and dark emotions of the rest of the film. In the famous scene of the swaying light bulb, light and dark are represented as not only coexisting, but intimately related, with good shaping evil and vice versa, just as the light areas define the shadows and the darkness delineates the bright spots left untouched. This interplay of good and evil, so potent and pungent throughout the film, is largely thrown out the window for the unconvincing denouement. In fact, Clouzot's films seemed to be plagued by these types of inappropriate endings, like the feel-good resolution of Quai des orfèvres or the ironic O. Henry-esque twist at the end of Wages of Fear. It's as though the dark ideas and human ugliness raised by Clouzot's films can't find an appropriate expression in the final moments, and so he either retreats into a Hollywood-style tying-up of loose ends, or else opts for a non-sequitur with little relation to the rest of the film.

Even with this ending hampering its impact, Le Corbeau is a dark and gritty exposé of bourgeois pettiness, as well as, at the height of the German occupation and despite the outcry against Clouzot's supposed "collaboration," very likely a coded denunciation of the divisive effect of informants. It's a taut suspense film, an engaging mystery in which all the characters are guilty, even the ones who are ultimately cleared of the crime. The stain of guilt never truly leaves any of these characters behind. They are all complicit in the Raven's crimes, because they are all complicit in the network of betrayals, blackmails, blacklisting, and petty gossip that spreads in the wake of these letters. Guilt and innocence, like light/dark and good/evil, thus constitute another of the film's central dichotomies, although in this case Clouzot resolves the dialectic with much greater finality. Good and evil, light and dark, may be ambiguous quantities, subject to change and present in people to greater or lesser degrees. But, Clouzot clarifies, all these people are simply, finally guilty.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

RoboCop/Carmen Jones/Lessons Of Darkness

I haven't seen RoboCop since I was a kid, and then only on crappy dubbed and scrubbed TV broadcasts, so it was practically like I hadn't seen the film at all. Since my recent experience with the sublime Black Book tipped me off that there's more to Paul Verhoeven than I expected, I figured it was about time to revisit this old classic. And I'm very glad I did. There's a lot going on in this film beyond its surface-level ultra-violent action, although of course the action is great and there's plenty of it. Verhoeven's wry, satirical perspective elevates what might have been a typical 80s schlock-fest into an enduring classic, a portrait of creeping totalitarianism at work. The titular RoboCop is actually Murphy (Peter Weller), a cop who has a fatal run-in with a group of notorious cop-killing drug-dealers. His body is then used as fodder by the corporation OCP, a Halliburton-like independent contractor that's taken over management of the Detroit police force in addition to their usual line of supplying military weaponry. OCP transforms Murphy into RoboCop, a wholly prosthetic cyborg with only trace memories of his old life, suppressed by the rigorous programming by which the corporation's scientists attempted to transform him into the "perfect" cop: dedicated to the letter of the law but without any emotions to interfere with its application. This is a frightening proposition, the idea that the perfect cop should be almost inhuman, but what's even scarier is that RoboCop is himself an improvement on the company's other idea of the perfect cop, a robot with absolutely no human elements who winds up accidentally killing a senior manager due to a glitch. The film posits a conflict between the inhuman and the marginally more human, and forces the audience to root for the rigid RoboCop simply because he at least shows traces of his former humanity.

Within this story, Verhoeven works mostly with the small touches, especially the not-so-subtle media commentary contained in the frequent glimpses of television news and unfunny comedy shows. The recurring shots of a bizarre sitcom where the pervy main character has the catch phrase "I'll buy that for a dollar" are a riot, skewering the inanity of pop culture with total believability. Does anyone think that couldn't be a real TV show? Even more pointed are the TV news clips, in which constantly smiling drones recite both tragic and ridiculous news with equal dismissiveness and flippancy. More subtly, these news blurbs provide hints of the darker subtexts at work in the culture, particularly the insinuation that the nation's current president is using an orbiting missile defense satellite as a base to kill his political enemies with controlled laser blasts, positioned in the media as "accidents." It's both hilarious and terrifying to see the grinning news anchors describe the laser-triggered explosions as accidental, while the graphic in the corner of the screen seems to indicate perfectly targeted shots at diverse locations. This kind of detail, almost subliminal at times, is packed into the margins of the film, suggesting the very scary and dystopian world that could both create RoboCop and decide that he's a desirable solution to its problems.

What's equally striking about RoboCop is the extent to which it's actually a dark comedy rather than a straightforward action flick. Many of the scenes that should play out as action showcases wind up being really funny, especially the scene where RoboCop first battles it out with the ED-209 military droid that preceded him. This robotic battle machine is equipped with an animalistic growl, presumably to intimidate criminals, but it is apparently not programmed to be able to climb stairs, and RoboCop manages to elude it by simply running down a staircase. The robot then tentatively tries to follow — and the scene where it tests out the stairs with its ill-eqiuipped feet surprisingly anthropomorphizes it — but winds up on its back, squealing and crying like a baby and banging its legs on the floor in a robotic tantrum. The film also boasts a scenery-chewing parade of stock villains, including Kurtwood Smith as their sociopathic leader and pre-Twin Peaks turns from both Miguel Ferrer (sleazy and leering as ever) and a gleefully creepy Ray Wise.

Although much of the film is as over-the-top as one would expect, there are moments of quiet empathy in which RoboCop's slow process of discovering his past is documented with real warmth and pathos. This is, amidst all the bluster and explosions, a very sad character, a man who died and left behind his beloved wife and child, but whose consciousness nonetheless continues to exist in some perfunctory form, trapped in the guts of a robotic shell. The scene where he explores his abandoned former house, now up for sale by an annoying real estate agent who appears only on TV monitors, is beautifully handled, as RoboCop's tour of the house triggers poignant memories from his past. Verhoeven manages to dig deep into a story that in other hands would require only numerous clichés and lots of blood splatter. The result is a film that isn't stingy with the expected blood — in fact, it's sometimes shockingly gory — but which also searches for multiple layers of meaning within RoboCop's story: not only political and social commentary, but addressing the question of what it is to be human and what separates a feeling human consciousness from a machine.

Georges Bizet's classic opera Carmen is a primal tale, a story that's been told and retold, its elements rearranged and cast into different contexts, time and time again in various media and forms. This version, Carmen Jones, is a distinctly American slant on the tale, directed by Otto Preminger based on the successful Broadway play, and populated by an all-black cast. It's a hugely promising premise, especially with Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen as Harry Belafonte as her luckless beau Joe. The leads have just the right chemistry and smoldering sexuality to infuse this Carmen adaptation with raw energy and sensual sizzle whenever they're on screen. This version relocates the story to a Southern military base, where Joe is a soldier about to leave for flying school, and planning to marry his longtime sweetheart Cindy Lou (Olga James) before he leaves. But he's sidetracked by an assignment to bring the tempestuous Carmen, who has set her sights on him, to the local jail after she gets into a vicious fight with another woman. This detour quickly ends with Joe and Carmen in bed together, triggering the beginning of a stormy romance that leads the pair to Chicago, on the run with Joe AWOL from the military after fighting with an officer, where Carmen promptly deserts him for a prizefighter (Joe Adams) who likes to throw his money around freely.

It's a familiar story, and its archetypal quality is exactly its appeal. It casts the virgin against the whore, the small-town girl against the worldly wild woman, and nothing sums it up better than the saccharine song Joe sings to Cindy Lou shortly before he leaves her, praising her because she's just like his mom (hello, Oedipus!). Much has been made of the change of context from Spain to black America, but in point of fact it doesn't make much of a difference to the story, which plays out the same way no matter where it's set (as Godard proved, perhaps definitively, with his abstracted version of the story in Prénom: Carmen). There's not much specifically black or specifically American about this story or its treatment here, other than the window dressing of the scenery and the characters' surroundings and occupations. And the music, taken directly from the Broadway play with Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics, is often awkwardly shoehorned into these surroundings, usually falling flat and fizzling even as the characters themselves are sizzling.

The main problem is that the music simply lacks the sexual charge contained in the performances by Dandridge and Belafonte, which drastically hampers the film whenever the characters start bursting into song. In the scene set at Pastor's Cafe, where one of Carmen's friends (Pearl Bailey) sings "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum," everything about the song's lyrics and the jitterbugging dancers in the background suggests a wild party, but the music is curiously tepid once it dispenses with an opening drum solo. And although the drummer is present in the background throughout the scene, and though the song explicitly calls for wild, rhythmic party music, the orchestrations are as flat and sickly as can be, a wan string section with no trace of the frantic drum beat that the drummer can be seen beating out on his kit. This curious lack of synchronization in the music carries through to the whole film, and even Belafonte and Dandridge get their voices dubbed by trained opera singers for the songs. The result is a near total disconnection between the music and the drama of the story, so that the music seems to be happening on a whole other plane, often sounding like it's being beamed in with no relation to the characters supposedly singing it. There's no trace of the sexual urgency that the leads bring to the film, no trace of the raw emotionality and desperation in every second of their performances — Carmen's fierce independence and fickle love, Joe's increasingly angry lust, even Cindy Lou's pathetic yearning for the man who pushed her aside. The weak and disconnected performances of the songs drain all this emotional fervor from the soundtrack, leaving it to the spoken portions of the film to get across the urgency of the narrative.

Of course, whenever the music stops, there are plenty of effective moments, especially in the film's second half. Dandridge is responsible for much of what's best in this film, and her loose, sexy performance can only be gawked at. When she stretches out her long bare legs towards Joe, huskily telling him to "blow on 'em" to dry her toenail polish, it's an impossibly suggestive moment, one of the cinema's best love scenes. Her performance is filled out by many such details and moments, from the sneering way she holds her lips to the hip-swaying swagger of her walk to the distinctive drawl of her voice. She even manages to get across the film's best song, Carmen's anthem "Dat's Love," by the sheer energy of her grinning performance, as she lip-syncs the telling lyrics: "You go for me and I'm taboo/ But if you're hard to get I go for you/ And if I do, den you are through, boy/ My baby, dat's de end of you." This song, with its contagious melody, is perhaps the one exception to the unbearable flatness of much of the music, and Preminger is wise to keep returning to it throughout the film, its presence a constant reminder of Carmen's predatory outlook on love and desire. It returns as snatches of string melody, bits of sung lyrics, and most memorably, with Carmen whistling it throughout a scene with Joe as she preps to go out and visit the boxer who she's already decided to go for.

Preminger's Carmen Jones is ultimately a bit of a disappointment, though the sheer chemistry and raw power of the leads is nearly enough to revive it when its lackluster incorporation of the music threatens to drag it down. It's an interesting film primarily for the performances of Dandridge and Belafonte, who electrify the screen so completely that it's easy to forget about anything else when they're on screen.

Lessons Of Darkness is one of my favorite Werner Herzog films, and probably the best example of his distinctive approach to the thin line between documentary and fiction. Nowhere in his filmography has his blurring of this line been more complete than in this terse, mysterious, and evocative film, made in Kuwait and Iraq shortly after the first Gulf War, in the immediate wake of the Iraqi army's destructive retreat from occupied Kuwait. But despite this setting, the film is almost stridently apolitical — aside from a pair of scenes in which Arab women describe the tortures of Saddam Hussein's regime — and ahistorical in its treatment of the war, the region it occurred in, and the world situation and events that caused it. None of this is within the purview of Herzog's art; he has never been a polemical filmmaker, or even a particularly political one, preferring to examine particular people and places and events in terms of their relationship to grand archetypes and ideas. He is a director of the grandiose and the large-scale, even if he most often finds these elements in the specific megalomanias of individual people.

In this case, though, man is almost entirely absent from the film, and certainly individual man. The film's only speaking characters, besides Herzog's stoic and, as the film progresses, increasingly sparse, narration, are the two Arab women already mentioned, and they are not even translated, as Herzog simply describes their stories in his own words. The film's other people are silent, mostly men working on extinguishing the oil fires that Iraqi soldiers lit in the aftermath of the war, and they are glimpsed usually from a distance, covered in thick layers of protective clothing and framed in silhouette against the towering blazes. This abstraction from the human elements of the story allows Herzog to transform this documentary into a kind of science-fiction narrative about an alien world, and right from the start his narration enforces this idea. Herzog's films have often stressed the absurdity and hostility of nature, and the ultimate extreme for him — one he has explored in several other films as well, most notably Fata Morgana, this film's direct antecedent — is the idea that our planet is alien to its own inhabitants. To this end, he has captured some of the most stunning and strangely beautiful images imaginable: lakes of oil, towering blazes that fill the sky with black smoke, a desert strewn with bones and mysterious metal wreckage, strange machines completing inscrutable tasks in the midst of this hellish landscape. It's no accident that the film is divided into chapters with titles like "Satan's National Park," or that Herzog's voiceover quotes liberally from the Book of Revelations; this is an apocalyptic vision.

The emphasis, of course, is on vision, since once the introductory few chapters are over, Herzog's voiceover recedes more and more into silence, and the film is propelled simply by the overpowering strength of its visuals and the sweeping, operatic music that accompanies them. Herzog spends much of the film up in a helicopter, dodging in between plumes of smoke and swooping across reflective lakes of oil. These images are equal parts horrifying and awe-inspiring, and Herzog presents them with a straightforward sensibility that lingers on each image, the camera slowly panning around these fiery infernos and giving the film a leisurely, contemplative pace. On the ground level, Herzog spends one entire chapter (the film's shortest but perhaps best) down at eye level with a large pool of oil that is bubbling in the heat. The dancing, bouncing droplets of oil, percolating with rhythmic pops, are like visual music, and the only sounds are the pops and burbling provided by the heated oil as it froths and spits up protuberances from the ground. Elsewhere, the film spends time with the men who are trying to extinguish the blazes, and Herzog treats these men as alien creatures, swaddled in thick protective suits and acting in mysterious and inexplicable ways, as when they re-ignite several oil plumes that had been put out.

It's perhaps impossible to overstate the unsettling beauty that Herzog has achieved here. In many ways, it's a very pure beauty, with every trace of political context effectively drained from the situations being depicted. Herzog has, of course, been criticized for this, but specific political engagement is not his style, and in any case there is something much deeper at work in this film, beyond the specific political events it is depicting. Lessons Of Darkness is, rather than a commentary on the first Gulf War, an impassioned meditation on the fallout of any war, a chronicle of the ways in which man's extreme violence has made nature itself alien to us. On the alien planet encountered in this film, a horrific war has set the ground against the planet's inhabitants, has ravaged the surface so thoroughly that it is engulfed in flames. Herzog finds an awesome beauty in these images, but also a profound sadness, a sense that we can never experience the world as our natural habitat, that it will always be strange and hostile to us because of the ways in which we uneasily coexist with it. Nature, for Herzog, is both beautiful and scary, and the same holds true for the works of man.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind is blessed with such a deliriously silly premise and such heartfelt execution that it's easy to overlook its many shortcomings and simply enjoy the ride. It's a film about two video store clerks (Jack Black and Mos Def) who accidentally erase all the videocassettes in their store. Yes, they're the last VHS holdouts in a DVD marketplace, a fact that becomes important in light of the film's implicit (if somewhat confused) critique of mainstream Hollywood and the decline of personal, creative experiences in the movies. In any case, faced with a video store full of suddenly blank tapes, the duo of course decides — what other logical response, really? — to remake every film in the store themselves, in makeshift 20-minute versions where all the parts are played by themselves and some local friends, and the special effects are as improvised and shitty as possible. These hilarious remakes of course turn out to be a massive hit in the neighborhood, and the guys are catapulted to local stardom.

The film is at its best as long as it focuses on the remakes themselves, which are unfailingly a riot. The guys put their own unique slant on RoboCop, Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, and dozens of other Hollywood flicks, each one accomplished with a combination of visual ingenuity and real old-fashioned technical improvisation. What's great about these recreations, as opposed to recent movie parodies like the utterly disposable Scary Movie franchise, is that the original movies are pretty much left alone, treated with respect and genuine affection. In this case, it's not the original films that are being mocked; the humor arises from the way these two goofy, naïve friends flub and stumble their way through a grand tour of mainstream cinema with all its warts and ridiculous genre exercises. It's a tribute to good old-fashioned mechanical know-how, the moviemaking instinct that leads filmmakers to continually think up new ways to shoot convincing action scenes or achieve particular effects. That ingenuity is there when these two amateurs use a fan threaded with strings, placed in front of the camera, to give the effect of a scratchy old black-and-white film, or when they switch the camera to negative mode to shoot day-for-night. In many ways, the film feels like an impassioned plea for the return of this kind of mechanical creativity in films, a more personal touch for achieving special effects than the slick surfaces of CGI animation.

Gondry is also evoking nostalgia for an older era in which movies were a true communal experience, when there seemed to be an utopian potential in the movies that has long since departed — killed, ironically, at least in part by the prevalence of home-viewing formats. The film's finale is a warm and touching tribute to the power of watching movies in large groups, a fantasy about the potential for movies to draw entire communities together in celebration and pleasure. As Gondry pans across the faces of the neighborhood people, illuminated by the flickering blue glow of a cinema projection, the real affection he has for the movies as a communal experience is immediately apparent. This is even more true of the final scene, which expands the movie-going experience into the streets of the city, where people from all over the neighborhood gather in groups to watch the flickering screen and rejoice in it. They are of course watching a film which is itself a piece of nostalgia, a recreation of an imaginary jazz age New Jersey that never existed, in which Fats Waller figures prominently, not as he really was in life, but as he might be in fantasies, tall tales, and legends.

Be Kind Rewind is also a fantasy, and a totally unabashed one. Its villains, evil Hollywood lawyers, storm into the video store with impressive but totally off-base legal jargon, confiscating everything in sight, and then actually running over the amassed videocassettes with a steamroller. It's an inspired bit of comic book villainy, to be sure. But it's also indicative of the film's somewhat confused stance towards Hollywood, part of a love/hate relationship with the mainstream that never quite resolves itself. On the one hand, Gondry wistfully recalls an imaginary Hollywood past in which the movies actually brought people together in communal joy, and his remakes of even recent Hollywood fare shows a real affection and appreciation for the simple pleasures of an enjoyably stupid genre flick. It helps that, in the process, he's made an enjoyably stupid genre flick himself. But Gondry is simultaneously undercutting the studio system, lambasting the destruction of communal values in cinema — although why this should be ascribed to DVD and not VHS is not at all clear — and protesting the suppression of creative voices by a slick mainstream apparatus. This ambivalent stance towards Hollywood is never quite resolved, and neither is the contradiction inherent in Gondry's appreciation of the community while he actually slights the film medium in favor of home-viewing media like videotapes.

Despite these problems, the film as a whole is an enjoyable diversion. When it's not focused on the film-making exploits of Black and Mos Def, the film does fall apart a bit, and the ancillary characters are barely developed. Danny Glover, as a wise old black man stereotype, is particularly egregious in the film's early scenes, a few of which are nearly unwatchable, while the great Mia Farrow is simply wasted as a mildly quirky neighborhood woman. Whenever the characters aren't making or showing one of their creations, one inevitably wishes they were, just because the film crackles and sparkles during its creative scenes and too often fizzles otherwise. Towards the middle of the film, Gondry provides a hilarious montage, structured like one of the music videos that originally made him famous, a patchwork construction of scenes from various remade movies. Some of these gags are so good — like the refrigerator they use to approximate HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the cardboard cutout animals for The Lion King — that one wishes the film had lingered longer on some of these moments and trimmed the excess surrounding details a bit. As it is, Be Kind Rewind is not necessarily the comic masterpiece promised by its very original conceit, but it's entertaining enough and rich enough in warmth and humor that it overcomes even its considerable structural and thematic flaws.

Friday, February 22, 2008


In searching for some information about the comic artist and designer Richard McGuire — mainly hoping for an update on the long-rumored book-length version of his seminal comic strip "Here" — I stumbled across the above YouTube video. I don't usually post such ephemera here, but this seemed like an interesting enough link that it might be worth a look. It's a film adaptation of McGuire's "Here," apparently made by two upstate New York amateur filmmakers, Timothy Masick and William Trainor, in 1991, just two years after the original comic strip was published in Art Spiegelman's anthology magazine RAW.

For those who don't know, McGuire's comic "Here" is one of the masterpieces of the artform, a beautifully conceived manipulation of panels, space, and time in which form and content are perfectly wed. But don't take my word for it, you can read it yourself, because this Spanish comics site has posted the entirety of the six-page comic as GIF images. So go ahead, then come back here, and if you like it as much as I do you'll probably also want this issue of Comic Art magazine that reprints the complete comic along with an enlightening profile of McGuire. Surprisingly, this audacious masterpiece is one of the few pieces of true comics work McGuire has made in a long and wide-ranging career that has encompassed design, children's books, and animated film. The comic's ingenuity is its use of multiple frames and panels within panels in order to convey the passage of time across centuries. Each panel frames the exact same physical space, a corner of a room in a house that is built in 1902 — though McGuire also shows events that happen in this same physical space both before the house was built and after it's destroyed. Within this static space, time moves freely, overlapping as multiple events spanning throughout time occur in different panels and sub-panels. Sometimes, McGuire's division of space into time makes a simple joke — as when he hilariously overlays images of cows from 1860 onto the faces of women talking in a living room in 1944 — and at other times the effect is more poignant and evocative. A character named Billy, who lived in the house as both a young boy and a grown man, is seen traversing several time periods in the house's lifetime, and later revisiting his former home as an old man. The comic economically condenses eons of action into just six pages, and its convention-shattering use of panels and the concept of comics "time" remains one of the most original and exciting uses of the medium.

This brings us to the film linked above. In many ways, adapting "Here" into a film is an odd and quixotic endeavor. The genius of McGuire's work is exactly its extreme specificity, the extent to which it interrogates and remakes the conventions of the comics form and re-imagines the basic unit of comics structure: the panel. This specificity is certainly lost in the translation, and make no mistake, it's a great loss. Nevertheless, the film version is interesting in other ways, namely the way it introduces the concept of motion into the story. McGuire's comic is, of course, necessarily static, and its stasis is an integral part of its meaning — the comics panel is a static block of space, and within this space McGuire breaks down time as a series of further static blocks. This is contrast to the usual comics conception of time, in which time progresses in a continual forward motion from one panel to the next, similarly to how time progresses between frames in a traditional narrative film. McGuire's innovation was to take this basic tenet — one panel is a unit of time — and play with it by overlaying panels so that time becomes jumbled, communicating a sense of a continuous flow of time.

The film complicates this notion by disrupting the comic's stasis. The moving transitions between different time periods have some relationship to the traditional film grammar of wipes used to transition between time and place, but the overlapping "frames," duplicating McGuire's compositions, bear little relationship to the usual cinematic conception of time and place. The "transitions" are not actually transitioning anywhere, but rather introducing new blocks and new combinations of blocks that overlay each other and comment on each other. At some points, transition lines are fluidly and quickly moving across the screen, often in different directions, so that they selectively reveal parts of the room at various eras. A block of the screen from 1944 may be moving left, while a block from 1963 moves right; they meet in the middle, swap, and sweep across the screen to be replaced by still more time fragments. The film's fluidity and motion contribute to a much faster pace than McGuire's comic. Where the comic is elegiac and contemplative, the film has a much more frenetic, energetic pace, despite the fact that both works are fairly similar in terms of their compositions and basic content.

One sense in which the film is a real disappointment is in its use of sound, which doesn't quite go far enough in expanding upon the comic. Comics are obviously limited in their use of sound, and word balloons are a compromise solution to an otherwise intractable problem for the artform. The film, in translating McGuire's texts into real sound, reveals the tantalizing possibilities opened up by the different medium, but doesn't really embrace the change. There are isolated moments, like when a radio from 1922 plays some melancholy old jazz to indicate the era, or when people shout at each other across "panels" representing different times, when the film suggests that the use of overlapping sound might have been a key component in making this work a truly essential and original adaptation, rather than just an intriguing companion piece. The filmmakers don't pursue this possibility much further though, preferring to stick relatively close to McGuire's original conception and no more. Still, it's an interesting little film, and well worth considering, especially in relation to the comic that inspired it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Odds of Recovery/The Head of a Pin/Ulysse

With The Odds of Recovery, experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich continues to explore various facets of her life through autobiographical films that deftly balance the personal and the objective. As always, Friedrich's greatest gift is for stepping back from deeply personal subjects with a formal distance that allows her to comment on her experiences without becoming sentimental or maudlin. This danger is especially real in this recent film, in which Friedrich traces the development of her own health over the years, recounting in a video diary the six operations she underwent, for various maladies, between the ages of 20 and 46. Her battle with a massive cyst on her spleen, several knee operations, problems with her breasts and hormone levels: all are explored with candor and directness. Characteristically, Friedrich illustrates scenes obliquely, relying on a dense and poetically structured combination of diary footage, voiceovers, and on-screen texts to communicate the essence of the story, while the visuals often detour into disconnected shots of nature scenes or domestic interiors, with the kitchen and the garden especially emphasized. Friedrich's long-suffering partner, who taught her how to both cook and garden, is absent from the film, spoken about but never seen. Nevertheless, her presence is strongly felt in these scenes, which are reminders of her influence and importance in Friedrich's life even as the medical struggles tend to push them apart into their own separate worries.

Friedrich is often inclined to express things in such indirect ways, a tendency that can also be seen in her use of text and voiceover. Throughout much of the film, the spoken word is used primarily to communicate objective or medical information, giving the film the veneer of a scientific documentary at times. The narration reads from medical textbooks, describing the function of various organs and the root of problems, or from Friedrich's own post-operative medical charts which describe her progress, or from various self-help and psychology books that she turned to in order to deal with her rocky relationship. The scientific thrust of the narration keeps the specificity of Friedrich's problems at a remove, at least for the first half of the film, and she increases this distance by filming her video diary from a static, low position that cuts off people's heads. The bulk of the film's frames are focused at around the mid-section, and also in close-up, so that people, both doctors and patients, tend to become abstracted arrangements of torsos and hands, sometimes engaged in conversation in hospital examining rooms, sometimes cooking or gardening at home.

If these elements contribute to the objective tone of the film, Friedrich often undermines this distance with her use of text, which she uses to express the more personal and emotional reactions which she mostly denies or suppresses in her narration. While her own voice is only rarely allowed to shake or express frustration or bemoan her fate, the texts, flashed up onto black screens periodically, have a more personal, introspective tone far removed from the medical jargon and objectivity of the voiceovers. These texts sometimes also take on the objective quality of the voiceovers — especially to present lists, like a numbered list of the precepts of t'ai-chi — but more often they're personal comments, relating Friedrich's timeline of diseases or her partner's reactions to her constant illnesses. The combination of the dispassionate narration with these written evocations of domestic distress and anxiety allows Friedrich to examine her emotions and her medical history in a way that's introspective without being self-indulgent.

It's only towards the end of the film that Friedrich begins addressing the camera more directly, allowing her face to enter the frame instead of just her scarred body, and speaking directly in her own words instead of limiting her speech to the recitation of medical texts. This switch to a more direct, diaristic approach isn't entirely successful, since it disrupts the film's formal flow and adopts a much more conventional stance in relation to autobiography. Friedrich's best films, such as Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road, have always channeled autobiographical detail into something larger, with the formal rigor of her editing and conceptual framework shaping the raw materials of her life into an aesthetic work. Odds of Recovery has the potential to do the same thing, as its subtle subversion of the medical documentary form comments on the health care system and the mysteries of medicine for the average person. By the end of the film, though, the film has become a much more straightforward autobiography, something Friedrich has usually been at pains to avoid in her work. It's still an interesting film, and a heartfelt examination of a lifetime's worth of illnesses and the long process of recovery.

The Head of a Pin is another very personal, idiosyncratic documentary from Su Friedrich, but of a very different type from The Odds of Recovery. This shorter film, less than half an hour long, documents a visit to a friend's country house, where Friedrich brings her camera along in order to chronicle the trip and photograph the beauty of nature. The result, though, is a very strange sort of nature document, which contrasts the typical sort of nature documentation — eagles flying, the weird hovering of hummingbirds, a multi-hued sunset peeking through clouds, a lake, abundant foliage everywhere — against the starkly photographed drama of a spider fighting with a large fly that is trapped in its web. This small-scale natural event takes place against an entirely white backdrop, the two insects showing up as near abstract forms in an empty space, and Friedrich keeps her camera in close to document this battle, as the spider and the fly continually bat at each other with their limbs, struggling together, suspended in the air by the spider's entrapping web. Friedrich films this struggle in eerie near-silence, with only occasional interjections from those watching, who speculate about what's going on and make uninformed guesses about nature and its workings. So this is a nature documentary, but not in the usual sense: the commentators are non-scientists with little knowledge of the natural world, and the images shown are largely not very spectacular or impressive.

And yet, despite this stark, minimalist construction, the film is oddly mesmerizing. Friedrich has located a primal struggle at a level usually below the threshold of human perception, the kind of natural micro-drama that occurs in millions of small ways every day without much notice. By highlighting this moment, and transforming it into an abstract dance of death, Friedrich focuses in on a natural truth far deeper than the surface beauties usually captured by nature photography. This rumination on the brutality of nature isn't exactly an original observation, but Friedrich infuses it with a sensibility that makes this simple natural tale into dark poetry. The film unfolds in a quiet and stillness that's very much of the country, a real change of pace for the city-dwelling Friedrich. Consequently, there is no trace here of her characteristic voiceover or her use of on-screen texts. The events and images here are presented largely without commentary, other than the hushed musings of those watching the spider and the fly.

In contrast to the imagery of the spider/fly struggle, the other images Friedrich chooses are much more conventionally beautiful, evoking the traditional wonders and mysteries of nature. Particularly dazzling is the moment when she frames a birdhouse with hummingbirds fluttering back and forth around it, hovering in midair in their uncanny way. Elsewhere, in between green vistas and beautiful shots of a shimmering lake, she again dives down to the microscopic world for a shot of mosquitos skimming across the water in a small alcove in a rock. There's a whole world beneath the surfaces in this film, as Friedrich makes clear with the film's majesterial final shot, which spends a very long time watching the spider, now victorious, finally descend on its slaughtered prey and carry it away up into the web. After the spider reaches the top of the web, Friedrich begins pulling back, leaving this drama behind, and panning upwards as she steps back, to reveal that the entirety of this drama was taking place under a kitchen table. The camera pauses on the table, which is laden with ripe-looking food, then pans away towards the window as the image fades away. Throughout the film, the shots of the spider and the fly had remained static, locked on their fatal combat, and the gesture of moving the camera towards the end of the film is one of dismissal, as though Friedrich is saying, "OK, I've seen that, time to move on." The camera leaves this insular underground world behind, but the fascination of the images captured from it remains.

Ulysse is Agnès Varda's film-essay, from 1982, on a photograph she took in 1954, of a man and a young boy, both naked, on a beach with the body of a dead goat. From this single image, arranged and composed by Varda with the two models after she was struck by seeing the goat's corpse on the beach, she spins an interrogation of memory, image-making, and the meaning(s) of art. The film represents Varda's grappling with this single image, forming various interpretations and angles of approach at the picture, experimenting in order to discover what might be thought and said about this photo from her own past. She begins this process of discovery by visiting with each of the photo's subjects thirty years later, in a series of playful interviews that don't really shed any light on the image other than to emphasize the vagaries of memory. The man from the photo, an Egyptian who Varda lost touch with shortly after it was taken, is now a magazine editor, and Varda films him in his office. Hilariously, she has him strip for her camera yet again, interviewing him in the nude, with a pile of books strategically positioned across his hips. He barely remembers the day the photo was taken, providing her with only sketchy memories.

This is more than the boy from the photo, Ulysses, can remember, since he says the day is a total blank for him, and that consequently seeing the boy on the beach is not like seeing himself at all. The relationship between photos, memory, and the conception of identity is one of this film's key themes, as Varda interrogates the relationship that what we see in an image — even one we don't remember being taken — has to who we are, or were at the time. The Egyptian man also says he doesn't remember who he was at the time the photo was taken; when he sees himself in other images Varda took back then, he remembers the clothes he's wearing in the photos, but not what he might've been thinking or what he was like. Varda concludes her study of the photo's subjects with a joke, by showing the image to a goat, as a representation of all goats confronted with an icon of its own mortality. The goat, of course, simply eats the picture, while Varda wonders what kinds of memory animals possess.

Her next angle of inquiry is to explore what else was happening in the world on the day this picture was taken, so she combs through newspaper and newsreel records, another kind of memory, this time a societal memory bank. But these fragments of world events don't enlighten her any more than revisiting the photo's subjects did, so her next recourse is to place the photo in the context of her own work from that time. To this end, she shows other photos that she developed at around the same time, and briefly discusses her work on her first film, La pointe courte, which she made despite the fact that she never went to the cinema or watched TV. Finally, having decided that all such efforts at contextualization result in something outside of the image itself, Varda turns to straight interpretation, disregarding everything she actually knows about the circumstances of the photo's creation and imagining stories and ideas to go with the image.

The results of this inquiry are also outside the image, of course, which is where Varda seemed to be aiming all along. The film is about the understanding that images — all works of art, really — once they are created, exist independently of the one who created them and apart from the circumstances in which they were created. The image of the man, the boy, and the goat is, thirty years later, not just a document of a particular place and time and the particular entities within the frame, but an aesthetic work with multiple potential meanings and associations. This multi-layered quality of artworks is Varda's subject here, and her film draws out a wealth of possible meanings and ideas from this one picture, ranging from the literal and historical to the fanciful and imaginative. In the process, she's also created a whole new work of art in a new medium, completing the cycle as the original image is expanded upon and further explored in this new context. It's a typically fun, witty, and intelligent short from Varda.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eastern Promises/Pursued

Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg's very conscious follow-up to his previous film, A History of Violence, which also starred Viggo Mortensen, and which also represented the idiosyncratic director's engagement with mainstream conceptions of genre and violence. Both films place Mortensen dead-center in a gritty, violent action plot, and both films are undeniably much more straightforward and polished than the wild horror and sci-fi films that earned Cronenberg his reputation. But if History was a typical man-with-a-past thriller, adorned with only traces of Cronenberg's style and depth, tacked on like so much set decoration, Eastern Promises is something entirely different, a grand accomplishment that builds on and improves its predecessor in every way. Cronenberg has effectively reversed the formula — instead of sneaking in elements of his style into a formulaic thriller, here he makes only token nods towards the purported narrative. This is a deeply strange film that only pretends to be a gangster flick, when it's patently obvious that so much more is going on.

Mortensen is typically smoldering and intense as Nikolai, the right-hand man for Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a drunken lout who is nevertheless a key figure in London's Russian mob because of his father Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The film's drama and action surround this trio of gangsters and hitmen, but the heart of the story lies elsewhere, with a young baby who's delivered at the beginning of the film by an obstetrician, Anna (Naomi Watts). Cronenberg signals the film's essential concerns early on, when he has the two opening scenes encompass both birth and death, and in equally gory detail. In the first scene, a barber (who doubles as a mob hitman) forces his retarded son to kill a customer, with a slit-throat blood geyser worthy of Sweeney Todd. Cronenberg follows this with the birth, which is if anything even more disturbing in its focus on viscera and blood, as the baby takes its first hesitant breaths while her mother dies on the operating table. These two scenes initially seem unrelated, but they turn out to be connected to the same underground world of Russian mafia, prostitutes, and killers. Through her determination to find out about the baby's origins and the whereabouts of its relatives, Anna is thrust into this world, as well as perversely drawn to it.

But Anna is, despite her narrative importance, something of a sideline character here. Her charater is important insofar as she represents the outsider, the audience surrogate exploring an unfamiliar world, but despite Watts' top billing she is not a main character. This is a distinctly male film, because it's a very male genre that Cronenberg is tackling here, and the violence at the film's core is not only masculine, but an expression of masculine sexuality. The links between this violence and male sexuality are underscored again and again within the film, as is the ambiguous link between Nikolai and Kirill. The latter clearly idolizes his supposed underling, and there's a real current of homosexual desire in this worship. This desire finds expression in Kirill's continued attempts to dominate and subjugate Nikolai, as in the scene where he forces Nikolai to have sex with an underage prostitute at his father's whorehouse, he says so that Nikolai can prove that he's not a "queer." But the way Kirill watches this joyless, violent sex, and the way he praises Nikolai's performance afterwards, only proves that Kirill is the one who's queer, an assumption that's borne out in the many gestures of friendship and joking camaraderie that pass between the two men, gestures that are constantly threatening to transform into caresses or even embraces. When Nikolai is finally accepted as a full member of the mob and marked for initiation, they do embrace, and the framing and posing seems to be setting them up for a sweepingly romantic Hollywood kiss — a formulation that's mocked in the denouement when Nikolai and Anna briefly fall into the same pose, adopting a more conventional movie combination (father, mother, baby) only to emphasize just how much this film rejects such pat familial dynamics.

If violence and sexuality are intertwined in the relationship of Nikolai and Kirill and the linkage of new life with murder and death, this theme comes to its head in the film's climax, already justifiably famous for the scene where Viggo Mortensen conducts an entire, very bloody fight completely in the nude. This bathhouse slaughter is the film's undeniable centerpiece, and it's here that Cronenberg completely lets any pretext of a conventional genre thriller fall away along with Mortensen's clothes. In the course of this masterfully choreographed sequence, a great deal of blood is spilled, and yet Cronenberg emphasizes the sexualization of his star, the way his body bends and contorts, the sexual poses he falls into in the midst of this brutal struggle. It's a truly harrowing and potent sequence, evincing Cronenberg's characteristic interest in the body and the changes wrought on it by violence and sexuality. This interest in the body also extends to the film's recurring motif of tattoos, which are markers of identity — when Nikolai pledges his loyalty to the mob, he must denounce his family and his past, and be tattooed with the markings of the gang — as well as guides to an individual's life and history. The body can be "read" through these tattoos, and the bearer's persona can be inferred from the story told by these symbols. Bodies can be read, especially dead ones, and all the film's corpses have messages to pass on. The girl who dies giving birth in the opening propels the film forward with her diary, excerpts of which are read in voiceover, commenting obliquely on the action, periodically throughout the film.

Likewise, the story of Cronenberg's film — the real, underlying story lightly disguised by its genre trappings — can be read from the abundant symbols he employs. It's a story of the traditional family undermined by both homosexual desire and explosive violence — a brief that sounds surprisingly conservative on paper, except that Cronenberg clearly takes such gleeful pleasure in disrupting the placid surfaces of Hollywood conventionality that it's hard to take the film as anything but a radical critique of the normative structures it sometimes apes. Unlike A History of Violence, where Cronenberg seemed to disappear too readily into the conventional surfaces of the genre narrative, Eastern Promises is a prickly, genuinely disturbing and potent film that may indicate a fresh new development in Cronenberg's oeuvre. Certainly, it's his most perverse and exciting film since the delirious high point of 1997's Crash, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate this return to form.

Raoul Walsh's Pursued is a lurid, frankly ludicrous Western that infuses a noir sensibility into the oater genre. Sometimes, the combination is awkward and unevenly realized, but it's always intriguing, and the concept (with the help of leads Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright) generates enough sparks to keep the film engaging even when the machinations of its plot threaten to send it careening off the tracks. Mitchum plays Jeb Rand, the last scion of a family that's been obliterated from the earth following a deadly and mysterious feud with the Cullum family. Ironically, then, it's a branch of the Cullums who take him in as a boy following the death of his parents, and he grows up under the protection of his adopted mother (Judith Anderson) who accepts him into the family and treats him as one of her children along with Thorley (Wright) and Adam (John Rodney). The film's most interesting aspect is the relationship that develops between Jeb and Thorley, despite their mother's best efforts to cultivate a healthy brother/sister bond in them. This relationship, though not incestual in the least, is somewhat strange nonetheless, especially since Jeb persists in calling their mutual mother "Ma" even as he's making out with his adoptive sister. The weirdness extends to their brother, with whom Jeb has a competitive, antagonistic relationship — in one scene, Adam lets slip that he's so enraged with his sister because she always thought of their family as consisting of the three of them, while he wants to winnow it down to just himself and his sister. While Thorley wants to get married and have a husband, Adam's vision extends only as far as his mother, his sister, and the ranch they own; if the incestuous subtext can't really exist with Jeb, it's in full flower here.

Unfortunately, though the film has a great setup and some marvelous scenes, it's hampered by structural flaws that drain a lot of energy out of the film's most interesting sequences and seriously undermine the darker emotions at this story's core. Chief among these failings is that the bulk of the film is related in flashbacks, which is a clumsy device even in the best of circumstances, and totally unnecessary in probably nine out of ten films that use it. The flashbacks here are especially egregious. They're told by Jeb to Thorley, supposedly as a way of tracing where they went wrong, even though she's already intimately familiar with most of the incidents he's recounting, and even though he tells stories about things that he didn't and couldn't witness for himself, and in some cases probably couldn't even know about. It's a ridiculous structure, and it would call attention to itself even if its effect on the actual narrative arc was minimal. But it also serves to drain a great deal of the tension out of the film's second half, because the film opens with a present-day sequence where Thorley and Jeb are obviously in love, even if external troubles are putting pressure on them. Their love is by no means certain in the flashbacks that form the film's second half, though, and in fact events drive Thorley into a hatred of her former love so deep that she becomes a kind of black widow, marrying him out of spite and planning to murder him on their wedding night.

This turn of events results in some of the film's most powerful material. Thorley as a hate-filled murderess is a thing to behold, and the angel-faced Wright does a surprisingly good job of conveying the churning emotions beneath her calm exterior. In the scene where she reveals her plot to her mother, her eyes glint maniacally, caught by the flickering light from a lantern that she holds up to her face, casting sinister shadows across her visage. It's the film's truest homage to the noir visual style, which recurs periodically in scenes like this, bathed in deep shadows with characters held as silhouettes. Walsh admirably captures the film's inner darkness in scenes like this, but he perhaps does too good a job considering the narrative's subsequent direction. Wright is far more believable (and interesting) when she's spiteful and bent on revenge, than when, just minutes later, she's abruptly reconciling with Mitchum and declaring her love for him. This turnabout, though telegraphed from the opening and the flashback structure, is never adequately explained, and it represents Walsh backing away from his momentary embrace of full-fledged noir aesthetics, retreating into horseback melodrama that grows way less interesting once Wright's anger has inexplicably fluttered away. Worse yet, even in the film's best scenes, the flashback structure undercuts the characters' powerful emotions, since we already know where they're going. Wright's rage, no matter how brilliantly conveyed by both her performance and the director's mise en scène, is impossible to reconcile with the doe-eyed, vapid movie heroine who's introduced in the opening scenes, so what might've been a compelling transformation from lovestruck young girl to raging femme fatale becomes a mere interlude in the film's essential love story.

Walsh is continually sabotaging his own storytelling in this way, so that a film that could have been a true classic is only fitfully interesting, and then mostly in the scenes that work against the film's overall thrust. For its innovative combination of a Western action setting with the psychological darkness of noir, Pursued remains an intriguing and entertaining genre-blender, but Walsh's failure to really commit to this film's best aspects unnecessarily hampers it as a whole.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Black Book

Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is a brilliant slap in the face to the very idea of "tastefully" dealing with such important issues as the Holocaust or Nazi collaboration. When it first appeared, some critics derisively dismissed it as "Schindler's List meets Showgirls," an unwittingly apt description for a film that flinches away from neither the harsh realities of Nazi atrocities nor the perverse sexual adventures of the film's heroine, Rachel (Carice van Houten). The film is a blast of energy and enthusiasm, packing an emotional wallop that is in many ways much more genuine than the dour do-gooderism of Spielberg's famous Holocaust film. Verhoeven delves into the moral complications of resistance and collaboration in Nazi-occupied Holland, with van Houten as the central figure in a sprawling adventure epic largely set in the final months of the war. Van Houten is a wonder to behold here, gorgeous and sparkling with an intensity and depth that completely carries the film.

When the film starts, Rachel is a young Jewish woman hiding out at a farm house where the Christian family forces her to recite Bible verses, perfectly memorized, before she is served her dinner. This shining example of Christian hypocrisy, within a family that from outside would certainly seem to be exemplary in their sheltering of a fugitive, tips the viewer off early to Verhoeven's critical perspective in this film. His interest is not, per se, in the barbarity of the Nazi regime, which hardly needs pointing out these days — he's much more interested in the petty cruelties, manipulations, and quiet acquiescence to horror that takes place under the radar in everyday life, even among those on the "right" side. Rachel's life, following the bombing of this family's farm and her flight into the underground, becomes a neverending hellish descent, with Verhoeven battering the poor beleaguered girl until he is literally pouring shit on her. Her story takes a number of twists and turns, starting with the slaughter of her parents and brother during a failed attempt to sneak across the border, after which shetakes on a new identity and falls in with a group of resistance fighters. They soon ask her, though, to infiltrate the German gestapo headquarters as a singer, by seducing the garrison commander Müntze (Sebastian Koch), and as a result she's drawn into a complex web of deceit, treacheries, and machinations. The plot is structured as an escalating series of incidents and action, reminding me of a slightly calmer version of Emir Kusturica's frenetic masterpiece Underground, which similarly builds towards ever more harrowing evocations of wartime brutality, and similarly laces its horror with kitschy good humor.

Verhoeven has crafted this epic from some well-worn genre materials: the wartime spy thriller, the sexual noir, the campy Germanic cabaret film. But while the basic materials may be familiar, the ways in which they're combined and played out on screen are most certainly not. The trope of the female double agent who falls in love with the man she's supposed to be seducing is as old as the spy genre itself, but it somehow manages to acquire new life here, partly because van Houten infuses her role with such a winning combination of sexy playfulness and emotional investment. The cliché is further twisted by the fact that Koch makes his Nazi commandant a surprisingly sympathetic and multi-faceted figure, a man who has realized that his country has lost the war, and now only wishes to minimize the bloodshed in the final days before the inevitable defeat. The scenes between these two have a surprising electricity that's perfectly encapsulated by the scene where Rachel strips for Müntze, who's lying in bed, the bedsheets between his legs slowly tenting upwards as he watches her. Of course, he has a pistol down there, and in the following scene he caresses her breast with its metal tip as they smoothly segue between seduction and pumping one another for information.

If Müntze is a complex and very human Nazi, he's counterbalanced by the presence of his hulking, maniacally leering underling Franken (Waldemar Kobus), who's only missing a "stein" (the Jewish last name of the film's heroine, of course) to turn him into the monster he so clearly represents. He's a true movie Nazi, and Verhoeven seems very aware of it, taking cartoonish glee in this wholly artificial creation's outlandish evils. He's engaged in a plot to convince rich Jewish fugitives that they're fleeing with the resistance, when in fact they're being led into a trap where Franken can kill them and relieve them of their money and jewels. Franken may be a cartoon, but the evils he commits feel no less real, no less potent, for having been committed by this ridiculous figure, who in happier moments loves to pound on a piano and whistle along with Rachel's torchy crooning. In fact, Verhoeven's whole aesthetic purpose in this film might be summed up by the seeming contradiction between gritty realism on the one hand, and overt stylization on the other. He's equally committed to both narrative modes, and the film swings queasily back and forth between the two with little regard for stability.

Even more radically, Verhoeven extends his moral ambiguity to the resistance fighters, and in the scenes set after the war's end, implicitly questions the entire process of assigning blame and assessing collaboration versus resistance. The irony of high-ranking Nazi commanders being quietly assimilated back into society is juxtaposed against the even more unpalatable spectacle of the cruelties meted out by the victors against those dubbed collaborators. Most troubling is the treatment of women, which Verhoeven takes great pains to underline. Before the war is over, he has one of the resistance fighters explain what he'd like to do to the Nazi's women: shave their heads and dub them "Nazi whores" in acts of public humiliation before putting them against the wall. And sure enough, when the war ends, Rachel walks through the streets and comes across, in the midst of the celebrations, a display exactly as the resistance fighter described it, with tearful young women getting their heads shaved, signs saying "Nazi whore" hung around their necks. The undercurrent is a kind of sexual punishment and a sense of male entitlement about female bodies — the greatest offense is sleeping with the enemy, and when Rachel herself is branded with this crime, sexual humiliation (including a vat of feces poured over her naked body) is the primary punishment. Before Rachel first goes to seduce Müntze, she sleeps with the resistance fighter Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), who takes her as though she's his right, saying "at least I get to have you first" — who one sleeps with becomes a moral act in itself. Verhoeven's thrust in these scenes might even be called feminist, although his critique is complicated by the obvious delight he takes in sexualizing and fetishizing his protagonist's body right along with the characters on screen (and, by implication, bringing the audience along for the ride as well).

The implicit, unstated question underlying the entire film is the problem of assessing degrees of culpability, and degrees of brutality. This problem comes closest to being addressed explicitly by Theo (Johnny de Mol), a quiet, peaceable Christian member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and probably the film's most purely "good" and uncorrupted character. When he's forced by circumstances to commit a murder in order to save Rachel and his friends, he's wracked by guilt, and he melodramatically exclaims that he's "as bad as the Nazis." He seems incapable of making any moral distinction between wholesale genocidal mass murder and a single act of violence committed with more "just" goals in mind. He's a moral absolutist for whom murder is always murder, but Verhoeven doesn't necessarily take his side. In many ways, Theo's exclamation seems to be there as a not-so-subtle jab at the current prevalence of casual Nazi comparisons in political discourse, by which George W. Bush (among other targets) is declared to be "as bad as the Nazis." Verhoeven, by placing the statement in its original context, reveals the lie, and the laziness of such comparisons, while advocating for a moral attentiveness and an ability to make meaningful distinctions. Verhoeven presents a very muddled and ambiguous moral world, but his central characters must nevertheless make the best of the options open to them. The ambiguous ending, set 12 years after the main action at a kibbutz in Israel, serves as one last ironic comment on the place of morality in everyday decisions, as Rachel has set up a seemingly happy new domestic life for herself here, teaching schoolchildren, marrying and having a family. But in the film's final shot, Rachel and this happy family walk away into a barb-wire-protected compound, as explosions and gunfire and soldiers mobilizing on the ramparts signal the continuing war and brutality happening all around their oblivious domestic core.

This emphasis on moral choice and accountability is startling in a film that at times seems to revel in schlock, and Verhoeven walks a thin line between camp and verisimilitude. It's a film where the continuously thrilling, exciting, engaging surface narrative rapidly pulls the viewer into a deeper moral engagement with the material. Black Book works on its primary level as a lurid wartime spy thriller, infused with melodrama, eroticism, and action — it seems calculated for maximum visceral impact. But its sneaky insistence on never taking the easy way out of moral dilemmas, of never shrinking away from tough but important distinctions, propels it to a whole other level as a complex moral investigation. It's a film about corruption, greed, inhuman brutality, and, somewhat perversely, love and sexuality as well. Not to be missed.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


With Persepolis, the writer/artist Marjane Satrapi has adopted her first two popular comics, memoirs of her childhood and adolescence in Iran and Vienna, into a powerful and affecting feature-length film, with the help of her fellow French artist Vincent Paronnaud. The film, like the comics before it, documents Satrapi's childhood starting in 1978, a year before the revolution that deposed the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran. The way Satrapi traces the trajectory of this revolution — from a hopeful, socialist-tinged move towards democracy and freedom to the shattering of those dreams with an even more brutal Islamic fundamentalist government — is illuminating, poignant, and often surprisingly funny. Her story is told with an unflinchingly accurate child's eye view and a willingness to document her own misunderstandings and childish acts of selfishness and anger. It's from this perspective, outside the action but nevertheless irrevocably affected by it, that Satrapi observed the most earth-shaking changes her country went through. As a child, she saw the Shah fall and, as a consequence, found relatives she'd never met, like her imprisoned Uncle Anoush, suddenly entering her life with fantastic stories of torture, heroism, and grand ideals. The film's greatest accomplishment, and Satrapi's surest talent as a cartoonist and writer, is to capture this wide-eyed wonder, a childish naiveté and idealism that is especially poignant in light of the nightmarish Islamic state that Iran became shortly after the Shah's exile.

It's inevitable that Persepolis the film should be compared to the books on which it is very closely based, and it stands up surprisingly well in terms of its visuals. Satrapi's art, always very simple and not always entirely successful on the page, is actually improved by the fluid, stylized animation that translates it to the screen. With the exception of the unnecessary present-day framing sequences, marred by the addition of color that looks awkward over the iconic drawing style with its heavy black areas, the film's animation is lovely and evocative. This style works especially well in black outlines, which it often switches to for sections of the story that Satrapi didn't witness herself: the horrors of the war against Iraq, the street protests against the Shah, and a dramatic rooftop chase with Islamic police trying to catch some boys fleeing a party. In one stunning early scene, during a protest rally against the Shah, a young man is shot. All the protesters in the scene are drawn as pure black shadows, with only white eyes for features, and this abstraction gives the scene an iconic quality as opposed to the more detailed scenes from Satrapi's own life, as though this moment is already mythic, as it must have been from the vantage point of the young girl who heard about it. When the protesters lift up the dead man's body over their heads in grief and anger, it has something of the sweeping, grandiose quality of Communist art, surely a great influence on Satrapi's own style, and yet it's also a strikingly emotional image, not just a polemical one.

In the more domestic scenes involving Satrapi and the people directly around her, the art is a more stylized and expressive version of her crisp, minimalist linework, ornamented with additional flourishes and texturing to increase the depth and complexity of the drawings for the big screen. Also noteworthy are Satrapi's occasional diversions into imagined and fantastic pasts, which have an even more ornate style, with dense patterns decorating every surface. This denser style is particularly effective in the scene where Satrapi visualizes the reminiscences of her Uncle Anoush, who's recounting his past as a would-be rebel leader in Azerbaijan. The art in this sequence intentionally recalls older Persian art styles, lending to this memory something of the authority and force of history; it was clearly a crucial story for the young Satrapi, an exemplar of integrity and rebellion, both of which would become buzzwords throughout her life.

If the film effectively gets across Satrapi's visual style, it's somewhat less successful at times in maintaining a cohesive and fluid narrative. This is especially true, unfortunately, in the film's most compelling section, the opening chronicle of the revolution and the early days of the Islamic regime. The individual scenes within this section are inarguably compelling, each one a perfectly formed vignette designed to present a powerful emotion, a moment of realization for young Satrapi, or a new change in the country's political situation. But the structure is uneven, and too often one is reminded that this was sourced from a comic — the pacing seems off somehow, with not enough transition between subsequent stories and moments, as though Satrapi was leaving in the white space gutter that divides the panels in her comics. The anecdotal structure works beautifully in her comics; adapted here, without the descriptive titles that separate chapters or any other connective tissue, it sometimes seems awkward and disjunctive. The individual scenes in this opening stand apart from each other as though contained by separate panels, and they aren't allowed to flow into each other as elements in a cinematic narrative. It's tempting to attribute this quality to Satrapi's uncertainty with her new medium, but as the film moves along, the narrative begins to flow much more smoothly. It seems more likely that the opening was somewhat rushed through in order to get to the much weaker segments involving Satrapi's first extended stay abroad in Vienna. As a consequence, a lot of the rich detail and nuance of the first Persepolis novel is omitted or condensed (as, admittedly, any literary work must be for the screen). Persepolis 2 is similarly condensed here, but its stories of Satrapi's first encounters with European decadence, young love, and democracy are less intrinsically interesting or unique than the child's eye view of revolution and religious oppression that's documented in the first book. At times, the film threatens to fall apart under the weight of the teenage Satrapi's melodramatic moaning about love and relationships.

Even this segment of the film is redeemed by Satrapi's biting humor and caustic wit, though, and when she returns to Iran after a period of self-pitying depression and poverty, the film picks itself right back up along with its hero's spirits. The depiction of life in Iran under Islamic fundamentalism is straightforward in its denunciation of the strictures placed on women. Satrapi is especially harsh, and sardonic, with regard to Islam's curious hypocrisy about sexuality, which places strict codes upon women supposedly because men can't be trusted to control themselves otherwise. At her university, she gives a lengthy speech to this effect, and when two policemen tell her to stop running because her rear makes "obscene" motions, she simply snaps back at them to stop staring at her ass then. Satrapi's fierce attitude, developed in equal parts under the influence of punk rock and her staunchly individualist grandmother, brings her through her romantic troubles (in some ways depicted with more tears and drama than the political upheavals) to an understanding of her country and herself.

Persepolis is a remarkably assured filmmaking debut for Satrapi, just as it was a remarkably assured comics debut for her back in 2000, when her first book was published in France. Her storytelling is enveloping and propulsive, capturing the "feel" of life in Iran during the country's most turbulent years. Her attention to detail and often sarcastic sense of humor, as well as her honesty about even her own less flattering moments, enhances her narrative with the kind of human warmth and emotional connections that put the big national events in the context of their effects on individual Iranians. Despite the occasional uneven pacing and the regrettable inclusion of too much weepy teenage drama from Persepolis 2, the film is a deeply compelling portrait of growing up amidst a nation's spasms of rebellion and oppression.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Heller in Pink Tights

Heller in Pink Tights is the only Western ever made by George Cukor, better known for his sly, clever comedies, so it's no surprise that this is an extraordinarily idiosyncratic Western. In fact, it's really a sly, clever comedy disguised as a Western, one where all the traditional Western trappings — the badass gunslinger, the swarms of marauding Indians, the corrupt small-town businessman with the posse of thugs — exist at right angles to the main story. These Western archetypes are pushed aside here by the focus on the theatrical troupe of Tom Healy (Anthony Quinn) and his flirtatious mistress Angie (Sophia Loren), as they struggle to make ends meet and flee from town to town with the law (prompted by Angie's con games) always one step behind them. Along the way, this unlikely troupe stumble into the middle of a classical Western story, when they run across the gunman-for-hire Mabry (Steve Forrest), who has killed three men and is now a target for his employer, the sleazy De Leon (Ramon Novarro), who doesn't want to pay the agreed fee. This intrigue, though fully developed and fraught with tension in its own right, inevitably plays second fiddle to Cukor's apparently greater interest in the troupe's memorably awful theatrical numbers and the milieu of the theater in general.

The result is a film in which individual disconnected moments are much more powerful than the film as a whole can support, but the strength of these moments more than makes the whole worthwhile. The film's subtext, literally unspoken but constantly present, is sex, and its verbal absence is highlighted early on when two of the actresses are discussing the relationship between Healy and Angie, asking why they should have to get married if they're already... and then the actress is cut off. The film is full of such coy references to sex; Cukor seems to be as much of a "tease" as Angie herself, and the film constantly dances around the naughty bits with a lightfooted grace that makes such discretion funny and exhilarating rather than simply frustrating.

Sex is the film's big white elephant, always there, in every one of Sophia Loren's seductive glances, and in the bantering dialogue. It's also there in a scene where Angie and the outlaw Mabry size each other up by looking only at each other's bottom halves. Angie is on a staircase, her upper torso hidden from the view of Mabry, who's standing below her and watching with admiration. She senses his stare, and bends down to look at him, but the ceiling obscures her view of his upper half as well, and she only sees him from the belt down to the boots. It's a wonderful scene, in which the way Cukor divides and chops up the frame also chops up the characters, accentuating their sexuality by literally focusing on their sexual organs. It also serves to point out the nature of Angie's connection to Mabry — they are essentially introduced to each other through sexuality — as a contrast to the dialogue-based interactions between her and Healy.

In another beautifully handled scene, Angie observes Mabry by looking through a sliding panel with a painting of a reclining nude woman on it. As Angie slowly slides the two panes of the window apart, inserting her gorgeous face in between, the effect is of her seeming to emerge from within the nude, the halved naked woman driving home the sexual nature of Angie's gaze. As if it wasn't already obvious from the earlier scene where she checks out his lower half! Such sexual division is one of the film's key subtexts, the way Mabry (and to some extent, Angie too) views sex as a dehumanized commodity, a matter of mere mechanics and body parts. This, too, is driven home even further when Mabry wins Angie in a card game where she puts up "herself" (read: her body) as the ultimate collateral. As he continually reminds her, she then becomes his "property," indicating a conception of sexuality entirely removed from real human interaction.

If sex is the film's driving force, it's also apparent that Cukor has a great affection for the theatrical milieu which these characters populate. The grandiose, kitschy stagings of classical plays and operas put on by Healy and company involve awkwardly read lines, ridiculous costumes, and a spectacle involving a "wild" horse that charges around the theater and then runs along a carefully concealed treadmill to provide the illusion of a race through a forest backdrop. This latter touch turns the theatrical stage into a kind of movie theater, an effect that Cukor enhances by placing the charging horse in a frame towards the back of the stage, so that its continuous running-in-place seems to be happening on a screen rather than directly there on the stage. Just as Cukor's film encompasses the theater of his characters, so their theater has room for a primitive realization of cinema, a bow towards the motion-capture photos of Eadweard Muybridge, one of the earliest progenitors of the cinema. It's an implicit acknowledgment from Cukor, who had at times worked in both forms, that the art of cinema had long since supplanted the theater in terms of mass entertainment.

Cukor has great fun with the more theatrical scenes here, playing up the hammy quality of the troupe and their dismal productions, staged with would-be grandeur that only makes their ragged costumes and makeup-caked faces all the more pathetic. But the film's best celebration of theatrical performance is also a subversion of cinema, or at least of the specific conventions of the Western cinema form. Cukor builds up to an Indian attack with all the solemnity and earnest suspense to be expected of such a scene, especially with the foreboding buildup of menacing music on the soundtrack. The stage is set for an epic chase scene, but what Cukor delivers is much stranger and more satisfying for being so unexpected, defusing the conventional menace of the Indians' assault. As the troupe flees on horseback, leaving their wagons behind them, a marauding wave of Indians swoops over the wagons, but instead of directly following, they linger at the wagons, turning their hunting party into a game of dress-up as they play with the costumes and props left behind by the actors. Cukor shoots this scene as though it's a teenage slumber party rather than an attack, with feathers flying everywhere from broken-open pillows, dresses twirling through the air, and several Indians donning animal-head masks or blowing harsh notes on a tuba. The scene is a brief respite from the tension of the chase, a moment of celebratory joy that's enough to make one forget that, just moments before, these Indians were the enemies, the subject of the building suspense that drove away the film's main characters. This interlude ends soon enough, as the Indians torch the wagons and are promptly left behind by the narrative, never to be seen again as the film returns to the acting troupe. It's an example of Cukor's occasional indulgence of his whims at the expense of the narrative, his purely visual delight in this scene entirely trumping its narrative purpose. The Indians are just a plot device to get the troupe moving into the mountains with Mabry as their guide, and once this is accomplished they're summarily dropped from the film. But not before Cukor allows them a moment of their own to have some fun.

Heller in Pink Tights is bursting with great scenes like this, visually exciting moments of great sensuality and energy, underpinned by Cukor's themes of sexuality and the theater. It's always apparent that he's not quite as engaged by the prosaic machinations of the plot, which in the second half of the film largely follows a standard Western adventure line, twisting and turning but never approaching the electric thrill of the scenes where Cukor isn't concerned with fulfilling any narrative purpose. The cast of the theatrical troupe, which features some great character actors like Eileen Heckart and Edmund Lowe, isn't given much to do, and neither is Anthony Quinn, who's totally wasted here. Even so, it isn't necessarily a mistake that the film focuses so fixedly on Loren, who simply radiates sexuality and desire, acting mostly with her expressive eyes, which Cukor wisely highlights again and again in closeups, especially ones where the rest of her face is obscured by a scarf or blanket. The film is carried by her charm and beauty, as well as by the strength of that handful of scenes where Cukor's visual wit is on full display. Not a perfect or fully realized film by any means, Heller is nonetheless a genuinely entertaining and stylish entertainment, the kind that the Healy theater company's productions aspire to be — thrilling, intelligent, knowingly sexual, and totally free-spirited.