Friday, January 30, 2009

Love on the Ground

The opening minutes of Jacques Rivette's Love on the Ground are as direct an invitation to his audience as this great director has ever extended: a group of people are silently led by a pair of guides to a humble apartment, where the crowd discreetly lingers to the side and observes a trite melodrama in which a man attempts to juggle his two lovers, who have accidentally shown up at his apartment at the same moment. The man and the two women ignore the intruders lurking nearby, these silent watchers, seemingly unseen, tucked into the corners of Rivette's frame. It is as though the director has invited the film's audience into the fabric of the film itself, to silently observe from an intimate perspective. It soon becomes clear, however, that the audience within the film is actually watching a play, performed in an apartment, and as the play progresses the silent, solemn atmosphere begins to break down: the actors forget their lines and improvise humorous bits of business or clever dialogue, and the audience reacts with appreciative laughter. The appearance of real life being observed with documentary-like objectivity is shattered, and in its place is playfulness, spontaneity, wit.

This interaction of multiple levels of reality — theater, film, audience, actors, "real life" — is typical of Rivette, and he achieves a very potent, playful expression of these key themes in Love on the Ground. The three actors in the opening scene are Emily (Jane Birkin), Charlotte (Geraldine Chaplin) and Silvano (Facundo Bo), and it turns out that their free-wheeling performance in these opening scenes is as sloppily enthralling for the visiting playwright Roquemaure (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) as it is for the film's audience; the fact that the performers are pilfering from and improvising around one of Roquemaure's plays only intrigues him further. He invites the trio to come live at his palatial home for the next week, where they will rehearse a new play he is writing for them, to perform there within a week's time. They agree, and the rest of the film becomes a complex Rivettian game in which reality, theater and film are continually intersecting and weaving together in confounding ways. The actors find themselves playing parts in a drama that they soon learn was modeled off the real history between Roquemaure, his friend the magician Paul (André Dussollier) and Béatrice, the mysterious woman they both loved, and whose disappearance shattered them both.

It quickly becomes apparent that Roquemaure is staging this play as a cathartic reenactment of what happened between the trio, with the real events very thinly disguised by false names. Charlotte plays Barbara, an obvious stand-in for Béatrice, even as she becomes Roquemaure's actual lover as well, while Emily, playing a male character named Pierre, goes to bed with Paul, on whom her character is based. It's like sleeping with herself. Only Silvano, playing the playwright's stand-in, largely stays out of these sexual entanglements; he's only there for the money. The confusion of names and alternate identities and artistic identities is complicated further when, in the film's second half, both sexual liaisons and roles prove to be fluid: Emily briefly takes over the role of Barbara, even as Charlotte is becoming ever closer to the real Béatrice by allowing herself to be seduced by Paul. Even the mannered, Igor-esque manservant Virgil (Laszlo Szabo), who would have fit in nicely on the fringes of a Universal horror film, engages in manic, playful seductions of both women.

Rivette thrives in this kind of chaos, using the film's complex layers of reality as a pretext to stage one clever, fun sequence after another. The actors often seem to be improvising, something Rivette heartily encouraged, and many of the film's best moments have an energetic spontaneity that simply seems to burst forth from the performers. Chaplin and Birkin are phenomenal throughout, and each of them is given their best spotlight in independent scenes of drunken revelry: Charlotte attempts to makeout with a Cupid statue, while Emily threatens and teases the harried Virgil, angrily popping an egg in her fist at the scene's climax. The two women are descendants of Rivette's most iconic female duo, the eponymous heroines of Celine and Julie Go Boating, and Love on the Ground is in some ways a sequel to the earlier film. Just as Celine and Julie became involved with an occult mystery, Charlotte and Emily explore Roquemaure's mostly empty mansion like a pair of impish Nancy Drews, creeping through its abandoned rooms in order to discover its mysteries. These mysteries are both magical and horrific: the former because Paul seems to have an uncontrollable ability to trigger lifelike visions for the women he encounters, the latter because the women are half-convinced that Roquemaure is a kind of Bluebeard who actually murdered the mysteriously missing Béatrice, whose room is so lovingly preserved behind a locked door. They both wonder if the ghost of Béatrice is haunting their production of a play based on the missing woman.

The film's magical and supernatural elements extend to its obsession with doubling and mirroring, an obsession that begins with the convoluted assignation of names and roles and replacements in Roquemaure's play, but hardly ends there. Charlotte continually sees herself doubled when she is around Paul, his presence seeming to trigger hallucinatory visions of herself as though reflected in a mirror. Charlotte and Emily also both encounter separate characters played by the same actress, Eva Roelens, who relates to each woman a different tale of woe, about being betrayed by a man, of course. Rivette, always sympathetic to his female characters, makes this film's dominant subject the ways in which women can break free of and subvert the controlling tendencies of men. Charlotte and Emily have free reign here; together, they are not only the narrative's center, but they even get the upper hand in the end.

One of the reasons that Rivette's characters, and especially his female characters, often feel so vibrant and free is that they are usually unconstrained by the limits of strict plotting. In this film, the plot is treated as a loose and open-ended framework in which the characters (and the actors playing them — and the actors playing the actors!) can interact, form temporary alliances and relationships, improvise, play, have fun. Roquemaure's play has no set ending, and nobody has any idea of what will happen in its unwritten fourth act until the night of the first performance; the same can be said of Rivette's film. The final half hour is dedicated to the performance itself, and the film's audience gets to find out what will happen at the same time as the audience that Roquemaure assembles at his home for the play. And of course this finale represents the ultimate spillover between the film's multiple levels of reality, in which the real dramas involving Roquemaure, Paul and Béatrice (and the actors as well) intrude upon the performance. The play and its aftermath becomes a struggle to take control of reality, to stage life itself as a grand piece of theater, to write one's own ending, happy or otherwise. This has always been Rivette's agenda, to blend film, theater and life itself into one big messy, ecstatic stew, bubbling over with emotions, both performed and deeply felt.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is a small, ragged character piece, modest in its ambitions but often striking in its emotional effects. It is not, as one would expect from the director of Requiem for a Dream, a particularly subtle movie, but in its broad gestures and shakycam aesthetics, it often locates a certain snub-nosed beauty at the fringes of the professional wrestling world. This is, among other things, a profoundly working class movie, about a guy named Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) who used to be a real tough guy, a contender, a famous pro wrestler with a line of action figures and posters reproducing his buffed image. Twenty years later, he's washed up, the rough life he's lived naturally catching up with him. He wears a hearing aid, presumably from getting his head bashed in too many times. His big, lumbering body is out of shape and he takes steroids to keep his muscles bulging, but the drugs are taking a toll on his weak heart. He once fought a high-profile bout in Madison Square Garden, but now he wrestles struggling up-and-comers in tiny rings with sparse audiences cheering him on; he's a has-been going down as he watches guys fighting to move up. Randy often can't pay his rent, and he takes whatever hours he can get hauling crates at a local supermarket. He hasn't seen his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) in years, and his only sparks of real happiness come from his time in the ring and his flirtatious, affectionate encounters with the thirtyish stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), herself starting to realize that she's over the hill in her business.

Aronofsky completely builds this film around Rourke, who is playing a version of himself in some ways: the guy who used to be on top of the world, and now everyone wonders what ever happened to him. His worn, lived-in face is the face of Randy the Ram, as is his looming, outrageous body, which would look like a padded suit of some kind if it wasn't so obviously real. It is a body that reveals the evidence of a hard life in every line, every bulge, every textured, lumpy surface. Rourke is Randy, and his mere presence lends the film a verité quality that would be impossible to replace. When the camera isn't running over the surfaces of Rourke's body, it's often right behind him, following him in the close, fluid way that's become a cinematic convention for tracking performers about to go out on stage. However, Aronofsky follows Randy in this way whether he's actually going out to wrestle, or just getting ready for work or going to the strip club. At one point, in one of those typically unsubtle touches of Aronofsky's, as Randy walks through the back rooms of the supermarket, his long blonde locks in a hairnet, heading out to the deli counter, the sound of a cheering, chanting crowd begins to build on the soundtrack, finally climaxing and cutting off just as the wrestler walks out into the deli area.

Despite these overblown touches, however, the film retains its nearly documentary quality, due largely to the phenomenally relaxed, natural performances of Rourke and Tomei, who never seem like anything more or less than exactly what they're supposed to be. There's an unstudied naturalness to the duo's scenes together. The parameters of their relationship are instantly apparent in the scene where Cassidy gives Randy a lapdance while chatting amiably with him: it's nominally just a transaction, a piece of business, but it's obvious that the two are relaxed and friendly together in a way they aren't with anyone else. Tomei is a revelation here. If Rourke acts mostly with his body, with his sculpted features and the tiny, nearly hidden eye-slits chiseled into his baroque face, Tomei projects her character's essence into her malleable face, into her subtle tics and expressions, the way she twists up her lips, the obvious awkwardness and lingering shyness in her eyes despite her hardened exterior. Yeah, she is, like most of the film's characters and plot elements, the embodiment of a cliché, the stripper with the heart of gold, but like Rourke she consistently mines the unseen depths beneath this familiar surface.

In fact, this might be described, more generally, as the film's method as well. Narratively, The Wrestler doesn't really have that much to offer, and it never pretends to. It is, unapologetically, a rather typical rise-and-fall story, a tragedy about an average guy who's been passed over by life, whose glory days are long past. He's the kind of past-his-prime guy Bruce Springsteen writes songs about; one reason why it was such a brilliant move to get the Boss to write Randy's closing credits eulogy, the film's moving title song. There's nothing especially surprising or unconventional here, and Aronofsky even has the gall to predict and subvert the inevitable complaints about the film's predictability and overt obviousness. For any clever critics who might have been tempted to make cracks about the film being The Passion of the Christ set in the WWE, Aronofsky basically includes the joke himself, giving the lines to Cassidy for a scene of jaw-dropping hammer-to-the-head allegory. This moment comes early, as though Aronofsky wanted to get it right out there in the open as quickly as possible: Randy is Jesus, with staple guns, barbed wire and glass standing in for the nails, thorns and scourges of Christ. It's a very funny moment, not least because Cassidy, intoning a portentous scriptural passage for Randy, quotes from the Mel Gibson film rather than directly from the Bible. This is religious symbolism by proxy, the rote religious references picked up wholesale from other movies rather than from any real spiritual content. It's as referential and meta as a Tarantino flick.

And yet at the same time, The Wrestler manages to delve into the genuine and the moving within its schlocky reference points and conventional Hollywood narrative. The dialogue just always feels so tossed-off, so heartfelt, whether Randy's chilling backstage with his fellow wrestlers or playing a game of Nintendo with one of the local kids, who spends the whole time talking about how outdated this system is and how cool the newest Call of Duty game is. Anyone who has ever spent any time with a video game-obsessed little kid — or been one themselves — will recognize this scene. The same goes, I'd imagine, for the scenes between the wrestlers, which have that same sense of documentary-like fly-on-the-wall spectatorship.

As for the actual wrestling, Aronofsky captures the rough physicality of the sport that everyone knows is "fake." Though the film makes it clear that, in one sense, the wrestlers are certainly faking it — they're all good friends who hug and shake hands before and after bouts, no matter what animosity they display in the ring — the fights themselves never feel fake. And in the scrappy, low-budget venues Randy is reduced to playing, at least, there's plenty of very real blood flowing, especially during a hard-to-watch sequence in which the Ram faces off against a masochistic amateur who wallows in grisly self-mutilation with staples. The closeup of Randy's back after this battle, his flesh pockmarked with shards of glass and metal, concretizes the Christ metaphor, grounds it in the suffering of the hero, except that Randy doesn't suffer for anybody's sins other than perhaps his own.

Within the strictures of its hackneyed form, The Wrestler is a probing character study anchored by its dazzling central performances. Aronofsky is sensitive to the quality of Rourke's performance, and to the kinds of things likely to surround and happen to a guy like this. The film is refreshingly attuned to ordinary life, to working class struggles and the overpowering sense of failure that comes with the realization that one's best years are over. The film's saving grace is its attentiveness to the rhythms of life, the lulls and routines through which Randy lumbers, grunting and hauling the weight of his past around with him.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Murders in the Rue Morgue, very loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, is a bizarre film in which its horror arises not so much from a monster or shadowy unnamed terror, but from the scientific lust to experiment. In fact, the source of evil in the film is the crazed Doctor Mirakle (the always creepy Bela Lugosi sporting an impressively bushy unibrow), a Darwinian scientist whose theories about evolution lead him to perform horrible experiments to mix the blood of his gorilla Erik with a human woman, thus proving, in his warped view, some evolutionary link between the two species. Darwin's theories had of course been around for quite some time when this film was made, but they were still far from uncontroversial, and the scene in which Mirakle advances his theories, to the disgust and horror of most of his audience, is doubtless an accurate reflection of how the people of the time viscerally reacted to the insinuations of Darwinian and Mendelian science about the connections between humans and their ape ancestors. In this sense, the film is perhaps an unlikely precursor to the body horror of David Cronenberg, since its horrific elements arise from the disgust with humanity's primal origins in the lowly ape. The film reflects contemporary paranoia about regression and inhumanity, the fear that if man is descended from these hairy, brutal, instinctual creatures, he might just as easily display the same traits.

Of course, there are other layers to these fears. The barely restrained subtext of these experiments is sexual as well as racial, expressing a fear of miscegenation and mixing bloodlines that is perhaps just as visceral — and just as rooted in its time — as the anti-Darwinian backlash. Mirakle's act of injecting gorilla blood into his female victims — who are chained to an X-shaped rack in his Gothic home — is creepily sexual, a violent act of penetration and fluid exchange. It is surely no coincidence that Mirakle's Igor-esque manservant is credited as Janos the Black and played by African-American character actor Noble Johnson, or that the film's introduction features the main characters taking in a carnival where exotic Arab and Indian caricatures perform for their amusement. Even Lugosi's ever-present accent is commented upon, with the carnival audience speculating about where he comes from. He is, like Janos and the ape, a signifier of the Other around which fears tend to develop. The film both reflects and slyly satirizes the fears of its doubtless primarily white audience, rooting its horror in very real sexual and racial boogeymen.

In this context, Mirakle's true evil lies in his desire to institute unnatural unions, to force mixing across blood barriers. In his quest to complete this experiment, however, he becomes obsessed with finding a "pure" woman to make his ape's bride. He initially assaults only prostitutes, a fact that this pre-Code film is surprisingly direct about, but realizes that their blood is impure, tainted by their "black sins," and the women all die following their symbolic rape by the gorilla. Mirakle and Janos dispose of the corpses by letting them drop through a trapdoor in the lab, sending them off into the river. Soon, Mirakle realizes that he needs a pure woman, a virgin presumably, and he becomes obsessed with the lovely Camille (Sidney Fox), who he stalks from afar even as her fiancé Pierre (Leon Ames) investigates the mysterious murders that are cropping up in the neighborhood.

As this simple plot is set into motion, the film occasionally drags, even within its economical one-hour running time, as too much time is spent with the utterly generic protagonists rather than with the memorable villain and his giant ape. Part of the problem is that the film was drastically censored before its release, cutting out around 20 minutes of scenes deemed too violent. Considering some of the scenes left in — the one where Mirakle injects and kills a prostitute is still bracing today — it's not hard to see why the studio executives balked at the film's bloodshed and mayhem. The result, though, is that the film is badly unbalanced, with too much of the actual horror chopped out, and too many of the insipid love scenes, which usually form a simple counterpoint to the darker material, overwhelming the film. As usual for horror films of the time, the romantic scenes are an almost total loss, with Ames even more of a laughable dud than most horror heroes — his attempts at a poetic seduction are unintentionally hilarious.

It is Lugosi, with his unvarying Hungarian accent, baroque mannerisms and smarmy smiles, who is the center of attention whenever he's onscreen. The scenes with Lugosi's eerie mad doctor also inevitably bring out the best in the expressionist set design, which director Robert Florey lovingly showcases with the aid of Hollywood's greatest expressionist cameraman, Karl Freund. The set of Mirakle's lab, with its X-shaped torture rack and obligatory rows of vaguely scientific-looking bottles and flasks, is a masterpiece of minimalist design. The cinematography exploits the lab's blank walls by projecting terrifying shadows on the bare surfaces when Mirakle is experimenting on his hapless victims. The mad doctor's shadow often precedes him, stretched out with an odd-shaped top hat and cloak to add sharp edges to his shadowy figure, creeping through the night in search of women to bring home.

Despite the weird intensity of the scenes with Mirakle, the film falters pretty much whenever he's offscreen. Florey brilliantly stages one of the film's crucial murders with a blurry, shaky closeup on the face of the ape murderer as it pounds its fist up and down on its unseen victim. But the sequence's aftermath is an absurd inquiry with a lackadaisical judge and a trio of ethnic caricatures who give varying accounts of what happened while playing up their outrageous accents and exaggerated gestures: the one guy wouldn't really be Italian if he didn't keep biting his knuckles in rage, right? This is one of the few scenes that is directly derived from Poe's original story — all of the witnesses misidentify the language the killer was shouting in, because of course the killer was an ape — but it's dragged out and sloppily executed. Most viewers who haven't read the original Poe story would probably miss the meaning of this ethnic bantering, writing it off as the silly comic relief it comes across as. The film feels padded with nonsense scenes like this, including pretty much all of the jokey interludes with Pierre and his roommate (Bert Roach), with whom he has an almost marital domestic arrangement. Still, Lugosi alone would make the film worth seeing, giving yet another of the kind of fun, mannered performances he'd deliver in all his 30s appearances at Universal. And at its best moments the film is visually beautiful, disguising its charmingly artificial Paris sets with a heavy coating of fog that creates a tense, uncertain atmosphere.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

La Pointe-Courte

Agnès Varda's film career began with the quiet, neorealist poeticism of La Pointe-Courte, a loose, contemplative film that's equally about a couple whose marriage is in trouble, and the tiny rural fishing village where they go to vacation and work out their problems. Varda's central romantic couple is never the sole focus of the narrative. Rather, they seem to be wandering in and out of the action, meandering through the slow-moving fabric of life in the titular town. There are many other dramas to be found here: the travails of the local fishermen who must constantly butt heads with the health board over the quality of the town's shellfish output; the single woman whose promiscuity has saddled her with an unmanageable herd of kids; the developing romance between one of the local young men and the daughter of an ornery, disapproving fisherman. Other than the two leads, the rest of the cast is composed entirely of the real town's residents, giving the film its strong verité quality.

Varda's pace is leisurely, peeking in on these ordinary little stories, her camera drifting weightlessly through each scene. The graceful camerawork in this film is extraordinary, seeming to float and bob with the wind. There has seldom been a film that so evocatively captures the feeling of the air in its setting, the gentle sting of the constant winds whipping through this seaside village: maybe Malick's Days of Heaven, or the island breezes of I Walked With a Zombie. In the streets, dangling on thin lines, sheets billow in the wind, and Varda's camera is blown along with the breeze, caught up in its currents, quietly whistling through the town's nearly empty streets, shuffling into corners or gently drifting sideways to pan across a scene.

The camerawork is as relaxed and supple as the rhythms of life here, which is not to say that it is accidental. Rather, Varda maintains a tight control over her seemingly languid images, often offsetting the balloon-like floating of the camera with striking formalist compositions recalling the early films of Bergman and Antonioni, though Varda has always insisted that she was no cinephile and had seen hardly any films when she made this debut. If so, her instinctive eye for composition and motion is even more impressive, especially since there is nothing self-consciously showy about what she's doing. The camera always seems to be doing exactly what it should be to get the most out of a particular moment. At one point, the two lovers (Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort as the unnamed husband and wife) are framed in tight closeups with one's profile cutting across half of the other's face — an image that would later most famously appear in Bergman's Persona. Also remarkable is the scene in which a mother grieves for her dead little boy, and Varda's camera, framing the woman in a doorway, begins pulling back, creating another frame within a frame as it passes through yet another door. Outside, the women of the town begin gathering around this exterior door, finally blocking the mother's grief discreetly from voyeuristic view.

Though Varda has a light, subtle formalist's touch, the film is even more evocative in its less mannered moments, when the wandering camera mirrors the wandering of the young couple as they stroll through the town. The town is populated by cats, a visual echo of the teeming, active kittens of Vigo's L'Atalante, and Varda even gets some fun, improvisatory "performances" out of these tiny extras. At one point, while the couple sits on a bench, moodily exchanging hesitant abstractions about love — their favored activity throughout the film — a black kitten stirs from sleep on the crates stacked above their heads, stretches and yawns, walks around, and finally hisses at the girl before strolling off. It's just one small indication of Varda's ability to keep her images interesting by being open to the play of peripheral elements. At another point, as the lovers are walking together, Varda's camera begins roaming away from them, letting them disappear at the edges of the frame, focusing instead on the chopped lumber by the side of the road. In another scene, only the couple's feet are seen at the top of the frame, while Varda explores the textures of the sandy beach they're walking across.

It's apparent that Varda is not so much interested in telling a story as exploring a setting, probing the emotions awakened by a particular place. The young couple's romantic problems aren't actually that interesting, and they talk in such cold, analytical terms about their love that it's hard to really feel much for their arguments and reconciliation. They're opposed, in broad terms, as a dichotomy between the country boy (calm, tranquil, emotionally restrained) and the city girl (stormy, inconstant, fast-paced), but neither of them ever quite gets into the rhythms of this town over the course of their vacation. The boy identifies very strongly with this place, where he was born and still knows some people, but even he is oblivious to the small stories that Varda probes into, the everyday dramas of the fishermen and their families. He has left the town, and is now nearly as much of a visitor as his truly outsider wife. If a film this ambiguous and ephemeral can be said to have a point, it's to emphasize the extent to which one's life is tied to setting, the ways that a sense of place informs the character of life itself. Varda's film, more than anything, aims to capture that sense of place, to evoke the languid rhythms of this seaside life.

A Game With Stones/Punch and Judy/Historia Naturae (Suita)

A Game With Stones is essentially a very early trial run for Jan Svankmajer's later pessimist masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue, rehearsing the themes of human evolution and self-destruction that would be so eloquently and powerfully stated in the later film. This earlier stab at similar material is, unsurprisingly, rougher and broader, though it has the same relentless, rhythmic drive as so many of Svankmajer's animations. Also like many of the director's other films, the structure is rigidly divided into distinct sections, each one representing a progression from the last, a variation on the kinds of "games" that can be played with the titular stones. The film utilizes a very simple set-up: every few hours, a spigot regulated by a clock (whose ticking provides a metronome-like soundtrack to the film) drips out a few stones into a bucket dangling below the clock. Once in the bucket, the stones enact a series of ritualized, dance-like movements, increasing in complexity with each iteration, before the bucket turns over, dropping the stones on the ground. As a metaphor for human existence, it's blunt and obvious, not to mention disarmingly negative: the rocks, inanimate stand-ins for the world's inhabitants, end their brief moments of play and experimentation by getting tossed into the discard heap without ceremony.

The first group of rocks, a black stone and a white stone, enact only the simplest of permutations, subdividing into smaller pebbles and arranging themselves into neat rows of alternating colors, or else dividing the screen in half vertically between black columns and white columns. Each time the spigot dispenses more stones, there is more diversity of colors and textures, as well as more variety in the kinds of movements and patterns that the stones engage in. There is something increasingly sensuous, even sexual, about the subsequent patterns, with stones rubbing against one another, sometimes seeming to birth torrents of smaller rounded stones from the frictive collisions of the larger rocks. Soon, the rocks form into humanoid shapes, complete with exaggerated external genitals and breasts, while Svankmajer simultaneously delves inside the body, creating patterns of skeletal systems and internal organs that seem to be pulsing, breathing like lungs taking in air. Having achieved this humanoid form, the rocks then begin pushing towards destruction. In the next segment, an obvious precursor to the mutually devouring automatons of Dimensions of Dialogue, the rocks are crushed into thin silt, filling the screen like the accumulated rock layers that make up the fossil record below the Earth's surface. This already suggests the destruction, the passing of humanity into history, and Svankmajer drives the metaphor home by creating human faces from out of the rock dust, faces that alternate between tenderly kissing and violently absorbing one another.

The final sequence brings this progression to its logical conclusion. Here, the playful games and interactions of the stones become truly violent and destructive, with fierce collisions resulting in cracked and shattered stones. Svankmajer's editing, brutally fast throughout the film, reaches its apogee here, with brisk, visceral cutting that accentuates the violence of this final game. The end result, the destruction of the bucket that holds the stones and thus the disruption of the cycle, is apparently Svankmajer's vision of apocalypse, an apocalypse for which the world's inhabitants must take full responsibility. Of course, despite this bleak symbolic message, Svankmajer's animations retain a certain whimsical appeal, a playfulness and sense of visual excitement that is never quite submerged by the director's thematic darkness.

The inappropriately named Punch and Judy — it's actually a duel between famed hand puppet Punch and the lesser-known Joey — is one of Jan Svankmajer's absurdist puppet animations. It's a darkly hilarious piece of mimed theater in which the two protagonists repeatedly beat on each other with wooden mallets after a failed transaction involving the attempted barter of a guinea pig. Svankmajer creates a bizarre tension by having the puppets argue over a live animal, which sits calmly and stoically on the film's stage, munching at a tub of grains while the puppets engage in their manic battles all around the blank-eyed guinea pig. This generates friction between the artificial constructs and organic elements in the film, with the latter also including the hands of the puppet master, which are seen slipping into Punch and Joey's limp forms at the beginning of the film. By framing the film explicitly as theater, with a proscenium arch and stage, Svankmajer sets up expectations for a stately, mannered piece that maintains its distance from the action.

Instead, the first shot after the stage's curtain is abruptly pulled up is an extreme closeup of the guinea pig's face, so close that its beady eyes and buck teeth are blurred and its long brush-like hairs seem to be rubbing against the camera's lens. It's Svankmajer's deliberate — and hilarious — way of disrupting the theatrical presentation of the film, and he proceeds to further break things down with the frenetic pace of his editing. The extended fight between Punch and Joey is hysterical, seemingly chaotic and yet actually controlled by a very tight structure. Svankmajer even Mickey Mouses the score, synchronizing the duo's mallet hits with orchestral blasts and drum kicks, giving a syncopated quality to the film's rhythms, the beatings providing the rhythmic propulsion for the breakneck pace of the editing. Throughout it all, as the puppet duo commit increasingly horrible acts on one another's bodies, taking turns "dying" and being shoved into a coffin, the guinea pig sits there stoically chewing, oblivious to everything that's happening around it. There's an interplay between several layers of reality here: the puppets in their collaged theatrical world, the guinea pig wandering independently through this world, the unseen puppet master controlling the puppets from beneath the surface, and of course Svankmajer himself, overseeing it all. Most of all, though, Punch and Judy is simply a wildly entertaining farce, a demented piece of puppet slapstick.

Like Punch and Judy before it, Jan Svankmajer's Historia Naturae (Suita) relies upon the intersections and relationships between multiple layers of reality and representation. The film is another of Svankmajer's structuralist pieces, in which the structure of the film and its rigid division into segments informs the symbolic content underlying the director's always dazzling animations. He also continues to mine his obsessions with evolution and categorization, dividing the film according to the classifications of lifeforms. Within each segment, Svankmajer cuts rapidly between a variety of different forms representing fauna of increasing evolutionary complexity: crustaceans, insects, reptiles, birds, lower mammals, simians, and finally of course humans. For each of these lifeforms, Svankmajer assembles a dense montage that consists of live specimens, fossilized or taxidermied remains, skeletal forms, and drawings of various kinds, both scientific and artistic. The result is an animated summation of biological diversity that also incorporates the diversity of means of representation, ranging from the sketchiest of drawings to the corpse of the creature in question, to the actual living beast itself. All of this material is stitched together into a complex pastiche, bringing to life the drawings and skeletons and taxidermic remains to roam around on equal footing with the living, breathing animals they represent.

Svankmajer also separates each section from the next one with a recurring image, a closeup of a mouth, eating and chewing a piece of steak. This repeated divider serves as a reminder of the food chain, but lest the audience start feeling too superior about their place in the pecking order, Svankmajer ends the film by changing things up a bit: instead of a human mouth he animates a skull chewing a piece of food, finally placing humans on the same level with the rest of the lifeforms in the film, as susceptible to death and decay as any other being. This is bleak stuff, but even if the repetitive structure sometimes gets a little tiresome here (as it does not in Svankmajer's best structuralist animations), there's still plenty of eye candy to keep things interesting throughout.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Man Escaped

The opening minutes of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped definitively establish what this film will be about. After the credits and a title card indicating the story's origins in true events, the first image is a tight closeup on a pair of hands turning over and over each other. Bresson slowly pulls back to reveal a prisoner sitting in the back of a car, looking at his hands, studying them, as though wondering what they can do. The message is clear: this will be a film about action, about the extent of what a man can do with his own two hands. The prisoner in this scene is Fontaine (François Leterrier), a young member of the French Resistance during World War II, who had been arrested and sentenced to death for blowing up a bridge. Bresson based the film on the real story of Resistance fighter André Devigny, and among other things this is a moving tribute to the strength of spirit of those brave enough to stand up for themselves in this way. Fontaine's spirit is never crushed, his desire for freedom never stifled, and his hopes never fade; from the moment he arrives in prison, his only thought from morning to night is of escape, of meticulously planning how he will get himself out of this seemingly inescapable fate.

Of course, whether Fontaine will actually escape or not is never in question, unless one manages to miss the title of the film. Bresson thus makes it clear right from the beginning that this will not be a tragedy, but somehow this foreknowledge never diminishes the incredible tension and suspense that builds up over the film's length. Bresson's style is simple and direct, with a minimalist approach that is perfectly suited to this milieu. The prisoners can only speak to each other, in furtive whispers, once a day, during their morning walk through the yard to wash up and empty their trash. At other times, they communicate by knocking coded messages on the walls of their cells, or climbing up to the high, barred windows where they can exchange a few words with their neighbors. There is thus very little dialogue, and what there is tends to be brusque, minimal, rushed, just a few economical phrases tossed back and forth whenever the guard is not looking. There is little opportunity for soul-baring expository speeches, and in any event one senses that Bresson is not interested. He says everything he needs to say through gestures, looks and sounds, using an abstracted, nearly mechanistic language.

Bresson's aesthetic is remarkably precise and controlled, stripping everything down to iconic actions and movements. Leterrier, like all of the other prisoners in the film, was completely untrained as an actor; he later became a writer and director but had never appeared in a film before, and indeed didn't appear in one again for over twenty years. As in most of Bresson's films, A Man Escaped is populated by untrained actors who could be molded, encouraged not to "act," to instead strip down their performances to a series of rote gestures. In the open air of Bresson's later Au hasard Balthazar, this economy of gesture and suppression of emotional expression could seem mechanical, even dehumanizing, but here the technique is remarkably appropriate to the prison setting. The characters are restrained, trapped in tiny box-like cells, their movements greatly restricted. In this milieu, the limited range of expression that Bresson allows his actors serves to magnify each gesture, each glance, each tiny movement. In his frequent closeups on hands — prefiguring Pickpocket — Bresson emphasizes the processes by which Fontaine prepares for his escape, the hard work of building makeshift ropes and grappling hooks or cutting loose the boards of his door. Leterrier, working with a very minimal palette of expressions, forces his feeling into his eyes; his face rarely registers much emotion, so the flitting movements of his eyes take on great significance. Bresson takes care to subtly underline this effect, making sure that the sparse light of the prison cell catches the pure white of the actor's eyes, imparting a spiritual quality to his upward glances, even if for Fontaine himself looking upwards means not so much God as freedom, the open sky above the constraining prison walls.

The film is economical, its structure rigid, with not a moment wasted. Each scene, each shot, slowly advances the preparations for escape, and the tremendous amount of time spent on each new development gives weight to Fontaine's predicament. He is working very hard, and it is always obvious how precarious his situation is, how easily all his work could be undone by the simple act of searching his room carefully, which the Germans never do. Despite the certainty of the ending, the suspense is often unbearable. This is because the film's perspective is always uncomfortably close to Fontaine's. The tight enclosure of his cell often seems to be encircling the audience as well, and Bresson never allows his camera to see more than what his main character can see at any given moment. There are frequent first-person views through peepholes or cracks in the cell door, but mostly Fontaine can only trace what is happening outside his room by listening, with a heightened sensitivity to every tiny noise. This sensitivity is translated into the film's soundtrack, which is unusually attentive to the nuances of sound: incidental creaks and groans, the knocking of the prisoners on their cell walls, the scratching of Fontaine's sharpened spoon against the wood of his door, echoing footsteps in another part of the prison, the sound of church bells somewhere far off, the gunfire that signals a death sentence being carried out, the bell-like ringing as a guard runs his key along the metal railing on his way upstairs. These sounds are what Fontaine uses to gauge his chances, to track the movements outside, where he can only guess at the location of guards and other potential hazards.

Throughout the film, Bresson is unfailingly precise in his use of sound, as in the rhythmic movements of the prisoners and the patient preparations of Fontaine for his escape. In the film's denouement, these preparations finally come together, as Fontaine and his boyish young cellmate Jost (Charles Le Clainche) break out together. Bresson's documentation of the actual escape is as formally exacting as everything else in the film, capturing not only the bursts of activity and action but also the quiet, patient waiting in between, like the long, breathless interval where Fontaine waits, his back pressed against a wall, listening to grow familiar with the patterns of a patrolling guard nearby. Bresson maintains a long, steady head-on shot of Fontaine, with the edge of the wall just at the far right side of the frame, barely suggesting the open space where the guard is walking back and forth offscreen. The audience knows the guard is there the same way Fontaine does: by the jingle of his belt buckle and the gravelly crunch of his boots on the courtyard ground. Fontaine's murder of this man happens offscreen as well, in this same black empty space at the far edge of the frame, signified only by the sounds of the scuffle.

Bresson's formal precision pays off in a film as intense and affecting as it is aesthetically spare. From its opening minutes to the discreet expression of joy at its denouement — a brief but sensuous (and even homoerotic) embrace between the two escapees — A Man Escaped is a powerful and beautiful film that mines great depths of feeling from its surface simplicity.

Films I Love #16: Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)

Underground is Emir Kusturica's wildly ambitious, relentlessly energetic, tragicomic allegory for the history of his native Yugoslavia from the Nazi invasion of World War II up to the disintegration of the unified country in the bloodshed and genocide of the Balkan wars. It is primarily the story of two friends, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), who start out as black marketeers providing weapons to the anti-fascist resistance, even as they become embroiled in a love triangle over the actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), who they both adore. The film's allegorical structure becomes readily apparent when the war ends, and Marko becomes a prominent figure in Yugoslavia's new Communist government, while keeping Blacky and many of their other friends hidden in an underground bunker, unaware that the war against Germany has ended. It's an obvious metaphor for the deceit and manipulation rampant in Yugoslavia under Communism, with the common people kept in the dark while the party leadership enriched themselves and gorged on power.

With such weighty themes threading through the film, one would expect it to be a heavy and ponderous experience, especially considering its nearly three-hour running time. Rather, it is surprisingly light on its feet, with a boisterous spirit and a comic exuberance that only begins to falter when the film takes a turn into horrifying darkness for its final act, mirroring Yugoslavia's descent into the scourging fire of ethnic war. Before this bracing coda, the film is often darkly hilarious even at its saddest or most violent moments. Blacky, a fun-loving soul with a generous heart and a prodigious capacity for celebration, often drafts a full marching band into following him around everywhere he goes. The film is propelled by the pulse of the region's music, a constant ba-bum-bum-bum rhythm emanating from the ever-present horn section. Underground is a joyous, celebratory, delirious satire that traces a country's history in the overblown, comic saga of a pair of friends whose story reflects the larger struggles of their nation.

Glengarry Glen Ross

Adapted from one of David Mamet's plays by Mamet himself, Glengarry Glen Ross is severely constrained by the stagebound nature of its material, giving it a claustrophobic, airless quality that director James Foley does nothing to mitigate. The story of a group of real estate salesmen struggling to meet rigid sales goals with the threat of losing their jobs dangling over their heads, the script mainly consists of a set of repetitious, utterly circular conversations in which these angry, frustrated men rant and rave, spewing vulgarity and saying the same things over and over again. Their leads are no good. They can't close these leads. The leads are shit. The leads are fucking shit. The boss is a no-good cocksucker. They curse a lot: a lot. Mamet seems to think that realism means having his characters say "fuck" every other word and constantly repeat themselves, but the result is merely strained and, very quickly, exhausting. It doesn't help that Foley has only the most pedestrian solutions for directing most of these conversations. In a movie that consists of virtually nothing but one long, heavily stylized conversation or monologue after another, it is absolute cinematic torture when the director can think of nothing better to do than to cut, on the dialogue, back and forth from one closeup to another, occasionally varying things with a two-shot. In some of the more quickly paced conversations, it even becomes unintentionally kind of funny, as Foley cuts back and forth between actors exchanging quick words or bits of words, the syncopated rhythms of the editing completely disrupting the sense that the actors are even in the same room with one another, let alone sitting at the same table. It's maddeningly distracting.

The film's basic idea certainly has some promise to it. A bunch of down-and-out salesmen are working on squeezing the last bits of life out of their mostly dead prospects. The best of them is Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), who's on a streak of luck. Meanwhile, neither the stuttery, awkward George (Alan Arkin) nor slick old-timer Shelley (Jack Lemmon) have done much of anything lately, and even the cocksure, abrasive Moss (Ed Harris) is struggling. They're all overseen by the smug, rigid office manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey), and they're given some fiery "motivation" by a representative of the uptown head office, the priggish Blake (Alec Baldwin), who gives the salesmen an ultimatum: make the top two slots this month or get out. There's some high-powered acting talent on display here, even if this stellar cast isn't given much to do besides bluster endlessly. The script has so much spit and venom that none of these great actors are really able to add much depth or nuance to their one-dimensional characters, with one very notable exception.

In a film mostly populated by soulless caricatures with no substance, Jack Lemmon's Shelley shines as the one decent, truly fleshed-out portrayal of the bunch. Other than Arkin's non-entity wallflower, Lemmon's is the only performance that consists of more than cursing at the top of his lungs. He takes the script's vulgarity and broad strokes and makes them his own, really sinking into this character, living it, writing it in the lines of his face and the earnest, pleading quality in his voice. There's more than a little Willy Loman in his over-the-hill salesman, still ready with lots of fast talk and slick double-dealing, but no longer having the numbers to back up his skill. He insists he's just hit a streak of bad luck, but nobody cares, focusing only on what he's done lately. Lemmon brings his quiet dignity and reserve to the film, adding much needed subtlety to a script that is otherwise inclined to use bigger and bigger hammers to hit its tiny nails. The film's apparent messages — about the uselessness of a life dedicated only to a soulless job — are most forcefully felt in the character of Shelley.

Foley also reserves his most potent directorial flourish for Shelley's pivotal moment, after he finally succeeds on an important sales call and is describing his victory to Roma. As Shelley describes his sale in hushed, quasi-spiritual tones, the camera drifts airily backward, forsaking the back-and-forth cutting on dialogue to take in the whole scene in the office, with a low angle shot that increasingly isolates the two salesmen in the center of this big empty space. It's a shame that Foley isn't able to expand upon the material like this more often. It's a lovely shot, commenting on the emptiness of Shelley's victory even as it captures his very real enthusiasm and nearly ecstatic joy. Elsewhere, the exterior shots, bathed in neon colors and pouring rain, are evocative but don't really add up to anything. And Foley's simplistic way of dealing with the vast majority of the dialogue scenes drags the life out of them, even if there are still some sparks in the best patches of Mamet's dialogue. There's a truly great sequence in which Roma delivers a lengthy, rambling monologue about absolutist morality, attitude, religion, and the importance of personal choice. It is a speech of astonishing amorality, and the scene's payoff comes when Roma climaxes this dazzling oration by whipping out a sales brochure and spreading it out on the table in front of his slack-jawed companion: all this eloquence and ranting for the sake of selling a parcel of Florida real estate.

At its best moments, like this, the film has the capacity to surprise with its dark wit and harsh insights; its mordant satire has some real sharp teeth. But its rambling structure, functional style and repetitive dialogue diminish the material's potential. Large chunks of the film are dedicated to hammering home the same points repeatedly, particularly anything involving Harris or Arkin, who play the same note throughout as though they're incapable of hitting any other. The scenes where the two of them are talking together are thus doubly exhausting, especially since they converse at length throughout the whole first half of the film. There's the foundation of an interesting film here somewhere, but the film that actually got made isn't it. Despite flashes of quality, and even sporadic brilliance, Glengarry Glen Ross is mostly monotonous and cinematically limited.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Thin Man

Though The Thin Man wound up being a huge hit, triggering an entire series with five more films featuring the same characters, it was not conceived as anything more than a one-off B picture. The film was a cheaply produced quickie for director W.S. Van Dyke, a fast-paced mix of a detective thriller and a romantic comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy play the hard-drinking, fast-talking Nick and Nora Charles, a playful, debonair couple with high society pretensions. She's an heiress of some kind, and he's a former detective who apparently still gets the itch to investigate every so often. The film is soaked in martinis and highballs, so much liquor flowing that one wonders how Nick ever finds a clue. And his wife is easily his match: at one point, she arrives late to a party, asks her husband how many drinks he's had so far, and then tells the bartender to line up the same number in front of her so she can catch up right away. The duo are perfect together, with an unmatchable romantic and comedic chemistry, passing lines back and forth as easily as the ever-present cocktail glasses that are never far from their hands.

Of course, somewhere within this alcohol haze is a mystery, as well, and despite the overall light and funny tone, the film is no slouch in developing its darker elements. The mystery, derived from a Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, is incredibly dense and twisty, with plenty of potential suspects. In the long, atmospheric prologue, before Nick and Nora even show up for the first time, Van Dyke establishes the contours of this mystery, giving out just enough information to whet the audience's appetite without giving too much away. The eccentric inventor Wynant (Edward Ellis) — the "thin man" of the title, though everyone always assumed that the moniker referred to Nick instead — is preparing for a trip out of town in mysterious circumstances, refusing to tell anyone where he's going, not even his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan). Wynant's divorced, and carrying on an affair with his secretary Julia (Natalie Moorhead), though she's got her own stable of men who she's seeing on the side. Before he leaves town, Wynant confronts her about her wayward behavior, and also demands that she replace the $50,000 she's stolen from him. He then heads off into the night, his long thin shadow stretched across the sidewalk in an iconic image, never to be seen again.

Once Nick and Nora enter the picture, everyone's already looking for the vanished Wynant, who hasn't been seen in months. Soon enough, dead bodies start piling up, with Wynant the number one suspect. First, Julia shows up shot, then her occasional lover Nunheim (Harold Huber), and the police are more eager than ever to locate the missing inventor. From the beginning, Nick never believes that Wynant is guilty, but as much as he insists that he is retired as a detective and wants nothing to do with the case, everyone else involved keeps assuming that he's on the job. This includes Wynant's entire family, including Dorothy, his ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell), and his creepy mama's boy son Gilbert (William Henry), who cheerfully admits he has a "mild" Oedipal infatuation with his mother to match the similar dedication of Dorothy for her dad. The film's cast is endlessly colorful and fascinating, and the script always has some fun bits of business ready for its rotating assortment of potential suspects. Edward Brophy is great as Morelli, a thug who keeps interrupting his gunpoint interrogation of Nick to reminisce about old hoods they both used to know. There's also a great scene in which Nick and his cop buddy Guild (Nat Pendleton) try to question Nunheim while the crook's girlfriend storms around and throws pots and pans at her cheating man.

All of these elements are perfectly balanced, so that the film is as witty and hilarious as it is suspenseful. Despite the very serious mystery and all the tough characters drifting around the story's fringes, it's Powell and Loy's crisply funny performances that drive everything. There's so much liquor being swilled in this film that one practically becomes drunk watching it. Powell in particular injects a boozy quality into his performance, an oh-so-slight stumble in his step or hesitation in his words to indicate the fact that he's just poured back half a dozen drinks. The banter between the couple is perfectly pitched, and Powell and Loy have such a natural flow that one really would believe they'd been married for quite some time. They're so comfortable together, transitioning smoothly from barbed patter to quiet romantic moments, and the real test of their chemistry is that even during their more sharp-tongued verbal sparring matches, it's obvious that they're just having a blast.

This spirit of fun translates into every aspect of the film, from the nonstop clever script to the diverse troop of supporting performances to the noirish visual touches that Van Dyke places throughout the film. Most striking of all are the montages of the search for Wynant, in which the thin man's silhouette is superimposed over images of the city and newsprint headlines recounting his supposed murders. Van Dyke has a good eye for small touches like this, as well as for keeping the whole picture in focus even as he delves into the details and detours. For the climax, the traditional parlor scene where Nick gathers the suspects together (hilariously, for a formal dinner party complete with cops serving the drinks and hors d'oeuvres), Van Dyke keeps returning to a long establishing shot of the whole table, even as he cuts to individual closeups for the reactions to Nick's revelations. It's beautifully handled, with economy and fluidity to spare. The Thin Man is a nearly perfect Hollywood film, breezy and funny and light on its feet, with just enough grit and charisma in the mix to make it all hang together so well.

Sleepers West

Sleepers West is the second installment in the series of Michael Shayne detective flicks in which Lloyd Nolan plays the laidback, wisecracking private eye. In Nolan's hands, Shayne is a very different kind of movie gumshoe; he's no tough-but-romantic leading man in the Humphrey Bogart mold, and his malleable face and side-of-the-mouth wit is much more appropriate for low-key comedy than for action or intrigue. Nor is Nolan's Shayne a particularly good detective, even. As in the series' first film, Michael Shayne: Private Detective, the lead is here consistently shown up by his large supporting cast, most of whom seem to be always one step ahead of the detective, who doesn't actually do all that much of substance. He knocks out a few hoods, plays some mind games and engages in clever banter with his adversaries, and mostly just lounges around waiting for things to happen. He's a spectacularly bad detective in virtually every way, and in any case this film isn't really a mystery at all, but it's still a fine, ragged entertainment.

The plot provided the template for a later, much more popular film, Richard Fleischer's great 1952 noir The Narrow Margin. As in the later film, Sleepers West is about a young woman, Helen Carlson (Mary Beth Hughes), who is scheduled to appear as a surprise witness in a big case. She has some key information that could both clear an innocent man and trigger a tremendous public scandal surrounding a thuggish political boss who's currently running for governor of California. As a result, Helen's become a target for some pretty shady characters who would much rather she not testify, and she's under Shayne's protection on a cross-country train ride to San Francisco. While Helen's locked up in her room, disguised as an ailing woman with a brown wig to cover her platinum blonde locks, Shayne sits tight outside, trying to fend off the interest in Helen's location. Some of this interest comes from Shayne's inquisitive ex Kay Bentley (Lynn Bari), a low-rent Hildy Johnson girl reporter knock-off with a nose for a big story brewing. She sniffs around her former beau, playing cute cat-and-mouse games in which Kay and Shayne circle around each other, verbally sparring while trying not to reveal what they each know. His Girl Friday came out the year before, and its influence was obviously in the air.

Meanwhile, Kay's fiancé Linscott (Donald Douglas) who works for the political boss with such a keen interest in keeping Helen silent, gets recruited by the hood Izzard (Don Costello) to find Helen as well. Director Eugene Forde doesn't have a showy style, but he proves adept at balancing a huge cast where the wily intrigues of those concerned with Helen Carlson and California politics begin intersecting with all sorts of other little subplots and distractions. There's a lot happening on this train ride, and the film frequently diverts from its main plot to deal with other little bits of business, some of which wind up impacting the central narrative later on. There's the folksy small-town boy Jace (Louis Jean Heydt) who takes an interest in big-city dame Helen, confiding in her that he's running away from his wife and his stable but boring life to open a store in South America instead. There's a railroad dick (Edward Brophy) who isn't quite sure why he's been asked to stakeout this train, but who begins to suspect that Jace is an "embezzler" when he finds stacks of money — his life savings — in this average joe's suitcase. There's a conductor (Harry Hayden) making his last run before retirement, determined to bring the train in on time for his last haul even if it means speeding dangerously fast at all times. The film even spends a substantial amount of time with the black railroad porters, who turn in an assortment of broad, pop-eyed caricatures as they spread slowly exaggerating rumors around the train.

In the midst of all this chaos and confusion, Shayne himself threatens to seem somewhat unimportant by comparison, getting lost in the throngs. Indeed, the hesitant romantic tension between the gee-whiz Heydt and the tough-talking femme fatale Hughes is more interesting than anything Shayne can work up. The script also isn't nearly as amusing as the first film in the series, despite the watered-down efforts to build up some screwball-style patter between Nolan and Bari. It's all lightweight but undeniably amusing, as is the film's fondness for literal double-takes to punctuate its best one-liners — a great silent comedy throwback that fits in nicely with Nolan's broad, mugging style. Sleepers West will never be remembered as a classic of its form, but it's a decent, forgettable entertainment where the troop of admirable character actors filling out the margins wind up stealing the show from the main event.

The Black Cat

Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat is a remarkable movie that seems entirely aware of the workings of genre within its outrageous, Gothic story. The film is structured as a collision between genre worlds, inserting the romantic young lovers Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Jacqueline Wells) into a story that is otherwise populated almost entirely with character actors, a rogue's gallery of grotesque, exaggerated figures who could, separately, serve as the villainous geniuses and marauding thugs for an entire series of low-budget horror flicks. Instead, Ulmer crams a single film with these outsized personalities: the creepy, vengeance-obsessed psychiatrist Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi); the sadistic Satanist architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff); Poelzig's wide-eyed, frizz-haired, ghostly bride Karen (Lucille Lund), a precursor to Bride of Frankenstein; Poelzig's utterly sinister manservant (Egon Brecher) with his slicked-down hair and wordless obedience; and Werdegast's equally forbidding servant (Harry Cording) whose allegiances are anything but clear.

Ulmer is well aware of the Gothic, overblown quality of the melodrama his two young newlyweds have wandered into here, and he deliberately contrasts the earnest sappiness of the scenes between Peter and Joan against the eerie intensity of their surroundings. It is as though two characters destined for a light romantic comedy have instead accidentally stumbled onto the set of a morose psychological horror piece, without seeming to realize that the atmosphere has changed. The scenes between the newlyweds are played with a broad sentimentality and good humor, with the lovers constantly exchanging sappy grins, and Peter sweeping his young bride up into his arms so often that it can only become comical. Ulmer accompanies these scenes with a fittingly sentimental score, achingly romantic and utterly conventional, playing off of the darker musical underpinnings that run through the rest of the film.

This was the first screen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, and the two horror legends are undoubtedly the focus of attention here. The former's Poelzig is an ex-military officer who has now built his ultra-modern, maze-like home on the ruins of the fort he used to supervise. Lugosi's Werdegast is returning, after many years in prison, to enact his vengeance upon his old friend, who betrayed him during the war so long ago. When the bus bringing Werdegast to his target's home crashes, Peter and Joan are along for the ride, and all three of them become guests in Poelzig's home, the newlyweds only slowly realizing that a wild melodrama is being played out between these two sinister men. Lugosi has never been better, carrying over a healthy portion of Count Dracula into his portrayal of the tormented Werdegast, who has an absurd fear of black cats, the origin of which is never really explained. Lugosi acts with his glittering, intense eyes and perennially arched eyebrows, crafting a memorable character with his pop-eyed expressions and characteristic thick accent. Karloff is easily his equal, starting as a hulking Frankenstein-type figure before he modulates into more of an urbane, subtle threat, keeping a museum of preserved corpses in his basement and playing chess with Lugosi for the life of the young Joan.

The film is packed with baroque touches like this, and Ulmer's direction accentuates the understated horror of the situation. Even ordinary moments are made stylized and potent under Ulmer's hand. Poelzig doesn't just wake up when his doorbell rings: he rises almost pneumatically, his body segmented like a machine, silhouetted behind a thin curtain so that his iconically familiar shadowed profile reveals his presence before he's actually seen in full. Similarly, he can't just walk into a room, but rather lets the door slide slowly open in his path, gliding in with his glowering eyes masked by shadows, his hair combed up into a ridiculous point atop the sculpted stone of his head.

Ulmer also consistently uses multiple layers within his frames, pushing aggressively into the foreground as though he wanted to force his images into the audience's face. When one of the house's silent servants carries the unconscious Joan upstairs and lays her on the bed, Ulmer takes up a perspective on the far side of the bed, so that the brute walks directly towards the camera and sets the woman's inert body down right in the foreground of the image, blocking everything from view. Even more memorable is the amazing sequence when the two lovers clench, kissing tenderly in front of Werdegast and Poelzig. Ulmer abruptly racks the focus back and forth from the kissing newlyweds to the extreme foreground, where Werdegast's hand instinctively closes around a statuette of a naked woman, tightly gripping the arm in the same way as Peter is holding his wife's arm. It's an evocative image, expressing without words the intensity of Werdegast's emotions: the psychiatrist has lost his own wife, and Joan reminds him of his long-dead bride.

Ulmer is just as proficient in an unexpected scene that injects some humor into the film, in the form of a pair of local policemen (Henry Armetta and Albert Conti) who quickly forget about their line of inquiry and begin arguing about whose hometown is the better tourist destination. Ulmer proves to be remarkably adept at juggling between moods and tones, fitting this surrealistic comedic interlude smoothly into the film's overall mood of creeping dread. The specter of death hangs over the entire film, particularly the aura of wartime death, the ghosts of history who continue to haunt the present. In this sense, Poelzig's Satanism is something of a red herring; the real horror here stems not from Satanic rituals and blood sacrifices but from the unspoken horrors that Poelzig was involved with back during the first World War, the men he killed and the betrayals he committed. These historical atrocities linger in the present: the bus driver who brings Werdegast and the young couple to Poelzig's home speaks of the dead piled high in trenches, the rivers run red with blood, as though he was a tour guide pointing out the local sights.

Werdegast, a true tragic figure, understands this continuity with the horrors of the past, and he also knows that the present is oblivious to the bloody acts that preceded it. The young newlyweds are thus the ultimate avatars of the present, living continuously in the now, unaware of the dark, bloody secrets of the past. Once the film's bluntly violent, brutal climax has passed, the body count is tremendous, but Peter and Joan blithely blunder out of harm's way, leaving these horrors behind them as though it was all just a bad dream they'd had, as much a product of Peter's overblown imagination as the lurid mystery novels he writes. This denouement is particularly poignant in light of the new horrors that would shortly erupt in Europe, the new carnage and destruction that would be built on the ruins of the old. Ulmer's film is a subtle, potent allegory for the destruction of war, both physical and psychological, rewriting wartime traumas as Gothic horror, with the silly hero and heroine skipping through it all, utterly unaware of the tragic reality of what they're facing.

Decision At Sundown

Decision At Sundown is a highly unusual Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Western in which Scott's ordinarily driven but heroic persona is tainted, twisted, by an irrational, all-consuming hatred. Boetticher keeps the tension high in this mostly static, action-free chamber Western, in which the emotional and philosophical undercurrents of the story are developed slowly and patiently. Scott plays Bart Allison, a man overwhelmed by a desire for revenge. He arrives in the town of Sundown, along with his pal Sam (Noah Beery), after three years of searching for a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). It's not clear at first why exactly Bart wants revenge, though it's hinted, with increasing pointedness, that it might have something to do with Bart's wife, Mary — which makes it ironic that when Bart and Sam arrive in town, Kimbrough is getting married later that day to local girl Lucy (Karen Steele). Bart quickly stirs up trouble, breaking up the wedding by announcing that he plans to make Lucy a widow by the end of the day. In the ensuing chaos, Bart and Sam hole up in the stables, surrounded on all side by Kimbrough's goons: Bart's target basically controls the town, keeping even the sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) in his employ.

This situation sets up the rest of the movie, which quickly settles into a taut stalemate, with the two heroes trapped inside and Kimbrough's men arrayed against them outside. What becomes increasingly apparent, however, is that Bart's quest for revenge is actually a fool's errand: he blames Kimbrough for the death of his wife, several years earlier, but it's soon clear that his wife was not a virtuous woman, that she cheated on him with Kimbrough and many other men, and eventually committed suicide in disgrace. The script has an uncomfortable misogynist streak, a tendency to view women as tramps at worst, fools at best, and at one point Bart even assaults Lucy, spanking her and tearing her dress when she dares to suggest that what happened was his wife's fault as well as Kimbrough's. At the beginning of the film, Bart is a conventional Scott hero, likable and taciturn, with a sly smile that signals his amusement at anyone who dares to mess with him. Things quickly begin to unravel, however, and Bart begins to seem somewhat unhinged. Even his "plan" to confront Kimbrough reeks of lunacy, a lack of foresight that gets him trapped in the stables for the remainder of the film. As the tension builds, it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with the stubborn, angry, vengeance-seeking Bart, who basically makes his own mess and then has to sit in it.

With the film's sympathies tearing away from Bart, who is ostensibly playing the role of the hero, the narrative centers more on the town as a whole. The story is not actually the usual Western tale about a hero seeking revenge against a bad man to right a long-ago wrong, but is a different kind of Western fable, basically High Noon in reverse, with the townsfolk awakening to the rottenness in their midst and coming together around a man who neither wants nor appreciates their help. If the film is not actually about the hero, who ends the film consumed by feelings of hatred, rage and loss, it's about the way the town's people collectively relearn about the value of self-respect. Kimbrough may not have been wholly responsible for the death of Bart's wife, but he is undoubtedly a malevolent influence in Sundown, keeping the people docile with his enforcers posing as lawmen. Led by the righteous local doctor (John Archer), the people of Sundown eventually redeem themselves by speaking up for once, fighting back, not letting the crimes of Kimbrough and his men go unnoticed or unpunished.

Throughout all this, even Kimbrough himself is humanized, as the film's sympathies become more diffuse, harder to trace. It's unclear from the beginning what exactly Kimbrough has done to the people of the town, concretely, other than buy off the sheriff and make some thugs into deputies. He's also a womanizer, keeping company with his longtime girl Ruby (Valerie French) even as he prepares for his wedding; but then, the film's perspective on such things tends to blame the women far more than the men. In the end, Kimbrough is seen as an ordinary man like any other, afraid to face off against Bart but willing to do so anyway to maintain his pride. There are several long scenes leading up this final showdown, with Kimbrough first letting his mistress Ruby know about his inner fears before making more of a show of bravery and steel in the bar downstairs, with the townsfolk all around him. Kimbrough is ultimately more of a fleshed-out, human character than the rigid, unyielding Bart is ever allowed to be, further blurring the boundaries between hero and villain.

This ambiguity is among the film's most interesting components, and Boetticher at every point seeks to problematize traditional Western dynamics, shifting from the usual hero/villain dichotomy to a much more complex situation where everyone in town is equally guilty and complicit. The final gunfight sequences are as suspenseful as expected, with long build-ups for a lightning-fast payoff, though in the last showdown, Boetticher purposefully builds towards an anticlimax to dissipate the accumulating tension. The film is largely static, and sometimes overly talky in its philosophical discourses, and its undercurrents of misogyny are often hard to stomach. It's nevertheless an interesting variation on Western norms from a director who was always thinking about such formal questions.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Early Hawks: Some Final Thoughts

For the past two weeks, I have been watching and writing about the early films of one of my favorite directors from the classical Hollywood era, Howard Hawks. I've been joined in this endeavor by some fine company, and I want first and foremost to extend a big thank you to everyone who has contributed their own essays and comments on these often overlooked films. I've really enjoyed reading what everyone has to say, and interacting with some of my favorite bloggers, along with some blogs that I got to check out for the first time. I hope anyone reading along has enjoyed all this as much as I have.

Yes, the period in Hawks' career that I have, somewhat arbitrarily, decided to call "early" contains at least two critically acclaimed masterpieces — Scarface and Twentieth Century, both of which I'd seen before and didn't have a chance to revisit this month — but the majority of the films Hawks made prior to his famed Grant/Hepburn screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby are seldom seen, seldom talked about, nearly forgotten by all but the most devout Hawks admirers. This was why I wanted to explore these films, to shed light on them and start a conversation about them. I reasoned that among these films, most of which are not even available on DVD, must be the origins, the first stirrings, of the great director I was familiar with from his 40s and 50s masterworks. I was, in fact, more right than I could have expected.

Hawks' films from the early 30s, along with his 1928 silent film A Girl in Every Port (the only one of his silents I was able to locate), are a treasure trove of insight into Hawks as an auteur. Based on the evidence of the marvelous silent Girl, some of Hawks' signature concerns were in place from very early on, albeit in rough form: male bonding between professionals in a dangerous job, affectionate loyalty between best friends, extreme stoicism and restraint in the face of potentially overwhelming emotions, and a direct, straightforward aesthetic perfectly suited to communicating the iconic ideas and stripped-down emotional palettes of the Hawksian world. This world is of course a fantasy world, an imaginative reconstruction of the real world, redesigned to resemble the director's ideal.

One can also see in these films the development of the typical Hawksian femme, the strong, independent-minded woman who is eager to compete on equal ground with the men in every way. She is not always fully developed in Hawks' early work. Louise Brooks' amoral gold-digger in A Girl in Every Port might be strong and independent, but she's also the most obviously misogynist caricature Hawks would ever craft, and her fate in the film reflects this: she's ultimately cast aside in favor of the male friendship that forms the film's true romantic story. Hawks' next two films, The Dawn Patrol and The Criminal Code, would feature, respectively, no women at all and a female character so weak as to be inconsequential. On the other hand, Ann Dvorak in both Scarface and The Crowd Roars would — perhaps because she was also Hawks' mistress at the time — display an attitude of raw, unfettered sexuality and assertiveness, more early traces of the Hawksian woman struggling to break free. Zita Johann in Tiger Shark is too sweet and retiring, much like June Lang in The Road to Glory a few years later; Johann turns in a fine, sensitive performance while Lang is mostly a model-pretty hunk of marble for Hawks to sculpt with light and shadows, but neither could be described as a Hawksian woman. On the other hand, one can see traces in Joan Crawford (Today We Live) and Miriam Hopkins (Barbary Coast) of the qualities Hawks so admired in women, though neither film is good enough or fully Hawksian enough to allow these qualities free reign.

These are early indications of the Hawks heroine coming into being, but there are more fully developed incarnations of the type in Ceiling Zero (June Travis' wisecracking aviatrix), Twentieth Century (the unstoppable hamminess of Carole Lombard going toe to toe with equally hammy John Barrymore), and the first half of Come and Get It (Frances Farmer's tough, brawling barmaid, a performance developed by the actress after Hawks encouraged her to observe real-life prostitutes and waitresses). In these early films, Hawks still sometimes seems to be struggling to find a way to incorporate women into his male-centric worldview, and though many of these films do have interesting women characters, none are quite as strong or as fully realized as the women who fleshed out the template in later years: Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall.

I didn't mean to dwell so long on this aspect of these films, though gender and sexuality in Hawks is an endlessly fascinating subject: perhaps because he places such a strong emphasis on both ritualized gestures and coded, punny language, few directors' oeuvres are so susceptible to psychosexual "deep readings" of the relationships between men and women. More importantly, however, Hawks' best films are fun, vibrant, and potent. Hawks always considered himself an entertainer rather than an artist, and his films, whatever other artistic virtues they may possess, are seldom less than a good time. As it turns out, this is as true of Hawks' little seen early films as it is of his later work. These films are artfully made, fascinating for their glimpse into Hawks' early development, and frequently exciting, funny and raggedly entertaining. At their best — Twentieth Century and Scarface, of course, but also Tiger Shark, Ceiling Zero, The Dawn Patrol and A Girl in Every Port — they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hawks' later, much more widely seen work.

Once again, I want to thank everyone for reading along as I've explored Hawks' early years, and I want to especially thank those bloggers who have joined me in exploring some of these films. Over the next few weeks, Hawks will remain a fixture at this blog; as a postscript to the blog-a-thon, I'll be watching and reviewing later Hawks films every once in a while, both revisiting favorites and catching up on some I've missed. The early Hawks blog-a-thon is now finished, but I certainly hope that the broader discussion of Hawks is not.