Tuesday, October 2, 2007

10/2: Lot In Sodom; North By Northwest; The American Soldier

Lot In Sodom is an attempt to use symbolic and experimental visuals to represent a biblical narrative, with the result sitting uncomfortably somewhere between narrative and abstraction. The prime appeal here, as with so many early experiments of this kind, is purely visual. Watson and Webber make extensive use of superimposition, split screens, and abstract patterns of light in order to tell their story. This is by far the most successful aspect of the film, and there are many dazzling displays of early forays into collaged images and interesting compositions — like the superimposition which positions a flickering flame in the upper left corner of the screen, and Lot in his bed, inside an illuminated circle, in the lower right. As far as the narrative goes, the symbolic imagery and lack of narration makes some familiarity with the biblical story of Sodom a must for understanding exactly what's going on here. There are few intertitles, and with the exception of one or two which directly advance the action, they are oblique and poetic rather than descriptive. But the basic story here is the same as in the Bible. The town of Sodom is a corrupt and sexually amoral place, and God is preparing to destroy it as a result. Before he does, though, he sends an angel to see if there are any good people there worth saving; the angel finds Lot and his family. While the angel is staying with Lot, the men of the city demand that Lot send out the visitor so that they can "know" him, in the biblical sense of course, and Lot refuses. He offers his daughters instead — and this prompts a whirlwind of heavily erotic imagery swirling across the screen — but the men are not interested. Finally, the angel takes Lot and his family out of the city, which God then destroys with fire, and Lot's wife is transformed into a pillar of salt for the crime of looking back during their flight.

All of this is present in the film for those who can recognize it, though it's not presented for narrative clarity but for metaphorical meaning. The film's use of multiplying superimpositions, especially in erotic scenes, tends to emphasize the mob mentality of the city's denizens and the dehumanized quality of their sexual spectacles. This constant barrage of visual excess unifies style and content in an orgy of rotating, disembodied limbs, flames, and writhing naked torsos. It's an interesting film, though at times the need to advance the story necessitates an unfortunate retreat from visual games and an onset of hammy theatrical acting. The highly artificial sets also don't look nearly so good in these more static scenes as they do in the whirling, hazy style more often employed in the film.

This isn't the first time I've seen Hitchcock's North By Northwest, but it's one of my absolute favorites from the master, and it is always one of his most guaranteed entertaining films as well. It's as though he set out to make the ultimate Hitchcock film, overstuffing it with all his ideas, obsessions, and tricks. It is, of course, a "wrong man" film, because what other kind of film could the ultimate Hitch thriller be? And there is, of course, a deadly cool platinum blonde with questionable loyalties (Eva Marie Saint, perhaps the sexiest Hitchcock blonde), and she of course engages in some witty verbal seduction with male lead Cary Grant. The plot is as convoluted and as deliriously silly as anything Hitch ever dreamed up for his heroes to go through, a complex game that puts Grant through the ringer and sends him skyrocketing across the US. Mistaken for a CIA agent, Grant's Madison Avenue ad exec is suddenly forced to rescue himself from a murder attempt, only to find that he's now wanted himself, for the murder of a UN official. He takes off, trying to track down the CIA agent whose identity he's been forced to inhabit, avoid the assassins who want his hide, and clear his name in the process. This quest sends him across the US, through some of the most famous and exciting action set pieces in Hitchcock's oeuvre. The crop duster attack and the chase on Mount Rushmore have become ingrained in our cultural consciousness, but only slightly less thrilling is the tense but necessarily lowkey showdown at an art auction, which Grant escapes from in a particularly ingenious way.

Many of these scenes borrow liberally from Hitchcock's past, especially from Saboteur, in which the wrong man wound up dangling from the Statue of Liberty instead of Mount Rushmore, and escaping a showdown at a crowded party rather than an auction house. But that's OK, because here Hitch has wound all these disparate elements and self-thefts into his most satisfying thriller, as well as one of his funniest comedies. Grant's repartee is at its peak here, especially with Saint as his foil, and there's quite a bit of humor throughout. The countless improbable twists and unlikely coincidences and narrative jumps that keep the plot moving in between each grandiose set piece show just how frivolously Hitch was treating this material. It's all just a grand excuse for a good time and makes no bones about it. This is prime Hitchcock. Not his most psychologically dense work by any means, but certainly one of his most fun and unabashedly joyous exercises in un-pretentious thrills.

The American Soldier is the final installment of the loose trilogy of gangster pictures that Rainer Werner Fassbinder worked on early in his career (the previous two being the already discussed Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague). Karl Scheydt is the title character, Ricky, although he's actually a transplanted German returning from America after a long absence, during which he served in Vietnam. So his American-ness is not so much a function of his nationality but of his behavior: he acts and dresses like a character from an American gangster movie. With his cocked fedora, casting shadows over his eyes, and the big-breasted white suit from which he pulls his revolver, he completely looks the part, an image of violent cool. He is a hitman, and his mission in Germany is given to him by a corrupt trio of cops who send him around making hits on local lowlifes and crooks. Jan George returns in his role from Gods of the Plague as the amoral cop who leads this group.

In fact, many of the actors and characters from the earlier two films make their return here, although there is often a shuffling of identities and names which makes it impossible to think of this as a proper continuation of the series. Fassbinder gives himself a small role as Franz Walsch, the role he played in his first film and which Harry Baer played in the middle installment of the trilogy. The role of Magdalena Fuller appears in both films, but in Gods of the Plague she's Franz's brother's wife (played by Ingrid Caven), while here she's the girl who trades in porn and information (played here by Katrin Schaake, and in the earlier film by Carla Aulaulu, with the character named Carla there). Most of the female roles have this same shuffling of actresses and parts throughout the trilogy, which may be Fassbinder's wry comment on the universality of the femme fatale conceit in noir. No matter who's playing her, no matter what her name, no matter what role she's in, the woman in these films is basically just set decoration, incapable of action herself and forced to watch helplessly as the men around her make a mess of things.

As with the other two films, Fassbinder slows down the pace of the American gangster pictures and early Godard films that he was drawing from in creating this world. This is manifestly a cinema world, inspired by cinema and giving back to it a distorted mirror image of itself. Even the names reflect this: Fuller, Murnau, Lang, the cinematic avatars of noir and its origins in German expressionism. Fassbinder's own chosen pseudonym, which he used frequently for credits on his films, is a likely tribute to Raoul Walsh, and the importance of the name is spelled out in this film by Scheydt's character. Spelling out the name for a telephone operator, he glosses it as war, Alamo, Lenin, science fiction, crime, and Hell — a possible index of what Fassbinder took from American film, with its lurid melodrama and clearly defined genres.

Ultimately, this film itself provides another index, this time to Fassbinder's oeuvre as a whole. There are shreds here and there of all his interests and ideas, lingering in the seemingly minimalist fabric of this languid narrative. At one point, a maid recounts what would later become the story for Fassbinder's biggest international success, Fear Eats the Soul, here with a much darker violent ending. This film also features the kind of twisted, passive-aggressive family dynamic that would later figure in films like Whity and Chinese Roulette. One of the film's strangest and most mysterious scenes is the one in which Ricky, after a hit, goes to visit his mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and brother (Kurt Raab, in a wonderfully perverse turn). Ricky's brother has a weird, homoerotic bond with his long-missing brother, while their mother's mysterious air and tense reserve hint at some dark past for this estranged family. These tensions, free-floating and unresolved during the long and quiet scene in the mother's home, come to full flower in the absurd ending, which spends a few minutes locked onto the spectacle of Raab's homosexual longing finally released. As with all of Fassbinder's early genre films, what makes them exceptional is the insertion of such complex themes into the noir framework, while also using Brechtian distancing techniques to keep the audience thinking about what's going on in the subtext. These characters diverge from noir stereotypes in their complexity and depth, but they also fulfill the expectations of the genre in their behavior and dialogue. It's this uneasy balance between subversion and fulfillment that characterizes all of Fassbinder's films, and this is an especially great early example.

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