Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Mask of Fu Manchu

[This is a contribution to the Boris Karloff Blogathon, which has taken place from November 23-29 at the Frankensteinia blog.]

The Mask of Fu Manchu is, it has to be said, an utterly bizarre movie in so many ways. This quickie shocker casts Boris Karloff as the titular Fu Manchu, a sinister Chinese scientist and criminal who's determined to find the sword and mask of Genghis Khan in order to secure his own power as a new world conquerer. In order to do so, he kidnaps the professor Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), who's about to lead an expedition to the newly discovered tomb of Khan. When this doesn't work, Fu Manchu sends out inept assassins, kidnaps more scientists and adventurers, concocts elaborate torture devices involving pits of crocodiles and spiked walls, and plots in his laboratory with his slinky, oversexed daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). The plot is so over-the-top it's not worth taking seriously, so it's fortunate that the film, directed by Charles Brabin (replacing Charles Vidor, who was fired after a few days), offers up plenty of outrageous images and outlandish moments to distract from its ludicrous narrative.

The film's whole construction is rough and even sloppy. Everything seems to be happening at an accelerated pace, as though the actors were instructed to get through every scene as quickly as possible. This is often frankly hilarious, as the actors spit out lines, sometimes stumbling and stuttering — mistakes that obviously no one thought were worth doing another take to correct — or scrambling to perform some physical task at triple speed. The film was made early in the talkie era, and this too shows in the roughshod aesthetic. Brabin films mostly in static tableaux from a distance, occasionally tracking into or out of the scene but mostly just setting up and letting the action play out in front of the camera.

What happens in front of Brabin's camera, mostly, is Karloff and Loy outrageously mugging as the sinister Chinese villains, while the ineffectual heroes — led by Barton's daughter Sheila (Karen Morley, shamelessly overacting even in comparison to the makeup-caked Karloff and Loy) and her whitebread boyfriend Terry (Charles Starrett) — stumble into their enemies' traps over and over again. Karloff, even covered in ridiculous slant-eyed makeup, is in fine form, making his Fu Manchu snakelike and strangely dignified, insisting on being called "doctor" and stressing his fancy American/British education even as he vows to destroy white culture. Loy, as his daughter, is equally entertaining to watch; Fah Lo See is a seductress who turns her attentions to Terry almost as soon as she sees him. Fu Manchu is very aware of his daughter's ways, too, first offering her as a payment to Barton (with the girl standing right there) and then telling her to hold off on her usual seduction routine until her latest target has outlasted his usefulness to Fu Manchu's plans. Indeed, the film is surprisingly open and explicit in its sexual and other undertones. At one point, trying to find Fu Manchu, the adventurer Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) asks an innkeeper for some "rest," and the obvious implication is that he wants either opium or women.

As interesting as these surface elements are, the film's strange undercurrents of homoerotic imagery and exoticization are even more fascinating. Once Terry is taken prisoner by Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See, he's stripped to the waist and chained to a slab so that Fah Lo See can lounge over him, running her long claw-like fingernails across his chest. And then there's the scene where Fu Manchu does the same thing, running his own nails across Terry's chest, mirroring his daughter's admiration of this white man. At one point, she even implicitly offers up Terry for her father's appreciation: "He is not entirely unhandsome, is he, my father?" To which Fu Manchu responds, "For a white man, no." This homoerotic undercurrent certainly extends to the black servants who are kept by the Chinese: strapping, muscular dark men, half-naked in tiny underwear-like shorts. They stand around looking like statues with their sculpted bodies, and it's hard to look at them without thinking that Fah Lo See, and probably Fu Manchu as well, likes having such models of masculine physicality hanging around.

Of course, beyond these under-the-surface sexual implications, there's the obvious fact that the film posits a fantasy world where Chinese warlords have black slaves: it's an expression of white fears about non-white races joining up to overthrow the whites. The film is shockingly racist, and not just the run-of-the-mill racism one expects of a 1930s film with stock Chinese villains. It's not just that the Chinese speak with affected accents or that the two most prominent Asian characters are played by white actors in slant-eye makeup. No, Fu Manchu's sinister plot is explicitly framed as a racial conquest, as an attempt by the sneaky, evil "yellow" people to conquer the white races. And not just conquer them, either. Fu Manchu extols his Chinese warriors into battle by promising that they will be able to kill all the white men and steal their women. Fu Manchu's goal is thus couched in terms of non-white races defiling white female sexuality, a tradition that stretches back at least to Birth of a Nation and is often at the core of racist thinking. Racist ideologies excite fear by suggesting that white female sexuality — represented here by willowy blonde Karen Morley, who looks frail and vulnerable despite her shallow tough attitude — is in danger of being corrupted and destroyed. The Mask of Fu Manchu goes even further by placing male sexuality in danger too, as Terry nearly gives in to the wiles of Fah Lo See. Of course, in one of the film's more laughable scenes — and there's some tight competition for that title — Sheila wins Terry back to white women by melodramatically urging him to put his arms around her and then smugly gloating at Fah Lo See when he wakes out of his trance.

Because of all this drama surrounding race and sexuality, The Mask of Fu Manchu is a fascinating and problematic film, messy and absurd and teeming with wild images. Fu Manchu's introduction is especially iconic, as the mad doctor appears, sneering and mugging, on the right side of the frame while on the left an oval funhouse mirror distorts and stretches his face into a disembodied monstrous mask. Later, when Terry is being whipped by some of the black slaves under Fah Lo See's direction, Fu Manchu's head appears floating in blackness, disembodied again, leering at the spectacle of the white man's torture. Images like this, along with the ornate designs of things like Genghis Khan's forbidding tomb, make the film an interesting spectacle, dominated by lurid imagery, loony ideas and unfettered performances.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Holiday 2009 SLIFR Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio's film quizzes are a popular diversion for film bloggers everywhere, and he's just posted his newest one over at his always-great blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. This is a holiday quiz, to span the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. My answers are posted below. Check out Dennis' site to see other responses and to post your own.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
I can usually easily rank the films of directors I like, but for some reason I have a really hard time sorting out a hierarchy of Coen Brothers movies. Maybe The Man Who Wasn't There, but then that film could easily be my favorite too.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
Play Time.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, Marker, Franju, Varda, Denis, Pialat, Vigo, Resnais, Assayas, Renoir, Tati, Tavernier, Breillat. France, no contest.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
The down-the-barrel shot in Forty Guns.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
The art of photography: the image is the essence of cinema.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Southland Tales.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
My initial enthusiasm for Billy Wilder, founded on films like Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, has cooled as I've been exposed to more of his uneven and often disappointing work.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Lom: you can't beat Inspector Dreyfuss' neurotic craziness.

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
Is it cheating to say The Alphabet or Six Men Getting Sick? I haven't seen Dune and I like all his other features.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Gordon Willis, if only for shooting some of Woody Allen's most gorgeous movies, but also for Little Murders.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
On DVD, Schindler's List, unfortunately. In theaters, Richard Kelly's The Box.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
I haven't yet given in to Blu-Ray. But Claude Chabrol's films have been badly treated on DVD, so I suppose I'll say that I'd really love to see a lavish Blu-Ray set of his films, restored and treated well at last.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
I guess I have to go with McLovin.

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
I don't think there's anyone I'd watch in anything, but Isabelle Huppert is never less than fascinating to watch, whatever she's in.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
Teresa Wright was always great.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
Gaby Rodgers unleashing the apocalypse in Kiss Me Deadly.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
Not a death scene, but in terms of spectacularly unsuccessful special effects, I do love the ridiculous fake spider and puppet bats in Mark of the Vampire.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
I saw Rock Hudson's Home Movies for free and still regretted it.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
Bells From the Deep and Gesualdo are two unfairly overlooked Herzog documentaries, but they're actually among his best works.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
I'm always embarassed when I realize I've never seen a movie I really should have seen by now.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
Ann Sheridan.

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
I purposely avoid obvious crap blockbusters all the time: why waste time seeing something I know won't have anything to offer me?

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
John Carpenter's The Thing for a certain kind of harsh, arctic winter. Curse of the Cat People for a more dreamlike and magical vision of winter.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Jeffrey Jones.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
Robert Altman's final film A Prairie Home Companion is an antidote to popular stereotypes about country/rural culture, warmly and lovingly examining Americana without resorting to stereotyping.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
My favorite is Rio Bravo, by a long shot. Second favorite is tougher to narrow down, but I'd probably go with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
The one that takes up most of the second half of Death Proof.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
To stick with Hawks, imagine how weird and interesting The Big Sleep would be with the gender roles reversed: Bacall as a suave, seductive private eye, and Bogie as a cool, calm society brat. Might not change the movie much at all, actually. On the other hand, to stick with Cary Grant, imagine Cukor's Holiday with Grant as the upper-class scion born into a privilege and wealth he has little use for, with Hepburn as the lower-class go-getter who wants to really make something of herself and enjoy her life rather than simply marrying into money. It completely changes the dynamic of the film and would make it something of a feminist statement in addition to an examination of class like the original.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
Play Dirty is amazing: gritty and formalist at the same time, with the best offhand bleak ending of all time.

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
I don't think I hate any director that much. I wouldn't miss Michael Bay much, though.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
Vertigo. I didn't outright hate it on first viewing, but I was very much underwhelmed, and have since come to appreciate it greatly; I enjoy it more, and find more of interest in it, every time I watch it.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
The film noir cliché of the dangerous woman.

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
Does Eyes Wide Shut count? Its protagonist's terror of female sexuality is framed against a backdrop of lovely colored Christmas lights.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
The final moments of The Wrestler.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Anything that's appreciated "ironically," or for being "so bad it's good." I prefer "so good it's good."

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
Caroline Munro.

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
Andre De Toth.

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission — "Something about ambiguous movie endings!" — by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
Denis Levant's dance at the end of Beau travail.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
All the evocative, provocative images, moments, sounds and ideas the movies at their best can deliver, and the richness of cinematic history that provides so much to explore and enjoy.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

TOERIFC: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

[This review is prompted by the latest discussion for The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which is about Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters this month. The discussion can be found at Krauthammer's blog Crips and Mutes; go there to read along and join the discussion with your own thoughts.]

The writer Yukio Mishima seemingly lived his life with a single possibility always in mind, an impossible ideal towards which he was always working. In Paul Schrader's evocative biopic of the influential Japanese author, this ethos is summed up with literary expressiveness as the desire to "turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood." Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters chronicles the author's continuing attempts to reach this ideal, to achieve his obsession with uniting art and action, words and the world. In order to reflect this goal, Schrader shifts fluidly between multiple layers of reality, memory, fantasy and fiction: the film is a collage of Mishima's final day on earth, flashbacks to his childhood and youth, and stylized enactments of stories from his novels.

Mishima's life famously ended with his attempt to trigger an army coup to restore the Emperor to power in Japan; when the coup failed, he committed ritual suicide, seppuku. Schrader's film opens with the writer (played as an adult by Ken Ogata) preparing for this attempt, dressing in a military uniform — the uniform of the private army society he'd founded and led — and meeting with his accomplices. Scenes from this important day, Mishima's last, weave throughout the film, providing a structuring foundation for Schrader's examination of the author's ideas, preoccupations and troubled life.

These scenes, filmed in flat, naturalistic color, are juxtaposed with flashbacks to Mishima's youth, filmed in black and white, and scenes from his novels, which are heavily stylized with bright neon hues and blatantly artificial, fragmentary sets. This structure creates a constant interplay between fiction and reality, between the past and the present, suggesting the ways in which Mishima's entire life led to its last moment, and the ways in which his art prepared him for his final act. Schrader selected three novels to work into his film in this way. The Temple of the Golden Pavillion is based on the true story of a stuttering, unattractive Buddhist acolyte (Yasosuke Bando) who, wishing to destroy something beautiful, burned down an ornate ancient temple. Kyoko's House combines the stories of four young men, and Schrader selects one of these, about a vain actor (Kenji Sawada) who becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship and eventually commits suicide with his lover. Runaway Horses is the most obviously prophetic of the three works, since it concerns a young man (Toshiyuki Nagashima) who leads an attempted coup to reinstate the Emperor to power; within the film, Mishima calls this book a rehearsal for his own final act.

The scenes from Mishima's novels are presented with a stylized, theatrical sensibility that emphasizes their unreality. These scenes are bathed in bright colors, often a hysterical, oversaturated pink hue. Frequently, the boundaries of the sets are revealed within the frame: jagged, disconnected interiors float within a sea of blackness, like abstract designs scrawled across the screen. These sets often have a staggered design like a lightning bolt, as triangular segments of walls or jail bars fan outwards from a center point at the horizon. This triangular uniformity perhaps suggests the quest of the film's hero towards purity and perfection, towards a clean, aesthetic ideal that seldom occurs in reality.

In fact, one of the film's prominent subtexts is the disconnection between art and reality, an assertion that Mishima was looking for the impossible. That's why the excerpts from Mishima's novels present a romanticized, obviously artificial dream, a fantastic idealization in which every action is dramatic and meaningful. The reality is more mundane, as the film's final chapter reveals: as Mishima's actual last act plays out, and his dream of fomenting a glorious samurai revolt comes to naught, it becomes clear that the "purity" he desired was achievable only in art, not in action. Schrader, though, gives Mishima his redemption at the moment of death, retreating back into the bright, beautiful world of fictional dreams, recalling the epic dramatic moments of the author's books. Mishima's life, and the sadness and pointlessness of his death, are merged with the beauty of his art, so that the film's final image is not the freeze frame on Mishima's agonized face as he cuts his stomach open, but a stately image of the golden sun rising into a red sky.

Schrader's film is thus not so much a direct biography as an attempt to come to terms with this man's life and death, to understand why he did what he did, what it meant for him. The flashbacks are not a straightforward life story but a series of incidents, elliptical and fragmentary, that trace the author's development: from a sickly, isolated boy in thrall to his overbearing grandmother, to a shy and literary young man, to a right-wing reactionary, yearning for the lost golden age of samurai honor. For Mishima, life and art were ideally unified, and in order to reflect this Schrader brings Mishima's art into vibrant reality while treating his past as a foundation for his art. Sometimes this is literalized in abrupt transitions from reality to fiction. A shot of the stuttering child Mishima cuts directly to the stuttering acolyte from The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, while later Schrader cuts from Mishima walking into a gym shower to a very similar image of the protagonist from Kyoko's House showering. The switch from black and white to lurid, pink-lit color is jarring and startling, while the continuity between the shots makes a connection between mundane reality and its dreamlike counterpart in Mishima's fiction. In this way, Schrader underlines the idea that Mishima's art was a glorious, oversaturated dream of what his own life could be.

What's especially interesting about this film is its complex structure, which as the title itself suggests, divides Mishima's life into "four chapters." Although the film's flashbacks do follow a general forward momentum, from childhood to adulthood, its four chapters don't neatly correspond to one segment of the protagonist's life. Instead, each chapter is organized around a central concept and its importance to Mishima: "beauty," "art," "action" and "harmony of pen and sword." These chapters deal with, respectively, Mishima's conflicted view of aesthetic beauty, his engagement with artistic pursuits, his increasing political mobilization, and finally his attempt to create a unified ideology in which his art, his politics and his life are one. The incorporation of the writer's works is similarly segmented, so that the first chapter, dealing with beauty, weaves in The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, an allegory about the intimidating effect of idealized beauty on human acts. Chapter two, "art," coincides with the story of the actor who makes his bruise-adorned body into physical art, while the third chapter's examination of "action" naturally works in Mishima's fictional "rehearsal" for his own political action. The final chapter, in which Mishima finally puts his ideas into practice, sheds this structure, relying only on real events without any recourse to fiction: it's only in Mishima's final moments, after his action has failed to accomplish what he intended, that he returns to the world of artistic expression in his last dreams.

Schrader's Mishima is a fascinating and sumptuous film, exploring the nature of artistic expression and the ways in which one man's life and art coexisted and bled together as he struggled to perfect the balance between them. Mishima was a contradictory and complicated figure, in his politics, sexuality and aesthetics. Schrader's film, in grappling with this complex artist, creates a complex and sensual artwork in its own right.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


[This review is posted in preparation for the latest discussion for The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be discussing Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters this month. Stop by Krauthammer's blog Crips and Mutes on November 23 to join the discussion.]

Patriotism, the sole film made by famed Japanese author Yukio Mishima, is a weird artifact, a thirty-minute short film with no dialogue. It's obviously a deeply felt film, a sensual and serious presentation of the ritual suicide of a soldier and his wife, with each detail lovingly examined. On the other hand, it's also an incredibly preposterous film, plodding relentlessly through a preset sequence of events, towards an unavoidable conclusion. The film's story is set up entirely in text with a scroll that appears before the film proper begins; the short was adapted from one of Mishima's own short stories, and it shows in this overly literary grounding. Mishima himself plays a soldier named Takeyama, who is in a tough position: having remained loyal to the Emperor during a failed coup attempted by his friends, he is now scheduled to preside over the execution of the rebels. However, he is unable to face killing his friends, and instead plans to kill himself by harakiri. His wife, Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka) vows to join him in the act, so that they might die and enter the afterlife together.

It's virtually impossible to watch this film without thinking about what it reflects about the film's director/writer/star. Only four years after this film was made, Mishima himself committed harakiri, so the film's meticulous, step-by-step depiction of the ritual suicide and the preparation for it comes across as a dress rehearsal for the act Mishima dreamed of committing in reality. It's no surprise, then, that the film is an almost erotic celebration of suicide. The film is derived from Noh theater and takes place on a minimalist Noh stage, where the setting evokes a bare frame of a house, its surfaces all white and nearly empty. The gestures of the two actors are also derived from Noh, and they're suitably overblown and stylized; Reiko and Takeyama both move slowly and deliberately, emphasizing every least movement as they make their preparations. This is sometimes affecting and sensual, but just as often comes across as forced and even kind of silly.

During the sex scene between the couple, their last carnal embrace for their last night together, the film vacillates back and forth between poignant sensuality — the quivering of muscles beneath taut bare skin — and overwrought goofiness. The images are crystalline and beautifully crafted, it's undeniable. The actors, set off from the stark emptiness of the stage, caress and lounge naked together, and lights twinkle in their eyes during the frequent closeups. It's perhaps unfortunate, but it comes across as a parody of an art film, taking itself too seriously, investing every image with over-the-top emotion and sentiment.

Of course, part of the problem is perhaps the short's very premise, its lush romanticism of ritualistic suicide. At the core of harakiri is a conception of honor, but this does not seem to be of interest to Mishima. He presents the entire justification for the act, the soldier's tale of woe about betrayal and divided loyalties, in the introduction as a scrolling text. It is as though he is in a rush to get to the ritual itself, ignoring its historical meaning and context, or rather taking them for granted. What he's interested in is a kind of sexual embrace of death. He wallows in the details of the deed with an intense focus, admiring the way the blade cuts through the soldier's stomach, the way the blood, black and sticky, pours out between his fingers, the way his guts spill out into his lap. And then, he dedicates the same attention to the wife's suicide — because, of course, the subservient woman must passively follow her man into death, killing herself so that she falls, swooning, on top of his disemboweled body for the film's morbidly romantic final image. Mishima isn't interested in why she does what she does, not really, and he's certainly not interested in considering the implications of a woman mutely following her husband into death for reasons that have nothing to do with her. He's only interested in her photogenic death, and in the copious, sparkling tears streaming down her cheeks as she watches her husband die.

This unquestioning acceptance of a death dictated by ancient rituals and concepts of honor is at the heart of Patriotism. As the sole film made by Mishima, an undiluted expression of his psyche and aesthetic, it's of course interesting at least for that. And its gorgeous black and white photography is expressive and frequently evocative, capturing such unforgettable images as Reiko lustily licking her knife's blade before putting it to her throat, or the overlapping collage of memories layered over her face as she thinks back on her happy marriage. As potent as some of these images are, however, the film as a whole is simply the overcooked morbid wet dream of a man obsessed by death, romanticizing the spilling of guts with his pristine imagery.

Friday, November 13, 2009

La cérémonie

Claude Chabrol has always been especially interested in the dynamics of class power, examining the nature of class with a dry, caustic wit. In La cérémonie, this examination plays out in a remote small town where the isolated lower-class maid Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired by the Lelievre family. They're a typical bourgeois family, aloof and condescending. The father, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), is an authoritarian Mozart lover, and his wife Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) is a slightly bitchy control freak, while their kids Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Valentin Merlet) are mostly just indifferent. These people aren't evil, they're just wrapped up in themselves, to the point that they virtually ignore Sophie once she's in their house. As Melinda says, they treat the maid like a "robot," but despite Melinda's enlightened pose, she's really no different than the rest of her family, elitist and snooty, at heart concerned only with her own problems.

For her part, Sophie is insecure and introspective, locked up inside herself. She has no hobbies or interests of her own, and her only activity is to drown herself in the glow of the TV screen. Melinda, always playing at the liberal role, says that her parents are trying to hypnotize the maid with the TV, suppressing her with it: the television as an instrument of bourgeois control. In fact, Chabrol presents the television as central to this bourgeois existence. Both classes watch the TV, though they use it in different ways. Early on, Gilles and Georges are experimenting with a new satellite TV set, changing channels so fast that each one is just a momentary flicker: they're not so much watching anything in particular as demonstrating the excess that their wealth has purchased, an overload of so many channels that it'd be impossible to ever watch them all. Later, when they finally do watch something in earnest, it's a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, with the whole family gathered on the couch, weighed down with a thick libretto and recording equipment and the father dressed up in a tuxedo as though he was actually going to the opera rather than watching it on TV. Chabrol even makes a joke at his own expense by having the Lelievre family watch his 1973 film Les noces rouges on the TV, Stephane Audran and Michel Piccoli clenching and plotting murder on the small screen; it's a suggestion that all films, no matter their content, can be subsumed as commercial, bourgeois entertainments.

Sophie is indiscriminate in her viewing, sitting down in front of the television's pale blue glow, illuminating her face in the dark of her room: she watches game shows and commercials and televised movies without ever seeming to care what's on the screen, as long as it's on. She doesn't even seem to know how to change the channels or operate any of the TV's for-her-daunting set of buttons. Often, she is joined by the local postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who's despised by the Lelievre family for her insouciant attitude and defiant bad manners. Jeanne is, in contrast to the tightly wound Sophie, a true free spirit, angry and flighty and goofy, as full of gossip and nasty words as Catherine herself. The two lower-class women bond over a shared violent past. They trade stories — Jeanne was responsible for the possibly accidental death of her own baby, while Sophie heavily implies that she murdered her father through arson — then collapse on Jeanne's bed giggling and tickling one another. They're like sinister sleepover pals, coming together based on their shared pain and isolation, and the shared impression that they are trampled on by the upper classes. As their relationship develops, they become inseparable, watching TV with arms wrapped around one another, bathed in the same blue glow that was once Sophie's solitary comfort. The way Chabrol constantly shoots them so close together, their faces pressed against one another, emphasizes their similarity, the resemblance in Bonnaire and Huppert's angular features and hard stares. Their relationship hints at a lesbian sexual undercurrent — especially at the climax, when Jeanne poses seductively against her friend, her stockinged leg lifted up at an angle — but mostly they seem to be becoming the same person, morphing together.

Chabrol observes all of this activity from his characteristic wry distance; the film's tone is flat and nearly affectless, and its small touches of humor are all the more surprising because of it. As Jeanne and Sophie grow closer, and the postmistress begins to inculcate the maid with her revolutionary, anti-bourgeois attitude, the tone around the Lelievre house begins to change. It's all about power games for Chabrol, about who's in control. Sophie's rebellion begins with a birthday party for Melinda, which she leaves after preparing all the food and getting everything ready. She'd told Catherine beforehand that she had somewhere to go, and her employer accepted it grudgingly, but when the moment actually comes and Sophie has the nerve to leave, Catherine feigns shock and outrage. It's as though the family doesn't really expect their servant to have her own life — Georges prefaces one conversation by telling Sophie that her life is her own and he doesn't want to intervene, then proceeds to forbid her from seeing Jeanne anymore. For Chabrol, class is power, and more than that class is freedom: Sophie's life is constrained and hemmed in merely because of her station.

In that respect, Sophie's dark secret, hinted at from early on, is a visible indication of her lower rank, her limited opportunities: she cannot read, and she proudly does anything she can to mask this humiliation, to prevent others from discovering her inability. This marks her out as an inferior in most interactions; it is a physical manifestation of her lower class and limited education. Chabrol is driving home, again and again, how class defines choice: even when Melinda accidentally gets pregnant, it doesn't destroy her life, not in the same way that Jeanne's life was changed by her pregnancy. In fact, the only one to truly suffer from Melinda's pregnancy is Sophie herself; the family shrugs off the revelation, knowing they have the means to deal with this problem however they choose.

La cérémonie is a dark and mordantly funny satire of class relations from one of the cinema's most persistent probers of class. As the film patiently peels back the layers of convention and artifice from class interactions, the tone gets steadily uglier and more bitter. Resentments and tensions boil over, and Chabrol once again tears apart bourgeois pretensions and the implicit hierarchies of bosses and employees.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Films I Love #45: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, at least superficially, John Cassavetes' stab at a gangster thriller. In fact, though, the film's genre trappings are incidental to its central purpose, a character study of the charismatic loser Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a strip club owner who fancies himself an artist as he arranges his club's lame, unsexy nightly shows. Cosmo is a kind of vaudeville showman, orchestrating grandiose entertainments in which his dancing girls gyrate on stage while "Mr. Sophistication" (Meade Roberts), a fat, balding little man with white-face makeup and a greasy combover, sings out of tune and tells stories. The whole thing is rickety and appalling, and Cassavetes (at least in his longer, original cut of the film, before a 1978 recut) lingers on these painful stage shows, punctuated by occasional hoots and hollers whenever a girl flashes a breast. It's all so joyless, so self-evidently amateurish and boring, and yet Cosmo believes that he is an artist. He cares deeply about his club, loves his dancers, and pays careful attention to every detail of his shows. In his own weird way, he's a perfectionist, it's just that his idea of perfection is poorly staged strip shows with very little skin showing.

Basically, Cosmo is afflicted with the belief — or maybe just the half-believed hope — that he's bigger than he actually is, cooler than he is. He seems to view himself as a real player. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sad faux-glamour of Cosmo's big celebration after he finally pays off the last of his loans on his club. The film's opening scene, with Cosmo making his last payment, is his moment of glory, his apex; he has nowhere to go but down from there. He immediately decides to celebrate by taking out three of his dancers for a day on the town. He hires a limo, dresses up in a tux, and goes to pick up each of the girls in turn, acting as though he's picking them up for a prom. They all go out to a ratty gambling parlour, where the girls, in their glam makeup and slutty, shiny dresses, lounge around rolling their eyes and looking bored, while Cosmo tries to act like the high roller they all know he isn't. It's a sad, pathetic affair, this very limited man's idea of living the good life. Moreoever, Cosmo quickly undoes the fleeting victory he enjoyed in the opening scene: after a spurt of wasteful gambling, he winds up deeply indebted to the mob, who insist he pay back what he owes by committing a murder for them. For any other director, this would be an excuse for a gritty, violent mob thriller; for Cassavetes, Cosmo's entanglement in this gangster drama only reinforces just what a lonely, out-of-place figure he is, comfortable and happy nowhere except in the shoddy fantasy world he's created within his strip club's boundaries.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Box

Although Richard Kelly's third movie The Box has been advertised as an edgy thriller, an attempt for the director to claim some mainstream cred after the lackluster response to his messy, ambitious (and sadly undervalued) Southland Tales, this film merely confirms that Kelly is incapable of making anything as neat and tidy as a conventional thriller. This is both to his credit and his detriment. The Box is a deeply strange and broken movie, seeped in Kelly's Lynchian influence, which is still almost wholly undigested. He skillfully apes the patterns of Lynchian dialogue, the off-kilter conversational rhythms and deadened, eerie silences, and like Lynch's movies, Kelly's seem to take place in some slightly out-of-whack suburban American netherworld. The Box is set in Kelly's alternate reality 1970s Richmond, Virginia, a sleepy satellite to the government NASA, CIA and NSA outlets at Langley and other Washington suburbs. Here, government bureaucrats speak in clipped, enigmatic tones, and scenes play out in the kind of strange in-between state where it's not clear if they're meant to be dramatic or ironic.

In this sitcom suburb, married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are living out a postcard suburban existence with their young son (Sam Oz Stone). He's a low-level NASA grunt who wants to be an astronaut, and she's an English teacher. Sure, they're struggling, but they're reasonably happy. Then their quiet life with its modest troubles is disrupted by the appearance of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a former NASA scientist who lost half his face in a lightning strike and seems to have emerged from the experience mysteriously changed. Now he visits the houses of randomly selected couples, many of them NASA employees, and posits a moral dilemma for them. He gives them a plain wooden box with a big red button on top, and tells them that if they press the button, they will receive a million dollars in cash and someone they don't know will die. It is, quite obviously, a very basic moral quandary, the kind at the heart of many classic science fiction stories, or stuff like The Twilight Zone (which indeed once based an episode on the same Richard Matheson short story that Kelly takes as his source here). It is a moral test: will these ordinary, relatively happy people reveal their constant desire for more, their dissatisfaction with their seemingly contented existences? Moreover, as Arthur asks when wrestling with whether or not to push the button, what does it really mean to "know" another person; the film posits webs of unseen and unimagined connections between unrelated people.

That reference to science fiction isn't offhand, either. After a first half that treats this intriguing premise in a relatively straightforward way, the film increasingly goes off the rails, spiraling into absurdity and loony sci-fi pseudo-philosophy. Much like Kelly's breakthrough debut Donnie Darko, come to think of it. Kelly seems irresistibly drawn to these kinds of metaphysical loops and narrative disjunctions. As the film progresses, it turns from a straightforward moral thriller into something else entirely, and the more Kelly's script tries to explain what's going on here, the more confusing and ridiculous the film becomes. The second half of the film somehow both explains too much and too little, spelling out the ideas — like the fact that the box is a morality test — that should have been left between the lines, while also tangling the plot up in a convoluted muddle. The film is bursting with ideas, both visual and philosophical, and Kelly leaps from one thing to the next without ever quite settling into one mode. The film is at its best when it's simply building suspense and tossing off inspired bits of nonsense left and right, crafting creepy and mysterious images. Kelly builds the film on what initially seem like non sequiturs, like Norma's creepy student (Ian Kahn) who humiliates her in class with a sinister leer. Or the sporadic appearance of people suffering unexplained nosebleeds, which at first seems like just another bizarre Lynchian touch before Kelly folds it into his nutty plot as well. Or the snippet we glimpse of a rather unlikely school play: a performance of Sartre's No Exit, references to which recur throughout the film.

This plot is, as the film goes on, more and more just a series of weird metaphysical flourishes and absurd sequences, with Norma and Arthur going in circles as the weird occurrences pile up. Along the way, Kelly does come up with a number of striking images, like the sequences of Langella's earnestly unsettling Steward presiding over a massive wind tunnel that he's made his base of operations. Elsewhere, Arthur walks into a column of viscous jelly-like fluid and emerges floating above his wife in bed. These moments are best appreciated as outbursts of goofy surrealism, since trying to fit this all together into a coherent whole is headache-inducing and not especially satisfying.

Despite all this, Kelly undoubtedly has real affection for these characters. He shares his idol Lynch's knack for infusing what might've been cardboard archetypes — a chipper middle American working class family straight from sitcom TV — with unexpected emotional depth. There's real feeling in a shot where Arthur sits on the bed, casually placing a present behind him, as his wife dresses in the next room. The scene where he actually gives her this present — a handmade experimental prosthetic to ease the pain on her radiation-deformed foot — would have been maudlin and melodramatic coming from a director without Kelly's precisely calibrated balance between ironic distance and emotional engagement. Kelly manages to make this marriage feel simultaneously like an unreal dream, overblown and kitschy, and also a real relationship. This pays off in the stunning — and stunningly manipulative — finale, which is both blatant tearjerking and a harrowing denouement. As with so many aspects of this film, it's hard to know what to think about this ending, whether the aggravation of its very obvious manipulation is earned by the emotional connection between Norma and Arthur or not.

As a whole, The Box is an uneven and compromised third feature from Kelly, who continues to display a genuinely interesting sensibility without quite making a film that's satisfying or coherent from start to finish. He's still working through his Lynch obsession, and still struggling to get his ideas onto the screen intact. One senses that the film was so much clearer in Kelly's head than it is in practice. Ultimately, it's a failure — certainly a failure in terms of creating a potential box office blockbuster, if that was the aim — but it's an interesting, ambitious failure, and that at least counts for something.